Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017) (Review)


Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle has been something of an unexpected smash hit. Sony, in desperate need of a success story, struck gold in a place few other studios have struck gold recently: sequels to decades-old IP fodder. Flatliners, erm, flatlined in September while Blade Runner 2049 bombed in a commercial sense in October. Sony were holding their breath for Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle; they needn't have, as the action-adventure-comedy is nearing an astonishing $800 million worldwide with plenty more gas in the tank. It is, hands down, the biggest box office surprise I've ever witnessed.

Set twenty-one years after the first film, Welcome To The Jungle follows four teenagers who are transported into the video game world of Jumanji. Playing as the characters they selected, Spencer (Johnson), Bethany (Black), Fridge (Hart) and Martha (Gillan) must overcome the game's magical power in order to win and return home - or risk being trapped in the game forever. Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan star in Jake Kasdan's latest feature-length entertaining families over the new year.

Welcome To The Jungle is the definition of disposable fun. It entertains and serves it purpose with being particularly memorable; you'll now doubt exclaim - 'ah!' - when you see it being shown on the television in a few years down the line, with fond-ish memories despite struggling to recollect what actually happened along the way. It's cinema at its more nascent, existing for no other reason than to make a studio money and entertain a mainstream, mass audience. The execution is corny and half-baked at times but it didn't need to break barriers to entertain its audience.

The four-person screenplay is cluttered with set pieces that serve their purpose and splash the budget, executed rather well - if a little sporadically. Almost to a fault, it is as self-aware as a film can be without actually obliterating the fourth wall, conducting everything with a somewhat-clumsy but usually funny wink and a nudge. Comedically brash and a little inconsistent, the ideas are mostly exciting; it takes a while for the script to get going, and the first twenty minutes or so caused concern for alarm, but when it snaps out of auto-pilot, energises itself and draws us into the game, it's pretty solid. It becomes too much of a self-parody for my liking but many will surely appreciate that edge. The second act is particularly strong, firing on a number of cylinders and displaying robust and focused filmmaking; it discovers a rhythm that powers it for a good forty-five minutes or so.

Jumanji has been sold through the partnership of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart and while they're solid enough, it is their co-stars - Jack Black and Karen Gillan - who truly shine and benefit from the adventure. Black and Gillan's shared scenes are a particular highlight and while the group dynamic on the whole is enjoyable, Gillan and Black are easy stand-outs. The film owes them a great debt and they provide the audience with some hearty laughs, where as some of Johnson and Hart's gags feel stale the second they're spoken. Nick Jonas is strong in a supporting capacity, providing the film with an emotion that, as forced and predictable as it is, Jonas handles well.

Kasdan's direction is fine, racing through the set pieces and gleefully ticking off the 'blockbuster' checklist; he works to a tried-and-tested formula and it admittedly works for the film, but may leave some - myself included - hoping for more. Some of the special effects are a little ropey but the rumoured $90 million production budget is put to good use otherwise, effectively splashed across the screen. Henry Jackman's suitably intense and playful score is a tremendous addition to the film, working well to emphasise the intensity and comedy when it is required.

If you're after something with depth and complexity, look elsewhere. Jumanji is as deep as a puddle and as complex as a four-piece jigsaw, but constructed as frothy-fun to be had by the whole family, and it achieves its goal with ease. You won't remember much of it and it operates on the most basic level possible but it's an enjoyable - needless but enjoyable - romp nonetheless. While not as good as you may have hoped, it is certainly not as bad as you feared and it finds a happy medium: Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle serves its purpose as peppy, throwaway cinema - and with the box office figures so high, we can expect the drums to bong sooner rather than later.

(6/10)

Summary: As deep as a puddle but no doubt fun, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is fine, peppy, disposable cinema with a great cast and self-awareness that certifies it as crowd-pleasing family fun.

