The Big Sick

Year: 2017
Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham
Written by Fiona Underhill

Fans of ‘Silicon Valley’ will recognise Kumail Nanjiani, but apart from that and the stand-up comedy circuit, he’s gone fairly under-the-radar, until now. Nanjiani has teamed up with his wife, Emily V. Gordon to write the true story of their courtship. Zoe Kazan (who I loved in ‘What If’) plays Emily and Nanjiani plays himself, which must feel bizarre, especially when shooting romantic scenes with an actress playing your wife, who is on-set watching proceedings. The film is directed by Michael Showalter, who also directed the delightful ‘Hello, My Name is Doris’ (currently on Amazon Prime).

Nanjiani is a Pakistani immigrant, trying to make it on the stand-up circuit in Chicago. He does the same open-mic night with fellow comedians played by Aidy Bryant (terrific in ‘Girls’), Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler – all hoping to be noticed by someone who can help them make the leap to ‘SNL’, or similar stardom. His parents parade a slew of Pakistani girls in front of him, in the hope he will find a suitable match for an arranged marriage. However, after heckling him at the comedy club, Emily catches Kumail’s eye and they end up going home together. Their relationship seems to be going swimmingly, even surviving the skeletons in Emily’s closet (she’s been married before), but when she discovers that Kumail seems to be judging ‘Pakistan’s Next Top Model’ – they have a huge fight and break up. He then gets a late-night phone call, letting him know Emily is in the hospital and this is where we get to ‘The Big Sick’ of the title. Emily has a mysterious infection and has been placed in a medically-induced coma.

It is here that perhaps the strongest supporting characters enter the scene – Ray Romano and Holly Hunter – as Emily’s parents. As someone who detests ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ – it almost pains me to say that Romano provides some of the biggest laughs of the whole film. Hunter gives a typically tender performance as a heartbroken mother, desperately doing everything she can to solve this problem for her daughter. Incidentally, she is also one of the strongest aspects, in a similar role in a totally different type of film from this year, ‘Song to Song’. I was also pleased to see, among the supporting cast, Adeel Akhtar, who plays Wilson Wilson in ‘Utopia’ – the best television programme of the last ten years (including all of the American golden age fare).

‘The Big Sick’ is a very good example of a rom-com – funny, charming, tender – probably precisely because it is true. Nanjiani makes a natural and compelling central figure – all of the action revolves around him. It may sound easy to just be playing yourself, but it takes a lot of guts to be that vulnerable. To also be publicly exposing what must have been a difficult time – not just dealing with a gravely sick girlfriend, but also facing a choice between romantic and familial love – is brave and refreshingly honest. In some ways it feels old-fashioned – almost a Romeo & Juliet style tale – but it is also modern – dealing with the immigrant Uber driver, the post 9/11 climate and Islamophobia. The film has taken on a more political stance than it perhaps intended, now that Trump is in power. There is a scene in which a heckler becomes racially abusive but now, it could be argued that he represents roughly half of American voters.

It is important to Nanjiani to represent Muslims as something more than terrorists in the mainstream media and he provides a well-rounded character to do just that. The fact that the character IS him definitely makes the film seem more real and while there are moments that are perhaps more dramatic or with more perfect comedic timing in the movie, it is character-driven at its core. ‘The Big Sick’ is currently ‘expanding’ throughout the US, relying heavily on word of mouth. It deserves to succeed in the US and internationally, as it is rare to see such a well-written, non-clichéd rom-com. Go see it!

 Fiona’s rating: 8 out of 10
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Okja

Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo-Hyun, Jake Gyllenhaal
Written by Fiona Underhill

‘Okja’ has been one of my most highly anticipated films of the year. South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’ is one of my favourite films. ‘Okja’ also features ‘Snowpiercer’s’ Tilda Swinton, along with Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano and ‘Breaking Bad’s’ Giancarlo Esposito – it really feels like dream casting, almost tailor-made to appeal to me.

Of course this film is unusual for several reasons – the main one being that it has been released on Netflix with little opportunity to see it on the big screen.  There are some cinema showings of it (mainly in big cities), but significantly, these have been after the film debuted on Netflix. This fact caused much controversy at Cannes Film Festival – with people debating whether it should be shown at a film festival or if it should be eligible for competition. It feels ridiculous to me that ‘OJ – Made in America’ can be considered eligible for film awards and ‘Okja’ could not be. It is absolutely time that Netflix and Amazon are recognised as the significant film production and distribution companies they now are. Certainly when they allow directors to take risks, have final cut and follow their unique vision, as they have done with Bong here. 

