Churchill

Year: 2017
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell
Written by Tom Sheffield

Often referred to as “the greatest Briton ever”, it’s no surprise that there have already been a number of films and documentaries centred around the life of Winston Churchill, with this latest film about the former Prime Minister coming from director Jonathan Teplitzky (‘The Railway Man’, ‘Broadchurch’).

This whole biopic centres around Churchill (Brian Cox) in the 96 hours before the D-Day landings in Normandy, 1944. Churchill is haunted by his past experience of war, obsessively worrying about what the public will think of him, whatever the outcome of this plan, and filled with fear by the sheer number of young men’s lives at stake if he makes the wrong call. Trying to support her husband the best she can, Clementine Churchill (Miranda Richardson)  must make Winston see that his self-pity will not win the war, and it certainly isn’t how a leader should act.

First and foremost, my favourite thing about this film was easily the cinematography, courtesy of David Higgs (‘RocknRolla’, ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’). Some of the scenes were so beautifully shot that even the dull, and often tiresome dialogue managed to keep my attention. The film kicks off with shots of Winston on a beach, the seas red with blood, and as he walks away the colour fades to black and white and the empty beach is now filled with the bodies of young soldiers. This harrowing shot sets us up for Winston’s state of mind for the rest of the film and a visual representation of what he fears may happen.

Alongside the superb cinematography, Cox and Richardson’s performances are the only other saving graces of this film. The way in which they deliver their lines during some of the most intense and emotional scenes really capture your attention. The hour and forty-five minute run time feels seemed to drag in places and I think a ninety minute run time would have sufficed. A number of shots throughout the film are Winston staring into the distance, cigar in his mouth, with his facial expressions giving clear indication there is a lot running through his mind. The silence is often broken with Clementine entering the room and speaking a lot of sense and often reminding Winston to act like the leader he wants to be remembered for being.

The film focused on Churchill’s demons and his on-going fight against them, and because of this I think this film focused on the wrong Churchill. Had the film centred around the same 96 hours but from Clementine’s point of view and her struggle to support her husband, I think that would have made for a much more intense and ‘thriller’ like film. I left the cinema wishing I’d seen more of her and what she was doing whilst Winston was out butting heads with his American allies about the plans for D-Day.

I can’t say I’d recommend giving this a watch whilst it’s in the cinemas, but if you’re interested in films about World War II or Churchill then you’ll probably want to pick this up when it comes out on DVD. There’s certainly a lot of comments online about the films historical accuracy, but I’ve avoided going into detail on this in my review as biopics tend to be flexible with truth behind the stories they’re trying to tell. But with solid leads and some beautiful shots, ‘Churchill’ would be a film I recommend for one of those days where you’re just not quite sure what to watch.

Tom’s rating: 4.5 out of 10
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The Founder

Year: 2017
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Caroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern
Written by Tom Sheffield

McDonald’s can be found in 118 countries across the globe, with 36,615 restaurants currently in operation. But did you ever wonder just how the McDonald’s franchise came to be? Or who came up with golden arches that are instantly recognisable to almost everyone? The trailer for ‘The Founder’ promised to fill us in on these details by telling the story of Ray Kroc and how he built up the McDonald’s empire. The trailer quickly gave off the impression that this was a story worth telling. And it was.

‘The Founder’ is the, sadly, true story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) and how he turned two brother’s humble but revolutionary fast food restaurant into a multi-billion dollar fast food company and squeezed them out of their family business completely.  Dick (Nick Offerman, sans facial hair) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald always dreamed of running a successful business together, and after multiple attempts and some crushing failures, they finally found success with their little walk-up burger joint, that Kroc instantly falls in love with and expresses his desire to franchise it. Dick is very hesitant at the idea because it’s something the brothers had tried before with no success, but Kroc’s persistence proves fruitful when the brothers write a contract to make him ‘Head of Franchising’. Kroc has been a salesman for most of his working life, so he knows how to talk the talk when it comes to getting what he wants. It doesn’t take long before Kroc becomes power-hungry and let’s his greed destroy his relationships with everyone around him as he builds the McDonald’s franchise.

Michael Keaton is on form yet again with this performance. At first Kroc comes across like an excitable, energetic little puppy every time he hears the name McDonald’s but as the story unfolds and his true intentions come to light, he becomes more like a sharp-witted, blood thirsty wolf that’s ready to strike at any moment. You can see Kroc’s character progression quite clearly in the way Keaton presents himself, his posture and mannerisms begin to change, his stance and his facial expressions become sterner and the tone of his voice loses its persuasive tone and becomes much more aggressive and demanding.

Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch were a great pairing as the McDonald brothers, who you really can’t help but feel sorry for. During some points of the film you find yourself forgetting that it’s all based on true events because you think surely no one is that much of a dick to do what Kroc does. But sadly, it’s all true. B.J. Novak portrays Harry Sonneborn, who is the man responsible for pitching Kroc a revolutionary financial idea that changed everything for the entire franchise and ultimately lead to the development of Kroc’s power-hungry attitude.

