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Molly's Game (2017)
6/10
Did you know the centre of the universe smells of elderberries?
7 January 2018
When a story needs to be told, Hollywood is the place to go. And this story is bold and resilient. It has a bravura ending. But despite the solid cast and the presence of Sorkin, this film seemed to have clear quality gaps, with the occasional feeling of an 80's TV movie.

Chastain was superb throughout, although often shot as if the director really wanted Julia Roberts. She plays the sharp hostess, the sympathetic ear and the foil to the boys with money. And yet the script often just fails her. Intelligence is often reduced to stupid wikipedia quotes, and the indie style sidetracking didn't really work. At one point she almost said 'I know Kung Fu'

Idris Elba finally gets his first serious role for ages, and the film's clinching speech, but he has a couple of scenes which simply needed to be reshot. He doesn't yet display the timing needed for light comedy or the touch for those early two way sizing up parts.

The photography was surprisingly poor; combined with indifferent post processing that made it look inferior to most Netflix productions. If you have sports shots, you need sport photography - which was evidently missing. They used some of the classic 'bag of money' shots, and the god life going out of control fast sequences, but there were many energy sapping loose scenes between. Much of the set design was oddly second rate. I don't understand why this should be.

Some of the scenes just lacked chemistry; Chastain doesn't always work well with others. This sometimes reflected Molly Blooms slightly fish out of water naivety, but sometimes not.

All in all this was an entertaining piece, with some fun bit parts, that just should have been treated better.
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6/10
They keep moving just out of the range of our guns
14 December 2017
The original Star Wars, now 40 years old, was always presented as a complete but fairly sterile universe. We enjoyed the heroics of the first 3 films, but were largely nonplussed by the CGI laden effects of the next 3. Like the last film, this is a return to form.

And however enjoyable this romp is, it effectively admits that there is nothing much more that can be done with the franchise at the moment. The film is probably as entertaining as any of the other Star Wars films, and even shows occasional flashes of strong film making. But the fresh stuff cannot quite escape the weight of it's own familiar format.

The Star Wars pieces are deftly moved about in grand sweeps, but with surprisingly little outcome. The character arcs seem strangely un-epic.The humour is deployed well, but just serves to reduce the size of the characters, because there is little counter-balancing in tension. At no time do we learn anything new about the Star Wars universe, or anything about where we are today in the real world. It is stuck in a fixed moral code. The attempted theme of renewal splutters along careful tramlines, and just about keeps the show on the road.

Overall the film is satisfying, and is more than just filler for the video games and McDonald's toys, but it needs something fairy strong to make it anything more than an echo of what it was.
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8/10
Special K
8 October 2017
So Blade Runner gets a remake, the hero is called K (and indeed he is partly on Trial) and we still don't know or care whether Deckard is a replicant. But the journey is wonderful.

Of Hollywood directors, I thought it was only Tarantino who believed that film making was more art than business. While all the narrative is in service to the story, the film has enough space to lets things unfold. (Yes, it is bloody long too)

The first 10 minutes of Blade Runner 2049 are already better than most films I've seen from that last few years. It focuses on no more than a cooking pot. The cinematography throughout is stunning, but not in the hamfisted throw it at the screen way of the remake of Ghost In The Shell for example. The budget and the imagination are actually in sync with visions of vast desolate eco corrupted landscapes and cityscapes. It was a reach in the original, but in this film it is complete.

I'm not actually a big fan of the original. It was far too stagy even with the bits of philosophy sewn into the action plot. One thing the remake manages well is not to keep digging into the original source for meaning. Where they do meet the remake comes off better. The signature Voight-Kampff test for instance has a truly unsettling equivalent. K's sexual relationship is embarrassingly modern, not noir romantic.

The most pivotal scenes are all brief and between women (though they all fail the Bechdel test quite dramatically) and in fact the plot revolves around birth giving the film a kind of Children of Men vibe.

The elan showed by the film is remarkable even for such a high profile remake. Everything has a heft and quality. The design is great. We get a few glimpses of other sci-fi hits (a lot of Matrix type scenes, a few Minority Report fixations) but all in service to something, not just a fancy trailer. The film drops hints, but then muddies them leaving quite a few things mysterious. Another film could follow, but there is no feeling of incompleteness to power a franchise.

