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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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

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

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

Song to Song

Year: 2017
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter
Written by Fiona Underhill

Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to see this film the day after its premiere at SXSW. It was at an advanced members’ screening at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood – so the overall experience of seeing this film may have coloured this review somewhat.

Despite having a ‘difficult’ time with Malick’s most recent film, ‘Knight of Cups’, I had high hopes for ‘Song to Song’. The cast is pretty mind-blowing: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, not to mention the many cameos from the music world. There also seemed to be a bit more focus for this film (you can’t go so far as to call it a plot) – following an ensemble of characters and their successes and failures in the music world of Austin, Texas. Of course, it’s not really about that, it’s about sex and relationships, in a group of impossibly rich, white, glamorous and ridiculously good-looking people. Although there is not as much depth and substance to it as hardcore Malick aficionados believe, if you just let the stunning images wash over you, it is an enjoyable experience.

The acting is impressive and it is interesting to watch the loose, improvisational style. Fassbender is particularly impressive as the least likeable of the characters – an executive taking advantage of struggling musicians Gosling and Mara. One of the reasons I liked this more than ‘Knight of Cups’ was that at least the women got to be more fully realised, with more dialogue and rounded personalities. Although it seems as though Mara’s character is the protagonist at first, as she starts the internal monologue, the voice-overs are actually shared between several different characters, so we gain insight into different perspectives. Part of the thrill of this film is watching the characters backstage at various concerts and festivals and seeing real music artists and bands, some of whom interact impressively naturalistically with the characters.

Of course the film does get progressively more ridiculous, piling on the beautiful people in beautiful locations until it’s hard not to burst out laughing. While Gosling and Mara are estranged from each other, Gosling meets Blanchett who appears to live in a literal waterside castle. Mara meets Bérénice Marlohe (with the exact same physical characteristics of all the women – Malick certainly seems to have a type, like a modern-day Hitchcock), who lives in yet another stunning, albeit modernist house.

As with ‘Knight of Cups’ (which featured Brian Dennehy – the best thing about that film), it is the older actors playing parents/mentors who provide the scenes of real emotion and interest. Holly Hunter plays Portman’s mother and there is touching scene in which she almost ‘baptises’ Portman with bath water, juxtaposed with Fassbender watching prostitutes in a shower – one of the few symbolic images that I really ‘got’. Patti Smith (yes!) plays a mentor to Mara, dispensing advice with real humanity and warmth. There is a heartbreaking scene between Gosling and his father, who he has had complicated relationship with and is now gravely ill.

Of course it is a cliché, but it is true that every single shot of this film could exist as a photograph and be hung in an art gallery. It is hard not to get swept up in how beautiful everything and everyone is. This is the type of film that you really need to let wash over you, immerse yourself in and not get too hung up on plot. There are things I really like about this film and about Malick. I can understand why actors are lining up to work with him – they are given the opportunity to work in a unique way and are afforded a lot more creative freedom than they are used to. But, it is also frustrating. It is hard to feel any sympathy for the constant angst that these incredibly privileged people are suffering. Everyone seems to be suffering from self-indulgent existential crises, which would be understandable if the characters were teenagers (see ‘Edge of Seventeen’), but these are grown ups, lucky to be living in a glamorous world – you feel like shaking them and screaming “get over yourselves!”

Malick is always going to divide audiences and critics. He will always have his core, die-hard defenders and those who find him insufferable. I sit somewhere in between. On a purely aesthetic level, as a work of art, I appreciate his films. But in terms of character, narrative or many other aspects that most people expect from films, it is irritating. It’s just impossible to care for these people, compared to something like ‘Moonlight’, where your heart aches as you yearn for the characters to succeed.

Although I have avoided reviews of this film, I did read something interesting recently – it is hard to imagine that Malick’s films make much money and they would often be considered critical failures. Would a female director be allowed to keep making films under such circumstances? I will always be interested in what Malick is doing next, but I will always also approach his work with trepidation. But, I will probably turn up to the cinema anyway – ready to be enthralled by the beauty and frustrated by the characters in equal measure. Maybe this makes me a sucker, but I choose to treat the experience the same as going to an art gallery, something I love to do. Malick’s work is art and art is supposed to be challenging. Expect this film to challenge you!

