drama

REVIEW: The Spectacular Now (2013)

Popular and borderline alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) has everything until he is dumped by girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Then after a night of partying he wakes up on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley) front lawn, and as they each try to figure out what the future might hold, a unexpected romance blossoms between them.

The central relationship between Sutter and Aimee is a bit of a cliché, the popular bad boy dates the quiet and studious girl who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is, but the chemistry between Teller and Woodley is off the charts so it’s easy to ignore the typical starting point for their relationship. The script is full of natural sounding dialogue, especially the scenes between Sutter and Aimee. Their conversations seem spontaneous as they go from one topic to the other and the way they laugh and talk over each other now and then feels true to life.

The Spectacular Now is a film that starts off as a teen romantic comedy and then evolves into something a lot more serious and hard-hitting. Aimee and Sutter each have their own family issues but while after a little encouragement Aimee is looking to the future and college, Sutter is desperate to not grow up and just wants everything to stay how it is.

The slice-of-life approach of telling this story means that you can get invested in Sutter and Aimee’s lives and, while a lot of the important moments come from the mundane, when there is something shocking, it feels even more unexpected as their lives are so normal and it wasn’t like the film was building to a huge moment. That being said, some serious conflict between Aimee and Sutter seems to be solved off screen or brushed under the carpet by them, or maybe it’s a bit of both, as it feels very rushed and Aimee appears to forgive Sutter far quicker than a lot of people would, even some one who is in love with him. While that may be true to life that people sometimes want to ignore what’s hurt them, it feels like a missed opportunity for Aimee and Sutter to have a proper discussion about what’s going on in their heads.

The use of alcohol in The Spectacular Now is interesting and important. So often alcohol in teen coming of age movies is just used in the party scenes or to set up some comedy, but in The Spectacular Now it shows how for some teenagers it can be an emotional crutch. Sutter drinks all the time. To begin with it doesn’t seem like a big deal or that he doesn’t drink a lot, just topping up a fizzy drink with something from his hip flask now and then, but as the film progresses you see there are very few scenes where Sutter isn’t at least a little buzzed. He drinks with friends, he drinks alone, and he even gives Aimee a personalised hip flask as a gift. Miles Teller’s performance has to be commended as he never turns Sutter into a drunken cliché, his performance is subtle and it’s in those few moments when Sutter is sober that you see how interesting his performance is.

The Spectacular Now is a sensitive and touching coming of age story but really, it’s Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller who make the film work. Their performances really are nuanced and powerful and their chemistry makes the unlikely relationship between their characters work. 4/5.

REVIEW: Misbehaviour (2020)

True story about the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London, the women competing and the women who hatch a plan to disrupt it.

Misbehaviour is a feel-good British comedy drama and once you know that, you’ll have a good idea of how things will go but it makes that formula work in a very pleasing way. It’s funny and engaging with a lot of fun characters and it mixes the drama of political tensions with the glamour of a world beauty pageant so well.

Misbehaviour has a wonderful ensemble cast who all give great performances. There’s unfortunately too many to mention here so I’ll just focus on four key women to the story.

Two of the main characters in the Women’s Liberation Movement are Sally (Keira Knightley) and Jo (Jessie Buckley). They both want to bring down the patriarchy, but they come at it from different angles. Sally has a young daughter and is studying at university with the idea that if she has a seat at the metaphorical boys table, she’ll be able to change things there. Jo is more rebellious, graffitiing slogans on walls and is living in a commune with likeminded men and women. It’s interesting to see how the two of them butt heads on their ideas but also learn to listen to one another and work together to make the protest work. Knightley is the queen of period films (no matter the time period) and again it’s clear how good she is, showing her frustration and anger while still keeping it bottled inside as she knows she’d be ridiculed for showing it.

In the pageant the Miss World contestants the story focusses on are Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the first Miss Grenada, and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) the first black South African to take part. For them, Miss World presents the chance for new opportunities for them, but they also have frank discussions about their chances of winning because they’re not white.

There are so many interesting discussions that can come from Misbehaviour. What it means to be a woman, what’s their “role” in society and what opportunities are there for one woman may not be there for another based on their looks or background. The intersectionality of feminism isn’t explored that deeply but there are black women and disabled women in the protest, and Sally and her co-conspirators make it clear that they aren’t against the contestants but the prevalent attitude of judging women just based on their looks. While possibly contrived, there is a moment between Sally and Jennifer where Jennifer gets the chance to explain what winning could do for little girls who look like her around the world, and it brings home that not all women’s experiences are equal.

Misbehaviour is a wonderful snapshot at what women’s rights were like fifty years ago, and how in many ways’ things have changed for the better, but in others there’s still a long way to go. The performances are brilliant with Knightley and Mbatha-Raw being the standouts, the soundtrack is ace and it’s just a really fun, feelgood film about sisterhood. 5/5.

