Hacksaw Ridge (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 8/10

Synopsis

Directed by Mel Gibson, HACKSAW RIDGE is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong.

The Review

It’s always welcoming when Hollywood produce true stories of real life heroes you most likely would never have heard of in your life (most certainly not in UK schools). The film becomes more than just a two-hour watch. It becomes a great history class you wished you attended when you were growing up. Hacksaw Ridge does that for most of it’s running time, with a second half having some of the most visceral battle sequences caught in film, with the veteran direction (and resurrection) of Mel Gibson, led by a poignant central performance by Oscar Nominated Andrew Garfield.

It’s very hard to make this a spoiler-free review given it’s based on a true story (the synopsis alone from the film distributors sums up the second half of the film). It truly is remarkable to think that there was ever a man like Desmond Doss. The film is a tale of two halves. We begin with a young Desmond who after doing a very terrible act as a child, vows to follow the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” till the end of his days. Years later, nearing the end of WWII, he sees other men around his town going off to war and sees that its his right to go fight as well. The only issue is that he’s a conscientious objector and has vowed that he will never carry a gun. This doesn’t fall well with his new sergeant in command and brothers-in-arms, seeing him as a threat to let them down at the heat of the battle.

Many more things happen within this half, with Desmond falling in love with nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), and the battle he has to go through to be allowed to travel with the soldiers to Japan. It’s a great set up for a polar opposite second half, but the issue I have with the first half of the film is how terribly clichéd it is at times. Some of the dialogue feels straight out of daytime soap operas. It’s really cheesy at some points with some scenes being downright cringe, making some moving moments for me to be not as powerful as Gibson intended them to be. Yes you can argue that the first half was intended to be played out like that to balance out the brutal second half, but for me it was one-too-many whiffs of cheese.

So…the second half. Wow. The moment the soldiers walk on to Hacksaw Ridge till the ending of the film grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. It’s the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan turned up to 11. Blood and guts everywhere. Bombs exploding off. Screams echoing around the battlefield. It’s visceral and relentless and definitely not for the faint hearted. It’s what Gibson does best. Memories of Braveheart with the brutality of Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ is littered throughout. It perfectly captures Desmond’s beliefs and why Hacksaw Ridge is actually an anti-war film. Garfield provides his most human performance as Doss, giving you a hero that will live on in your memory after you leave the cinema. By the end of the film, Doss becomes a shell of himself and you can’t help but tear up knowing what he’s just gone through and done for his brothers. And the supporting cast is wonderful, especially Vince Vaughn as the no-nonsense drill sergeant and Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s estranged father.

Final Word

Putting aside the near cheesy first half which does well to build up why we should support the beliefs of Desmond Doss, this is a decade-long welcome return for Mel Gibson behind the camera. He gives us a visceral and brutal war film for the ages led by Andrew Garfield’s best performance in front of the camera.

Split (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 2/10

Synopsis

While the mental divisions of those with dissociative identity disorder have long fascinated and eluded science, it is believed that some can also manifest unique physical attributes for each personality, a cognitive and physiological prism within a single being. Though Kevin has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey, Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him – as well as everyone around him – as the walls between his compartments shatter apart.

The Review

Oh M. Night Shyamalan. What happened? You made great films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs…but then went on to make films such as Lady in the Water, The Happening, and After Earth. And don’t get me started with The Last Airbender, given you ruined my all time favourite anime series on the big screen which I still hate you for. So when I start reading from multiple respective outlets that “Split” is a return to form for Shyamalan, it got me all excited. Has he really written something again that was as unique and memorable as The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable?

No. No he has not. Not by a mile. Split is a mess of a movie. I’m angry just thinking about it while writing this review.

James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man who has suffered with dissociative identity disorder all his life, giving him the burden of having 23 distinct personalities. At the beginning of the film, we see one of his personalities, “Dennis”, kidnap three teenagers: Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). From there we get to see glimpses of his different identities, most notably Barry, a wannabe fashion designer (only appearing in front of his regular sessions with his psychiatrist), Hedwig, a little child, and Patricia, a stern and authoritative woman. It’s the personalities of Dennis and Patricia who have “worked” together to kidnap these girls as they need to ready them for the inevitable appearance of Kevin’s 24th distinct personality, known only as “The Beast”.