I have mentioned some of ‘Okja’s’ more ‘big-name’ actors above, but they are actually not the stars of the film. At the centre of the story is a 12 year old girl; Mija (An Seo Hyun) and of course – the CGI creation that is Okja. Okja is absolutely a central character in the film – she has an almost mystical connection to Mija and her eyes have been imbued with humanity, an impressive achievement by the effects team. Swinton plays Lucy Mirando – head of a large global corporation that has genetically engineered a ‘super-pig’ – enormous hippo-like creatures. She acts as if they are environmentally-friendly (leaving a minimal footprint etc) and further pervades these ‘eco’ credentials by sending 26 out to the best farmers all over the world to be raised over a period of ten years. This is turned into a competition to see who can raise the most super of the super-pigs. Mija’s grandfather is one of the farmers raising a super-pig and Okja has very much become part of their family, isolated in the mountains of South Korea. These early scenes, set in the picturesque countryside, deserve to be seen on a big screen. 

Jake Gyllenhaal plays ‘Doctor Johnny’ – a Steve Irwin dialled up to 11 – as the public face of the Mirando Corporation, ostensibly sent out to check on the health and welfare of the super-pigs. It is the most outlandish performance by an almost unrecognisable Gyllenhaal, but he does well to hint at the character’s insecurities underneath all of the bombast. The MVP for me (as is often the case), is Paul Dano, as Jay, the head of ‘ALF’ – an animal rights activist group who stage a convoluted ‘rescue’ mission. The group is a band of misfits, including one who whose extreme veganism has left him weak with hunger and a Korean translator who wields more power than he should. There is an impressive lorry chase and a sequence with Okja rampaging through a subterranean mall in Seoul – the production values of the action and CGI are as high as anything you would expect if the film were getting a wide cinema release. 

Once the action transfers to New York, Swinton gets to really stretch her acting muscles, playing both Lucy and her sister Nancy. The production design is every bit as lush and outrageous as you would expect, after ‘Snowpiercer’. Lucy puts Mija in a matching ‘Mirando-designed’ kimono for the big press event – another scene where Swinton’s character’s hubris is punctured and she comes crashing down to earth.  Swinton plays this beautifully – she is truly one of the finest actors working today.

Towards the end of the film, the message does become slightly preachy – by showing the concentration-camp-like conditions of the meat factory. Yes, there are huge problems with the commercial meat production industry and this highlights them in an unusual way. But, I’m sorry to say, ‘Okja’ is not enough to put me off my bacon. 

Although I really liked ‘Okja’, it didn’t quite meet up to my (extremely high) expectations. It did get a little too sentimental and manipulative for my tastes. Visually, it was a huge treat and the central performance by Seo Hyun was exceptional. The wider ensemble cast were also all fantastic, providing humour as well as showing the vulnerable side of seemingly powerful characters. I’m a proponent of this type of bold, risk-taking singularly visionary film-making, whatever platform it chooses and I hope we get to see much more like it. However, I was a little disappointed by ‘Okja’ – I need to keep my anticipation in check next time! 

Fiona’s rating: 8.5 out of 10

 

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

My Cousin Rachel

Year: 2017
Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glenn, Holliday Grainger
Written by Abbie Eales

Roger Michell, probably best known as the director of Notting Hill, brings us this fresh take on Daphne Du Maurier’s dark thriller, ‘My Cousin Rachel’. A wealthy young man, Philip (Claflin) plots revenge against his mysterious cousin Rachel (Weisz), believing her to have murdered his guardian Ambrose, following their seemingly hasty marriage in Italy in an attempt to gain his fortune. The story itself is not so much of a whodunnit, but rather a ‘did she do it?’ as we take Philip’s perspective in attempting to unravel the true story of his guardian’s death.

The book had previously been brought to life in 1952, just a year after the publication of the source novel, in a lavish affair starring Richard Burton and Olivia De Havilland which, while not quite reaching the heights of fame of other Du Maurier adaptations ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’, was considered a cinematic success and was nominated for 4 academy awards. To attempt another adaptation could be seen as a bold move, but Michell and team do bring a breath of fresh air to the story.

During the early scenes of the film we only hear about the mysterious Rachel through letters and gossip, she comes into Philip’s life not with the bang and confrontation he had been expecting, but with an understated entrance that means our first view of her is silhouetted against the moon, her back to a window. Rather than the monster we are led to expect, Rachel is quiet, funny and warm, with the household’s army of dogs following her about loyally from the moment she arrives.

As Philip’s infatuation grows, Rachel remains a mystery. She seems genuine in her affections for her departed husband Ambrose (the ‘great family resemblance’ is achieved by Claflin playing both roles) but why does she keep plying Philip with that odd herbal tea…?

