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

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 Florida Project (2017)

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The sunshine state looks so colourful and yet so grotty at the same time throughout this drama, which is a fair representation of the weirdly wonderful way Florida does actually look. Amongst these bold shots there’s a fantastically realistic tone to watching a set of children independently finding themselves and friendships.

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) resides at an extended stay motel with her less than present mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). From spitting on cars to claiming free food she has a ball, spending her time with a couple of other kids, much to the annoyance of motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) despite his protective nature.

Straight away, we’re faced with the bright palette of this film; a purple wall backdrops the opening credits and during this movie we see wacky and loud colours of Florida state outlets and buildings. Kissimmee is the perfect setting because it looks touristy enough to have the children revel in their fun but neglected in a serious way as we watch them roam unattended through a place that seems stuck in a rut.

It’s this set up of America that may prove to be the biggest moral idea of the film. The screenplay lands us amongst a group of people not often represented and seeing their lives, however grim they might appear, gives the story its openly empathetic quality. Moonee’s mum Halley may have her faults but we still see that she cares for her daughter. Bobby is a moaner, a grouch even, but he genuinely becomes a caring figure through the film, he for me was the character I was most interested in. There was a believable good guy attitude he carried, no more evident than when he gets some old geezer to follow him for some soda.

Every scene directed in this by Sean Baker is one that leaves you to sit back and almost breathe in the growing up of Moonee and her friends. Certain films have that big moment in a scene where you can tell the impact is being driven home but in this feature there’s a collection of moments and none feel forced, instead the director invites us to observe the dramatic unraveling in an attentive not showy way. It’s as if Baker is inviting the audience to monitor Moonee’s life, not in a judging kind of way but more in a manner that feels life affirming. Halley is someone to slightly frown upon but the focus truly is on Moonee and her kingdom so to speak; her Magic Kingdom within the Magic Castle motel and beyond.

I must say that even with all these positives, the ending didn’t agree with me. It swiftly arrives after a brilliantly emotional scene where I admit I shed a tear, or three. Then the camera kookily speeds up and transfers to an obvious mobile device. The music over the top may have been right for the scene but feels slightly kitsch and it ends any of that overwhelming heartbreaking drama we just witnessed. I was also taken right out of the drama by the ease of access to the finale with no money or security to stop them!

Prince steals the show with a genuine glee and boundless energy. She runs, grins and leads her merry troops with chemistry but can downplay that childlike wonder when sitting back and looking on at the adult world around her, felt heavily when she questions her mum from time to time. Also, as said, a framing of her near the end got me right in the feels as she acts her socks off. Dafoe was a great presence in this, I could actually imagine him as the manager of this tackily painted cheap Floridian motel. I would have liked him in it slightly more right at the end but at the end of the day the film is about the fun and innocent frivolity of childhood. Vinaite is a gripping disturbance throughout and acts in such a way that you can’t help but shake your head at her behaviour.

The happiest place on Earth may reside just a hop, skip and frenzied run away but this film sees us find the happiest place through the eyes of a confident and legitimate star.

7.5/10

Train to Busan (2016)

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One of the most exhilarating films I’ve ever seen, bloody and yet beautiful, this is a zombie film with thrills and skills that I wish I’d got to see on the big screen but damn am I happy I’ve seen it anyway…finally!

As a mysterious virus breaks out, workaholic and not so parental father Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) concedes to his daughters birthday wish to go to Busan to see her mother. A host of other passengers board at Seoul but unfortunately an infected woman also joins them leaving their train journey to become a fight for survival.

Honestly, this is probably the best zombie movie I’ve seen in a long time, the rage like virus shoots up the film with a crazed adrenaline which is hugely entertaining to watch but more than this and thus why the film is so good, is that there’s a heartfelt emotion and believable set of characters along for the ride too. Zombie killing and frantic running aside, this is something that grips you because of the relationships between the passengers, how they act and the choices they make create a truly thrilling and emotive story.

Yeon Sang-ho directs this with such care and attention, there’s a skill to making this chaotic zombie outbreak feel less than chaos. It has an artistry and skilled choreographed quality that ‘World War Z’ could only dream to achieve. There are numerous moments in this Park Joo-suk scripted delight that captures you and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s the rooted developing bond between father and daughter that is special and come the end of the movie leaves you really bound to the film almost teary eyed.