Monday, 22 January 2018

2018 Oscars: My Predictions & Ballot


Well, that came round quickly! It only feels like yesterday that I was compiling my 2017 Oscar predictions, yet a whole year and plenty of worthy film later, it's time to do it all again for the 90th Academy Awards.

This year's race has been defined by its unpredictability; a race with no front-runner and open to shocks, snubs and surprises, this is arguably the most exciting award season in years. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri performed well at the Golden Globes, snatching Best Picture (Drama), while The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour swept the BAFTA nominations. Lady Bird has emerged as an early favourite, winning Best Picture (Comedy) at the Globes, with strong hauls possible for Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and the stunning Call Me By Your Name. Can Jordan Peele's directorial-debut Get Out enter the conversation? Who will be this year's little-film-that-could? Will The Big Sick manage a Best Picture nomination or can either Logan or Wonder Woman do it for Team Superhero? Can Blade Runner 2049 score any nods outside the technical categories? Has The Post been lost in the sorting process? So many questions - and a lot of the answers will arrive when the ceremony's nominations are announced on Tuesday 23rd.

Below I have assembled my nomination predictions for the major categories, as well as what would have been submitted on my own ballot. Be sure to share your own thoughts and where you think the season's shocks and surprises will lie?

Best Picture

Predictions:

I, Tonya
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Ballot:

Call Me By Your Name
Dunkirk
Get Out
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


We know by now that the current format allows up to ten nominees in the Best Picture crowd, but it is usually either eight (2016) or nine (2017). I'm hedging my bets with these predictions and expect I, Tonya and Phantom Thread to ultimately miss out on the final cut, but it's possible that the unpredictability of the race opens it up to an extended line-up of ten. Other potential nominees include The Big Sick, BAFTA-favourite Darkest Hour or Mudbound, although the latter would be a surprise, as Hollywood seem hesitant in letting Netflix in on the gold. Wonder Woman is a very outside bet but has it has its ardent supporters and the political climate may power it to recognition. Molly's Game might, The Disaster Artist perhaps, but both on the peripherals of this race.

My love and support is firmly thrown behind Call Me By Your Name and Dunkirk this season, with my ballot made up of other hopefuls Get Out, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards. A Ghost Story, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, mother! and Stronger stand no-to-little chance but they're among my favourites of the past twelve months. It's worth noting that not all films have arrived in the UK - namely Lady Bird, I, Tonya and Phantom Thread - so my nominations don't cover the whole picture and I've left one spot open, should any of the forthcoming releases impress me. The only potential nominee that would frustrate me is Darkest Hour which is a pretty unworthy, mediocre and manipulative film across the board.


Best Director

Predictions:

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Sean Baker, The Florida Project


Ballot:

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Darren Aronofsky, mother!
Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Best Director is always known for throwing some shocks into the ring, so I approach this category tentatively. Guillermo del Toro is as close to guaranteed as possible, as are Christopher Nolan and Martin McDonagh, if slightly less so. The final two slots will be filled with a combination of: Lady Bird for Gerwig, Baker for The Florida Project, Guadagnino for Call Me By Your Name and Jordan Peele for Get Out. Steven Spielberg's name alone could push him forward for The Post but the film itself doesn't seem to be as hotly-contested as some of his previous pictures, while Denis Villeneuve  may sneak in for Blade Runner 2049 if no clear consensus emerges to nab the final spots.

Nolan and del Toro are utterly fantastic and deserving; the two will probably be fighting is out right until the bitter end when the envelope is unsealed and the winner announced. Guadagnino's beautiful and tender approach to Call Me By Your Name deserves recognition but I fear he will be pushed out for Baker. Aronofsky and Lanthimos' films are not to the Academy voters' palette so are bound to be snubbed completely; but the way they both handle the increasingly-claustrophobic, heart-palpating, nerve-shredding mother! and Sacred Deer definitely earn them a spot on my theoretical ballot.


