3 stars

X is for XXY (2007)

Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Fifteen-year-old Alex (Inés Efron) is intersex and is living as a girl, but she and her family begin to wonder if she’s emotionally a boy when another teenager’s sexually advances bring things to a head.

XXY is set in a small coastal town in Uruguay and unfortunately, a lot of people there are closed minded about people who are different. Alex and her family have kept the fact she’s intersex a secret but as everything comes to a head, the cruelty of others is revealed and it is uncomfortable to watch.

XXY is a slow, thoughtful film. Many times the camera lingers on Alex, her body or just her face, as she wanders alone. The coastal setting with the beach and the stormy sea fits the tone of the film as Alex often feels alone as no one can know how she feels, even her parents who want to look out for her. Her father (Ricardo Darín) is especially kind and protective and he puts in a lot of time and research into figuring out how best to support Alex as she tries to decide who she wants to be.

Inés Efron gives a brilliant performance as Alex. Showing the hope and fear she feels, as well as her rebellious nature. The chemistry between her and Martín Piroyansky who plays Alvaro, the son of her mother’s friends who comes to stay, is there but it’s interesting. The dynamics between their two characters are constantly shifting as they get to know one another and make a connection that neither of them was expecting.

XXY is a sincere take on the struggles a young person can face when figuring out who they are, and if they’re OK with that. The haunting score and stark setting makes XXY feel bleak but there are moments of happiness and hope their for Alex and her family too. 3/5.

V is for Vertigo (1958)

Former police detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) is suffering from acrophobia and vertigo when he’s recruited by an old friend to investigate the strange activities of his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), but as he follows her movements Scottie becomes dangerously obsessed with her.

My second Alfred Hitchcock film and perhaps one of his most popular films – or at least one that has an easily recognisable name. Again, I knew nothing about the plot of Vertigo going into it, and I think that worked in the films favour. Though to be honest, I’m not sure how I’d describe the plot as it can get very convoluted and hard to follow.

The colours in Vertigo are beautiful. San Francisco looks stunning and there are scenes where the camera really shows off the city. There’s a lot of pastel colours in the clothes and the sets, and then there’s neon lights from hotel signs, they should clash but they don’t. A dream sequence with animation is unexpected but it’s vibrant and unsettling, really making an impact even though it’s pretty short. The “vertigo effect” is impressive and unnerving. It puts you in Scottie’s shoes when he’s at his most vulnerable.

Scottie is an interesting character. Before he starts investigating his old friend’s wife, he seems like an enthusiastic person, fun to be around even while he’s struggling with his newfound condition. He has his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) to help him, whether that’s just to be someone to talk to or to help him with a case. She’s bubbly and smart and is clearly in love with him, but he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. And once he becomes caught up in Madeline Elster, all he shows her is indifference which she doesn’t deserve.

As Scottie’s obsession gets more and more out of hand, the tension amps up through the score and Scottie’s behaviour. He changes as he becomes entangled in Madeline. He becomes a strong and frightening force as his passion overtakes logic and it’s uncomfortable to watch.

While the two-hour runtime of Vertigo seemed to drag at times, the ending seemed rushed as everything was wrapped up. It also seemed to have a non-ending, leaving me with more questions and wanting to know what happened to these characters next. As Vertigo is only the second Hitchcock film I’ve watched, I don’t know if this is a Hitchcock thing, or is just pure chance that both Vertigo and Family Plot left me feeling this way.

Vertigo is an eerie film with a couple of brilliant performances from Kim Novak. Her different mannerisms were fantastic, even if she didn’t have perfect chemistry with Stewart – though that might be down to how much older than her he looked. The mystery was complicated, and as the film progressed I found myself caring more about the women in Scottie’s life than the man himself, even if he was possibly driving himself to madness. 3/5.

T is for Troy (2004)

When Trojan Prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) falls in love with Helen of Sparta (Diane Kruger) and brings her home with him, it plunges the two kingdoms into war. Paris’s older brother Hector (Eric Bana) leads Trojan’s armies, while undefeatable warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt) fights with Greece’s forces, led by the power-hungry Agamemnom (Brian Cox).

