Suburbicon (2017)

Such potential, such a disappointment.

On the one hand, I’m a fan of Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, and they are good, or as good as they can be.

On the other, the two storylines just don’t mesh at all. The (presumably) Coen brothers-penned thread is full of dark humour and sees Damon and Moore involved in fraudulent shenanigans under the investigative eye of MVP Oscar Isaac. That’s all well and good, but there isn’t enough of a story to make a full movie. So then there’s an additional thread featuring the next-door neighbours, an African-American family who are subjected to terrible attacks in their own home by the white inhabitants of the residential estate into which they have just moved. Other than living next door there seems to be no other connection, and in fact their situation is infinitely more interesting.

I suppose there is the contrast between the white adults getting away with horrible crimes with no-one batting an eyelid, where as the totally innocent black family has their life destroyed for no reason whatsoever, but the two halves are not balanced, and I was left underwhelmed.

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

Kind of a biopic, but because Gloria Grahame didn’t have a huge screen presence in her later years, Annette Bening doesn’t have to worry about an accurate impersonation of the actress, but can instead work on capturing the essence of an ageing star whose success has waned and who is frightened of growing old.

Based on memoirs of Peter Turner, we see a slice of Grahame’s last years and her relationship with the much younger Turner (Jamie Bell), who meet when they share the same actor’s digs when she is performing in stage plays around England. We see their time together through a series of beautifully managed flashback sequences, intermingled with her arrival at the Turner family home when she falls seriously ill. The family (Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham) welcome her back as she desperately seeks some semblance of family and love in her last days.

It’s a story that had the potential to be mawkish or cringe-inducing, but two excellent performances from Bening and Bell ensure that it is completely believable and intimate. Annette Bening is beautiful anyway but the way Jamie Bell looks at her throughout their scenes would make anyone feel 20 years younger.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Examining the evidence Poirot-style I have reached the conclusion that my main issue with this film comes from the rather contrived plot.

I’m generally a fan of Agatha Christie and at some point have read most of the Poirot books (admittedly a long time ago) – and this story is the one with which I have always struggled. I even recall seeing the Lumet film version of this story at the cinema when it first came out. My mum took me and at the end I had to ask her to explain who had actually committed the crime as I couldn’t get my head around what I’d seen. Far from being extremely clever, this is for me one Christie story that is just too far-fetched and convoluted. Which is saying something.

Admittedly the cast is a dream. I’m a life-long Branagh fan, and throw in national treasure Judi Dench and Dame-in-Waiting Olivia Colman – well, it’s bound to be engaging.

But the downside to having such a numerous cast is that there are simply so many characters that no-one gets enough screen time. Olivia Colman gets about three lines, and it’s difficult to keep up with who’s who as there’s insufficient opportunity to fill in some background on each of them.

I couldn’t understand much of what Johnny Depp was saying – and why are people still casting him in things anyway? He could have been reshot with Colin Farrell, for example.

Other strange casting surrounds two of the younger women, who look about the same age, yet one of the characters must be significantly older than the other given their respective roles.

And I’m not quite sure which was more ridiculous – Poirot as an action hero, or his double confection of a moustache.

I mean, I was entertained while watching it, loved the period design, and the overhead shots of the train’s interior are gorgeous. But then at the denouement, I remembered how silly it is.

Justice League (2017)

This just in – I didn’t hate Justice League, and I am delighted.

I mean, there’s a long way to go before it reaches Marvel levels of enjoyment, but it didn’t make me angry, and the plot seemed to make sense so that’s a huge step up.

Obviously it’s great to see Wonder Woman back again, and Ezra Miller’s Flash brought a slice of much-needed levity – particularly as Ben Affleck clearly didn’t want to be there, which seeped through his cowl and cape every time he was on-screen. And Cavill does absolutely nothing for me. I find him a total charisma vacuum.

I’m not convinced that what we got of The Flash’s history would have made sense had I not been watching the TV series about this character though. He’s so fast and the dialogue so snappy that I think a viewer with no knowledge at all would not have understood too much about his situation. Same goes for one of the characters who appears in the post-credits scene.

By the way director dudes, Patty Jenkins managed to make a whole movie without looking up Wonder Woman’s skirt, and I’m pretty sure you could have done the same thing too if you had wanted to. No need, boys, no need at all.

Aquabro is a different type of character for me and I’m looking forward to learning more about him – ideally we should have had this in advance of Justice League, but DC didn’t create a timeline of movie releases which would allow that, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how he works. (Particularly as they can’t spend the whole film inside a bubble so everyone can talk to each other.)

Cyborg is a much better character than I expected, and Ray Fisher did a great job in making him interesting and nuanced.

And I have to ask – what is DC’s problem with mothers? Not content with the whole Batman v Superman Martha situation, we have Aquabro, Flash and Cyborg all with missing mamas; Diana viewing the gang as children that she’s been put in charge of, and then … we have … MOTHERboxes!

