My Top 20 Movies of 2017

 

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1. Dunkirk

 

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2. La La Land

 

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3. The Battle of the Sexes

 

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4. Ghost in the Shell

 

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5. Manchester By the Sea

 

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6. My Cousin Rachel

 

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7. Elle

 

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8. Logan

 

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9. The Death of Stalin

 

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10. The Handmaiden

 

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11. Frantz

 

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12. Spider-Man: Homecoming

 

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13. Hacksaw Ridge

 

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14. John Wick 2

 

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15. Get Out

 

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16. War For the Planet of the Apes

 

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17. Gifted

 

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18. American Made

 

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19. Blade Runner 2049

 

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20. Kong Skull Island

 

 

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Movie of the Week: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct Emma Stone, Steve Carell and Andrea Riseborough in this dazzling recreation of the stunt match between the world’s number one female tennis player and the former men’s champion. 

An unexpected highlight of the year. Unfussily it unpacks and explores the still very familiar gender politics of four decades ago but without ever losing sight of being a funny, engaging character drama. Both comedy stars are given difficult, multilayered  roles to delve into. An admirably restrained Stone’s loveable take on living tennis icon Billie Jean King convinces as a human figurehead, exploring her new sexuality while calculatedly never losing focus on her career or media image. Surprisingly Carell’s Bobby Riggs is equally sympathetic, his relationship failures and often superficial bluster are essayed with persuasive humanity. It is also one of those deeply pleasing movies that litters it support roles with famous faces more than capable of carrying another movie by themselves, the big name ensemble creates a rich tapestry for the viewer to get wrapped up within. The ‘walking and talking’ first 90 minutes is wittily and vibrantly packaged, immersing you in the stakes and import of the gaudy event. So that by the time you reach the knowingly ridiculous media circus of the game itself you are punching the air at every rally won, every lob returned. A simple enough footnote from modern history has been invested with rare cinematic heart, playfulness and relevance for a Hollywood product of the 21st century.

10

 

The Babysitter (2017)

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McG directs Samara Weaving, Judah Lewis and Robbie Amell in this horror action comedy about a nerd who discovers his hot cool babysitter wants his blood for a satanic ritual. 

Completely disposable and toothless chase flick. More concerned with being cartoonishly cool than thrilling. It pops visually and keeps a decent pace. If this was a debut director’s calling card project you’d be curious to see what franchise he lands in next. But McG appears to be devolving. Instead it works as a strong showcase for future star Samara Weaving; who can hint at sweet, seductive and serial killer within a single line reading.

5

Justice League (2017)

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Zack Snyder and Josh Whedon direct Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Ezra Miller in this comic book team up, where hidden superheroes come out and unite against an apocalyptic foe with a big axe.

It should have been a bases loaded home run, instead it swings wildly three times and seemingly is striking an entire franchise out. I don’t play baseball, I don’t know what I’m talking about when I use sport analogies but I do know Justice League is very much a dog’s dinner. Clearly the work of many hands, it veers from Zack’s big clanging spectacles to Whedon’s Avengers-lite staff room chats, way too many staff room chats. You can tell which director delivered what. Snyder’s uncomfortable attempts at jokes are unfunny (“You talk to fish?” “We can’t all carry swords.”) while Whedon’s are sitcommy and would happily find a home in a less inspired episode of Angel, that alright teatime telly show from 15 years ago. Great actors who’ve established strong characters are sidelined (Irons, Adams, Diane Lane wave at us in passing and let’s just assume JK Simmons’ Jim Gordon would have been as excellent as we all know he would have been) while Aquaman and Cyborg kill off any chance of you anticipating their solo adventures. Is it all that bad? No. There are glimpses of a better film. Cavill finds his Superman mojo. The focus should have been an entire mission to ressurect him rather than the rush job of turfing him up and electrifying him. Sorry… was that a spoiler? Supes comes back and he’s the Supes you want. Big bad probs solved. Ezra Miller’s The Flash can be annoying… but that’s on purpose… And I liked him. Even his forced humour reshoot additions feel organic to the character who is a pleasantly acerbic counter part to moody Bats and Cyborg, worthy Supes and WW. There’s nothing wrong with these characters being moody or worthy, by the way. That’s what they are. That’s what DC is. Dark, legendary, complex, heroic. Snyder understood that, Whedon knows paymasters Warners’ prefer silly and simple. A blockbuster can’t be all these things. So Justice League fails as a whole but has enough spurts of big, clanging spectacle (the Themyscira Motherbox Chase is fantastic) and well cast icons that you can see it filling an evening Blu Ray sesh more often than other movies. And by “other movies” I mean the more colourful, consistent and throwaway confections from that other, more successful, more crowd pleasing one-watcher studio. The end of the Snyder era. I’ll actually miss it.

5

American Mary (2012)

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Jen and Sylvia Soska directs Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo and Tristan Risk in this exploitation horror about the underground surgery scene. 

An unpleasant pleasant surprise. The plot grabs around all over the shop taking in middle class poverty, body modification, rape, romantic gangsters and twist killers. The narrative is a jerky mess. But Ginger Snaps stalwart Isabelle’s central turn is sexy, steely and multilayered. Far better than a visually quirky, troublingly vicious, inconsistently feminist, horror cheapie deserves – she saves the entire gruesome ordeal. Her Mary Mason, with her trademark bangs and rubber apron, should hopefully become a modern horror icon on a par with Herbert West or Ghostface.

7

Kuffs (1992)

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Bruce A. Evans directs Christian Slater, Tony Goldwyn and Milla Jovovich in this slacker cop star vehicle. 

