ALL the Christmas films reviewed below including the best ones recommended!
BEST CHRISTMAS FILMS PLAYING:
THE SHAPE OF WATER
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (USA 2017) ****
Directed by Ridley Scott
The big question everyone will be asking about ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is how effective the replacement of Christopher Plummer in the titular role of Paul Getty. After the sexual harassment allegations surfaced on Kevin Spacey, director Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER) quickly replaced him with Plummer, doing 10-week reshoot. After viewing ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, all traces of Spacey have been removed and it is nothing short of remarkable that Ridley has done such a great job. And Oscar Winner Plummer is great. Spacey would ave added a sly, comedic sarcastic element to his portrayal - his trait, but Plummer plays him straight, funny or serious depending on the situation. The world needs not need to see a more sarcastic Getty.
The film is narrated from the grandson, Paulo (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher Plummer), giving the film his perspective on his grandfather. “He is not only the richest man in the world, but the richest man who ever lived!” Plummer as Getty shows the stingy side of a millionaire, how he trusts artifacts and objects instead of people, as these show themselves as they are, with nothing hidden. But just as his colleagues and friend betray him, he does the same with his grandson’s artifact.
The film contains a few ineffective segments. One odd one that stands out is a short segment set in 1838 in Saudi Arabia where Getty (in younger mode and Plummer decked in make up and dyed black hair to look younger) discusses oil. That scene is total unnecessary and could have been done away with to save money and Plummer looking a bit ridiculous. One cliched segment has the grandson walking the streets of Rome in the middle of the night accosting the prostitutes. When he remarks to one of them: “I can take care of myself,” one can guess that he is just about to be kidnapped. The next scene has him pushed into a car by the kidnappers.
But there are a few impressive scenes like the beginning black and white shot of a city with vintage cars. The scene evolves into colour and the famous Trini fountain is revealed while Italian dialogue heard in the background. It could be a scene right out of Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA.
All the performances are outstanding from Michelle Williams as the angry mother slowly developing more tolerance towards the hired Chase to Plummer to Wahlberg. The best performance, however belongs to French actor Roman Duris (THE BEAT MY HEART SKIPPED, THE NEW GIRLFRIEND) as the Getty’s grandson’s kidnapper.
Scott’s film is strong on emotions. Getty’s daughter-in-law played by Williams undergoes the entire spectrum of emotions and character including, anger, strength, vulnerability, love, sensitivity, tolerance and annoyance. All kidnapping films have the element of the Stockholm Syndrome. As the kidnapper and kidnapped are both male, the bonding is one of trust and respect, which makes for the film greatest surprise. To ensure the audience feels that Getty should have paid the ransom, Scott inserts a no-holds-barred detailed segment of the kidnappers cutting off the grandson's ear that dares anyone to watch the entire sequence without wincing.
The film plays more of a suspense thriller than a biopic on the millionaire Getty. Still, there are enough screen time given to Getty to show him the man he could be. The words on the screen at the closing credits makes it clear that though the film is based on true events, dialogue and some events have been fictionalized. It would be interesting to know which parts of the film are fictionalized. The whole story, at the very end, seems like the perfect kidnapping caper, perfect for a good suspense film.
The film also contains a message. Watching Christopher Plummer as Getty teaches me, wealthy Scrooge, a few things while opening my eyes.
DOWNSIZING (USA 2017) Top 10 *****
Directed by Alexander Payne
DOWNSIZING marks filmmaker Alexander Payne’s departure from real life and real life drama as witnessed in films like NEBRASKA, THE DESCENDANTS and ELECTION. DOWNSIZING is Payne at his most playful, a sci-fi adult fairy tale of sorts, but one in which real life drama still exists. The film stars Matt Damon who like the role in his last film George Clooney/Coen Brothers’ SURBUBICON is about a man who strives for a better life but things end getting more f***ed up. What a man will do to correct the situation is what SUBIRBICON and DOWNSIZING are about. It is interesting to see how two different filmmakers deal with a similar premise.
DOWNSIZING, a film combining several genres offers the solution to the world’s problem of overpopulation. If people can be reduced in size to a thousandth of their original, many of the world problems could be solved. People will only eat, use and dispose much, much less product. When science finally achieved the success of downsizing, many colonies were begun. So, Matt Damon and wife opt to be reduced and live in their new reduced size colony for monetary benefit. Things never go as expected.
The film centres on Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) who is married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and who has spent most of his life working hard but still raying int he same old house. He figures that downsizing will allow him and his wife to afford the luxuries they would otherwise never achieve. But unknown to Paul, the problems he faces do not shrink like their bodies. After his is shrunk, Paul finds to his horror that Audrey has chickened out the procedure. Paul is left divorced in miniature Leisureland.