Fiona’s rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Space Between Us

Year: 2017
Director: Peter Chelsom
Starring: Gary Oldman, Asa Butterfield, Carla Gugino, Britt Robertson
Written by Tom Sheffield

If this film taught me anything, it’s to maybe do a little reading up on the plot of a film and not just watching 1 trailer before going and wasting 2 hours of my life that I’m never going to get back. The trailer gave off a real sci-fi vibe and whilst it did also give off the impression of a slight romantic edge to the film, I thought this would be a sideline to the sci-fi aspect of the film. Well, it turns out it’s the opposite way round and I spent the majority of the 121 minute run-time questioning why I was even watching this film…

Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) is a NASA Astronaut on an interplanetary mission to be the first to colonize Mars, but during her journey to the red planet she discovers that she’s pregnant. Sarah sadly dies during childbirth due to complications, so Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman), the CEO of the organisation behind the mission, makes the controversial decision to keep the birth of the child a secret to anyone back on Earth so his organisation doesn’t have a PR nightmare on their hands. The story then fast forwards 16 years where Sarah’s son, Gardener Elliot (Asa Butterfield), is now adamant he wants to go to Earth so he can meet his father, but because he’s spent his entire life in Mars’ atmosphere, the scientists at NASA tell him his body wouldn’t be able to handle Earth’s atmosphere. After undergoing surgery to increase his bone density, Gardner returns to Earth and won’t let anyone get in the way of him finding his father, so he enlists the help of Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a girl he’s grown close to via an internet chat-room, to help him.

The premise of the film had my attention up until it ended up turning into a teenage romance film that is full to the brim of clichés and cheese. The scenes where Gardener is on Mars are probably the only scenes I actually enjoyed. We learned how intelligent this 16 year old is, experience a little of his life on Mars surrounded by scientists from across the world, and learn why he’s so desperate to go to Earth. Once Gardener meets up with Tulsa on Earth, the film becomes very predictable and honestly quite boring to watch. Butterfield and Robertson’s time on screen together felt awkward the whole way through, and for me I think it’s because they were playing characters that were both supposed to be 16 years of age, but 20 year old Butterfield still genuinely looks 16  whereas Robertson, who is 27, does not. Right from their first meeting I clocked this and for the rest of the film it was just weird to watch them together. Age differences aside, their performances were quite bland and uninspiring, and they didn’t really have any on-screen chemistry.

Gary Oldman’s performance, along with the first 15 minutes of the film, are the only things I enjoyed about ‘The Space Between Us’. Oldman, as ever, was a joy to watch, despite his character not being the most likeable of people. But as the story unfolds and we learn more about him, you learn why his character made the decisions he did and you find yourself empathizing with him. The film had such a promising premise, but once Gardener’s feet touch down on Earth the film completely lost any notion of sci-fi-ness that seemed so promising at the start, and it becomes over sentimental, predictable, and downright boring.

I will hand it to Barry Peterson though, the cinematography made for enjoyable viewing during this 2 hour snooze fest. On Gardener’s journey to find his Dad, we get to see the places he travels through and some stunning shots of the surrounding landscapes. I much preferred looking at the scenery than Butterfield and Robertson being all awkward and cringey.

Unless awkward teen romance, slow and boring boy meets girl films, or highly predictable endings are your kind of thing, I’d say you’re not really missing out if you don’t ever watch this film. All I could think of when I left the cinema screening was “I’m so glad Asa Butterfield didn’t bag the Spider-Man role” , as he was one of the names in the hat to play the role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before, thankfully, Tom Holland secured the role of the web-slinging teen.

