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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The Sisters Brothers (2019)

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On horseback, from Oregon to San Francisco comes this dark-comedy Western which may not exactly spring out the saloon doors but has enough cinematic artistry to prevent it blowing like some yawn-some tumbleweed in the breeze.

Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are the Sisters Brothers; a pair of assassins who are hired by a wealthy gent to track down and violently extract information from a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who may have a formula to aid finding gold.

It has to be said first of all, that the cast on display in this film are a magnificent bunch. The four main characters are extremely talented and put on a satisfying show, to really lure you into this well-worn world of Western dramatics. It’s a shame then that the film has multiple points where it attempts conflict and humour but doesn’t quite succeed on either.

Co-writers Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who worked together on ‘A Prophet’, manage to drop in some nice flourishes though. Be it Eli’s bedtime routine with a red shawl to the weakening state of his horse, it’s the character based details that triumph more than the whole. It’s a finely tuned exploration of connection and strife but the entire film does not quite echo that sentiment.

Glows of orange and yellows in the beautiful cinematography of a country landscape not only add wonder but it provides dusty intrigue to a tale about family. The film is strongest in the contemplative moments and self-reflection from the brothers. Eli and Charlie are a great representation of sibling life; they bicker, fight, laugh and ultimately they support each other. The gorgeous deserts, hills, streams and towns appear almost like painted backdrops for the pair to play in front of.

Even if the film doesn’t hold court from beginning to end, the final short scene is perhaps the most delightful and saves the long wait to get there. We witness a lovely, homely set-up which perfectly demonstrates the relationship of the Sisters Brothers. A use of a near un-edited tracking shot, flowing through this last sequence adds to the calm denouement.

Phoenix is energetic and feels like the Joker of the duo, he is blissfully happy to follow orders, drink and kill whereas Reilly does well in the more thoughtful role, Eli is a man of aspiration and love. Together, the actors provide splendid yin and yang.

Gold shimmers, guns crackle and horses gallop in a story which strides down a much beaten Western trail but thanks to a brotherly bond, the film however long in its journey, is an interesting one.

6.5/10

Ben is Back (2019)

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I’m sure that director Peter Hedges is a proud father of his son Lucas, who in the last few years has been a rising star of great skill, and now they team up for this drama, which sees Peter close a 6 year gap from being behind the camera for a feature length.

It’s almost Christmas and after returning from church, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) finds her son on the doorstep. Ben (Lucas Hedges) has suffered with drug addiction for many years and has returned from rehab but even though Holly sees it as a perfect miracle not all the family can believe his appearance will be a good thing.

Setting this film around the snowy traces of New York and the Burns’ suburban home do well in constructing a nice festive mood to ease you into the drama. This wintry vibe makes the later troubles hit like a hammer of darkness and accentuates the family ache of a son who has bought about pain. The film does well in highlighting the great mix of feelings that each member of the family has towards Ben.

Considering that ‘Beautiful Boy’ was based on real memoirs, this film does a ton better in narrowing in on the resentments, agony and sentimental wounds inflicted by an addict on the people closest to them. Unlike that Steve Carell mopey, sop-fest, ‘Ben is Back’ feels like a much more resolute film in knowing how to sustain this monstrous shadow of drug temptation as a looming presence over even the shiniest Christmastime.

Granted, there are some spots of melodrama and most of that comes from the forceful score to make you well up or feel on edge but on the whole it is a movie which sits back in the comfort that its two leads will storm their way through the narrative with unrivalled clout. The final moment of the story should move even the most stony of hearts and further proves the force of talent within Roberts as an actor.

At one point in the narrative, Ben calls his mother out on trying too hard to start up her car to which she responds that is her job as a parent. This trait is perfectly played by Roberts who excels in demonstrating this doting mum slowly losing sight of her son and desperately trying to hold on. Hedges is such an engrossing performer, you cannot help but get drawn into every little expression of anger, fear and twitchy compulsion but the most impacting demonstration of his range is during a festive carol song. It’s a powerful sucker of a scene thanks to the vocals and poignancy of Kathryn Newton singing ‘O Holy Night’ and the wave of emotion shown by Hedges.

‘Ben is Back’ may take a while to warm up to the inevitable dilemmas faced by Holly but once a Christmas Eve drive begins, then Peter Hedges preserves a solid grip on the dynamic of mother and son.

7/10

 

On the Basis of Sex (2019)

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It’s obviously time for Mrs Ruth Bader Ginsburg to have her time in the cinematic limelight, what with this film and Oscar nominated documentary ‘RBG’ being out at similar times and why not because she is an incredible figure to explore and learn about.