As the story of how the McDonald’s brothers got royally screwed over by Kroc takes place in the 1950’s, we’re treated to some truly authentic looking shots of the American suburbs and diners/restaurants that look like they’d been pulled straight from that time period. This authenticity was one of my favourite parts of the film, and my eyes were constantly roaming the screen during the wide shots. The restaurant signs, menus, buildings, company logos and vehicles were all a treat for the eyes.

When it comes down to it, I think ‘The Founder’ is a satisfactory biopic. The script seemed to let down some of the more pivotal points of the story, but I do commend Hancock for sticking to the story at hand rather than getting distracted by the romantic subplot that could have swallowed up some screen time. Keaton, Offerman and Lynch are the real saving graces of the film, alongside the authentic look and feel of the film. Other than that, it’s not a film I’ll remember much of this time next year but it’s definitely a story I’m glad has been told. You’re going to want to stay seated after the final scene, as just before the credits role there are some photos of the real Ray Kroc and McDonald’s brothers, as well as some astounding facts and figures on just how much Kroc screwed over the brothers.

Tom’s rating: 6.5 out of 10

Jackie

Year: 2017
Director: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant
Written by Tom Sheffield

One thing that has really been grinding my gears over the awards season this year is the fact that over half of the films that have been getting all the nods and the awards for 2016 haven’t in fact been released in the UK yet. Films such as ‘Jackie’, ‘La La Land’, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ have all received endless praise and nominations, but here in the UK some are only just being released. So I’m ecstatic that I am now slowly getting to see these films as they release this month in the UK.

‘Jackie’ follows an account of the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, through the eyes of his wife, and First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman).  The film is framed around Jackie’s interview with Theodore White of Life magazine, as she gives a very personal account of what happened after her husband’s assassination and the reasoning and thoughts behind her actions in the following days. Straight from the start of the interview, Jackie’s strong personality is clear as she takes control of the interview, making it clear what can and can’t be published. Her sharp and quick remarks and apparent cold demeanour are a far cry from the Jackie we see during the flashbacks, where we see a loving, caring and all round smiley Jackie, with her husband by her side. As her life begins to spiral following his death, she struggles to keep control as everyone tries to dictate her actions, and as a new President is sworn in, she has to start thinking of a future outside of the White House for her and her children.   

First and foremost, Natalie Portman truly deserves all the praise and nominations she is receiving. Her performance as the former First Lady is outstanding, and she really captures Jacqueline Kennedy’s mannerisms and style. Every single second she is on screen she has you in the palm of her hand. Even during the dialogue-less scenes, Portman’s expressive facial movements show Jackie’s heartbreak, her confidence, and self-consciousness so clearly, and sometimes you can really see her wrestling with her own thoughts and trying to put on a brave face for the cameras, or her two young children, despite how broken and beaten she may feel.

The supporting cast are also superb, I had to do a double take when I saw Caspar Phillipson come onto the screen as his resemblance to John F. Kennedy is remarkable. Peter Sarsgaard was brilliant in the role of Bobby Kennedy, brother to John and close confidante of Jackie, following his brother’s death. John Hurt was also a nice surprise appearance, playing the role of a Priest that Jackie confides in in the days after John’s death.

Pablo Larrain’s direction and Stephan Fontaine as the film’s cinematographer appears to be a successful pairing.  Some scenes saw Portman recreate the famous tour of the White House that Jackie Kennedy did in 1962, which was televised as ‘A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy’.  I watched this on YouTube the minute I got home from my screening and I couldn’t believe how perfectly it was shot for the film. Portman utterly captures Jackie’s voice, mannerisms, and her on-screen awkwardness during the tour, and Larrain even went as far as to copy the camera angles the original tour was filmed in which was a delightful authentic touch.

Accompanying the flawless direction and cinematography is Mica Levi’s intense score, which truly encapsulates the tone of the story at every turn. The score’s presence really does add an emotional gut punch during some of Jackie’s lowest and loneliest parts of the film, but also reflects her strength and resilience during others. The stunning set and costume designs (which is totally deserving of the Oscar nomination) give the film such an authentic feel that when the scenes of the White House tour are black and white with the crackling picture and sound, you’d be forgiven for questioning whether it was real footage or not.

Jackie is without a doubt worth every second of your time to watch, it’s not just a film about Jackie Kennedy the wife in mourning, it’s a film about Jackie Kennedy the First Lady, wife, mother, and friend, who wants to ensure the American people remember who her husband was, what he stood for, and what strides he made as President but was unable to fulfil. Her actions following her husband’s assassination will have you questioning her motives, is she doing it for vanity? Or is she genuinely doing what she thinks is best under the unexpected and heart breaking circumstances? It all becomes clear in the end, but witnessing how Jackie handled everything thrown her way made for superb viewing thanks to flawless casting, direction, cinematography and score.