Weisz plays Rachel with great skill, with Michell seeming to lead our expectations one way as a single glance leads us another. Rachel seems decidedly modern and at odds with the stifling societal expectations exhibited by all those around her. Indeed the fact that she is a woman ‘of appetites’ is whispered knowingly by several of the supporting cast. However Weisz ensures Rachel flits between being charming and likeable then cold and standoffish, just enough to keep us asking ourselves if she could really be capable of murder.

Claflin plays Philip every inch as the ‘wet-nosed- puppy’ Rachel describes him, which does become grating at times. Seeing the world through Philip’s eyes is a somewhat disarming and claustrophobic experience, with the view sometimes becoming as blank and shallow as he seems.

Philip’s lack of experience with women is referenced several times, and indeed the view of Rachel we are given is one buried beneath his own misunderstanding and confusion, alongside a burning attraction and fascination. The whole film could be seen as a giant metaphor for modern cinema, as we struggle along with an old-fashioned male gaze trying to depict highly complex modern womanhood.

While the longing glances and candlelit encounters increase, the orchestral score swells, keeping true to the genre. Other melodramatic tropes abound, from the waves crashing on the shore to the string of pearls breaking and scattering down the stairs.

The film may seem a little slow for some tastes, but the many threads of the story are drawn together in a deft web for the final act. Audiences have been discussing their view of Rachel for over 50 years, and this won’t change that, but ultimately My Cousin Rachel is a well-made period melodrama with an interesting modern twist.

Abbies verdict: 7.3 out of 10

Wilson

Year: 2017
Director: Craig Johnson
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Sandy Oian-Thomas, Shaun Brown, Judy Greer, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Laura Dern
Written by Charlotte Sometimes

As a Londoner there is an innate social etiquette transcribed in my DNA that I follow unquestionably. It includes rules such as: no eye-contact when riding public transport; avoid talking to strangers in any setting at all costs; keep any small talk that occurs small, sticking to inane and vapid topic, and that personal space equates to at least one seat between you and the rest of the world. It’s clear from the opening few moments that Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is clearly not a Londoner and if he were he’d easily be written off as the weirdo-who-must-be-avoided (of which there always seems to be one, no matter where you are in London – if you can’t spot one then it’s probably you…). In fact Wilson seems to transcend social niceties or euphemism; he’s actually a misanthropic, passive aggressive prick, one who is riddled from neuroses to such an extent that a 60 second conversation with him would be too long.

At least, that’s how it appears at the start but as with most of these things, there’s more going on under the surface. First and foremost, he’s lonely. His breaking with social conventions, sitting at an occupied table when the rest of the café is empty or choosing to sit next to the sleeping person on an empty train who you then wake up and bamboozle with questions,  is the result of his desperate need/want for human contact. He’s trapped between a fear of commitment – caused by being abandoned by his wife Pippi (Laura Dern) 18 years ago – and an overwhelming sense of loneliness. When Wilson finds out that Pippi has returned to town he goes to find her in a desperate bid for closure. What he ends up getting is another chapter of sorts. Having believed for almost two decades that Pippi had an abortion post-leaving Wilson and pre-a failed attempt living in LA he finds out that she in fact had the child and gave it up for adoption. What follows is Wilson, and a forcibly co-opted Pippi, seeking out their teenage daughter then trying to form a connection with her. But, as Wilson is a less than conventional person, what follows is unique with a side of twisted…

The film is centred on Harrelson’s performance – in fact, it’s totally dependent on it. He’s the reason that most people would choose to see the film in the first place, let alone stay committed to it. It’s certainly something of a hard-sell, watching a middle-aged curmudgeon on his desperate search for some semblance of stability, but Harrelson manages to sell it…just. He throws all his charm at it and succeeds in making someone that should or could be an unlikeable character into someone we find ourselves being tricked into caring about.  The script is loaded with great gags and the odd belly laugh, regularly straying into genuinely hilarious territory. Dern is excellent support as his estranged wife and their chemistry is immensely watchable.

It’s a shame that the film loses momentum mid-way, the gags become less frequent during some unexpected narrative twists and the charming, odd-ball tone becomes replaced with just plain odd. Whilst Harrelson is consistent, the storytelling isn’t, and when the emotional gear switches and becomes more poignant, the film lacks the depth to fully connect with the audience. After having a first act that flew by, the film gets bogged down in the second act causing the 92 minute running time to feel far longer. If you like the idea of an indie movie that is the by-product of a Venn diagram with the subheadings ‘quirky’ and ‘chaotic’ then ‘Wilson’ is the film for you. If you want to watch Woody Harrelson firing on all cylinders then you’re also the perfect audience.

Overall, the film feels like something of a missed opportunity. An opener of ‘what went well’ followed by just a bit too much ‘even better if’.