The film is littered with so many glaring mistakes it’s shameful, given that it doesn’t help that the plot is extremely stupid as well and can’t keep up with its own unique concept. The second half is down right ridiculous due to how clearly irrational it is.The first quarter of the film is intriguing, unravelling the mental issues Kevin has been suffering all his life, keeping you captivated to understand the purpose of why he has kidnapped these girls. But when the personality of “The Beast” begins to get mentioned, it becomes way too predictable but at the same time doesn’t realise how insulting it is that it’s ending up representing people with similar mental issues to be extremely dangerous human beings in real life.

Another is the portrayal of women in this film, notably the three kidnapped teenagers. One of the personalities, Barry, loves to watch naked girls dancing. Using that as plot point, he asks one of the girls to remove their pants, and another to remove their top. REALLY?!  It’s just an infuriating sexist excuse to ensure they remain like that for the rest of the film. Taylor-Joy’s Casey is the only girl out of the three given a back-story around an abusive past which is handled poorly. There’s even little moments in the film that proves the difference between a good director and a bad one. An example being one of the actresses having gone through a terrifying ordeal just minutes ago, has full on make-up on and looking like they’ve just got of the shower. The only saving grace and why I’m even giving any score is James McAvoy as he is incredible in this film. A performance more crazy than his turn in “Filth”. It’s just a shame his talent is wasted away here.

Final Word

Three words: Split is Shit.

T2 Trainspotting (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 7/10

Synopsis

First there was an opportunity……then there was a betrayal. Twenty years have gone by. Much has changed but just as much remains the same. Mark Renton returns to the only place he can ever call home. They are waiting for him: Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie. Other old friends are waiting too: sorrow, loss, joy, vengeance, hatred, friendship, love, longing, fear, regret, diamorphine, self-destruction and mortal danger, they are all lined up to welcome him, ready to join the dance.

The Review

21 years ago, a little film called Trainspotting got released to the UK public. Based on the same novel by Irvine Welsh, the film shocked audience members everywhere for its brutal and honest portrayal of drug addiction, but also how culturally relevant it was of that time, taking on topics such as class status, youth culture, and poverty. The first time I watched it it felt like a punch to the gut. The kinetic direction by Danny Boyle with a soundtrack for the ages lives on in your memory, rightfully placing it as one of the greatest movies of the 90s. Decades later, T2 has arrived, returning Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) back on our screens.

After the events of the first one, we see Renton has been living in Amsterdam for the past 20 years. Spud still can’t let go of his heroin addiction which is affecting his relationship with his wife and son, whilst trying to get a stable job. Sick Boy is still finding dodgy ways of making money, pursuing the life of blackmail on the side, even if he is a pub landlord. And Begbie is still in prison, serving his 25-year sentence and being denied parole.

If you’re expecting the thrill of the first one to be captured again in this sequel then think again. This is a film about memories. Memories of the past that you can’t let go. Even if years have gone by, it hasn’t healed the mistakes that you have made. The main purpose of this film is to show the toil that age takes upon you. We see flashes of the first film stitched into poignant moments reflecting the “best of times” (even with echoing snippets of the first soundtrack), but really shows that our characters aren’t young adults anymore and have wasted their lives away.  It’s also a film about friendship, having moments showing children representing our characters when they were young and how the bond between them began. It’s a more emotional film with a desperation of our “heroes” trying to hold on to what they can of their past, even if the world around them has moved on to a more modern era. It’s welcoming to see that the film embraces the changes that have occurred in the real world these last two decades.

Out of all the main characters, McGregor’s Renton is definitely the one who has aged the most, with Renton being less brash and energetic like he was in the first film. He’s ultimately seeking forgiveness, given what he did at the end of the first film has taken a toil on the rest of the people he is connected with. Miller and Carlyle are still the Sick Boy and Begbie (respectively) that we know, schemers and back stabbers. But it’s Ewen Bremner’s Spud that will carry on being in your head as you leave the cinema. He was my favourite character from the first one and still is in the second one. It’s heartbreaking to see Spud with where he is in his life, given that he is the most likeable of them all.

And that’s one of the issues I have with this film. Other than Spud, none of these characters are likeable at all by the end. You don’t care whether or not they get killed for their actions throughout the film. Another issue is the film doesn’t really have much of a plot. It really becomes some sort of a story near the final 30 minutes. Before that, its a collection of scenes put together (even if some of these scenes beautifully captures the surrealism of the first one), with an okay soundtrack, but Scotland still looks it’s beautiful self on screen.

