I, Tonya (2018)

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Hitting the ice rink like a jacked up Torvill and Dean, is an award contending biographical yarn like hardly any other. It’s at once frenzied and focused and almost consistently splitting to burst with on point black comedy.

In the 1970’s, talented 4 year old ice skater Tonya Harding is pressured to keep training by her abusive and chain-smoking mother LaVona (Allison Janney). By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) reaches 15 she can be just as abrasive but falls for rink-side spectator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Through years of abuse, practice and unfair judgement, Harding gets caught up in an Olympic scandal come 1994.

Pacing wise, this film shuttles along like a bobsleigh at breakneck speeds, it’s a fully riveting story from start to finish and I must say I was on board throughout. The characters, based on real people are fully realised and interact wonderfully, Craig Gillespie directs with an eye to tell this story like the funny yet darkly tragic events were and the rags to semi-riches and back again narrative is as finessed as 1984’s Bolero routine.

Honestly, ice dancing has never looked and felt more intense, engaging and visceral as it does here. These quite spectacular and captivating sequences of figure skating dances are wonderfully incorporated into a script by Steven Rogers that sizzles with humour and ultimately real heartbreak. The final stages of the film, led by Margot Robbie are written and performed masterfully and make the fun time, plus often brutal moments fade away as we see just how important the world of skating is to the titular figure. It’s a narrative of prominence and buffoonery, domestic violence and doggedness shown in such a clever and engrossing way that exceeded my expectations.

The Oscar nomination for Best Editing is deserved, ‘Baby Driver’ may excel with it’s editing in terms of car chases and sound styling cuts but ‘I, Tonya’ is edited greatly by Tatiana S. Riegel, who slices through the film like a skate blade would. It all helps keep up the exciting speed, blend the routines in seamlessly and showcase the second half madness of the incident as something you may expect to see in a slick gangster movie, if the gangsters were inept.

Seeing characters account their views of the matter in an interview style is a perfect method of storytelling that bolsters the unreliable narrative from pretty much everyone. You never really know who could be lying, exaggerating or speaking truths and that’s what makes this such a ride to watch. The breaking of the fourth wall is utilised also and sometimes it is a cliche but it’s used to sparingly good effect to heighten the idiot humour or further the character driven explanation to us.

Robbie may not win the gold medal of an Academy Award but if she did, it definitely would be warranted. It’s evident Tonya craves adoration at first from her mum and then from the public and the Australian actor sells that aspect well. This is her finest performance in ever as she brings the Oregon born Tonya Harding to explosive life. There’s crazy eye, comic delivery, heartfelt softness and broken vulnerability all in the mix of her committed turn as the less than picturesque all American figure skater. Janney swears like a sailor and steals lots of the scenes as the overbearing strict maternal type but there’s times you can see kindness behind the cigarette smoke before she comes out with a cracker once again. Sebastian Stan is alright in his role as Harding’s husband but isn’t anything special, in fact his friend Shawn played by Paul Walter Hauser is a bonafide boob of epic proportions, providing ample amount of humour as a moronic slob thinking himself some clever agent type.

I haven’t even mentioned how brilliant the soundtrack and score are either, suffice to say I really really liked this film. I thought it’d be good but it’s soared past that into greatness, thanks to Margot, Allison, sublime directing and editing and a story device that bounces around with the notion of Tonya Harding as a heroine or not.

8.5/10

 

 

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Black Panther (2018)

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We’re into the second half of MCU’s Phase Three and what a way to enter it. The King of Wakanda doesn’t just step onto the big screen but pounces. This is a film rife with character and importantly; culture.

After ‘Civil War’ saw the death of T’Chaka, his son returns to his hugely advanced home of Wakanda, where he takes the path to become the new king and rightful Black Panther. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has the support of most around him but returning baddie Klaue (Andy Serkis) and some stolen vibranium doesn’t help. Moreover his crimes introduce T’Challa to Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a soldier hell-bent on taking over Wakanda.

