drama

REVIEW: Unicorn Store (2017)

Kit (Brie Larson) is trying, and in her eyes failing, to be an adult. Her passion for art and glitter is almost snuffed out as she gets a temp job and feels her parents are constantly comparing her to more successful people her age. But then she receives a mysterious invitation to The Store, where she meets The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who gives her the chance to fulfil her childhood dreams.

Brie Larson’s directorial debut is assured, colourful and magical. From the very first scene, the way characters faces are framed give you no choice but to experience with them what they’re feeling. The use of colour and glitter throughout is wonderful and Kit’s wardrobe is just the right blend of childish and mature.

Because that’s where Kit is stuck. She’s an artist with dreams of magic and colour but the “real world” doesn’t see the value in such things. She’s a twenty-something that’s now having her coming-of-age story as she goes through that dilemma a lot of young people have – should she try and be a “proper grown up” or should she still try and follow her dreams, even if they seem out there.

The script is funny and genuine and it’s due to both the script and Larson’s performance that Kit never becomes unlikeable. She’s strong-willed and sometimes selfish, but she also apologies when she has a temper-tantrum and is friendly and kind. Kit can come across very naïve, firstly because of the promises the Salesman makes are truly fantastical, but also due to her low self-esteem and the fact she’s never been in the workplace before she can’t figure out if her boss is harassing her or not. A simple yet brilliant moment was when Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a hardware store worker who Kit pays to help her achieve her dream, states that what her boss is doing is wrong. Virgil and Kit’s friendship is so sweet, and their conflict comes from Kit being obsessed with the seemingly impossible, and not appreciating what she has in her family and friends.

Kit is a messy human who’s trying to figure out what she wants from life, and when life gets hard, she reverts to chasing the dreams of her childhood. But it’s seeing how she starts to understand who she is and what she wants that’s truly touching.

The basis of Unicorn Store’s story is weird but the themes it has, figuring out who you are, learning to love oneself and let yourself be loved, keeping the sense of wonder in the world, are universal. Unicorn Store is whimsical and heartfelt and just delightful. It’s a proper laugh-out-loud funny film but then it will also make you cry a lot too. It’s sweet and touching without ever being cringey and Larson really captures all the different sides of someone who is trying to figure themselves out and to be OK with who they are. 5/5.

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REVIEW: Woman Walks Ahead (2017)

Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a painter from 1980s New York, travels to Dakota to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and becomes invested in the Lakota peoples’ struggle to keep their land.

The direction and script hit all the usual biopic buttons but it’s the relationship between and performances from the two leads that really stands out in Woman Walks Ahead. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as Catherine Weldon, she’s a determined woman but she also has her fears and makes mistakes as she attempts to learn about the Lakota people. Michael Greyeyes’s is steely and calm as Sitting Bull but there’s also a wit to him. There’s a surprising amount of amusing moments between Sitting Bull and Weldon as they get to know one another. Their relationship is one of deep friendship, but there’s also those hints of something more, if life was kinder.

The wide-open spaces of Dakota’s plains and the ever-changing sky is both harsh and beautiful. It’s a fitting setting for this story as Catherine see’s the beauty in things that most people would not, and the story of the Lakota people’s struggles is one that’s deeply tragic and the film never shies away from the atrocities committed.

As the focus is so much on Weldon and Sitting Bull, the military personnel who are all the villains of the piece, are largely cardboard cut-outs of characters. Though Sam Rockwell’s Colonel Silas Groves is an intriguing character, the reveals about his backstory comes too late to have a lasting impact. Groves and the other military men are deeply racist and when the film attempts to show Groves in a better light, it ultimately falls flat.

Woman Walks Ahead is based on a true story about an unlikely and touching friendship. The performances and cinematography are both beautiful and often haunting, but unfortunately they don’t quite elevate this film to greatness. 3/5.

REVIEW: What They Had (2018)

Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home to help her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) look after their mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) who has Alzheimer’s and persuade their father Burt (Robert Forster) it is time for him to look into care options for Ruth as her illness deteriorates.