Final Word

 T2 Trainspotting is about lost youth, broken friendships, and the acceptance of a different era. It’s a welcome return of some of the most iconic characters from film, but never captures what made the first one so unique and special.

Lion (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 8/10

Synopsis

Five-year-old Saroo gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of Kilometers across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination, and a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.

The Review

Based on an incredible true story, Six-time Oscar nominated film “Lion” is a story of two-halves: one half providing the audience the anguish, distress, and loss of losing your loved ones as a child, and the other providing the journey of vanquishing those emotions as an adult to find the ones you’ve lost through the powers of modern technology. At times incredible…harrowing…heartbreaking, but let down by a slow second hour after a masterful first.

Shot beautifully by cinematographer (and now Oscar-nominated) Greig Fraser, the film begins with the five-year old Saroo (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) and his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) climbing onto a coal-bearing train and stealing the coal so they can sell it at the local market to buy food. They are very poor, living in a mud-hut with their little sister and their mother (Priyanka Bose), who goes to work all day to break rocks at a construction site. One evening, Guddu tells Saroo that he’s been given some work to do and will be out of the home all night. Saroo wants to help so tags along with his brother. They reach the nearby train station, where Saroo becomes too tired to go on with his brother. Guddu tells Saroo to stay put on the station bench whilst he heads off to work. Its the middle of the night now and with Saroo becoming a bit anxious, he sees a dormant train nearby to search for his brother. He can’t find him but seeing that the train is not moving, he stays put in the train and falls asleep whilst waiting for Guddu’s return. And so begins a heart-breaking turn of events: the train rushing thousands of kilometres away from his village to a city where the spoken language is not Hindu, surviving alone in a city where everything around him towers above his size, and avoiding dangers that so many lost children face in India every year. With a fortunate turn of events he gets adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman & David Wenham) and the film switches to a 26-year old Saroo (played by Dev Patel) who during one friend’s house party starts having flashes of his past, and with the suggestion of his friends, uses Google Earth to retrace his steps from the flashes he is getting to find his way back home, in turn isolating everyone who cares about him (including his girlfriend Lucy, played by Rooney Mara).

It’s extraordinary to think that this is a true story and the things that real life Saroo had to face to find his Indian family. At times, “Lion” is a tear-jerker with the standard “pulling the heart strings when it needs to” moments that you would expect from a story like this. But my main issue with the film is the way each half of the film (Saroo’s younger self and his older self) is played out which imbalances the film as whole. When you are following the tale of Saroo as a five-year old (which is half of the film’s running time), it is one of the most harrowing, terrifying, and heartbreaking hour of film I have watched in the last year. This little boy all alone in a city where everything is alien to him, and where dangers lie everywhere whilst somehow trying to find his way back home is pulse racing stuff. It was like watching a Dickensian tale play out. That whole hour is anchored by THE MOST incredible child actor in the form of Sunny Pawar. It’s insane to think that this is his first film and I don’t understand how he has not been nominated for his performance at the Oscars. The film belongs to him.

The second half with the older Saroo in the shape of Dev Patel, who puts in a career-best Oscar-nominated performance, becomes so much more slower it became distracting to me. Not to say that it’s a bad half as it is interesting to see his dynamic with his adopted parents (most notably with an in-form Nicole Kidman), how he uses Google Earth to find his way back home, and the troubles his character is feeling when wondering what his Indian family must’ve been feeling when they lost him. But there is so much of looking on the internet and the clicking of the mouse that the film can drag out and the viewer can take. There are moments in this half which the older Saroo does that just annoyed me, particularly his relationship with his girlfriend (the talented Rooney Mara wasted here). Because of this, the crescendo ending didn’t have a tearful impact for me as I hoped it would.

Final Word

 An incredible true story told in two halves: A masterful and harrowing first half anchored by a powerful performance by 7-year old newcomer Sunny Pawar, let down by a slower second half, even if we get a career-best performance by Dev Patel. If you’re going to watch it with your children, you’ll end up never letting them go after watching this.

A Monster Calls (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 9/10

Synopsis

12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness, a less-than-sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and bullying classmates, finds a most unlikely ally when a Monster appears at his bedroom window. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth. Toby Kebbell plays Conor’s father, and Liam Neeson stars in performance-capture and voiceover as the nocturnally visiting Monster of the title.

