4 stars

REVIEW: The Great Debaters (2007)

At the Wiley College Texas in 1935 Professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) who inspired his students and with the school’s debate team, went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship.

The Great Debaters is one of those inspiring films that though the characters go through their trials ultimately there’s hope for a better tomorrow. It’s the brilliant yet politically radical Tolson that helps his students finds their voices and put together their arguments. He’s the leading force for this team but, through his guidance, each member of the debate team finds their own way.

Set against the backdrop of racial segregation, Jim Crow laws and prejudice, The Great Debaters show how a small group of young people were given confidence in their abilities and fight to make themselves heard. The fact this debate team not only beat every team from African American colleges, but also went on to go toe to toe with white-only colleges is commendable and how the characters grapple with that pressure is clear to see.

The debate team consists of Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). All the young actors give great performances, but a special mention goes to Denzel Whitaker who plays a young man who at fourteen is at least five years younger than his fellow debaters and it’s through his eyes we see a lot of the film.

Forest Whitaker plays James’ father, a minister and teacher, and their relationship is sometimes fraught but it’s also one of respect. Farmer Sr. and Tolson have conflicting ideas about things like unionising and what they should teach their students, and it’s interesting to see how two educated and progressive men can have conflicting ideologies but still be open to a healthy debate on them.

The Great Debaters is the second film Denzel Washington directed and it proves him to be talented behind the camera as he allows emotional moments to linger and trusts his actor’s performances in the close ups of their faces. The scenes of the different debates leave you enthralled as you watch these young people argue their side with passion. There are a lot of great lines that come from the debates but one that sticks on is: “No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!”

The Great Debaters is based on a true story and it does follow a lot of the typical story beats one might have, but that makes it no less enjoyable or uplifting. It is full of great, rousing speeches from Denzel Washington and it never shies away from the harsh realities so many people faced in the 1930s. 4/5.

REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

With Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) seemingly back from the dead, an old but deadly force threatens the galaxy. While Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks him out, Rey (Daisy Ridley), under the guidance of Leia (Carrie Fisher), finishes her training.

The Rise of Skywalker is almost too much film. There is so much going on as Rey, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) go on an adventure together, the Resistance prepares for battle and new (and old) characters are introduced. It goes by at a relentless pace but it works because seeing these characters interact, working together solving seemingly insurmountable problems, is still one of the highlights of these films.

The cast are still as charming as ever. Unfortunately some characters are pushed to the side (Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose being the biggest casualty of this) while some new characters don’t get too much to do at all. Adam Driver continues to be a standout in the series, giving a nuanced performance as Kylo Ren and his continuous struggles with his heritage.

The Rise of Skywalker continues the Star Wars tradition of having interesting and quirky alien creatures, brilliant set design and costuming, and great cinematography. Every planet the heroes (and villains) visit is different and the space battles and lightsaber fights are a way to show off different sides to a characters personality while still being engaging.

The final act of The Rise of Skywalker is pure spectacle and completely Star Wars. There’s the battle of good vs evil, inner conflict, hope, and more spaceships than you could shake a stick at. It’s exciting and is such a rush of space wizard magic – especially when John Williams’s wonderful score kicks in.

Some of the issues I have with The Rise of Skywalker comes from the issues I have with the new Star Wars trilogy film as a whole, like how some plot/character elements I feel are a wasted opportunity. As they can be applied to all the films and not just this one, it feels unfair to solely judge The Rise of Skywalker on the fact it didn’t capitalise on elements that the series hasn’t really revisited since The Force Awakens.

It’s a joy being with the characters of this new trilogy again and while some aspects of this saga are wrapped up too neatly while others aren’t wrapped up enough, The Rise of Skywalker is thrilling, action-packed and a lot of fun. 4/5.

EDIT: I wrote and scheduled this review after seeing The Rise of Skywalker on Thursday. Since then I’ve been seeing all the debates and thoughts (both positive and negative) about this film on social media. Some of it I agree with to an extent or understand, some of it I don’t. My opinion of this film may change when I see it again, or it may not. I just know I was so very happy to see Rey, Finn and Poe going on adventures together and working together that I can forget about or forgive some of the things I might not have liked as much.

REVIEW: The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

When Kate (Darby Camp) and her older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis) accidentally stowaway on Santa Claus’s (Kurt Russell) sleigh, they have the most unexpected adventure as they must help Santa find his reindeer and deliver the presents before the sun rises on Christmas Day.