What They Had opens with Ruth getting out of bed in the middle of the night, putting on some lipstick, her shoes and a coat over her nightshirt, and then lets herself out of her home and walks off in the middle of a snowstorm. This incident is the final straw for Nick who has been trying to get his father to see how much the illness is affecting Ruth and how they both need help and support. He calls Bridget and she and her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) fly out to help.

Everything about What They Had and how a family deals with a loved one having Alzheimer’s is incredibly true to life. Everyone’s experiences with an illness differs but there were so many moments in this film I could relate to as someone who has had one grandparent die after having dementia, and another currently living with Alzheimer’s. The script allowed each character to have their own point of view of what this illness was doing to their family. Nick is often frustrated as he’s the one that’s been helping his father look after his mother for so long, whereas Bridget can still see the funny side of things – because sometimes things happen or are said which are funny – but that’s not exactly helpful to Nick. Then there’s Bert who is in denial and doesn’t want to be apart from his wife, which is totally understandable, even if that could be what’s best for the both of them.

The whole cast give brilliant performances, with Swank and Shannon bouncing off one another really well and feel like proper siblings. It’s Blythe Danner though that really needs to be commended. The way she portrays someone with Alzheimer’s is spot on and even with the more absurd moments, she’s never over acts it. It’s the quieter moments though, when Ruth slips from being unaware of what’s happening around her, to momentarily understanding it and being frustrated by it, before slipping back to obliviousness, that are like a punch to the gut. It gives her loved one’s emotional whiplash and highlights how horrible the disease is.

What They Had is a well written and well-acted film that never lacks empathy for these characters. It’s certainly a tough watch at times, especially for those who have experienced a love one losing their mind to Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it’s a film that highlights the struggles and difficult choices a family in that position must make. 5/5.

REVIEW: Instant Family (2018)

Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) find themselves in over their heads after they decide to foster tough teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings, anxious and accident-prone Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and volatile Lita (Julianna Gamiz).

Instant Family was an unexpected delight. It’s marketed as a straight up comedy, and while it still is very funny, it’s actually got a lot of heart to it as it portrays all the highs and lows of foster care. Pete and Ellie are reasonably well off, they have a thriving home renovation business and are content in their lives until a family member makes a comment about them never having kids. It gets them thinking and they sign up for a foster parent course where there’s the usual stereotypes like the gay couple and the deeply Christian couple, but there they all find a sense of support and belonging to get them through the complexities of fostering children who, in many cases, believe they aren’t worth anything.

Both Wahlberg’s and Byrne show off their comedic chops but they both handle the dramatic moments just as well. The young cast is great but it’s Isabela Moner that really shines as Lizzy. Lizzy’s someone who has practically raised her siblings herself so finds it difficult to both relinquish control to Pete and Ellie, and to trust them both. All three kids have had a tough life but being the oldest Lizzy has more of an understanding of what’s going on. Moner does a great job gradually showing Lizzy’s vulnerabilities as she learns to trust and open up to Pete and Ellie, but still never loses her independence or strength.

There are the usual family hijinks of temper tantrums over food, inappropriate boyfriends, and screaming arguments over toys, but when there’s the more serious and emotional moments (of which there are more than one might think based on the marketing) the film handles them well and doesn’t use any cheap joke to lessen the moment. The emotional scenes pack a punch and you’ll have to be tough not to tear up at least once.

Instant Family is a film about love, family and trust. It’s funny but it’s also a tear-jerker both when there’s something sad and when there’s something happy as this unusual family makes a breakthrough. It’s a feel-good dramedy that also never shies away from the difficulties these children and the people who foster them can face. Instant Family really was a surprise in the best possible way. 5/5.

REVIEW: Capernaum (2018)

While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) decides to sue his parents for the neglect and the life they’ve given him.

Capernaum begins with Zain being led to court in handcuffs to sue his parents and then the story goes back so you can see how he ended up in this situation. To say that Zain’s life is a tough one would be an understatement but it’s how the film shows how so many people in his life struggle. While his parents are certainly at fault in the way they treat him and his siblings, it’s through the quieter moments that you can see that they are second guessing themselves and are making terrible choices as none of the options available to them are good ones. Zain is such a resourceful and strong boy, who has a great sense of empathy in spite of, or because of, the world he’s grown up in that doesn’t see value in children. He’s someone who tries to do the right thing by those he cares about, even if it might mean doing some light thievery to achieve his goal.