Tom’s rating: 9.4 out of 10

 

Born To Be Blue

Year: 2015
Director: Robert Budreau
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie
Written by Rhys Wortham

Usually I avoid all things that say “Based on a True Story”, because in my opinion, 90% of the time they’re devoid of anything “true” in favour of an over-dramatised telling of the events. So when I was tasked to review ‘Born to be Blue’, I was hesitant. After watching it, and subsequently reading a little bit more about Chet Baker, I can attest that it’s rather accurate, which makes for a pleasant surprise considering how biased people can be when telling a biography nowadays. However it does take the pacing of smooth jazz and seems to apply it rather well to this film – by that I mean it’s really slow and depressing.

Most films about the old school jazz industry are either filled with drugs, or some kind of extreme struggle with the local district, that’s usually mob influenced. ‘Born to be Blue’ was a light blend of both, mixed with a lot of visualized internal struggles. At one point Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) has his fingers and jaw broken, because he owes money to local drug dealers, which makes it difficult for him to play the trumpet for his jazz band. The recovery from this accident is rather slow and monotonous, which doesn’t make for the most interesting watch.

Half the time you’re watching him spit blood out his trumpet or struggle with his fingers, with multiple shots of this, and it’s very uncomfortable after a while. Eventually they introduce him to methadone, which is a substitute for heroin. This was rather drab, because there were only a few quick lines to explain how it made him feel, and then they quickly jumped to other subjects. It comes back up in the end only to be briefly revisited with little to no explanation as to why Chet decided to continue with the medication. This is a little puzzling to me because it does have a larger impact on his love life later in the film, and it is like he didn’t give it a second thought.

The subtle impact of the struggling relationship with his girlfriend hits home when its brought to the forefront by people that don’t approve of their mixed race relationship. While it’s a subplot that is anticlimactic, I’m kinda glad it didn’t go anywhere. If anyone knows anything about mixed race relations before the 1950s then most know that they don’t end well. There are a few conflicts with her parents, but most of the drama surrounds her struggle with trying to keep Chet clean, despite his access to other venues. It gives the impression that Chet isn’t too bright, but I’ll try to reserve my judgemenet.

The subtle nuances between a genius and his addiction are highlighted through the dialogue and light touches throughout the film. The scenery is beautiful and the social commentary of the time stays true to it’s origins. There’s a fair amount of times where the true origins of jazz shine through in the sorrowful dialogue. It’s entertaining in the end, but the relatively short 97 minute run time does feel like it drags on.

I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a look into reoccurring addiction and how it affects family, otherwise skip it!

Rhys’ rating: 6.5 out of 10

Loving

Year: 2016
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton
Written by Andrew Garrison

I was excited for ‘Loving’, having first been introduced to writer and director Jeff Nichols with the movie ‘Mud’ starring Matthew McConaughey, a film which is a modern dramatic masterpiece. Earlier this year was ‘Midnight Special’, a unique science fiction film with several thought provoking ideas scattered throughout, about our world and the various philosophies and powers which guide us.

Loving’ is a film about Richard and Mildred Loving, a married couple who were targeted and arrested by the state of Virginia because they were interracial.  This is an ugly part of modern American history, and as a strong believer in equality for all men and women, a film which depicts the ignorance and hatred which once was fully endorsed by American society is troublesome.  However it also gives me hope, because we as a nation have made great strides in the proper direction and this is the story of that fight and that progress. This is a film about the fight for two people’s right to love one another and share that love openly.

There are a few negatives, which are to be expected in a character drama like this.  There is a lot of detail about the relationship of Richard and Mildred, some of course is absolutely necessary, however at times it did really drag.  As much as I support the message and the intention, the film does suffer with pacing issues.  I would say 15-20 minutes of the film could have been removed to make it more crisp, though making such cuts can be difficult to a filmmaker with a clear vision.

Aside from this, I enjoyed everything else about this movie. Ruth Negga was incredible as Mildred Loving, her variety of expressions, and slight facial movements were indicative and powerful. You could tell when she was broken, scared, worried, or filled with hope, and you could feel her strength in a time where she needed it most.  Ruth’s depiction of Mildred felt heroic. The fact that she was thrust into a situation she never asked for, but delivered something powerful for the whole world to see, is very inspiring.

Ruth may have stolen the show for me, but Joel Edgerton was also phenomenal. To some, his quiet demeanor may come off as irritating after some time, however, what can’t be questioned is the character’s love for his wife.  Negga and Edgerton’s chemistry made me believe that they were a loving couple who were enduring such heavy oppression; they were quiet, but also very strong.

What I find best about Jeff Nichols is that he seems to develop a strong repertoire with his actors and that allows them to shine brighter than they ever have before. The leads may be superb and possibly even award-winning level, but the entire cast right down to the youngest actors, were well structured and reliable. 

