true story

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.

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.

K is for K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

When Russia’s first nuclear submarine malfunctions on its maiden voyage, the crew, led by Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), must race to save the ship and prevent a nuclear disaster.

I’m not sure if Harrison Ford even attempted a Russian accent in this. His usual growl is present throughout and his accent is more noticeable in some scenes than others. Liam Neeson on the other hand, who plays executive officer Mikhail Polenin and second in command on the sub, pretty much nails the accent. Accents aside, they both give engaging performances. There’s tension between the two men, Vostrikov is the new captain and repeatedly pushes his crew through drills while Polenin is more personable and well-liked by the crew.

It’s how Vostrikov and Polenin bounce off of one another and try and work together when there’s mistrust from other members of the crew as some see Polenin as their captain, that drives the first half of the film. K-19: The Widowmaker spends plenty of time giving you an overview of the crew, both the higher ranks and the lower ranks, and seeing what it takes to man a submarine. This means that when the reactor malfunctions, plunging the entire crew in danger, the tension you have a decent idea of who is who and what’s their responsibilities.

The second half turns up the tension as men volunteer to be exposed to radiation so they can try and save the submarine and their comrades. The score can be overly dramatic at times but when it works, especially when men are being subjected to the radiation, it works. It’s quieter and feels almost respectful to what’s happening on screen. The effects of the radiation are never underplayed and it’s tough to watch the men’s bodies shut down, and the fear of the rest of the crew as they try and keep the submarine afloat.

K-19: The Widowmaker highlights both the best and worst of people in a crisis, and how it’s the people on the frontline who are often screwed over by superiors who cut corners and push for things to meet ridiculous deadlines for political clout.

Based on real events, K-19: The Widowmaker is overall a gripping film that makes good use of the claustrophobic nature of a submarine. The fact that these events happened, and the lengths the crew went to to try and save one another is astonishing. As is the fact that it was apparently kept secret by the Soviet Union for so long. 4/5.

B is for Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

A young man named Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) navigates love, life, and being transgender in rural Nebraska in the early 90s.

I feel I should mention a lot of content warnings for Boys Don’t Cry. It contains transphobia, homophobia, rape, violence, deadnaming, transphobic violence, misgendering, murder, references to transition/surgery/hormones – and I’m probably forgetting some things. In short, Boys Don’t Cry is very tough to watch and it’s probably, unfortunately, a testament to the time it was made in terms of how it treats its trans main character, even when it tries to frame things to show the film is on Brandon’s side.

Hilary Swank gives an incredible performance. It’s perfectly measured as someone who is confident in who they are but don’t always have the safety and security to do so. Brandon is flirty and charming, if a little awkward at times and it’s easy to see why Lana (Chloë Sevigny) could become enamoured with him. All the other men in her life are fighters, and macho men stereotypes, Brandon is kinder and listens to her more than people like her mother (Jeannetta Arnette) and her friend John (Peter Sarsgaard) do. Brandon and Lana’s relationship is sweet and loving and Lana cares deeply about Brandon, no matter what other people think of him.

There’s almost a dreamlike quality to Boys Don’t Cry at times. Like when Brandon is racing down the highway or looking across the open plains of Nebraska. It’s down to the score and the way these things are shot to feel at once distant and immediate, like Brandon can escape and be free at any moment.

Boys Don’t Cry is an unflinching look of what life can be like for a trans man in a place where bigotry and ignorance run rife. It’s an upsetting and harrowing film and while things like the terminology and (hopefully) attitudes have changed, it’s a film that can make those who are unaware of the struggles trans people can face, see things from a new perspective. 4/5.

REVIEW: Dark Waters (2019)

Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defence attorney, takes on an environmental lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.

Dark Waters is based on a true story and that makes this film and what the characters go through, all the more amazing and terrifying.

Rob Bilott is contacted by a farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows keep dying, leading him to believe there’s something in the water from a chemical company who has a landfill nearby. This is where Bilott’s investigation starts but over time it becomes clear that it is just one part of a decade’s long conspiracy. It’s like he falls down a rabbit hole and each piece of information he uncovers is as shocking as the last, especially the lengths to which the company goes to to cover things up, and how deadly their practices are.