REVIEW: Lady and the Tramp (2019)

It seems like every classic animated Disney film will eventually be given a live action remake and 1955’s Lady and the Tramp is one of the latest to get the treatment.

While I’d watched the animated Lady and the Tramp many times as a child, it’s one that hadn’t really stuck in my mind so seeing this version made the story a new experience. Lady and the Tramp is the story of sheltered uptown Spaniel Lady (Tessa Thompson) and streetwise mutt Tramp (Justin Theroux) who meet when Lady’s life is disrupted by a new arrival.

If I had to pick one word to describe Lady and the Tramp, it would be charming. The costumes, the setting and score, it’s all so quaint. It’s also a charmingly familiar story even if you’ve not seen the animated film before. There’s something comforting about a story where you know what’s going to happen and the various character types – both human and dog in this scenario.

The combination of real dogs and CGI works very well here and isn’t uncanny valley like the “live action” aka completely computer-generated version of The Lion King. The animals are cute and the way their mouths are animated to move when they talk is easy to get used to especially with dogs like Tramp and Jock (Ashley Jensen) who have hairier and shorter muzzles.

Thompson and Theroux’s vocal performances are delightful, though it’s perhaps Janelle Monáe as Peg who really stands out. She sings a jazzier version of “He’s a Tramp” that’s great. Speaking of songs, the culturally insensitive “Siamese Cat Song” is not here, instead the troublemaking cats (who are a different breed to Siamese) sing a new fast paced song all about how they enjoy doing whatever they want.

The human cast are wonderful in their roles. Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Lady’s owners Jim Dear and Darling. Their romance is sweet and the drama in their lives compliments what is going on with Lady. The dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez) has a much larger role is and the main antagonist for Tramp. There are some fun sequences of Tramp taking the dogcatcher for a fool and the blend of animation and real animal in them is often near seamless.

Lady and the Tramp is perhaps more for children with some of its silly moments and jokes, but it’s still a film that adults can enjoy – whether they have nostalgia goggles on or not. 4/5.

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.

W is for West Side Story (1961)

When two teenagers from rival gangs fall in love, Tony (Richard Beymer) is from the Jets and Maria (Natalie Wood) is from the Sharks, the tension between their respective friends builds towards tragedy.

West Side Story is one of those classic and much-loved films that I just hadn’t seen before even though I do tend to enjoy musicals. Now I’m happy to say I’ve watched it and enjoyed it. I also discovered that I knew a number of the songs in West Side Story, but never realised they had originated from the musical, for instance; “Somewhere” and “I Feel Pretty”.

West Side Story is a bit slow to start, especially as the opening ten minutes is mostly young men clicking their fingers threateningly and having dance battles. However once the characters and the rivalry between the Jets (Polish Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) is set up the movie goes by at a steady pace with great songs and dancing. West Side Story also offers commentary on racial divides, how unachievable the American Dream is and, with the song “Gee, Officer Krupke”, how the authorities try to blame crime on everyone and everything but themselves.

The dancing really is incredible. All of the cast are extremely talented and there are so many wide shots so you can see just how well everyone moves. There are fun song and dances like “America” led by Rita Moreno as Anita. Moreno is the perfect blend of attitude and sensitivity as Anita and the way she dances and how the camera follows her is a delight to watch.

The set design and lighting add to the drama too as tensions grow between the Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Sharks led by Maria’s older brother Bernardo (George Chakiris). There’s so much red used in West Side Story, both to symbolise violence and passion and love and romance. The costumes are beautiful too, from the purple suits the Sharks wear to the dresses Maria and her fellow seamstresses wear.

While Rita Moreno almost steals the whole movie as Anita, Beymer and Wood do make a great lead couple as Tony and Maria. Their romance is sweet and powerful and while tragedy is just around the corner, they’ll do anything to stay together.

West Side Story is fun, bright and has some great songs and dances. I’m pleased I’ve finally watched this classic musical, and with Stephen Spielberg making his own version – I’m interested to see how it compares to the original. 4/5.

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.

R is for Ray (2004)

Biopic about rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), from his humble beginnings in the South, where he went blind at age seven, to his rise to stardom during the 1950s and 1960s.

I knew little about Ray Charles before watching this film. In fact, all I knew was the name, I didn’t even know he was blind, and I wasn’t even sure if I knew any of his songs. Turns out I did though because Ray Charles composed and performed so many songs that have transcended time and are so easily recognisable.

Ray follows Ray Charles’s life from his early twenties as he tries to make it in the music business. Along the way he meets a lot of different people, businessmen and musicians, and it’s sad that there were so many people that were willing to try and take advantage of him because he was blind, and therefore in their eyes stupid and defenceless. It soon becomes clear that Charles knows his own mind and will stand up for himself, even if that might hurt people who do care about him. It’s through flashbacks you learn more about Charles’s childhood, how he became blind, and how it was his mother who did what she could to instil a desire in him to not be dependent on anyone.