Best Actor

Predictions:

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Ballot:

Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out 
Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Oldman is very likely to scoop the win in March and Hollywood are bound to be dazzled and hoodwinked by his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour; it's the loudest shriek of 'Oscar Bait' this whole season. My heart would break a thousand times if Chalamet missed out for his performance as Elio in what I consider 2017's greatest leading performance; Kaluuya is a pretty firm bet as well. Day-Lewis may sneak in as a goodwill gesture, with rumours of his retirement circulating; rumours surrounding Franco may ruin his chances, with recent sexual allegations arising towards the end of voting. It probably won't change much at this late stage, mainly because this race is so thin on the ground and most ballots were submitted; if anyone could sail through here, it's Denzel Washington for the titular role in Roman J. Israel, Esq - but the film has no support or momentum outside his performance.

Chalamet would of course win my number one spot, but Gyllenhaal is a close second: his astonishing, subtle work in Stronger is being unfairly overlooked (much like the film itself), and it's incredibly disappointing to see. Kaluuya is tremendous in Get Out and he so excellently grounds the film. Serkis' portrays so much emotion in War, the closing chapter of the Planet of the Apes trilogy, with his phenomenal motion-capture turn almost faultless. Farrell's dry line-delivery and tone is fantastic in Sacred Deer and would earn my fifth and final spot on the ballot.


Best Actress

Predictions:

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Meryl Streep, The Post
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Ballot:

Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Jennifer Lawrence, mother!
Jessica Chastain, Molly's Game
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Never bet against Meryl, but out of the five, she's probably the one in most danger of losing her place in the line-up. Jessica Chastain is queueing up for Molly's Game after missing out for Miss Sloane last year. Emma Stone is an outside bet for Battle of the Sexes but she got in at the Golden Globes, while Annette Benning's BAFTA nomination for Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool could cause an upset at the Academy. Brooklynn Prince would be a lovely surprise for her role in The Florida Project but the Academy so very rarely reward youngsters that it's incredibly unlikely.

Hawkins and McDormand will fight it out to the finish line and I'd be happy with a win for either; they are very different performances but phenomenal nonetheless. Jennifer Lawrence delivers a career-best in mother! and controls the piece ever so effectively, commanding and impressive at each and every shocking turn. Jessica Chastain is fantastic in Molly's Game and it's a shame she hasn't received as much traction for it. And Brooklynn Prince, at just eight, delivers the finest young actor performance since Jacob Tremblay in Room and deserves to be playing in the big league.


Best Supporting Actor

Predictions:


Christopher Plumber, All The Money In The World
Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Williem Defoe, The Florida Project


Ballot:

Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name
Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Williem Defoe, The Florida Project

Best Supporting Actor is a tough fight this year, with a number of performances capable of breaking through into the conversation. Rockwell will likely go all the way on the night but Williem Defoe seems to be a category-staple and at one stage looked likely to win the whole thing, although this sentiment is fading with each win for Rockwell. I'm expecting the Academy to double-dip with The Shape of Water and nominate both Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins; elsewhere I'm predicting Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg to cause a vote-split, pushing them both out of the conversation. Christopher Plumber's headline-grabbing, Globe and BAFTA nominated turn in All The Money In The World will probably translate to a nomination from the Academy too.

As long as Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg are both nominated, I'm okay with this category - but, again, I think vote-splitting could cause an upset. I'd love Barry Keoghan to sneak in for his work on The Killing of a Sacred Deer but it looks extremely unlikely at this juncture. Speaking of Keoghan, you could nominate any of the Dunkirk cast in this category and it be justified - but no one particularly stands-out from the crowd. Jenkins and Shannon are both fantastic in The Shape of Water but I simply couldn't fit them in such a tight category and poor Will Poulter missed out for his tremendous turn in Detroit last summer. I'd argue Supporting Actor is the strongest category this year - or at least tied with Supporting Actress.


