La La Land (2017)

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Well, not for a long while have I been eagerly anticipating a movie like the release of this musical drama. Add on top the record-breaking Golden Globes haul then you have a very excited chap. For the most part this film delivers, it’s stylish, fun, heartfelt but I don’t agree with all the souped up hype it’s received.

After a minor amount of road-rage where aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) cross paths, they end up bumping into each other again and again which leads to a romance through the year. As they try following their dreams in LA it becomes a harder challenge to keep the love alive.

I have to say that I absolutely adored the first half or so of this film. It harks back to that classic glitz and glamour of Hollywood old with a neat dose of a modern touch thanks to the musical and confident direction from Damien Chazelle. Just from the sweeping opening on a Los Angeles highway to the delicate changes in lighting, the songs and story begin with a bang.

It helps that we get brilliant performances and a clear chemistry between the two main characters but also the style adds a neat note to the song-sheet that is this feature. There’s times that it looks and sounds like a studio set production and you’d expect Fred Astaire to come tap dancing in. The writing by Chazelle, is for the most part a well handled story that lends a two-sided coin to the LA lifestyle but with an obvious landing on dreams to follow and achieve.

As I sat in my seat I found myself hooked and smiling along to a wonderful series of scenes but then annoyingly, there came a specific moment where I even felt myself disengaging and from then on, the writing becomes very generic and almost cliched. It drifts into a romantic plot you’d expect to find in every other manically churned out rom-com. This frustrated me because I was expecting it to keep going with the gleeful whizz of CinemaScope delight but instead…it wains.

It is almost saved as we get a short burst of style near the end showing a quick run of events. So yes I agree it’s a fantastically well made and enchanting film, it deserved 3 perhaps 4 of the Globes it picked up out of 7. This is obviously, as I realised as they were winning, a case of the voters loving films that celebrate America or the US saving the day -(note Argo winning Best Picture)

Song wise, ‘Another of Day of Sun’ is jolly, sun-drenched and a perfect, literally perfect way to start a film of this genre. ‘City of Stars’ is sung well and has a melancholy yet magical sound but I don’t see how that gets the attention when Stone’s ‘Audition’ song is better performed and has better lyrics. Though it’s naff for jazz and a typical Top 40’s track, John Legend’s performance of ‘Start a Fire’ works well in showcasing the path Seb is taking away from his dream.

I’m not a total grouch because I did enjoy the majority of the film, I just don’t feel it should have broke GG records and I hope the Oscars gives some variety because ‘La La Land’ does swerve into a nearly boring not great second half.

7/10

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A Monster Calls (2017)

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Thematically powerful with a strong emotional message, this is not a typical fantasy film. It’s better than that, cleverly balancing a talking tree with stunning animation sequences whilst retaining the necessary coming of age narrative.

Artistic Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) tries coping with his terminally ill mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones), being beaten up at school and now a huge yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) is arriving at specific times to deliver three stories to him. These tales may eventually help Conor in revealing his own truth and understanding more.

Patrick Ness’ novel written from an idea by Siobhan Dowd who died of cancer before completing the book, is a fabulously rich story with a central tug of grief that is handled very well. Ness who also wrote this screenplay ensures the interpretation of the Monster’s stories are clear enough to transfer to Conor’s real life. It’s just a really smartly told plot that keeps you interested and attached.

The water colour animations that arrive with each story are creative, bold and quite dark too. This weaving of human complexity within these sequences are engaging and lifts the film even higher. The CGI and mo-cap of the tree monster is great also, thin branches or wisps of wood curling round items add to the fantastical element, he’s an interesting coach for Conor, looking brutish and menacing but having a kind heart within his trunk.

I’ll openly admit that I found the movie emotional, it never reached that overly sentimental try-hard point. Yes it does go towards that area but the way director and writer handle the subject matter keeps it from being soppy drivel. I will also go further to say that I cried from watching this movie, the film is very affecting because you get wrapped up in the vivid world and it’s certainly a more adult feature than you’d think.

Felicity Jones is gripping during the movie, her condition gets bleak and she becomes a paler gaunter figure but still keeps hold of a hopeful glint in her eye, making her a likeable and strong mother figure. Sigourney Weaver like the witch in the first tale is a see-saw of characteristics but one, ultimately that you know will be good. Liam Neeson’s work playing the booming monster is perfectly cast and he adds gravely gravitas to the part. The show is truly Lewis MacDougall’s though as he carries fear, courage, sadness, confusion and anger through the entire picture with spellbinding conviction.