Charlotte’s verdict: 6.3 out of 10

The Circle

Year: 2017
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane
Written by Fiona Underhill

I started seeing the trailers for this film what feels like months ago. It was heavily marketed here in the US – I saw the trailer at the cinema many, many times. I was intrigued by the premise, the strong cast and the writer Dave Eggers. The fact that Eggers and Tom Hanks had already collaborated on last year’s disappointing ‘Hologram for the King’ didn’t manage to put me off too much. Unfortunately, ‘The Circle’ is much, much worse than Hanks’ last offering.

The premise is very similar to an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ (most especially ‘Nosedive’). The setting is a near-future world, in which ‘The Circle’ (kind of a combination of Google and Facebook) is hell-bent on taking over every aspect of our lives. It’s goal is to co-ordinate every aspect of people’s online life (banking, shopping, GPS, social media) into one account (so you don’t have to remember so many pesky passwords). Mae (Emma Watson) manages to get a job there, thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), who is one of the ‘Group of 40’ – the inner circle of the company, surrounding CEOs Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Stenton (Patton Oswalt). Mae can’t believe her luck at first – the company’s campus has everything an employee could desire – including dog yoga and pentanque. It also provides excellent healthcare, not just for herself, but also her parents. This is particularly significant because her Dad (Bill Paxton, sadly in his final role) has MS. Mae’s role in customer service is governed by her ‘score’ (her rating from the customers) and smiley or frowny faces are almost treated like a currency. She is also heavily encouraged to get involved in all of the social aspects of The Circle, which again, will give her a ‘rating’. 

A strong cast has been gathered by the young director (James Ponsoldt). There is a trio of young British acting talent: Watson, Gillan and John Boyega – for some inexplicable reason, Gillan gets to keep her own accent, but Watson and Boyega play Americans. Hanks will always be a draw for me – even though all three of his films from last year (‘Hologram for the King’, ‘Inferno’ and ‘Sully’) ranged from terrible to mediocre. Eggers IS a strong writer (I am a fan of his novel ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ and McSweeney’s), but for some reason, his work is not translating well to film. The dialogue is awful, especially for poor Boyega, who is under-used and given the most cringe-worthy lines. The character development is laughable. Gillan goes from high-powered business woman to a pale, greasy-haired hollow shell seemingly over-night. She appears in the audience of one of the ‘Dream Fridays’ pep-rallies looking like something from a Japanese horror movie and I guffawed out loud. It is the protagonist, Mae, who has the most unbelievable transformation though. She is skeptical and even horrified at first, when she realises how much The Circle already knows about her when she starts. However, she very quickly (after a mostly off-screen conversation with Bailey and Stenton) agrees to start wearing a camera and to being filmed at all times. It is a ridiculous leap that comes from nowhere. 

What ‘Black Mirror’ does so effectively is plunge the viewer immediately into a fully-realised world. The plots are so tightly-controlled and efficient that no line of dialogue or detail of production design is wasted. It doesn’t overwhelm you with information and try to tell you things in a preachy way, it shows you exactly what you need to know with astonishing economy. ‘The Circle’ bombards the audience with every conceivable nightmare of ‘out-of-control technology’; lack of privacy being the main one. It raises some interesting debates – is having your health constantly monitored a good thing? Wouldn’t it be good if we were all automatically registered to vote or if voting was mandatory? How can we use facial recognition to catch criminals? However, each issue that is raised is done so in such a ham-fisted and melodramatic way, with such extreme reactions (the masses naively going along with it, a few crazy loners trying to resist) that there is no room for nuance. 

It is a shame that this had to be Paxton’s final role, as his performance is one of the few highlights of this film. Unfortunately, the rest of this film will prove largely forgettable. It has botched what could have been interesting concept with convoluted plotting, ridiculous character development and melodramatic dialogue. A feature-length episode of ‘Black Mirror’ does appeal to me, but it clear that Eggers is no Charlie Brooker. This film has just left me even more impressed than I was before with ‘Black Mirror’ because I have realised what Brooker does is not easy. So, do yourself a favour and stay home from the cinema and watch ‘Nosedive’ or ‘San Junipero’ instead.

Fiona’s rating: 4.5 out of 10

Colossal

Year: 2017
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudekis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens

Written by Sarah Buddery

The current trend in film seems to be re-makes/re-boots/re-imaginings and endless, endless sequels for films that perhaps we may have cared about years ago, but now we seriously have to question whether we still do. Of course there is still originality in film, but it is often hard to come by, saved for an exclusive elite in the form of small, unknown indie films, foreign language films, and other less mainstream options. Last year’s ‘Swiss Army Man’ was divisive, but also refreshingly unique (I was one of those who didn’t care for it!), and in a similar vein comes this year’s ‘Colossal’, boasting some impressive talent and promising to tap into that magical notion; that films can, and should still be original.