Tom’s rating: 2.0 out of 10

Fifty Shades Darker

Year: 2017
Director: James Foley
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Kim Basinger
Written by Fiona Underhill

The reviews of the sequel to 2015’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ have been dire, pretty much across the board. However, the worse the reviews have been (particularly from male critics), the more determined I was to go into this film and enjoy it – to prove the critics wrong. Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of the books. But, I have seen the first film quite a few times. I don’t hate it. However, the sequel is a LOT worse. You may think the bar had already been set pretty low. Well, somehow the ‘Fifty Shades’ team have managed to sink lower. 

What really frustrates me about this, is that this film is not helping the cause of making more quality (or at least, fun) films with a specifically female audience in mind. Make no mistake – these books and films are for women, however much they try to sell the ‘couples’ date night on Valentine’s Day’ angle. This film is much more likely to be seen by gangs of girls (possibly on Galentine’s Day – a Leslie Knope invention for the day before Valentine’s) and I don’t like the thought of these women being looked down upon for enjoying this sort of film. What I’m trying to say is that it’s slim pickings – even the romantic comedies and Nicholas Sparks films seem to have dried up. We had the recent delights of the two ‘Magic Mike’ films (genuinely good films – I won’t hear otherwise), but other than that, there are so few sexy films out there for a female audience. So, I understand why the ‘Fifty Shades’ films do well at the box office. It’s the perfect film for a ‘girls’ night out’. I just wish they were better. 

The first ‘Fifty Shades’ film was, of course, directed by the artist Sam Taylor-Johnson and her departure may be the explanation for the big dip in quality. Much like the first ‘Magic Mike’ (directed by Steven Soderbergh), the visuals and the soundtrack were better than perhaps the material deserved. Whereas ‘Magic Mike XXL’ maintained the woozy, sun-drenched feel of the first film, this ‘Fifty Shades’ sequel just feels like everyone (particularly the two stars) have just shown up to fulfill their contractual obligations and get their pay cheque. The story manages to be both boring and ridiculous. It appears as if Ana has officially ‘tamed’ the sadistic Christian and shown he is capable of love and commitment and all that jazz. She has somehow ‘cured’ him, despite the fact he’ll barely acknowledge his troubled childhood. The proverbial spanner in the works come in the form of two pantomime villains – Ana’s creepy boss and ‘Mrs Robinson’ (Kim Basinger) – the woman who taught Christian the ways of the dominant/submissive when he was a teenager. Of course you expect the script to be cheesy, but these two characters have scenes towards the end of the film that made me laugh out loud. 

Much has been discussed about the sex scenes. I don’t have a problem with what some consider the more ‘abusive’ aspects – I do actually think valid reasons are given for both characters to want to indulge in S&M and it was clear from the first film, that when Christian crossed a line that Ana wasn’t comfortable with, she walked away. Many people argue that the sex scenes are completely ‘unsexy’ across the board, whereas I would say some are and some are not. The more ‘extreme’ the scenes (e.g. The Red Room scenes), the more ridiculous and less sexy they are, for me. There wasn’t as much tension or emotional drive to those scenes in this film, as Ana and Christian are in a more settled place than the first film. These films are perhaps more about ‘wealth porn’ than actual porn anyway. Maybe it is Christian’s bank account more than his whip that is appealing to the audience? 

So… is ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ a good film? No, it is not. It is in fact, a laughably bad film at times and not in an enjoyable ‘so bad, it’s good’ way. However, I will absolutely defend people who do like and enjoy it. I understand the fact that it will do well at the box office. Those gangs of women who go out for a few drinks and watch ‘Fifty Shades’ are not morons (as I’ve seen them described on Twitter). They are an audience crying out for a film they feel is for them. They should not be patronised or condescended to by (overwhelmingly male), snobby film critics. Some films are trashy and popular and fun and while I might argue the last of those three, ‘Fifty Shades’ fulfils this need in the market. It is a modern-day ‘Mills and Boon’ on the big screen and I really do not have a problem with that. You can be a feminist and like ‘Fifty Shades’. You can be a cinephile and still understand why ‘Fifty Shades’ exists and finds its audience. Of course I wish that those women (and me) had more choice and a better choice. But until that happens, we’ll have to make do with ‘Fifty Shades’ and Nicholas Sparks.

