Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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Game, set and match! This film is an ace of a biopic and extremely relevant with the current climate of the female/male divide. High flying 60s/70s tennis star Billie Jean King and women as a gender themselves rise up and show the grass should be as green on their side of the court as the men.

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is a world class tennis talent but she and every other racket wielding sportswoman are subjected to taunts, digs and extremely less pay than the apparently better and more exciting male tennis players. King says no more, to important Lawn Tennis Association figure Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and starts her own tournament. This bold journey leads her agreeing to a match with former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in the first Battle of the Sexes match.

The story telling is incredibly engaging and like with tennis we go back and forth between the two sides and see how this very, very different people live their lives and train for the big sporting event. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ writer Simon Beaufoy pens an assured telling of an important topic for empowerment and liberation. There are still great drop shots of comedy to be found along the way but he ensures the serious message of gender equality is at the forefront.

The way this film is delivered really works well in making you get excited for the big face off. I wasn’t expecting it to show much of any tennis playing of the match itself and thought it’d adapt Bobby and Billie’s stories leading up to this point but gladly there’s a lot of edge of the seat playing to be seen, you really see the styles of the two players come to a head and as someone who loves watching tennis, the last sequence is exhilarating, tense and beautiful all at the same time.

There is a set of interesting points with this sports story and a lot of them boil down to loves and politics. It’s not just a dramedy but a smartly told narrative that keeps a genuine interest in its subjects. On the softer side there is a forbidden fruit notion of love that ticks away, this secreted passion further adds to the dramatic relevance of the characters and their pre-match behaviours. One is a incessant gambling man-child and the other is a laser-focused achiever struggling with a new feeling in her life.

Stone serves up a careful and emotive performance as the courageous and capable Billie Jean King. You see past her period glasses and into her eyes and get an idea of the amazing and forward thinking woman she was and I’m sure still is. Carell smashes the movie in a role that continues his run of serious acting performances. It may not carry that chill of ‘Foxcatcher’ or the brains from ‘The Big Short’ but he utilises on his comedic background whilst still giving Bobby Riggs a worrying quality of chauvinistic pig-pigheadedness. Andrea Riseborough is a glowing presence in the life of King and she plays this more confident person with a free spirit in a believable and effortless manner.

It’s not a total grand slam of a bio drama as it hits the net with a couple of expected sporting drama cliches or predictable story moments, but these are mere tiny notes in a film that greatly balances pleasing humour and interesting gender politics with a leading duo of actors that are fantastic.

7.5/10

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

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This was a film that likely would have passed be my; I hadn’t seen a trailer or knew anything about this, but I’d call it a hidden gem because it’s just wonderfully made harking to the Hollywood of old.

After falling ill before a stage performance, former silver screen actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) wishes to stay at the house of Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and his kin. Turner and Grahame had been in a relationship for the last two years or so and we see their up and down romance throughout the movie.

Based on a memoir from Peter Turner himself, this romantically themed drama is extremely engaging. Firstly I must comment on the utterly believable relationship between Bening and Bell. This old/young romance never feels wrong, strange or make believe, there’s a genuine affection and attraction built between the actors that helps the film along. The film delves back and forth between her at the house in 1981 and her meeting Turner in 1979, the transitions to and from these moments in time are quite clever and give it an almost one take theatrical vibe as if moving scenes forward on a stage.

For my sins, I had no clue that the glamorous performer in question was actually based on a real actress from the heyday of Hollywood. This only made the story more impacting as I came to realise the true account running through the narrative. I liked to think I know Oscars and actors but I obviously need to brush up on the glitz of 40’s/50’s stardom. It’s this pizzazz and studio based ideal of talent and fitting into a mould to sell pictures that gives Gloria real depth and vulnerability as you see her clinging on to youth and wanting to be loved.

There are some aspects in the film that are predictable and you know what someone may say or what characters will do and a sequence you see from one perspective gets re-shown from the other side with a healthy dose of melodramatic strings rising and clear emphasis on trying to make you emotional, almost cheesy I could say. There’s clear green screen in use for places like New York and beaches of California but they’re apt in a way for this film about acting, gifting the whole feature a movie look as if we’re seeing their memories as glances on a film reel.