A half term video rental that disappointed me as a kid then, now pleasantly wiled away an afternoon as I approached middle age. Now don’t get me wrong Kuffs still is on the broken side of poor. A cash-in’s cash-in. 50% of it is winless filler, an excuse for Slater to woo his gal or his show off his hot bod or both. And 40% is xeroxed shamelessly from better films half a decade too late. His costume is a direct lift from Beverly Hills Cop, his straight to camera chats are pickpocketed from Ferris Bueller (I doubt anyone involved has ever seen Alfie), he talks down a suicide à la Lethal Weapon (I doubt anyone involved has ever seen Dirty Harry), they introduce a buddy cop element for 20 minutes then ignore it for the next hour, then try to introduce a K-9 / Turner and Hooch twist three scenes before the uninspired car-park set finale. Kuffs gets shot, two minutes later he’s tops off, showing us his hot bod with nary a scar. They even kill off the main antagonist a whole act too early. Sloppy shit, right? Well yes. BUT Christian Slater is worthy of a cash-in vehicle. All his preppy, sleazy, puppy fat Jack Nicholson with good hair intensity is present and correct, front and centre. There are blips of excellent quirkiness; a self aware bleeped out sweary scene, a perfect slapstick moment where Kuffs almost bests a bad guy by throwing a lamp, a running gag involving the narcotics office, a straight to camera chat where our fast talking hero is bound and gagged. Sure all these punchlines that work only take up 10% of what still is a largely uninspired product… but they are the remaining 10% and they are inspired and they have a movie star delivering them who, while he never hit the A-List, had a great 90s career of slightly off-kilter action comedies. Broken Arrow, Hard Rain, Very Bad Things. They are nobodies’ faves, they aren’t his best leads performances but, fuck me, I bet you wanna have a Christian Slater Movie Marathon…right now, today. Don’t cha? And all those superior hit movies Kuffs “homages”… well, Hollywood is not making action comedies like that anymore. Hasn’t for a decade. Not since Bruce Willis shat the bed with Cop Out. Bad or good we have to travel back in time to enjoy an entire genre. How great would it be to go see a movie with fast talking gags, guns and an electronic Harold Faltermeye score? It would be fucking amazing. Call Germany, get Harold on the phone, let’s make one, Slater can play the villian or the police chief or…fuck it… he can still play the lead. I’m off to make a kickstarter.

5

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

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Randall Wallace directs Leonardo DiCaprio, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jeremy Irons in this period swashbuckler where the musketeers try to swap a despotic French king with his incarcerated twin. 

Turgid and lacklustre. The stars look bored, the audience are bored, the grand finale involves the famous musketeers hiding around a corner for what feels like 90 minutes. This was back when Leo couldn’t carry a film, his autistic intensity coming across as juvenile overkill rather than seductively thorough. He cripplingly plays two central parts. The excellent support should prop him up but they all seem in the wrong roles muttering about long spent paycheck they wish they never cashed. Frocks and locations pretty enough.

3

The Legacy (1979)

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Richard Marquand directs Katharine Ross, Sam Elliott and Charles Gray in this supernatural horror about a country house and its demonically cursed guests.

A slightly older than you remember her, Katherine Ross has beautiful flowing hair. A slightly younger than you remember him, Sam Elliot has beautiful flowing moustache and chest hair. They wear various winter fashions and make a gorgeous couple. Occasional The Omen / …And Then There Were None shenanigans take place around them while the leads obliviously compose a mediocre Tripadvisor review in their heads (poor transport links, the exit out of town could be better signposted, choke hazards in the buffet, aggressive staff, Roger Daltrey pesters you in the lounge area). There’s a white cat who seems responsible. Various European C-lister’s die D-List deaths in between woollen and plaid costume changes. There’s that cat again. She’s up to something. The background music is incongruously upbeat and folksy. Essentially, we are on a 4 Star weekend retreat with a high mortality rate filmed by a team who seemingly have never watched a horror flick before. God, their collective hair is beautiful….

4

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and Edmond O’Brien in this fictional biopic about the life and loves of fictional Spanish sex symbol Maria Vargas.

A really fascinating one this. A stodgy tragic melodrama that should only be notable for a bit of retirement age Bogie and a never ending parade of beautiful gowns for Ava… but it is a very strange production. Nearly ever scene has a character lingering in the mid shot who is broken and despondent about life. As we obsess over the sad life of the eponymous contessa, we also fleetingly glimpse a used up starlet who knows her place, a poor boy obsessed with glamour, a mute father, a penniless member of the European gentry. It is also shockingly frank about sex and manipulation with all the better sketched suitors in Gardner’s orbit neutered, self serving fiends. Not massively dissimilar in tone to the superior Sweet Smell of Success but where as that classic fed off its intentional bleak, misanthropic vibe, this one wants to hide its pessimistic underbelly in lace and silk and bouquets and fast cars and cocktail soirées. A superficial fantasy for housewives suppresses a luxury nightmare for the observant, sensitive human.

6

Centurion (2010)

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Neil Marshall directs Michael Fassbender, Olga Kurylenko and Dominic West in this period action thriller wherein a group of Roman soldiers are pursued by bloodthirsty Picts.

Full of OTT splatter and all of those HBO support actors you love, this is a John Carpenter or Walter Hill movie rewound back in time. Just feel the authenticity of those convincing tunics and wolf furs. He never tries to reinvent the wheel but Marshall’s pacy actioner is perfectly entertaining within its modest ambition.

7