Jamie Foxx really is the heart and soul of this movie. He gives an incredible performance, full of charm and charisma but also has a steely edge too when needed. After watching Ray, I read how Foxx would have his eyes glued shut each day so he could really immerse himself into the role and put himself in Ray Charles’s shoes.

Foxx has great chemistry with the various women in the film, notably Kerry Washington as Charles’s wife Della Bea Robinson and Regina King as one of his many mistresses, Margie Hendricks, but he also has great chemistry with his band and singers on stage. The scenes where Foxx performs on stage as Ray Charles are magic. They are fun and dynamic, and you can feel the energy from the crowds watching him, it helps that the songs are great too.

While Ray does follow Ray Charles’s rise to stardom, the film ends rather suddenly. There feels like there’s so much more of Ray Charles’s story left to tell but instead it sums it up in a few lines of credits. Obviously, the film had to end sometime, and its runtime was already two and a half hours, but to end so suddenly after a major event in Ray Charles’s life seemed ill timed.

Ray is an engrossing biopic about a complex and interesting man. The music and Foxx’s performance are both fantastic and make Ray compelling viewing. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Hungary: The Door by Magda Szabó

Translated by Len Rix and narrated by Siân Thomas.

Emerence is a domestic servant – strong, fierce, eccentric, and with a reputation for being a first-rate housekeeper. When Magda, a young Hungarian writer, takes her on she never imagines how important this woman will become to her. It takes twenty years for a complex trust between them to be slowly, carefully built. But Emerence has secrets and vulnerabilities beneath her indomitable exterior which will test Magda’s friendship and change the complexion of both their lives irreversibly.

The Door was an interesting read. From the very beginning you’re captivated by the relationship between the two women and how it developed over time. Magda narrates the story of their relationship. She and her husband are quite privileged and so they can do their writing and not be bothered by such trivialities as housework, they employ Emerence as their housekeeper. That is after Emerence interviews them and deems them suitable employers.

From the outset, the relationship between Magda and Emerence was interesting because they had such different personalities. Emerence was secretive and had her own way of judging what was important or not. Magda was more “normal” and often cared about how things would appear to others. A lot of the times they clashed was because neither of them were very good at communicating what they were feeling or wanted.

At times, neither of them were particularly likeable and they were both so set in their ways it was frustrating to see them not try and understand the other. Over time, Magda learns to understand Emerence and her moods, but Emerence never seemed to understand or appreciate what was important to Magda if she saw it as frivolous.

The title refers to the door of Emerence’s home. She is an incredibly secretive woman and lets no one inside her home, including the police. Her refusal to do such a normal thing as welcome others into her home confuses Magda and adds to the mystery of Emerence.

The narrator of the audiobook did a really good job, changing their voice slightly for key characters and the pace they narrated really added to the haunting tone of the book. Because The Door is generally a melancholy read. Emerence has had a difficult life and the way she slowly opens up and describes events makes both Magda and you as the reader, wonder if everything could possibly be true. The Door is set in Hungary from around the 1960s and spans a couple of decades, and there’s often references to World War II and its effects on the country and the people, and also the government rules. It often seems like it was a difficult time for everyone and even Magda and her husband struggled at times, but then there is also a clear class divide between Magda and Emerence.

The Door was a fascinating read about two very different women and how they eventually found a common ground. It’s nice to see such a complex friendship where they both make mistakes and aren’t always clear about how they feel. 4/5.

M is for Monster (2003)

Trigger warning for rape.

Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute and drifter until she meets Selby (Christina Ricci). But after she shoots a sadistic trick who rapes her and threatens to kill her, she begins to seek her own form of justice and becomes America’s first female serial killer.

Monster is based on a true story and through the script, direction and performances, you slowly start to see the internal logic behind Aileen’s actions.

There is a scene where Aileen is raped but it never feels as if it was shot to be sexy or a fantasy for those involved. The rape scene is horrific and uncomfortable to watch – just as it should be. Aileen’s actions in that instance are easy to say are justifiable as they were in self-defence. It’s as she then seems to have the logic that all men are dangerous if they happen to pick up a woman from the side of the road and shows little to no remorse when killing them that the lines of sympathy gets blurred.

Especially as more is revealed of Aileen’s past, the trauma she’s experienced, and how she’s never really had anyone in her life that cared about her until she met Selby. Aileen and Selby’s relationship is so soft as Aileen slowly begins to open up to Selby. But Selby is also quite naïve about what Aileen is doing as she wants to just continue the life they’re living without the consequences.

Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognisable as Aileen Wuornos thanks to the unglamorous hair, make up and costume. These add to Theron’s performance and she is equal parts mesmerising and repulsive as she goes down a dark path with little regrets. Theron is ferocious and intense as Aileen and truly gives a powerhouse performance.

Monster is a harrowing true story that does a good job of allowing the viewer to understand the motives of a killer but never condones what she does. 4/5.

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.