Jang Young-gyu’s music for the movie is a rip-roaring wonder, it’s a score that manages to excite and keep up great tension in places then simmer down for more nuanced moments of tenderness. The confined claustrophobia of setting a majority of this story on a train is shot really well, from shuttling tracking shots to scary overhead shots crammed with the white-eyed undead. Pretty much everything in this film is masterfully set up and executed leaving the audience to watch a dramatically non-stop zombie genre outing that actually feels realistic.

Gong Yoo is a great presence as this obsessive funds manager who gets a well realised character arc that makes him a likable guy. Ma Dong-seok plays a hench father to be that gives the film some aspect of humour and plenty of bad-assery. Kim Su-an is the little daughter Soo-an who gets many a chance to shine and demonstrate wonderful acting skills, more impressive considering she was 10 at the time of acting. Kim Eui-sung gifts the film its human villain, he performs convincingly that you want to punch him in the face.

The characters and the story are top notch stuff, making this a zombie feature like nothing else before. I’d highly recommend this to everyone; it’s tense, engaging and remarkable.

8.5/10

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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All aboard the murder mystery express! Tickets please. Or maybe not…is this a film worthy of getting a cinema ticket? If you like crimes and the puzzles of solving them, then the answer to that would be a yes but it’s not an out and out success stalling like the snow-struck train from time to time.

Hoping for a break between detecting cases, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) lands a spot on the Orient Express where he meets a whole host of fellow travellers. He wishes to keep himself to himself but a shady passenger on-board by the name of Ratchett (Johnny Depp) only gets himself murdered, meaning Poirot must step up and deduce who the killer is before the train is back on the tracks and at its next station.

I’ll begin with the positives, the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem to set the scene and more importantly the smarts of Poirot was a good introduction even if I worked out who the culprit was before the film revealed so. There’s a beautiful uncut tracking shot that follows the Belgian detective and Bouc through the departure platform, it continues wonderfully alongside the train as Poirot walks through the carriages. Also the characters initially coming together to board the train is a grand introduction and that’s simply because it’s such an incredible cast the film has garnered.

Patrick Doyle’s score bubbles away nicely, providing a suitable unease and tense quality to the entrapping confines of a derailed train. The music is something that builds that sort of perfect comfy Sunday afternoon TV crime drama atmosphere. That’s the general feel throughout, it’s obviously very cinematic at times but the story itself adapted from Agatha Christie’s novel is a safe one, arriving with that old timey classic storytelling that is presented in a way that wouldn’t be amiss on the stage.

Kenneth Branagh directs his one location set cast well, the story keeps chugging along nicely but I never felt a true sense of threat or eagerness to uncover the killer. Also putting himself front and centre is a decision I could have done without, yes he’s a darn fine actor as the mustachioed detective but it would have been interesting to see someone else play the role but I guess he enjoys the power/thrill of being an actor/director darling!

There are a good many mini interviews throughout the journey but because it is such a big cast of players that having all these characters doesn’t help the mystery plot so much. There is a lot to tackle, a lot of personalities and a lot of do they/don’t they motivations. I felt there never was enough time in the movie to really let the audience know enough of anyone to truly make educated assumptions. I just sat back and watched because there wasn’t enough detail scattered amongst the narrative to try and make guesses. Also very near the beginning there’s a brief character conversation that alludes to the true nature of everything anyway.

Amongst the talented cast is Michelle Pfeiffer who has the strongest and largest role out of the ensemble. She is captivating and in a smaller but no less significant way so is Daisy Ridley who gets a bigger chunk of acting scenes than some of the others. Judi Dench and Olivia Colman are almost criminally underused. Josh Gad makes me hate Olaf a little less as his irritating snowman voice is less present and his role of MacQueen is an interesting one to follow. Johnny Depp is that typical smarmy charmy crook, in the same vein as his turn in ‘Into the Woods’ he simmers with a bad taste in the mouth which works for his character. Also underused are Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin who have a brilliant scene with Branagh but never do anything else. This can be said with Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe who are great actors but don’t get a chance to shine. It’s like the Avengers on a Train which feels apt considering the final moments of the film clearly setting up what I’m coining The ChristieVerse. It seems cinema isn’t safe from everything turning into a sprawling universe of sequels.

A very old fashioned kind of movie, even with the zippy CGI and confident Branagh overseeing proceedings. It’s a shame that the movie with a magnificent cast and potential of intriguing 12 suspects never grabs you and pulls you along like it should.

6/10