Annette Bening better get recognised come awards season, if she’s not up for an Oscar then a Golden Globe at least because she is sublime in this. The mannerisms and the way she talks are an almost sweetly yet seductive Marilyn Monroe quality and she carries confidence and false confidence in equal measure. She completely buries herself into the role and I bought her turn as Grahame hook line and sinker. Jamie Bell gives Turner great care and love, you buy into this man that isn’t much of anything, a success or triumph but a funny, interesting and kind guy who cares deeply for this enigmatic presence in his life. He plays opposite Bening with convincing ease and they’re both fantastic together. It’s great seeing Bell reunite with Julie Walters who dons a Scouse accent rather well and brings that expected and needed heart and comedic touch. I also want to comment on the much too short but almost scene-stealing turn from Frances Barber who plays Gloria’s sister. The icy stares and sharp tongue were brilliant.

This is a film that doesn’t seem to acknowledge the intelligence of its audience with predictable moments and repeated scenes driving home points we’d already gathered but it’s a special movie with a fragile soul beautifully illustrated by the exceptional performances from Bening and Bell.

7/10

The Babysitter (2017)

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Released on spooky Friday the 13th  this adolescent horror comedy never really gets to grips with either the horror or comedy element. It can; I guess, be viewed as entertaining at points but it’s nothing I’d rush to see again or make a friend see. It belongs where it sits – on Netflix where a late night scroll could end you up watching this tackily made brash trash.

Frequently bullied twelve year old Cole (Judah Lewis) is excited that his parents are off to a hotel because that means the babysitter will be round. He may be the only schoolkid with one, but he has a fun and good relationship with Bee (Samara Weaving). She looks out for him and they share similar interests but one night after goaded by neighbour Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind), Cole keeps himself awake to see just what it is that Bee gets up to when he’s usually asleep. The answer may surprise and shock Cole leaving him experiencing a strangely bloody night.

I knew there was a horror/blood-soaked element attached to this film but I didn’t really look into what the plot was about so I won’t spoil what happens to kick things off or what goes down but yes…wow…there’s a literal WTF moment, those very words even pinged onto the screen seconds after I’d said them aloud to myself! This is when Cole, and the audience, realise what hell may be unleashed and it certainly is unexpected.

So, I guess that element of genuine surprise is a nice touch but before that occurs, the set up of the narrative and characters feels like it’s been transplanted out of that MTV music channel vibe. It’s as if the movie is souped up on a concoction of drugs; the editing and sounds all crackling and switching speeds like the post-production crew had one too many energy drinks. There are titles on screens, random frozen snap shots of moments and a general aura that this film is trying hard to be cool.

Unlike ‘It’ or my favourite TV show of the moment – ‘Stranger Things’, the child acting in this is quite poor, especially between a trio of bullies and Cole. The actor playing Cole does get slightly better but nothing to write home about. On the note of performances, Bella Thorne as yellow costumed cheerleader Allison is cringe, you see her laughing during her ‘panicked’ reaction to the aftermath of police entering the residence. Weaving is believable and I guess I kind of bought into the change of her character but everyone feels like an over the top parody of horror films as if the writer and director are badly spoofing horrors because they don’t like the tropes they come with.

The movie begins quickly descending into mad carnage but the Bee/Cole pairing was already a maddening awkward dynamic, his boob watch and their party time spent together with Stacy’s Mom inspired pool scene felt like unnecessary gratification for the teen audience, further proven by the Weaving/Thorne girl on girl smooch. It’s not just the obvious sexual edge they try hard with, Brian Duffield the writer seems to attempt comedic tension at times but fails with both.

‘The Babysitter’ is definitely not taking itself too seriously and I get that, but that doesn’t mean I can totally forgive it for having its tongue well and truly shoved in it’s cheek. Immaturity is a word I’d use to describe the tone of this release, there’s not much in here to satisfy comedy or horror fans but I’d imagine fourteen year old lads would be happy.

Looking at the above poster, like a GTA one-sheet or visually inspired by ‘The Guest’, it’s sad to say it doesn’t hold the latter’s synth-horror or skewed drama-comedy bite, it feels more like the underwhelming and juvenile ‘Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse’. Yet with all this negative talk, I in fact found myself enjoying this 2017 film more and more, if enjoy is the right verb to use. I felt the “see you C and bye bye B” sign off is quirky and cute and I liked it. The movie switches into a semblance of ‘Home Alone’ but R rated and I actually grew to like the film as it went on, it is trashy but it’s like a stupid joyride that you know you should jump out of but want to carry on with.

5/10

La La Land (2017)

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Well, not for a long while have I been eagerly anticipating a movie like the release of this musical drama. Add on top the record-breaking Golden Globes haul then you have a very excited chap. For the most part this film delivers, it’s stylish, fun, heartfelt but I don’t agree with all the souped up hype it’s received.