Fiona’s rating: 4.5 out of 10

Passengers

Year: 2016
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

‘Passengers’ is a rare breed of a film, and in an era dominated by comic book films, remakes, reboots, prequels, and sequels, it comes along as an original sci-fi. Lately, we have been crying out for more original sci-fi films, and yet even when we get one, we get films like 2015’s much maligned ‘Jupiter Ascending’. This year, however, has been different – early in the year we had the excellent, underseen ‘Midnight Special’, and more recently we had the superb, possibly Oscar contender ‘Arrival’. Unfortunately, we also have ‘Passengers’, putting somewhat of a dent into that upswing.

‘Passengers’ is a strange film. On the drive home from the cinema, I was thinking how on earth I was going to write about it. Finally, I think I came up with a solution.

Film 1: ‘Passengers: The Survival Drama’ – ‘Passengers: The Survival Drama’ is the story of Jim Preston (Pratt). An enormous conglomerate, Homestead, has built an Earth, Homestead II, that needs populating and one of its starships, the Avalon, is transporting 5,000 passengers to Homestead II to start a new life. The Avalon’s 120 year voyage is interrupted and causes a malfunction, waking Jim from his cryo-sleep 90 years too soon. He is alone on a giant, cruise ship-style spaceship with only an android bartender (Sheen) to keep him company.

Pratt holds his own in this survival story akin to ‘Castaway’. He occupies his time using the ship’s many distractions, drinking with the Android, and trying to find out why he was woken up. The film follows Jim as he begins to lose his way and his mind, driven to breaking point when the crushing reality of his situation hits.

Passengers: The Survival Drama’ showcases Pratt’s under-utilised acting ability beyond the wise-cracker we have been used to thanks to ‘Jurassic World’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. He manages to subtly portray a man losing hope. A man out of options, out of ideas, with no escape. It’s a genuinely interesting drama set in a sci-fi world that I fully recommend.

Film 2: ‘Passengers: The Romance’ – I won’t get into the controversy surrounding this film as it delves into spoiler territory, but enter Jennifer Lawrence. ‘Passengers: The Romance’ sees two seemingly random people woken up from cryo-sleep on their 120 year voyage 89 years early, forced together to find a solution to their complicated situation. They problem solve, they enjoy themselves, they lose hope, they find hope, they fall in love. It’s a fairly stereotypical, clichéd love story about two people thrust together in a unique situation.

Chris Pratt portrays Jim, a man smitten with his new partner, Aurora, and yet so evidently hiding something, a hidden secret he entrusts the Android Bartender with. Aurora Lane (Lawrence) is a journalist, who is attractive. I only know this because Aurora says she is a journalist, and she is played by Jennifer Lawrence, an attractive actress. The character is empty, devoid of personality or depth, something which is equally the fault of the writer, and of Lawrence herself. When Lawrence is on screen, she would stand there, deliver her lines, and move on to the next scene. Where Pratt managed to show a potentially dark undercurrent to his normally charming, playful demeanour, Lawrence showed nothing of note that extended beyond her surface-level character, something of a missed opportunity for an Oscar-winning actress.

Passengers: The Romance’ has its moments, but it is largely aimless, and struggles to overcome Lawrence’s lacklustre performance.

Film 3: ‘Passengers: The Disaster Movie’ – ‘Passengers: The Disaster Movie’ stars Jim and Aurora as they wake up from their cryo-sleep to find they have woken up 88 years too soon, and must find a way to survive the slowly disintegrating and malfunctioning starship. ‘Passengers: The Disaster Movie’ delves into sci-fi jargon that involves finding lost data, nuclear reactors, meteorites, and trying to fix a hole.