Nichols ability as a filmmaker to show a full range of emotion with limited words is excellent. When the characters do speak, they are saying something important.  The musical score is beautiful, the cinematography while not up to the grand nature of previous movies was still of sound quality.  The set designs and costumes were fitted to look like the 1950’s and early 1960’s with great care and detail.

Finally, the message of the movie is one of love and endurance against adversity, a thrilling idea in today’s testing times. While the film isn’t always pleasant for what it displays, it is important to never forget it.

Jeff Nichols has once again made an impacting film with outstanding lead actors, beautiful cinematography, and a valuable lesson about love and what we must sometimes endure to have justice. Nichols has proven himself in the upper echelon of master storytellers in modern film. He unearths a sometimes-forgotten dark time in American history to show us something beautiful and a future worth fighting for. It may not be the fastest paced movie of this year, but it is certainly among the more well made.

            Andrew’s rating: 7.7 out of 10

 

Bleed for This

Year: 2016
Director: Ben Younger
Starring: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal
Written by Tom Sheffield

I know I normally moan about the amount of times I see the same trailer in front of a film at the cinema, but the ‘Bleed for This’ trailer was always one I enjoyed watching, no matter how many times I had seen it. The music in the trailer always had me tapping my feet and each time I saw it, I would find myself wanting to know more about the real story behind the film, which I had a good read-up on before my viewing.  

‘Bleed for This’ is a biographical boxing film that is based on the incredible career of 5 times world champion boxer Vinny Pazienza (played in the film by Miles Teller), who was in a near-fatal car accident that broke his neck in 1991. After being told by Doctors that he may never walk again, Vinny is determined to prove them wrong and get back in the ring. Vinny refuses spinal fusion surgery and instead opts for the ‘Halo’ which is a brace to support his neck that has to be screwed into his skull. Despite the threat of worsening his injuries, Vinny secretly starts to train himself again in his basement and later persuades his coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) to get him fighting fit again, ready to get back in the ring and be the champion he knows he was born to be.

Miles Teller gave an incredible portrayal of Pazienza from start to finish, really capturing the boxers charm, humour and determination. In the scenes following the car accident we see a different side to Pazienza, a man who is down but by no means out, despite what everyone else around him thinks. During both the highs and the lows, Teller delivers in each and every scene, giving one of his best performances to date. Aaron Eckhart, who plays Kevin Rooney, is almost unrecognisable in this role. Rooney had previously trained Mike Tyson and then trained Pazienza both before and after the car accident. Eckhart’s character has his own demons to battle, but this doesn’t deter from the main story and it’s actually evident that Vinny’s recovery is helping Rooney deal with his alcohol problem, but that fact doesn’t steal the spotlight from the real story here. Eckhart played this role brilliantly, even throwing in some seriously smooth dance moves during one scene, and it was clear to see how conflicted his character was during Vinny’s recovery when asked to help him train again.

This extraordinary story was brilliantly written and directed by Ben Younger and I think the story had the perfect amount of pre and post-accident scenes that truly show Pazienza’s character, strength and heart during this trialling period of his life. The fight scenes were tense, well-choreographed and superbly shot, with an excellent and fitting soundtrack throughout. The soundtrack, which is currently playing in the background as I type this, is a perfect mixture of songs that fit the tone of the film and never feel out of place, with songs to match the different tones of the scenes they’re in. The real Vinny Pazienza was very much involved with the making of this film, meaning a lot of the dialogue and scenes were as accurate as could be, even down to a leopard print thong that Pazienza wore to a weigh-in that is shown at the beginning of the film. Knowing that fact made the film even more astonishing for me because the content and dialogue were as close to the real thing as we could get.

I can whole-heartily say this film beat my initial high expectations, which is down to the terrific performances from all involved in this film, and Younger’s direction and screenplay. Vinny Pazienza is truly a man with heart and determination and a source of motivation and inspiration to many people. Whilst at first you may find yourself questioning his actions and thinking he’s just stubborn for refusing to listen to everyone around him, you quickly begin to realise that Vinny’s relentlessness is actually admirable and inspirational.

Tom’s rating: 8.8 out of 10

 

Sully

Year: 2016
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Written by Fiona Underhill

It felt appropriate that the first film I saw at the cinema after moving from the UK to the US was a real-life story of an all-American hero, starring the all-American film star, Tom Hanks. I recently read an article accusing Hanks of wasting his talent on his choices of film since the Oscar-winning heyday of ‘Forrest Gump’; a statement I think is somewhat unfair. His three films this year alone (‘A Hologram for the King’, ‘Inferno’ and now ‘Sully’), have been diverse, if not exactly critic-friendly and let’s not forget that the excellent ‘Captain Phillips’ was only a couple of years ago as well. Two of his 2016 films have been directed by actors – Clint Eastwood in the case of ‘Sully’ – although I have to say Hanks was much more of a selling point to me than Eastwood for this film.

