Looking Back and Looking Forward: 2017, Part 1

2017 has been an…interesting year in Hollywood. For all the high points, the last 12 months will be remembered for the low. But if we’re considering the films themselves, well it’s far more positive. As I say every year, I live in the UK, so have yet to see a lot of the Oscar hopefuls like Steven Spielberg’s THE POST, Pixar’s COCO and (particularly annoyingly for me) Guillermo del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER. This list may change, but for now here is how it stands at this moment in time, so from 10 to 6…

Best of 2017:

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Passion: Inflammable Films

10. GOD’S OWN COUNTRY Romantic but with real grit, wellies planted firmly in bleak-beautiful West Yorkshire and with one of the most honest, passionate relationships on film. The performances and the assured direction make this rather special. Full review here.

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Buddies: Marvel/Disney

9. THOR: RAGNAROK A shot of pure, unbridled joy in a dark, dismal year; Taika Waititi was born to bring his sense of mischievous reinvention to the Marvel Universe. It’s almost too funny, but is elevated by the pulp-prog production design and being just so different from the competition. Full review here.

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Introspection: Netflix

8. JIM & ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND Beguiling, insightful and appropriately bewildering, Jim Carrey in on his best behaviour in front of the camera discussing when he was at his least manageable while playing an anarchic comic icon. He’s not the easiest person to like as himself, even less so when he’s inhabiting a character, but it remains a fascinating and unusual study. Review in brief here.

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Risk-takers: Lucasfilm/Disney

7. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Not your dad’s Star Wars, but an entertaining, gutsy and quite different new take on the galaxy George Lucas created 40 years ago. I really don’t care so much of Star Wars fandom feel stung by it; Lucasfilm can’t keep making the same movie for the next 20 years, and TLJ pulls the rug out and dazzles with difference. Full review here.

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Ook!: Fox

6. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES The most mesmerising performances of the year, lots of nice, crunchy thematic underlayering and the emotionally satisfying resolution to a three film arc over spectacle for spectacle’s sake. This has become the thinking person’s blockbuster series and it goes out on a real, and unconventional, high. Full review here.

Worst of 2017:

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Charmless: Fox

10. KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE The scale and noise has been ratcheted up, but the charm is all gone, the goodwill squandered, and if it wasn’t for Mark Strong’s admirable efforts there would be no one at all to root for. When the best thing in your spy movie is Elton John,you should worry. Full review here.

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Lack-uaman: Warner Bros

9. JUSTICE LEAGUE You can’t suddenly decide to add colour and jokes this far into a franchise and expect everyone to forget how misjudged and messy all the other instalments (with a notable exception) were; at this point it just looks like a criminal waste of money. I think this was meant to inspire hope and wonder, instead the story and characters frustrate and bore. Full review here.

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Hug?: Universal

8. THE MUMMY Another misguided effort to run before you can walk, to shoot for the “shared universe” franchise at the expense of the story being told, Tom Cruise on not-particularly-charming form does little to make this feel anything more than generic. The sad thing is I do want to see the Universal Monsters return, but not with the deadweight of the Dark Universe dragging. Review in brief here.

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Brooding: Netflix

7. DEATH NOTE You don’t have to have seen the anime to know this doesn’t work; it’s not because it’s westernised, it’s because it’s po-faced, badly acted and chooses the least interesting ways possible to explore an original idea. Netflix keeps attracting talented filmmakers, but maybe someone needs to be on quality control. Review in brief here.

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Saul-lite: Netflix

6. GIRLFRIEND’S DAY This desperately wanted to be a Coen Brothers project, but it got the tone and execution so profoundly wrong that it becomes and embarrassing chore to sit through. I suspect it wouldn’t have got a Netflix release at all if they weren’t trying to drum up support for BETTER CALL SAUL Season 3 at the time. Netflix are having a pretty terrible year as far as their original movies are concerned (thank heavens for their TV and documentaries) and this isn’t even their worst movie on this list… Review in brief here.

