winchesterOh, Gran! What are you doing? Getting up there at karaoke and doing a profane, if accurate, rendition of Ice T’s back catalogue? And then downing half-a-dozen Jägerbombs and discarding items of your outer clothing to the winds whilst gyrating on a table to Funky Cold Medina?

That’s pretty much how I felt watching Winchester. Oh, Helen Mirren! What are you doing?

Inspired by true events from the early 1900s — cough, cough — this is the story of Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, and her propensity for building a really big haunted house with ghosts and EVERYTHING. It seems hardly a day goes by without a new extension being added on to an already pretty big house. Construction goes on day and night. Worried that this is a sign of Dame Winchester losing her marbles — which it clearly is — the board of the Winchester company send the troubled Doctor Eric Price, played by a troubled Jason Clarke, to assess her before ousting her out on her backside. And wouldn’t you know it, but the good doctor has some demons of his own.

From the opening few frames, with the title and copyright card appearing like an old Hammer House of Horror, right through to the clumsy close there is nothing much new in this world and unfortunately it has been written and directed by people who literally have no idea how to scare an audience beyond a jump-scare. What about atmosphere? What about building a sense of dread? What about having characters we actually care about? Nope, jump-scares it is. Now, I don’t really mind the occasional jump-scare but there are no points in this movie where you expect a jump-scare and a jump-scare doesn’t happen. And that doesn’t make for a scary movie. It makes for a stupid waste of everyone’s time.

There’s got to be a decent movie somewhere in this mess. It’s America’s Most Haunted Mansion, after all, or so the end credits would have us believe. It’s a house that has hundreds of rooms and, according to a lovely bit of heavy-handed exposition from Sarah Snook as Winchester’s loving niece, it’s really easy to get lost within its maze-like corridors. And yet, no one gets lost. The Doctor is instantly familiar with its layout and can wander to his heart’s content and is always able to find his way back to his room.

But as disappointing as the story is, it’s nowhere near the level of disappointment I feel in having to witness Dame Helen Mirren going through the motions or listen to her saying utter dogs of lines of dialogue. “I feel the house is out of balance,” she says with a straight face moments after half of the house falls off. Ya think?

I mean, I expect this from Jason Clarke. But Dame Helen — gran, if I may — what were you thinking?

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billboardIf the multiverse theory is to be believed then it must stand to reason that somewhere, there’s a universe that exists where Frances McDormand can’t act her way out of a soggy paper bag, where she might appear in a commercial for bagels and fail to convince the audience, and potential new consumers of bagels, that she’s a woman who enjoys bagels. Meanwhile, in this universe, she can absolutely do no wrong and she isn’t about to start here. Now where are the bagels?

McDormand plays Mildred, a mother still grieving for her daughter who was abducted, raped, and killed in the months before the movie starts. The crime remains unsolved and, suspecting that the local police force could be doing more if only they could stop beating up black people for five minutes, she rents out three forgotten and dilapidated billboards on a quiet road on the outskirts of town and uses them to display a set of messages that grab the attention of Chief Willoughby (admirably played by Woody Harrelson) and his underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the latter of which in particular doesn’t take too kindly to these developments.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, you kinda know what you’re going to get before the lights have dimmed. The characters and their development are just as important as the arc of the storyline, the script is going to be crisp and pin-point and jut ooze with black humor, and there’s going to be enough buckets of swearing to make Malcolm Tucker, and possibly even Chris Tucker, blush.

As good as the script is, as gorgeous as the scenery is (filmed in California rather than Missouri, fact fans), and as magnificent as the performances from Harrelson and Rockwell are, it’s Frances McDormand’s movie. Every little flinch, each throwaway motion of picking a nail with her teeth, every reaction to another letdown or attempt to reach out to her teenaged son, well, she’s simply perfect. The emotion she carries through the couple of hours running time has such heft and thickness and is never overdone. Tellingly, she makes it look easy.

The movie as a whole does suffer somewhat from a strained — and perhaps even ill-judged — redemption arc for Rockwell’s detestable racist cop, an oddly-phrased section from a news reporter who seemed to be channeling Alicia Silverstone from Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, an Australian accent that couldn’t stand out more supposing it was falling out of Quentin Tarentino’s mouth, and an act of outrageous violence that somehow manages to avoid sufficient consequences. There’s so much good stuff going on, though, that these crimes are (just about) forgivable.