Marvel and its cinematic world have done spectacularly well thus far in creating hype and fun escapism, but admittedly they quite often miss the mark with their characters and villains, gladly both work very well in this movie. The community of Wakandans feel real and a lot of the forefront officials are fleshed out with enough dialogue and/or screen-time to ensure that it isn’t solely the titular hero that nabs the focus. In regards to the villain; this film gives us two big ones, the first is the resurgence of OTT but deliciously snarly Klaue, the second is Stevens who works brilliantly because, as an audience member you can feel for him and buy into his cause, at least when he’s not taking these notions too far.

Ryan Coogler; in what is just his third film, directs a powerful film that feels right within the comic book world but also throws in such interesting dynamics of globe shattering consequences, self beliefs and the bigger picture of black people and personal struggles which of course is undeniably vital within this day and age and state of the world. There’s a gleeful fun within tie-ins and action sequences but better than this, director Coogler with Joe Robert Cole, as a fellow writer manage to gift this feature a drive and political motivated subtext.

Seeing it on the glorious IMAX screen of course makes the entire film a thing of beauty and massive spectacle but I just know that it would still have the same impact however it is seen. There is an unmistakable rich quality to the production value; the colours, fabrics and fashions, the settings, the music all come together and culminate with a force of life and soul. It’s a film that had my skin buzzing with excitement and the eye is taken by almost every scene and frame.

There’s a slight DC and yes, Marvel weakness of the CGI overload these films can so often swerve towards, which is what worries me about the sprawl of generated figures and Thanos in the ‘Infinity War’ trailer. No more can this be seen in a battle on some grassy fields and some CG rhinos that appear, which slightly lost me from the film, but that’s pretty much the only negative I had.

Boseman is an amazing hero and plays the demanding role of king and leader with gravitas. There’s great emotion behind his eyes that shows he can also see the problems with his place and people, which makes a superhero, human. Lupita Nyong’o plays the ex of T’Challa but she isn’t as one dimensional as that. The actor packs a punch and effortless spy magnitude to her role. Letitia Wright is Shuri; Black Panther’s sister. She scatters the movie with great humour and tech know-how that makes her like a more capable Q persona. Jordan almost rivals Boseman and Wright by stealing the majority of the show with a charismatic and deeply engaging turn as the hopeful throne taker. He too ensures to not just be panto villainy and adds remarkable layers to his character. I would be writing for a long time more if I commented on all the other terrific actors in this film, who all unite with a crackling sense of energy and seriousness that helps make this more than just a comic book movie.

Long live the King…and Coogler, let us hope he returns because he has masterfully given the MCU a breath of fresh air and stunning culture.

8.5/10

 

Journey’s End (2018)

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Never shying away from the mud and blood of World War I, this British feature is moving and tense and like the soldiers, is committed to the last in showing this.

Set over a period of four days in March 1918, we follow young lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) into the front trenches. He wants to be here because he knows the captain from back in Blighty, though Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is a different man thanks to the war. There’s been a long stalemate and as Stanhope’s men are tasked with holding the line, any day now seems likely for German soldiers to make their advance.

Based on a play from 1928 by R.C. Sheriff, this drama is incredibly effective and at times almost emotional as we see the horrors and futility of war take hold. There are a lot of different characters and Simon Reade; who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation has ensured that they don’t become overblown stereotypes. Throughout this film there is a definite sense of crushing hopelessness, this works so well in highlighting how pointless actions of these men are and just how grim their situation is.

Saul Dibb directs in a manner that truly throws the audience in amongst the ticking tension. There are plenty of tight frames and close ups of characters that give nearly the entire movie a claustrophobic wash of unease. Seeing these group of soldiers facing a horrifying possibility of death never really lets up, like some slower patriotic movies may have done. It hits home how devastating their plight is and the bitingly cold scenery of their sunken home for that time can be felt through the screen, as if the director is immersing us alongside these men. A camera movement following them through the sodden mud is a great example of how bleak and involving the film can be.

I would say that its only weakness lays in a raid scene, that builds up fantastically but once it hits the editing becomes too frenzied. I know in one way this works to show how maddening and scarily chaotic this would have been but trying to focus and keep up with what was happening on screen became difficult and you lose what happens to the characters.

