film review

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: Little Women (2019)

The four March sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for the first time a couple of years ago. It was a book I thought was just alright, and I didn’t really see how it had become such a classic and my lasting impression of it was how much I hated Amy March. So it was with some trepidation I went to see this latest adaptation, but I was very surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this film and how it made me connect with all of the March sisters and it even made me tolerate Amy.

This feat was accomplished by the actor’s performances and writer and director Greta Gerwig’s brilliant screenplay. There are two timelines happening in Little Women. The present has Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is living in New York and trying to earn a living writing stories until she’s called home as her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is sick where she reconnects with her mother (Laura Dern) and her older sister Meg (Emma Watson), while Amy (Florence Pugh) is travelling Europe with their Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Then there’s the other timeline that starts 7 years earlier where you can see how the sisters would put on plays, had dreams and aspirations that are so different from one another’s and how they are all determined to make their lives their own.

These timelines are easy to follow due to the characters costumes and how in the flashback scenes, the colours and costumes seem so much brighter, while the colour palette of the present scenes is a lot more muted, mirroring how the sisters have grown up and apart. It’s also fascinating to see the sisters grow into the people we see in the present, and how their relationships may change but continue to be so strong.

Also central to the story of Little Women is the March sisters’ friend and neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). He finds friendship and love and family with the March’s and his relationship with Jo is so important to the two of the but for different reasons.

Little Women has a beautiful score, wonderful costumes that add layers to the already complex characters and is shot so well. Gerwig’s Little Women is funny, touching and it makes you feel so happy and content by the end of it, even if some tears are shed along the way. It’s a delightful story told so well because the actors don’t just play their characters brilliantly, they embody the March sisters’ heart and soul. Ronan and Pugh particularly standout but while Beth and Meg have more understated roles, Scanlen and Watson bring out all of the layers to their characters just as well as Ronan and Pugh.

Little Women was a wonderful surprise in how much I loved it and while it is quite the feminist story, it’s also a universal story about love, family and find your place in the world. 5/5.

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: Klaus (2019)

When Smeerensburg’s new postman, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), befriends toymaker Klaus (J.K. Simmons), their gifts melt an age-old feud and deliver a sleigh full of holiday traditions.

Klaus is wonderful! Everything about it is so beautiful. The animation, the story, the characters, the music and the songs; it all comes together into one of those truly special films. It’s funny, sweet and charming with such a timely yet timeless message at its centre.

Jesper doesn’t want to be in Smeerensburg. He’s used to putting in minimum effort and relying on his family’s money for everything, so when he’s shipped off to Smeerensburg and the risk of being cut off looming over his head, he has to think on his feet to get this town that never sends any letters, using the post office.

Jesper’s work is cut out for him as the town is home to an ancient feud between the Ellingboe’s and the Krum’s led by Mr Ellingboe (Will Sasso) and Mrs Krum (Joan Cusack). What Klaus really captures is how children are children and don’t tend to pick up the illogical reasons to hate someone without influence from the adults around them. The children of Smeerensburg want to play together even though there’s a violent feud that has been going on for generations.

Besides from being funny and heart-warming, Klaus can tug at your heartstrings too. From seeing the huge smiles on the happy children’s faces (honestly the animation is gorgeous) to learning more about Klaus’s past, it’s enough to bring a tear to anyone’s eye. The score is magical and the original song Invisible by Zara Larsson is brilliant too and echoes the core theme of the film.

The main message of Klaus is that a simple act of kindness always sparks another. It’s a wonderful message to have in any movie, but for a Christmas movie which has a take on the origin of Santa Claus, somehow makes that message even more impactful. It’s a lovely thought to live by, and one that highlights that deep down, people are (on the whole) inherently good. 5/5.

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: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

My review from when I first saw The Last Jedi is here and as this is the first time I’ve watched this film since the cinema, and it’s been a few years, there’s probably going to be spoilers in this review.

As Rey (Daisy Ridley) urges Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the ways of the Force, the Resistance is on the run from the First Order.