Studying law at Harvard before moving to Columbia, Ruth Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is a woman trying to make her voice heard in a richly masculine dominated subject. Almost resigning herself to empowering her students to make change, her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) finds a case where the basis of sex is discriminatory against a man looking to care for his mother. This revs up Ruth to take action and stand up in court and fight her case that written roles based on gender should be changed.

Mimi Leder directs this biographical tale and it’s a far shove away from the likes of action-laden ‘Deep Impact’. She certainly excels in the character of the piece and through the film, if you weren’t overly clued up on the events of Ginsburg’s life, then Leder is adamant to let you find out more. Through her earlier life and initial cases, we witness Ruth as a committed student and we realise just how much she juggles; from both her and husbands studies to raising her two children. It’s an interesting film to appreciate and Ginsburg is an inspiration for the ages.

From the beginning of the film we know what oppressive world of law and apparent order we’re in. The sea of men in drab suits speak volumes and it is only the costume that Jones wears which becomes both a splash of colour and an important inclusion of a new, much needed female voice to be seen amongst the members of court. Another brilliant moment is when Ginsburg is on a call to her client, the audience are gifted a silent, lingering look from Jones which almost shouts with motivational power at what she knows she must attempt to do and take her shot.

Be it through a gripping war of words in the last act or a mock courtroom scene, it is an interesting lesson on law of the time. Nothing is ever too wordy and you feel like you’re actually there, seated in one of the pews at the Court of Appeals watching this historic moment take place. Admittedly, the film doesn’t push to break formulaic tropes and it is rather safe considering the person they’re admiring but it’s no doubt a relevant film and a topic hot for discussion.

Felicity Jones greatly balances a subtle mix, of having a shrewd hard edge and a softer, astute intelligence. You really feel her passion and knowledge which goes and makes the final shot of stairs being ascended that much more supreme and dominant. Armie Hammer is there as the ever supportive husband and brings light touches of humour and tax know-how to pair up as the perfect teammate to Ruth.

It’s never outstanding like the successes achieved by the subject matter but thanks to Jones and Hammer you get wrapped up in their sweet life making the end that much more resonant.

7/10

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2019)

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Forgery has never looked so gently compelling but ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is out and about in New York to show how unexpectedly sweet and deliciously sour it can all be.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has a NY Times Best Seller book under her belt but has fallen under writers block and other self-made hard times. Whilst trying to compile notes for a new novel she unearths letters sent by the person she wants to write about. This sets in motion a plan to spin money by forging letters from other writers and along with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel gets into her groove once more.

The film is lovingly layered with spot on wit, never over-laden to breaking point, the screenplay has a fair few amounts of razor sharp insults and sniping but it’s still a film that is generally a pleasant watch, like the director has managed to settle her audience in to this calming, jazzy ambience of comedy and drama. It’s like you’re watching this talented yet hard to reach writer figure of Israel, not from a cinema but on a plush armchair with atmospheric lighting setting the mood in comfortable surroundings.

It is also true that it can feel like a biographical picture more like a lazy Sunday afternoon watch because it never changes gears and it takes a bit of time to warm to the aggressive nature of Lee as a person but once she begins her typewriter hustling and forms a bond with flamboyant Jack, the movie becomes a much more investing product.

The film does well in making Lee Israel and her fraudulent letters a rather interesting matter, it’s a story truly deserving of the spotlight and they don’t squander it. It’s made me want to find out more about her and I’m sure it’ll have the same impact on others. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is a great commentary on the eagerness to lap up literary content and buy into the world of the writer, any unheard of material is ripe for the picking without any due thought which makes her actions all the more understandable. The writers and director never paint Lee out to be some unholy crook but more a mildly unpleasant, anxiety-ridden alcoholic with a mouth on her…so like all writers!

Melissa McCarthy brings amazing presence to the film and silences any critics to her more usual shouty comedy flicks, which was me included. Like in ‘St. Vincent’, McCarthy shines by proving great dramatic chops that she clearly has within her. Richard E. Grant is purely enigmatic with a cheeky smile helping him bring Jack to spritely life. The two actors bounce off each other so well, the characters they play clearly sharing like-minded souls in bittersweet humour and sadness. The pair of performers play the relationship beautifully with a radiant spark flaring up between them every time they’re on screen together.

It’s an intriguing film and very close to being a joyful watch. The witticisms and emotional current that carry the film are wonderfully balanced.

7/10

Vice (2019)

Adam McKay returns with another awards big hitter after the bank crisis content of ‘The Big Short’ in 2015. His latest still concerns a grandiose story with Red, White and Blue oozing out like overfilled jam in a Stateside doughnut which Dick Cheney would eagerly gobble up but left me with a pain in my stomach and head.

