Film Review

MAZE – A Review

Directed by Stephen Burke. Starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann, Eileen Walsh, Aaron Monaghan, Niamh McGrady. Running Time: 93 Minutes.

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It goes without saying that a certain degree of even-handedness is required when dealing with subject matter of this nature. The element of bias that many viewers will no doubt be expecting (and even relishing the prospect of) is, thankfully, absent. The jailed IRA members are not saintly freedom fighters, nor are the Unionists inhuman or unrelatable.  What does emerge is an effective examination of the human factors involved in Northern Ireland’s troubled past, as well as the depth and venom of the divide that fuelled it. With only 93 minutes (albeit a very tight 93 minutes) to work with, however, the film is never allowed to wander too far away from the business of being a prison escape thriller.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Larry Marley seems at first an unassuming sort; weak-looking and softly spoken, he attracts derision from fellow inmates upon his return from the blanket protest (republican prisoners’ refusal to wear prison uniforms on the grounds that, as political prisoners, they should not have had to do so).

Marley strikes up a relationship with an initially hostile Gordon Close (Ward), a well-respected guard with a fierce disdain for the nationalist movement. It is here that Marley’s talents become obvious; his outwardly amicable nature disarms Close, thus making escape a possibility. He goes as far during one conversation as to condemn the actions of nationalist hunger strikers as pointless; his commitment to his cause is such that the verbal dismissal of his keenest beliefs barely costs him a thought. It is this Machiavellian resourcefulness that comes to define his character.

After the inevitable period of dismissive scoffing from other inmates, Marley’s proposal of escape is taken seriously and preparatory work begins. The film’s middle act outlines the escape’s practical elements, and does so with a well-judged amount of detail.

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A word must be said for Vaughan-Lawlor’s imperviousness to the dreaded typecast. Having spent five years in what was arguably Irish television’s most recognisable role, he has managed still to emerge as a versatile and credible actor in his own right. His performance here is a strong one, despite some questionable interpretations of Northern pronunciation. Ward is equally effective in the other load-bearing role.

Ultimately, this film’s greatest strength probably lies in its succinctness. Extraneous detail could have interrupted the flow and suspense, and too detailed an examination of the trials faced by either side of the cultural divide could have suggested a flavour of partiality. Burke has skilfully navigated his way around these pitfalls to produce a gripping thriller with historical value. A caveat, however; the brevity with which the period after the escape is dealt with is a major shortfall. Too many questions are left to the closing scroll of text to answer. That aside, MAZE has achieved what it wanted to achieve in fine fashion.

4/5

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Film Review

The Big Sick – A Review

Directed by Michael Showalter. Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff. Running Time: 117 minutes.

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While films which opt to remain safely inside the boundaries of a single genre may not attract plaudits for boldness or innovation, they may at least entertain those filmgoers who wish for nothing more than a couple of hours’ worth of diversion that does what it says on the tin, as it were. To put it another way, while genre-busting can be an admirable endeavour, it can also produce some unwatchable drivel (see my previous review of Colossal for further discussion). The Big Sick manages to travel the border between comedy and drama quite deftly, in a way that makes obvious the creative influence of Judd Apatow, who is credited as the film’s producer.

The film opens with Kumail Nanjiani (playing a version of himself) sarcastically outlining to the audience at a stand-up comedy show the ways in which his native Pakistan is not, in fact, especially different from the United States. This foreshadows his central struggle; his uber-conservative Muslim family, intent on arranging his marriage, must be kept in the dark about his burgeoning romance with Emily (Kazan), whose cynical preference for independence is gradually broken down by her growing affection for Kumail.

After a somewhat rocky courtship, the film lurches suddenly from the comfortable realm of the affable romcom as Emily falls victim to a serious lung infection and must be put into a coma. Enter her parents (Hunter and Romano), who get to know Nanjiani in the uncomfortable surroundings of hospital waiting rooms. The three form an unlikely relationship, upon which a large chunk of the film’s narrative is focused.

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Comic and dramatic elements are well-balanced, and are never allowed to outweigh or undermine one another. The humour is first rate on one or two occasions (Kumail’s nervous breakdown at a fast food drive-thru is nothing short of comedy gold), but we are not provided with as consistent a stream of hilarity as other Apatow projects. The central romance is somewhat predictable, but both leads perform excellently; Kazan oozes charm and intelligence, and Nanjiani does an eye-catching job of embodying the fusion between a fiercely traditional Pakistani world and the rapidly liberalizing values of modern America. The difficulties that this dichotomy presents for him are hugely thought-provoking, as are his dealings with the contemporary perception of Islam and Muslims in the West.

The roles played by parental figures are another of this movie’s great strengths. Ray Romano’s contributions are unerringly charming, while Holly Hunter (although excessively Southern at times) does well in the role of concerned mother. Kumail’s mother’s (Shroff) poorly masked determination to find him a suitable bride is also a source of entertainment.

