Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Better Watch Out (2017) (Review)


Better watch out, better not cry, the festive films are coming to town! A Bad Moms Christmas and Daddy's Home 2 have the comedy side of the coin covered this year and while the festive horror sub-genre has dwindled in popularity over time, Better Watch Out is set to deck the halls with blood and fear this holiday season.

17 year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) comes to babysit 12 year-old Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) while his parents attend a Christmas function, one last time before she leaves the area. After Luke tries to seduce her and begins acting erratically, Ashley becomes increasingly concerned with his odd behaviour - but her night only gets worse when armed, masked men enter the home and she must fight to keep both of them alive. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery co-star in Chris Peckover's first major feature-length which is adapted from Zack Kahn's story and co-written by the pair.

'Better Watch Out' borrows its title from the popular Christmas song 'Santa Claus is Coming To Town' but it inadvertently acts as a warning to consumers approaching the film's theatrical trailer: Better Watch Out (For That Spoiler-Packed Trailer) may have been a more appropriate title. Having avoided the marketing myself (beyond some striking posters), the film's major rug-from-under-feet moment landed with mighty force and jaw-dropping effect, but I would have been unimpressed having witnessed the trailer stuffing in every spoiler under the sun before seeing the feature-length itself. Better Watch Out may be the year's biggest culprit in spoiler-heavy marketing and I stress the importance of avoiding it. Even just generally though, this film is best enjoyed blind, so do proceed with caution.

With that polite notice out of the way, we can delve in to how giddy and enjoyable Peckover's Yuletide-themed horror is. It's an 89 minute blast of adrenaline and tension and excitement, beginning somewhat predictably before throwing twists and turns of all varieties at the audience. Peckover and Zahn's screenplay has no problem throwing red herrings into the mix that may appear frustrating in the moment, but clarity emerges upon reflection and the film's true meaning develops as we descend into chaos. Rather witty if slightly clumsy at times, the dialogue is solid but hardly the most important element here, signalling advancement in the plot but sometimes holding it back with heavy-handed explanations and jarring characterisation. Its exploration of thematic content is thankfully more secure, considering toxic masculinity, twisted youth and - in a way - media desensitisation effectively. It's certainly smarter than it may seem on the surface, packed with exciting flourishes and detail.

Peckover's direction has a sheen to it, with some pockets of genuinely fantastic film-making evident. He enhances the all-important tension terrifically, dialling it up notch by notch and crafting a delightfully-twisted atmosphere, heightened further by Brian Cachia's effective soundtrack. Alongside some effectively awkward comedy and some flat-out scary moments (although the jump scares get a little too regular in the first act), Better Watch Out is a potent blend of genres and tones, presented to us in a tight, sparkly package. The decorations are expertly emphasised by Carl Robertson's cinematography which creates a stark contrast when the blood splatters come thick and fast, truly soiling the meaning of Christmas.

Uniformly solid across the board, the performances are efficient and well-handled, notably stable as we travel through the varying tones and genres. Our leads shine especially bright, with both Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller impressing as the babysitter and babysit-ee. DeJonge is poised and controlled as Ashley, but allows her fear to seep in as the threat looms larger. It's a well-calibrated performance - she's likeable but flawed - and you find yourself rooting for her throughout. Miller is tremendous (if let down slightly by lengthy, unneeded dialogue) providing a biting, disconcerting turn as the lovestruck Luke. He handles the character whiplash efficiently and looks set to go far as one of Hollywood's best breakout actors. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery are fine in a supporting capacity, bolstering an ensemble packed with career-boosting turns.

If you've managed to avoid the marketing for Better Watch Out, you have a real treat in store; while you might still have a good time having seen the spoiler-filled trailers, the frothy enjoyment will probably be diluted and the thrill of the chase less effective. Certainly one of the best festive-horrors and Christmas-themed films of the year, Better Watch Out will have you on the edge of your seat throughout the delirious twists and shocking turns. Complete with fantastic performances, strong direction and aesthetic, as well as a decent script and refreshing Christmas-angle, Better Watch Out is a terrific blood-covered, yuletide corker that will paint Home Alone in a whole new light.