After failing at education and being a general hothead, Cheney (Christian Bale) finds himself under the tutelage of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) he learns the tricksy ropes of U.S government and becomes a concocting piece of nasty work through to Vice Presidency with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), all whilst being aided by the quiet yet important assistance of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams).

I’ll openly and happily admit I was not a fan of ‘The Big Short’ and I’m definitely no advocate for this movie either. McKay tries to be smart and stylish with an overload of cutaways and general frustrating directorial choices which further my belief that his step up from dumb big comedies like ‘Anchorman’ to Oscar fodder releases are a bridge too far.

The storytelling is all over the place and you can’t shake the fact of how messy the film is. It truly should have ended at the fake-out early rolling credits but alas you have to sit through more trying politics and failed attempts at humour to test your patience to the maximum. It’s a film which really made me angry and I understand in one sense that can work, as the actions carried out by the words of Cheney do boil the blood but the film can’t just tell an impacting, dramatic story, McKay has to feel he’s better than everyone he’s preaching too and he slams political jargon over your head to a point that is both patronising and exhausting.

There’s constant irritation to be had with the editing, from abrupt black outs, random swipes to stock footage and general non-stop fatigue by a film which doesn’t know how to keep on a one track mind, less a parallel to the Dick in question, as he was laser focused on his Republican values and scheme to puppeteer the POTUS and more a shambolic run of tiresome, try hard stylish choices which have you going from voice overs, fourth wall breaks, nature docs, news clips and a ridiculous Shakespearean-tongued conversation.

Bale as the eventual VP is a force to be reckoned with and under his extra weight and thinning white hair becomes a properly terrifying human monster. He’s one of the sole selling points to the film, you completely forget the Welsh actor is involved, he’s a masterful talent in making you despise Dick more than you may already have done before. Adams is as charismatic as ever, though in a more worrying way as she delicately yet powerfully backs and boosts her abhorrent husband. Rockwell is a great actor but his award noms for what is essentially a generic caricature of a figure spoofed countless times feels misplaced.

All in all, ‘Vice’ feels like a pointless film, serving no purpose as it can’t exactly be out to alter minds. A staunch Republican wouldn’t watch and suddenly reevaluate their political agenda nor will people on the right side of the coin go in and be any less appalled at the deplorable nature of Washington politics and the ease in which Cheney could whisper manipulation to the masses. It’s a movie only really there to make you incensed, not just at Dick’s dickiness but at the film being terrible.

4.5/10

Second Act (2019)

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Jennifer Lopez is back on the big screen after a 3 year + break which has seen the blockbuster recording artist voice characters for films or focus on a successful NBC series. It isn’t only a return to live action but she’s back to get the rocks that she got in the Big Apple hoping to gain box office success like ‘Maid in Manhattan’.

Maya Vargas (Lopez) has her hopes of becoming a store manager dashed because she doesn’t have the educational background desired by the stuffy office heads. Thanks to the interfering assistance of her godson she ends up getting an interview for a prestigious cosmetics firm, the issue is that her resume has been modified with achievements she’s never gained. As Maya tries concocting a fully organic cream she ends up on a collision course with Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens) which could prove more enlightening than expected.

Going in with little expectations, I can safely say I exited pleasantly surprised by a film that is a fairly fun. As this wintry set movie goes and ticks off boxes for almost every recognisable New York location, you end up with a feature that has a messy yet glittering story of love, self-worth and inner confidence ringing nicely as themes, even if they all muddle together in a plot stitched together by the alluring presence of J-Lo.

There are more than a couple of story moments which feel off, whether contrived or insanely cheesy and the ending is as predictable as they come, there’s also a character called Ariana played by Charlyne Yi who is highly annoying; her vertigo and random introduction of kinkiness are played for laughs but are far from amusing. Also, a weak semblance of villainy is attempted but doesn’t truly lift off the ground but apart from the obvious rom-com pitfalls the film isn’t awful.

A huge story reveal feels like an overly sudden and sappy point but gladly the content of this narrative improves as the film goes on thanks to the star quality of the pair in question. Lopez is a damn fine actor it has to be said, she has this alluring quality of showing effortless comedy chops and an emotional anchor to aid the film of a street-smart woman trying to win her shot when presented with a second chance. Hudgens is a semi adversary to begin with, meaning we get to witness well played sneering glamour and warming appeal to her role.

‘Second Act’ whips up charm, has a swirl of light humour and intoxicating performances with sweet chemistry making the film a cheap yet worthy product that could fly off the shelves like the beauty cream Maya designs.

6/10