Passengers: The Disaster Movie’ suffers from a lack of tension or genuine care for what’s going on. The stakes are never truly realised, the characters don’t seem to ever react appropriately to the situation (it’s life or death but it’s treated very casually, especially from Pratt), and it all descends into dumb moment after dumb moment that culminates in the dumbest of moments, that does that unforgivable thing of directly contradicting certain rules the film has previously established.

‘Passengers: The Disaster Movie‘ is visually impressive, but lacks the substance the best disaster movies require in order to truly engage its audience.

In summary, as previously mentioned, ‘Passengers’ is a strange film. Hopefully I managed to convey the problems I have with it, and indeed the problems the film has. It tries to be too many things at once, and in one of the weirdest traits I can remember seeing in a film, its lead characters are all the physical embodiment of the film’s 3 acts. Pratt does well with what he is given, despite his lacklustre final act, but Lawrence lets the film down with a real phoning-it-in performance. It is visually impressive and it has some interesting moments and scenes, but it leaves a lot to be desired.

Rhys’ Rating: 5.8 out of 10

Knight of Cups

Year: 2016
Director: Terrence Malik
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonion Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley
Written by Fiona Underhill

Terrence Malik is going through an ultra productive period in recent years, with ‘Tree of Life’ (2011), ‘To the Wonder’ (2012) and now ‘Knight of Cups’. This is after famously having a twenty year gap between ‘Days of Heaven’ and ‘The Thin Red Line’. I loved ‘The Thin Red Line’, but tried ‘To The Wonder’ and gave up on it. Malik’s style is definitely polarising – all beautiful lingering shots with minimal dialogue and plot. I have deliberately avoided reviews before writing my own, but I’m guessing they will vary widely. I am as arty (and indeed, farty) as the next guy, but this style has stretched even me to my limits.

I also have a complex relationship with Christian Bale. ‘Empire of the Sun’ is my favourite film of all time and when I was young, I couldn’t wait to see what the adult Bale would accomplish. He showed promise in the 1990s with ‘Metroland’, ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and ‘American Psycho’. But then he achieved meteoric fame with ‘The Dark Knight’ Trilogy and although I am a fan of the latter two films (I have never made it through ‘Batman Begins’ awake), Bale is by far the weakest link in Nolan’s work for me. This is also when he appeared to go full ‘method’ – giving interviews in different accents and also when he had his famous ‘Terminator’ on-set meltdown. For every good performance (‘The Prestige’, ‘The Big Short’), there seems to be a bad one – I could not stand him in ‘The Fighter’. This has left me feeling crushed, wounded, betrayed and very wary about each new Bale film that comes along.

Ironically, Bale’s performance in ‘Knight of Cups’ is one of its strongest elements. He has to hold together this dreamscape of a film, meandering through beautiful scenery and locations with only a voice-over to give any context to the series of images we’re seeing. This film would be more appropriate for a modern art gallery than a cinema – it is a collection of stunning visuals, barely held together by any narrative or plot. It is loosely thematically linked by ‘characters’ from tarot – the ‘Knight of Cups’ being one. It also has allusions to the Bible – perhaps Jesus’ lost 40 days and 40 nights in the desert when he tries to find himself and avoid temptation from Satan. There are also similarities with the medieval morality play ‘Everyman’ and Bale’s Rick is clearly supposed to be the everyman at the centre of the ‘story’ – one clue being that he wears the same clothes throughout the film. The problem is that Rick’s trials, tribulations and temptations come in the form of a succession of increasingly attractive women. Two of these women are two of the most beautiful and best actresses of our generation – Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. The fundamental problem is that it’s hard to feel sympathy or even care for a rich, white Hollywood writer who is being ‘tortured’ by stunning surroundings and stunning people.

