Blinded by the Light (2019)

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The streets of Luton become a playground and problem for a young man, in this drama-comedy set to the hits of singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen. Inspired by a true story and directed by ‘Bend it like Beckham’ talent Gurinder Chadha, this is a feel-good movie with enough cheer to outweigh the negatives.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) enjoys music and writing poems but with his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) being a tight hold on values and so-called ‘proper’ job prospects, Javed finds it hard to believe his passion can go further. After schoolmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) gives him some Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes, Javed becomes fully swept away and finally sees a chance to follow his dream but at what cost to his family life?

‘Blinded by the Light’ is an uplifting musical tale about a Pakistani teenager developing a connection to the power of something other than synth. Javed most certainly gets blinded by the light and lyrics of Springsteen and there’s enjoyment to be had in seeing his unabashed exuberance but there does also come a time when he gets too selfish, he grows offish with his family and a new found girlfriend which jeopardises his character slightly but thanks to a spirited and runaway performance from Kalra, you cannot help but root for the lad.

What stands up strongest with this film is the heart. Chadha and scribes Sarfraz Manzoor and Paul Mayeda Berges safeguard the integrity of family and home over all things, so even if the tunes of Bruce have you merrily tapping a foot, you’ll always realise how much more powerful the values of the characters are. The core of the film is with Javed and his father and their rocky relationship, it serves as the rhythm of the piece and you do get fairly wrapped up into the developing nature of their back and forth.

The Boss has no doubt produced some absolute blinders and his music gilds the movie with a gravelly and soulful edge. A couple of songs rip out of the story, living it large like a semi-musical number, with bystanders dancing along, yet the vocals of the New Jersey artist take precedent, with the actors’ singing dialled down underneath the likes of “Born to Run”. The thing is, they have good voices and if you’re having them race across Luton, gleefully singing their hearts out, then it’d be nice to see the sequence as a full musical; their performances being the one and only after Bruce kicks them off.

Also their does come a sort of kitchen-sink melodrama to the film in places, perhaps a feeling of sentimentality going too far but if you can overlook this soapy nature then the film is joyous. The only real gripe is a segway out of the UK which is a little overboard and cringey, only because it removes the plight of Javed and his inner conflict in Thatcher’s depressing Britain, leading the way with silly postcards and then a sudden cutback to Luton living.

As the 16 year old Pakistani opens his eyes and mind to the rock and folk styles of Springsteen, lyrics appear on screen nicely signifying his awakening to a new world. As part of the audience you too shall have your eyes opened by an upbeat film. ‘Blinded by the Light’ bursts out of denim seams and walks in the sun of feel-good wonder.

7/10

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Yesterday (2019)

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It goes without saying that The Beatles are music legends known the world over, but what would life be like without the Fab Four in it? ‘Yesterday’ is the answer to that question and with director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis behind it, could we expect a sweet treat or is it meh, actually?

Suffolk lad Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) struggles to pick up any attention playing his own songs in pubs and on the streets, the only real interest he’s always had is from maths teacher and manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James). After a cycle accident, he wakes up to discover that no-one knows who The Beatles are; leading him to recapture the British Invasion magic and pass their songs off as his own.

Whether you’re a fan of Paul, John, George and Ringo or not, the Liverpool band have a great number of songs that get you humming along and in that sense this film is a wonder. The vocals of Patel as he strums along to Yesterday or Here Comes the Sun are soothing and help create a feel-good atmosphere to the story but whenever the film steps off the Abbey Road crossing and away from the music then you really cannot Help! but see the many flaws in the story.

Richard Curtis’ script is predictable to the nth degree and not even a few funny flashes of what ifs, to the likes of other well known brands disappearing, can save the familiar territory of a film that has a simple premise, and an even simpler love story attached. The whole sequence that sees Jack crash and emerge into a Beatle-less world is laughably silly and throws up questions that shouldn’t be asked because it’s a fluff film but you cannot help but ask anyway. For example, having him sing a Beatles track at the flashback school scene would at least show he’s a fan of them, because up until the point of his hospital awakening, The Beatles aren’t ever mentioned as an influence for Jack and yet he knows every single lyric to a whole rostra of their hits.