The Review

For a 12-year-old child, the world should be a vast open space to explore, make new bonds, make mistakes but learn from those experiences, and above all else, be fun. But what do you do when the world around you needs you to be more than a 12 year old. The cards that you have been dealt with makes the world need you to deal with issues and situations that even an adult finds difficult to contemplate and resolve. “A Monster Calls” is a visually heart-breaking coming-of-age story about a boy whose life is crumbling before his eyes only to find solace in the form of a Monster.

It is tough being 12-year-old Conor O’Malley. His single mother has terminal cancer and he needs to make sure he can take care of her as much as possible. He goes to school like all other children but has no friends, and gets beaten and bullied every day by a few of his classmates. His father lives in the US with his new family but visits whenever he can. He doesn’t get along with his cold and strict grandmother and does not want to live with her when the inevitable happens. To top it off, he has the same nightmare every night, vivid and terrifying. He is alone. He is isolated. There is no one who can help him to take the pain away. Until one night, at 12:07am, the big yew tree that he watches in the distance outside of his window suddenly starts cracking apart to reveal a gigantic tree man who comes to his house, grabs him out of his bedroom, and tells him that he will be coming every day to tell Conor three true stories. After the stories are told, Conor will need to tell the Monster his own story: the truth behind the nightmares he has been having.

Spanish film director J.A.Bayona brings his visual flair and storytelling to this film like he did in “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible”. It’s extremely dark and gothic, echoing Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and of course the works of Tim Burton. But like the films of those two directors, we’re watching a fairy tale play out right in front of our eyes. The three stories that the Monster tells to Conor are told in gorgeous water colour animation; visual paintings that you see in your favourite children’s books come to life. I’m glad Bayona went that route as the stories are key to help drive the underlying metaphor that helps Conor accept his ultimate fate, and ensure we remember that this is still a film aimed for everyone, even if it is tackling very adult themes.

A Monster Calls has a great cast: Felicity Jones has knocked another performance out of the park here (after Rogue One just under a month ago) playing the terminally ill mother trying to stay strong in front of Conor, even if she is withering away slowly in front of his eyes. Toby Kebbell does great as the absent father who’s struggling himself trying to take care of his new family over the pond. As much as Sigourney Weaver is a great actress, she was the main flaw in this movie. Not because she acted terribly here (she does great as the strict grandmother) but she turns in a very weird English accent which I found difficult to adjust to throughout the movie, distracting the flow of the story. Ultimately the film belongs to the shoulders of the two main characters, Conor and the Monster, and they are both incredible.

The visuals of the Monster are stunning: terrifying to look at with red-hot burning eyes and a force to be reckoned with, but deep down is gentle and caring. I hope the visuals department gets the recognition it deserves come Oscars nominations. The Monster is the courage and bravery that Conor so desperately is missing in his life. The one to give him the nudge to take the next step. Kudos for casting the best voice in Hollywood and ultimate bad-ass Liam Neeson to do the voice work. Lewis MacDougall is the heart of the film and a future star in the making. The journey we take with Conor is every bit as harsh and heart-breaking for us as it is for him. MacDougall can switch from being strong when required, to being fragile and isolated by the click of a finger. He has to tackle the themes of losing a mother, the separation of his parents, bullying, having no friends, and also question his sanity when seeing the Monster. Not many adult actors can say they’ve tackled all these topics at once in a single film.

Final Word

I can’t say I’ve seen many coming-of-age films in recent times as beautiful as A Monster Calls. A heart-breaking, tear jerker of a film that uses fantastical visuals to tell a fairy tale about a little boy (with a star-turning performance by Lewis MacDougall) struggling to find his inner courage, and accepting the fate he has been dealt. Go watch it on the big screen before it goes.

Silence (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 6/10

Synopsis

Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” tells the story of two Christian missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who face the ultimate test of faith when they travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) – at a time when Christianity was outlawed and their presence forbidden.

The Review

For the past 26 years, Martin Scorsese has been trying to develop this passion project and bring it to the screens. Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, “Silence” is about the test of faith and religion, questioning what lengths you would go to maintain your spiritual relationship with a higher power, but Scorsese’s film is 30 minutes too long and over-indulgent.