A remake is a remake, but this has enough about it to be a classic.
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Shin Godzilla (2016)
6/10
a tall tail
11 August 2017
Viewing Godzilla as a political disaster gives this monster flick a far greater reach and meaning. We laugh as the Japanese politicians failing to take control, but feel for the city under threat.

This is a Godzilla film at heart, and the effects of Tokyo being laid waste district by district are well shot, as are the attempts to do battle. But the heroes are politicians, scientists and firm noodles. (Much of the humour is on screen text, so if you don't like subtitles then give it a miss)

But the joke is very much on us, as we realise that the monster is our own decisions come to life, and Donald Trump could indeed destroy Tokyo through a stupid decision.
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7/10
The white picket fence
26 April 2017
I gave this documentary a slightly higher score than it might otherwise have because of it's timing.

Perhaps it would be good at anytime, but it has an added poignancy because the message of American self destruction (there is even a little Trump excerpt) is the also the story that James Baldwin tells with the notes from his unprinted history of civil rights.

Within the pantheon of the black movement, Baldwin was not similar to either Malcolm X or Martin Luther King; he was a transgressive wordsmith - not a fighter or a stoic example. But he is the perfect foil for this documentary that melds the 60s with today, as he understood that racial hate was a self hate that cannot easily be quenched.

His important point is that American white society cannot square it's myths and dreams with reality. Samuel Jackson's narration adds to this solidly put together documentary that keeps the viewer engaged all the way.

This film has a slight family superficiality sometimes, with little depth attempted with the lives of the black heroes who already have several films dedicated to them. A good knowledge of the time line is assumed, as the film jumps up and down it regularly.

Many images, old and new are (still) shocking - though Baldwins diagnosis remains the bitter pill that America cannot swallow.
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Grave (II) (2016)
5/10
More Belgian veterinary violence
12 April 2017
If you've seen Bullhead, then you know to expect some cattle mutilation and more in a Belgian film.

This does not disappoint, with the vets college backdrop hosting lots of human and animal flesh for a potential alternative diet to get started.

The film moves towards visceral, not so much weird or humorous (Get Out) with a family connection that doesn't quite cement the film but does act to explain some of the narrative.
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Get Out (I) (2017)
5/10
Sunken Brothers
5 April 2017
I don't see too many of these type of teen horror movies as they are rarely good or original.

There have been a few original ideas that made good small films - "it follows" was a shining example. But Get Out comes at things quite differently - being both political, occasionally funny and appropriately weird.

In the end you are presented with a cross between Being John Malkovich and The Lobster, with not quite enough developed material to pull it through. The performances give it a little gravitas, but the ambition tails off.
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6/10
Ghost trapped in the Shell
1 April 2017
From a technical standpoint, the world of New Port City is well transcribed. It's a tribute to the film that it takes quite a long time before the first minor inconsistencies arise. But the spirit of the original has been replaced with the spirit of a police procedural. The shell however is well executed - and suffers only from the inevitable feeling that this should be a series not a film.

The Japanese original material was far more technical and much less emotional than this adaption - where you get the feeling that most of the characters are the usual Americans with mummy issues. Most of what is good is almost certainly dragged in from Beat Takeshi (who gives not a f*ck about Hollywood).

In some ways this is both reasonably faithful and perfectly watchable. That it is a squeezed into the formal corset of a studio picture you already knew and can't seriously complain about. Watch, enjoy, forget, and keep the original on DVD.
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The Wailing (2016)
6/10
Bad mushrooms
19 December 2016
This continues the chain of great Korean films that thankfully come over to the West. Violence, intrigue and somewhat strange pacing all play their part.

This horror film plays with aspects of ghosts and shamanism, when bad mushrooms are blamed for something that looks far worse. There are reminders of things as far apart as Peter Jackson's Braindead and Spanish horror film Rec.

One aspect to watch out for is the use of an initially pathetic character in the lead role, a device used to lead you into the happenings in the small town of Goksung. A knowledge of Korean culture may help you decipher what is going on, but you will be running for the internet either way to work out what just happened.
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7/10
Fool on the hill
18 November 2016
This is a great looking film, that has perhaps diluted itself by trying to tell two stories at once.

The bland and cold LA lifestyle intercepted by unreality in a very Lynch type of way is finely done, but is inferior to the visceral story within a story that gives the film its nerve. The vista view from the Hollywood hill is always good cinema - even though we know that we are being fed a stereotype.

For this reason the ending, which is - one supposes - the connection between these two ideals falls ever so slightly flat. There are times where we are spoon fed unnecessarily, and times when detail is strangely lacking. The different styles of film communicate in different ways.