After a minor amount of road-rage where aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) cross paths, they end up bumping into each other again and again which leads to a romance through the year. As they try following their dreams in LA it becomes a harder challenge to keep the love alive.

I have to say that I absolutely adored the first half or so of this film. It harks back to that classic glitz and glamour of Hollywood old with a neat dose of a modern touch thanks to the musical and confident direction from Damien Chazelle. Just from the sweeping opening on a Los Angeles highway to the delicate changes in lighting, the songs and story begin with a bang.

It helps that we get brilliant performances and a clear chemistry between the two main characters but also the style adds a neat note to the song-sheet that is this feature. There’s times that it looks and sounds like a studio set production and you’d expect Fred Astaire to come tap dancing in. The writing by Chazelle, is for the most part a well handled story that lends a two-sided coin to the LA lifestyle but with an obvious landing on dreams to follow and achieve.

As I sat in my seat I found myself hooked and smiling along to a wonderful series of scenes but then annoyingly, there came a specific moment where I even felt myself disengaging and from then on, the writing becomes very generic and almost cliched. It drifts into a romantic plot you’d expect to find in every other manically churned out rom-com. This frustrated me because I was expecting it to keep going with the gleeful whizz of CinemaScope delight but instead…it wains.

It is almost saved as we get a short burst of style near the end showing a quick run of events. So yes I agree it’s a fantastically well made and enchanting film, it deserved 3 perhaps 4 of the Globes it picked up out of 7. This is obviously, as I realised as they were winning, a case of the voters loving films that celebrate America or the US saving the day -(note Argo winning Best Picture)

Song wise, ‘Another of Day of Sun’ is jolly, sun-drenched and a perfect, literally perfect way to start a film of this genre. ‘City of Stars’ is sung well and has a melancholy yet magical sound but I don’t see how that gets the attention when Stone’s ‘Audition’ song is better performed and has better lyrics. Though it’s naff for jazz and a typical Top 40’s track, John Legend’s performance of ‘Start a Fire’ works well in showcasing the path Seb is taking away from his dream.

I’m not a total grouch because I did enjoy the majority of the film, I just don’t feel it should have broke GG records and I hope the Oscars gives some variety because ‘La La Land’ does swerve into a nearly boring not great second half.

7/10

A Monster Calls (2017)

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Thematically powerful with a strong emotional message, this is not a typical fantasy film. It’s better than that, cleverly balancing a talking tree with stunning animation sequences whilst retaining the necessary coming of age narrative.

Artistic Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) tries coping with his terminally ill mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones), being beaten up at school and now a huge yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) is arriving at specific times to deliver three stories to him. These tales may eventually help Conor in revealing his own truth and understanding more.

Patrick Ness’ novel written from an idea by Siobhan Dowd who died of cancer before completing the book, is a fabulously rich story with a central tug of grief that is handled very well. Ness who also wrote this screenplay ensures the interpretation of the Monster’s stories are clear enough to transfer to Conor’s real life. It’s just a really smartly told plot that keeps you interested and attached.

The water colour animations that arrive with each story are creative, bold and quite dark too. This weaving of human complexity within these sequences are engaging and lifts the film even higher. The CGI and mo-cap of the tree monster is great also, thin branches or wisps of wood curling round items add to the fantastical element, he’s an interesting coach for Conor, looking brutish and menacing but having a kind heart within his trunk.

I’ll openly admit that I found the movie emotional, it never reached that overly sentimental try-hard point. Yes it does go towards that area but the way director and writer handle the subject matter keeps it from being soppy drivel. I will also go further to say that I cried from watching this movie, the film is very affecting because you get wrapped up in the vivid world and it’s certainly a more adult feature than you’d think.

Felicity Jones is gripping during the movie, her condition gets bleak and she becomes a paler gaunter figure but still keeps hold of a hopeful glint in her eye, making her a likeable and strong mother figure. Sigourney Weaver like the witch in the first tale is a see-saw of characteristics but one, ultimately that you know will be good. Liam Neeson’s work playing the booming monster is perfectly cast and he adds gravely gravitas to the part. The show is truly Lewis MacDougall’s though as he carries fear, courage, sadness, confusion and anger through the entire picture with spellbinding conviction.

Only the very ending featuring a book felt like a twee moment, aside from that this is a movie to kick off 2017 in fantastic fashion. The emotional vein running through the story is constant, touching and intelligent.

