Me Before You

A serviceable and relatively sincere weepie

Let’s start this with an admission. I am a crier. I have cried and will cry at everything and anything. An article on human kindness – I weep. An audition on a relatively television program – I sob. A particularly emotive song – I howl. Considering the nature of this film and what I had heard of the book I had the tissues at the ready. Literally I had taken a tissue out of the packet and tucked it into a jumper sleeve for easy access. Come the roll of the credits and the tissue had remained unused. I didn’t cry. This is not necessarily a criticism of the film – there were plenty of noses being blown and gentle sobbing echoed around the screen. Yet not a peep from me. Whether that is because I’m all cried out from recent weeks or whether the film didn’t have the emotional depth needed? Well, read on and see…

Two years ago William Traynor (Sam Claflin) was hit by a motorbike – leaving him paralysed from the neck-down. Will was once a man about town, living and hustling in London. The type of man all men envied and all women wanted. Now he is stuck back in his small-town home with his parents Camilla (Janet McTeer) and Steven (Charles Dance). Concerned by his desperately low spirits she decides to hire a carer/companion who can brighten up his lonely   existence.  Enter Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke) who has just lost her job at the local cafe. Aged 26 she has never left her small town home, a place which she either loves too much or is too scared to leave. Her family rely on her as she brings in the only income so this job is perfect for her! Except she has zero experience as a carer. Having always been outshone by her younger sister, single mother Katrina (Jenna Coleman), or patronised by her long-term boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis), Louisa is a woman not living life to its fullest. Maybe Will, a man who can no longer enjoy life, is the perfect person to help her live hers?

Having not read the book I cannot comment on the success of the transition of book to screen, although Twitter would suggest it is faithful. The story itself is relatively predictable, with little surprise, though this is not necessarily a bad thing as the story itself is told rather well. The pacing is solid with the growing bond between Louisa and Will is believable.The supporting cast are impeccably stereotypical and two-dimensional. Roll call for romantic tragedy archetypes – we have present: jealous and moody boyfriend who ‘doesn’t understand or appreciate’ how amazing his girlfriend is. Overly concerned mother and withdrawn father. Know-it-all younger sibling full of great advice. Friendly Australian nurse who steals most of the scenes he is in… (Side note: how can I get my own Nathan, Stephen Peacocke..?) 

The main cast themselves are solid. Claflin does well with his role as a man who feels he has little reason to live. He provides his character with just enough spark to hint at the man Will once was. His bond with Clarke’s character is well-established and there is plenty of charisma between them. It’s Clarke’s performance that particularly stands out, with her facial expressions providing an earnest authenticity to her character. Although her character is essentially a 2016 small-town England Manic Pixie Dream Girl (her ‘quirky’ clothes and shoes used to denote her character as opposed to providing her with any genuine character traits) she is remarkably likeable. Her eyebrow acting is, as my secondary school students would say, on point – managing to show so much with them knitted in concern.

There’s enough here to watch and enjoy with a glass of wine. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but if you’re a fan of such films as  The Fault In Our Stars or Me, Earl and the Dying Girl then you’ll enjoy this.

stars

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Miles Ahead

The man, a fair bit of myth and a whole lotta legend

It what may be my favourite bit of description from the year so far director/co-writer/lead Don Cheadle describes ‘Miles Ahead’ as being a ‘metaphorical’ biopic of Miles Davies. Fact and fiction are rather skillfully blended to pay tribute to an incredible musician, a leader of the genre that should be called ‘social music not jazz’. For better or for worse (depending on your view) this is not a typical music biopic – it’s free from the cliches that come with it – instead favouring a magnificent mooch-like approach in exploring the lives and loves of a true musical legend.

It’s 1979 and Miles Davies (Don Cheadle) has been a recluse for five years. A rumoured comeback – not that Davies himself would call it that – is being heard on the grapevine. Having lost this muse Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and his ‘lip’ thanks to self-medicating a variety of drugs, word gets around that Miles has actually recorded some new music – only he’s refusing to give it to his record label Columbia. That’s when Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) literally comes a-knocking on his door. The attempted interview between the pair quickly descends into utter chaos – involving drug deals, shootouts, car chases, stolen records and a few trips into memory lane.