The story of Santa is so well known that half the fun with Christmas films is to see how different filmmakers present the world of the North Pole, the elves and everything else Christmassy. In The Christmas Chronicles the elves are super cute CGI creations that are just as lethal as they are helpful. How the sleigh works, how Santa’s sack holds all the presents and how Santa gets down the chimneys are all shown off in some fun and innovative sequences.

The Christmas Chronicles is a lot of fun. While the mythology of Santa is played around with the general plot is rather predictable yet comforting. It’s also funny too and that’s down to Russell’s comedic timing and how adults who no longer believe in Santa, react to him. Kurt Russell makes a great Santa is not something I’d expect to say but it’s true. This Santa is fun, inventive and mischievous but never loses sight of how important his job is to get presents to all the children in the world. That being said, he does stop to do a musical number which is odd yet very entertaining.

The relationship between siblings Kate and Teddy are typical for the Christmas film genre; they fight, Teddy doesn’t really believe in Santa, and they don’t work that well together – at least to begin with. Naturally as they go on their adventure with Santa you learn more about the two of them and why teenager Teddy has been acting out so much. The two young actors do a fine job and by the end you are quite touched by their relationship and how they learn to work together over the course of the night.

The Christmas Chronicles is surprisingly delightful and a fun festive film that’ll entertain both children and adults. 4/5.

REVIEW: Little Woods (2018)

Ollie (Tessa Thompson), a reformed drug runner who was caught coming back from Canada with medicine for her dying mother is trying to do the right thing when her sister Deb (Lily James) arrives on her doorstep in need of help. As the sisters try to get the money together to stop their family home from being reposed, Ollie must go back to the dangerous way of life she thought she’d left behind.

Little Woods is described as a modern Western and that description makes sense. Ollie does illegal things, crossing the border into Canada to buy drugs, to help people. The people she sells the prescription drugs to are her friends and neighbours who often don’t have insurance or the time or the money to go to the hospital to get treated themselves. This job Ollie finds herself in, is not one she enjoys, and she is in constant fear that she’ll get caught, but when things get tough for her and her sister, they have very few options. She’s fighting the system and helping the little guy while in a town that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.

Little Woods shows how messed up the American health care system is when a pregnancy can cost at least $8,000, and getting an abortion is even more difficult. Never mind all the other health care costs characters in Little Woods face, and as they are in a former oil boomtown with very few financial prospects, it’s like a hopeless cycle.

Tessa Thompson and Lily James both give a brilliant performance full of pain as they struggle to dig themselves out of the bleak situations they are in. Thompson is the lead and the main focus of the film but the strong sisterly bond the two of them have is palpable and it adds another dimension to Little Woods as each of their actions are not just for themselves, but to help each other.

Director and writer Nia DaCosta allows the camera to linger on the characters, so you get to see more of their inner conflict, especially when a character is now on their own or no one except the camera, is looking at them.

The score composed by Brian McOmber is haunting and compliments the beautiful cinematography by Matt Mitchell. Set in an North Dakota town, the setting of Little Woods is equal parts pretty and desolate as the wide-open spaces give way to struggling communities.

Little Woods is a tense atmospheric thriller with compelling performances from Thompson and James. 4/5.

Little Woods or Crossing the Line as it’s called in the UK, is currently available to rent and buy quite cheaply on iTunes – I’d definitely recommend it.

READ THE WORLD – Algeria: The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry by Assia Djebar

Translated by Tegan Raleigh.

A collection of short stories that were written in 1995 and 1996 – a time when, by official accounts, some two thousand Algerians were killed in Islamist assassinations and government army reprisals.

This collection of short stories is split into two parts. The first is titled “Between Desire and Death” and the stories are equal parts romance and the horror of death and violence. The second is titled “Between France and Algeria” and centre on characters who are pulled between the two countries and may not feel they fully belong in either of them.

Even though they were more shocking and tougher to read, I preferred the stories in the first part of The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. They are little snapshots into a character’s life as they deal with the threat of violence and assassination for their beliefs or heritage, or its about what happens after a loved one is killed. The stories focus on women and how they struggle to deal with the changing cultural landscape in Algeria. There’s some liberation but then there’s those who fear liberation and want to kill those who they feel don’t have the correct values.