Ultimately, while The Big Sick is neither the funniest nor the most gripping of this year’s films, it scores well in terms of the originality of its premise and the cleverness with which it is delivered.

3/5

(Image credit: Metacritic, Little White Lies, Spirituality & Practice)

Television

The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story – A Review

Starring Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer, John Travolta, Kenneth Choi, Nathan Lane.

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Dubbed the ‘Trial of the Century’, the legal battle which sought to put O.J. Simpson behind bars for the murder of both his ex-wife and her friend was certainly not without intrigue. The details of the story, which unfolds over ten episodes, are frequently outlandish enough that they would not have worked as fiction; a hallmark of a great true-to-life tale.

The trial itself does not begin until the fourth episode, but this is not to say that there is any shortage of drama up to that. Episode 2 gives us an unmistakeable flavour of the absurdity that surrounds this story and its protagonist; those old enough to remember the events of the debacle that was the lead-up to the Simpson trial will doubtless enjoy the retelling. Those not of such an age may find themselves dumbfoundedly hammering their Google machines at this point in an attempt to confirm whether this is, in fact, a true story.

Once the trial begins, Simpson assumes a less central role, with a switch of focus to the lawyers on each side. There are acquisitions by the defence team and reshuffles on both sides. Controversy around the reliability of witnesses and the veracity of physical evidence spills over into the media, and the prosecution’s seemingly unassailable case is met with unseen challenges.

Replete with unlikely plot twists, this story also benefits from a diverse group of characters. The creators have made the interesting choice to keep focus in this regard quite fluid; no individual player is allowed to hog the limelight for too long. If anyone, the star of the show would probably be Marcia Clark (played masterfully by Sarah Paulson), the tomboyish and highly capable lead prosecutor. Her righteous anger at Simpson’s alleged crimes simmers beautifully, and the toll taken on her personally by the limelight of the trial is portrayed in sublime fashion. The other standout performance is that of Courtney B. Vance playing Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s loquacious legal counsel. His soulful rhetoric is delivered powerfully, and Vance exudes both arrogance and genius in magnetic fashion. Both actors claimed an Emmy for their trouble.

Sterling K. Brown, also in receipt of an Emmy, gives an eye-catchingly controlled performance as Christopher Darden, an attorney for the prosecution. As a black man, he is directly exposed to the racial tensions that arose from the case; unlike Vance, however, he is not given the freedom to air his frustrations in bombastic prose at every turn. His soft speaking voice seems almost out of place in the courtroom, but acts as an effective counterpoint to the other main players.

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The remainder of the acting performances hold their own as well, although this may only be true in John Travolta’s case due to an unintended comic relief factor. His lines are delivered in a clipped, overly deliberate manner, and his movements are somewhat robotic; it is his face, however, surgically reconstructed to the point that he is scarcely identifiable as human, that steals the show. Gooding’s performance has been the subject of critical ambivalence, but his technical skill in delivering the role cannot be denied. Simpson’s reactionary, tortured mental state is portrayed with range and flair.

Ultimately, what begins as a murder trial that looks as though it will culminate in an easy conviction becomes a fascinating legal drama, and a look into the implications of the deep racial divisions in American society. Simpson’s innocence or guilt becomes an irrelevant consideration for many in what, for them, boils down to a symbolic battle against the oppression of the African community by the legal system and its enforcers. This series ultimately asks where the greater good lay in the trial of O.J. Simpson, and is too skilfully even-handed to suggest an answer itself.

While this series does not have the scope to present detailed dissections of its characters, it has more than enough material to present ten sharp, engaging episodes. Suspense drips and careful consideration is frequently provoked. For anyone contemplating a Netflix binge without the risk of too long a commitment (I got through it in under 36 hours), this might be just the thing.

4/5

Film Review

Baby Driver – A Review

Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal. Running time: 113 minutes.

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For some reason, until I watched the trailer for this movie, I had pictured an animated film when hearing its name. Perhaps this was because I subconsciously enjoyed the idea of a whimsical cartoon film about an infant chauffeur, or (more likely) I was just mixing it up with The Boss Baby.

Baby Driver certainly isn’t a film for children, but it is tremendous fun in spots. Its main selling point is its soundtrack; music, almost always diegetic, is a near-constant feature of the movie. This is because the titular Baby (Elgort), a reserved, slightly awkward yet often charming protagonist, suffers from severe tinnitus, and employs the eclectic mix of music on his many iPods to drown it out.