✬☆
(7.5/10) 

Summary: Better Watch Out is a fantastic, blood-covered yuletide screamer that infuses various genres and tones terrifically into the sharp and witty screenplay. Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller impress as leads and Chris Peckover's direction is solid - but be sure to avoid all trailers, or the delightfully-twisted surprise will be ruined.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Wonder (2017) (Review)


Wonder has no qualms about tugging forcefully on your heartstrings, aiming to melt your nervous system down into a puddle of emotion numerous times throughout its 113 minute runtime. An American drama adapted, co-written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, Wonder looks set to be the designated year-end weepie that warms your heart when the weather outside chills. Starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay, all of whom have experienced their fair share of cinematic whiffs in the last 18 months, is Wonder as remarkable as its title suggests?

Ostracised due to his physical appearance caused by a rare facial deformity, Auggie Pullman (Tremblay) conceals himself under an astronaut helmet and dreams of outer space. Protected by his family - Isabel (Roberts), Nate (Wilson) and Via (Izabela Vidovic) - he must learn to fend for himself   against bullies and embrace his difference when he finally starts school in the fifth-grade.

Chbosky, responsible for one of my all-time favourites in Perks of Being Nath A Wallflower, follows-up that coming-of-age story with Wonder, a, erm, coming-of-age story. While his latest effort may not be as impressive as that 2012 release, Wonder is a well-intentioned, kind-natured slice of uplifting cinema the world really seems to need at the moment. Exploring kindness, friendship, understanding and how each of us are fighting our own worthy battles, integrity runs through the very veins of this film.

Co-written with Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad, based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is no doubt manipulative in its emotion. Subtle doesn’t enter its vocabulary. There are scenes with the sole aim of making you shed several tears and it always strives to out-emotion itself, gently pulverising its audience until they are left an emotional, blubbering wreck by the time the credits rolled. Its constant determination and out-pouring of emotion is a little too much for me in all honesty, to the point where I felt the film struggled to breathe thematically, scuffling to really make the most out of its subject matter. I'm almost certainly in the minority with that mindset but it didn't quite fall into place for me.

Benefiting no-one is the clunky one-liners that the writers roll out every other scene or so. It's sentimental almost to a fault, laying on the sweetness thick through some forced, heavy-handed dialogue that held it - nay, me, rather - back. Everything's design to wring the most amount of emotional intensity out of it; you can almost see the checklist in hand, with the writers wading through the conventions and formulas needed to deliver the most poignant, unfortunately sanitised, occasionally one-note exploration of tweens and genes.

Furthermore, Wonder lands one character development (regression?) so misjudged and extreme that everything that follows regarding the character's arc irritated me deeply, despite a fine performance from the person in question. There's no coming back from a statement as severe as the one this character drops, but they are later forgiven; while characteristic of the film and one of its most important messages, I couldn't forgive so easily. It frustrated me to no end and could have easily been averted, with a number of options that would have been more suited to the actual character.

But.

While my issues with Wonder prevented it from becoming anything more than 'good', it is difficult to really take major offence with a film as warm, considerate and hopeful as it is. It continually strives to paint a hopeful, optimistic picture while reminding us that our flaws and personal battles are just as important. It has a number of fantastic performances; Tremblay (his best since his break-out in Room), Roberts and Wilson each provide one of their strongest turns in recent years and - along with the impressive, future star Vidovic - conjuring a believable family dynamic that helps sell the film and its poignant moments. You believe in this family unit and see glimpses of your own in them, from the inter-relationships and conversations between various members. A lot is demanded to convince you of the emotion so crucial to the story and the cast succeed in conveying it effectively.

Noah Jupe, following strong performances in Suburbicon and The Night Manager, is terrific once again here, illustrating his talent with a more subtle performance that many younger ones may struggle to balance. I cheered when Millie Davis, of Orphan Black fame, appeared and she's strong here, delivering a sparky performance as Summer. There's some forced, awkward performances elsewhere from the younger cast but nothing too difficult to endure. On the whole, the ensemble is solid and help alleviate some of the writing issues.