Asa Butterfield is great in a role that guides us through the outskirts right into the very heart and disheartening midst of trench warfare. He plays the naive and excitable young soul well which makes certain changes in what he sees and eventually understands much more painfully real. Sam Claflin excels here, in what is the best performance I’ve seen him in. Clinging to whiskey and straining to retain calm is evidently felt and in one scene opposite Butterfield, he barks and foams at the mouth with an intensity that isn’t violent but one of increased frustration of how much he can bear. Paul Bettany gifts the film some good ol’ British spirit and stiff upper lip playing Osborne, and ensures to show that behind the eyes he’s just as scared as everyone. Stephen Graham and Toby Jones are other notable mentions who have moments of levity but ultimately are lost men drawn into the front.

This is a film that certainly makes you think. It’s a well made movie with an affecting tone which hangs over your head after the credits scroll. There’s an intensity and undeniable foreboding quality from start to finish.

7.5/10

The Commuter (2018)

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A typical set up of mysterious question and the capable Irish action star come together on a plane…sorry train this time but in fact it’s not as bad as you’d think. Sure it has flaws and is something akin to what we’ve seen before but it’s a silly delight.

Serial commuter, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is used to familiar faces and the hustle and bustle of travelling back and forth through New York but this one day sees him approached by the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him there’s $25’000 hidden away, plus a further $75’000 if he works out who doesn’t belong on the train before it reaches the end of the line.

From the trailer alone; I guffawed at the typical Liam Neeson vehicle we’re now used to see him starring in. Gladly it surprised me and was a more enjoyable flick than the generic trashy kind of movie I was expecting to witness. That isn’t to say that’s a fantastically well made film that can blow your mind but it’s damn entertaining and comes with carriage loads of thrills to keep the film chugging along nicely.

Director of reasonable shark thriller ‘The Shallows’ and previous Neeson feature ‘Non-Stop’, Jaume Collet-Serra manages to keep the film from derailing for the majority of the thriller outing. There’s a neat set up in the repetitive routine of Michael’s morning and the character introductions are all well and good, nothing special but there’s enough going on to set up the oncoming mystery to be solved. It’s in the strained searching of an unnamed passenger that the film hits a nice stride, as we too attempt to uncover the missing puzzle piece.

There are some downright dumb moments, where actions taken feel forced or action set ups fill the CGI quota and big spectacle box is ticked but the unexpected pleasure is in the storytelling of what the heck is going on and who Michael is trying desperately to find. There are a few twists along the way and some are ones I didn’t see but one quite big reveal is quite an obvious one but it didn’t take away from the fun I had in watching this movie unfold.

A train full of passengers makes for a great cast of characters and it’s these many faces of possible suspects that create the best aspect of the film. Neeson himself is in a role well tailored to him by now and he has the gruff charisma that makes Michael a believable figure to lead the way. Farmiga is a fantastic actor and this possible sinister presence she carries suits her down to the zebra striped shoes she wears. Even the sound of her voice on the phone carries a mysterious air of calm and danger. Jonathan Banks, Roland Moller and Shazad Latif are interesting in their roles of possible players knowing more than they let on; in the sense they are thrust forward a lot more as people to keep an eye on. I won’t go on much more as I feel more cast chatter could spoil the reveals of the movie but it’s a ensemble that work together greatly, in a mostly single set narrative.

This shuttling train thriller has more intrigue and whodunnit suspense than last years ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Who would have thought that Neeson on a Train would be more engaging and mysterious than an Agatha Christie classic!? Not me, but it truly is a fun and exciting popcorn movie.

7/10

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

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Heating up the awards season with a tale of anger and conflict, this drama/thriller is one that greatly explores a small scale of America as a whole and the inner motivations of the people within that world.

Driven by the unsolved case of her murdered daughter; Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to rent 3 almost dilapidated billboards, in a call for possible action against the police she sees as unhelpful in their progress. Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is targeted by Hayes and tries to make her realise the death of Angela is a tricky one, but a racist and hot headed officer, by the name of Dixon (Sam Rockwell) plus Mildred’s determined anger may make this whole saga come to blows.

I’ve always loved Martin McDonagh’s work; from his play-writing of dark and fairy tale tinged ‘The Pillowman’ to one of my favourite films…ever, ‘In Bruges’. This new release from the Irish/British writer is just as dark and clever as I expected. The black comedy involved is as sharp as a knife and works expertly against the numerous moments of well placed burning drama. It’s a film that balances tones well and keeps a strong willed, unrelenting female figure at it’s forefront in a quest for justice. This couldn’t be more suitable to the real world at the moment and McDonagh ensures this brutal track of wanting answers is funny and a shocking sucker punch to the gut as well.