The greatest thing about this film is the fact that when watching it it is clear that you are watching a passion project. The adoration that Cheadle clearly feels towards Miles Davis pays off completely and shines through every mannerism or rasping of dialogue. Even when high as a kite or desperately searching for his next hit he is shown to be a true man of sharp-suited cool. And even when slightly darker sides of his personality come out – such as in the flashbacks of his relationship with Francis – he is still a character we can connect with even when we may not like him at that particular moment. His self-destruction is portrayed with such affection by Cheadle – it shines through his eyes in every scene.

The events of the film are mostly fictional, inspired by the past as opposed to retelling. It’s a unique touch, a very ambitious touch at that, and one which mostly pays off in how well it reflects its subject. This is also emphasised by the construction of the film, with neat little choices of direction allowing for the present to seamlessly blend into the past. It’s not typical ‘day in the life’ fayre, nor is it rise and fall narrative. Instead the film drifts, swaggers if you will, from one moment to the next.

Like Davis the film is smooth, if occasionally rather frustrating in terms of its storytelling. It is hugely enjoyable and incredibly well-acted. And, like the man himself, never boring.

stars 

Louder Than Bombs

What happens to a bomb that doesn’t explode?

My response to this film is surprisingly (well it would be to my past self) problematic. If I had reviewed it soon after watching yesterday I would have been rather damning of the film. Now, with roughly 28 hours worth of distance from seeing it, I feel slightly warmer towards it. (Only a few degrees mind – let’s not go crazy). With a level of retrospect I can admire the ideas and ambition of the film, something which I wouldn’t have been able to do initially after watching. However, whilst I may feel softer towards it I am still not a fan and think the film is largely unsuccessful it what it wants to achieve.

Three years ago famous war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) died in what most believed was a car accident. Now, as a museum retrospective of her life and works is fast approaching, her close friend is about to write an article about her in the New York Times and as he advises her widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne) he will mention in the article the fact that her death was most likely suicide. Gene must now find a way of telling his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid) the truth before he finds out through other means. An opportunity to do so arrives when eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg leaves his wife and newborn daughter to come home and help look through his mother’s work space to find photos for the retrospective. Whilst home Jonah must find a way of coming to terms with the past in the form of ex-girlfriend, his brother’s difficult present and how his future role as a father may be shaped by his relationship with his own. 

It’s interesting that through writing the above plot summary I found myself again warmly engaging with the key ideas of the film. All of us have been touched by some sense of loss and each of us will handle the grief in different ways – some may mentally stay in the past with that person whilst others may push such thoughts aside and stay primarily focused on the present and future.

All of the actors do a fine job in subtly portraying grief. Byrne’s father trying to do the right thing for his two boys whilst watching his relationships with both fade away truly pulls at the heartstrings and occasionally at the bone. Druid plays the difficult emotionally stunted teen finely and somewhat reflecting the universal horror of adolescence. As difficult as my audience-actor relationship is with Eisenberg (forgiveness for his version of Lex Luthor is still far far away) but at times I did appreciate his character Jonah. I can say quite honestly that in the film’s opening sequence I even enjoyed watching him.

But it’s Huppert’s grief that is perhaps the most visceral, even though it is she that is being grieved by the family she left behind. It is a roughly two minute sequence about halfway through the film that really demonstrates this. The camera just focuses on her face in close-up for two minutes. For those two minutes nothing else happens. But as we know her character and we know the emotional battles she suffered (between her art and being a mother/wife) we read the metaphorical scars on her face. We look into her eyes and see the utter despair. We look behind her mask in a way we either chose or are unable to do with each other in real life.

All of this being said I think these ideas are stunted by execution. Though the pontification and using on the nature of grief is extraordinary and truly applaudable, either through intention or accident we are unable to connect with any of the characters – all are pretty unlikeable on various levels and for various reasons. It’s this aspect of the film that will and has been truly dividing audiences. Perhaps it is intention – that grief cannot and should not be sugarcoated, sometimes it will bring out the worst in each of us. However I am in the camp that views this as a flaw and something that prevents me from truly connecting with the film.