Only the very ending featuring a book felt like a twee moment, aside from that this is a movie to kick off 2017 in fantastic fashion. The emotional vein running through the story is constant, touching and intelligent.

7.5/10

Bleed for This (2016)

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Stepping into the ring is this boxing bio-pic that smacks with a few of the expected sporting movie cliches but thanks to a great great performance from Miles Teller, the rise to riches and fame story isn’t so tedious.

Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Teller) is in the junior welterweight category but doesn’t seem to have luck winning bouts. Once he teams up with former Mike Tyson coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) and bumps up to junior middleweight he begins succeeding. That run comes to a tragic halt as Pazienza breaks his neck in a car crash but he doesn’t want to quit and tries fighting again.

Ben Younger directs this biographical drama with a clear understanding of crafting the journey. There’s enough time and attention given to not just the party boy character of Vinny but his family also. The moment he winds up almost paralysed is delivered well, showing what that change has on everyone. A lot of the time in fighting/boxing films, it’s the bouts themselves that run tiresome or repetitive so gladly Younger focuses more on the character development than what happens confined behind the ropes.

Of course there is still the usual boxing pitfalls of initial fights, underdog statuses and the middle plot drive where Vinny shifts a gear and becomes a big winner. Then there’s the next fall and with a devastating accident like the one we see, it’s obvious we’ll receive the protagonists gritty resolve to progress and never give up. The ending fight is predictable and lacks any inspiring gusto but it certainly hits with a good comeback end showing off the powerful mindset some people have to endure and prove people wrong.

A neat moment of editing occurs nearing the end, sharp quick sounds of punching as Vinny smacks from the past. Along with this we get fast flashes of scenes retelling his story as we come the huge step in his career where he hopes to squash fears of his injuries and triumph.

Miles Teller lands a fantastic point in his career in a role that topples his dedicated wonder in ‘Whiplash’. That drum-centric film may be better but here Teller is a muscled machine that pushes the story onward and upwards as much as he can. It’s certainly his show and he excels as Pazienza bringing sweat dripping determination to the screen. Aaron Eckhart is great also, the knowing coach is believable and he has a good connection with Teller, dancing and drink induced scenes give him fun and character. Ciaran Hinds is another engaging talent through this, the actor immerses himself brilliantly as Vinny’s father.

There’s enough in this sporting feature to keep you watching but not enough to break the mould or overly excite. The performances are strong but the film doesn’t help make me think boxing movies need to step down for a while.

6.5/10

Hush (2016)

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I’m loving Netflix for these movies that I otherwise wouldn’t see. This psychological horror is fantastically written, deals with tension so well that I don’t think it lets up from the moment the killer arrives to when the credits scroll upwards. It’s even better because it doesn’t jump to jump scares for help, in fact I don’t recall any in the entire feature…hurrah!

Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) is struggling to write a second novel. She has multiple endings but cannot decide on which suits the story best. As she sits at her laptop she is unaware that a masked murderer (John Gallagher Jr.) is outside planning to kill her, he has an element of power because Maddie is deaf and mute from contracting meningitis when she was 13, however she won’t go down without a fight.

It is the tension in this that works so well, I read that director Mike Flanagan was originally going to have Maddie not hearing anything captured in complete silence, which he went back on realising the lack of sound would take audiences out of the picture. He is bang on, the echoing heartbeat effects drumming into recognition do enough to put you into her world but keep the tension brewing very nicely.

On the whole, this is a movie that cleverly plays with sound and flicks between the almost hollow scope of Maddie’s hearing and the louder life we are used to. It’s interesting giving the villain an advantage yet still having him not always being the almighty killer you’d expect him to be. The house is another character in a sense, as it provides our heroine with rooms of escape, crawl spaces and vantage points to try and win the night.

Though there is not a lot of dialogue, I must commend the writing of Flanagan and actor/wife/writer Siegel who both master a scene of superb tension between the killer and a neighbour who comes checking in. The levels of power play bounce back and forth and that dramatic irony of knowing who he is as he pretends to be otherwise is perfectly set up just making you want to shout out to John that all is not good. The inclusion of her as a writer is beautifully utilised as we see numerous choices for Maddie to possibly take, like her story left with many possible ends.

