Film Review

Philomena (2013) – A Review

Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Steve Coogan, Judi Dench.

philomena

“Some of the nuns were very nice.” This is what Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) says in response to journalist Martin Sixsmith’s (Steve Coogan) incredulity at the conduct of the order of nuns in whose care she found herself after giving birth to her son as an unmarried teenager in 1950’s Ireland. The quote serves as something of a microcosm for the film’s subject matter; despite the abhorrent deeds committed by religious orders in Ireland at the time, and for decades afterwards, they thrived on the unyielding support of a national community that has only recently come to condemn their actions. Frears’ portrayal of senior members of the sisterhood is deliberately unflattering; at certain points, they come across merely as fierce devotees to a misguided set of principles, while, at the other end of the spectrum, they seem overtly psychopathic. Considering the facts of the story, it would have been almost impossible to illustrate them differently.

A brisk opening sequence details Philomena’s trials in the convent while her son is an infant, before he is given by the nuns to an American family without her consent, nor even her prior knowledge. With the help of her daughter, Dench’s Philomena, an endearingly earnest woman who has since moved to England, seeks the help of Sixsmith in tracking down her son fifty years later. Initially reluctant, the snobbish journalist eventually agrees to embark on the search with Philomena and her daughter, traveling first to the abbey in Roscrea where she last saw her son. What emerges thereafter is a series of events so improbable it would have been dismissed as outlandish if it were fiction.

Philomena works spectacularly on two main levels. The first is as a statement of outrage at the atrocities committed by the epochal Irish religious hierarchy. Frears does a fine job of exposing the ruthlessness of the culture and its participants, as well its human impact. The film’s middle section holds back the more troubling drama to allow for the second; an “odd couple,” comedy, to which the two main characters could hardly be better suited. Steve Coogan’s infuriatingly arrogant toff is well-judged, and his blatant disdain for those around him is hugely enjoyable on a few occasions. It is Dench, however, who provides the standout performance. Her good-natured innocence makes for several moments of hilarity (blithely exclaiming to a Mexican chef that his country would be lovely were it not for the kidnappings), but is never allowed to detract from the profoundness of her character’s struggle, which she handles with moving sincerity. Had she not had the misfortune of being nominated alongside the masterful embodiment of psychological disarray from Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, this could well have garnered her a second Academy Award.

4/5

 

Film Review

Gifted – A Review

Directed by Marc Webber. Starring Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer.

Gifted

A cynic might suggest that Gifted is a knockoff of Good Will Hunting. There are certainly parallels that may be drawn; Mary Adler’s (Mckenna Grace) astonishing mathematical prowess does provoke instant reminders of the troubled hero of Gus Van Sant’s classic. This film carves itself a different path, however. For one thing, Mary is just 7 years of age; while Will Hunting was saddled with the task of using his superhuman intellect to make peace with the unfairness and brutality of life, she is allowed the freedom to ignore the implications of her intelligence. The task of properly applying her talents is left to the adult characters in the film, and this forms the basis for the movie’s narrative.

Mary’s capabilities become apparent when, on her first day of school, she quickly (and with charming indignation) rattles off the answers to a number of problems that her teacher requires a calculator to solve. When her uncle, and legal guardian, Frank, (Chris Evans) refuses to have her sent to a school for gifted children to protect her chance at a normal childhood, his snobbish (and stiffly British) mother (Lindsay Duncan) intervenes, with the ultimate result being a courtroom custody battle. Along the way, we are treated to a painfully predictable and largely unnecessary romance between Frank and Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) and a series of spirited contributions from neighbour Roberta (Octavia Spencer).

It would be easy to focus on the negatives here; the plotline is held together by one or two highly improbable developments, and the script is riddled with clichés. At one point, Frank and Bonnie sit at a bar, tipsily agreeing that nothing improper should occur between them, when the scene cuts to reveal that they do, in fact, return to Frank’s house to tear each other’s clothes off. The episode is so reminiscent of Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston’s initial tryst in Along Came Polly that one wonders whether Marc Webb was trying to get his production company sued.