2017 had movies I enjoyed more — The Shape of Water, for starters, and I genuinely don’t think I saw anything better than Paddington 2 in the last twelve months, but in this universe right here, there’s more than enough in Three Billboards to enjoy and some performances that in years to come will still be genuinely savored.

loving_vincentSome movies are so beautifully shot they look like they could be a painting. Well, this little Polish-funded art-house movie about the death of Vincent Van Gogh takes that to a new level.

Literally, every frame is an oil painting. That’s because it was filmed traditionally with actors first and then a team of 125 animators turned each frame into a Van Gogh-esque painting. That’s right. Imagine Starry Night was animated. I know. It’s quite remarkable.

Not only that, if you have any knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh’s work, you’ll recognize the people from his paintings. Who knew that Jerome Flynn is a spitting image of Dr. Gachet from the famous portrait? Or that John Sessions bore more than a passing resemblance to Pere Tanguy? Even Armand and his ever-present yellow jacket feature on a canvas. So what started at remarkable has suddenly gotten itself an upgrade to extraordinary.

Okay, so it looks amazing but what about the story? Well, I’m glad you asked. Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, it’s an odd kinda mystery-biopic that sees Vincent’s friend, Postmaster Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), ask his son, Armand (Douglas Booth), to do him a favor and deliver a letter he has from the recently deceased Vincent to Vincent’s brother, Theo. Armand wasn’t much of a fan but begrudgingly accepts. After learning that Theo is also dead (oh, spoiler alert, by the way) he decides to deliver the letter to Vincent’s doctor, so off he trots to Auvers-sur-Oise, where no shortage of people unburden themselves to him, with the minimal amount of prompting, all of which plants the seed that maybe it wasn’t suicide after all.

Some of the dialogue is so lumpy and on the nose and exposition-laden that it would make Basil Exposition from Austin Powers wince, and maybe it’s because of the way it was made but some of the vocal performances felt removed from what was on screen. From the perspective of the narrative, it’s a far less satisfying experience, and if it looked like a regular movie, it might even land pretty flatly.

But these are minor complaints. In an age where digital computer animation is so common place, it’s something of a joy to see a movie that not only has taken blood and sweat and tears to make, but to do so in such an original fashion really makes it worthy of all the praise that can be thrown at it.

pp3-teaser-onesheet-594da88174a10-1I’ve got to come clean with you. I loved Pitch Perfect. Hell, that’s not even the half of it. I loved Pitch Perfect 2. If I was trying to blow smoke, I’d say that it wasn’t as good as the original and that the story was a bit more contrived and stuffs and stuffs and stuff. But the truth of the matter is, I loved the sequel as much as I loved the original. They both make me smile, no matter how many times I see them. So with this in mind, use this knowledge as you read my thoughts on Pitch Perfect 3.

Guys. I loved this as much as the others.

Okay, I’ll admit the first five minutes or so were tough going. The jokes weren’t landing as well as they had in the past and I was genuinely worried about the direction we were going.

After that, though, it was just about everything you can reasonably expect with a Pitch Perfect movie.

We pick up the story with Beca (Anna Kendrick, the only actor who made Twilight watachable) leaving her job as a music producer, because being a music producer means having people blame your decisions on your menstrual cycle. She lives with Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and, look, whatever. This bit doesn’t matter, okay? Somehow we contrive to get to the point where the Bellas reunite for a series of USO shows in Europe. Seriously. The story doesn’t matter all that much. There’s a subplot here about staying friends with the important people in your life, and less a subplot about personal growth outside that circle of friends, but that’s all secondary. It’s all about good songs, sung acapella, with good choreography and shot beautifully. That’s what we want, right? Right.

And that’s exactly what we get. On top of that Rebel Wilson has never been more Rebel Wilson and is basically the comedic thrust of the movie. That’s also what we want. This is what she’s good at. Let’s let her be good at it. So when John Lithgow shows up as her evil dad … yep, that works for me. Look. Just do Pitch Perfect stuff and I’ll be happy.

And I was happy. As happy as I was to hear (Don’t You) Forget About Me in the original, that’s how happy I was to hear Britney Spears’ Toxic in this third installment. I had a smile on my face throughout. I laughed frequently, mostly when Fat Amy punched things.

Screenwriters Kay Cannon and Mike White do exactly what is expected of them. They deliver a script that’s quirky and sassy and meta and is a fitting finale to an unexpected triumph.