I’d not seen The Last Jedi since I saw it in the cinema, I did watch it twice then and was left feeling a bit meh about it. Over the past two years there’s been many people screaming about this film on the internet, both championing it and slating it, having problems with it that boil down to straight up misogyny or racism, or having genuine issues to do with characterisation and story. Honestly, the environment surrounding The Last Jedi online makes me somewhat hesitant to mention it, whether I had good things or bad things to say about it.

But after rewatching it now in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker, and just a day after I rewatched The Force Awakens which I love, I can safely say I don’t like The Last Jedi. There are some bits I enjoy, and the film looks great, but overall I just don’t like what happened to a lot of the characters or how (at least at the moment and The Rise of Skywalker could change this) it feels like a standalone film and the events of this film won’t have much of an effect on the next one.

My main problem with The Last Jedi is that it feels like a filler episode for a TV show. It is a very character-driven film. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it spends so much time focusing on its characters that the overall plot doesn’t really move forward. These characters do things, but often what they do is pointless because it doesn’t move the plot forward, or they don’t achieve anything and in fact more often than not what they do hinders the heroes in some way. Having characters fail isn’t a bad thing, it allows them to learn and grow and seeing characters fail can be interesting, but when their failures are for nothing, then there’s a problem.

Then there’s the characters and their characterisations. Firstly, I while I like Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) I do not like how Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rey spend 95% of the film apart from one another. One of my favourite things about The Force Awakens was the relationships between Finn and Poe and Finn and Rey. Those characters instantly gelled and their chemistry was off the charts and I wanted to see more of that, and for Rey and Poe to finally interact. Instead there was a kit of stuff with Finn and Rose, which again I liked how their relationship developed but I wish it had done so when they were with the rest of the heroes.

Then there’s the characterisations. I think Rey and Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) arcs were the most consistent with what was seen in The Force Awakens but Poe seemed like a completely different person which is even more weird when you consider the fact that The Last Jedi starts immediately where The Force Awakens finished. There’s a fine line between cockiness and arrogance and Poe just leaps over that line. Considering in The Force Awakens he very much cares about what happens to his fellow pilots and follows General Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) orders, it’s just unbelievable he’d be willing to sacrifice so many lives in order to blow up a ship. Over the course of The Last Jedi Poe learns humility, battle tactics and to trust his superiors – all things that someone who is a Commander in the Resistance should already know, considering they are an experienced pilot and Commander.

With Finn it feels like this was a waste of potential. Finn is an ex-Stormtrooper and that could lead to so many interesting things instead of him just casually being able to tell people plans for various First Order ships when needed. You could have members of the Resistance not trusting him, Finn not trusting himself, Finn having guilt over killing those who used to be his brothers in arms, Finn wanting to help other Stormtroopers defect, conflict between Finn and Poe when he realises Poe’s the one who killed his friend and thus helped snap him out of his brainwashing in The Force Awakens. A lot of the time in The Last Jedi it feels like Finn is a secondary character; to Rose, to Poe, to Rey, when he should be one of the leads.

I feel like I’ve just been talking about the problems I have with this film, but I do like some things about The Last Jedi. Even though he’s not in it much, I really like Benicio del Toro’s character, he’s a conman and a thief and not a nice guy but I do have a soft spot for that kind of character. I like the action sequences too. The fight in the throne room between Rey and Kylo Ren is fantastic to watch and it’s exciting to see these two enemies fight side by side if only for a moment. I also think the fight between Kylo Ren and Luke is clever and I like what it allows the rest of the heroes to do.

I also like the idea of Luke being ashamed for what he did – or didn’t – do when training Kylo Ren and how he failed him and his family. I like how resistant he was to train Rey and how scared he was of her strength. That all made sense to me, but I don’t have the nostalgia or strong love for the original Star Wars characters. Perhaps that’s why the choices made about the new characters I fell in love with in The Force Awakens hurt so much.

All in all, I found The Last Jedi to be rather disappointing on rewatch. In some ways it’s almost style over substance as it’s a very visually appealing film and there’s sequences that are entertaining in isolation but when you look at the broader story and how the characters act, it’s just not an enjoyable time. 2/5.

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.