The scale of Troy is epic. The costumes, makeup and set design should all be commended. Not sure how much of the setting of Troy is practical vs computer generated, but it still looks impressive over fifteen years later. However, the battles are hit and miss in terms of how easy to follow they are. The big battles need some more wide shots because when you see the scope of it all it is spectacular. The one on one fights though are tense and thrilling and the actors really look like they’re trying to take each other’s heads off.

There are a lot of characters in Troy, and with all the names that often have multiple syllables it’s difficult to keep track of who is who. It’s easier to refer to characters by the actor who plays them than anything else and, whether it’s down to script or performance (or both), a lot of them aren’t that memorable or are well-rounded characters.

The dialogue is really rather clunky thanks to there needing to be so much exposition to set up all of these characters and their motivations. Some of the performances seem a little wooden at times too – Orlando Bloom being the main culprit of this. The chemistry between key characters isn’t always there either, making it more difficult to invest in them and their relationship.

For instance, the one between Briseis (Rose Byrne) and Achilles is framed as a big romantic love story thanks to the score and the dialogue. But It’s often uncomfortable to watch as Byrne and Pitt do not have any chemistry and the fact that, while he says otherwise, for all intents and purposes Briseis is his captive. It makes an unpleasant power dynamic. However, the chemistry between Bloom and Bana as the two Princes of Troy is great. Kudos to the casting department because they really do look like brothers, and they work really well as brothers too.

Troy is a decent action film if you enjoy the whole sand and sandals, epic ancient history battles kind of thing. Though it’s long and drags a bit at times, on the whole it’s an engaging watch, especially if you don’t know the whole story of Troy. 3/5.

O is for Outlander (2008)

During the reign of the Vikings, Kainan (Jim Caviezel) a man from a far-off world, crash lands on Earth bringing with him a deadly alien predator known as the Moorwen. On Earth he meets King Hrothgar (John Hurt) and his people who he tries to convince that something a lot deadlier than warring tribes is out to get them.

Outlander is one of those films I’d seen pop up on Netflix for ages before I finally decided to watch it, and admittedly I thought it’d be pretty rubbish based on the premise. I mean, guy from a place with far superior technology has to deal with primitive Vikings? It sounded cringey. Luckily, instead of being condescending towards the townspeople, Kainan is actually a pretty chill and adaptable guy and looks for a way to work with these people, even if they don’t believe him straightaway.

While you might think that there may be humour derived from the culture clash between Kainan and the Viking people, that’s not the case at all. In fact, Outlander is serious and gets straight down to the action and it is often bloody action too.

The tension in Outlander comes from two places, the suspense of waiting to see the Moorwen and the conflict between Kainan and warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston). The two of them butt heads over how to deal with the threat facing them all as they struggle to trust one another. Surprisingly, while Wulfric is set up as an antagonist for Kainan the film does allow him some growth and their dynamic becomes interesting. The film makes you wait to see the Moorwen, showing you glimpses of the large creature and flashes of light as Kainan and the others go hunting. It also throws in a few red herrings as well, making you wait even longer for the big reveal.

The blend of sci-fi monster and Middle Age aesthetic works surprisingly well, and though sometimes the film does drag, Outlander ends up being an unexpectedly engaging monster movie. 3/5.

L is for Let the Right One In (2008)

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), an overlooked and bullied twelve-year-old, finds companionship and revenge through newcomer Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl with a deadly secret – she’s a vampire.

Vampire stories are nothing new. With a lot of the folklore surrounding vampires so well known, it is difficult to put an inventive spin on what anyone would know about a vampire. Let the Right One In does do some interesting and different things with the lore, for instance how vampires cannot entire a property without being invited, and this leads to some tense scenes as you’re unsure if the person who entered is friend or foe.

The setting of Let the Right One In is a snowy small town in early 1980s Sweden, where everything feels grubby and depressing. The school, Oskar’s homelife and even the snow-covered playground outside his apartment building where he first meets Eli, feel isolated and unwelcoming.

This fits into how both Oskar and Eli are feeling. They are both social outcasts, albeit for different reasons, and in a cruel, hateful world they find solace in each other. Their relationship is so full of childlike innocence – even though Eli is a lot older than she looks – but there’s also anger bubbling away in them both. The two young leads give great performances, but their characters were difficult to connect to as they were both so (justifiably) reserved.