Best Supporting Actress

Predictions:

Allison Jannery, I, Tonya
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Ballot:

Allison Williams, Get Out
Amira Casar, Call Me By Your Name
Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
Tatiana Maslany, Stronger

Another tough category. Jannery and Metcalf look like sure-things while Spencer, Blige and Hunter could easily be knocked out, with Allison Williams or Catherine Kenner vying to Get In for Get Out. Hong Chau (Downsizing), Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) and Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip) all have their supporters, especially the latter who has social media in particular hyping her loud-mouthed, scene-stealing turn in the raucous comedy.

Supporting Actress is a tough one to narrow down and I haven't even seen the two front-runners in their respective films yet! Tatiana Maslany receives my number one spot for her heartbreaking/heart-rendering performance, again overlooked as Stronger went under most people's radar. Spencer is wonderful in The Shape of Water, as is Casar for her delicate, glamorous under-the-radar turn in Call Me By Your Name. Allison Williams and Michelle Pfeiffer are both utterly compelling and more than worthy of gracing my ballot for Get Out and mother!, respectively. The scene-stealing Holly Hunter just misses out for The Big Sick; a rewatch may change that and it'd be Casar in trouble. A very, very strong category.


Writing (Adapted Screenplay):

Predictions:

Call Me By Your Name
The Disaster Artist
Molly's Game
Mudbound

Ballot:

Call Me By Your Name
The Disaster Artist
Logan
Molly's Game
Mudbound


Writing (Original Screenplay):

Predictions:

The Big Sick
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Ballot:

A Ghost Story
The Big Sick
Get Out
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Best Cinematography:

Predictions:

Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Florida Project
The Shape of Water

Ballot:

A Ghost Story
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The Shape of Water


Best Costume Design:

Predictions:

I, Tonya
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water

Ballot:

Beauty & The Beast
I, Tonya
The Greatest Showman
Murder On The Orient Express
The Shape of Water


Best Film Editing:

Predictions:

Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Ballot:

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
mother!
The Shape of Water


Best Make-Up & Hairstyling:

Predictions:

Darkest Hour
I, Toya

Ballot:

Wonder


Best Original Score:

Predictions:

Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water

Ballot:

A Ghost Story
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Best Original Song:

Predictions:

Evermore, Beauty & The Beast
Never Forget, Murder On The Orient Express
Mystery of Love, Call Me By Your Name
Remember Me, Coco
This Is Me, The Greatest Showman

Ballot:

Mystery of Love, Call Me By Your Name
Never Forget, Murder On The Orient Express
Remember Me, Coco
This Is Me, The Greatest Showman
Visions of Gideon, Call Me By Your Name


Best Production Design:

Predictions:

Beauty & The Beast
Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water

Ballot:

Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
mother!
The Shape of Water

Best Sound Editing:

Predictions:

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Ballot:

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Call Me By Your Name
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water

Best Sound Mixing:

Predictions:

Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Greatest Showman
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Ballot:

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
mother!
The Shape of Water

Best Visual Effects:

Predictions:

Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
War For The Planet of the Apes

Ballot:

Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
Okja
The Shape of Water
War For The Planet of the Apes



Best Animated Feature:

Predictions:

The Breadwinner
Coco
The Lego Batman Movie
Mary & The Witch's Flower

Ballot: *

Coco
Loving Vincent


Best Foreign Feature:

Predictions:

A Fantastic Woman
In The Fade
The Insult
Loveless
The Square

Ballot: *

Raw

*denotes a category I would leave open

- - - - -

Predictions Tally:

The Shape of Water: 14

Dunkirk: 9

Blade Runner 2049: 6
Three Billboards: 6

Darkest Hour: 5
Lady Bird: 5 
Phantom Thread: 5

Call Me By Your Name: 4
The Florida Project: 4
I, Tonya: 4

Beauty & The Beast: 3
Get Out: 3
The Post: 3 

Baby Driver: 2
The Big Sick: 2
Coco: 2
The Disaster Artist: 2
The Greatest Showman: 2
Mudbound: 2
Murder On The Orient Express: 2
Star Wars: The Last Jedi: 2


Ballot Tally:

The Shape of Water: 12

Call Me By Your Name: 10
Dunkirk: 10

Blade Runner 2049: 7
The Killing of a Sacred Deer: 7
mother!: 7

Three Billboards: 5

A Ghost Story: 4
Get Out: 4

Baby Driver: 3
Stronger: 3

Coco: 2
The Florida Project: 2
The Greatest Showman: 2
Molly's Game: 2
Murder On The Orient Express: 2
War For The Planet of the Apes: 2


And that is what I call that. It's been a fierce, fierce race and I look towards Tuesday morning with baited breath, waiting for the surprises to amaze, the snubs to sting and the lack of love for mother! to downright hurt. Again, send your predictions and wishes over and I'll be back to update this as soon as we've heard the nominations!

Friday, 19 January 2018

Coco (2018) (Review)


2017 was probably the first year in which a Disney Pixar film has not only failed to make my top ten films of the year, but failed even to break the top three animated features. Cars 3, the third in Pixar's black sheep trilogy, was pretty poor by Pixar's standards and rendered that particularly sub-franchise barren. And with the animation giant failing to put out a strong original picture since 2015's Inside Out, audiences were beginning to think they had lost their touch.

It's a wonder and a relief then that Coco came along when it did. Inspired by the Mexican's Day of the Dead (Día De Muertos) holiday, the story follows Miguel, a boy who dreams of becoming a musician despite his family banning song after his great-great grandfather left his wife and children (Miguel's great-great grandmother and her daughter, Coco) to pursue a career in music. Don't let those misguided trailers fool you, Coco is an absolute treat and rejuvenates the studio after a disappointing run that started with The Good Dinosaur (although I personally dug Finding Dory an awful lot).

Coco so very quickly crafts a luscious and stunning world, defined by its colour and creation to pull you in to experience. It never strains to justify its Mexican setting or needlessly explain the holiday away; there's no hand-holding or spoon-feeding required, because the filmmakers create such a richly-woven tapestry of culture and celebration, of Coco and Miguel's world and traditions. Thankfully, it's full-on appreciation rather than questionable appropriation.

As with every Pixar release, Coco is simply stunning, a wonder to behold. So vibrantly animated and fantastically coloured, ingenious with its creations and complete with characteristically detailed flourishes. A spectacle in its own right, it dazzles and  compares highly to the studio's impressive filmography too, standing out thanks to its cultural diversity and uniqueness. Vibrant in both its colour and storytelling, director Lee Unkrich ensures most of the narrative beats stick the landing and they never come secondary to the aesthetics. It's a high-wire balancing act but Unkrich confidently controls each element with control and skill.

Coco soars thematically as well as visually, with Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich's screenplay exploring the multitude of important themes with Pixar's typical level of sophistication. Memory, family, culture, life and death and music are incorporated into the fold to extremely emotional effect, brilliantly rendered by an enduring story that is both deeply-personal and completely universal; everyone has suffered a loss and each will look and learn from Coco in their own unique way.

Furthermore, it is not only one of the few kid films to consider something as bold and devastating as Altzimers, but it is one of the only examples of mainstream filmmaking pondering such a condition in such a profound, insightful way. So delicately crafted, the ending is particularly emotional, striking a bittersweet balance both touching and memorable. It has heart and soul to spare, emotionally-robust in every sense and it uses Pixar's 'journey' formula to entertaining effect, in thanks to the stunning world we explore and the crop of interesting characters.

Keeping Coco light is the wonderful musical numbers and Michael Giacchino's score interlaced throughout. Remember Me - in its many, many forms - is regularly used to terrific effect, alternating from soaring anthem to heartfelt lullaby, each incorporation as solid as the last. Un Poco Loco ends the film on an uplifitng note, ensuring that the tears you leave on are a mix of happy and sad. The soundtrack uses cultural flair to enhance the world building, from the mariachi band and instruments selected, propelling you even further into this world without unnecessary hand-holding.