Something that Dark Waters does well is show how much time and effort it takes to put together this case and get justice for those affected by the pollution. Bilott’s quest for justice takes up years of his life and the scenes of him going through hundreds of boxes of documents is just as gripping as when he’s in court or trying to convince his boss that they should continue with the lawsuit. Dark Waters is also the epitome of one of my favourite things (is it a trope? I don’t think so) in films – competent people being good at their jobs. It’s Bilott’s resilience and ability to think outside the box that allows him to make so much headway even when everything is stacked against him.

All the performances are great here and many of the actors have at least one inspiring or impressive speech. Ruffalo is brilliant as a man who puts everything on the line, including his career and his homelife, to do the right thing, and continuing to fight even when this huge corporation with all their money and power throws so many hurdles in his way to try and stop him. While Dark Waters is definitely Ruffalo’s movie, the supporting cast are all terrific to. Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman deserve a mention but it’s Anne Hathaway that stood out in the supporting cast. She plays Rob Bilott’s wife and while naturally she has a smaller role, it is still an important one. These court cases and the investigation takes up Rob’s life for years, and it’s important to see how this affects his family, and while his wife is understanding of why he has to do this, she is the one keeping everything together.

It’s easy to compare Dark Waters to the likes of Spotlight and Erin Brockovich; Spotlight for Ruffalo and the investigative aspect and Erin Brockovich for the one person fighting against the big corporation. Dark Waters is easily as good as those two films, but it also stands on its own merits. It’s an engaging investigative movie where unfortunately you’re left feeling equal parts stunned and unsurprised that corporate corruption and greed can be so powerful.

It’s a film that needs to be seen, because the products that this company makes are just everyday things that are in everyone’s homes, and I for one was unaware of what the chemicals they produced could do, and how prevalent they are. 5/5.

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: Midway (2019)

The story of the soldiers and aviators who helped turn the tide of the Second World War during the iconic Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The first 20 minutes or so of Midway are honestly thrilling as the film opens with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately, that sense of urgency and pace doesn’t continue for the rest of this almost two and a half hour-long film.

There are a lot of military characters and names to keep track of. The main pilot is cocky Dick Best (Ed Skrein) whose cavalier attitude towards death puts his superiors including Rear Admiral Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) on edge, but naturally when things are at their breaking point he’s just the kind of guy they need.

It’s a pleasant surprise that the film spends time with the Japanese characters, the admirals and soldiers who planned and carried out the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Midway, and tries to elevate them from just being the Bad Guys. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) is the main character we follow on that side of the battlefield as he tries to bring glory to Japan without taking undue risks. In fact, the Japanese are almost three-dimensional characters, especially compared to their American counterparts that are largely comprised of clichés and strong accents.

The most interesting character is reserved intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who had warned the Japanese were planning something big before the attack on Pearl Harbour, but his superiors failed listened to him. Now with Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) taking command, he is charged with predicting the Japanese’s next move. Their working relationship, as Nimitz slowly puts his faith into Layton and his team of codebreakers, some of whom are a little eccentric, is perhaps the most compelling element in this sprawling account of military underdogs.

The last third is full of aerial battles that are a sight to behold – seeing the pilots dive headfirst towards aircraft carriers in order to drop a bomb on target are nail-biting moments – but the spectacle becomes overwhelming and the various characters, the majority of which you know little about to care about them, are hard to follow in the carnage.

Midway does it’s best to offer a respectful account of events that took place and the men, both Japanese and America, who took part and risked their lives. The action is big and bold but that doesn’t allow any room for nuance. 2/5.

REVIEW: Le Mans ‘66 (2019)

When American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is tasked with designing and building a Ford that will beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he and his team including driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), have to battle corporate interference and the laws of physics to win.

There’s nothing overly surprising about Le Mans ’66, even if you know nothing about the titular race or the people involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining film.

Le Mans ’66 is an underdog story. In the broader sense Ford is the underdog to Ferrari’s powerhouse as they attempt to put the Ford name on the racing map and make a lot of money while doing it. But then there’s Miles, Shelby and his team. They are the underdogs to the men in suits at Ford. Shelby and Miles know how to make a car go fast and they know no matter how fast the car is, you need the best driver to drive it. That’s Miles but as he does not get on with 95% of the people he meets, Shelby must fight for him to be able to race in the car they’ve built together.

