Films

Ramblings about Films – whether it’s new, reviews or something else.

A is for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who’s idolised Jesse James (Brad Pitt) since childhood, tries hard to join the reforming gang of the Missouri outlaw, but gradually becomes resentful of the bandit leader.

The way this film unfolds is interesting. It’s narrated by Hugh Ross and with his dulcet tones and the way this film is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, it almost feels unreal. Like this tale of the legendary outlaw is a myth or legend and even as you get to know more of the man, everyone’s reactions to him and the aura he has makes him seem like he’s more than just a man.

The cinematography in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford really is gorgeous. Couple it with a score that’s often haunting, it makes the wide-open plains of the Midwest beautiful and lonely.

The cast is great, with the likes of Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell give strong performances throughout. However, naturally there are few female characters here, but Mary-Louise Parker does what she can with what she’s given as James’ wife. Casey Affleck plays the many sides to Robert Ford very well. The jealousy, the bitterness, the idealisation, the nativity – he’s unsettling to watch due to his obsession with James and by the end of it, you find you may have more sympathy for him than a lot of the people who surround him do. Affleck is great but it’s Brad Pitt who is truly mesmerising. He is fantastic as Jesse James. There’s an underlying tension nearly every time he’s on screen due to his intensity that’s simmering beneath a calm exterior. It’s because James is so smart and paranoid that even when characters don’t have something to hide, they act as if they do.

While there are gunfights and a train robbery, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is more of a slow character study of the two titular roles. That means it can be a bit hard to get into to begin with, but it’s well worth sticking with it and fully immersing yourself into this snapshot in time.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow but thoughtful take on a legendary outlaw and the man who killed him. 4/5.

REVIEW: Strokes of Genius (2018)

Documentary that intertwines Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s lives with their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.

With the world as it is at the minute I, like probably so many other people, turn to the media that brings me comfort. Like all other sporting activities, tennis has had to be put on hold, but there is one tennis documentary that I’ve loved since the first time I watched it so that’s what I found myself watching as a form of escapism.

Strokes of Genius looks at the lives and careers of Federer and Nadal, both individually and how they relate to one another. The 2008 Wimbledon Final is used as an example of what makes them two of the greatest players ever and shows how it is still considered to be the pinnacle of tennis matches. The narrative of the documentary is built around the match and while the match is intersected with footage and information about Nadal and Federer’s childhoods, and there is input from their families, friends, and other tennis professionals, the tension still builds as the match goes to five sets.

Naturally Strokes of Genius will appeal more to tennis fans, and to Federer and Nadal fans specifically, but it’s also a love letter to great sporting rivals. How those rivals can shape someone’s career and life, make them a better player, a better fighter, and the unique relationship two rivals have. While the Federer and Nadal rivalry is the focus of Strokes of Genius, it also looks at the Borg and McEnroe rivalry and the rivalry between Evert and Navratilova. All four of them appear in the documentary and it’s fascinating to see how they feel about each other and their legacy as rivals.

There are so many great quotes in Strokes of Genius about both players, from each other and from the various people featured in the documentary. But I feel this quote from Roger Federer’s fitness coach, Pierre Paganini, sums up the two men and why their matches (both generally and when they are against one another) have always been so interesting and entertaining to watch; “Roger is an artist who knows how to fight whereas Nadal is a fighter who knows how to be an artist as well.”

Strokes of Genius really is an enjoyable an informative documentary. Every time I watch it it takes me back to the summer of 2008, watching that epic match, and it reminds me how much I love and appreciate both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and all they have achieved, individually and together. 5/5.

The Blogging from A-Z Challenge – 2020 Edition

It’s nearly April so that can only mean one thing – the A-Z in April Blogging Challenge! The challenge is to post on your blog every day in April except Sundays. Not including Sundays, there are twenty-six days which matches with the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. That means on 1st April you write something beginning with the letter A, on the 2nd something beginning with the letter B and so on and so forth.

This will be the seventh year in a row I’ve taken part in this challenge and I hope to complete it once again. It’s become almost a tradition to do this challenge and I hope I continue to have ideas for it as the years go by.