Whilst I well and truly admire the film’s sentiments and ideas by borderline disdain for it’s characters stops me from truly appreciating its merits. The fact the film takes a rather poetic storytelling approach, of drifting between moments, of days being indefinable, of present day being interchangeable with memory, did was not cohesive enough for me. In some ways I write this paragraph with a degree of apology, as someone who lost a relative (my uncle) in June and will soon be facing the prospect of that first anniversary without him. Sometimes I reflect on whether I am grieving ‘properly’, if I am approaching my grief ‘healthily’ and if I am ‘normal’ in my response. The film carefully weaves these ideas into it’s narrative but somewhat abandons them in favour of artistic statement and style.

Whilst full of poignant moments the film is ultimately too cold and reserved to provide the cathartic intimacy it appears to wish to provide.

2 stars

Bastille Day

Remove brain and enjoy the stupid

To put it simply, there is nothing clever about this film. It’s too po-faced about going about its business to be a parody even when the film really feels like it’s parodying ‘the maverick detective’ genre – our ‘maverick’ is even introduced via a CIA briefing where a prior report described him as ‘reckless and prone to violence’, he does things that are so against the rule book that he’s ‘own his own’ and he punches or shoots everyone he comes into contact with. Aside from this not a single character has any actual characterisation, each one simply remains a job title or character trait. Yet somehow, and if you really try not to think too hard, this film has enough charisma and talent to actually be rather entertaining… for the most part.

Zoe Naville (Charlotte Le Bon) is persuaded by the man she thinks she loves to walk into the office of a political party candidate after hours and leave behind a bomb. He promises her that it’s safe, the office will be empty and no-one will get hurt. When Zoe finds the office to be full of cleaners she ends up being stuck in the middle of Paris with a literal ticking time bomb. That’s when con artist and thief Michael Mason (Richard Madden) spots an opportunity and steals her bag without knowing the contents. After stealing her phone he drops the back of at a bin – time has run out and the bomb explodes. Michael survives but CIA surveillance now implicates him as the instigator of the bomb so they put their best rogue lone-wolf officer on the case, Sean Briar (Idris Elba). Once Mason proves his innocence and his masterful skill of pick-pocketing the pair team up to find out the truth and stop any further lives being taken by the terrorists, who are soon found to be part of the French police force. – but just how high up does this conspiracy go? 

Again, I reiterate, there is nothing genre-defying or genre-defining here. The plot is riddled with more bullet holes than actually feature in the film – which is really saying something as every single character appears to try to shoot their way out of every single situation. Considering the main issue at hand is terrorism there is nothing logical about how any of the involved parties handle the situation.  The terrorist use a hashtag for their exploits, which magically transforms all the citizens of Paris into Bastille Day warriors. I’m sure there are many social media advertising companies who would love to know their secret.

Their ‘secret’ may just be Idris Elba who genuinely saves this film from being utter dross. He manages to droll lines which are so poorly manufactured and cliche-ridden that other actor would need to do the whole ‘nudge-nudge wink-wink’ to the camera. Instead Elba can say utterly farcical fare in such a way that you still get the joke and can laugh at multiple people’s expense. His charisma and sheer screen presence make the film as enjoyable as it is. That and the fact the film is a lean 90-odd minutes, no plot device or scene out stays its welcome and there is more than enough action. If you can ignore the utter waste of Kelly Reilly‘s talent and some of the film’s complicated (read: flawed) ideas about numerous topics then you’re good to go. 

It’s cheesy and hackneyed and only saved by Idris Elba. But, if you make sure you switch off both your phone and your brain at the start of the film, then you’ve found an entertaining enough way to while away 1.5 hours.

2 stars

Our Little Sister

A quietly touching family drama

Our Little Sister is a wonderful example of a sentimental yet ultimately subtle delight of a film. Watching it is a bit like being in a 128 minute-long embrace, warm and imitate with undercurrents of deep emotion. There’s no real melodrama – no dramatic shouting matches, intensive confrontations or shocking revelations – it’s far more real than that. We start the film with the character being total strangers to us then end the film feeling as if we are part of the family.