Paul finds truth though the Vietnamese cleaning lady Ngoc (Hong Chau) after partying at his neighbour, Dusan’s (Christoph Waltz). He slowly but surely redeems his life in a story unfolded in Payne and Jim Taylor’s script that is both dramatic and hilarious. There is a very funny segment where Paul gets high at Dusan’s glitzy party. He walks around with a ridiculous wide smile on his face, remarking at one point: “I am going to take off my shoes.”
There are many good examples why this script should win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. This might be Payne’s second after winning Best Adapted Screenplay for THE DESCENDANTS. One are the words Ngoc replies to Paul after giving him a farewell gift of a Bible in Vietnamese:”Words don’t matter. Just remember me!” Or the dialogue when Paul asks her “Who am I?” She replies, pronouncing his name correctly the first time Paul has heard it pronounced correctly. “You are Paul Safrenek!” Or the classification of fucks into 8 categories, with Ngoc asking Paul: “What kind of fuck did you give me?”
DOWNSIZING’s script is brilliant with lots of attention to details. The film does not go into thriller territory but attempts more ambitious aims. Payne’s social satire is the most ambitious of all his films but it largely works thanks to the script. Damon’s performance is fantastic (even the glimmer fem his eyes) with help from a host of impressive stars (Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Laura Dern, Jason Sudeikis and Neil Patrick Harris). The prize performance comes from Hong Chau, as observable in the scene where she convinces with happy tears, Paul and company the reason she has to visit Norway.
Shot in Toronto and around the fiords of Norway.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (USA 2017) ****
Directed by Michael Gracey
Films about circuses have been popular having taken many different genres form blockbuster (Cecil. B. Demille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH) to cheap 1966 horror (CIRCUS OF FEAR). THE GREATEST SHOWMAN aims at being both a biopic and a musical.
Hugh Jackman is a shoo-in for the role of singing P.T. Barnum, obtaining a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a musical or comedy in the process. Heart-throb Zac Ephron also eases into musical mode as smooth as in three HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL films. He plays Barnum’s friend and business partner..
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is a true musical at heart. Within the first 10 minutes, there are two songs performed already. The film also boasts to be an original musical, not to be confused with “BARNUM” that played on Broadway decades back. The songs are catchy with “This is Me”, largely performed by the bearded lady nominated for the Best Song Golden Globe. But the other songs (by the guys who wrote LALA LAND) are just as catchy (there have been few musicals these days with all good songs) with others just as good, if not better than “This is Me”. The choreography is also quite spectacular, and one cannot complain that there is not a full all out musical. It is a feel-good movie, so those wanting hard drama and musical-haters, be advised to stay away.
The story contains two romances, between P.T. Barnum and Charity (Michelle Williams) and the other between Phillip Carlyle (Ephron) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), the acrobat and trapeze artist. The romantic chemistry is not all there, though Barnum’s and Charity’s is more believable.
Though the film traces how American showman P. T. Barnum became the founder of the circus that became the famous traveling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, there are also subplots like the romance as well as the diversion of the employment of famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) who almost destroys both his business and his marriage. Her singing performance is astonishing though Loren Alfred provides Lind’s singing voice. Ferguson lip syncs and fakes it quite well.
The film side steps certain points, like how Barnum suddenly obtained all the circus animals. The business aspect of the circus is only briefly mentioned in passing. It is quite hard to believe that the circus made it this big with so few acts and with no clowns at all in the film.
Director Gracey seems fond of emphasizing the fact of equality among performers. The protests in each visiting town of the residents against the circus ‘freaks’ finally conclude with a huge fire that destroys the circus building. In Demille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, it was a train crash that almost destroyed the circus, here compared to the big fire.
The film should have more circus acts on screen time, so the audience can really feel the atmosphere of a circus. What is clearly missing in this circus film is the excitement and danger of a circus. Still, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, though is not the greatest show in 2017 still makes appropriate Christmas entertainment.
HOSTILES (USA 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Scott Cooper
HOSTILES opens with a statement by D.H. Lawrence on how hostile the west was - and how the heat of the west can never be melted. Scott Cooper’s (BLACK MASS) film attempts to prove otherwise in his brooding western, interspersed with action sequences that are enough to jolt any audience from thought.
The setting is 1892. The film opens with a tense and well executed sequence of the massacre of the Quaid family by Indians, the only survivor being the widow (Rosamund Pike). Director Cooper makes sure the audience feels for her, and for her hatred towards the Indians.