On top of the more mainstream look at The Beatles and exceptionally obvious storytelling comes a cringe cameo-cum-main part from Ed Sheeran, in the same dragged out way that Elton John had in ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’. Whoever helped effects in post production seem like they had a blast discovering a free trial of title FX as we see graphics spin and whoosh on screen for every single location. Worse than any of these gripes though, is the lazily drawn character of Ellie which has Lily James desperately trying to inject charm into. The romance side of the plot is bland, expected and more of a staggering issue than a beach-side meet-up with a face from the past; if you could Imagine that.

There are traces of fun along the way but the tone is so light that it blows away in the wind, and not even Danny Boyle, James or the pleasing sounds of Patel can pull it back down to Earth. ‘Yesterday’ is a film that should have been left be, it’s easy-going but nothing to Twist and Shout about.

5/10

Wild Rose (2019)

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The lead in this musical drama has the words ‘three chords and the truth’ tattooed on her arm. Here are three words and nothing but the truth about ‘Wild Rose’; authentic meaningful satisfaction. And another word because I cannot contain myself – outstanding.

Freed from jail after 12 months, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) returns to her mam and 2 children but the home sweet home life has never really suited her. She’s a boozer, a force that can’t be tamed and country music swells in her bloodstream. Rose-Lynn only wants to make a name for herself in Nashville but juggling a cleaning job and having a family brings up what really matters.

‘Wild Rose’ contains this inescapable family aspect and director Tom Harper ensures that the carefree Glaswegian antics never overshadow the true feeling of the story. Perhaps his work on shows like ‘This is England 86’ have helped him craft that narrowing in on struggling family units and it pays off wonderfully in this feature.

Rose-Lynn’s home life is engrossing in its richness and it serves as an ideal series of notes in her narrative songbook. By the time we reach the final showstopping moment, with the camera lingering on those closest to the aspirational singer, you’d have to possess no empathy to not be moved to tears by the destructive, yet beautiful smacks of power, heart and delight shown on screen.

In this movie, Glasgow itself becomes a character. It embodies life, entrapment, hope, pain and growth which Rose-Lynn mirrors in fine measure, this helps really make you understand her roots, so by the time she touches down in the shiny world of Nashville you cannot help but know this glittery city, overrun with similar dreamers may not be the oasis she yearned for after all.

Along the way, there are a few parts which sniff of almost whacking in obstacles every other scene, just to keep raising the stakes and adding weight to Rose-Lynn’s personal tug of war but the sheer majesty of her vocals instantly makes you forgive these minor broken strings, on an otherwise finely tuned film.

Jessie Buckley pours her absolute all into this role and therefore her character crackles with life and pure soul. She is wonderful at capturing a feisty energy and emoting Rose-Lynn’s struggles with heart-wrenching power. It’s not just running amok in Scotland and beyond that make her fun to watch, up on stage or on a webcam, Buckley is a firecracker with a voice which gives you goosebumps and can also soothe you with a twang of joy. Julie Walters is a marvellous treasure; her connection to Rose-Lynn and her children are magnificent and you utterly invest into every scene she appears in.

Music can be such a megaton of power and through the truth and storytelling qualities of the country scene, ‘Wild Rose’ is one of those musical gems with something to say and it’s leading lady is a rising star to be reckoned with.

8/10

 

Fighting with my Family (2019)

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Stepping out as solo director, for the first time onto the cinematic mat, is Stephen Merchant who referees this biographical film with a fervent eye on stocking plenty of comedy throughout but he never lets that choke-hold the life and affection out of the movie.

Growing up in Norwich in a family of avid wrestlers, Saraya (Florence Pugh) has come to love the sport and become a dab hand at it too. Along with her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) she attends some World Wrestling Entertainment tryouts in London and only she makes the grade but while she’s away in America training to get signed, her wrestling moniker of Paige may be a far reach as she feels like a fish out of water in tenacious new surroundings.

From the sidelines this looked like a movie which would be average at best but it exceeds the hum-drum of other cliched sports dramas based on real people. A big reason why it does is thanks to a constant bolt of energy that runs through the film, be it from the near constant chimes of comic one-liners or from the sensationally good performances from all involved.

Yes it does follow a clear formula paved by similar coming-of-age stories but it beams with such a positive conviction that there’s no way this movie will find itself on the ropes. It may have helped that as a local lad living in Norwich, there’s some glee to be had in spotting places close to home but there’s a general measure of hilarity and zany passion in the Norfolk family unit of which we’re presented that you can’t help but buy into the story.