Fantastic voice performances can be found all-round from the predominantly American-Mexican cast, although it is Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel that steals the show. With a charming tone and loveable enthusiasm, Miguel journeys through the Land of the Dead with the audience by his side, inspired by his dedication and drive. He is a relatable soul: respectful and appreciative of his heritage while eager to find his own path and break away from the family tradition, another strong character in Pixar's roster. Gael Garcia Bernal and Benjamin Bratt are strong too while Alanna Ubach is beautifully emotional as the deteriorating titular character.

A few minor quibbles prevent Coco from fully rising to top-level Pixar, although it's pretty damn near: the transition between act one and act two began to lose me and felt somewhat rushed. A few more minutes could really have provided some stability to the move. I also found myself second-guessing the story, and while 'predictable' is the wrong word to use here, you had a strong sense as to where this story was heading before it got there itself. Again, this is because of Pixar's inclination to adhere to a structure that obviously works well for them but a small part of me hoped that the whole story could be as inventive as a number of the set pieces. It also committed one of my least favourite filmmaking sins: the whole thing could have been averted with stronger communication between the characters. It didn't frustrate me as much here as other films have in the past because the overall journey is full of so much heart, but it slightly disappointed me nonetheless.

Coco is a richly-woven tapestry of culture and celebration, life and death, and family and love that proves Pixar never lost their magic so much as mislaid it for the Cars franchise. It obviously paid close attention to Inside Out, mixing sadness with joy and mastering the balance. It is sophisticated in conjuring a vividly-coloured vision and spectacle, for which director Lee Unkrich should acknowledged, and handling some tricky themes that Pixar excel in delivering each and every time. Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich's script deliver a script packed with emotion and world-building, richly enhanced by a soundtrack and score brimming with charm and infectiousness. It's wonderful to see Pixar operating so well with an original film and I wait with excitement for their next adventure in the summer. Remember Me, I certainly will Coco.

(8/10)

Summary: Disney Pixar's Coco is another fantastic addition to their roster, recapturing the magic of their glory days. Visually spectacular, thematically power and brimming with emotion and heart, you'll shed tears of both the sad and happy variety in this musical-fantasy animation.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Darkest Hour (2018) (Review)


Darkest 'Gary Oldman Pleads For an Oscar' Hour seemingly continues the Dunkirk Cinematic Universe that began last year with Their Finest and continued into that summer with Christopher Nolan's Magnus opus, Dunkirk. Unfortunately for everyone involved this is the weakest Dunkirk-themed picture of the year and boasts very little outside of Oldman's starry lead performance.

Darkest Hour examines Winston Churchill's rise to power and his day-to-day steering of the war effort in the early 1940s, starting with the Dunkirk evacuation that led to his most recognisable, and arguably the most well-known British speeches, of all time. It considers the dynamics of a torn parliament; the opposition supported him but his party detested his power and determination to continue the fight rather than surrender to peace talks. Is Darkest Hour as stirring as a Churchill speech? Or is it more akin to the type of dense twaddle spoken by today's political elite?

Gary Oldman will win the Oscar for Best Actor. It's as close to guaranteed as possible at this point in time. It is a role seemingly hand-designed for both Oldman and an Oscar win; Hollywood will lap this up and it is easy to see why. Flourished with those famous speeches and the finest costume, hair and make-up department in the game, he certainly looks and sounds the Churchill part, throwing himself in the deep end for the role. But was I ever convinced I was watching Churchill deliver these speeches? I don't think I was. It felt like a caricature; a sketch of a leader delivered by a very talented man who cannot quite unchain himself from the cynicism of it all; this is Oscarbait pure and simple, intended to sweep up gold statues like it life depends on it, because it was born to do so. Oldman's is a towering performance and a transformative turn of theatrical proportions and its loudness will translate to a win - but it's monotonous and drawn-out and I cannot fully accept it as a fantastic piece of screen acting, with no subtlety in sight. It's all character and no nuance.

