Booksmart (2019)

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Graduating from actor to director, with her first time debut feature is Olivia Wilde, for a joyful and transcendent entry to the coming-of-age genre. The combined efforts of Wilde, a unit of four superb writers and the leading ladies make for a feel good film with great diversity and some originality.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are extremely intelligent seniors in high school and seem to have their whole adult lives mapped out. After they realise that their sole focus on studies might have been for nought, they decide to finally mix play with work at the last hurdle as they embark on a route to an end of year house party.

Olivia Wilde steps up to the plate and behind the camera with effortless ease, in such a way you’d believe she’d made multiple movies beforehand. The knack in which she creates such a comfortable atmosphere throughout the film and ensures the depth of the central females comes to the fore, is exquisite quality control. The narrative may tread familiar beats to other coming-of-age features but Wilde directs in a way that breaths new life into the world.

Unlike a lot of American comedies, which try too hard to cram in pop-culture references and lose themselves in smutty humour, ‘Booksmart’ banks on the friendship between the girls and is that ever a successful bet because the two leads are a sensation. Dever and Feldstein break the scales of chemistry and through hyped up facial expressions and wonderful timing they fill the film with perfect amounts of nighttime revelry, self-learning and awkwardness.

It is not just the gals who triumph, as this is a film which pools together an excellent array of electrically charged zany folk. The background cast are interesting to watch, funny and play a suitable part in the antics of Molly and Amy’s night. The diverse range of characters make you truly feel as if you’re immersed in a world of high school cliques.

A lit soundtrack punctuates the teen angst and laughter with a fire punch of soul-happy energy. The lighting and neon lights of their house party hopping gives ‘Booksmart’ a starry wash of shiny exploration which works in their actual physical journey but their own inner understanding of themselves, each other and the students around them. This is no more felt than in a third act which sees the hopeful party pair reach dramatic levels.

Granted, there are some predictable moments and not every joke lands but these are minuscule blips in an otherwise note-perfect comedy. ‘Booksmart’ is a breath of fresh air with Olivia Wilde, Feldstein, Dever and the writers doing wonderful things to have you instantly feeling in safe hands to sit back and wallow in the non-stop delight of their work.

8/10

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Mid90s (2019)

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This 1990’s set coming-of-age film is made by first time director Jonah Hill. You can definitely sense his comedic style influencing the way the characters speak but as a debut role behind the camera, does Hill give us something Superbad or is it an example of a Megamind to keep watch of?

13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives at home with his bully big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and mum Dabney (Katherine Waterston). After witnessing some older teenagers having fun skateboarding, Stevie decides to try his hand at the activity and in turn he makes friends with the crew, even if it does mean he starts skating down some dodgy roads.

The transition from indoor gamer Stevie to hanging out outside and christened ‘Sunburn’ is a swift yet glorious watch. He does the thing most youths did when they felt a phase was too babyish for them; he removes posters and adds up more grown up memorabilia and tries adult things in the hope of fitting in. What Jonah Hill does as writer/director is ensure the rite of passage is lovingly documented and the 90’s setting is pretty much the perfect, grungy backdrop to tell the story.

As if on its own wheels, this film shuttles by and with Nick Houy’s editing you really feel as if his life is injected with a dangerous spurt of energy. There is a party scene which opens with funky fresh cuts that snap along to the beat of the music and it isn’t just this which shows some sharp snips, the film has a few other, somewhat brutally effective edits enhanced by blasts of sound, which clatter in a shocking way.

‘Mid90s’ isn’t all fast paced masculinity though, there are a couple of touching moments portrayed in the bond between Sunburn and group leader and hopeful skater pro Ray. The way that Ray cares for and likes to see their new member get up and try again is great and they have a well written connection, especially in a silent and sunlit exchange where Ray fixes Stevie up with a new board.

It is a mostly solid bolt out of the gates from Hill, aside from one iffy scene at a house party that sees the li’l lead getting hit on by an older gal. Their age difference and following bases he ticks off are met with applause but it’s a tonally weird feeling scene, and if things were the other way around, with an older lad sexually advancing on a younger female then it’d be torn apart, but here it’s treated as a celebration and something a kid should go through to be deemed ‘cool’. Some may view it as harmless and a mildly amusing scene but it didn’t sit right with me.

Suljic is a fantastic actor with his youth shining through in the desired places and this childlike wonder adds flavour to his more grown up language and actions. He has this puppy dog loyalty that he acts wonderfully as he plays in a new gang. These sunnier parts are contrasted by some darker elements of his personal life which he attacks with no reserve.

Even if skateboarding was never your scene, Jonah Hill writes and directs a film with a neat focus on angst, awkwardness, puberty, brotherly fights and trying to fit in, without ever really messing any of those qualities up. ‘Mid90s’ is a coming-of-age movie rife with skater-boi law breaking and growing pains, which thoroughly reflect male childhood.