For me, the trailers gave off something of a slightly quirkier ‘A Monster Calls’ vibe with its towering monster figure, but it couldn’t be further from that fantastic and fantastical tear-jerker if it tried. I will do my best to avoid plot spoilers here as this really is a film you should go into without knowing too much, although perhaps not completely blind as it might catch you incredibly off-guard! In short, it is about Gloria (Hathaway), a struggling alcoholic who after a break-up decides to return to her hometown. So far so normal, but soon reports start emerging about a giant creature that is attacking Seoul in South Korea, and Gloria realises she has a strange connection to this phenomenon.  

‘Colossal’ is a film which will quite rightly get people talking, and you still might not have a firm grasp of exactly what is going on even after you’ve seen it, but it is also perhaps deliberately ambiguous. This is intelligent film-making which refuses to hand answers to you on a plate, but far from being pretentious, it’s laid back and undeniably “cool” approach makes it incredibly endearing.

In layman’s terms, ‘Colossal’ is something of an allegory for the destructive power of alcoholism, with the monster providing a somewhat extreme, but nonetheless important, physical embodiment of the ability it has to wreak havoc and destruction. See, I said it was absolutely nothing like ‘A Monster Calls’! If you’ve ever heard the phrase of someone “battling their personal demons”, there is something of that in this film, with the “demons” in question appearing as both gigantic, city-wrecking monsters, and the regular-sized and seemingly “regular” people, whose intentions are perhaps not to be trusted. Whilst the concept and ideas of this film are grand in scale and ambitious in scope, it is amazing just how naturally this is conveyed, and how easy it is to buy into. There’s enough substance, and crucially, likeable and well developed characters to cement this idea, and they sell it completely.

Whilst the subject matter might seem bleak, and there is undoubtedly room for genuine moments of human drama, it had a surprisingly dark comedic edge to it as well. This adds a delightful charm and warmth to the film, and despite its unusual ideas and thematically rich notions it is very easy to like and genuinely funny in places.

For those who have perhaps slated Anne Hathaway in the past (something of which I have never really been able to understand), ‘Colossal’ will instantly silence them, as she is really quite fantastic here. She nails the goofy awkwardness of the character, and sells the uniqueness of the story so convincingly, which is absolutely crucial in making it work. Her performance suspends our disbelief completely, meaning the idea of a giant monster being controlled by her brain on the other side of the world never seems like it is weird at all, and this is no easy feat!

‘Colossal’ is one of those undefinable films, one which might leave you head-scratching, and one which will leave you completely tongue-tied when you attempt to describe the plot to anyone else! It is in many ways indescribable, so refreshingly unique that you do really need to see it for yourself to make a judgement. I can fully accept that this film will once again prove to be divisive, but it will certainly get people talking, and that is something at least. ‘Colossal’ is dazzlingly unique, oddly charming, endlessly inventive and quite unlike anything else I have seen. Definitely worth a watch, and good or bad, it will certainly stick with you afterwards.

Sarah’s rating: 7.8 out of 10

The Handmaiden

Year: 2017
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon

Written by Sarah Buddery

Rather ashamedly, ‘The Handmaiden’ marks my first foray into the world of Park Chan-wook so I have little to compare with his other directorial offerings, but somewhat conveniently, ‘The Handmaiden’ is a film like no other, one so dazzlingly unique that it seems unfair to compare it to anything else in existence anyway!

The sweeping scale of the storyline and the precise way in which it peels back layer after layer, really is something which has to be seen to be appreciated, and I would never want to do it a disservice by spoiling the entire plot so I will do my best to keep this as spoiler free as possible.

The story follows a young Korean woman, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) who finds herself in the service of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) as her titular Handmaiden. All is not as it seems however as she has in fact been planted by “Count Fujiwara” (Jung-woo Ha) who isn’t a Count at all, but rather a scoundrel who plans to seduce Lady Hideko, send her off to a madhouse, and split the money from her considerable estate with Sook-Hee. However, Sook-Hee soon finds herself infatuated with Lady Hideko and a passionate affair ensues, but is everything all that it seems?

Much will be said about the highly explicit and erotic love scenes of ‘The Handmaiden’ but they are not the primary attraction here, and in fact play very much a secondary part in a story which is about so much more than just a passionate relationship between two women. Indeed, this story was nothing like the one I was expecting, but that is absolutely to its advantage rather than its detriment. ‘The Handmaiden’ is beguiling and transfixing right from the start, lavish and lascivious in nature, with visuals that will stick with you for a long while afterwards.