What were your favourite and most hated movies released in 2017? Join me next time for Part 2 of my Best and Worst of 2017. SSP

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Review in Brief: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (2017)

JIM & ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND is a must-see for fans of Jim Carrey, Andy Kaufman and especially Milos Forman’s superlative oddball biopic MAN ON THE MOON. Impossible as he’s shown to be going “method” throughout filming, the only thing Carrey seems to regret is that the studio wouldn’t allow all his behind-the-scenes footage to become part of the film proper, further blurring performance and reality. The documentary boasts my favourite quote of the year from an introspective Carrey: “At some point when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are, or you’re going to have to kill who you really are and fall into a grave as a character you never where”. He really struggles with just being him and is visibly uncomfortable sitting in front of camera in his street clothes it is to discuss arguably his greatest, most committed performance. Appropriately baffling, unexpectedly moving. SSP

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Review: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

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Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying: Lucasfilm/Disney

There was a lovely little moment in THE FORCE AWAKENS where Leia (Carrie Fisher) after reuniting with Han (Harrison Ford) comments with a wry smile, “Same jacket” and her paramour responds, with mock hurt in his voice, “No, new jacket”. This exchange pretty much summed up a lot of people’s feelings about Episode VII – was the jacket different enough? Now comes Rian Johnson’s THE LAST JEDI, which is nothing if not different.

Despite the destruction of their superweapon, the evil First Order are bearing down on the heroic Resistance forces and are close to completely wiping them out. As General Leia (Carrie Fisher) commands the retreat, Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to convince Luke Skywalker to rejoin the battle against fallen apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his master Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Luke was right; did not go the way I thought. I knew a Star Wars film from the director of LOOPER and BRICK was going to be different, but I didn’t realise it would be quite this tricksy. As many thrills, laughs and revelations as The Last Jedi offers, Johnson makes you work for it.

A lot of the conflict and the meat of the relationships between the key characters is built around the lies and the failures of the Jedi, encapsulated by Luke’s repeated put down others’ misunderstanding of the Force, “Every word of what you just said was wrong”. If the saga has always been about a single idea, it’s about keeping balance, and this film especially is about maintaining this balance at any cost.

One of the finest moments in the film uncovers the great lie of this galaxy far, far away: Empire, Rebels, First Order, Resistance, it doesn’t really matter. At one point the manifest of a weapon smuggler’s ship reveals that deals have been cut with both sides numerous times; everyone finds themselves in the grey area sooner or later, everyone could conceivably be a villain from a certain point of view, especially when intergalactic war is involved. ROGUE ONE tried to explore this idea and bottled it, TLJ really takes it to the limit.

Mark Hamill plays a very different Luke Skywalker. For much of the time we’re with him he is a shell, a shadow of his former hopeful self. He has his reasons for losing his drive, for completely cutting himself off from the galaxy to become a spiky space Ranulph Fiennes, and while it doesn’t end up quite as black and hopeless as I thought it might, it’s pretty dark stuff. We get the odd flash of the old Luke, where Hamill really comes alive, such as when R2-D2 reconnects with him using “a cheap move”.

It’s so nice to have weird Benicio del Toro back; shady hacker “DJ” is like one of his roles from the 90s, all strange vocal tics and physical mannerisms. I think Gwendoline Christie’s shiny enigma Captain Phasma is in this even less than she was last time. Even Ade Edmondson from BOTTOM (one for the Brits) is around more than Phasma as straight man to Domhnall Gleeson’s gleefully pantomimey General Hux. Speaking of Gleeson, he often threatens to steal the show, or at least he does when the superb newcomer Kelly Marie Tran isn’t on screen.

TLJ is not the most visually interesting film Johnson has done (he gives in to the tried and tested Star Wars aesthetic) until we reach the red salt plains and crystalline caverns of the final act. However, we are gifted with two awesome action sequences in the form of the grin-inducing derring-do battle in space that opens the film and the ferocious clash with a room full of Snoke’s formidable Praetorian guards that ends the second act.

The film’s best and most revealing scenes are unusual trans-galactic conversations between Rey and Ben/Kylo, and Ridley and Driver completely nail these fascinating dialogues. Gone are the days where everything is settled over the glow of locked lightsaber blades, now people talk and psychoanalyse each other.