This year all my twenty-six posts will be film reviews. More specifically reviews of some of the eighty plus films I have unwatched on DVD and Blu-ray. You can have a sneak peek at what some of the films might be by checking out what’s on this Letterboxd list. I’ve had some of these films for so long, some probably for over five years, so this is just the push I need to finally watch them. For the letters where I don’t have a film on DVD or Blu-ray that begins with that letter, I shall turn to the likes of Netflix to find a film.

In April I will still be posting my weekly book reviews as usual. I’m not sure if there will be “bonus” film reviews that are more modern releases/films I’ve watched that aren’t for this challenge, it’ll depend how I feel and how I keep up with the posts/reviews.

Because watching films and then reviewing them takes more time than the average post I’ve done for this challenge previously (especially as some of my unwatched films are really long!) I’ve been somewhat organised and have already scheduled thirteen posts (which is half of them!) and plan to have more scheduled before April arrives. Unfortunately, those thirteen aren’t the first thirteen days of April because I’m someone who has to be in the mood for potentially more serious or heavier films and I just don’t make things easy for myself.

Hopefully having so many posts scheduled already means I won’t be rushing to get the next post out and that I will be more active in visiting and commenting on other people’s blogs during the challenge.

There’s still time to sign up for the A to Z in April Challenge. I do recommend it; it definitely makes you stretch yourself to think of something for every letter and it encourages you to be organised – something I’m always trying to be better at when it comes to my blog.

REVIEW: The Kitchen (2019)

When their gangster husbands are sent to prison, their wives continue to operate their rackets and under their hand the business thrives.

The production design, hair and costuming firmly places The Kitchen in the time it’s set; late 1970s Hell Kitchen, New York. The violence is often bloody and shocking, and events seem to happen very quickly, there are a few montages complimented by an iconic song from the era. It would’ve been nice if some plot points could’ve had more time to evolve but on the whole the twists and turns work.

The three leads in The Kitchen are all great and while these characters are (for the most part) all working towards the same goal, they each have their own take on the situation and different strengths and weaknesses. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) is a stay at home mother and is the one with the family connections to the Irish Mob. She’s the most level-headed but also the most compassionate which can lead to her downfall. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) has always felt like the outsider and never accepted by the family, leading her to want more money and power than the family could ever dream of. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) has been beaten by her husband and refuses to be the victim anymore.

The support network these three women have for one another is wonderful, but that doesn’t mean they always see eye on how to run this business. The Kitchen does a great job at handling the core theme of “women in a man’s world” and how they can be as ruthless and as smart as their male counterparts, but also have different ideas on how to take on the same challenge.

McCarthy is the standout. When she has a dramatic role, she can sink her teeth into she can really bring out a brilliant performance. Kathy is often seen as the more mumsy of the three, but McCarthy does a great job at showing that inner steel and determination as she becomes more comfortable with the power and status she wields.

The Kitchen is engaging, surprising and has a trio of lead performances that really pull you into the story. It’s great to see a gangster movie with the women at front and centre. 4/5.

REVIEW: Ophelia (2018)

Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) comes of age as lady-in-waiting for Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), and her singular spirit captures Hamlet’s (George MacKay) affections. As lust and betrayal threaten the kingdom, Ophelia finds herself trapped between true love and controlling her own destiny.

Ophelia, as you might’ve guessed, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet but putting Ophelia front and centre. As someone who only knew the bare minimum of what happened in Hamlet, you don’t need to know the story before watching Ophelia, though I’m sure if you did know it you might notice more of the things they put a spin on.

The performances in Ophelia are not that great, and in some cases are just bad. The likes of Watts and Clive Owen (who plays Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius) are fine but never really go full throttle on inhabiting characters have the potential to be interesting and entertaining. MacKay and Ridley have very little chemistry, and unfortunately Ridley’s performance leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, there’s some scenes that are supposed to be big, emotional moments based on other characters reactions and the score, but from Ridley’s performance you wouldn’t really think Ophelia is that affected by what is going on.

The period costumes and setting all look lovely. The costumes and makeup during a costume ball sequence are especially interesting, with Ridley having blue face paint around her eyes, contrasting with her red hair. Also, in another party scene, George MacKay has a lot of eyeliner on which is certainly a look.

The 1 hour 40-minute runtime does end up dragging a bit. The plot meanders along slowly and while every effort is made to put Ophelia front and centre of the action and in charge of her own destiny, in reality she’s still a victim of circumstance and the men in her life – Hamlet, Claudius, her father – still often have more power over her life than she does.