It is nice to see a real adult film in the independent American cinema tradition, and repeat viewing would likely even out some of the crinkles. The quality is there, but the substance may have needed some more work.
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6/10
Stranger Things
9 November 2016
Commonsense will tell you that this Marvel material is beyond any sensible retelling, as there is not enough acid to go around. So relax and enjoy the ride.

The plot and screenplay are totally built by the numbers, so you will feel as if you have seen the film many many times before. It shares with most bad films a feeling that it is just a flow of disconnected scenes.

And yet the reason why this works is entirely because the special effects and the actors meld into the MCU so nicely that all the scenes lose concrete meaning. In a film about mystic dimensions, this works in the films favour. Your lack of engagement kind of backs the premise, and the relaxed pace draws you into a stupor. But unlike the overly silly Guardians of the Galaxy, this takes itself seriously enough.

Even the fact that the film is copying Batman Begins, Big Trouble in Little China, the Matrix and to a lesser extent Inception just let you relax into it even more. You will learn nothing, yet be entertained.
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L'avenir (2016)
6/10
Stately collapse
4 August 2016
Saw this as a premier of Somerset House summer screen.

This is a classic French film of life, with a little less warmth than say Eric Rohmer. It follows the stately collapse of a middle aged woman's world - as she continues to live on the inertia of continuation. It is well observed, with the attention to detail afforded to films that are not Hollywood inspired. We see relationships change subtly through different status changes. Even the relationship to the philosophy she teaches and thinks she knows.

Isabelle Huppert is always watchable - which is just as well as she is in every frame. The filming and scenery is precise and often beautiful - though it was far too low energy for a premier.
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5/10
Dressed to kill
20 July 2016
There is something joyous about a truly American independent movie. Even the movies pretending to be independent movies sometimes have its brio. Think about the recent films like It Follows, or even Refn's previous Drive.

LA films do tend to follow patterns, but this one got caught in the mechanics of LA life, without moving beyond it. This was supposed to be a contrast - glitz and grime, sexy not sexy, but it didn't work. Like Black Swan, it also has a bit of trouble with dream sequences too.

The extreme end of the film didn't really take the stage it could have done. But nevertheless the film has great 80s music, good visuals and tries all it can to use the language of cinema. Smarter editing would have improved it quite a bit.
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7/10
Age of Marvel
1 May 2016
Despite the rather similar line up, it has obviously been decided that Captain America films would involve a little more of the adult world, leaving the Avengers movies for pure SMASH. Hence the Age of Ultron was a bit of a mess, but the Cap is ahead of the curve. Another clue is the leaving out of the ultra cartoons Hulk and Thor.

One of the advantages of Captain America is precisely his lack of charisma. That throws the laugh lines to everyone else - even the Vision gets to clown about. And it's the humour, interjected in the action and intrigue that is handing these films a massive boost. The Black Panther is mainly given space to be Noble (joking aside, he is the one actually enhanced black guy, not mere sidekick). And Spider Man, take 3, is probably the best man / boy for the job.

Once you get used to the sudden switches of city (usually with the name written across the entire screen) the frenetic pace doesn't trip the film up. There are still a number of plot holes and lacunae, but these are forgotten about because we got to see gems like Tony Stark sitting in Peter Parker's student room, chatting up Aunt May.

The plot is certainly one we've seen before, but is a better way to house this type of titanic film than 'beat the super villain.. GO" or battle for the super thing-my. One of the strongest lines is given to the injured War Machine (or Iron Patriot. Or War Hammer) - who expresses his support for the hardline position right to the death - giving the film a palette of grey that allows for a serious review.
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6/10
X marks the spot
17 April 2016
This is a small film, or maybe a personal film, in which the director collects a few 'idée fixe'(Could also be called 'The Back roads of the Southern States') and makes a nice movie from it. The personal feeling comes from the strong internal influence, that touches everything and gives stiffness to otherwise flabby ideas - remember It Follows?

To be fair, this is effectively a very nice X-files episode. It is not conspicuously well shot, and does not have amazing dialogue. What it does do is use Sci Fi as a genre, but not the point of the experience. The result is a satisfying watch, that will undoubtedly spark the genre flame in other directors.
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6/10
Ramona has flowered
23 March 2016
Not knowing anything about this film - and not having seen the film it is supposed to be related to - I was genuinely happy to see the girl Scott Pilgrim quite rightly battled for, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. John Goodman is also exceptional with the world collapsing in his grizzly fizog.

