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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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

No Stranger Than Love (2015)

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Wow, after seeing the copious amounts of negative reviews for this apparently “disappointingly bland” romantic comedy movie, I expected something tiresome and bad. Instead I got something that however lacking of succeeding it’s aim, was still watchable and interesting.

Art teacher Lucy Sherrington (Alison Brie) is super sweet and nice, all the men in the town love her even if they don’t know her that well. Lucy shares a secret with gym teacher Clint Coburn (Colin Hanks). Together they declare strong feelings for one another which leads to a deep repercussion.

Without going into the aftermath of what saying “I love you” has in store for them both, I can say because I didn’t glance at the plot summary I’m glad I wasn’t in the know. Likewise I shall not say here what happens in case people reading haven’t seen the bio for what this movie is about, that way it won’t spoil what I thought was a unique and clever surprise.

Nick Wernham directs this sickly rom-com with a few neat shots and the capturing of this small town is done well. It feels like a place we all know from movies where everyone knows other people’s business or would like to. Having the character of Lucy not just a plain easy nice gal makes her more engaging, even if she isn’t stretched further in terms of characteristics. Wernham manages to land this film a quirky tone in the most part which does help.

Even if I don’t fully agree with the bad reviews, I must say that the film didn’t go anywhere once the thing that happens…happened. A shady character becomes boring as he goes on and the oddness of the town feels ever fainter as the plot progresses. It does then sadly become a usual suspect of the rom-com genre with cliches, lovey dovey writing and a wishy washy ending. Though I did like the admittedly pretentious poem recited on the hill before the credits hit.

Maybe it’s just my sort of thing, a weird premise and a kooky look at love but I quite enjoyed this movie and didn’t find it that terrible. It doesn’t work when trying to script the whole frailty of life, the workings of the human heart and love but it’s a cute indie film that delivered a cool surprise, a few laughs and a shot at affirming subtext. Also having Alison Brie in it probably helped too.

Speaking of which, Brie is captivating but doesn’t have much material to cope with aside from the Annie ‘Community’ appeal of being kind and objected. She plays the romantic interest to everybody well and you do feel for her as she tries coping with the fact she’s done something wrong. Colin Hanks utilises his voice well, in a way that makes him increasingly annoying which is just right for the development of this story. Justin Chatwin is an interesting man as Rydell. He’s clearly motivated and leering but there’s a well performed soft side to him as he opens up about his past.

Perhaps it isn’t a fantastic movie in terms of writing or directing, but I stand by the fact I liked it and what it tried to pull off.

6/10

Sisters (2015)

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Like the central party gone wrong, this film cranks up to fun drunken heights of sibling chemistry and silly smutty comedy but crashes down to the ultimate hangover of sparse laughs and predictable sisterly heart. It’s neither bad nor good, it’s entertaining as a whole and shows off just why Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are a fine double act.

After learning that her mother and father are selling the house they grew up in, wild non-child Kate (Tina Fey) and worrying square Maura (Amy Poehler) decide to throw a party to recapture their youth and see what it’s like in each others shoes. So as the house full of adults partying gets madder and madder, the sisters realise what the other puts up with.

It’s a fun enough comedy but not as snappy or perhaps sharp as I thought it may have been. Paula Pell lands her debut screenwriting job and hits all the marks you’d expect from an American comedy film. Her background for TV and links to Fey with scripting 30 Rock is felt with a scattering of well penned lines that zing really nicely. The idea of 40 somethings wanting to be youthful is nothing original but the chaotic proceedings written in the party distract from that clichéd basis for a narrative.

Jason Moore certainly knows how to direct a party. As drinks and pools overflow the home becomes a symbol of the damaging relationship the sisters have if they don’t both change. There’s nothing fancy either side of the party but it sets up the characters and that’s all you can really ask for. The manic throw-down of the Ellis Island reunion bash appears like a call back to ‘Animal House’ as total carnage ensues. Foam. Cocaine. Paint. Injury. Frat like behaviour, all of these features bash heads and swirl into a hazy mix to show off how insane this night is, this is where director and screenwriter have the most fun in giving more to not just the sisters but supporting characters also.

The whole predictable aspect of the romantic entanglement between Maura and neighbour James isn’t overly interesting as we know where’ll it end up but they do share perhaps the best scene of the film as they prepare to have sex and end up listening to a winding ballet doll which is rammed into the butt of nice guy James. We also get some laughs as a fat unfunny funny guy becomes the embodiment of Tony Montana with cocaine fuelling his spark. I may as well just put that the comedy mostly hits within the party as we see the adults behaving like teenagers.

It goes on a little too long, it’s almost forty minutes before any real laugh out loud moment happens and that’s close to when the party begins anyway. There are some places where it feels like Fey and Poehler are trying a little hard and then the resolution comes to a head so quickly that it feels like a tired writer wanting to wrap up the obvious threads of all involved. But that’s honestly the only big negatives, it’s an enjoyable film that suits as a lazy day watch.