His supporting cast do a solid if unspectacular job with the biopic. Lily James is tremendous at doing a lot with very little, emotional and weighty as Churchill's naive secretary; while Kristin Scott Thomas is decent as Clementine, Churchill's wife, she is often sidelined in both the film and their relationship. Ben Mendelsohn's turn as King George VI is utilised too few and far between to leave a strong impression but he is sturdy nonetheless. With the spotlight firmly on Oldman, the remaining male characters are all one-note, seemingly blending into one 'figure' with little to differentiate the revolving-door of politicians as old, white and male as they are difficult to separate.

Anthony McCarten's unbalanced screenplay is very heavy-handed. As on-the-nose as they come, McCarten tries to cover a lot of ground without discovering any depth at all, meaning everything is casually skimmed over with limited-scope and insight. Very explanatory and exposition-friendly, the dialogue is unnatural - people are introduced by their name and full title which is flat-out strange - and the quick, snappy pace prevents it from exploring the more profound, or interesting. A focus group train-set sequence, which I liked an awful lot in the moment, is far more peculiar in retrospect, a symbol of the film itself: manipulative, forced and twee. Authenticity is never a factor in the screenplay (outside of Churchill's own speeches) and it made me feel very distant to it; with no clarity to his decision and little insight into his drive, the screenplay considers the political rather than the emotion, which throws the balance - and me - completely off.

Joe Wright's direction is certainly very slick and it's lusciously cinematic thanks to Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography, even when this sheen distracts from the narrative. The parliament scenes in particular feature some soaring moments packed to the rafters with grander; the opening shot is especially impressive, surveying the room where it eventually plucks out Churchill's famous bowler sitting in his seat while he ensures his 'fingerprints are not on the weapon'. Similarly, the ending - "we will fight on the beaches" - is the second greatest use of this monologue in the past twelve months following Dunkirk's captivating conclusion last year. Wright is undeniably talented - you need only glance at his filmography to understand that - and while there are some great moments to use in his showreel here, it felt that more care was placed in the visuals than the actual substance of the script.

Wright's long-term collaborator Dario Marianelli returns with a stirring and memorable score that tries unite the unfocused narrative. Suspenseful and dramatic, it injects some much-needed energy and urgency into a film that needs something or someone to provide focus.

Darkest Hour will find its audience and will win Oldman the ever-elusive Oscar he chases. But when it comes down to it, I cannot say I was overly-impressed with the film whose melodramatic and theatrical tendencies undercut an important piece of British history. With distance, my disappointment and frustrations with it have only seemed to increased. Its inclination to explore the political over the emotional renders it unbalanced and rather disengaging for my liking.

Oldman has his cake and eats it as Churchill and considering the heavy prosthetics he is contending with, does a mighty fine job; but the script and all its 'YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" monologues (so excellently worded by Alistair Ryder, thanks buddy), rarely provide him an opportunity for subtlety, understatement or authenticity, truly working against him. To paraphrase the ever-wonderful Scott Mendelson, can this (Dunkirk) franchise be saved?

For those still wondering, I remain firmly #TeamChalamet.

(5.5/10)

Summary: Darkest Hour's focus on the political over the emotional is mishandled by a script as melodramatic and overly-theatrical as Gary Oldman's highly-acclaimed performance, blatantly designed only to win him an Oscar trophy. A manipulatively rousing experience.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Greatest Showman (2017) (Review)


The Greatest Showman has left me in a very difficult position; as a spectacle, it's a stomping success complete with fantastic musical numbers, terrific performances and visual grandeur - but it doesn't have the narrative substance, balance or grit to make it a wholly satisfying affair. I left knowing these songs and performances would ring in my head for days (I'd eventually cave and buy the soundtrack) without feeling all that impressed by the overall film.