Split into three definable parts, the interwoven plots only increasing in intrigue as the time passes. It somewhat appropriately resembles a story-striptease, with each layer that is peeled off being more satisfying than the last. It was surprisingly funny in places as well, but far from being definable as a comedy! This is a film which transcends genres; it is a masterclass in storytelling, a film which manages to be visually stunning and narratively satisfying in equal measure.

Tae-ri Kim as Sook-Hee is immediately likeable and charming, and she really sells this performance. The relationship between her and Min-hee Kim’s Lady Hideko is believable and the chemistry is palpable from the moment they first meet. Jin-woong Jo as Lady Hideko’s abusive Uncle is also excellent, convincingly conniving and creepy. The portrayal of male and female characters in ‘The Handmaiden’ is endlessly fascinating, with women being seen as pure, spirited and intelligent, whilst the men don’t fare quite as well, largely being portrayed as grimy, perverse and mean. It never hammers this home however so it avoids being offensive and instead ends up being somewhat empowering and undoubtedly satisfying, and the performances – all of which are flawless – contribute to that enormously.

If I had to find a fault in ‘The Handmaiden’ – and it is difficult believe me – is that there is perhaps one love scene too many and whereas they served a purpose for the most part, there was one in particular which bordered on the gratuitous. For a film which is so much more than just that one part of the plot, it was a little disappointing to give into that so late into the story and came across to me as just “giving the people what they came here for”!

Overall however, ‘The Handmaiden’ is a daring diegesis of desire and deceit that is sumptuously designed, lavishly crafted and expertly executed. Easily one of the best films of the year so far, ‘The Handmaiden’ is unlike anything else you will see, and utterly unmissable.

Sarah’s rating: 9.8 out of 10

Gifted

Year: 2017
Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer
Written by Fiona Underhill

Directed by Marc Webb (whose CV bizarrely includes ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ and ‘(500) Days of Summer’) and starring Chris Evans (who is coming to the end of his Marvel contract) – ‘Gifted’ is clearly a smaller, quieter, more personal project that is being squeezed in between saving the world. Evans plays Frank, who lives in Florida and repairs boats. He lives with his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), who in the opening scenes is reluctantly being sent to first grade, after a period of being home-schooled. Frank’s neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) helps out looking after Mary at the weekends and she thinks it’s a very bad idea to send Mary to school too.

The reasons for this reluctance becomes apparent early on when Mary is clearly bored and truculent in class. Mary complains about the work being too easy and her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) challenges her with some increasingly difficult sums. It turns out Mary is a maths prodigy. After getting into trouble at school, the principal suggests Mary go to a school for the gifted, but Frank wants her to lead a normal life, surrounded by normal children. The reasons for this become clear – Mary’s mother had been a child prodigy too and struggled with her genius for her whole life. Enter Frank’s mother Evelyn (one of my favourite British actresses – Lindsay Duncan). She wants to move Mary to Boston, have her home-tutored and pushed into becoming a world-class Mathematician, like her mother. The conflict turns ugly and becomes a custody-battle in court.

The acting talent that has been assembled is impressive. A film like this rises and falls on the charisma of its child star and their chemistry with the main adult (or adults) they’re interacting with. This is definitely a positive of ‘Gifted’ – McKenna Grace is a great find and clearly bonded with Evans and Spencer (as can be seen on the press tour). Because Evans is now defined by Captain America (and before that, Johnny Storm), he is an underrated actor. He has been subtly weaving in some indie projects between Marvel gigs for some time now, the most note-worthy of which is his directorial debut ‘Before We Go’. I, for one, am intrigued to see where his post-Cap career will take him.

The story is an interesting one – it is an age-old question – how do we best treat gifted children? It is really difficult to achieve a balance of giving them social skills, happiness and a ‘normal’ life, while also helping them meet their potential. There is no clear cut answer. However, the complexity and nuance of the issue is not fully explored here – Frank and Evelyn are pitched at opposite ends of the scale, with Duncan being painted as an almost pantomime villain. I wish the film had gone deeper into exploring why it is particularly difficult to be a female genius. It is hinted that Evelyn herself had to give up a promising career when she became a mother. Evelyn then views her daughter becoming a single mother as her downfall. The film does slowly and effectively peels away layers of Frank’s character and his relationship with his mother and sister. I wish more had been made of his brief affair with Mary’s teacher Bonnie. Slate is a gifted comic actress, who is under-used here.

So, while there were glimpses of subtlety within this film, it is all together too slight and surface-level. It is a light-hearted bit of sentimental fluff that fans of Evans will enjoy. I will admit he was the main selling point for me and there is even a bonus one-eyed cat, just to tick all of my boxes. The story and script ultimately cannot match the acting talent of the ensemble. They are not given enough to chew on and I fear the film will prove quite forgettable. However, it is worth an evening’s entertainment, if you want some escapism and something pretty to look at (of course I mean Evans).