Wonder's structure infuses the film with some energy. Breaking it down into sections to explore each of the characters' story in more detail, it allows a change in perception that the film benefits from, unshackling itself from the otherwise formulaic approach. While this can be frustrating when some stories are left unanswered and narrative threads are left hanging, the adjustment in pace when the tone often remains static, is a welcome change and relief.

Chbosky's direction doesn't feature the cinematic sheen or timeless quality of Wallflower but does contain some lovely flourishes and great storytelling devices: it explores Auggie's fantasy world - one that has become a safe haven for him and his family - well, complete with space travel and Star Wars characters. Visually rosy, its bright and airy aesthetics are a perfect match for the tone and themes that pervade throughout Wonder. Marcelo Zarvos' soundtrack does help develop this emotion and lightness well too.

Critiquing a film like Wonder is difficult: it is so well-intentioned and there is a fair bit to like about it, lifted by some fantastic performances and a skilled director - but its flaws are glaring at times and the screenplay in all its floweriness is constructed solely to wring every tear out of its audience. Because I could sense how hard it was working to do that, the power and potency was somewhat  diluted for me, as it willingly ticked off conventions and coming-of-age tropes. Generally speaking though, Wonder is a gentle, spirited and kind film concerned with uplifting themes and messages. Make no mistake, it will certainly warm your heart this winter even when I found myself resisting.


(6/10) 

Summary: Wonder is flawed, twee and manipulative in its emotion; but it is undeniably kind-hearted and well-intentioned, making for a solid, uplifting piece of cinema designed to warm your heart and fill you with joy.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Battle of the Sexes (2017) (Review)

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs has gone down in history for a number of reasons: not only did it turn the tide for the role of women in sport (particularly tennis), it became the United States' most watched tennis match of all-time - a record it reportedly still holds today. Now, almost 45 years after King's lucrative, boundary-busting victory, Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in film adaptation of that record-breaking meeting between the women's number one and the self-appointed male chauvinist.

When a forthcoming tournament reveals the female winner takes just one-eighth of the men's prize despite equal ticket sales, Billie Jean King (Stone) leads a boycott and begins her own tennis tour with a group of talented female tennis players. Meanwhile, the ageing Bobby Riggs (Carell) taunts them by claiming their inferiority and challenges any woman who will take him on in a winner-takes-all match. When King finally accepts the offer, both her professional and personal life are at stake.

Battle of the Sexes is a crowd-pleasing, shamelessly 'Hollywood' adaptation of the 'Battle of the Sexes'; it's a fluffy piece of popcorn cinema that definitely has its merit, even though it struggles to live up to its potential. In a similar vein to the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures - if not quite as satisfying or remarkable - it looks back on groundbreaking events of our past but extracts timely themes of inequality and injustice, unfortunately still relevant in society today.

Simon Beaufoy's screenplay may make broad artistic strokes and re-adjust King's journey for maximum emotion, but he develops the themes carefully and considerately, sensitively exploring King's sexuality but never making it the sole focus of the film. He makes the 1973 exhibition the film's joyous culmination, documenting both Riggs and King's journey in the lead up to the event -  but it only really steps into gear during the film's second half, lacking much of a spark outside the central performances in that first stretch.

And those two performance are truly wonderful, with Emma Stone the film's absolute calling card. Channeling King's no-nonesense attitude fabulously, complete with her sharp wit and dry sense of humour, Stone is the film's crowning achievement and elevates an almost middle-of-the-road biopic to great heights. Both fierce and subtle, her turn may not take her all the way this Oscar season like her performance in La La Land did, but her name certainly deserves to be milling around until the very end of that race.