These issues are comfortably outweighed by the film’s positive points, however. Gifted weaves compelling legal drama into its foundations as a family-based film, and asks some tough questions about child genius. We are made to appreciate the difficulty in finding the balance between the welfare of a child and the general responsibility to ensure that their potential is fulfilled. Duncan personifies the latter side nicely; she is not quite portrayed as soulless, but single-minded and ruthlessly opposed to mediocrity. At one point, she derisively explores the possibility that, with the wrong guidance, her genius granddaughter might end up watching sitcoms and saying “irregardless.” What especially sticks in the memory, however, is the turn made by Grace as Mary. Her toothless smile contributes to a beautiful portrayal of youthful innocence, while still leaving us with a believable child prodigy. Her on-screen relationship with Evans is impressively natural, and packed with emotive energy on one or two occasions. This film ran the risk of being labelled formulaic and bland; its characters, richly developed and skilfully delivered, emerge as its saviour.

3.5/5

Film Review

Logan – A Review

Directed by James Mangold. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Dafne Keen.

Logan

The year is 2029. We know this because a radio show host loudly announces it within the first ten minutes of the film, as a rather dishevelled Hugh Jackman returns to his car having sent an unfortunate bunch of would-be thieves to their gruesome demise. Jackman’s character, now known almost exclusively as Logan, works as a chauffeur. His fighting skills aren’t quite what they were in previous X-Men installations, nor is he quite as impervious to physical mutilation. In short, he is getting old. Also feeling the unfavourable effects of time’s passage is Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has begun to lose his sanity. This hasn’t stripped his brain of the ability to cause untold damage to his surroundings, but rather means that he is no longer in complete control of when it does so. The ageing duo have shacked up in a curious-looking metal thing in an expanse of desert just south of the Mexican border, along with Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a droll creature that somewhat resembles Darth Vader without his helmet.

Things get interesting when Logan is entrusted with the task of bringing an 11-year-old mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota. As it transpires, Laura has escaped the clutches of a nefarious, secretive organisation, one unpleasant member of which (Boyd Holbrook) arrives on the scene with a seemingly unnecessary number of henchmen to reclaim possession of her. After a heated physical exchange, during which we learn that Laura is rather more gifted in the art of bodily mutilation than the average schoolchild, Logan leads an expedition across America with the intention of delivering Laura to safety, as well as finding a more comfortable retirement for himself and Professor Xavier.

The results are eminently enjoyable. Jackman has, by now, made his interpretation of Wolverine/Logan an instantly recognisable stalwart in the genre of modern superfolk movies, and the physical vulnerability and emotional maturity demanded by this instalment have added a likeable final brushstroke to the gruff mutant. Stewart’s management of Professor X is even more impressive; his portrayal of the feebleness and volatility of degenerative mental illness is deeply affecting. Tempered with the character’s enduring wry wit, the end product is profoundly charming. Aside from character development, there is more to be enthusiastic about; Marvel fans will enjoy the generous self-referencing, and the action is sufficient to satisfy those who have a taste for gore. As well as this, however, the storyline is rich enough to engender real interest from viewers who have never seen a superhero film before in their lives. This is a project that manages to find the often elusive balance between supernatural romp and broadly engaging drama, and all involved are deserving of high praise.

4/5

Film

Split – A Review

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley,

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Even if it does not go down in history as an earth-shatteringly profound piece of work, Split can happily claim itself to be the film that heralded the end of a curious run of cinematic dross from the mind of an undoubtedly capable filmmaker. M. Night Shyamalan was granted widespread acclaim for iconic thriller The Sixth Sense (1999) and subsequently castigated for almost every project since. Ill-advised ventures such as The Village (2004) and The Last Airbender (2010), his questionable re-imagining of a children’s cartoon series, attracted a barrage of critical scorn. Here, Shyamalan’s creative talents have manifested themselves in much neater order.