The film opens in 17th century Japan, in the time of Kakure Kirishtian, where Christianity has been outlawed, Christians can only practice their beliefs in hiding, and Buddhism is the one true religion.  We see Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), captured by the Japanese army, watching in horror Japanese Christian believers being tortured for following the “wrong” faith. Cut to a few years later in Macau, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) have been informed that a letter has been discovered where it states that their mentor Ferreira has committed apostasy; he has renounced Christianity and all its beliefs. Both not believing this and worried about the state of the religion in Japan, travel to the country in secrecy with the help of a drunken Japanese, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobuzuka), only to find it is much worse than they first imagined.

Scorsese asks his viewers a lot of questions through the trials and tribulations the two Jesuit priests endure, most notably Garfield’s Rodrigues. How far will you go for your religion? Is martyrdom the true way to paradise? Will you let others suffer for your beliefs? Why isn’t God interfering and stopping this suffering? Just because you are men of God, does that mean you have the power of God within you? These questions are visually analysed through brutal, uncomfortable sequences of torture. Christians are burned alive. They are tied to crosses and placed in oceans to be killed by the waves. They are hanged upside down to bleed out slowly. It’s relentless and Scorsese wants to make sure you understand this troubled time of the religion, which is admirable and you can clearly see why he calls this his passion project.

The film however is way overindulgent and too long for its own good. The punishments are a bit too much and by the third scene of torture (and there is a lot), you just go “I get it. They are suffering. You don’t have to keep on showing this again and again”. Not because I as a viewer had reached my limits of seeing people suffer like Rodrigues did from watching this happen in front of his eyes, and I get it’s a trial of how faithful he can still be. But at some point before the 120 minute out of 160 minute mark of the film, I was ready to just switch off. It becomes too preachy, and in one particular scene, Rodrigues looks at a reflection of himself in water and sees not himself, but of Jesus. Really? After seeing all these poor Christians die in front of you and let themselves die in the name of Jesus?

The film is beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, making Japan look so harrowing at this awful time in their history. The acting is great from all involved, especially Garfield, but his Portuguese accent is very much a hit-and-miss in my book. But it’s Kichijiro, played by Kobuzuko, whose character stood out for me. A drunk Japanese with a terrible past who repeatedly comes to Garfield’s character for redemption.

Final Word

If you’re going in expecting something like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “Goodfellas”, this is not. This is a tale about the tests of faith and morality. A slow burner of a film which Scorsese has tried to make for so many decades, which at times is riveting. It asks you many ethical questions, but these questions get drowned in its very long running time and one too many torture sequences.

Manchester by the Sea (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 10/10

Synopsis

After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a spirited 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised. Bonded by the man who held their family together, Lee and Patrick struggle to adjust to a world without him.

The Review

We deal with personal tragedy differently. We can be expressive and show to the world how hurt we are, hold it all in and let it kill us slowly inside, or just brush it aside and carry on with our lives. What it does is break off a piece of our heart. Something we can never mend again. “Manchester by the Sea” is a heart-breaking portrayal of the love and loss of people that have built you into who you are, driven by a central performance for the ages.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a secluded janitor living in Quincy, Massachusetts. He quietly goes through his days fixing peoples apartments and not getting the gratitude he deserves. He shovels the snow off his front porch every day for a tiny basement apartment he lives in, and gets into bar fights at nights if anyone looks at him differently. One day while shovelling the snow away off his porch once again, he gets a phone call from a friend of past times saying that his brother Joe has had a heart attack. He rushes to his aid but is too late, as he finds that he has passed away. The family lawyer informs Lee that his brother has left him as sole guardian of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) making Lee reluctantly leave his job and come back to the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to take care of him; a town he’s a legend to the people who reside in (for all the wrong reasons)…a town he once thought he has truly escaped from.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the playwright has written a tragedy littered with black comedy that makes the mundane things in life riveting. Like life, we don’t have perfect conversations with people. It’s never a simple back and forth but rather a conversation full of hesitations, awkward silences, or those one or two “umms” in between. Lonergan has written characters that are like people in real life, and that’s what makes Manchester so special. It captures those tragic moments where it’s heart-breaking and soul destroying, but at the same time it’s never played out the way you would think it would play out like all things in real life. For example, funerals aren’t always a sombre affair. There will always be that one person who makes that one inappropriate joke. Or if someone close to you has been diagnosed with a life-changing disease, it will always bring out the dysfunctionality of any family during that tough time. These moments captured on screen, all beautifully shot, make this a rather special film because there are moments in this film that make it relatable, and credit has to be given to him for writing such a human script.