Tina Fey lords it up as the woman-child of the piece, her squeals and tantrums are on point, she grimaces and scowls like an angsty adolescent but she shows off the softer almost Liz Lemon side she has when needed. Amy Poehler gets to have more fun in playing the dopier sister transitioning into the drunken reveller. As she becomes more intoxicated Poehler demonstrates how well she can play inebriated and what a ball she has with it. Ike Barinholtz has his best moment in the previously mentioned scene but apart from that he only serves as the potential new hope for Maura. Maya Rudolph appears now and then but almost steals the show as painfully dull and wannabe posh Brinda. The faces she pulls are just incredible. Oh and points to the film for the John Cena casting who appears like a brick-house of muscle and drug dealing comedy.

It has some fine moments but that doesn’t stop it from being quite weak and relying on a lengthy party to capture magic and laughs. To see Poehler and Fey on true form then witness their hosting of the Golden Globes, as here they fall a little short of the fantastic talent they both share.

5.5/10

The Peanuts Movie (2015)

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This is such a charming and colour filled feature that explores the Peanuts gang and of course; loveable failure Charlie Brown in a story that’s sweet for the children and engaging enough for the grown ups, it also helps that Blue Sky Studios have not taken away the magical hand drawn feel of the characters.

Charlie Brown is smitten when a new girl arrives over the road and through different ways he tries getting the Little Red-Haired Girl to notice him for not being the loser the rest of the school know him as. At the same time as his awkward journey we follow imaginative dog Snoopy as he both helps Charlie and immerses into his own romantic quest against the Red Baron.

Animation wise, this movie is glorious. Just the short teasers earlier in the year had my interest peaked because the computer animated design looked quirky and comic strip like which is fantastic in harking back to Charles Schulz’s original illustrations. Throughout the film, shaky lines or additional graphics enhance the storytelling and gift the movie a unique touch and one that deserves recognition.

It’s not exactly a narrative wonder for the senses for people past 10, adults that grew up with it or not won’t be enthralled by the story or if they will then they haven’t seen this plot before. It’s done well but it’s ultimately not pushing very far as we follow along on a simply plotted tale of first crushes and the heart to never give up. Cornelius Uliano and Schulz’s son and grandson stick to what people know and write what’s expected with the Peanuts troupe as they all interact in winter, summer and school scenarios.

The many cuts away to Snoopy, Woodstock and the Red Baron escapades are clearly in for the attempt to raise some adrenaline in an otherwise pedestrian story. The aerial dogfights, pun not intended, are well storyboarded and look great on the big screen bringing some much desired action to the film. There’s enjoyment to be had with the dance call in the school hall and the childlike hubbub of the film is prominent throughout which does get slightly annoying if I have to be honest.

Everything is predictable in the film but then it’s not trying to be something unexpected so I can’t truly fault it for that. The movie has some neat moments, the attention to characters and background, the playful music and the Leo Tolstoy moment are all fab moments that add to that general delight. The music is such a key part as it bounces away in the background so much that it becomes a helpful tool to the story. Christophe Beck adds another score credit to his arsenal, seriously look him up, he’s responsible for a lot of well known film scores.

It’s undeniable that there’s an endearing charm to the movie and each character does get a fair share of time in the film for newbies to understand their role and get to like or dislike them…my fingers pointing firmly at Lucy van Pelt for that. Everything is bright and faithful to the gem of the original which is always a bonus to shout about. It might not stand out against past and future animated movies but if you do drag yourself along you’ll find a sweet treat.

Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie might have a long title but to be short – this is a cute and enjoyable enough outing.

7.5/10

Brooklyn (2015)

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Now usually period dramas are not my go to film, not even remotely, but this looked like a film with a tenderness and character based interest. Perhaps coming back from New York itself helped that interest factor along slightly but upon viewing this film I can say I liked it, it’s rich and acted really well throughout.

Irish shop worker Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is funded a move to New York from the church. She says goodbye to her sister and their ill mother and finds herself getting accustomed to Brooklyn life, weather and boys as she falls in love with Italian charmer Tony (Emory Cohen). After a tragedy strikes back in Ireland, Eilis comes back and then has to face the tough choice of a new romance at home or shipping back to America for the life she’s come to know.

The look of this historical drama set in the 1950’s is quality. The costuming is marvellous with each character fitting into the time and truly selling the period of this piece. I know all period films do this but something about the change from the Emerald Isle to our cousins across the Pond felt amazingly authentic. As we wash over to the shores of the US, Brooklyn’s setting feels magical in a way; the lush greens and busier atmosphere making the 50’s feel like their livelier selves and giving us reason to why at first Eilis is overwhelmed, but then agreeable to this change of pace and lifestyle.

Nick Hornby’s screenplay is layered with emotion. Adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel the family angle is soaring from the lead’s predicament alone, then there’s the family-esque set up in the boarding house to Tony’s Italian American family home. That strong sense of togetherness and theme of home where the heart is stays ever present becoming the shaky decision for Eilis to land on. Of course, there’s romance here and normally that’s what makes me stray away from these movies but it’s well done here, enough to make look past some of the soppier obvious writing moments. Tony is a likable and smooth character with a fun and engaging family. Jim from Ireland may have little screen time to win the central character over, but he too is nice and genuine which gives us reason to why she finds it hard making that ol’ love triangle routine less cliched.