The film begins in prompt fashion as skinheaded and overtly psychopathic Kevin (James McAvoy) abducts three teenage girls and imprisons them in a dank underground hideout. Two of the unfortunate trio quickly assume the role of shrill and largely useless damsels-in-distress, while Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose inelegant backstory has left her with a gritty survival instinct, attempts to exploit Kevin’s fractured psyche in order to escape unharmed. While this is taking place, a number of visits made by (a much more personable) Kevin to his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) inform us that the reason for his erratic behaviour is a rare condition known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, meaning that his body plays host to 23 entirely distinct personalities. There is a camp fashion enthusiast, a gruff pervert, a 9-year-old with a speech impediment; each have different names, traits and even degrees of physical strength. The girls soon learn that a 24th identity, referred to only as ‘The Beast,’ is soon to arrive, and that their survival is most probably contingent on escaping before this comes to pass.

Aside from some glaring plot contrivances, (Kevin managing to avoid apprehension after assaulting a man and stealing his car in a public carpark in broad daylight, for example) this is a smartly made film. Shyamalan’s abrupt cinematic style (coupled with a suitably brooding soundtrack) injects tension into every scene, and, apart from some occasional meandering towards the end, the pace of the narrative is never allowed to lag. The casting choices are equally deserving of praise; Joy does an eye-catching job as Casey, infusing her character with a pained, taciturn resilience, and highlighting some thought-provoking social parallels with her character’s fellow captives. Buckley’s psychiatrist is also heartfelt and likeable, but it is McAvoy who steals the show. While he could justifiably be accused of going overboard at certain points, his ability to weave between each of his roles is hugely impressive, and each individual is brought to life with a dazzling panache. Split’s premise always threatened the possibility of mediocre claptrap; thanks to skilled direction and fine acting, however, what has emerged is a very competent thriller. The obligatory Shyamalanian plot twist(s) are also sure to please many.

3/5

Film

Moonlight – A Review

Directed by Barry Jenkins. Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert.

moonlight

It may or may not bode well for Moonlight’s aspirations at the upcoming Academy Awards (it picked up 8 nominations in total, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for bookies’ favourite Mahershala Ali) that the thematic ground it covers has rarely been more relevant to American audiences in recent times; it certainly lends the film an added degree of poignancy. Jenkins’ drama offers an often uncomfortable commentary on the marginalised in society, and the ways in which those who fit more comfortably with the status quo force them either to adapt or suffer. Moonlight’s protagonist, Chiron, is first encountered as a taciturn child in a deprived neighbourhood in Miami. The narrative focuses on his struggle through youth into adulthood, learning difficult lessons about the imperfections of those around him. As his journey unfolds, we are given a haunting insight into the brutal, sink-or-swim nature of humanity, as well as the ravages of familial dysfunction and drug abuse.

Each of the three actors tasked with depicting Chiron do a fine job of expressing his sullen reticence; Alex Hibbert, in particular, gives a mesmerising, almost wordless turn as the youngest incarnation. Equally impressive is Ali, whose role as a streetsmart drug dealer turned concerned father-figure is a welcome departure from his invariable evenness in House of Cards. Janelle Monae fits nicely as his warm-hearted girlfriend. The standout performance in this film is that of Naomie Harris, however. Her nuanced exploration of the violent unpredictability of drug addiction as Chiron’s mother makes for intriguing viewing, and serves as a heart-rending utterance of sympathy for the cyclical plight faced by large sections of America’s working class.