None of this can be played out without his actors and there are three particular performances that need to be called out here. Michelle Williams plays the estranged divorced-wife to Lee. We see her mostly through Lee’s flashbacks; unravelling more about why he’s become the man he is. She’s her own woman and won’t take shit from anyone, but at the same time can shatter like glass with an instant tap. It’s another wonderful addition to a plethora of past performances from Williams. Lucas Hedges, who plays Lee’s nephew Patrick, is a future star in the making. Patrick has brushed off the death of his father like it was yesterday’s news and wants to carry on life like usual. He’s got other teenage problems to worry about, like girls and his band. He doesn’t want his uncle there to take care of him. He can take care of himself but doesn’t realise how much his uncle needs him to keep sane, and without Hedges, Affleck couldn’t give half of the performance that he gives in this film.

And what a performance. Back in October in 2016, when I first saw this with my brother at a gala screening in the BFI London Film Festival, we agreed that Casey Affleck should be rewarded with every acting accolade there possibly was for his performance as Lee Chandler (a role which Matt Damon was originally cast for). This is a masterclass in acting. He portrays a man who’s been in so much pain for such a long time, it’s become the armour of his life. He’s become someone who knows nothing else but sadness, so much so that his reaction to those moments are…well there is no reaction. He walks hunched like all the troubles in the world are on his shoulders. When people compliment him for doing something, he brushes it aside. Affleck and Lonergan unravel Lee through flashbacks, letting us understand more about the man who used to be the once heart of the town. When that big reveal happens of why Lee is like the man he is now, it’s a silent gut-wrenching and harrowing moment. And one scene that will surely be used in acting classes in years to come, the long overdue conversation between himself and his ex-wife is a tear-jerker, showcasing two actors at the top of their game.

Final Word

A film that portrays life and tragedy at its most genuine, and it’s most raw. Like life, it shows you can always find the funny side of things in those moments of sadness and heartbreak. Lonergan has created a film that will be studied for its purest portrayal of everyday life, with a flawless performance by Casey Affleck. It will make you cry (well it made two grown men cry).

La La Land (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 10/10

Synopsis

Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Damien Chazelle, La La Land tells the story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.

The Review

2016 was to many people a terrible year. The political landscape changed (we don’t know if it was for better or worse just yet). Many of our role models that we grew up watching or listening to had passed away. For me it was 50/50: alright first half, amazing second half. Within that amazing second half, in the evening of Friday October 7th at the Odeon Leicester Square, I was lucky enough to grab a ticket to the headline gala screening of “La La Land” at the BFI London Film Festival. The seat was terrible (on the side and way up high) but I didn’t care. That was just a tiny footnote of the 130 minutes of what I had watched. Because what I watched wasn’t just a film, it was something special. And after 3 months since that evening, it has finally been released this week here in the UK, and what a way to kick off 2017. La La Land is a musical masterpiece. A joyous, modern classic. Be prepared to read a lot of gushing below.

Mia (Emma Stone) has moved to LA to become an aspiring actress. Her only form of income is working as a barista in a café located at a studio lot. She goes to audition after audition trying to get that big break. But she gets rejected…a lot. And it isn’t just a simple rejection. At times they are brutal. Can she carry on taking this rejection any longer and become the actress she dreams to be? Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a talented but struggling jazz pianist. A man who feels that the art of jazz is dying and it’s his mission to save it. But his only source of income is playing Christmas tunes at restaurants or being hired by cover bands to play at costume parties. Can he achieve his dream of being the manager of his own jazz club one day?

It’s a pretty simple romantic story of two struggling performers who end up having a chance meeting one evening, and together aspire each other to follow their dreams and never give up. What’s so special about that? You and I have seen that a million times on screen. But if it’s written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the man who wrote and directed the sublime “Whiplash” (a film which is in the complete opposite spectrum to La La Land), and something he has been trying to get made for 6 years, you know there’s going to be a twist. From the moment the film opens to the moment it ends, it’s like watching a beautiful painting. The screen is full of gorgeous colours, the set designs are eye-popping, and Los Angeles has never looked so sun-soaked stunning on film. It’s a modern film but Chazelle pays so much homage to the golden era of Hollywood in the 30s’, 40s’ and 50s’ it feels nostalgic. The time when Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers were dancing and singing their way into the hearts of viewers with films like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Top Hat”. But its most notable influence is “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by Jacques Demy, given the fusion of realism and dream like sequences in both.