7.5/10

Bleed for This (2016)

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Stepping into the ring is this boxing bio-pic that smacks with a few of the expected sporting movie cliches but thanks to a great great performance from Miles Teller, the rise to riches and fame story isn’t so tedious.

Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Teller) is in the junior welterweight category but doesn’t seem to have luck winning bouts. Once he teams up with former Mike Tyson coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) and bumps up to junior middleweight he begins succeeding. That run comes to a tragic halt as Pazienza breaks his neck in a car crash but he doesn’t want to quit and tries fighting again.

Ben Younger directs this biographical drama with a clear understanding of crafting the journey. There’s enough time and attention given to not just the party boy character of Vinny but his family also. The moment he winds up almost paralysed is delivered well, showing what that change has on everyone. A lot of the time in fighting/boxing films, it’s the bouts themselves that run tiresome or repetitive so gladly Younger focuses more on the character development than what happens confined behind the ropes.

Of course there is still the usual boxing pitfalls of initial fights, underdog statuses and the middle plot drive where Vinny shifts a gear and becomes a big winner. Then there’s the next fall and with a devastating accident like the one we see, it’s obvious we’ll receive the protagonists gritty resolve to progress and never give up. The ending fight is predictable and lacks any inspiring gusto but it certainly hits with a good comeback end showing off the powerful mindset some people have to endure and prove people wrong.

A neat moment of editing occurs nearing the end, sharp quick sounds of punching as Vinny smacks from the past. Along with this we get fast flashes of scenes retelling his story as we come the huge step in his career where he hopes to squash fears of his injuries and triumph.

Miles Teller lands a fantastic point in his career in a role that topples his dedicated wonder in ‘Whiplash’. That drum-centric film may be better but here Teller is a muscled machine that pushes the story onward and upwards as much as he can. It’s certainly his show and he excels as Pazienza bringing sweat dripping determination to the screen. Aaron Eckhart is great also, the knowing coach is believable and he has a good connection with Teller, dancing and drink induced scenes give him fun and character. Ciaran Hinds is another engaging talent through this, the actor immerses himself brilliantly as Vinny’s father.

There’s enough in this sporting feature to keep you watching but not enough to break the mould or overly excite. The performances are strong but the film doesn’t help make me think boxing movies need to step down for a while.

6.5/10

Hush (2016)

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I’m loving Netflix for these movies that I otherwise wouldn’t see. This psychological horror is fantastically written, deals with tension so well that I don’t think it lets up from the moment the killer arrives to when the credits scroll upwards. It’s even better because it doesn’t jump to jump scares for help, in fact I don’t recall any in the entire feature…hurrah!

Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) is struggling to write a second novel. She has multiple endings but cannot decide on which suits the story best. As she sits at her laptop she is unaware that a masked murderer (John Gallagher Jr.) is outside planning to kill her, he has an element of power because Maddie is deaf and mute from contracting meningitis when she was 13, however she won’t go down without a fight.

It is the tension in this that works so well, I read that director Mike Flanagan was originally going to have Maddie not hearing anything captured in complete silence, which he went back on realising the lack of sound would take audiences out of the picture. He is bang on, the echoing heartbeat effects drumming into recognition do enough to put you into her world but keep the tension brewing very nicely.

On the whole, this is a movie that cleverly plays with sound and flicks between the almost hollow scope of Maddie’s hearing and the louder life we are used to. It’s interesting giving the villain an advantage yet still having him not always being the almighty killer you’d expect him to be. The house is another character in a sense, as it provides our heroine with rooms of escape, crawl spaces and vantage points to try and win the night.

Though there is not a lot of dialogue, I must commend the writing of Flanagan and actor/wife/writer Siegel who both master a scene of superb tension between the killer and a neighbour who comes checking in. The levels of power play bounce back and forth and that dramatic irony of knowing who he is as he pretends to be otherwise is perfectly set up just making you want to shout out to John that all is not good. The inclusion of her as a writer is beautifully utilised as we see numerous choices for Maddie to possibly take, like her story left with many possible ends.

Katie Siegel is a great central character, her lost sense is never a weakness as she possesses a strong will and in her eyes there is that clear sense of determination even if she nicely showcases fear from time to time. Gallagher Jr. is great too, once he takes off the simple but damn effective mask, he goes to town on an unhinged murderer without needing backstory to create a well structured dynamic antagonist.

I was immersed into this taut and skilled movie from the offset and that connection was never lost. ‘Hush’ is an excellent home invasion release that is very smart and very tense.

8/10