Stronger (2017)

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Unlike the usual and therefore, cliched biographical dramas, this film based on a true story of a terrorist attack survivor is mature and involving and raw.

Costco worker and Red Sox fan Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives at home in Boston with his mum, Patty (Miranda Richardson). Desperately trying to win back his on/off girlfriend, Jeff ensures he’ll see Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) at the finish line of the Boston Marathon but he’s caught in the blast and loses both his legs. The following weeks see him try to come to terms with this tragic change in his life.

A lot of films that adapt or take from real life accounts seem to run along with over sentimentality and hope to force their audiences into gushing with sad tears, which of course works on the most part for people but I’ve always been one to find this tactic false and misleading. Gladly, this movie doesn’t push the emotional side of proceedings and lets the devastating tragedy of Jeff’s drama come across in a more genuine and bitterly angry way.

It’s in the relationship between Jeff and Erin that the film feels alive or most real. You see both sides and this film does set up the human flaws in Jeff from before and after the bombing. He’s a figure that never seems wholly scared of commitment just shies away from it, this becomes even more of a realisation once he’s reliant on his wheelchair and the help of Erin. Their journey is very much up and down and the film doesn’t gloss over the troubling but expected anger and self-hatred aspect Jeff faces, which he turn takes out on his girlfriend.

There are some well delivered scenes amongst the relationship angle of this inspirational hero narrative. The way the camera keeps his disabled legs out of focus in keeping with Jeff’s understandable decision to not look as they remove the bandages and gauze is a tough moment. A screaming match in the car may be a certain cliche but it’s a heated and close framed scene that packs a punch. In a dangerous but comedic way, Jeff and his brothers leave a bar and Jeff attempts driving back which is done in a light hearted free spirited way that works quite well.

Certain moments throughout, like the continual patriotic vibe and this hero pedestal he’s been thrown onto feel like a bit too much. The pitching at a baseball game, his flag waving and so on, he’s set up as a hero which the film at times questions how he is for just being there when a bomb went off and having his legs lost, but then at times it truly buys into this hero arc and feels like the only cliche of the movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal is sensational in this, the quite vulnerable child-like eyes he demonstrates from before attending the marathon continue throughout. There’s a crackling damaged intensity in his core that he acts with such outstanding detail. Tatiana Maslany is on par with the acting talents of Gyllenhaal, she releases hugely affecting emotion in the light of her world being turned upside down. As Erin says, Jeff isn’t the only one hurt, there’s a circle all around him of people changed by what happened. It’s not a selfish outburst and thanks to the likable and genuinely deep rooted care and heart she brings, Maslany ensures the connection between the pair is believable.

It’s not a tear-jerker and thankfully it’s not trying to be that kind of weepy picture. It may make you cry just a little but it’s a strong and inspirational film that is carried more by it’s two leads than the way the story is told.

7.5/10

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Molly’s Game (2017)

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What a whirlwind of a life this movie shows us. This drama based on the memoirs from the real Molly Bloom is one that really sends the dialogue flying with laser focused intensity, wit and even humour at times.

After a freak Olympic skiing accident when she was 20, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) keeps putting off law schooling and finds herself working two very well paid jobs. It’s within these placements that she learns on her feet about the world of poker and its players. Soon she sets up her own games but the FBI want her for crimes and only Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) seems to be the one who can help Bloom in her case.

Aaron Sorkin, of huge writing acclaim and fame, is here as a writer but also as a captain in his debut with directorial capacity. His ‘The West Wing’ and ‘The Social Network’ credentials surely show off his knack for writing flair and excellence in dialogue build up and in this film that’s the case again. The directing side of things may not be as confidently managed with the expected back and forth in time and there’s a few times where the film just feels quite long.

The dialogue is pretty much consistently on point, even if it a lot of that comes from narration….a lot of narration. It’s not annoying but it’s certainly overused and I get we’re hearing the story from Molly’s viewpoint but it does ramble with bursts of narrated information. Aside from these negatives, the delivery and content of the writing is razor sharp, Ferrari fast and absorbing. There’s a lot to take in but if you do listen up and keep attuned, then the story of Molly Bloom is definitely one to engage and surprise.

Jessica Chastain plays the whip smart Bloom with incredible confidence and a convincing electric aura. She’s a fascinating talent who keeps on picking sharply written roles for women and she’s deserving of nominations for this part. Not only does she show the softer and more worried state of what she’s done with emotion but she carries an undeniable sense of strength, smarts and power throughout the 2 hour 20 minute run time. Both Chastain and Idris Elba handle the Sorkin dialogue with dynamic flair. Elba is another convincing talent and brings unflinching determination to his role as the defence lawyer. Kevin Costner flits in and out of the story-line and has a couple of smoothly delivered jokes but also sells us with the serious overbearing pushy father qualities.

There is an almost tiresome incessant thread of speedy voice-over but apart from that, I’d say that it’s well buying in and pulling a chair up to this film. Get ready, go all in and jump into a fast and dangerously glamorous world led by a superb Chastain.