 I think few people will be going into this film unaware of the real-life events behind it – Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger successfully landed a plane that had both engines destroyed by a bird-strike on the freezing Hudson river in New York, saving all 155 people on board. Where this film seeks to find the majority of its drama though, is not from the events on board or even the immediate aftermath, but rather the investigation into Sully that took place afterwards. And that is where the major flaw of this film comes in – structure. Eastwood and writer Todd Komarnicki have chosen to show the events in such an odd order that you spend the whole film frustrated, internally crying out “just show us the crash!”

However, it is not until the final third of ‘Sully’ that we see the fateful journey. One of the most gripping aspects is watching the events from the point of view of the air-traffic controller – his panic unfolding as he watches the plane disappear. But instead, much of the time is spent watching Sully on the phone to his wife (the criminally under-used Laura Linney), having 9/11 inspired dreams/visions and having meetings with the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB are very much set up as the villains of the piece, questioning the actions of the heroic Sully. Sully is backed up by his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles – a slight role for a fairly major actor – Aaron Eckhart.

 The film is of course held together and completely driven by Hanks performance, doing his best vulnerable and humble hero, reminiscent of Captain Miller in ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Whether it will be enough for an Oscar nomination remains to be seen, but Sully does tick a lot of ‘Academy-bait’ boxes.

Hanks will always be able to lure me to the box office, with his humanity, humility and humour. Eastwood as director, on the other hand, must do better. This film is hampered by odd directorial choices, which left me frustrated and ultimately cringing (particularly the ending with the real-life Sully and the survivors, an all to common trope of biopic dramas). I expected sentimentality, of course, but that tipped me over the edge.

 As for cinema-going in the USA (from the point-of-view of a very recent ex-pat Brit)? I recommend the Milk Duds.

Fiona’s rating: 6.5 out of 10

 

The Birth of a Nation

Year: 2016
Director: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union
Written by Gillian Finklea

‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been the center of many controversies during it’s short tenure; it has reclaimed the title of an earlier movie about the KKK, it was the subject of the most expensive bid for a movie at Sundance, and it marked the beginning of a promising career for a new film-maker, followed rapidly by a downfall due to a controversial event from his past. Unfortunately, the things I mentioned there are more interesting than the movie itself, and if that last point about Nate Parker’s past gives you pause, you may just want to sit this one out.

The film begins with a eerie rendezvous in the swamp involving a young Nat Turner. The dreamy sequence may be just that, as the real Turner was plagued (or blessed, depends on how you interpret) by what he believed to be visions from God. We then jump to young Nat learning his way around the plantation and what his role in life will be. After his father runs away, Nat quickly makes an enemy in the overseer (Jackie Earle Haley), and the extra scrutiny from the mistress of the farm (Penelope Ann Miller), who sees something special in Nat and teaches him to read.

Eventually Turner (Nate Parker) becomes a preacher and develops a semi-cosy relationship with his new master (Armie Hammer) which allows him the privilege to travel from plantation to plantation preaching the gospel. After suffering great personal misfortune at the hands of slave owners, Turner realizes that even with some privilege he has no rights. He and his family are still just property and the gospel he preaches is being used to subjugate his fellow man, not free him.

That’s how the climax of the movie, the actual rebellion, comes about. Parker takes his time plodding through the atrocities and indignities of being a slave (which are important to note, but Parker’s take adds nothing new) and when he finally gets around to the rebellion and its terrible aftermath, the movie is over!

Acting-wise, Parker is fine in the lead role, but is outshone by the wonderful performance of Aja Naomi King as Turner’s wife. Armie Hammer is cast quite well as someone the audience is quick to laugh at and with, until he does something that reminds you that he thinks it’s okay to own people. True to her word, Gabrielle Union has no lines but has one of the more powerful moments in the film, especially when you know about her life before this.

Spoilers to this historical event, but Nat Turner does lead a rebellion that ended in killing around 65 people, men, women, and children alike. What is barley mentioned in the movie however, is the rebellion’s terrifying aftermath. Over 200 slaves were killed by militias and mobs, and new laws were passed preventing slaves from education, free assembly, and worship. The United States is currently grappling with its own problems of accountability regarding law enforcement and black citizens, and whilst the two events are by no means the same, they do have a similar thread of unchecked power and judgement without trial. It seems like something Parker missed out on addressing, which is a shame.

This movie also comes just a few years after ’12 Years A Slave’ and while the films tell completely different stories, they both are tasked with depicting the daily life of slavery in all its horror. Steve McQueen displayed the South as a place of beauty that served as a backdrop for such ugly atrocities that I still can’t forget some scenes. Parker however seems to be going through the motions of what to show and it comes off as uninspired and unoriginal, albeit with a few powerful scenes. It may not be fair to compare the two films but I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Overall, the movie is filled with moments that pack a powerful punch, but the film itself left me cold. It is straightforward and follows the “wronged man gets revenge” narrative to a fault. I would say it is a promising start for a first time director but I’m not sure if Parker has much of a future after the backlash he has received about his past. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ may simply live on in film history as a movie where the surrounding press overshadowed a decent movie.