There has been a recent surge in people hating on the film, for it’s attitude towards racism and the character that takes a swift turn to good. Though I can see that side of the argument because this shift in Dixon’s behaviour, just because a letter sees them act differently, is a somewhat unexpected and rushed change to make, it doesn’t completely endorse the views they have/or had. They’re still a dumb and corrupt individual just hoping to come good and this whole movie is about hope; the hope of a mother finding justice.

Aside from the midst of backlash it’s facing, there comes some serious weight from the consequences of this red backed billboards which definitely polarise the Ebbing community. The great quality of this film is that is a spiralling descent into violence and anger because of how far a parent will go to seek answers and get some kind of closure. The drive is fiery and thrilling and each and every character has a scene that conjures up either a respite of laughter or a dramatic kick of unexpected tensions.

Frances McDormand is sensational in this and is deserving of every award going. It’s not just the angry vengeance that she effortlessly sells. There is a necessary and believable anguish, pain and emotive guilt to her portrayal of the character that really makes Mildred a three dimensional force to be reckoned with. Woody Harrelson is great in this, handing a sheriff with a bullseye on his head more than just a working cop, he’s a family man, sympathetic to Mildred and his narrative takes some nice and surprising turns. Sam Rockwell is finally getting recognition after a heap of turns in previous films that have almost always been the best quality. The writing of his character may be the most obvious weakness I faced but if anyone can sell it then it’s the talents of Rockwell. Peter Dinklage and Samara Weaving are two almost backseat passengers but they bring a brilliant buzz of humour to the film.

I’d been eagerly awaiting to see ‘Three Billboards…’ for a long while now and I can confidently say I’m not disappointed by it. There may be a slight niggle of a character journey but it doesn’t take away from how dark and beautiful this movie is. McDormand and the film are a thrilling delight.

8/10

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Pulling out all the stops, this movie tries shooting for the ol’ razzle dazzle and though there is a definite amount of flair and showbiz style through transitions and musical numbers, it all feels empty and try hard. The story of the man himself; Mr. P.T Barnum is glossed over to make way for a post Christmas family feature that requires no smarts.

As a child, Phineas Barnum was less well off but a dreamer and he finally got the girl he’d loved. Now residing in New York with their two daughters, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and Charity (Michelle Williams) seem happier than ever, but Barnum wants more and he eventually creates a ‘circus’ of sideshows and freaks to sell tickets and give his family all they could ever wish.

Riding on the success of Academy darling and theatrical luvvie of late 2016/early 2017 ‘La La Land’, this musical drama employs the writing talents of Pasek and Paul to conjure up a bunch of songs. They certainly come under the ear-worm label as I’m still annoyingly humming them as I write this. Saying that, they’re nowhere near as close as subtle or stylishly cool as the songs in the Gosling/Stone led runaway hit. To be honest, there came a time when a character began to sing that I audibly groaned because they just appear almost consistently. I know it’s a musical but they are irritating hokey songs that strive for the stars but end up somewhere amongst bland superficial lyrics of being special – whoever you are – yeah that old chestnut.

Certain elements in this just stood out like cheap distractions at a local funfair. The alarming dubbing of an older man speaking for the clunky walking dwarf. The ‘Siamese Act’ who were clearly two performers standing side by side and the ‘Bearded Lady’ who’s facial fuzz looked like glued on hair a couple of times. I know Barnum revelled in fooling audiences and providing fake attractions but this film doesn’t even show us this as it makes him seem like an idol of blossoming variety entertainment.

Hugh Jackman is a charismatic actor and he certainly helps this film from totally falling flat but I feel he’s too much of a nice guy to play the role of someone who hoaxed the public. Michelle Williams is a glamorous wife and mother and gets to showcase some singing prowess and dancing ability but she has little to do, other than stand by and watch Jackman parade as the enigmatic showman he is. Rebecca Ferguson plays opera singer Jenny Lind but doesn’t even wow because she’s there as a cheap sideline narrative and her song is sung by someone else, plus she’s meant to be a pro opera performer but her song sounds like the typical X Factor winners track. Zendaya carries a believable amount of emotion in her role as acrobat and racially shunned figure for Zac Efron to fall in love with. For me, I found her to be the most engaging and interesting character to follow, with Efron close behind.