There’s an underlying feeling of grief through all of the stories in The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. Grief for a loved one who is assassinated, grief for the loss of naivety, grief for the loss of a culture, a home, or a language. A lot of the stories feature characters who were born and raised in Algeria but then moved to France as they got older. With that move came the issue of identity, whether they saw themselves as Algerian or French or a mixture of both, and perhaps guilt or fear over what was happening in Algeria, especially if they were removed from it and seemingly safe.

Once again, reading a book for my Read the World Project has led me to do more research about a certain moment in a countries history that I knew nothing about. These short stories came about from conversations between the author and fellow Algerians who lived in Paris, so there’s truth behind the fiction which makes these stories even more wrenching. The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry is a collection of short stories where each one is impactful as the last. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Aftermath (2019)

Less than six months after the Second World War ends Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) travels to Hamburg, Germany to join her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) where he is assigned to help with the post-war reconstruction. But tensions arise with the Germans, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), whose house the Morgan’s have moved into.

The direct aftermath of WWII and those who “lost” isn’t something that’s often seen in period dramas. While the focus is on the British couple living and working in a city in a country where a lot of the people may hate you, the backdrop of a bombed-out Hamburg is unsettling. Rachael is unprepared for what she’s walked into and was unaware that the grand house she must live in comes with German staff and the original German owner who is forced to live in the attic with his daughter.

The score in The Aftermath is beautiful – a scene where “Claire de Lune” is played is a wonderful catharsis for some characters – and the cinematography and setting is too. The Aftermath is set during winter and all of the snow looks beautiful and almost magical on the grounds of the Morgan’s new home however when there’s scenes in the ruins of Hamburg the snow and cold is harsh and unrelenting as people trying to keep warm around fires.

Keira Knightley shines as Rachael and her chemistry with Skarsgård is palpable, but it is Jason Clarke’s Lewis that is the pleasant surprise. He doesn’t think he’s any better than the Germans, he wants them to be treated with respect and to help them as they have lost just as much, if not more so, than the British. However, he’s so focused on his work that he barely talks to his wife and when he does it isn’t about the meaningful things she wants to talk about; how they’ve been while they’ve been separated, how they feel about losing someone they love.

The Aftermath is a surprisingly layered take on grief, love and relationships. The fallout from secrets being revealed isn’t as bombastic as you might expect when there’s infidelity involved. Instead the central three characters have a surprisingly mature response and if there had been more of an emotional connection to the characters, it would’ve been even more affecting.

The Aftermath is a tasteful post-war drama about people learning to cope with and move on from tragedy. It’s a quieter period drama that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it has some beautiful performances. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Night Before (2015)

Every year for the past fourteen years best friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have gone out in New York City together on Christmas Eve. But now they’re getting older and are getting more responsibilities, this year the Christmas tradition is coming to an end and to end on a high they’re finally going to attend the Holy Grail of Christmas parties – the Nutcracka Ball.

The Night Before is very funny. It’s kind of a stoner comedy in the sense that the three friends spend a good chunk of time searching for weed but it is only Seth Rogen’s character that gets high on just about every type of drug imaginable. Cue silly antics as he starts panicking about being a father, loses his phone and is generally not able to function. There are some great cameos in The Night Before, some of them are truly unexpected yet brilliant, and the supporting cast is a lot of fun too with Mindy Kaling being a highlight. Then there’s Michael Shannon who plays Mr. Green the intense yet strangely wise drug dealer. His scenes are some of the funniest while also being oddly Christmassy as he often makes one of the trio of leads think about their lives and what’s important to them. He’s kind of like a stoned version of Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, and amazingly it works and adds to the Christmas feels that are there beneath the cursing and dick jokes.

In amongst all the drugs and swearing, the main theme of The Night Before is surprisingly sweet and heartfelt. Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie all have great chemistry and they really feel like lifelong friends. They are each at different stages of their lives, Isaac is about to be a father, Chris is a famous football player, while Ethan is feeling a bit lost as he’s no longer with his girlfriend and his career isn’t going anywhere. At its heart this film is about the trio of best friends and how friendships evolve as people grow up but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be friends and grow up together.

The Night Before is funny and often silly and ridiculous, but with the three leads having such great chemistry and New York City feeling so Christmassy, it unexpectedly feels like a true Christmas movie in the sense anything can happen, and it’ll be in the spirit of Christmas. 4/5.