Steve Carell is fantastic as Mr. Bobby Riggs: he plays the self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig with glee, obnoxiously taunting with cries of superiority without becoming wholly detestable. Like it or not, his character works the room well and Carrell is the perfect fit for the role. Of the supporting cast, a game Sarah Silverman impresses and constantly threatens to steal the film as the founder of World Tennis; and Bill Pullman is appropriately infuriating as Jack Kramer, reminiscent of his role in Torchwood: Miracle Day, wilfully making you squirm with each foul comment. It's packed with a number of fine performances (including Elisabeth Shue, Andrea Riseborough and Alan Cumming) but outside Stone and Carell, Silverman and Pullman are the real standouts.

Dual directors Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a solid job dramatising the true-life event, with the titular match particularly impressive in scope and energy. While there's a slight disconnect between the two halves - as if the film was literally cut down the middle and each director assembled their own movie - it's generally well-held together with a strong visual and a number of gorgeous shots running through it. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren works wonders in conveying the era: you really do feel transported back to the 70s and living through the build-up to the match, rather than simply watching a movie made to look like the early 70s. It's well-costumed and decorated with strong set pieces, capturing the spirit and weight of the situation and atmosphere fantastically.

Battle of the Sexes is well-scored by Nicholas Britell, who enhances the emotion superbly; it excels in the tender moments between King and Marilyn Barnett, conveying their love in a sensual, touching way. Lavender Oil and First Kiss are the score's particularly strong moments, emphasising the genuine emotion and their connection and chemistry well. Furthermore, Britell's soundtrack elevates the match sequences terrifically, sprinkling an intensity, energy and excitement throughout these final scenes, making the culmination of the Battle of the Sexes all the more satisfying.

Battle of the Sexes isn't quite the total victory I hoped for - like Bille Jean King herself in the concluding match, it struggles to get going to begin with and, while impressive, can't quite muster the brilliance many hoped. But as it heads into the second half, it find the energy and excitement to elevate it to crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping heights. Emma Stone and Steve Carell are sensational in the leading roles and explore the screenplay's set of timely themes effectively, helmed by two confident directors who manage to overcome the occasionally lacklustre pacing that holds the first half back somewhat. An impressive, crowd-pleasing biopic that, while not quite as show-stopping as hoped, is nonetheless inspiring and potent relief in these dark and challenging times.

★☆
(7/10) 

Summary: Battle of the Sexes is by no means a grand slam but it's timely, gorgeous, emotionally engaging and well-acted, with a fantastic double serving of Emma Stone and Steve Carell in career-high performances.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Suburbicon (2017) (Review)


Within George Clooney's Suburbicon, two solid, rather promising films exist: the problem is, like blood on white linen, those two elements don't work together, and the overall picture is hindered considerably by having them play out in the shadows of the other.

In white-picket-fence America in the late 1950s, the arrival of an African-American family in the all-white neighbourhood of Suburbicon fuels major racial harassment from the locals. In the same neighbourhood, Gardner Lodge's house is broken into by robbers and his wife killed. Her twin sister, Margaret, moves into the house to take care of Nicky, the child of the family, and slowly begins to transform into her late sister. While Suburbicon's tagline reads 'where your problems disappear', the film's issues are actually amplified by the conflicting storylines that lie within.

When you consider that this film is from the same studio that brought us Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence's enigmatic mother! (a piece enshrouded in so much the secrecy that very few plot details were ever released) Suburbicon was awfully generous with its plot secrets throughout its marketing, making no attempt to conceal some of the surprises. While I won't go as far as to say the trailers ruin the picture, they do it absolutely no favours, divulging major plot twists that would have considerably elevated the film had they have been surprisingly revealed. Should restraint have been exercised throughout the admittedly difficult-to-nail promotion process, a far more subversive, exciting end product would have no doubt been created. Alas.

The cracks in Suburbicon's structure are most evident and wholly damaging through its mis-handling of racism. What could have been a potent and timely examination of intolerance and racialism in the crooks of America is simply relegated to a side-note, the sort of plot flourish film-makers use to pad out their feature-length. When the theme is introduced and the bitter resentment rises, it sets up a fine exploration of the horrendous attitudes we still see today - but in this effectively exaggerated, unnerving manner that highlights the concern fantastically. But rather than embrace it from this point out, the film saunters past the details in such an uncompromising manner, as if exploring this segment of the story is a drain on its resources and time.