All the lights and stage magic never lit a spark in me and it just became a tiresome boringly told story, filled by ever irritating songs. It’s a mess of a musical but one that has just enough charm in places to keep the circus tent from falling down.

4.5/10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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The saga returns and the 2nd of the new Star Wars trilogy whams into the cinema with director Rian Johnson ensuring he gives fans a lot to be pleased about whilst gifting the starry sci-fi blockbuster some neat stylish additions of his own.

Continuing on from Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) island meet up with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), she hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi. Meanwhile Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is desperately trying to evacuate the Rebel base as the First Order try and diminish hope from the galaxy and wipe out the chance of Luke’s return. As they keep trying to escape, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is at odds with his place in all this, not helped by visions that unwillingly connect him to someone else.

Rian Johnson ensures the Star Wars aficionados can enjoy seeing certain characters, screen wipes and the charm of space opera good versus bad as the ever central theme. Hope and the notion of crushing that ideal is what drives the franchise and this is no exception but gladly the director after J.J. Abrams hands this outing some stylistic moments; ones that almost step out of the comfortable SW bubble, that I thoroughly enjoyed. These choices keep the film fresh and help it look exciting but more brooding than ‘The Force Awakens’. A sequence with endlessly mirroring a character, the salted planet of red surface and crystal critters and an extremely amazing breathtaking snappy edit of a soundless explosion are some examples of the visual splendour Johnson and his huge crew have created, which keep the galaxy alive with big screen wonder.

There are some points, mostly that lay within the story, that can feel utterly safe and predictable. Obviously I’m not wanting to spoil anything in this review so I’ll keep hush on the negatives I had but sufficed to say there are space filled deus ex machinas abounds and little character events that I expected straight away which sort of took me out of the immersive thrill. Also, some writing choices they give the action and/or characters felt cheap or not wholly unnecessary and without spoilers I really felt no need for a kiss that comes at one time.

Luke’s island hideout is rife with creatures and one species is the well advertised and product placed Porgs that clearly strike for the kids and the cute factor. Granted they can be quite fun but the clear merchandise cash in that they are and their constant gaping mouth wide eyed shtick becomes less amusing and ever tiring. Aside from a couple of story gripes and these puffin-esque beasties this movie has a good amount of twists and turns that keep the narrative interesting, a mission on a casino centred Canto Bight is rich with wealth, class differences and a couple of fun cameos. Another positive is John Williams returning with a score that’s safe but swells and simmers with the fan buzz of familiar sounds to satisfy all. I also love that a lot of the creatures you see are handled with animatronics which look much better and charming than the sheen of CGI.

Mark Hamill gets his teeth into much more screen time and it’s nice to see Luke Skywalker back, though he’s getting to play well with the bitter side of things. Hamill delivers enough emotion into his journey of who he is now and why he’s left the Jedi Master qualities behind with a tinge of will he/won’t he be a bad egg. Both Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher lift the film with an explainable grace that probably stems from the nostalgia of their presence amongst the whirlwind of desperate escape tactics. Fisher herself still carries Leia as a beacon of hope and strength, she’s good and efficient and Fisher performs this effortlessly filling the General shoes with ease. Adam Driver gets to slowly break away from his angsty teen fits and dramatics and the conflict in his path is nicely evident in the performance. Daisy Ridley manages to keep up the brave and strong qualities of Rey, a hero through and through but one where Ridley nicely plays with the pressure of balancing her place in the Force and the pull of the dark side. Domhnall Gleeson amps up the villainous panto switch with sneers aplenty. Supreme Leader Snoke gets more screen time and has more depth and a constant creepy shadowy presence thanks to the mo-cap work from Andy Serkis.

It’s definitely a long film and this is a long review to almost reflect that. It’s the longest one yet but luckily it never feels a slog; it may not zip on by but it’s a well handled and well paced space adventure that feels like a grand step up from Episode 7 and one that has humour and stakes around every corner.

8/10