A high octane opening sequence, accompanied by the funky strains of  Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, sets the pace. A bank is robbed; Baby is the (impossibly skilled) getaway driver. We learn that the necessity for his criminal lifestyle lies in a debt owed to Doc (Spacey), a criminal mastermind with unclear motivations and an odd sense of humour. Foxx, Hamm, Gonzalez and Bernthal are the supporting gangsters, each blessed with a different degree and variety of psychopathy. After the first robbery, we are told that “one last job” will sever Baby’s ties to the shady outfit; there are no prizes for guessing that it doesn’t all transpire quite so straightforwardly as that. Debora (Lily James) complicates matters in the way only a love interest can.

Music is more than the glue that holds this film together; it forms the structure of a healthy percentage of it. There is a deliberate, magnetic rhythm to much of the action, and Elgort’s movements mirror beats to hypnotic effect on more than one occasion. Even the dialogue has a musicality to it; Doc merrily referring to Baby’s tinnitus as “a hum in the drum” is but one example.

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This all lends Baby Driver a watchability it would otherwise have struggled to achieve. The storyline, promising at first, gives way to uncertainty about halfway through, and the final act stumbles from contrivance to convolution, with a closing set piece that manages to bore despite its generous helping of bodily harm and explosions.

Unfortunately, the characters are similarly limited. Debora is little more than a plot device with a cutesy Southern accent, and Kevin Spacey’s acting talents are largely kept under wraps. Other than Elgort, whose portrayal of Baby is nuanced enough to keep us interested, the only thespian given a great deal to do is Jon Hamm, who also acquits himself well. Jamie Foxx’s garrulous Bats shows promise, but is lamentably overcooked.

Ultimately, then, what are we left with? This is undoubtedly a film with an array of flaws. None of them, however, manage to fully outweigh the raw energy and atmosphere of fun that oozes out of Baby Driver from the first scene. Enjoy it for what it is.

3/5

Film Review

The Breakfast Club (1985) – A Review

Directed by John Hughes. Starring Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheehy, Anthony Michael Hall, Paul Gleason. Running Time: 97 minutes.

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Confining extended sequences of films to a single room or setting has produced many memorable pieces of cinema. Hughes embraces this type of minimalism fully with The Breakfast Club; a mere 13 actors are credited in total. The resulting focus is not used for the same thrillseeking ends as, say, Phonebooth, but the technique serves the film undoubtedly well.

Hughes allows the majority of his story to unfold in the large classroom in which the film’s young protagonists are confined for a Saturday of detention. John Bender (Nelson), a prickly, weed-smoking anarchist, quickly becomes the focal point for the group’s interactions, as the lack of stimulation in their surroundings forces them to get to know each other. What unfolds is an intriguing examination of five typical, yet starkly different youths. Andrew (Estevez) is the conservative jock, Clare (Ringwald) the spoilt princess, Allison (Sheehy) the taciturn oddball and Brian (Hall) the socially awkward high achiever. Stereotypical the roles may be, but each character has a magnetic believability. Possibly this film’s greatest triumph is that its main players are as relevant today as they were three decades ago.

Some realism may be sacrificed in favour of engaging dialogue; it is slightly difficult to believe that five teenagers, having just met, would engage each other with the level of emotional candour on display here. Nonetheless, it works spectacularly.

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Relations are edgy at first; John’s irreverence sets him up as something of an outcast, and Allison barely features for much of the film’s opening half. When formed, however, the group dynamic is sublime; often funny and profoundly thought-provoking on a few occasions. The politics of young adulthood are illustrated unflinchingly, and the challenges they pose for young people are handled with arresting sincerity. Paul Gleason’s despotic principal, involved on an intermittent basis, is the primary source of their unity; whatever contempt they may hold for each other’s character flaws is overshadowed by their mutual disdain for authority.

Although John is given the role of loquacious philosopher to an extent, it is Andrew who tells us: “We’re all bizarre; some of us are just better at hiding it.” This expression of acceptance is fundamental to the film’s warm intentions. The iconic Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds is the icing on the cake.

 

5/5

Film Review

Baywatch – A Review

Directed by Seth Gordon. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Ilfenesh Hadera. Running time 116 minutes. Rated 16.

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Before starting this review, I decided to ask Google whether or not the Razzies (Golden Raspberry Awards, presented to the worst performances in film each year) have a category called ‘Most Unashamedly Unoriginal Movie.’ It turns out they don’t. No matter. There are still several awards that this film has a healthy prospect of getting its hands on.

Baywatch’s faith in knackered clichés is bemusing. Zac Efron arrives into the movie on a motorbike, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket. Ronnie (Jon Bass), the film’s lovesick oaf, can produce nothing funnier upon meeting the beautiful CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) than incoherent mumbling. It might have worked in the corny TV universe from whence it came, but it falls far short here.

Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) is the leader of Baywatch, a team of lifeguards that assumes the role of assistant police force when the activities of a local crime gang become evident on their beach. Despite disgruntlement from Matt (Efron), an Olympic swimming champion required by the terms of a vaguely detailed plea deal to work with the team, and from the actual police force, they continue to flout the limitations of their job description in order to apprehend the villains. After much self-important gnashing of teeth, Matt begins to embrace the atmosphere of teamwork and interdependence engendered by the rest of the group, and the film’s central lesson is well on its way to being learned.

Elsewhere, romance rears its head in the usual ways; Matt’s self-assured charm fails to work its magic on Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), and Ronnie’s feelings for CJ lead him into a series of awkward (and painfully unfunny) encounters. In one surprisingly innovative sequence, he gets his genitalia stuck between the slats of a wooden beach lounger. The bit is dragged on for far longer than it should be, but it shows an element of imagination that the film could unquestionably have done with more of.

It is difficult to tell exactly what the producers of this movie intended to make. Long stretches of it are designed to feel like an action-based drama, but streams of attempted jokes make it seem more like comic farce. In any case, neither is executed well.

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Baywatch’s plot is uninspiring, and its set pieces, trying desperately to come across as flashy and gasp-inducing, fail to impress. Its characters let it down just as much. While Efron does his best to inject charm into his impossibly one-dimensional cad, Johnson’s overzealous performance is almost reminiscent of his days as a pro wrestler. Short of providing plenty of footage for the film’s advertising campaign and acting as the obligatory love interests, the females are given very little to do; you’ll be doing well to remember each of their names by the end of the movie. The comedy, though frequent and sometimes rather protracted, is depressingly unfunny.

2018’s Razzies are scheduled to take place at the end of next February. While it’s possible that a series of films as dire as this will descend upon cinemas before the end of the year, I wouldn’t bet against Baywatch bringing home the spoils (as it were) in a category or two.

1/5

Film Review

Wonder Woman – A Review

Directed by Patty Jenkins. Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen. Running time: 141 minutes. Rating: 12A.

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Much has been made of this film’s contribution to the feminist movement, at least in the world of high-budget film. Admittedly, females are pretty poorly represented at the table of lead roles in big-budget action thrillers; despite a general surge in the number of female leads in Hollywood, this is a genre that still harbours a strong preference for male protagonists, with men taking 97% of lead roles in action films in 2016.

Felicity Jones’ turn in Rogue One makes her the most noteworthy member of the remaining 3%, but she didn’t spend half of her screen time beating able-bodied men to a pulp and nonchalantly deflecting slack-jawed male admiration of her beauty. Wonder Woman allows Gal Gadot time to do plenty of both. Would it be cynical to suggest that this may have been a political ploy on the part of DC? Perhaps not. The fact that the film’s opening half hour is taken up primarily by scantily clad (and invariably gorgeous) women roving about on horseback invites the question as to what kind of feminism the film is really trying to appeal to, however. Certainly not the type that would risk alienating male viewers.

Wonder Woman, known in her earlier years as Diane, begins life as the only child on an idyllic island inhabited exclusively by a tribe of female warriors sent to Earth by the gods of Mount Olympus to preserve humankind from its troublesome self-destructive tendencies. Despite the disapproval of her mother (Connie Nielsen), Diane begins combat training with her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright) and soon reveals unrivalled ability as a fighter. When charming war pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into their midst, bringing a procession of nasty German soldiers in his wake, Diane learns of the horrific ongoing events of the First World War and feels compelled to offer her help. Away they go to the war’s frontlines.

Diane’s first experiences of the outside world are dealt with in predictable fashion, and leap at the chance to work in some safe humour. She has difficulty wearing human clothing, and remarks at the poor quality of “armour” in her new world upon seeing a mannequin sporting lingerie. Her ignorance of the quirks of human society manages to be endearing at times; never less so, however, than when a skittish Pine is forced through a horribly protracted explanation of sex to her.

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Pine, for his part, works fine as the boyish love interest, but is not as convincing when required to do the job of earnest war hero. Gadot’s performance is more rounded, but once her character’s naivete begins to come across as dim-wittedness (which, after the fifth or sixth wide-eyed expression of disbelief at the folly of humanity, it does), it becomes more difficult to take her seriously as a credible heroine.

Which is not to say that she doesn’t spend plenty of time dishing out supercharged beatings; Jenkins has quite contentedly gone overboard with the fight scenes. While this is sure to please some, and certainly won’t deter anyone who enjoyed Batman vs Superman or Man of Steel, it can make for boring viewing after a while. There is also a lamentable lack of cut-and-thrust to the action; rarely are we treated to a lengthy session of nicely choreographed fisticuffs. Loud noises and colourful explosions are, however, in no short supply.

It isn’t all bad news. The film’s colossal budget has left an obvious imprint, and the beautiful effects and talented cast make this film a rather pleasant watch at times. Don’t expect a huge amount of substance, however.

2/5