Katie Siegel is a great central character, her lost sense is never a weakness as she possesses a strong will and in her eyes there is that clear sense of determination even if she nicely showcases fear from time to time. Gallagher Jr. is great too, once he takes off the simple but damn effective mask, he goes to town on an unhinged murderer without needing backstory to create a well structured dynamic antagonist.

I was immersed into this taut and skilled movie from the offset and that connection was never lost. ‘Hush’ is an excellent home invasion release that is very smart and very tense.

8/10

 

Captivity (2007)

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Arriving in ’07, this is a poor excuse for a horror film and a poor excuse for a film generally. It’s not even a torture porno genre that’s in any way smart, fun or scary like ‘Saw’ for example, it’s just lame.

Model and A Lister Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) gets abducted one night and wakes up finding herself in a locked cell and subjected to random torturous tests by a bulky masked man. Eventually she finds hope in the scratched walls by seeing next door is another cell inhabited by Gary (Daniel Gillies). Together they try and escape but more may be going on behind the scenes.

All in all this is such an insanely dumb film. Writing and just sense wise, how is a celebrity famous enough to sell products with just her first name not kept secure or even have an entourage with her; I mean as if she’s clubbing alone or wandering down a horror looking alley by herself. She’s a character with no personality and even attempts to shed light on her through TV interviews feel stupidly obvious to try and relate the next scene to her fear etc.

The room is a million miles away from being atmospheric or synonymous like the dingy ‘Saw’ bathroom. It’s like some go-go gadget cell that seems to be able to cater to anything the captor wants. How on earth he can control a locker or drawer to shut when he’s not there is anyone’s guess. At one point she’s on top of a building mass of sand which feels less claustrophobic and more silly, she ends up willingly dressing in clothes given to her or having sex with Gary simply because he’s there and put himself in the death line ahead a couple of times.

Let me go onto the  whole ‘twist’ idea, which is so horrendously stupid and may be something quite unexpected but that’s because you just don’t care enough to get into the film. As if random past successions of girls got kidnapped and all wind up having sex too. Also Gary says things like she doesn’t know if Jennifer’s real, but they’d already tried escaping out of a crawlspace together, as a common note – dialogue is trashy and ill thought through creating no energy or interesting spark.

The film possesses a pathetic female character and sadly the gorgeous Elisha Cuthbert dwindles in a role that sees her doing little more than whining, screaming or banging on clearly solid walls in a vain attempt to get out of a bricked space. She’s there to look gorgeous and that’s it, a scream queen she ain’t. If you want smarts then look to the Mary Elizabeth Winstead character from ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ to see how females in similar situations are better acted/written.

It’s just disgusting at how bad this film is more than anything, not even the slightest hint of threat or horror like tension settles in and what you’re left with a weak and utterly dull dumb flick.

2.5/10 – 2 of these points are because Cuthbert was in it.

The Shallows (2016)

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Once again, it’s time to not go into the water. Move aside Bruce from ‘Jaws’ because this big guy seems to be peeved and stalking shallow waters making life difficult for a holidaying Texan. The threat keeps at a unnerving high for the most part if not sadly dissipating during the last act.

Medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) is travelling to a secret beach where her mother once sat pregnant with her. She’s there to surf but soon the water becomes a dangerous place as a blood-thirsty great white shark circles the shallows. There’s only a buoy or mass of rocks for Nancy to survive on and the waiting game grows worryingly tense.

After glimpsing a Spielberg like opening that establishes the setting and menace to come, we meet young American Nancy who had hoped to spend a beach day with her friend but now gets some alone time after the mate bails. She’s a fine enough character, enough in the sense that you like her and do root for her which is all a survival thriller film can ask for.

Jaume Collet-Serra uses his mix of horror and thriller directing background well to give this movie enough suspense and bone-rattling unease as we sit waiting for the inevitable beast to strike. Sharks get a bad rep, none truly seek killing humans as a sport so we know this predator is bad news when it actively hunts down surfers for food and that means poor central lady Nancy is on the menu. Collet-Serra ensures that the majority of the film has a taut feel and the stunning location captured by Flavio Labiano ends up becoming sun drenched yet scary.

