drama

REVIEW: Guarding Tess (1994)

Secret Agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) is the agent in charge of the protection detail for Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), the widow of the former President of the United States and a woman who seems to enjoy making Doug’s life difficult with outlandish demands.

Guarding Tess has a typical plot – two very different characters who clash, learn to get along and understand one another – and it’s a functional yet dull plot as the two leads are never given much of a backstory or layers to their personalities. So many on the male characters speak in a monotone, even in stressful situations, which makes what’s supposed to be exciting on screen, not engaging at all.

Guarding Tess seems to be tonally all over the place too. It’s supposed to be a comedy, and there are a few funny moments, but then there’s these big dramatic moments in the last act that don’t hold any real weight due to the farcical nature of the previous hour of the film.

Cage and MacLaine have chemistry but it’s the kind of chemistry where you’re not sure if they’re going to tear chunks out of one another or kiss which naturally makes things a little uncomfortable and weird at times. It’s just as the relationship between Tess and Chesnic, and the rest of her Secret Service detail gets slightly interesting that the film swerves into something completely different and that relationship is never fully developed.

Guarding Tess ends up being a very bland “comedy” drama. The characters are, for the most part, pleasant but there’s so little drama or tension that they are just going about their daily lives and very little of interest happens. 2/5.

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REVIEW: Havoc (2005)

TW: rape

Wealthy LA teens Alison (Anne Hathaway) and Emily (Bijou Phillips), want to become a part of the “gangsta” lifestyle but they soon get in trouble when they cross paths with a real gang of Latino drug dealers.

The characters, much like the film itself, are shallow and unlikeable. All of the teenage characters are trying so hard to be something they are ill-equipped to be that it comes across incredibly cringey. The acting is not good, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt Sam being embarrassingly bad, and the dialogue is full of clichés.

There is one character in Havoc that is not irritating, though that is probably because he’s a spectator to the teenager’s violence and provocativeness and you learn little about him. Eric (Matt O’Leary) is a teenager with a camera shooting a documentary about Alison and her friends and why they want to be a part of the gang lifestyle. Those scenes do offer hints of something more interesting and layered, but they do not last long and instead go back to the superficial teenagers increasingly risky antics.

In Havoc there is a gang rape scene, though characters frame it that it wasn’t rape because the girl consented to sleeping with the men to start with which is just wrong. She may have wanted to sleep with them, but not all at the same time and she was clearly distressed once she realised what was happening. It is really insensitive and irresponsible to portray something like that, without having characters believe the girl that was raped, and to frame it that she was lying about what happened.

Havoc is full of unlikeable and irritating characters and it doesn’t have much in the way of plot or surprises either. If you’re someone like me and likes to watch things just to complete an actor’s filmography, fans of Hathaway, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt should avoid it for as long as possible. 1/5.

REVIEW: The Riot Club (2014)

Two first-year students, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin) join the infamous Riot Club at Oxford University, where reputations can be made or destroyed over the course of a single evening.

The Riot Club is a fascinating film as the vast majority of the characters are completely awful and unlikeable but it’s still a compelling film to watch. The young men who are a part of the Riot Club are rude, entitled, violent, destructive, and a few are inclined to sexual assault as well.

What works well is that when you are introduced to both Miles and Alistair, you feel sorry for them for different reasons. Alistair has overbearing parents and his older brother’s reputation to live up to, while even though Miles is a posh boy, he’s more down to earth than others and finds it difficult to be a part of the rich boy’s club and with his fellow students who were from state school backgrounds. It’s like he doesn’t totally fit in with either group.

As the film progresses and they both get initiated into The Riot Club you meet the right other young men that complete this club. James (Freddie Fox) is the President but it’s boys like Harry (Douglas Booth) and Dimitri (Ben Schnetzer) that really egg the group on and display a complete disregard for people and money.

There are so many things, both little and big, that make you uneasy about the young men in the Riot Club and their beliefs. All these things build up, as Alistair appears more comfortable in the Club while Miles becomes more torn, and everything comes to ahead at a dinner in a small family-run pub. The actions of The Riot Club are deplorable and there’s so many moments that show how a few of the young men could become half decent people if they were away from the toxic environment of the Club.

The Riot Club is unsettling and maddening. As events build and get worse, it’s like a car crash you cannot look away from as you watch these boys bring out the worst in one another, to the detriment of the innocent bystanders around them. It’s an unflinching display of superiority complexes and an entitlement that money can fix all problems as they men show no respect to people they see as beneath them. It’s rather concerning that there’s a good chance that young people like the characters here exist in the real world. 4/5.

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.

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.