Gillian’s rating: 5.7 out of 10

War Dogs

Year: 2016
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller
Written by Tom Sheffield

If there was one thing I could guarantee I would see during my numerous visits to the cinema over the summer, it was the trailer for ‘War Dogs’ before the film I was about to watch started. I have sat through that trailer more times than I dare count, but it hadn’t deterred me from finally going to see the film upon its release. In fact, despite knowing the trailer like the back of my own hand, I still thought the film looked like something I would enjoy and was really looking forward to seeing Miles Teller and Jonah Hill on-screen together.

‘War Dogs’ follows the story of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) who are are reunited years after Diveroli moved away to help his Uncle sell guns. Before their reunion, Packouz is a massage therapist struggling to make ends meet and looking to make some extra money on the side to support his pregnant girlfriend. Packouz pumps all his savings into making luxury Egyptian cotton sheets, in the hope that the retirement homes of Miami will make his venture a success. After failing to sell a single bed sheet, Diveroli comes to Packouz’s rescue shortly after their reunion and offers him a job at his new company, AEY, which is currently a one-man business, bidding on US Government contracts to supply the military with weapons. After filling various small orders, AEY begins to expand and look into bigger contracts to start making life-changing sums of money. Packouz and Diveroli successfully bid on a $300 million deal but soon find they may be over their heads as they face setback after setback, until they decide it’s time to get their hands dirty and do anything and everything to make sure the contract is fulfilled.

Teller and Hill’s characters are very different in both personality and their outlook on life; Teller’s Packouz has his feet firmly on the ground, wants to earn an honest living to support his family and make sure there’s ice cream in the freezer. My first impression of Hill’s character, Diveroli, is that he’s a little rascal that has his head in the clouds and talks a big game. It later becomes apparent that actually he’s more of a paranoid sociopath with a coke habit and a short fuse (which is arguably more fun). Hill brilliantly portrays his characters dark descent over the course of the film, so much so that you’ll find yourself thinking over the film to figure out at what point this change starts to come to fruition.

I think the film has a more serious tone to it than the trailers showed. The trailers seemed fairly intent on showcasing comedic snippets of the film, which are actually few and far between in the final product. With Todd Phillips (The Hangover) at the helm, there could have been a temptation to head down the comedic route, but I’m really glad they didn’t sell out and turn ‘War Dogs’ into just another Todd Phillips comedy, instead going for a darker tone and more of a drama to match the seriousness of the characters’ actions and repercussions of said actions in the film. ‘War Dogs’ at times felt like the “arms dealer” version of ‘The Big Short’, by which I mean there is a lot of jargon and very wordy dialogue that doesn’t make a lot of sense to the general audience, but we are quickly thrown back into the loop as Diveroli breaks it down and explains everything for Packouz when he starts at AEY. Indeed, this film also mirrors ‘The Big Short’ in the sense that a typically comedy-minded director (Adam McKay in that instance), has taken on something a little more serious, and succeeded.

On the odd occasion, the plot feels as if it’s been stretched out and I must admit it lost my full attention for a short period or two during some slower scenes, but the performances by the cast were enough to keep me focused on what was happening. The film itself is pretty fast paced and there’s always lots going on, which in turn made it more noticeable when things got a bit slower, but thankfully the slow parts were short and sweet. I really enjoyed the cinematography on display too, and I think some of the scenes were shot superbly to match the mood and tone of the film at different points. Likewise, the music choice plays a big part in setting the tone in both the lighter and happier scenes and the darker and more serious ones.

I would highly recommend giving ‘War Dogs’ a watch if you like darker dramas with a hint of comedy. I have a feeling this film won’t be to everyone’s liking, but watching Teller and Hill on-screen together was just as great as I’d hoped and I really hope we get to see them in something a little different together in the future. If you find yourself enjoying the film, I highly recommend reading the Rolling Stones article, named ‘Arms and the Dudes’, about the true story that the film is loosely based on.

Tom’s rating: 8.0 out of 10

Anthropoid

Year: 2016
Director: Sean Ellis
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan
Written by Fiona Underhill

There is a memorial in my local park (Jephson’s Gardens, Leamington Spa) in the shape of a parachute, with seven Czech names on it. It commemorates the parachutists, who were based in Leamington during World War Two, who were flown to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with a mission – code name Anthropoid. Their orders were to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi (third in command, after Hitler and Himmler), the “protector” (how ironic) of Bohemia and Moravia. As well as brutally executing any Czechoslovakians thought to be resisting Nazi occupation, Heydrich was also chief architect of “The Final Solution”. Despite fears of reprisals, the Czech government (exiled in London) wanted to send a message that the Czech people could not be so easily subjugated.