Moonlight adopts a stripped-back stylistic approach, to great effect. The bare soundtrack and close style of shooting eschew potential distraction from the raw emotion which sits at the heart of this work. Jenkins’ preference for short, succinct scenes keeps the film rattling along nicely, and that which is left unsaid maintains an engaging level of suspense throughout. Moonlight has already picked up the award for Best Drama at the Golden Globes; whether it can clinch the highest accolade at the Oscars in three weeks’ time is uncertain, given the swell of critical support behind La La Land, which (owing to its more generous budget and instantly recognisable leads) is undeniably a more ‘Hollywood,’ sort of movie. Regardless of what lies in the Best Picture envelope, however, this is a film that will live long in the memory as a powerful, emotive piece of work.

4.5/5

Film

Sully – A Review

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley.

hanks-eckhart-sully

It might not serve as a great recommendation for this film that I spent the majority of its running time marvelling at how old Tom Hanks looks in it. True, it is almost 22 years since Hanks assumed the role of sprightly young dimwit Forrest Gump; it wasn’t as if we’d expected him not to age, but still! That white hair! Not only that, but in the (many) scenes during which Hanks is filmed jogging around New York City, he looks as if he could well do with the assistance of a Zimmer frame.

This film explores the trials faced by Captain Chesley ‘Sully,’ Sullenberger (Hanks) directly after the ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’ the incident which saw an aeroplane, whose engine power had been lost due to the ill-advised flight trajectory of a flock of birds, come to an emergency landing on the River Hudson, without the loss of a single life, nor even the incurrence of a serious injury. We must wait until the second act, however, until we see these events played out. The film chooses instead to begin with the investigation into Sullenberger’s decision to point the aircraft towards the river, instead of either of New York’s nearby airports. He and his co-pilot (Eckhart) defend his actions indignantly, while his wife (Linney) calls frequently to worry aloud about the fate of the family finances should he be barred from flying in future.

Hanks’ stoic performance, likely to garner him an Oscar nomination, is the highlight of what can be a slightly bland affair in parts. His portrayal of Sullenberger’s agonizing journey through self-doubt and post-traumatic stress is an engaging one, but neither Eckhart nor Linney are given much to do other than embody the warmth of public feeling towards him which existed at the time, as well as offset the emotionless judgment of the officials who question his decision-making. Eastwood’s direction does a fine job of depicting the sheer terror of the central incident; unfortunately, however, it cannot inject much excitement into the rest of the proceedings, which are ultimately never sufficiently gripping to qualify as high drama. An enjoyable film nonetheless.

3/5

Film

‘Why Him?’ – A Review

Directed by John Hamburg. Starring Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key, Kaley Cuoco (voice).

 

why-him

One could be forgiven for exercising cautious optimism in their approach to this film. Cranston and Franco both have form in the field of outlandish humour, and the premise (conservative father spends a weekend getting to know his beloved daughter’s boorish but well-meaning and obscenely wealthy boyfriend) offers potential for an enjoyably light-hearted comedy .

Regrettably, this is potential which is never quite met, largely due the tiresome rigidity with which both of the main characters are depicted. Franco’s uncouth tech billionaire’s swearing and overly enthusiastic lewdness form the entirety of his character for much of the film, while Cranston has little to do other than prudishly disapprove of the above. To be fair, this is not the fault of either actor; Franco, in particular, makes a determined effort to have as much fun as possible with his one-dimensional lout. The film could even be forgiven this shortcoming if it offered some laughs; unfortunately, however, the script rarely provides for anything more than the occasional titter. What it does give us is plenty of unflinching awkwardness (a horribly protracted attempted seduction of Cranston by Mullally) and some ham-fisted stereotyping (Cranston predicts a life of prostitution and heroin addiction for his daughter upon learning of her plan to leave college).

Admittedly, it isn’t all bad news; Griffin Gluck gives an effective turn as the precocious younger brother of the family, and Kaley Cuoco is engagingly irreverent as Franco’s home computer system. Deutch and Mullally, on the other hand, seem to be there primarily to make up the numbers. As the film lumbers awkwardly into the final act, towards and beyond the predictable confrontation, the lack of truly effective comedy becomes more and more apparent. Not a complete waste of time, but close.

1.5/5