If you can forgive predictable moments such as what people might say or do, what music may swell into place or even the motion a camera may move in at specific points then you’re faced with an undeniably radiant film that you cannot help but root for and ultimately like…a lot. It’s a film that knows how to capture drama on both sides of the pond. Stephen Merchant has a good grip on showcasing the glossy States as being a maker and breaker of dreams; America can be shiny and bright but it’s also tough and unflinching. Writer/director Merchant documents both the family bond and the vulnerability of Saraya’s newfound environment with humour and heart.

One thing is for sure; we are not worthy of Florence Pugh’s talent. She is a powerhouse of likeability through every second of what we see. Be it through her gritted teeth whilst flipping tyres or the lovingly witty repertoire she exudes with her brother, mum and dad; ‘Fighting with my Family’ is a lot better off by having Pugh involved. I could gush forever but her performance is magnetism personified. Lowden is equally as fierce; the moments of Zak’s developing bitterness are heartfelt and you can definitely hear his anger through just his looks alone.

It may not be lifting up a championship belt anytime soon but there’s enough charm, soul and well-scripted comedy to make this a film a winner you’ll happily cheer for.

7.5/10

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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‘Juliet, Naked’ premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it couldn’t be more of a Sundance flick; the charming aspects and the unlikely romance are right in the wheelhouse of indie darlings and on the most part, this Jesse Peretz feature works thanks to the effortless matching of its lead actors.

Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) is stuck in a seaside town thanks to boyfriend Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), some of her resentment is due to her job but some boils down to Duncan’s love of a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), whose music Annie finds intolerable. One day she receives an email from the mysterious musician himself and they begin a 100/1 relationship.

Throughout this darling song of a movie there are a rare couple of comedic moments and though it’s not as outright funny as certain scenes had room to be, what works much better are the dramatic notes that are lyrically added to the appealing narrative. This is a film, almost like a melodic tale of love and regrets, parenting and loneliness and these themes are handled in a great heart-felt manner.

When you have source material from Nick Hornby; novelist of High Fidelity and About a Boy and screenwriter of ‘Brooklyn’ then you know to expect a romantic tale with plenty to say and thematic weight to keep the characters going to their end goals. This adaptation from the 2009 book of the same name works in the sense that you feel a faint smile on your face appear as you watch the relationship of Tucker and Annie grow. The warming sensation of a feel-good film can’t be beaten.

Here is perhaps where I am being critically unfair but the similarly driven ‘Hearts Beat Loud’, also premiering at the same Sundance, managed to capture a great mix of light comedy, fantastic songs, romance and family emotion whereas this more recent release doesn’t quite. There’s something not entirely perfect about this film which I felt the Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons music based movie reached closer to.

Rose Byrne is utterly sensational as Annie; the emotive range is great and she really makes us like her character. She lovingly handles every beat of the journey Annie goes on and the way she performs the disappointments of her life and love for 15 years are really believable. Ethan Hawke as this apparently seminal music star, gives grit and reflective thought to a man clearly unused to the extended family he has and the role as a father he’s meant to live up to. The moments between him and Byrne, whether through email voice-over or in person are touching and yes that word again, charming.

So whilst ‘Juliet, Naked’ might not be as endearing as other rom-coms, there’s a strong character duo to watch and the bittersweet indie aspect of their connection more than make up for the likelihood of its forgettable nature.

6.5/10

Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)

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Fifteen years later and Johnny English is still a thing! I won’t lie, I did enjoy the first once upon its 2003 release and find it stupidly quotable to this day but when you have a character originating from a bank advert appearing in a weak third instalment, then you’ve got to question things. Imagine Flo and Joan from Nationwide riffing on a ‘Thelma and Louise’ like adventure or Greg from Halifax popping up in the full 100 minutes of ‘The Wizard of Oz’…it’s enough to make you shudder.

As the UK faces multiple technological shutdowns from a mysterious hacker, there’s only a few old school MI7 agents left unrevealed to the world, step forward Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) who teams up again with trusty Bough (Ben Miller) to track the source of the breach and get in all manner of mishaps.