7.5/10

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

Loving Vincent (2017)

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Like walking into a gallery and experiencing all the portraits coming alive in front of your very eyes; this biographical movie which is the first fully painted one, is a beautifully realised work of art that is incredibly special to see.

A year after the death of struggling artist Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk), we follow Armand (Douglas Booth) as he tries to deliver a letter from the artist himself to Van Gogh’s brother. Along the way he meets a host of different people that make him start questioning the lead up to the man’s untimely passing.

Diving straight into the rich oil textures of the film, I have to comment and commend the artists that trained to capture van Gogh’s style and then also become animators to make this film the truly wonderful and stunning product it is. There are 65’000 frames and each one was an actual oil painting on canvas, this staggering amount of work really make the visuals something you’ve never seen before. Seeing the actors as shifting painted faces is definitely unique and they roam in a finely accomplished world of animated scenery that plays with form and perspective.

Also the lines, shapes and swirls of the brush strokes in motion was amazing to see, the flickering of lights in the background or the shaky blobs of paint you watch pulsating help the scenes look like the works of Gogh come to colourful life. I know some of his paintings and recognising them in the movie was interesting but the end credits with a page turning book reveals more about the attention to detail that went into this love letter about a very talented man.

One sad truth is the standard style over substance idea and this film does play its style card and never really finds the substance it needs. I couldn’t shake the notion that the entire narrative; backed by Clint Mansell’s tinkling score, was akin to a Columbo detective mystery as we watch the yellow jacketed Armand keep to his delivery task. Yes, the plot is interesting to a point, as I found out more about the life and times of this Dutch Post-Impressionist but the flashback storytelling with characters spieling off amounts of expositional information is a bit safe and uninspired.

Booth is a charismatic fellow to have lead the film from place to place. Jerome Flynn is an uncannily good choice as the try hard artist/physician Gachet, the look of him compared to the painting is incredibly similar. Helen McCrory is a God-abiding housekeeper who plays stern and uncaring for Gogh with great believable ease. Saoirse Ronan and Eleanor Tomlinson are perfect as two women close to the tortured soul of the title. They add intriguing elements of character not only in the roles they play but how they saw Vincent van Gogh. I must also mention Bill Thomas who plays eccentric Doctor  Mazery.

It may be such a cliche to say, but this is a paint by numbers story and account of a dynamic individual. Yet, even with the simple method of plot delivery, the craftsmanship and labour of heart etched into this film is something else. The film looks vivid, exceptional and shimmers with breath-taking style.

7.5/10

 

The Glass Castle (2017)

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Based on the real life growing up of Jeanette Walls and her free spirited and quite unorthodox parents, this indie feeling film has some good moments that stem mostly from the performances of the actors involved. Aside from that I cannot shake the feeling that the core of the story never seems to click.

Raised by artist Rose Walls (Naomi Watts) and Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) who can’t stick to one job or place; are four children. Throughout their upbringing they are taken along for the ride with their impoverished folks. Eventually as they all get older, Jeanette (Brie Larson) truly wants to move on and out and we see her living in New York with wealthy fiance David (Max Greenfield), but her parents may have followed her to the Big Apple.

This is certainly an interesting tale to turn into a biographical film and the heart does certainly strain to be felt from time to time but it’s clouded by a faint mishandling by director, Destin Daniel Cretton, who never seems to keep a pattern or pace to his structure. The Glass Castle uses flashbacks in it’s storytelling but a lot of the time it jumps to and fro, lingers longer in the past or comes back to the present with no real connection to tie the plot together with any interest or style.

It also doesn’t help too much that the parents, especially Rex, seem at times to be too aggressive, alcoholic or out there to redeem themselves as people. I know Rex is based on a real life figure but I just never connected to him and so the final stages of the movie didn’t grip or emotionally resonate with me in the way the director/writers probably intended. The whole bringing up of the family seems completely abusive, but the film seems to go about it in a way that says this way of life is kooky and educational because they’re experiencing life and not trapped in the grind of expected living, and that never sat right with myself.

I guess Cretton, Marti Noxon and Andrew Lanham were hoping to write a screenplay that left its audience uplifted but sadly they are far from that ideal. The flashback timing and abusive quality, as said don’t help but on top of this it feels like a fair-to-middling production you’d see on some network TV station. I know the family is unconventional but the movie comes across as extremely paint by numbers and conventional that the set-up becomes tiresome.

Brie Larson tries to be the glue that holds the film together, her 1980’s older version of Jeanette trying to escape and find a new life but also realising they are part of her family and therefore part of her, but she just can’t quite manage it and her performance though solid and strong isn’t her best. Naomi Watts is interesting to watch and she seems to go for her role with gusto helping her character, Rose, feel real. Woody Harrelson goes for broke playing his part, there are times when it feels over the top but he definitely makes Rex a character of continuous disturbance.

Ultimately, this isn’t a movie I’d watch again in a hurry, there are some vaguely alright moments but overall the entire product tries to be enlightening but only becomes overly sentimental and hokey.

5/10

 

Snowden (2016)

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With a neat common theme of modern like gloss layered over this political drama it’s hard not to feel some moments are heightened for cinematic effect, but the true life and accounts its portraying are truly interesting, thrilling and I liked the film quite a lot.