I will say that the film is at times unnecessarily oblique in revealing certain plot points; I’m not talking about the big ongoing mysteries, more the practicalities of what is going on at a given moment. There’s a few points when characters knowing a key piece of information early would help their present situation, but they are kept in the dark a little longer seemingly just to keep them on the same level as the viewer. The plotting does feel freer and looser, which is fine, though the second act could have stood to be shaved down a bit, not to mention getting rid of an unnecessary chase sequence.

I have absolutely no idea where the resolution of The Last Jedi leaves us, or what is coming next. Maybe that’s a good thing. Tragic real-work events means there are unexpected storytelling challenges going forward, and I think they’ve now missed out on the opportunity to neatly tie everything up. However they finally resolve Leia’s storyline, this is a memorable and touching final appearance for Carrie Fisher.

If Force Awakens hit the reset button, then The Last Jedi has fearlessly taken the saga into uncharted territory. I personally really liked it for its sheer boldness, but I’m not convinced every fan will. I wouldn’t say it’s a crowdpleaser like The Force Awakens or Rogue One, but it’s a bolder, deeper, more beautiful film and perhaps the most blatant deliberate act of iconoclasm in Star Wars history. It’s about time this Galaxy Far Far Away got a shakeup. SSP

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Review in Brief: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Guy Ritchie can’t do the fast-slow-fast-slow thing in every film. Like everything else he’s done, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD is grey and self-serious but with breaks for “banter”. There are modern street clothes, dialect and hairstyles in the pre-medieval period, a cheeky cockney hero (Charlie Hunnam, sleep-walking) going up against an evil geezer (Jude Law, gritting his teeth). Much like the equally wobbly WARCRAFT, the film’s take on magic – dangerous, unpredictable, elemental – is interesting. Everything else is a grab-bag of things we’ve seen before, and better, elsewhere. We might have once plunged deeper into this world and learned its rules, but any concrete explanations for what is going on and why is kept on the periphery, whether it once existed and was excised for pacing or not. Whatever the reason for the film’s choppiness, we’re unlikely to return for a sequel, which I’m fine with. SSP

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Review: Marjorie Prime (2017)

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I’m not going to win this staring contest, am I?: Passage Pictures/BB Film Productions

MARJORIE PRIME took me by surprise. It’s a very well-acted, thoughtful chamber piece and dialed-back sci-fi has had great form over the last few years, but I wasn’t quite expecting the emotional content to hit me like a train. It’s cerebral, but it’s also full to the brim with soul.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is 86 years-old and suffering from dementia. She spends many of her waking hours interacting with a “Prime”, a hologram of her dead husband Walter (Jon Hamm) that her family have brought in to remind her of her key life events and daily routines. As the decades pass by, more Primes join the family and help them keep the memory of loved ones alive.

It’s an agonising process many families go through, but the process of having a family member steadily lose their memory is the basis of a pretty dark exchange between Marjorie and Walter at the beginning of the film: “I could tell you a story – you liked that last time” / “I’ll have to take your word for it”. He tells her the story of his proposal and in one of her more lucid moments she suggests that next time he might improve it by lying. Who’s to say he hasn’t done this before? Who’s to say he was wrong to do so if he did?

It’s a creepy but all-too-plausible idea, that of giving a dementia sufferer an intelligent hologram as a companion, confidant and career when their own family are unable to give their own time. There are already robots to help the elderly, are we that far away from abandoning the physical altogether? The idea that this would also allow the new generation to meet a family member who passed before their time also hits home.

As warped as the relationship is, it’s nice to see an older female lead in a relationship with (a representation of) a younger man, and Smith and Hamm make for a sweet, genuine pairing. I completely buy Geena Davis as Smith’s daughter: it’s something in the smile and something else in her disdain for most people. She’s as charming and real as you could wish for and I love the idea she grows to resent Walter Prime’s relationship with her mother despite their far-from-harmonious relationship and presumably agreeing to it in the first place for her own peace of mind.

Marjorie Prime is about not letting go, the need to preserve memories of the good times. As Marjorie clings on to what little she can recall with the help of a representation of her husband at his best, later everyone makes use of a Prime to remember and understand somebody after they’ve gone.