The main feeling I got was of a bittersweet one, which mixed with memories and new chapters gives this film a satisfying tinge. It honestly is a film that feels like life, as we make decisions, something else could happen that may have been affected by that. It also pulls deep at the heart, maybe more people will weep at more points but even I had to suffer a choking throat and wet eyes as Eilis hears of the tragic news thousands of miles away. The only problem the film had was becoming duller as it got nearer the end, a blackmailing revelation is squashed before getting in any way dramatic and the romantic choice is obvious from the halfway point, meaning the closing minutes of the movie were expected and less impacting, sort of tainting the beautiful moments that had been seen up until that point.

Saoirse Ronan is absolutely splendid, delightful and subtle in this dramatic narrative. She must be in regards for the awards season coming sooner than we always expect. I don’t know if it’s golden statue material but her understated emotion from top to bottom is utterly convincing and she’s a pure pleasure to watch. Julie Walters is merely a name and cameo but acts her socks off as the light material to balance the more heart tearing moments. Emory Cohen gets a bigger break than in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ and proves to be an assured leading man as he cozies up to Ronan and bewitches us with the gentleman routine. Domhnall Gleeson doesn’t have much to do but it shows what a capable actor he is that with such little run time he can show just why his character is so big of a obstacle option for Eilis to come to terms with. It’s a fantastically performed treat from everyone, that Irish and American mash of cultures giving it enhanced delight.

The weaker end aside, this film triumphs for the acting and beauty of life story. It’s something that comes across like a deeply resonating movie for so many people, that inescapable pull of home and family being something personal and different to us all. It’s dealt with by director John Crowley and Nick Hornby in such nostalgic vision.

7.5/10

Inside Out (2015)

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Thoughtful and brimming with creativity, this is Pixar well and truly back on the scene after a few scratchy patches. The construction, emotion and wonder of what keeps our minds ticking leads the film into some smart colourful set ups with that expected Pixar stamp of heart you can’t dislike.

Minnesota born Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is going through the upheaval of moving to San Francisco with her mum and dad, little knowing that inside her head are the emotions keeping her brain chugging along and aiding her actions. Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are at the controls until two of the team end up lost in the back-lot of Riley’s mind and need to get back to stop the 11 year old from going awry.

There is so much joy to be had within this film, the colour coded characters for a start lift the film with that bright feeling of bold warmth, reds, blues and yellows shine on the screen gifting us that summer buzz. That could just be me but Pixar have a knack for lighting up cinemas with their tales of objects, be it toys or emotions, delighting audiences and putting some sort of magical glow in my heart. It’s the clever storytelling that keeps them ahead in the game and this is no exception.

Pete Docter directs but also conjured up the story and screenplay along with help from Ronnie del Carmen, Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve. The process of what goes on inside our skulls could be dark but they give it such unyielding spirit. Of course the plot travels down the sadness route to provide dramatic weight and this is something they always build up well. The straining family backdrop accompanied by the struggle of keeping Riley as they want is tense and believable, considering that the film is about walking talking emotions in our heads.

Also, there’s such fantastic rewards to be had in the journey that we go on with two of the emotions. Discovering what the subconscious, long term memory and other thought processes look like is a visual treat. The story makes room for clever openings on how we work as people and what could be behind our eyes helping us make decisions. Concepts of imaginary friends and forgotten memories all truly make you think when Pixar are at the wheel.

Michael Giacchino composes and you can feel that same emotive sense in the music that he crafted for ‘Up’. It bounces along when necessary making you happy and when the troubles begin bubbling away the music becomes tense, not too dark for the kids but worrying enough that you feel the desired emotions. I’m worried about how many times I’m writing the word emotions in this film review. But seriously, it stirs up the right…feels.

Animation wise, the content is gorgeous, the flaking static design of the main emotions and how each one suits their host body is perfect. The memory balls are shining, the view of Riley’s islands is intelligent and detailed and once the journey begins seeing the wonderful ways the brain could be if we were so lucky is fascinating. A dream scene and the little moment of abstraction and turning into broken pieces and 2D art is a cool sequence to watch. It’s a provoking and warm welcome back to this studio and their work.

All the voices suit greatly, Amy Poehler brings a peppy kick to Joy and though she’s control obsessed you can’t help but like her for the sunny disposition she has on the story. The golden voice has to be with Phyllis Smith who somehow makes you laugh and empathise with someone so one tone in their speech. Simply put, it’s a fantastically delivered role. Bill Hader freaks out in a non annoying way as Fear, Mindy Kaling manages to make you smirk as the person inside all of us wanting to spit the truth and Lewis Black blows his top being Anger, the rough determination speaking to all of us who want to get mad. As I mentioned the voices suit greatly, making the characters stand out as individual and integral.

It’s something that is more than worth one watch just to break up the unoriginal trash that floods cinemas consistently. It’s so damn inventive, fun and emotional that inside and out this movie does everything it needs to entice and excite people of every age. No disgust or anger, just sheer joy.

8.5/10