It’s a lot of fun seeing Shelby verbally – and sometimes physically – spar with the paper pushers at Ford. His main foe is racing director Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who wants everything done in his way, no matter how little he may know about what it takes to make and race a car. While there’re many obstacles put in his way, Shelby does find an unlikely ally in marketing guru Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal).

The racing sequences are thrilling. Quick cuts between long shots and extreme closeups adds to the intensity of the races and you never feel lost or isolated. Instead, you’re right next to Miles in the car as he weaves in between his opponents and races towards the finish line.

The scenes where Shelby and his team test and break and rebuild Ford’s cars are a lot of fun as they highlight the differences between Shelby’s approach to making cars and the executives at Ford’s approach. These scenes are also little snapshots into Shelby and Miles’s friendship and the way Damon and Bale bounce off one another is very entertaining to watch.

Le Mans ‘66 follows the usual beats for a true sporting story, but with a talented cast and solid and entertaining performances from Bale and Damon, Le Mans ’66 is an enjoyable and often exciting film. 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.

READ THE WORLD – Syria: Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph by Yusra Mardini

At just seventeen, Yusra Mardini and her older sister Sara, decide to flee their native Syria when the fighting gets too dangerous. Together they make the perilous journey to the Turkish coast and board a small inflatable dinghy bound for Lesbos. Twenty passengers are forced onto the tiny craft and soon the engine dies and the boat begins to sink. Yusra, Sara and two others jump into the sea to lighten the load and help navigate the water for an exhausting three and a half hours until they reach the shore, they save the lives of everyone on board. Butterfly follows Yusra’s life from a happy childhood, to growing up in a war-torn suburb of Damascus, through Europe to Berlin and on to Rio de Janeiro where she competes as a part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Yusra, her sister, and the other people they met as they travelled to Europe are all so incredibly strong and brave. Yusra and Sara have to leave Syria without their mother and younger sister. While they face dangers as they deal with the sea, smugglers, and the police across Europe, there’s still the constant worry about their family who are still in a city where there’s almost constant shelling and gunfire.

It’s tough to read about Yusra’s life in Damascus after the conflict starts. It’s sad that she becomes desensitised to the sound of gunfire or explosions so quickly when she’s a young teenager. She and her family have so many near misses when it comes to dangerous situations. For instance, Yusra is training in the swimming pool when a bomb falls through the ceiling, lands in the pool, and doesn’t explode. There’s a mad rush to get as far away from the place as possible and that incident puts a stop to Yusra’s training and dreams of the Olympics for a while.

Yusra’s story does well to capture how there’s good and bad people everywhere. How someone might call the police on a group of refugees because the constant media cycle about terrorists makes them paranoid, but then others might volunteer to help people find clothes, food, and somewhere to stay in a country that’s far from home.

Butterfly does so much in disproving the narrative that some portions of the media like to present about refugees. None of them want to leave their home. Before the fighting starts, Yusra and Sara are like any other teenage girls, they go to school, they swim, their have friends and go shopping. Because we, by which I mean Western audiences, often only hear about countries in Syria when there’s conflict, and see images of bombed out cities, and people living in tents with no electricity, it’s easy to take that as face value and presume that’s what life has always been like for those people when in fact it’s the complete opposite.

Yusra’s internal battle with the word “refugee” was fascinating and explained really well. It’s so easy for her to see it as an insult or a sign she’s a charity case, for instance she struggles to decide if she wants to be a part of the Refugee Olympic Team because she feels she should get there the same way as any other competitor. As time passes though, thanks to the people she meets and what she learns about herself, she decides that it’s just a word and it doesn’t make her any lesser than anyone else.

Butterfly is well-written and engaging. I found it easy to care about Yusra, her family and new-found friends. Yusra is an inspiring young woman, but she makes it clear that while she’s learning to use her fame and voice to bring attention to the thing’s refugees go through and how they are still people with hopes and dreams, she is still the same person who loves to swim and wants to compete for her country in the Olympics. 4/5.