 

C9A046E0-430A-438E-90F5-25DE23FDA800I had no idea what to expect going into this, the new film from — I’m just going to say it, so buckle up — VISIONARY director, Guillermo del Toro. I hadn’t seen a trailer or read a review, I hadn’t even seen a poster. All I had in mind before the lights went down was the title sounded a little like a book I’d read over the summer, which was about post-apocalyptic Scandinavians making tea, and I really hoped it wasn’t going to be about that. It wasn’t. It wasn’t anywhere near that.

Set in an alternative 1962, The Shape of Water is the story of Elisa, a mute and isolated woman played quite superbly by Sally Hawkins. She, along with Octavia Spencer as Zelda, clean up at a secretive government research base in Baltimore, and it’s there that she discovers a weird aquatic creature known as the Asset who has been (somehow) captured by Michael Shannon’s Strickland, and Elisa and the creature — Beauty and the Beast, anyone? — strike up an unlikely relationship, based largely around the consumption of eggs and the playing of big band records.

From the opening introduction, to the green hue that the entire movie is seen through, to the scenes of Elisa giving herself a quick *ahem* in the bath, del Toro makes it clear how important water is to the movie, so don’t be disappointed if you spot a detail early on that will telegraph the ending a couple of hours in your future.

It’s not without its faults and indulgences, chief amongst them being a black-and-white song-and-dance routine. Close runner-up being a deliberate pun on “The Help”. Also, it’s not a movie where you’re likely to question good vs evil. It couldn’t be more obvious if it tried, only Strickland substitutes a twirly moustache with a couple of diseased fingers.

But I’m nit-picking. Overall, and despite del Toro maybe being a little too del Toro for his own good,  I couldn’t help but be captivated by it, thanks almost entirely to Hawkins. For a character who has literally no lines, she sells her part so well you could be forgiven for thinking at the end of the movie that she hadn’t shut up all the way through. Every facial expression and shrug or cower or proud stance is absolutely on point and it’s her performance that really sells the premise of the entire experience. If you love this movie, it’ll be down to her. If you’re more lukewarm, I suspect it’s because of the story.

Supporting performances are fine but maybe a little wooden and cut-out due to the nature of the plot. Richard Jenkins is Elisa’s only other friend besides Zelda but he too feels isolated given his closeted sexuality. Michael Shannon is evil, yeah, we get it, but because he only seems to like to have sex with his wife when she’s quiet, it’s something of a relief that del Toro doesn’t examine that too deeply given Elisa’s disability.

It’s not a perfect movie and maybe lacks the magic and originality of Pan’s Labyrinth, but given the competition that’s out there at the end of 2017, it stands up pretty well.

E7634E9D-C73B-4D79-82AC-9F80E5F2076AMatt Damon is a strange creature. There are times when I watch one of his movies, let’s say The Martian for example, where I think, y’know, maybe Team America: World Police had it all wrong. He’s a pretty decent actor and ignoring his real-life persona, he’s a fairly warm presence on screen. Then I watch one of his movies, let’s say Downsizing for example and for the purpose of this review, and I think Team America: World Police went far too easy on him.

Downsizing is the latest effort from director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, About Schmidt), and dear God is it an effort. In the not too distant future, and during an unnecessarily long prologue, we learn that a bunch of Scandinavian scientists have discovered a method that shrinks organic matter down to a fraction of its original size without doing it any other damage and without side effects. Jump forward a number of years and we learn that when applied to humans, this may be the answer to the earth’s ecological problems. Small humans — like really small humans — use a negligible amount of resources compared with their regular-sized counterparts. And if that wasn’t enough, a $150,000 nest-egg as a big guy, translates to $12,000,000 fortune in the wee world, meaning a gigantic big house in a dedicated small community and never having to work again. What’s not to love?

During this we’re introduced to Matt. Damon. and his wife Kristen Wiig, a DINK couple (Paul & Audrey) who have inherited their home from Paul’s mom and yet for reasons never really explained are living from paycheck to paycheck and still house-hunting homes they couldn’t possibly afford. They’re prime candidates for this new procedure and after a few scenes where Damon does his very best “indecisive” face, they go for it. The procedure, again for reasons never really explained, involves removal of every last hair on one’s body and after Paul has gotten himself shrunk, he learns that Audrey had second thoughts when she was down to her last eyebrow and his plans for the rest of his life have taken a massive turn.