Surely it can’t be a coincidence?

Also – guys, don’t leave the box lying around unattended you idiots! Anyone could pick it up. Sheesh.

 

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Sadly, although I could appreciate what I was supposed to feel while watching this, it just didn’t happen for me.

I’m not much given to farce and so although I gave a couple of wry smiles, all the entering and exiting of rooms, and the trying to say the right thing just left me a little irritated, particularly given the quite serious subject matter.

That’s not to say that I couldn’t appreciate some really good performances. I really liked Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev, and Jason Isaacs completely steals every scene he is in as Georgy Zhukov – he raised the only quiet giggles I could muster.

I can see why plenty of people really like this. It just didn’t do it for me.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

“We wasted so much time”

Spring and part of the summer of 1983 (when this film is set) was the beginning of an important period of my life – although I didn’t realise it at the time.

Aged somewhere between main characters Elio and Oliver, I spent several months living in Italy as part of my University course. It was only the second time I had been abroad on my own, and never for such an extended period of time. I was not worldly-wise, resentful at having to go there, and a bit lost. It was hot, everything was slow-paced, the radio was the source of entertainment.

If you’ve seen this film, it’s not a great leap to work out that it was easy for me to relate to in many ways.

There is something incredibly of the time and yet timeless about this story. It doesn’t matter whether the protagonists are straight or gay, this is a universal story about growing up, growing wise, feeling love and feeling pain.

It’s beautifully shot, with grass blowing in the almost imperceptible breeze and the Italian sunlight shining from an eternally blue sky. The framing of many of the scenes could convey a sense of voyeurism – we often view events through windows or doorways, or looking down on what’s happening from balconies – but I took from it more of a sense of anticipation; that we are about to step in to the action with Elio once he had taken a beat to observe from the outside. Conversely, we also see people (particularly Oliver) shot from below, looking up at him almost adoringly. Armie Hammer is tall, admittedly, and this choice makes him almost godlike as viewed from Elio’s point of view – he adores him.

Armie Hammer is very good, treading carefully around his young admirer, choosing the right moment to acknowledge that the feelings are real. His geeking out over etymology is adorable.

But it is Timothée Chalamet who really steals the show. It’s his story, and the final scene is extraordinary. I’m happy to hand over the Oscars to him and to Michael Stuhlbarg (who plays his father) without hesitation. Stuhlbarg’s speech towards the end had me wiping away a tear.

I love that the characters’ names (Oliver and Elio) contain the same letters – like they are wrapped in each other.

I even forgive the decision to cast straight actors in gay or bisexual roles.

The honesty of this film and some of the images have stayed with me even several days after viewing, and it’s bubbling to the top of my favourites for 2017 – Luca Guadagnino has done it again!

Oh, and I also saw The Psychedelic Furs play live – Leeds University Union Freshers’ week far too many years ago, as I recall.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Yay!

As I was waiting for the lights to dim in the cinema, I remarked to my cinema companion that I hoped this film “didn’t go all Guardians of the Galaxy“. I’ve seen previous films by director Taika Waititi and, while I enjoy his humour a lot, I didn’t want Thor and his surroundings to descend to GotG levels of stupidity. The comments I’d seen about Thor: Ragnarok were unanimous in praising its humour over most everything else, and this had me worried. For me, GotG had gone out of its way to be a comedy, trying far too hard to set up jokes whereas the funniest things in the first Thor movie emerge naturally from his reactions to finding himself in unknown situations. You don’t need a set-up punchline to be funny.

And so to find myself crying with laughter and almost unable to breathe even before Ragnarok‘s official first credits had rolled was not what I was expecting. Just thinking about that scene now, days later, still cracks me up.

Waititi has left huge fingerprints all over this, it’s true, (including his own role) but credit is also very much due to Chris Hemsworth, who has proven in last year’s Ghostbusters that he has great comedic delivery. The interplay between Thor and Loki is great brotherly banter, and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk/Banner is a welcome returnee to the MCU. There are also a couple of cameos which are great fun, but there will be no spoilers here.

Comedy aside, I loved Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. She is sassy, self-sufficient, and a fabulous addition to the universe. Can’t wait to see her in future tales.

There were a couple of slight disappointments, mainly down to lack of character development and/or screen time – Idris Elba and Karl Urban seemed to be short-changed here unfortunately.

But this was a hugely enjoyable few hours and I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.

The White Girl (2017)

I had a meeting at relatively short notice in London last week and, knowing it would mean an overnight stay, headed straight to the London Film Festival website to see what options were still available for the evening in question.

Well, The White Girl had me at Christopher Doyle.

The master of cinematography has co-directed this film alongside Jenny Suen, a first-time feature director from Hong Kong.