The first film did possess a few chuckles and silly moments to tickle the funny bone but after ‘Johnny English Reborn’ from 2011 which I’ve all but forgotten about, there’s little in this newest spy outing to call for more English and in fact it dampens the nostalgic humour of the original. A large percentage of the stale feeling comes from the same writer being involved on the entire trio, this therefore means we face a tried and tested formula that is quickly unfunny.

On top of the deeply missed comedy aspect are brief touches of racism and other out dated thinking that makes it hard to stomach the film. A good 95% of the gags can be seen a mile off and that’s not just the ones that are sign-posted by obvious pre amble in the dialogue. There simply isn’t any need for this film, if it had been well put together then maybe it could be forgiven but it’s a dreary load that is massively tiring.

A story thread of old versus new runs throughout; with Johnny utilising a lack of mobile tech against a villain keen on gadgets. This leads to clear spoofing of James Bond which lie in English’s arsenal of sweet treats and dangerous candy but these nor anything else that tries to lampoon Britain’s most famous spy can save the movie from being less than amusing. Every now and then it feels like we may just witness a good scene or funny idea but aside from a well story-boarded VR sequence, English shouldn’t have struck again.

Rowan Atkinson harnesses the neat Mr. Bean routine of great physical comedy and he gurns like a king; there’s no doubt the man can commit to well performed choreography but it’s enough to lighten the film. Emma Thompson is on board and though she gives her role as PM a good deal of gusto even she can’t lift this film out of the gutter it speedily prat-falls into. Once again Olga Kurylenko is short changed, she’s a good glamorous actress who can’t quite get to appear in a film worthy of her talents. In this she is underused as a character impatient yet oddly drawn to Johnny’s antics, as was I.

Hopefully the hacker of the film will come to life and wipe all trace of 2 and 3 from memory, leaving us with the 2003 one, that though dumb is a huge sight funnier than this movie could ever hope to be.

3.5/10

 

The Little Stranger (2018)

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British gentry and inflections of Gothic horror are to be found in Lenny Abrahamson’s recent feature. ‘The Little Stranger’ is adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, a book that plays around with the themes of finance and evil, which the film attempts to do but doesn’t altogether get a handle of.

Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) pays numerous visits to an estate out in the country to help with the physical pains felt by RAF veteran Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter). As his trips to the house become more frequent he starts feeling an unshakeable presence through the house which he pins down with rational answers but Roddy’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is sure something else is going on as is her their mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling).

Abrahamson; the man behind a musician in a papier-mache mask and a kidnapped mother and child, shows he can switch genres well, but there is a connection. The director always seems prone to keep focus on the story’s characters, his latest feature is no different. The characters create a large proportion of the odd mysteries but unlike with Frank or Ma and Jack, the figures roaming through ‘The Little Stranger’ lack a special something and in the end, that’s the main weakness for this film.

This drama does feel too long as well, it snails through the narrative and though it’s not a bore to sit through, the gentile pace is prone to uninteresting spells. A lot of the film comes across like a theatrical play, a drawing room scene especially feels that way and I’m sure this tone stems from scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon who has many plays under her belt. This quality is by no means a negative, in fact it does show off the great acting but it stifles the stride and the times when the film could be more scarily cinematic.

Perhaps if the film stayed in the confines of the home then the run-time would have some minutes shaved off but ultimately it would have kept up an unsettling atmosphere and curious character, of which the house most certainly is one. It almost breathes with a strange desire for trouble. What the film explores well is the air of something not being fully right, through creaking halls and scratched walls, Abrahamson ensures the ghoulish moments are all the more striking by utilising a calm approach to the tension, this is echoed by the slow-moving camerawork which floats in and around the rooms of the dilapidating country house.

You can’t quite put a finger on Dr. Faraday, this is thanks to the fascinating performance from Gleeson who is charming in an irregular way but also quietly threatening. The more he appears, frequently stopping by the big house, the more he feels like an unwelcome stranger. Wilson plays a nice balance of hope against meekness, a smart soul trapped by an event in the past.

This film reminded me of ‘I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’, not because Wilson also appears in it but because both have great yet rare moments of spooky atmosphere stitched together in fairly quaint, hushed hushed settings and both carry intrigue which speedily vanishes to unwanted disappointment.

5.5/10