The premise itself, up to the Audrey Abandonment, is actually quite interesting, so the fact that this is billed as a comedy and yet a half hour can go by without the slightest hint of a laugh is actually forgiveable. Where the movie chooses to go after this is less so.

Every racial stereotype you can possibly imagine somehow manages to shoe-horn its way into the lazy plot that slowly unfolds. There are a couple of sleazy Eurotrash playboys, played by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, who capitalize on the Wild West nature of this blossoming small economy. Every laborer or cleaner is Mexican or Asian and live through a literal hole at the edge of society. Then we have a Vietnamese dissident, shrunk against her will and thrown into a TV box who somehow survives, loses her leg, and ends up cleaning up after a never-ending series of playboy parties, and despite speaking Spanish apparently fluently, can only bark orders in English with no knowledge of plurals or definite and indefinite articles. I’m not sure if any of this is meant to be funny, but as I sat with my liberal, snowflake mouth hanging open and my liberal, snowflake head shaking at what I was watching, I don’t recall my liberal, snowflake ears being deafened with laughter.

Racial politics aside, it’s still a hot mess of movie that allows Matt Damon to utilize his “hopeful” face at the end of one scene, only to have to transition into his “perplexed” face at the start of the next. He manages to do some other faces while he is sans hair and eyebrows, but those are far more difficult to discern. Who’da thunk much of Damon’s acting ability was down to his hair and eyebrows? Then there comes a moment where Paul seems to make a major life and moral decision based purely on how much walking will be involved and it was at this point that I muttered, “This is the worst movie I have ever seen.”

I’ve cooled off a little since then. This isn’t the worst movie I have seen. There’s a good movie in here somewhere. Or at least, there’s a decent idea struggling to get out. This, as it stands, is certainly not the former and is shockingly bad use of the latter.

Just awful.

Thor_Ragnarok_posterI don’t really like Marvel movies. I disapprove of much of what people seem to love about them. Like the fact that Stan Lee is in every one of them. Or that they put Easter eggs in the credits and how that forces people to stare at scrolling text for ten minutes on the off-chance that Iron Man will say something baffling out of context. Or that the last 20 minutes are more often than not a noisy CGI mess. That said, I loved Ant Man, mainly thanks to Paul Rudd and a script that had passed through the hands and brain of Edgar Wright. And I really liked the first Thor movie, although not to the point where I felt compelled to see the second one. So I went to see Thor: Ragnarok, which features a colon and a word from Norse mythology, with a mind as open as I hoped my eyes would remain.

It was fine. But I have a few caveats.

To start with, there’s the plot. The plot, or perhaps better described as the stuff that happens at the start that dictates what subsequently happens, sees Thor captured for a bit by a fire demon called Surtur whose head he eventually takes because it’s going to be useful later on. Odin meanwhile is tracked down in Norway with help from Doctor Strange, because it was important for franchise reasons to have Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie. Odin reveals that his first born, Hela, is about to turn up and she’s going to be pissed off and she’s the goddess of death and so everyone is going to be in for a torrid old time of it. Sure enough she does precisely that and on their way back to Asgard, she sends Thor and Loki crashing out of their dimension tunnel thing and on to a planet of garbage where Jeff Goldblum will turn up and be Jeff Goldblum for a while. The Hulk inexplicably appears at some point. Stuff continues to happen unabated. Asgard is threatened and I think I’m supposed to care.

Judging by the reaction of others, this is a funny film, but for me the humor is so forced it just becomes irritating. Having our hero bumble and stumble his way through proceedings gets old fast and essentially dilutes down the moments where anything is at stake. The most interesting moments and best lines came from the softly-spoken rock-giant gladiator, Korg, and then you realize you’ve used the phrase “softly-spoken rock-giant gladiator” and feel the need for a little lie down.

There are people who would say that having Luke Hemsworth and Matt Damon in cameo roles where they perform as Thor and Loki in a play version of, so I’m led to believe, The Dark World is cute and clever. These people are wrong. It’s stupid and attention seeking and just another attempt to squeeze a cheap chuckle out of the audience.

Look, it’s fine. Chris Hemsworth is engaging enough as Thor. Tom Hiddleston continues to do his best to show everyone else how to act. Cate Blanchett is oddly out of place as Hela. Idris Elba is shockingly underused. It’s utterly mindless and almost instantly forgettable and at 130 minutes it feels like it’s at least 20 minutes longer than that, but really it’s fine. It’s okay. It’s pointless but it’s fine.