A slightly more interesting side-note is Rick’s younger brother, played by Wes Bentley and his father, played by the phenomenal Brian Dennehy. ‘Knight of Cups’ picks up hugely when either of these characters are on screen, as it makes a change from Bale dancing around one of his gorgeous girlfriends. The film held my interest mainly because it is set in LA, which I have recently moved to and I enjoyed identifying the locations. It makes an interesting counter-point to ‘La La Land’, which I recently saw – with the Warner Bros lot vast and empty, rather than busy and colourful. Although Bale’s almost wordless performance was strong, the film would have worked better if it was entirely from his point-of-view, with the camera as his eyes. This may have made it easier to empathise with a character it is hard to feel for. The film meanders along and it seems as if the protagonist doesn’t learn, grow or change. His journey of self-discovery doesn’t really go anywhere. You are left feeling as if you’ve witnessed something beautiful but empty. Perhaps it is a critique of Hollywood after all.

 Fiona’s rating: 5.0 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

 

Allied

Year: 2016
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan
Written by Noah Jackson

‘Allied’ features some of the best talent working today, with two great leads in the form of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and a legendary director in Robert Zemeckis, known for classics such as ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Back to the Future’, and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ The filmography of these three people alone is interesting and varied enough to make you want to see whatever film they collaborate on together.

The plot of ‘Allied’ follows two spies who meet in World War II going through a mission together where they pretend to be in love, but after the mission they no longer pretend and get married. When an intelligence tip from London comes through telling one member of this happy union that their spouse may be a German spy, the paranoia starts to seep in, and we have a movie.

To be blunt, I was not the biggest fan of ‘Allied’. The writer of this film, Steven Knight, is someone whose scripts I find dull. He creates amazing concepts for plots, and then fills them with time-wasting and repetitive dialogue. That was my main issue with ‘Locke’, it’s why I couldn’t get into TV series ‘Peaky Blinders’, and it’s one the main reasons why I found ‘Allied’ to be underwhelming. The tension that should’ve been present throughout the entire story simply wasn’t there, and it’s from a mixture of bland performances, bland characterisation, semi-bland direction, and an overall mess of tone and pacing.

What is good in the film is the production design and character style. Much of what occurs and is seen on screen feels incredibly authentic, and it takes the form of the dialogue, the set design, the costuming, and the usage of subtle hints at the time-frame. I liked picking out the things that made the film feel as though it tried to be realistic with its WWII setting, from the sandbags everywhere to the music of Benny Goodman.

The performances are mediocre, however the standout by far is Marion Cotillard, who is amazing in everything I’ve seen her in. Supporting roles from character actors like Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, and Lizzy Caplan are all fairly replaceable. Any actor could’ve portrayed the supporting cast, and the majority of their purposes in the film from the script just seem so generic that I don’t know why they had such major parts in the first place. Brad Pitt lacked all the charisma that he’s known for in his work. His character as a spy is intended to be unreadable and mysterious, but Brad Pitt just looked bored. He is by no means awful, but from what we have seen in his past efforts, this is subpar.

For the direction of this film, I stand somewhere in between. Robert Zemeckis is talented without a doubt, but I think he was the wrong choice to make this movie. The script was plodding and slow, and when Zemeckis tried to match it with his direction, it became even slower. This is the director of movies that are fast and often filled with quick dialogue, from ‘Back to the Future’ to ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ This script doesn’t have any of the elements that make Zemeckis’s movies good. On the other hand, he does what he can with it. The shot composition is fascinating, with lots of good shots featuring mirrors and reflection. The action scenes are tense and suspenseful, but the main romantic story is devoid of the suspense that is needed. To further speak on the pacing, the first 45 minutes was intriguing, the next hour was boring and was basically the trailer expanded into an hour. There’s a good 10 minutes of action in that hour. And then the ending comes and it’s a rushed mess that makes the whole of the movie feel cheapened by how easy the resolution was.

Overall, the movie suffers because it tried to do much without knowing exactly what it wanted to be. It’s a WWII romance, action, suspense, drama with Brad Pitt. They did WWII correctly. I didn’t always buy the romance due to the chemistry not always being believable. The action is good, but there isn’t enough of it. There’s suspense layered throughout, but it never hits as high as it should. It’s slow and features a large amount of unnecessary dialogue with inconsequential characters, and runs out of gas long before the underwhelming finale. If it’s on TV one night with nothing else, it’s watchable, but it’s not worth spending money on. The film could’ve been a great addition to an already great list of WWII movies, instead, this one will be forgotten within the next year.