7/10

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

My Friend Dahmer (2018)

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Getting what seems is a limited run in UK cinemas, is this biographical tale adapted from a graphic novel, which was created by Backderf; a school friend of the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer. At times disturbing and at others oddly humorous, Marc Meyers’ fourth feature is a slow morbid watch.

During the late 1970’s, Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is forced to give up collecting bones and preserving them in jars and make an effort in school. He becomes a tool of entertainment for a small group of friends and with hopeful cartoonist John Backderf (Alex Wolff) leading the way, Dahmer gains attention but also finds himself more attracted to men. He also treads down the dangerous path to understanding what animals and we could be made of.

What’s eerily compelling about the film, is how light it is during many sections. The school based setting, the domestic location and oddball antics set the story up like a coming of age narrative. Though obviously we know it’s more a coming of killer drama. There is, dare I say it, fun to be had in watching Dahmer finally make a connection with classmates and their clowning around is dumb but entertaining.

Then there’s the more troubling environment of Dahmer’s difficult home life, with a busy father and argumentative mother. I don’t know if it’s a good thing that this movie makes you feel sympathy for him as a person, almost justifying his distant behaviour and clear apathy. As the film moves further down the timeline towards Dahmer’s graduation, it becomes a snail-like trek to get through, the back and forths from school and home is a slow burning aspect that actually makes you want to see Jeffrey crack.

The choice to have this film feature next to no music is brave and works nicely, the lack of a manipulating score gives the movie a banality, similar to the empty life Dahmer leads. It’s only in rare moments, of a shopping centre fool around or the later points when he looks to finally snap, that Andrew Hollander’s effort comes in to impact the unsettling nature of this young mans behaviour.

Lynch is the best thing about a film that did have me feeling it was way, way longer than 1 hour 40. The dead stares, hunched shoulders and dropped arms as he mopes through the story are fascinating. He does a great job in drawing you in and its clear to see the warped processes ticking over in his mind.

‘My Friend Dahmer’ does slightly drag and seems to waver weakly in connecting the school antics with his home life, but thanks to a confined feeling of dread mustered by both Lynch and director Meyers, this is an interesting look at how a monster was born.

6/10

 

The Breadwinner (2018)

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From the studios that gifted us the stunning fantasy feature ‘Song of the Sea’, comes this equally stunning film. There’s a smart combination of visual wonder and coming of age material, but it’s also a story not scared to tackle the troubling setting of a Taliban controlled city.

On the streets of Kabul, a young girl called Parvana (Saara Chaudry) helps her father sell wares to passersby. A heated argument causes a furious Taliban member to arrest him and he’s taken to prison. Parvana has a mother, sister and little brother back at home, who are running out of food and because women aren’t allowed to roam free by themselves, she decides to change her identity in the hope of helping her family and finding her dad again.

This story based off a book by Deborah Ellis is such an honest, textured look on a world far away from the luxuries of Western living. Ellis and Anita Doron have mastered a screenplay that wonderfully juggles the main narrative with a magical story within a story. What works so flawlessly for this film, is the way they aren’t afraid to show how brutal the place can be and how chained women are; by the words of men and society in general. When the film illustrates these times of powerful masculinity beating down on innocents, it’s a significant weight that bears down on you watching and really makes you think.

The animation is gorgeous and there’s two styles on show. The prominent one is a standard but immersive, grounded and dusty drawing of Afghanistan’s capital, one that’s filled with squared off imagery, browns, whites and muted yellows with the odd pop of candy colour. Then there’s the tale narrated within the story, this like ‘Song of the Sea’, is mystical and bursting with a vivid fantasy set-up. The characters that walk this world look like paper puppetry and the flat visuals roll sideways like a bewitching sideshow act.

There might be some that think a character stepping stone reflects a Disney heroine, but Parvana cutting off her hair is where the ‘Mulan’ similarities start and end. Women are deemed fine to walk the city only if they’re covered up and led by a man, otherwise they best be inside. This stifling way of things leads the well-read and smart young girl to bravely make a change and step out into a place dominated by men. A developing friendship with a fellow child on the streets of Kabul is great to watch and important too, it’s her escape, they can share an innocence and much needed play-about antics, but what’s so well presented is their maturity. Where they’ve grown up has made them wise beyond their years, so they know how to try and avoid the dangerous environment that is presented throughout the film.

‘The Breadwinner’ is a film I won’t forget anytime soon, women live in a world of rules, no breathing room and incoming Western threats which aren’t shied away from. I am devastated to see that on a $10 million budget, the film hasn’t even broken $500’000, because this is a film that deserves to be seen and applauded for it’s beautiful story of culture, humour, war, loss, oppression and transformation.