Now in their third film together, Stone and Gosling are definitely this generation’s classic film couple. I couldn’t think of anyone else more suitable to play the role of Mia and Sebastian. It’s their career-defining performances, especially from Emma Stone. Gosling is funny and charming throughout the film, but Stone gives us the rainbow of acting as her character goes through everything a person does to try to make their dreams come true. Of course we see them singing and dancing throughout the film but they’re not the best singers and dancers in the world. And they’re not supposed to be. These characters are people who are trying to achieve their dreams, their falling in love, and going through heart break like all of us are every day in our lives. Chazelle makes sure he wants the viewers to feel that this is realistic and something that they could see themselves being in and not be unfathomable, but also at the same time concoct up something so extravagant to express how they feel in particular moments. For example, the moment you fall in love feels like you’re literally dancing in the stars, or when you feel lost, the world around you literally feels like it’s stopped. It’s breath-taking to watch (credit needs to also be given to cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross) but at only 31, Chazelle has stamped his mark on Hollywood as one of the best visionary directors out there.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the key component of the film, the music. Justin Hurwitz has written and composed a beautiful soundtrack with some of the catchiest songs you could find in a musical. From elaborate orchestrations to just a simple piano solo, it weaves its way through your ears, winning your heart instantly. It’s got big production numbers and ballads that any classic musical would have but enough that wouldn’t put you off. It’s perfect for the (at times insane) choreographed dance numbers this film has (bravo Mandy Moore!), and has two sequences both at the start and the end of the films that should be preserved in the historical vaults of the best moments from film that has ever graced our screens. They pay for the ticket price alone as it’s unlike anything you have ever seen.

Final Word

It will make you smile. It will make you cry. It will make you believe in Hollywood making great musicals again. It will make people who hate musicals start loving them. But above all else, it will make you a believer. Make you believe that you can achieve your dreams. This is for the hopeful. This is for the imaginers. This is a love letter for the era gone by. La La Land is a masterpiece that everyone should watch…again…and again…and again.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 9/10

Synopsis

From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

The Review

If you’re a Star Wars fan like I am, you already knew the ending to Rogue One before you had gone to the cinema to watch it. It was in the second paragraph of the opening crawl to “A New Hope”: During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR. Director Gareth Edwards, with a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and screenplay from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, set out to show how a brave few from the Rebel Alliance went on a mission to successfully steal the plans of the Death Star, which ended up fuelling the story of Episode 4 which came out 39 years ago. With such sacred ground to tread on, Disney/Lucasfilm definitely require this to be a success, as it is the first of three spin-off Star Wars films ( or “Star Wars Anthology” to give the correct term) which are away from the core saga story fuelling this series. Is this “experiment” a success? Did the much-publicised re-shoots after the film originally completed show gaping holes? Well…welcome to the best Star Wars film since “The Empire Strikes Back”.

The film sees our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), not a Rebel Alliance member but a criminal, held captive in an Imperial prison. She is quickly broken out and rescued by Rebels and taken to the rebel base where Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), the Rebel Leader, asks her help to track down her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) in exchange for her freedom. Galen Erso is a renowned scientist who has been forced by the Imperial Army into working on building a super weapon, a planet-killer which must be stopped from completing. And so begins Jyn’s journey. With the help of intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a re-programmed Imperial Droid in the name of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), they will go on to meet the rest of their crew (Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)) who will ultimately define the future of the galaxy.

Like all the films that had preceded it, it opens with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and you already feel you’re gonna be watching a Star Wars film. But that relaxed consistent feel you have from one of these movies is taken away from you straight away during the opening of the film. This isn’t your “standard” Star Wars film. There is no opening crawl, which the series has become famous for. You go straight into a view of space, a space ship, a planet, and the film is set. There are flashbacks and flash forwards, never before seen in the seven films that came before it. The Storm Troopers feel like the ruthless soldiers they should be. The Death Star has never been such a threat as it has in this film. The force is more of a tool of faith, hope, and religion than cool Jedi tricks. This is a dark, gritty, unforgiving Star Wars world we’ve never seen on the big screen. A welcome change to what we’re used to as a viewer but on the flip side, makes this a bigger threat to our heroes.