When Zain runs away from his parents, he meets undocumented worker Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She takes him in and the three of them form a new kind of family. The whole cast is brilliant, but this trio were phenomenal. Al Rafeea is an incredible young performer and the way that director Nadine Labaki captures the dynamics between the children in this cast brings out some wonderful performances. There’re moments between Zain and Yonas that can’t have been perfectly scripted due to one of them being one years old, but they feel so sweet, intuitive and natural. The scenes with Zain and Yonas are so natural and are both sweet and heart-breaking at times.

It could’ve been so easy for Capernaum to just be sad and bleak but thanks to an organic screenplay and true to life oddities, there’s laughter to be found here. It also shows that while life and so many of the people in it can be terrible, there are kind people who want to help others with no ulterior motives as well. The way Capernaum is shot neither romanticises nor demonises the poverty Zain and the people he meets face. It’s an honest look at what’s life like for some people and, with its script that has so much natural dialogue, it makes Capernaum feel like you’re a spectator to Zain’s life for a while.

Capernaum is sad but it’s also funny and thoughtful. With a great cast led by Zain Al Rafeea, it’s a film about family, compassion and survival. It’s a film that’s often like a punch to the gut but it’s one that leaves a lasting impression. 5/5.

REVIEW: Every Day (2018)

Teenager Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) falls in love with “A” someone who wakes up in a different body each day and must live that person’s life for a day, not causing any lasting problems before they go to sleep and wake up in another person’s body.

Based on the contemporary YA novel of the same name by David Levithan, Every Day is a surprisingly sweet, thoughtful and touching film. The supernatural or fantasy nature of “A” is explained well, and through inhabiting numerous characters (and the young actors performances) you get to see what their personality is like as they slowly get Rhiannon to believe what happens them each day.

The young cast are all great, but Angourite Rice is just wonderful as Rhiannon. Rhiannon has the typical teenage boyfriend drama, but as she grows closer to “A” she becomes a more confident person that has always been open and kind. Rice’s presence lights up the screen, bringing the laughs with the comedic moments but also can put across the pain of loving someone who she doesn’t know if she’ll see them again.

The soundtrack is great and everything about this film is so soft. Both in terms of the story and the way the film is shot with soft lighting and idyllic settings, whether it’s a lake house or a beach, makes it seem like Every Day takes place at the beginning of summer and “A”’s and Rhiannon’s romance will never end.

Every Day tackles ideas of sexuality and love in a broad way but it’s a way that’s accessible to it’s target audience without being preachy. It also features discussions of mental health which is handled well, however there’s so much more this story could have done with race and class as “A” spends time in these different people’s bodies and lives.

Every Day is a sweet film that’s about loving a person for who they are, not what they appear like, and its young cast does a fine job showing the different kinds of relationships you can have while in high school. 4/5.

REVIEW: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

When author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) falls on hard times as her books aren’t selling, she turns to forging letters from famous dead authors, poets and playwrights in order to make a living.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a witty and entertaining heist film that has a lot more going on than one might think. While it’s certainly a small-scale heist film, behind the crime Lee is committing, is a story of loneliness. Lee is grouchy and often nasty, and she much prefers to spend time with her cat than with people. Her reclusive and curt nature doesn’t make her popular with her agent (a brilliantly scathing Jane Curtin) nor make her well-known enough to have people want to buy her books.

Melissa McCarthy gives a great performance in a more serious role. Her sensitive take on Lee’s hostilities makes her more than an unlikeable cat lady, instead being someone who has layers and is afraid of getting hurt. Richard E. Grant almost steals the show though as street smart charmer Jack Hock. He helps Lee fence her forgeries and his friendship comes along when she needs it the most. Their chemistry is wonderful as both Jack and Lee were gay, they appear to have a unique understanding of one another. In many ways they are complete opposites but for the most part they work together, their interactions are certainly very funny.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a darkly witty little crime film. The script and direction make you like an unlikable character from almost the very beginning and the performances are brilliant. 4/5.