The Greatest Showman is inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, exploring the highs and lows of his rise to fame and the increasing hostility towards his 'circus of freaks'. A passion project for Jackman years in the making, The Greatest Showman places strong emphasis on his crowning achievements - he essentially coined the term 'showbusiness' - while glossing over the more morally-choice aspects of his life. It left me with a slightly sour taste, all told.

La La Land's lyricist provides the musical numbers and there are some terrific pieces on offer: This Is Me, the film's soaring anthem, is an easy highlight and has rarely left repeat since. The Greatest Showman is a stomping opener, effectively setting the tone for the duration of the picture, while Never Enough is a genuinely touching moment for reflection, so exquisitely performed Rebecca Ferguson and Loren Allred. In fact, there's no real weak link in terms of the songs and the performers put their heart in the musical numbers in particular.

Of course, Hugh Jackman is front and centre and deservedly so; he has dedicated years of his life to turning The Greatest Showman into a possibility and you can see the dedication in his eyes and performance. Balancing the passion and the emotion efficiently in the face of a one-note character caricature, Jackman elevates the entire feature-length to new heights. Bolstered by terrifically generous and talented supporting performances from the likes of Michelle Williams (as consistent as ever), Zac Efron (as charming as ever), Rebecca Ferguson (as poised as ever), Zendaya (a star is born, again) and Keala Settle (an utter revelation), The Greatest Showman's ensemble are a finely-tuned bunch.

Jackman is easily the life and soul, holding together a narrative that very quickly begins to strain. Showman's problems lie in the scattershot approach to its complex and fascinating true-life figure and the selective emphasis of certain, more easily-digested elements. Barnum is not the glossy American hero the film paints him as; with well-recorded details of his problematic behaviour and viewpoints the film seems only too willing to sweep under the carpet. Now, this is family-friendly entertainment so I understand the decision to sanitise - but a stronger film lies in the material swept under the rug and shielding audiences from these details didn't sit quite right with me. The tonal message of acceptance and inclusion didn't feel genuine or authentic and there is a constant disconnect between what characters are saying, what they are thinking and what they are doing, and it started to grate on me.

Manifesting in the script, these issues are the fault of the screenwriter, the studio and a director who doesn't have the experience to iron out these issues as effectively as desired. Fox no doubt heavily-tinkered and restricted which elements would translate from the history books to our screen and maybe that was the right decision with their audience in mind - but it's failure to unearth the full story was uncomfortable and noticeable. Despite the man's complexity, the Barnum we see in the film is surprisingly one-note; Jackman saves the day somewhat but even he cannot work miracles. Furthermore, the film seems to make big strides to connect the musical numbers together and they don't slot in as seamlessly as one would like; they're an absolute treat when they do arrive with is, but the connectivity tissue wears thin.

Michael Gracey demonstrates promise and some skill with the reigns but entrusting a $84 million production budget to a first-time director was a risky move that saw the film reportedly undergo reshoots and extensive post-production with James Mangold at the helm; clearly overwhelmed with the scope and energy needed, Gracey could have done with more experience before working his way up to this film, which would have resulted in a far tighter product. Still, the visual spectacle is solid and it truly feels at home on the big-screen, clear through those well-staged musical moments that audiences the world over are lapping up.

No one can deny the stellar music, fantastic performances glossy production design and crowd-pleasing spectacle of The Greatest Showman, as well as the clear joy poured into the piece from long-term spearhead Hugh Jackman. It's such a shame that the narrative is so shallow and stitched together so arbitrary however. I'd conclude that The Greatest Showman would operate far more effectively as a stage musical and it is something I would be eager to see; I can't say I'm racing back to see it in feature-length form as enthusiastically. While the spectacle soars, the script struggles to hold up its end of the bargain, leaving  The Greatest Showman as a musical that doesn't achieve the highest note.

(6.5/10)

Summary: What The Greatest Showman lacks in substance and in its failure to deliver the full story, it makes up for in style, spectacle and soaring musical numbers brought to life by a terrific ensemble lead by Hugh Jackman as its leading man with so much heart and passion for his project.