After being ruled out of the U.S Army, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explores his passion for computers and joins the CIA impressing Corbin (Rhys Ifans). At the same time, Snowden is developing a connection with photographer and liberal Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). As his roles develop, Edward Snowden questions the ideas of these huge government groups and winds up releasing date about American security reviling him as the notorious whistleblower.

I do find that with these type of films, there is never a running jump as to who the director wants to place their chips with, leaving us to walk out mulling over our own thoughts. That for me is something annoying and at least here, director Oliver Stone makes it clear that he’s on Snowden’s side. Of course that gives this movie an obvious bias but he’s having the confidence to put his foot down and direct his own mind.

Edward Snowden was someone I’d always heard of, knew of the whistle blowing status and what he had done to a small degree, but this movie explores a lot more which is great. I liked what the whole feature had to say, as it doesn’t just shed light on this man and how not only his work changed his decisions and therefore life but gives us enough to make an opinion even if Stone is leaning us to the fact that what he did was a necessary thing to kick-start a change in American surveillance.

I too will stake my place and agree that what Snowden was for the benefit of a hopeful world, with big countries needing to be more open about their spying on everyday people. The opposite side is agreeable too, concerning how he definitely threatened pivotal date to possible terrorists and stole information but then this is why I liked the film because there’s a huge meaty conversation starter to be had about the actions of an ethical and technological 29 year old.

Structurally the movie is done as you’d imagine, starting at the most recent point in his timeline as he’s about to leak the information before jumping back every now and then with the the newest 2013 scenes interspersed from time to time. It’s never confusing or muddled and sometimes the scenes blend nicely together. There are some beautiful little touches, for example the kaleidoscope hotel corridor as Snowden walks along, almost a visual parallel to the different stands of his career.

What hit me most is when we watch him use a program that hops from a tracked person if interest and links him/her to contacts they have, then contacts those people have and so on and so on. That was an alarming realisation that I’d just ignorantly never thought to think about and it really demonstrates how mostly innocent people are being watched constantly. It’s all cleverly awash with a neon blue and ends on a graphic circle melding into a shot of Snowden’s eye before pulling out and seeing Edward watch that program unfold.

Gordon-Levitt is great, the change to his voice matches the sound of Snowden very well and he looks remarkably like him as the stubble appears. Woodley is radiant as the antithesis to her partner, she acts playfully but shows emotion too as his commitment to work affects their relationship. Rhys Ifans is a sort of formidable character, on the brink of villainy because of what he knows, this characteristic is illuminated further as his faces looms over Snowden on a screen through a Facetime call. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson aren’t in it too much but do enough to become believable intrepid allies to the cause and likewise Nicolas Cage has little screen-time but is a friendly if typically Cage-like role helping Edward out.

The very biased construction of the film, shining Snowden in a radiant light might be off-putting to some, but he is an icon whichever way you look at him. There’s plenty to think about after seeing this and for me that just outweighs the idealistic siding they’ve taken to their own hero.

7/10

Sully (2016)

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Soaring heights and then crashing back to Earth very quickly, is this safe biographical drama that is interesting, good but an overall un-amazing feature that feels as if it’s hovering calmly over the water never daring to pull up or take the plunge.

In early January, Captain Sully (Tom Hanks) is boarding a flight from LaGuardia in New York to Charlotte in North Carolina, but he and First Officer Jeffrey (Aaron Eckhart) literally fly into trouble as a flock of birds damage their engines. In that quickening scenario of danger Sully manages to land the plane on the Hudson but this leads to many eyes determining whether he made a bad decision.

Clint Eastwood directs this inspiring story about a brave yet everyday hero in a similarly painted-by-numbers manner that he did with ‘Jersey Boys’. It all feels like it’s conforming to a pedestrian telling of a real life event. So considering the life-threatening drama involved it is a film that never comes across as something incredible, rather you’re faced with a good but wholly simple movie.

I couldn’t say I dislike the film though, it’s made efficiently enough and captures that work-like nature of a man in crisis with ease. The differing points of view that come throughout sees the landing from both sides and builds a good narrative, but they get slightly drawn aback by two pretty pointless flashbacks that show younger Sully’s through his work progression, they hardly warrant involvement in the actual finalised release.

The words plane and disaster are ones you never want to hear spoken together, so the few times we see Sully’s nightmarish visions of a plane smashing into a NYC building conjures up jangling nerves and a 9/11 horror. Though the twinkling Christmas-esque music over the passengers being saved is cliched it does help create a miraculous aura over the triumph of many people being helped by others.

Tom Hanks is, as you’d imagine, a fine solid lead playing a capable and charmingly knowledgeable hero, on the flip-side though you know it’s Hanks all the way through and you never lose yourself into his performance enough to buy into it 100%. Aaron Eckhart gets a few good quips and does well in helpfully rooting for Sully but is mostly lost to the wayside.

‘Sully’ flies effectively yet super calmly to the screen as a biopic like nearly every other biopic that gets released during this point of the film calendar. It does the job as Sully himself did but it’s a quiet and average film.

6/10