Racism is such an important topic and totally appropriate for the era in question, but there's no thought or care placed into developing it beyond briefly skimming past some white thugs jumping on black folks' cars and setting their property on fire. When a Confederate flag is strewn across their window, it deserves to be a sickening moment (because it is) - yet the film handles it so breezily, barely sticking around for more than a few seconds to really convey the situation and the (obvious) severity of it. It underplays it in such a disappointing, almost offensive way that it works to the film's detriment.

To no surprise I learned afterward that Suburbicon is quite literally two films jammed together: the Coen Brothers first wrote the script in 1986, where it consisted only of the Matt Damon-Julianne Moore plot, was infused with Clooney's 'white picket fence racism' storyline when the film entered pre-production. The laboured effort to interweave the two is so haphazard and unbalanced that each story is prevented from reaching the heights it so could attain if the two ideas were kept separate - or, potentially, given more justified, equal footing. Instead, the far less-weighted (but arguably more entertaining story) is given the limelight over the politically-charged (more interesting and relevant tale), creating an uneasy combination that is tonally misjudged.

Yet, despite its mis-handling of such an important theme, the hinderance of the two stories upon each other and the poor, spoiler-filled marketing, Suburbicon features a lot of promise. You can see what the film is aiming for and what it is trying to say: it is well-intentioned despite misguided execution. The set pieces are pulpy and the direction is solid, with some striking visuals and terrific costumes; the pristine aesthetic makes the bloodied, dirtied characters and their situation all the more bolder, and the more vivid, creating a visually striking experience.

Alexandre Desplat's fantastic soundtrack is packed with personality and energy, a sonically-confident and varied experience that truly enhances this barmy little picture.  Characteristically quirky and playing homage to the period-era, it is bursting with television-like jingles and merges the various tones and genres far more effectively than the actual film manages. It provides Suburbicon with menace, humour, intensity and discomfort in different breaths, curating a sharp and exciting score that deserves recognition come award season.

Suburbicon thankfully excels further through its solid performance. Matt Damon balances the fool with the mastermind terrifically, providing a sharp and satirical turn as Mr Lodge. As the plot untangles around him, Damon does a fine job at keeping his storyline on track, developing the appropriate emotion effectively. Juilanne Moore is clearly having a blast, in a twisted performance as camp as it is threatening. You get the sense that she is the mastermind behind it all, cocking the gun and aiming it in position without actually pulling the trigger: as she did in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it makes for an intriguing, enigmatic character who uses her forced facade like a new outfit.

 Similarly, Oscar Issac hams it up phenomenally, in a supporting role I would argue is the film's MVP; it's frothy and witty and sharp and gleeful. While somewhat underutilises, he is a joy to have around when he does crop up. Noah Jupe is fantastic too as the Lodge's only child, meeting the requirements of a demanding role confidently and with skill beyond his years. He's definitely one to watch in the future.

With such a fine line-up of talent, the end product cannot help but feel like a slight disappointment. While well-meaning and good-intentioned, Suburbicon cannot decide upon the film it wants to be: it tries to be a social satire, a mystery drama-horror and film about America's race problems (both of the past and of the present) but it is so discordantly pieced together, with an unflattering emphasis on the former rather than the latter, that the flaws are almost unforgivable.

You find yourself questioning how it becomes so messy and problematic: who let a story about appalling racial harassment - one so timely - become an unspectacular, distracting side-show to a martial-drama spotlight-hogger. In its failure to find an equilibrium and attempt to be so much more than its resources allow, Suburbicon's two separate plot strands fail to coalesce into a film more than a sum of its parts - in fact, the two impede each other and Suburbicon's picture-perfect setting hides from dirty flaws.


(6/10) 

Summary: Two decent films are outlined in Suburbicon, but they don't belong together: when you sideline timely themes of racism for somewhat-slapstick poisoning escapades and diluted social satire, you know you have a tonally misguided film that fails to live up to its potential on your hands.