The story of the men given this mission has now been made into a film starring Jamie Dornan (Jan) and Cillian Murphy (Josef), from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, respectively, speaking English with Czech accents. Whilst slightly jarring at first, you do get used to the accents and it is perhaps preferable to having everyone speak in British received pronunciation, which can often happen in historical films where everyone should be speaking languages other than English. More distracting are Dornan’s matinee idol looks and model height – he does look out-of-place squeezing into a tiny cottage and later in the various hiding places he is forced into. However, while he will probably be forever tarnished by the Christian Grey brush, he has shown acting potential in ‘The Fall’. He doesn’t look entirely comfortable in this role, although his character is certainly torn about the mission. An indecision which is partly to do with a romantic sub-plot that has been shoe-horned into this film. After their Uncle (Toby Jones) has arranged a safe house where the parachutists can lay low whilst plotting the assassination, he gravely warns them not to go outside unless they absolutely have to and certainly not together. Well, within five minutes, the pair have arranged a double date with the maid of the house and her friend. The female pair function to give Jan and Josef something to live for and to give them doubts about their suicidal mission. Murphy, on the other hand, delivers the familiar glassy-eyed, coolly detached performance we have come to know and love from his ‘Peaky Blinders’ run – Josef is much more focused on the job in hand and is not thinking about the consequences.

Something more factually accurate, that adds a moral dilemma to the mission, is that Jan and Josef place everyone around them in danger. Mrs Moravec and her son Ata (Bill Milner – unrecognisable from Son of Rambow) provide shelter and courier messages for the resistance. The film does become much more emotionally heightened when scenes of violence and torture come to the fore, after the assassination attempt leads the Nazis to raise Prague to the ground, looking for the culprits.

Although I was really interested in the subject, this film did fall a little flat for me. I kept feeling that I wanted to know more, about Jan and Josef and also the wider historical backdrop. It may have helped to cut back to the Czech government in London, to have further understood their motivation in getting rid of one Nazi, at the cost of thousands of Czechoslovakians. Also, if we had met Heydrich as more of a well-rounded “character” (like Goeth in Schindler’s List), it perhaps would have added an extra dimension to the film. It’s a shame, because I really wanted to like this film, but I have come away feeling quite frustrated and think it will be hard to remember much about it within a few days. Unfortunately, this is not the film the real-life counterparts deserve. Here’s hoping for more successful war films to come (I’m looking at you, Nolan).

Fiona’s rating: 6.5 out of 10

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Year: 2016
Director(s): Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeeman
Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

Going into ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it was billed as a comedy-drama, and from experience, you can’t really go wrong with a Tina Fey-led vehicle, but having watched ‘Sisters’ not too long before this, I was somewhat hesitant. Having said that, I can happily say ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ doesn’t disappoint, and gives Tina Fey a chance to show off both her comedic and dramatic chops. 

‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ tells the story of Kim Baker (Fey), a journalist stuck in her cubicle day after day, who gets shipped out to cover the war in Afghanistan. It’s atually a true story, adapted from the real Kim Baker’s book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The film spans roughly a three year period, during which time Kim deals with the trials and tribulations of homesickness, war, love, friendship, business, and everything in between. 

First and foremost, ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ covers all the bases when it comes to being a comedy-drama. Being an American in a foreign country, there are very funny scenes early on, where Kim hurls insults in Dari that don’t quite translate into what she intended to say, and Kim finds herself in your typical fish-out-of-water situations, which Fey really excels in. Martin Freeman’s Iain MacKelpie also has his fair share of one-liners, spoken with venom (in his very impressive Scottish accent), normally involving a swear word or six. The set up and punchline (40 minutes later) of Iain calling someone a “wee c***” is particularly satisfying, from both a humour and story standpoint.

Then, conversely, being in a warzone, drama is never too far away as Kim deals with the aftermath of an attack, tracking a potential warlord for a news story, and becoming too attached to soldiers in the battlefield. Fey has come a very long way from her ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ’30 Rock’ days, as she proves herself to be a very fine dramatic actress. You empathise with her struggles, you become attached to her new, temporary friends and you really feel the effects of the crushing goodbyes she must (regularly) endure. I was very impressed, and I hope we see more of this  Tina Fey in the future. 

Across the board there are impressive elements on show. It was written very well, the narrative progresses over the three years at a solid pace and there are plenty of plot elements involved to keep things moving. It is shot competently – if not fairly straightforwardly – and it has a nice appropriate soundtrack to compliment the events on screen. A New Year’s Eve party to the sound of Jump Around by House of Pain provides a nice bout of nostalgia, conjuring memories of ‘Mrs Doubtfire’Further, being a war film at heart, there are a couple of genuinely tense and well-shot shoot-out sequences, several surprising explosions, and Kim even gets embroiled in a near riot at one point. ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ does the little things very well, reminding us consistently – and respectively – of the environment in which Kim finds herself. Moments of happiness are interrupted by an explosion above ground, or a couple holding hands is rudely interrupted by a local’s fury at their disregard for Afghanistan’s conservative nature. 