The eponymous white girl is played by Angela Yuen, and is a lonesome young woman isolated from most of her fishing village due to a sun allergy which means she has to keep away from bright daylight and keep her skin covered. She’s bullied at school, shouted at by her fisherman father (with whom she lives), and misses her mother who she was told died when she was a baby. She’s an outsider in her own village.

Into this world comes a young man, an artist who moves into an old derelict property nearby. He’s alone and mysterious, and (although it took me a while to realise) doesn’t speak the local language.  The young man and woman find some kind of bond through their broken English.

Another strand is the appearance in the economically unstable village of wealthy developers from mainland China, who have some nefarious plans to buy what remains of the village to develop a huge tourist spot.

I did enjoy watching The White Girl, but I must admit that had it not been introduced by director Jenny Suen herself, I would not have grasped the significance of most of the references. I’m sure that to people from, or who have a connection with, Hong Kong this would not have been a problem. I hadn’t realised that in 2047, just 30 years from now, Hong Kong is set to lose its own government and laws, and revert to being just another part of China. With this knowledge, then all the visitors to the tiny village take on greater significance, as does the father’s over-protectiveness of his daughter. It also wasn’t obvious to me (as I have little knowledge of Asian languages) that the artist is actually Japanese – I figured it out part way through.

It seems as though, in her enthusiasm and passion for her project, the young director simply tried to put too much onto the screen at once, certainly for someone like me to fully appreciate.

However, unsurprisingly, the cinematography is the star of the show. The framing, the light, the observations – they all have Christopher Doyle’s fingerprints on them and it is beautiful.

If you haven’t heard this BBC World Service interview with Doyle, made while he was shooting The White Girl, then I urge you do so. The section where he talks about potentially losing his sight is quite extraordinary.

 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Sooooo much good in this sequel, and yet so much troublesome stuff too.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent sequel. It picks up, runs with, and explores further the themes raised in its predecessor; what does it mean to be human?, what are memories?, even issues of slavery and the destruction of the environment. It weaves in characters from the original film just when they are needed, and, as with the original, it leaves some questions mercifully unanswered.

It is absolutely beautiful. Roger Deakins’ cinematography coupled with Denis Villeneuve’s vision and direction are a perfect match here. I splashed out and saw this in IMAX and it was worth it – sweeping cityscapes, never-ending dust storms; the scale is immense and all-consuming. The scene where two women merge into one was exquisite (more about that later).

There are some interesting characters and performances too – some of whom stick around longer than others. It would have been great for Robin Wright and Dave Bautista to have had a few more scenes. Gosling is fine as the Blade Runner who doesn’t quite know where he fits in to the world, and of course there’s Harrison Ford. I generally find him a bit same-y in everything, but he’s solid here.

As a premise, and as a sequel, this film is good.

I have a few niggles. I honestly can’t remember a single thing Jared Leto said and I think people should probably stop casting him in stuff like this now. He gets in the way of every character he’s played recently so that I switch off when he’s around.

I am getting a tiny bit fed up with Hans Zimmer’s honking scores, too.

But you don’t have to go too far to work out that my biggest gripe has to do with the female characters. (Potential spoilers coming up).

The aforementioned scene with the two women – looks good, yes, but we end up with one woman ‘becoming’ another, and the second woman being irrelevant apart from her physical body. Women are frequently treated violently and the only reason seemed to be Jared Leto. In this world, women appear to be there only to be the recipients of either violence or sex, ie to be subservient, and it’s just getting a little wearisome these days.

Here’s a question. Would it have been too much of a stretch to have Ryan Gosling’s character be female? I can’t see why there couldn’t be female Blade Runners, and then a lot of things in the film could have been different without changing the actual story one little bit. Win-win.

Columbus (2017)

I was wondering how to start writing about this film, so I turned to the IMDb blurb for inspiration. It says:

A Korean-born man finds himself stuck in Columbus, Indiana, where his architect father is in a coma. The man meets a young woman who wants to stay in Columbus with her mother, a recovering addict, instead of pursuing her own dreams.

And this is indeed the basis for the film. However, it’s also a film which is so much more than that premise.

Despite the range of strong emotions being experienced by the characters (guilt, grief, anger, despair), it’s an incredibly still and calm film, full of a sense of longing and hope which reminded me of some of Wong-Kar Wai’s work. The stillness also emanates from the impressive selection of architecture on display. Who knew that looking at beautiful mid-20th century buildings would be so soothing? The young female character not only has an interest in the local architecture, but seems to become grounded when she’s in its presence. Scenes are shot straight on, or through door frames, windows, mirrors, and have an oriental feel in their stillness, reminiscent of Yasujirô Ozu. And as first-time feature director Kogonada was writing a PhD dissertation on Ozu prior to becoming a filmmaker, this is not really a surprise.

In amongst the buildings, the beating heart is the exquisite pairing of Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho. There is such warmth between them and the relationship always remains genuine, never sleazy despite the age difference. Cho should really do more different stuff like this. He’s an excellent presence on screen and I enjoyed watching him a lot.