In reality the true relation to this film is the other recent three hander, the much superior Ex Machina. That film kept you wondering till the end, whereas 10 Cloverfield Lane felt like a roll your own adventure, a Frankenstein's monster made of parts you have seen elsewhere. The film satisfies at the time, but holds no memories.

Suffice to say it is a thriller that is both fresh and in no part original.
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Berlin to Bogata
19 February 2016
On the face of it, this silly story within story romp through Saturday morning films of a previous generation should be ignored.

It is not a pastiche - and the strange punk lurid dream style is both art and annoyance. But the style is to no useful end.

And to force an audience to revisit bad early American cinema 'somewhere between Berlin and Bogotá' for 2 hours, with gentle mocking of early 20th century sexual strictures, is quite unfair.

It plays out as being more appropriate for a repeating segment in a high concept sketch show than a cinema production. A short experiment of 15 minutes maybe. But to inflict real people to this at full film length seems strangely tragic.
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7/10
Hat trick
22 January 2016
When we first see Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, the lengthy Alpine scene is a joy - but also reminds you how little real adult cinema there is. And without Tarantino, the Disneyfication of mainstream film would not stop.

This time, he takes his usual patience to build up the Western but it is immediately apparent that film is also puzzle, maybe whodunnit. So from the outset we are expecting the plot to resolve surprisingly, and it does.

If you are familiar with Tarantino, then this film delivers in spades, but it has surprisingly even less concessions to a modern cinema audience than his previous two films.

The film is both slow and yet Beat Takeshi like in its outbursts of violence. The film is long, and does not truly kick in for an hour. The use of the N-word is excessive and purely for texture which is what gets Tarantino into so much hot water.

But Tarantino has a discipline that keeps the film incredibly tight, which keeps you fully emerged in his world, reminding you that good filmmakers use the time they have effectively.
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The Lobster (2015)
6/10
the odd couple
27 December 2015
I've often felt recently that society is slowly pushing single men to the fringes. But this unusual art house stylised film, populated by actors who are usually very mainstream, takes that idea to the extreme.

There are similarities with Being John Malkovich in sheer weirdness of the conceit, but there is also a strong feeling, mirrored by the jagged music that this is a film that wants to join the indie crowd, but wasn't born to it. This is made by someone who loves Jonze, Anderson, Gondry, Iñárritu etc - but like Gilliam hasn't quite mastered getting a great treatment to a strong draft.

The problem first comes with the tone, which is played differently throughout the cast. Olivia Colman's Hotel Manager strikes an almost perfect absurdest humour, but then Ben Wishaw plays it almost totally straight. Farrell keeps to a low key with some nice notes of humour but doesn't really fill the screen. There are moments of embarrassing terror, and these leave the audience a bit perplexed next to lighter touches.

And then the film just has pacing problems and feels longer than it should do. In some respects the film is easy to criticize because the ideas are so strong, but there just wasn't enough work put into it to complete the vision properly.
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7/10
Back to the future
21 December 2015
Star Wars represented the return to simple values in the era of the Parallax View, Capricorn One, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, Klute, Solyent Green, and of course The Boys From Brazil.

It is not surprising that Disney chooses to go back to a Galaxy Far Far Away, because they want to own your childhood dreams - not your adult fears. You can resell dreams forever.

JJ Abrams foray into the Star Trek universe hasn't worked because it never gave him the simple narrative a story teller craves for. But he is totally at home with the elite family tree of the Skywalker clan.

By trading away originality, Abrams sticks to telling a familiar story which keeps the film cohesive throughout, and joyfully uses CGI as little as possible. The mysteries of the Force remain, and the children with daddy issues reign supreme. The film drags occasionally - oh look, yet more scenes of people running into Freudian forests. But the knowing humour, the superb cinematography throughout and the obvious fact that the cast were having a blast will win you over.
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Tangerine (2015)
6/10
Donut time
16 December 2015
This is a very engaging small film, with the production quality and feel of something like Kevin Smiths Clerks. (In fact there are scenes based around a Donut shop that will definitely take you to the Askewniverse)

With the rise of the structured-reality series, this type of dramatic slice of life filming ends up seeming much more 'real' despite, I assume, being script driven.