All that said, this film lives and dies with its characters. Fey anchors the whole thing brilliantly, but there are great turns from Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and Margot Robbie – who plays Kim’s main rival for stories whilst she’s in Afghanistan. I’ll be honest, any film that allows Margot Robbie a lot of screen time is instantly okay in my book. 

‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ is actually a very good film and I would recommend this to anyone who is looking for a comedy that has a little more depth to it. This is a film with interesting characters, and one which is set in a normally unfunny environment. For that, it deserves a lot of credit. 

Rhys’ rating: 7.8 out of 10

The People vs O.J. Simpson

Year: 2016
Creator(s): Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Sterling K. Brown, Kenneth Choi, Christian Clemenson, Cuba Gooding Jr, Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer, John Travolta
Written by Fiona Underhill

I wasn’t even going to watch this series – my friends saw the first couple of episodes before I did and I wasn’t that bothered or interested. I’d heard a little bit about this “trashy” American mini-series on social media as well and didn’t hold particularly high hopes. However two things intrigued me: for one, it was on the BBC – not usually known for its American imports. Secondly, the casting – once I heard Sarah Paulson was in it, I was sold.

Casting is, without doubt, one of the main strengths of this show. Much has been made of John Travolta’s bizarrely-mannered and elaborate-eyebrowed portrayal of one of Simpson’s lawyers, Robert Shapiro. However, the more you hear or read about the real-life counterparts to each “character”, the more you realise that they really were THAT shallow or THAT over-the- top. David Schwimmer plays Robert Kardashian (yes – father of those Kardashians) incredibly sympathetically, as he is torn between his love, friendship and admiration of OJ, and the fact that he is patently guilty. Courtney B. Vance is perfect as Johnnie Cochran – a civil rights activist who spins the entire case on its “race card”. Nathan Lane, Rob Morrow and Evan Handler round out the defence team – each one gloriously be-wigged and each one desperate for the limelight, only concerned for their post-trial reputations.

On the side of the prosecution, you have Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden (it was important for the government to have a black man on their side against OJ) and Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark. I have been slightly obsessed with Paulson since she was in my favourite TV series of all time – ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ – and she is, without doubt, the emotional centre of this programme. Clark is an ambitious and tough career woman, working all the hours God sends to try to ensure justice for the Brown and Goldman families. She is also the mother of two young boys and going through a divorce, and there are times when the stresses of child-care issues nearly break her (something I can absolutely empathise with). She is also put under intense media scrutiny because of the trial (something the defence lawyers actively court) – including the publication of nude photos and a bizarre obsession with her hair-style. There is even a scene (which really happened) of her buying tampons in a supermarket and the check-out guy joking “Uh-oh, I guess the defence are in for one hell of a week, huh?!”

If there is perhaps one “bum-note” in the casting, it may be Cuba Gooding Jr, as OJ Simpson himself. He just does not have the physical, commanding presence that OJ had in real life; OJ was well over six feet tall, 200 pounds and still very fit at the time of the murders. Having the very small and slight Gooding Jr struggle to try on the extra-large gloves in the courtroom adds even more farce to this low-point in American justice.

The high-point for me was Episode 6, which is simply entitled ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’ and I don’t mind admitting that I wept through most of it. Another strength of the TV series (which isn’t present in the book by Jeffrey Toobin) is the relationship between Clark and Darden. Although it is fraught at times (it is Darden who makes the crucial error to tell OJ to try on the glove), it is also tender, touching, flirtatious and you are absolutely willing them to get together. You definitely get the sense that Clark would not have made it through the trial without the support of Darden.

Something else that the TV series (and the 460 page book, which I rattled through) does so well is make a thrilling, plot-twisting drama that absolutely hooks you and leaves you desperate to see the next episode. This is no mean feat, when we all know the outcome of the trial. There has been criticism of it being “sensationalist” or “trashy”, but that is missing the point. The trial itself and the man himself were sensationalist and trashy. In an age before 24-hour rolling news, smart-phones and social media, the world was glued to this televised courtroom “drama” as it happened. It was very easy for the audience to forget that two real young people had been horrifically and violently murdered (and in Nicole’s case, after years of domestic abuse). By making Clark the emotional centre, as she crusades for justice for these victims, based on over-whelming DNA evidence (a relatively new science at the time), this programme does try to bring you back to this travesty.

I would highly recommend these 10 hours of extraordinary TV. If you were to “binge-watch” it, I guarantee, you would race through it. It includes some of the best acting I have seen this year, which deserves to be award-winning, and it is absolutely gripping. Do not let anyone persuade you that this is “trash TV” – it was OJ Simpson, the man, who was trash, along with the parasitic lawyers who saw their chance for their fifteen minutes of fame.

Fiona’s rating: 9.5 out of 10