9/10

 

Love, Simon (2018)

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Better late than never I guess, as I’ve finally gotten around to seeing the film that everyone was talking about, before the Marvel behemoth arrived. I’m so glad I’ve now watched ‘Love, Simon’ because it’s exceptionally sweet, greatly acted and shows diversity isn’t a token thing.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) lives a fairly normal American teen life, living with mum, dad and aspiring foodie sister. He also has a solid friendship group but he’s hiding a secret; this being that he’s gay. On a school social chat board, Simon sees that someone calling themselves Blue is also trying to juggle the pressures of his sexuality against friends and family. They soon email back and forth and Simon just hopes that he can uncover the mystery of who Blue is.

Obviously there are some moments within this, that effectively angle towards the emotional aspect of Simon’s dilemma, but the best quality is how spirited and uplifting this movie is. Greg Berlanti has directed a coming out plot, focusing on coming of age and the people around Simon are just as important in his decisions. Working with typical but immersive high school scenery, an eclectic soundtrack and a talented group of performers, Berlanti handles what could have been a soppy or cringey narrative with sincerity and light humour.

The film isn’t by any means a powerhouse movement for gay cinema but it’s long overdue, even if it landed with odd ‘aawws’ from girls in my screening when Simon comes out. Perhaps, that’s the problem, the film does feel a slight too sugary sweet along the way, which for me at least, lessened the dramatic notion of what Simon and Blue are going through.

There are fantastic moments of genius throughout the film, from teens telling their parents they’re straight, to an outrageously camp college dance number, to the drama teacher who was my personal favourite. She’s written damn well, firing great lines of comedy but showing a caring, take-no-prisoners side in a cafeteria scene that made me sit up and clap (in my mind of course, I’m British, I’d die of embarrassment causing a scene in the cinema).

Robinson is a revelation and is a million miles away from the performance I saw in ‘Jurassic World’. Here he balances great joy, pained uncomfortable revelations and genuine romantic chops that drew me in with ease. Alexandra Shipp is fascinating as the kinda new kid in the friendship circle. She also balances beaming moments of joy with a tougher side and seeing her story progress with the forced dates alongside Martin are stunningly acted. Josh Duhamel totally convinces as the little seen jock-cum-father with a soft side and a lack of technological know-how. Jennifer Garner also doesn’t feature much but when she’s on screen she knows how to grab your attention but not distract from Robinson’s performance either. A scene with her and Simon is simply shot but brings all the emotive weight necessary for that moment.

There are some iffy moments that didn’t convince me along the way, but all in all this is a really charming coming of age romantic story, sold by a superbly talented cast.

7.5/10

Wildling (2018)

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It’s upsetting but no, this is not some adventurous flick starring Ygritte from Game of Thrones. Instead it’s a horror fantasy from Fritz Bohm, which serves little scares but provides just enough bite.

After finding herself freed from locked confinement, Anna (Bel Powley), learns about the outside world and her own self. Whilst under the supervision and care of Sheriff Cooper (Liv Tyler), Anna begins a drastic change of character which puts her in harms way.

There’s something magically rare about seeing a film that kind of appear without warning and this happened with ‘Wildling’, of which I’d only heard who was in it and avoided any posters, trailers or such story-like information. In that sense, this is a film that’s truly engrossing because I wasn’t waiting for something I’d seen in a trailer but it doesn’t mean it’s a winner.

It never felt like the film was too long in my eyes, in fact, the later stages of Anna’s opening eyes to womanhood and outside world civilisation came across as rushed and never built a scale or weight to her learning. It’s most definitely a wild and weird movie, the coming of age aspect like a cauldron of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, Old Universal monster movies and ‘Raw’.

The film has this relentless feral look and Toby Oliver’s cinematography captures the twisted Brothers Grimm like world well. It’s like every darkly blue scene is splattered with dirt and keeps on track with the developing characteristics of Anna. Though the look of the film may be good, the story as said doesn’t feel fully realised and it’s not really that interesting to follow because from the outset it’s obvious who she is and I knew exactly where the lost shot of the film would be. The romantic entanglement is perhaps a bit dull and the story descends into generic Hollywood storytelling.

Powley is fascinating to watch; her commanding presence with the impressive runs, super hearing and ever reactionary eyes are nice quirks and she held my attention nicely playing this confused but sharply adaptable young lady. Tyler is not at all convincing as a sheriff and has little to do but she’s believable in wanting to make Anna feel settled and safe.

‘Wildling’ is a film I’ll forget about come the end of 2018, perhaps by the end of summer, but for the time being it’s a film I’m content I’ve seen and I found it to be an ambitious creature feature.

5.5/10