I was not the least bit surprised to learn this is based on a play, a play starring Lois Smith at that. The intimate setting and subject matter and the close study of a small cast of characters has translated from the stage, the performances doubtless dialled back a bit for the closeups. The final image of the three primes together, pooling and comparing their memories in an effort to feel something about…anything, is a lasting, haunting one. The cast playing the primes give such modulated, careful performances it’s amazing that they can provoke such a reaction. They’re a bit off, a bit uncanny, but so keen to be as real as possible to the people they keep company. Marjorie Prime is complex in its ideas and characterisation but incredibly simple in its direct connection to the heart. In short, it’s something special. SSP

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Review in Brief: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Luc Besson has never been short on ideas, and what a story to carry those ideas, the one that inspired much of the aesthetic of both THE FIFTH ELEMENT and STAR WARS. VALERIAN opens with a hypnotic and feel-good montage of human/alien peace and love set to David Bowie. Sadly, this sequence is all we see of most of these imaginatively designed extraterrestrials, and the stunning production design throughout the film is all-too-often passes by in a blur. Other than a scene-stealing Rhianna, the characters leave a lot to be desired, with Dane DeHaan horribly inconsistent as Valerian and Cara Delevingne valiantly making the best of not a lot as Laureline. If the screenplay was given focus and we were given more time to pause and take everything in, to really absorb this bizarre fireworks display of a universe, Valerian could have been on par with Fifth Element. What we actually have is something that transfixes and frustrates in equal measure. SSP

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Review in Brief: Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT somehow feels like an arse-achingly long sit but incredibly rushed at the same time. I don’t blame Michael Bay and his writers room for putting out the silliest Transformers movie yet, but maybe cutting the amount of plot in half and actually explaining what’s left might help? You get King Arthur, secret societies, the transformers meeting their creator, the black ops transformer hunting parties from the second film, the resurrection of Planet Cybertron from the third, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) turning evil for about ten minutes and a surprise revelation about Planet Earth all in one movie. It’s really too much and none of it actually matters. About the only thing they explain, for some reason, is that WWI and WWII were things that happened (er thanks Anthony Hopkins). Whole plot threads, arcs and entire characters are dropped and picked up and dropped again, sometimes to disappear entirely without acknowledgement; the whole thing is a mess. It’s an expensive mess, but a mess all the same. SSP

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This does put a smile on my face…

There’s a palpable crackle in the atmosphere, enough to make a teenager’s Spidey-sense kick in. That can only mean one thing: Marvel have given us an early Christmas present with the first trailer for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

So what lept out at me in this superpowered teaser? The decidedly forlorn version of Alan Silvestri’s Avenger’s theme tune; android Vision looking a lot more like Paul Bettany, then later finding himself at the wrong end of the Glowstick of Destiny; the return of Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr) Hulkbuster armour; a fearsome Wakandan army charging into battle; Josh Brolin sounding menacing and looking purple as big bad Thanos; every hero involved looking battered and bruised and/or boasting new haircuts.

It’s just a taster of course, but the groaning cast sheet alone speaks to the scale of this enterprise. Yes, it’s another invasion of Earth by a space dictator ahead of a horde of minions, but we’ve been with some of this ensemble for a decade now, and some of the most beloved Avengers surely must make the ultimate sacrifice when they lose.

THE INFINITY GAUNTLET storyline in the comics gets bloody, with Thanos dispatching most of our heroes easily, and horribly creatively. The Vision scene mentioned above – along with the fact he has one of the all-powerful McGuffins Thanos is hunting lodged in his forehead – makes it look like at least one established Avengers’ fate is inevitable. We’ve been promised this will be, if not the end, then the beginning of the end for several characters, and not even the addition of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a newly powered-up Thor (Chris Hemsworth) can save them all.