The finale is somewhat satisfying as all the tensions between characters reaches boiling point and the threat of conflict with a neighbouring country comes to fruition. However, it feels almost too little too late and it doesn’t have the emotional heft that you’d want in an epic finale.

Ophelia is a bit of a dull spin on a classic story. While the idea of having this story told by a female character who is unfairly treated in the source material, the end product isn’t as interesting as that scenario. 2/5.

REVIEW: Onward (2020)

When Ian (Tom Holland) turns sixteen, his mum (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift left to him and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) by their late father. When the magic spell their dad left them goes awry, the two brothers have to go on a quest to finish the spell so they can bring him back to spend a day with him.

The world the characters inhabit is one where magical, mythical creatures have forgotten about magic, and instead have evolved to be like us, using cars and electricity and the latest gadgets. Ian and his family are elves (though to be honest I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be until a character referred to them as elves) and there’s centaurs, ogres, pixies, unicorns and everything else you could imagine. A Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) is very funny and a spin off all about her would be welcomed.

The character dynamics are good, especially the relationship between Ian and Barley. People who have a close sibling relationship, especially with an older brother, are likely to appreciate it a lot. However, when there’s conflict between them, it’s resolved very quickly, and it doesn’t leave enough time for the things they say to one another to really sink in or have much of a consequence.

However, while this pseudo-magical world is interesting, it’s not fully utilised for the first half of the film. It’s a great setting and a great what-if scenario but it’s never explored to its full potential. While naturally characters and their relationships should take priority, the world they inhabit should have more of an impact on them than this world does. The animation in Onward is beautiful and the action-packed finale is entertaining, but what got the characters to that point was a bumpy ride.

Onward is sweet and fun but it lacks both the magical spark a story like this really should have, and that spark of Pixar magic Pixar films usually have as well. 3/5.

REVIEW: Dark Waters (2019)

Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defence attorney, takes on an environmental lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.

Dark Waters is based on a true story and that makes this film and what the characters go through, all the more amazing and terrifying.

Rob Bilott is contacted by a farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows keep dying, leading him to believe there’s something in the water from a chemical company who has a landfill nearby. This is where Bilott’s investigation starts but over time it becomes clear that it is just one part of a decade’s long conspiracy. It’s like he falls down a rabbit hole and each piece of information he uncovers is as shocking as the last, especially the lengths to which the company goes to to cover things up, and how deadly their practices are.

Something that Dark Waters does well is show how much time and effort it takes to put together this case and get justice for those affected by the pollution. Bilott’s quest for justice takes up years of his life and the scenes of him going through hundreds of boxes of documents is just as gripping as when he’s in court or trying to convince his boss that they should continue with the lawsuit. Dark Waters is also the epitome of one of my favourite things (is it a trope? I don’t think so) in films – competent people being good at their jobs. It’s Bilott’s resilience and ability to think outside the box that allows him to make so much headway even when everything is stacked against him.

All the performances are great here and many of the actors have at least one inspiring or impressive speech. Ruffalo is brilliant as a man who puts everything on the line, including his career and his homelife, to do the right thing, and continuing to fight even when this huge corporation with all their money and power throws so many hurdles in his way to try and stop him. While Dark Waters is definitely Ruffalo’s movie, the supporting cast are all terrific to. Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman deserve a mention but it’s Anne Hathaway that stood out in the supporting cast. She plays Rob Bilott’s wife and while naturally she has a smaller role, it is still an important one. These court cases and the investigation takes up Rob’s life for years, and it’s important to see how this affects his family, and while his wife is understanding of why he has to do this, she is the one keeping everything together.

It’s easy to compare Dark Waters to the likes of Spotlight and Erin Brockovich; Spotlight for Ruffalo and the investigative aspect and Erin Brockovich for the one person fighting against the big corporation. Dark Waters is easily as good as those two films, but it also stands on its own merits. It’s an engaging investigative movie where unfortunately you’re left feeling equal parts stunned and unsurprised that corporate corruption and greed can be so powerful.

It’s a film that needs to be seen, because the products that this company makes are just everyday things that are in everyone’s homes, and I for one was unaware of what the chemicals they produced could do, and how prevalent they are. 5/5.