The journey they take is violent and dangerous, and with Gareth Edwards’ direction it truly is astonishing to watch. Rogue One was originally pitched as a heist movie when it was first announced a few years ago. This is not a heist movie, this is a war movie. This is a world where our heroes will have to do questionable things if they want to gain the upper hand over the Imperial Empire. This is a world where none of the main characters is safe. The film has a running time of over 2 hours but it never feels like that. Yes it is slow at the beginning, but it’s needed if you’re having to introduce so many new characters, give them back stories, and make the viewers like them all in the space of the first 45 minutes. If we look at Rogue One in three acts, the first two acts do tremendously well with those introductions, setting up the story, and why we should really care about the mission. When the third act begins in the planet Scarif, the last 45 minutes is the most awe-inspiring thing you will see on screen this whole year; a proper “war” within Star Wars and ranking up there as one of the best war sequences period. Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who has made this film beautiful to look at) have definitely taken inspirations from other films to show the merciless acts within wars of the past shown on screen, such as the beach invading sequence in Saving Private Ryan as an example. The camera work is guerrilla-style, making you feel like a soldier on the ground with the rest of the characters on the tropical beaches of Scarif, a member of the public caught within a fight between the two factions on the dirty streets of Jedha, or a passenger on the X-Wing fighting above the skies and in space against Tie-Fighters. Its dizzying and wonderful, and you just can’t help but smile like a little kid at times. To top that, we have the most jaw-dropping two minute sequence near the end of the film which in my opinion should be equally ranked as the greatest Star Wars scene with the Vader/Luke moment from Empire.

Felicity Jones has the added-on pressure of carrying this stand alone film on her shoulders. I mean her face is the most prominent feature on the posters of this film. Even though the Star Wars universe is male-dominated, what it can do well is provide strong female characters like Princess Leia and Rey. Well, Jones can definitely have that sigh of relief because she makes Jyn Erso so fascinating to watch. She made me root for her from the moment she was on screen. Jones makes Jyn strong, lethal, someone who will not take s**t from anyone, but at the same time so vulnerable and lost in deciding her true calling. Luna is charismatic as Cassian and a great male lead to bounce off of Jones, and Wen is great as a no-nonsense mercenary. But the true standouts and the characters which I see will become fan favourites in the future are Chirrut and K-2SO, played by Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk respectively. Chirrut is a blind warrior who is the most Jedi-like character within the film because of his strong devotion of the force and the way he can fend for himself. He is the most rational and human of all our heroes and Yen delivers that presence with ease. Tudyk is down-right hilarious as the motion-captured K-2SO, making his blunt deliveries so funny and instantly quotable. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, the villain of the film, owns it as a classic Star Wars Imperial villain: hungry for power and will do anything to climb the ranks in the fleet. The other biggie, the much talked about return of Darth Vader (voiced with gravitas again by James Earl Jones) has very little screen time, but the screen time he is given is so effective and shocking, there is no questioning on why he is the greatest screen villain of all time.

Rogue One isn’t by all means perfect. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi is not fully fleshed out on why he defected from the Imperial ranks which made it hard to fully invest in him. Forrest Whitaker’s very over-the-top acting as Clone Wars veteran-turned-extremist Saw Gerrera is extremely annoying to the point its laughable. After watching the film twice now and listening to the score on Spotify, Michael Giacchino’s score is not memorable at all. In every Star Wars film, there is a stand-out piece, whether its “Duel of the Fates” in Episode One, or “The Imperial March” from Episode Five, or even Rey’s Theme from last year’s Force Awakens, but there really isn’t one here at all. But kudos has to be given to him for a) trying to followup John Williams’ masterful pieces, and b) creating a score within four weeks after the original composer of the film was let go.

ILM should be given every technical plaudit there is come awards season because the work they do in this film is stunning. There are times where I am questioning what is practical and what is CGI, especially with K-2SO. And there are a few moments within this film, which I will not spoil here, that truly astounds you on how far the world has come with computer generated effects. As a side note, I’ve watched this in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D brings nothing to the table other than the standard unwelcome dark filter once you put on those glasses.

Final Word

The big question before the film was released was whether any casual film goer can watch this, or whether it’s solely aimed for the fans? To me, it has the right balance. The fan service in here is so pleasing, hardcore fans will be smiling with joy with the amazing easter eggs laid out throughout the film (many from “A New Hope” and surprisingly, the cartoon series Star Wars Rebels). But for anyone wanting to see a film with the right balance of joy and heartbreak, wonder and spectacle, Rogue One does it well…really well, and gives me faith with the other spin-offs planned, justifying why we are getting a Star Wars film every year now for the next four years. What a way to end 2016!