The film then introduces its main character, an embittered and battle-hardened US Cavalry officer, Joseph L. Blocker (Christian Bale) ordered to accompany a Cheyenne war chief and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana. Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) has seen more than his fair share of violence and bloodletting on the frontier and will obviously see more by the end of the film, but this mission, which he is forced to accept, is a particularly bitter pill to swallow: Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been his mortal enemy for years due to a conflict that killed many of Blocker's friends. On the other hand, the Chief has also lost friends in the conflict. To make matters worse, the widow, Rosalie Quaid joins in the journey.
Blocker is a racist, a man who harbours a deep hatred towards the former prisoners now placed in his care. As the challenges mount, Blocker is forced to confront his own bigotry while carrying out his orders. But there are no long monologues or cheap theatrics to get the message across.
But in the final scene, Blocker says goodbye to Rosalie at the train station, her hand holding the young orphaned Cheyenne boy. “You are a good man, Joe Blocker.” These are Rosalie’s farewell words to Blocker. These are unexpected words resulting in events that show that reconciliation is possible, despite how hopeless things appeared at the start.
Christian Bale is almost perfect in the title role of the racist with a conscience. It is not a cardboard character but one that undergoes development. Bale does a lot of brooding, but the changes in him come from the vents that flow his journey through the hostile land. Pike is also good as the storm-willed suicidal widow. Adam Beach (SUICIDE SQUAD) is surprisingly not given much to do while Wes Studi (DANCES WITH WOLVES, LAST OF THE MOHICANS) has a few lines that emphasize his strong character as the Indian chief. Ben Foster is sufficiently menacing as an escorted criminal.
Coopers action scenes are well orchestrated and lift the otherwise slow moving film that at times almost sinks too low. The film is quite lengthy, running at over the 2 hour mark.
HOSTILES is a quietly powerful film, difficult to watch but nevertheless gets its message across with the hopeful ending.
I, TONYA (USA 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Craig Gillespie
In 1994, the figure-skating world was shocked by the brutal attack on US medal hopeful Nancy Kerrigan. The more shocking news was that the attack was allegedly conceived and executed by those close to — and perhaps including — rival figure skater Tonya Harding. The film tells Tonya's story and thus the title I, TONYA.
The story is revealed in tongue in cheek events with humour and irony while keeping to the main dramatic details.
Sad, funny but real this biopic of the infamous American figure Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) plays like a mockumentary as the film is bookended by interviews of the main characters 20 years after ‘the incident’. The film then unfolds in chronological order with Tonya as a child brought to the skating rink as a skating prodigy by her mother who would often slap her around for not doing her best.
‘The incident’ as described in those exact words in the film itself refers to the breaking of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee by Tonya’s ex-husband. The question was whether she knew of the plot. As the film explains she likely did not at the start, as it was all Jeff Gillooly’s (Sebastian Stan) idea but when she did get nailed for it, she was then banned from figure skating in any organization for life, a sentence in her own words, that was worst than prison.
Films have been often made of heroes and survivors, but it is seldom that one is made of white redneck trailer trash. That is Tonya Harding. But director Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers portray the skater as someone America loved to hate, but also paints her, despite her volatile and fierce personality someone vulnerable to her surroundings and acquaintances. She is treated brutally (physically and emotionally) by both her two closest relatives, hers husband and mother (Allison Janney).
Director Gillespie remembers that I, TONYA is after all a film about the sport of figure skating. The segments of skating have to be good and they are. Compare the recent tennis film BATTLE OF THE SEXES which made the mistake of including no exciting matches in it. Her triple axel at the 1991 championships is shown beautifully in slow motion.
Gillespie elicits some mighty fine performances from his cast most notably Robbie in the title role as well as Janney as her stern mother, LaVona.
The dialogue though in everyday words are at times so predictable, one can say the words just before the characters utter them. In one scene, after LaVona after throwing a knife that sticks into her daughter’s arms utter the words: “Every family has its ups and downs.” A comical line though the words are stolen from the play and film THE LION IN WINTER. But there are some good lines in the script as when LaVona says (and really believes) that she sacrificed being a loving mother so that Tonya can grow up to become a fierce skater.
Though the film deals partly with the daughter/mother relationship, it shows for once that the relationship is a sour irreconcilable one. Still the film finally gains the sympathy of the skater, that in her own words describes herself as the one America grew to hate.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence Kasdan) takes over the director reins from Joe Johnston who made the original JUMANJI movie where back when with the late Robin Williams. JUMANJI WELCOME TOTHE JUNGLE is a stand-alone sequel paying tribute to Williams.