Noah’s Rating: 5.5 out of 10

The Light Between Oceans

Year: 2016
Director: Derek Cianfrance

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Written by Tom Sheffield

In a year that has brought a fair amount of novels to the big screen, including ‘Girl on the Train’, ‘Room’ and ‘Me Before You’, it’s no surprise that New York Times bestseller ‘The Light Between Oceans’ would get the film treatment sooner or later. Whilst I haven’t read the book myself, I had heard quite a lot about it when the film was announced, and ever since the names Fassbender and Vikander were announced in the leading roles, I was sold. 

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a war veteran who signs up to be a lightkeeper on an island off the coast of Australia. It’s not long into the story that we see Sherbourne fall for local girl, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and they marry so she can live with him at the Lighthouse. After two heartbreaking miscarriages, Isabel has fears she’ll never be able to have a family, until one day Tom spots a rowboat washed up on the shore near the lighthouse and cries of a baby can be heard echoing from it. Tom and Isabel rescue the baby from the rowboat, which also has the baby’s dead father in it. Isabel begs Tom to let her bring up the child as their own, despite Tom wanting to report the incident as he is supposed to, by company and government regulations. Despite his rule-following nature, Tom wants to see his wife happy and they bring up the baby, Lucy, and bury her father’s body.  A couple of years later Tom and Isabel have Lucy christened and Tom discovers the identity of Lucy’s birth mother, who actually named her Grace. Tom, now racked with guilt and overcome with emotion, now faces a moral dilemma which will tear him apart emotionally and truly test his love for Isabel and Lucy.

Michael Fassbender’s character isn’t a very talkative person, he’s very closed off and I think due to his time in the army and his experiences, he struggles to communicate his feelings. Fassbender delivers an awards worthy performance, and despite the lack of dialogue he’s given, his eyes, body language and mannerisms are enough for the audience to know what his character is thinking at all times. His on-screen romance with Alicia Vikander seemed so effortless and real that you truly felt for the couple during the heartbreaking scenes of her miscarriages. Vikander also gave an awards worthy performance in this film. Her character goes through a lot of highs and devastating lows throughout the film and her deliverance of her lines and the portrayal of her emotions were truly heartbreaking and like Fassbender, during her dialogue-less scenes you could read her thoughts like a book by just looking into her eyes and reading her body language.

Throughout the film we are treated to some incredible aerial shots of the lighthouse and the island the couple live on, as well as some wide shot scenes that truly show the beauty of the locations where the crew filmed . The scenes are beautifully shot and really match the tone of the film, with some nice wide angles, and a lot of scenes shot at eye level, as if we were in the room with Tom and Isabel. The small town Isabel is from has a genuine 1920’s look and feel and it’s a real shame we weren’t shown some more of it during the few scenes that took place in it, as it seemed really authentic. 

As I mentioned, I haven’t read the book so unfortunately can’t comment on my thoughts on how it’s been adapted to screen. I will say that the plot and script were incredible, and normally this kind of film wouldn’t be my cup of tea, however it’s easily secured a place on my list of favourite films this year; no easy feat this late into the year since we’ve had some absolutely incredible films released so far. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ will nicely sit alongside ‘Macbeth’ on my list, which similarly featured an outstanding performance from Fassbender.

I would highly recommend watching ‘The Light Between Oceans’ for the incredible performances from Fassbender and Vikander, beautiful cinematography, and a morally challening plot that will keep you questioning what the characters will actually do, and perhaps what you would do. Whilst there are big jumps in the timeline of the film to keep the run-time at a decent length, the scenes still flow together nicely. The result is a well presented story of love and family, that is well worth a watch, and will undoubtedly see some recognition in awards season. 

Tom’s rating: 9.2 out of 10