It’s an interesting watch, just for the fact alone of watching this capable woman suffer yet attempt to stay strong and smart in a situation most, if not all of us would fail in. That adrenaline of survival is always an entertaining watch because it makes us ask “what if?”, what if I ended up in that problematic scenario and that’s the power of good cinema, to immerse the audience which this film does well.

It’s a gimmick and been done in other ways before, but I quite liked the use of social media pics and video call communication appearing on the screen, like visual bites helping the movie look a little glossy and different before the watery kick of danger sets in. The other characters however small are also interesting enough in how they advance or break apart the hope of Nancy’s survival. Oh and I can’t do this review without mentioning the awesome and somewhat cute sidekick of the summer: Steven Seagull.

On the weaker end of the scale, the final act is messed up by an over use of CGI, from glowing jelly-fish which somehow appear just to help Nancy against the shark, and the shark itself gets seen to much. Like the curse of fake looking Bruce from the classic 1975 feature, this villain becomes an almost laughable vision as it attacks more and more. Also, the end in how stuff is resolved feels way less than solid than everything that came before.

Blake Lively aka piece of meat on some rocks is brilliant in this. I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything else so this has made me hope to see her in other projects because as a near solo movie she carries off the plot greatly. The emotion and weakening progression is truly felt as she makes Nancy scrape and bleed through the ringer.

Begins well and has a meaty, tense middle but a lot of lucky moments and a weak ending gives the film a general popcorn, silly feel which is not a bad thing, just I felt the film could have been grittier and better.

6/10

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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From the character by Edgar Rice Burroughs comes this newest feature, seeing the man known as ‘Tarzan’ head back into his ‘homeland’ and stop a nasty trade of ivory, diamonds and slavery. It’s a film that looks good but isn’t as epic as it probably thinks and it’s too slow in places.

The Congo has been divided, King Leopold of Belgium has sent Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) in search of Opar diamonds, but they’re up to more than that. John Clayton the 3rd aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) is invited to see the developments in the Congo and is helped on by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who travels with him. Whilst there Tarzan and his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) see that Leopold and Rom are neck deep in slave trade and wanting Tarzan dead.

This whole idea of Tarzan as the spirit of the jungle, a son of Africa because of his feral upbringing is delivered well. It’s clear that the muscled presence of Skarsgard shows his dominance so in a weird way even as he’s fighting a huge ape, you can actually buy that he’d have some kind of chance against it. He knows the jungle so he can dance through it; swinging like the wild-man we all know with ease. These scenes as he trails the trees and flies on vines are captured well and I can imagine in IMAX would look very cool.

David Yates who directed the last four of the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise does an okay job here in putting across a fairly obvious story. The sunlit flashbacks are enticing and snip in and out of the present day narrative at the right places I’d say but it’s the main story-line that becomes extremely slow feeling in numerous places. Perhaps Yates from the family friendly Potter movies can quite handle building tension because this film centred in the dangerous depths of the jungle should be more gripping. Jon Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ actually managed to create a darker sense of this eco-climate.

Being honest I wanted to see the story that flitted in and out. The past of Tarzan and how he grew up in the jungle around unknown beastly Mangani great apes is the film I wish I’d seen. Instead it focuses too much on a gentleman Tarzan of England travelling back into the jungle. There is at least some genuine comedy thanks to Samuel L. Jackson and the CGI of the animals, especially the lions is impressive. Watching this film though, just made me hungry to watch the 1999 Disney animation with the fun Tarzan experiencing the jungle through Phil Collins songs.

Alexander Skarsgard certainly looks the past, his ripped body and tall presence selling himself as the fabled Tarzan, but he acts a little blandly and doesn’t push past the brooding performance of Eric Northman. Samuel L. Jackson gives the movie a much needed comedic lift and helps take us through the jungle as an ordinary pair of eyes. Margot Robbie unlike the plain Jane acting of Skarsgard is a great Jane. She isn’t a damsel in distress and gets to save people, kick butt, look pretty and be a wise lady never showing fear. Christoph Waltz is a fun addition, he’s menacing and unflinching in his quest to take over the Congo and defeat Tarzan. He excels when on a boat dining with Jane, as a confined scene like that, as from ‘Inglourious Basterds’ he can pull of so well.

Trying to skew in a heavy backdrop of politics, this Tarzan film becomes one with too many ideas leading to a slow pace, but there’s a faint wonder in its adventure and it’s entertaining.

5.5/10