15 years ago a father left his wife and three young daughters behind. Soon after his heartbroken wife left the daughters in the care of her mother and left the town. 15 years later and the three, now fully grown, receive a phone call that their father has died, leaving behind his 14-year-old daughter who nursed him until the end. The trio – 29 year old Sachi (Haruka Ayase), 22 year old Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and 19 year old Chika (Kaho) – travel to his funeral and to meet their little sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose). The girls make an offer to the now orphaned Suzu, that she could come and live with the three of them in their big house in Kamakura. 

What is so effective about this film as it doesn’t require a big overarching plot – there’s no big problem or issue to solve. Instead we watch the three women over a period of about a year as they bond and face different issues within their own personal lives. Days blend into weeks with only a few references to dictate how much time has passed – at one point the three tell their little sister that in six months they’ll be able to undertake the family tradition of making plum wine, later in the film they do so etc. This alone with the absence of a melodramatic narrative instead presents a more realistic portrayal of family life by choosing to instead use what is essentially a series of interconnected vignettes. Each of the girls faces different issues in their lives, typically resulting around love or work, some are returned to and resolved and others are not as they do not need to be.

The film plays a magical spell as you watch it, drawing you into the lives of four young women who are each dealing with the grief of a departed parent in different ways. All four girls are fully sketched out and wonderfully characterised by both positive and negative traits, each as charming at the movie itself. How the story is shown is as extraordinary as it is told, finding beauty in even the smallest of moments – such as the way a plum floats in a jar of plum wine – and within the landscape itself – with the ‘tunnel’ of cherry blossoms being a personal favourite.

Few family-based dramas whisper instead of shout. This is one of them. A film that is quietly powerful and immensely appealing.

4 stars

The Jungle Book

It’s really a Bare Necessity that you see it!

For reasons somewhat unknown and potentially puzzling for many fans, Disney has decided to make a series of live-action versions of their animated classics. Apparently there are even 15 currently being planned. If they are all even half as good as this one then it’s not something to worry over. The Jungle Book (2016) is a marvelously wonderful adaptation that is both true to the original 1968 film yet with enough of its own nuances for a fresh-feel.

Mowgli was only a baby when he was found alone in the jungle by Bagheera the black panther (Ben Kingsley). Bagheera took Mowgli to the group of animals in the jungle who would best be able to care for him and protect him – the wolf pack. Raised by surrogate mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and bought up alongside their wolf cubs Mowgli learns the ways of the wolves, but as he is getting older Mowgli’s (Neel Sethi) progress is starting to lag behind his wolf siblings. One day, during the dry season, all the animals of the jungle are gathered to drink what remains of The Water Truce when Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes a reappearance after years away. Shere Khan smells Mowgli’s scent and warns the wolfpack to get rid of him or face the consequences. Bagheera offers to escort Mowgli back to the land of the man but the pair get separated on the journey. A close encounter with an enormous Indian python called Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) leads to Mowgli meeting Baloo the bear (Bill Murray). A true friendship begins to form between them but how long can it last with Shere Khan still desperate to hunt and kill Mowgli?

There are three key things that have been perfected to make this film as good as it is. Hopefully one of the things you noticed as you read the above plot summary is the cast. Firstly, how good is that cast!?! Look at the incredible group of actors that were brought together. Then look individually at each actor and the character they play. It’s not often you get to say that every casting choice is perfect within a movie and it’s something that you can say applies to this film. Kingsley provides the necessary paternal warmth hidden under layers of no-nonsense concern. Nyong’o as Raksha is a wolf fiercely protective and not afraid to speak out when it’s needed. Elba is fantastic, a properly scary villain, who growls around the land. Johansson’s Kaa is suitably seductive and hypnotic. But the award for most outstanding vocal contribution has to go to Bill Murray providing a performance that is un-bear-ably endearing and amusing in equal measure. How young newcomer Neel Sethi manages to hold his own is an incredible feat which he appears to do with ease. Let alone the fact he spends the film acting alongside CGI animals…