Kasdan’s lazy script is cliche ridden with the typical fairy tale adventure aimed at pre-teens. The story is nothing remarkable. It all begins when a father discovers a hidden boardgame covered in the sand while jogging on the beach. He gives it to his son, Alex who is more interested in video games (the year is 1996). Overnight, the game changes so that the box's contents are now a video game cartridge, but when Alex puts it in his console and turns it on, he vanishes.
20 years later, a high school detention group finds the video game in the detention room . They decide to play the game, each player taking on a game character. They get sucked into the game each transforming into the game character they picked, The premise is that they have to win the game in order to get back out of the game to their normal lives.
The four game players are Spencer Gilpin (transformed into Dwayne Johnson), his former best friend, Anthony "Fridge" Johnson (Kevin Hart), who he helped with his homework by writing Fridge's essays for him. The other two are Bethany Walker (yes, Jack Black), a beautiful girl who was caught talking on her phone during a quiz and Martha Kaply (Karen Gillian), a socially awkward girl who objected to being made to participate in gym class.
They find themselves in a jungle, all four are shaken to realize that they have become the avatars they chose for the game, with the result that Fridge is now a short zoologist, Bethany is now an overweight middle-aged man, Martha is a beautiful athletic woman, and Spencer is a muscular, tough man. The group encounter Nigel, who lays claim to the legendary gem, the "Jaguar's Eye”. The removal of the gem from the large jaguar statue will grant the villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) control over the animals of Jumanji. In order to complete the game, the players must return the gem to the jaguar statue and call out “Jumanji".
As a game movie, the under-exciting Jumanji game is overlooked for the villain Van Pelt and his motorcycle gang. The game contains several levels that the players must complete, a missing piece in the form of Alex (Nick Jonas) and a few other uninteresting bits. But the motorcycle chases are not much more exciting either.
The cliched story involves each high school charter learning to be better people while transformed into their avatars. Fridge and Spencer learn the meaning of true friendship, Bethany learns that there is a world outside herself and her cell phone while Martha develops social skills.
The film takes a while to secure a footing. What makes the film work is the great ensemble comedy from all the main stars. Black turns out to be the funniest as the transformed Bethany still possessing her girly mannerisms. The funniest segment is Black teaching Gillian how to be sexy and seduce the transport guards and her after performing what she had learnt.
The film is more suited to a younger crowd, who appear to be cheering and laughing thigh the promo screening. For adults, the film should also be enjoyable enough.
MOLLY’S GAME (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
MOLLY’S GAME is writer Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. Sorkin also adapted the script from the memoir Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom. Anyone familiar with Sorkin’s work, the most notable being the script for THE SOCIAL NETWORK will surely know that a lot of dialogue is expected and the actors in the film have to be motor-mouthed to be able to speak Sorkin’s dialogue at hundreds of miles per hour. Lead actors Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba do just that and supporting actor Michael Cera known for his fast speaking does the same.
MOLLY’S GAME is stud poker. It would be beneficial if one knows the rules of the game in order to appreciate the film. There are suspense scenes involving being dealt the winning card and if one is unsure whether a full house or a royal flush wins, then one might do better to learn the rules of poker before venturing into a poker film. Besides the fact, Sorkin has done his homework on high poker stake games around the world and what transpires on screen in extremely credible. No doubt the memoirs must have have been quite detailed.
There will undoubtedly be those who will complain about the film being too talky. But this is the niche of watching an Aaron Sorkin film - script or direction. Sorkin has the gift of words and though the film is talky, he is to be given credit for a fast moving 140 lengthy film. His attention to detail is an additional bonus.
Sorkin’s both subtle and over-the-top humour is also present. This can be observed in the detailed and lengthy 10 minute introduction to the film where the voiceover announces that the Molly’s skiing has nothing to do with her poker. The film then establishes from scratch how Molly enters the game and finally how she becomes super good at ti before it all crumbles. Then the biggest joke is that all this is revealed at the film’s end to be caused by skiing after all - to be due to that twig that trips Molly during her final ski jump.
In the story, the FBI presses Molly to reveal the high profile players so that they can be investigated leading to persecution. Molly sticks to her principles against her lawyers advice. Yes, this leads to more verbal debate! Sorkin stays true not to reveal any big names in the film as well.
As in the other Sorkin scripted films, the dialogue goes on so fast that one can understand 20% of its if lucky. But Sorkin has the gift of making the audience feel as if they have understood everything necessary for the film to go on. Sokrin’s scripts and MOLLY’S GAME, his first film are strong on his style of writing. To be fair to him, his story gets through and the film moves fast, at times as fast as the dialogue. But if one wants to complain about this, stay away from this film.
MOLLY’S GAME premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed critical reviews. Love it or hate it, but the Sorkin dialogue film has its pleasures.