Initially comprehending a sentence of the high energy trans sex worker LA slang is somewhat tricky, but the motivations of the ensemble soon work themselves out, and by the final scenes, the audience is fully engaged emotionally.

This was a nice reminder of the golden age of Indie films of the eighties and nineties, which the comic book invasion has not fully defeated.
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Spectre (I) (2015)
6/10
Sam's Pathetic Ersatz Copied and Tired Rehash Entrails
26 October 2015
Or maybe INTROSPECTION. Someone has to stop Sam Mendes digging into 007s fictive past, just to smear it all over the screen. We get another villain who is actually not a villain, but a sad victim with emotional issues. Taking over the world takes a distant second place to telling Bond about his childhood. Maybe he is actually Sigmund Bond.

I complained that Skyfall ended like Home Alone. Aspects of Spectre ended like Scooby Do, with the team driving around together in their own bloody Mystery Machine. Mendes can't seem to grasp how to represent the machinations of a large organisation. The wonderful board room scene, as with so many nice looking scenes, actually represents nothing.

Mendes can shoot a movie; much of Spectre looks lush. Unfortunately much of it also looks like both The Spy Who Loved Me and Quantum of Solace. What is particularly annoying about Mendes is that he knows enough to copy the outer shell of a Bond film, but has no idea what he is doing. Much like a child playing with a shiny piece of an engine. Maybe the directing of Bond films could be protected by an act of Parliament.

One of the most endearing thing in Fleming's universe is that MI6 is almost as implacable as the villains. But for the second time in a row, we see MI6 in chaos - but in such a shallow way that would be embarrassing for an episode of Spooks.

Mendes does the loving long shots, for instance of a train going through the desert, but then the action on the train is a tired rehash of many films including many past Bonds. The train is also the site for a shockingly sad romance attempt, which had the audience bemused in it's sheer incompetence.

I fear this film will be found out on a second viewing, it is actually quite uneven - too long in most areas yet rushed in some places. The smarter actors reduced their screen time to a minimum. Belucci escaped quickly, Waltz kept his scenes tight.

Hopefully we can get back to a proper Bond film with a director who understands the espionage language, and actually likes and maybe understands the Bond franchise.
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Legend (I) (2015)
5/10
Super Smash Bros
26 September 2015
Legend is a slightly strange title, in whichever sense the word is used. The Krays are the only celebrity criminals in British history; but that is because you can steal more money in legitimate business. Tom's twin turn is superb, but the script doesn't allow for too many fireworks - occasionally Ron comes into his own.

The film chooses the popular string of scenes style, which tries to reduce the narrative to a comic strip. But there isn't enough drama to sustain this. The choice of scenes was clearly dictated by how costly it would be to make them look OK. Authenticity isn't attempted, which seems reasonable as the audience probably would consider it costume drama otherwise.

Unsurprisingly the film falls to either focus on actual events very closely or being a serious gangster genre film. So we don't get Scarface - and I would recommend re- watching that instead.
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7/10
The Marshland Chronicles
16 August 2015
Immerse yourself in this great film, but perhaps don't examine it too much afterwards.

Two cops, both demoted to outback duties for different reasons, chase a killer in a troubled nation.

It's important to understand the difference between a superb piece of cinema, which this is, and a roller coaster genre thriller, which this isn't. The evocative mood of post Franco Spain is compelling (conspiracy, worker strife, fear of the past, misogyny), and the brilliant and in some cases unique photography marks this out as a directorial masterclass.

However the thriller itself is workaday, and will not pass muster if that is all you are looking for. This is after all a buddy cop film - and that is hardly an undiscovered country. Most of the characters are reduced to thin cyphers, and the rapid turn of events can't hide the fact that the only truly complex thing is the marshland itself.

There is much to enjoy and admire, but maybe little to remember.
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MI-5 (2015)
5/10
Ghost script protocol
10 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
For those who watched the series, this is quite satisfying - but not truly as a film.

Films like these are just a long set of tropes hopefully connected by enough narrative to get you by. The cinematography was pretty good - scenes of London all very well taken. Superior to the TV show.

But the competition in the cinema is not other TV shows, but other films. There are so many spy / action films that the action has to come at a higher standard whatever the intellectual potential of the show.

And this was the problem - much of the direction wasn't quite good enough to carry the action, there wasn't quite enough action and the plot itself was just a crafty rework of the TV show. Including the ridiculous 'breaking into MI5' nonsense.

Needed higher quality direction, more action, and a fresh plot. Please.
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