The stakes are bound to be the highest we’ve yet seen in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but I’m hoping that along with the biggest of visual spectacles we get some laughs along with the sobriety; something, in short, to put smiles on our faces to match the Mad Titan’s. SSP

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Review in Brief: Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Yep, it’s definitely an S Craig Zahler film. Much like his Western BONE TOMAHAWK, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is intense, drip-feedy in its pacing and almost cartoonishly ultraviolent. Also like Tomahawk it seems to become an entirely different film in its final stretch, where things go bloody (and I mean bloody) bananas. Zahler has a distinctive voice, a inky black take on the world best summed up here when asked how he’s doing after being fired, Bradley replies “South of OK, north of cancer”. As Bradley, I get why Vince Vaughn is getting attention; the control he displays as a permanently coiled spring is impressive, and when he goes off you really believe the damage he can do to cars, arms, faces. Yes, the final act has him rock up at a maximum security prison which is castle torture chamber manned by Nazis (I smell a metaphor!) but overall, this is keen-edged stuff. SSP

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Review: Justice League (2017)

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At least Flash seems to be enjoying himself: Atlas Entertainment/Warner Bros/DC

JUSTICE LEAGUE is the most boring superhero extravaganza (or should that be urgh-stravaganza?) I’ve ever seen. You’ve got six superheroes to provide spectacle and colour, how do you end up with something so dull?

Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, but the world still needs saving. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) gather a team of gifted individuals to face an incoming threat. But can a kitted-out billionaire, a demigoddess, a merman and a couple of freaks stop an alien conquest?)

As I’m writing my memory of the film is rapidly fading, but I’m fairly certain that my last two hours in front of a big screen was something…that happened. There is so little that gains any traction, nothing that lingers. Even in action terms there’s very little to get excited about. There’s two fights in two different holes in the ground, a couple of busy large-scale battle scenes, quick stop-offs at Themyscira and Atlantis and a whole lot of bad compositing. I said it in my review of BATMAN V SUPERMAN, but I’ll say it again: Warner Bros have a real problem with making their top-level, mega-budget films look cheap. Characters and foreground objects pop horrendously against greenscreen backgrounds, transitions between physical actors and digital doubles often feel off, especially when the heroes start moving more superheroically. All too often you can see the joins and too much of it, for whatever reason (basics like getting the lighting and framing right spring to mind) this doesn’t look as good as it should.

There’s no real conflict either; we’ve all seen team-ups before, superhero or otherwise, much of the appeal in these types of movies comes from the ensemble working out their issues with each other, but the filmmakers never seem to want to linger on this. The film’s best scene has Batman and Wonder Woman justifiably criticising each other’s attitude to saving the world – Diana has shut herself away for a century when she could have been inspiring humankind, Bruce has been acting as judge, jury and executioner of Gotham for long enough to lose his humanity – but it peters out and is completely forgotten the next scene.

What cripples Justice League is schizophrenic characterisation. Bruce Wayne is a completely different character to who we saw in Batman v Superman, and it’s far more than him defrosting in order to make friends. Affleck looks deeply uncomfortable trying to quip as Batman and he seems to have shed most of his dark side without much difficulty despite the earlier scene I described and the events of the entire previous film. The world is in mourning for a Superman it never knew, and the Justice Leaguers talk about him like they’d worked together for years. This film universe hasn’t earned such a reaction, we needed at least another solo film for him to make an impact, and maybe be seen to save a few more people in the process. When he does show, Cavill (with horrific CG-ed off moustache) seems even more uncomfortable as a cheerier, hopeful Superman than he was as a serious, introspective one. Ray Fisher and Jason Mamoa seem to have had anything that made their characters interesting surgically removed in the edit, so instead of  digital Frankenstein and underwater Hamlet, they’re just Mr Frowny and Prince Sarky. We all know by now that Gadot does what she does well, but if there’s a single saving grace in the cast, it’s Ezra Miller’s take on the Flash, mostly because Miller is an interesting young actor much better than this material. It’s not even worth talking about Ciaran Hinds as alien dictator #457.

I’m not going to analyse what could have been. We don’t know what Zack Snyder’s complete vision would have been had he not had to bow out early, or what Joss Whedon would have made of the film were he involved from the beginning. We’ve got to judge the final product we’re presented with, and said final product is lacking. It’s scattershot and inconsistent and missing wonder, intrigue and Flash aside, laughs. There isn’t as much to get angry about as Batman v Superman, it just prompts a resigned shrug. SSP

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