Leading to the second area in which this film excels – the visuals. I’m on the fence about 3D usually. After seeing too many films which claim 3d status yet do little to warrant it I tend not to be overly excited when having to choose between 2d and 3d showings.The Jungle Book is the first film in an age where I’ve been so glad I booked that 3d ticket. The depth of the frame, the landscape, the animals fur, the movement of the water and the curse of the red flower. All of these aspects are superbly enhanced by the 3d. Whilst aware of the cost it can add to a cinema visit I would firmly recommend seeing this film in 3d to access the added textures and wondrous depths it provides. The animals themselves are beautiful and almost life-like in how they look and move.I now desperately want to cuddle a baby wolf and sit upon a giant bears stomach as we float through the river.

Thirdly there’s the direction.Director Jon Favreau ensure first and foremost that this is a children’s movie whilst avoiding any pandering or talking down to the children. The film has enough darkness to give it bite – mildly frightening as opposed to truly scary. There’s even a lesson or two to be learned along the way. Unlike the original animation this film is not a musical but two of the classic songs are included – ‘The Bare Necessities’ is sung by Mowgli and Baloo during the aforementioned river floating sequences and Christopher Walken talk-sings his way through ‘Wanna Be Like You’ in such a wonderfully charming yet ultimately threatening manner – that feel like a natural fit as opposed to being shoe-horned in.

This may just be the most enchanting film of the year so far. It’s a marvellous visual spectacle told with wit and warmth. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart.

4 stars

 

Eye in the Sky

A powerful and reflective examination of the cost of warfare. 

Very few films are this good. It’s well-acted by a truly terrific cast, impeccably shot with a thrillingly taut script. It also poses such incredibly cerebral and difficult questions without copping out and providing easy answers. Then again, war itself doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) arrives at a military base in Sussex to oversee a high-level mission, to capture Al-Shabaab extremists who are meeting at a safe-house in Nairobi. Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is one of numerous undercover Kenyan field agents on the scene using covert surveillance. In Nevada USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) takes his seat alongside rookie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) to provide aerial surveillance (the Eye in the Sky). Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) arrives at his work, an office in London, taking the seat at the head of a table with members of the government to oversee the operation. What starts of as a seemingly routine capture mission soon becomes deeply complicated when it’s discovered the extremists are preparing to send two suicide bombers into the busy city streets. The only option appears to be to drop a hellfire missile on the safe house, but a little girl is out on the street nearby who would be fatally injured in the process. Those involved are deeply conflicted about what to do, and time is quickly running out.

I do not say this words lightly, but I firmly believe that everyone should see this film. Far beyond the fact that it is superbly acted and written, things I will discuss shortly, few films about war are this suspenseful and affecting.. The very term ‘collateral damage’ is a term complicated enough when you reflect on the fact it is a label used for human beings  caught in the crossfire but having the film truly immersing the audience debate generates a new level of soul searching. This is a genuine nail-biting thriller, with moments of true edge-of-your-seat-ness and wringing your hands in despair.

The cast for this film is awe-worthy and all of their performances justify completely justify that awe. This is one of two posthumous roles for Alan Rickman and serves as a reminder of what a genuine talent we lost this year. His iconic tone and manner are both fully in display here, truly serving his character and the film itself very well indeed. Helen Mirren is wonderful and fully believable as the stoic Colonel who watches her mission escalate from out of her control yet never losing her calm or nerve in the process. Aaron Paul is extraordinary as a man with two years experience in the job who is finally being told to pull the trigger, torn between duty and morality. Barkhad Abdi is one of the characters we know least about yet the strength and depth of his performance allows the audience to truly understand his role in events.

The script, cinematography, sound and performances of Eye in the Sky align to make this easily one of the best movies of the year so far. A riveting, fully entertaining yet equally chilling study of the morality of warfare. The questions it raises are not and cannot be truly answered yet will continue to haunt long after the credits roll.

This needs to be seen by all.

five star