 Fiona’s rating: 6.5 out of 10

Their Finest

Year: 2017
Director: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Written by Fiona Underhill

We all know that Hollywood loves to make films about itself, and then shower these films with awards in a self-congratulating exercise of narcissism and ego. So, it’s refreshing to see a British take on its own film industry, at a particularly interesting point in its history. We are talking World War Two – when entertainment had to do several things at once. It needed to provide an escape to the horrors, of course, but it also had to put the right ‘spin’ on things and became an instrument for propaganda. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – one of my favourite films of all time – Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ was one such film. In an effort to foster favourable US-UK relations, it has an American radio operator fall in love with a British pilot. ‘Their Finest’ focuses on a similar film – a team is assembled by the Ministry for Information to make inspiring films, based on real wartime events happening around them. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is specifically hired to write the ‘slop’ – the female dialogue. She stumbles upon a pair of twin sisters who took it upon themselves to steal their father’s fishing boat and try to take it to Dunkirk – to assist in the effort of evacuating the hundreds of thousands of men stranded there. The fact that they never made it, need not get in the way of a good story. Mrs Cole is teamed up with Tom Buckley (Sam Clafin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) to weave the story into something dramatic and exciting – and don’t forget a bit with a dog.

Bill Nighy plays Ambrose Hilliard – an actor past his prime, who believes he will be given the heroic soldier role, but ends up playing the comic foil – Uncle Frank. It is decided that (as with ‘A Matter of Life and Death’), an American character is needed, just at the turning point of whether the US will be entering the war or not. So a real life all-American hero is found – Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy – last seen playing one of Hannah’s boyfriends in TV show ‘Girls’) – the only problem is that he can’t act. Some of the best British acting talent has been assembled for ‘Their Finest’, even in smaller roles – with Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory playing sibling agents to Hilliard. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons also appear in small parts – it is gratifying to see that stars will still return home to help out British films. Jack Huston plays the role he always seems to play – a mustachioed injured soldier (see also Boardwalk Empire) – who is Catrin’s struggling artist husband.

The film alternates between a constantly bombarded London (where landladies and friends can be there one day and gone the next) and the much more peaceful seaside location where some of the film’s shooting occurs. Mrs Cole and Buckley become close here, but she is torn between supporting her husband’s art exhibition and her burgeoning feelings for her fellow writer. Of course, the film examines women’s changing roles during the war. The fact that they have jobs, responsibilities and freedoms that they had not experienced before means they will not easily be sent back to the kitchen when war is over. Mrs Cole is patronised and dismissed as a writer, but she grows in confidence throughout the film and gains respect from the men around her. The ending of the film is a disappointment in some ways, but ultimately is trying to return the focus to Catrin Cole and her role as a writer, rather than her reliance on romance or men.    

It is a delight to see some of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ magic of how films were made before the age of CGI. The Dunkirk beach scene is a particular highlight. It is also nice to examine a time when cinema had real power – to transport millions of people from bleak reality on the one hand, but also have an important role in providing news and information from the war also. ‘Their Finest’ is directed by a woman – Lone Scherfig – who, despite being Danish, has scrutinised aspects of uniquely British life in ‘An Education’, ‘One Day’ and ‘The Riot Club’. The acting – from Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy, in particular, is excellent. Nighy still manages to upstage almost every actor in almost every film he’s in. He simultaneously plays the ego and awkwardness of his character tenderly, particularly when he finds an unexpected role as acting teacher to the poor American war hero.

‘Their Finest’ is a lovely film, which is sure to melt the most cynical of hearts. I certainly had something in my eye at more than one point. It is also really important to support a) British cinema and b) female talent behind-the-camera; so go out and see it! You won’t regret it.

Fiona’s rating: 8 out of 10

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Year: 2005
Director: Shane Black
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
Written by Rhys Wortham

I try to stay away from most buddy cop movies, mainly because they are either cliché or you can see the same thing (usually done better) on a TV cop show. There are some films that do this genre well, such as the ‘Lethal Weapon’ series and ‘Rush Hour’, although both are somewhat character driven rather then story driven sometimes. On the other hand there are ones like ‘Loose Cannons’ that tries too much to be everything and accomplishes nothing, or ‘White Chicks’ that bases itself on the premise that two handsome black man can disguise themselves as two white women and somehow not still look like men. Sorry fellas, you didn’t fool anyone. It ranges from the too silly, like ‘Police Academy’, to the very depressing, like ‘The Departed’. Its a mixed bag and sometimes they just aren’t marketed well. 

‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ from director Shane Black isn’t about the usual wacky comedy crime duo. In any duo, one is usually the straight man, who is anything but straight, and the other is a comic relief, but both you can relate to on some level. Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a down on his luck guy who see everyone else living their lives happily, while the only love he’s ever known is getting her cervix tested by every dog in town that wants to bury his bone. Haven’t we all been there? While Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is the street-wise guy who doesn’t like his job, people, you, nor his inability to help people when going gets rough. It’s a nihilist perspective while still trying to see the sunny side of life. 

These two work well because Harry’s moronic antics lead to better questions and help solve the mysteries faster, Gay’s tactics are a little more based on detective work. He’s not a good guy, but not a bad one either. They counter balance each other really well as they try and struggle to work with each other. This leads to some great dialogue and some really funny scenes, both with and without nudity. Other whimsical things happen along the way, in the vein of ‘The Three Stooges’, except in this case, a few people actually die. 

This movie is definitely worth watching at least once. It captures a quirky person with the comedic ideals of someone like Bill Burr or Seth MacFarlane while still being grounded in reality and working with someone who’s probably going to get someone grounded, in a meat grinder. It’s slightly different because of it’s continuous commentary on Hollywood and how the whole crime drama genre is a farce of itself sometimes. It excels as a crime drama because it emotionally brutalizes a normal fellow like Harry while giving enough to Gay to go on to solve the mystery. 

I liked this, but the continued humour might ruin it for some. Seeing someone bleed out their chest after a few punch lines might leave something to be desired, but with a little something for everyone, if anything it might be a good movie for a date. 

Rhys’ rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Fundamentals of Caring

Year: 2016
Director: Rob Burnett
Starring: Craig Roberts, Paul Rudd, Selena Gomez. Jennifer Ehle
Written by Sasha Hornby

‘The Fundamentals of Caring’ is an American comedy-drama indie film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29, 2016, and was released on Netflix, as a Netflix Original, on June 24, 2016.  Adapted from the novel ‘The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving’ by Jonathan Evison, ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’ focuses on Ben, played by the most-likeable-man-on-earth, Paul Rudd. 

Ben is a broken man.  After a family tragedy three years ago, he is now avoiding his divorce, avoiding his work as a writer, and avoiding moving on in life.  After taking a 6-week course in care-giving, he is assigned to Trevor, a wheelchair-bound agoraphobic asshole of a teenager.   What transpires as they become caregiver and ward is a part ‘bromantic’ comedy, part coming-of-age drama, as the two embark on an impromptu road trip that subverts the usual schmaltzy tropes one might expect.

Welsh actor, Craig Roberts, is perfectly cast as the sardonic 18-year-old who openly delights in torturing those around him with an uncomfortably blunt observation or borderline cruel prank.  Diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy at the tender age of 3, his understandably over-protective mother (played note-perfectly by British actress, Jennifer Ehle) points out he will be lucky to survive another 10 years. 

The journey Trevor has mapped out includes some of the lamest American attractions, such as biggest cow and deepest pit, with the former providing one of the film’s genuine laugh out loud set pieces.  Somewhat predictably, along the way, Ben and Trevor pick up some supporting characters, including Selena Gomez’s foul-mouthed runaway, Dot, and Megan Ferguson’s delightfully sweet heavily pregnant Peaches.  Whilst both actresses do the best they can with the material they have, their characters are never fleshed out to be more than catalysts for the two leads to let go of their demons.

One of the real triumphs of this film is its handling of a disabled character and his relationship with his caregiver.  Yes, Trevor uses a motorised wheelchair, and yes, Ben has butt-wiping duties, but Trevor’s mental faculties are all there.  His disability is never the source of a joke or used in an overly-sentimental way.  Dot’s flirtation with him doesn’t come from a place of sympathy – she openly says she ‘only dates assholes’.  And that’s exactly what Trevor is, in a completely endearing way.

Indie films often excel at curating great soundtracks, and ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’ is no exception.  From the joyful Bright Whites by Kishi Bishi, to the crooning I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen, to the beautiful Take Me As I Am by Au Revoir Simone, every song has been chosen to seamlessly compliment the moment it accompanies.  

At 93 minutes, ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’ never outlives its welcome.  The screenplay and direction by Rob Burnett is satisfactory, if a little heavy handed at times.  The backdrop of mid-Western America provides some beautiful landscape shots.  What really stands out are the two leads, Rudd and Roberts, who both exude confidence and nuance in their roles.   The film doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the genre, but it is certainly one of the more likable additions of recent years.  A quaint, humourous, heart-warming watch, that provides a welcome relief to the gritty sci-fi and superhero films dominating the screens.

Sasha’s rating: 7.7 out of 10