There’s a group of adult side characters who become entangled in Eli’s life, but they are not particularly interesting and while they allow some more of the vampire myth to be explored (there’s an interesting scene featuring cats) they also feel somewhat pointless as it’s difficult to care about them.

The pacing in Let the Right One In is very strange. For the most part it’s very slow and, with the score and cinematography, very atmospheric but that’s not quite enough to keep you fully engaged. Everything snowballs at the end and that sudden shift of gear is a little jarring.

I had heard a lot of good things about Let the Right One In and I’m pleased I’ve now seen it. However, unfortunately it didn’t blow me away and perhaps it could not live up to the hype. 3/5.

J is for Jarhead (2005)

True story about US marine sniper Anthony Swofford’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) experience in the Gulf War. As he and his unit are stationed in the Persian Gulf for months on end with little chance of seeing any action, he struggles with thoughts that his girlfriend back home is cheating on him and his mental state deteriorates.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a fantastic lead and Swofford is a compelling character that your eyes are drawn to whenever he’s on screen. The moments of intensity when he loses it are as scary as the dead look in his eyes when his superior Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) is reprimanding him. The supporting cast are great too which include Peter Sarsgaard as Swofford’s spotter and Lucas Black as a marine who criticises the politics of the conflict and the often-faulty equipment they are given.

Seeing how Swofford and the others cope, or don’t, with the monotony of waiting in a desert for something to do and how their idea of war is vastly different to the reality, is interesting. Especially as even if you see no or little action, your mind and body are still almost constantly focussed in order to react at any second if needed.

That being said, it’s difficult to figure out what this film is trying to say and who you’re supposed to be sympathising with. So many of the men are eager to kill an unknown enemy and are desperate to see action. It’s a bloodlust that’s uncomfortable to watch but when you see the environment that that attitude is bred in it’s hard to see how anyone wouldn’t go almost feral. The arduous bootcamp, where superior officers belittle, abuse and yell at the soldiers, forces the men to develop thick skin and a whole other way at looking at the world.

It’s understandable that those on the frontline need to be tough and capable, but to the extents that the men are pushed to are debatable. Plus, it’s like those in charge whose rhetoric is treated as gospel don’t learn that their actions have consequences, and superior officers are almost surprised when their men act out due to boredom or depravity.

No soldier deserves the abuse they receive by their superior officers or their fellow soldiers. And there’s no denying the effects of war, whether they see action or not, can be incredibly mentally taxing. However, are these all good men who are mistreated or lied to by the system they joined up to? Or do some of them use their training and perceived superiority in order to act however they wish? Perhaps in some cases it’s both, and maybe it’s a good thing that Jarhead leaves that decision up to the viewer.

Jarhead is a well-shot film with good performances. It can be tense and unsettling and the way it gives an unflinching look at a soldier’s life during war can make you take a long, hard look at the military system as a whole. 3/5.

G is for Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

When his mother Christiane (Katrin Saß) wakes from an eighth month coma, Alex (Daniel Brühl) does everything he can to keep her from learning that her beloved nation of East Germany as she knew it has disappeared, because a sudden shock may kill her.

The premise of Good Bye Lenin! sounds farcical but it works. Alex’s mother falls into a coma before the Berlin Wall came down and the unification of Germany. Alex, his sister Ariane (Maria Simon} and the rest of the population of what was East Germany has had months to get used to the changes – the good and the bad. So, when their mother wakes up and Alex comes up with the scheme, their friends and neighbours get in on the act of keeping up the charade.

Being set in 1990, it’s interesting to see how such a change in society and politics can happen so quickly, and how people can get used to the new normal relatively easy too. It’s the little details like how Alex has to re-jar all the food that’s now from international producers into jars with labels that his mother would know.

Saß and Brühl have a believable mother/son relationship and Daniel Brühl gives a great performance (when doesn’t he?), especially when things start to get out of hand, and he struggles to hold everything together.

Good Bye Lenin! is a sweet and funny family drama. The humour of the situation works well, and the comedic moments never takes away from the more quieter, dramatic moments. It has a real sense of community as neighbours help Christiane live out the past. But really, it’s a film about the love a son has for his mother, and how he will tell the most elaborate lie to keep her safe. 3/5.