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Film Review: Booksmart

“Amy, We Only Have One Night Left To Have Studied And Partied In High School. Otherwise, We’re Just Going To Be The Girls That Missed Out…”

Acting as the hundred and eighty first coming of age movie this year alone, give or take a couple of exaggerated additions, Booksmart acts as the directorial debut of the wonderfully talented Olivia Wilde, who follows in the footsteps of the equally brilliant Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) by making the tricky transition from in front of the camera to behind it with enormous success. With Gerwig basing the screenplay for her own coming of age story on her personal experiences growing up in 1990’s Sacramento, the template for Booksmart from writing duo, Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, appeared on the infamous “Black List” of unproduced screenplays for a number of years before being picked up by Wilde and her production company, and in the transition from paper to screen, Wilde’s debut sees Kaitlyn Dever (Beautiful Boy) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) play best of friends, Amy and Molly, as they hit the eve of their high school graduation and become ready for their next step into adult life. With both believing their hard work and grades have been the result of a complete absence of any form of debauchery during their school life, they soon find out that even the hardest of party animals have likewise secured an impressive future, resulting in both utilising the last night of high school to engage in as much carnage and outrageousness as humanly possible.

With the set up rather familiar, taking nods from the classic coming of age tales of old, particularly George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Richard Linklater’s stoner comedy, Dazed and Confused, Wilde’s movie moves like a steam train as it skips from the inner workings of American school life to the party-centric madness of primarily the wealthiest one percent, with gigantic yachts and mansion sized family homes acting as the basis for debaucherous set piece after debaucherous set piece. With the central characters more likeable then one would have thought after the film’s rather irritating trailer, Booksmart doesn’t solely aim for the outrageous, with a generous amount of characterisation and interesting narrative arcs allowing the final payoff to be more than rewarding, one which comes together with a familiar sentiment that all good coming of age movies do, whether it be the riotous declaration of friendship from The Breakfast Club or the beginning of a new chapter in Everybody Wants Some!!, Wilde’s movie nicely fits the mould of what should be expected from such a genre movie. With a few scenes which do unfortunately test the patience, particularly an animated, drug-fuelled nightmare come the halfway mark which doesn’t work at all, Booksmart is still an engaging, ludicrous and highly enjoyable cinematic debut from yet another filmmaker whose switch to behind the camera has paid off in spades.

Overall Score: 7/10

Film Review: Beats

“They Wanna Privatise Our Minds, Keep Us In Our Seperate Boxes…”

Following on from the likes of the excellent, Mid90s, and the not so excellent, Eighth Grade, 2019 treats audiences once again to yet another coming-of-age tale, one which trades the urban wasteland of the United States for the erm, urban wasteland of 1990’s Scotland as we follow two socially isolated friends attempt to rise above their familial and personal issues through their shared admiration and love for rave culture. Directed by Scottish filmmaker, Brian Welsh, who as far as I’m aware bears no genetic ties to the infamous Irvine Welsh, Beats follows a very familiar aesthetic and tonal similarity to the latter’s most well known literary work, Trainspotting, with the subsequent big screen adaptation from Danny Boyle undeniably playing a huge part in influencing a movie which tries hard but ultimately fails to have the same impact on both cinema and culture Boyle’s undisputed masterpiece did back in the day.

With the little known Christian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald in the leading roles of Johnno and Spanner respectively, Welsh’s movie spends the first forty five minutes developing a loving friendship separated by social class, with Johnno’s recent familial move to a fancy new build away from the harsh wastelands of Scotland’s high rises and “scum” a whole different world away from the desperate upbringing of Spanner, whose strength on the outside conflicts with an inner vulnerability caused by his ruthless and sociopathic older drug dealing brother. Come the fifty minute mark however and Beats soon falls into the trap of running completely out of steam, with a central narrative involving a music and drug led revolution not interesting in the slightest, and even with a clear nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Beats begins promising but then falls down as it fails to really focus on a meaningful message.

Overall Score: 5/10

Film Review: Mid90s

“A Lot Of The Time We Feel That Our Lives The Worst, But I Think That If You Looked In Anybody Else’s Closet, You Wouldn’t Trade Your Shit For Their Shit…”

Acting as the first of two independently released coming-of-age dramas this month under the umbrella of the increasingly impressive A24 Films, a film company responsible for backing recent cinematic classics including Moonlight, Under the Skin and Hereditary to name a few, Mid90s sees Hollywood star, Jonah Hill (21 Jump Street, The Wolf of Wall Street) move from in front of the camera to behind it, working off of his own personalised script which sees Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as thirteen year old, Stevie, a repressed, overly quiet teenage inbetweener who finds solace away from his violent and complex home-life in a group of skateboard loving misfits with a tendency for underage parties, drinking and other anti-social discrepancies. With Greta Gerwig’s masterful, Lady Bird, a film also released under the banner of A24 Films, the contemporary benchmark for the modern coming-of-age story on film, Mid90s takes a very familiar if surprisingly low-key approach to the age-old tale of troubled youth, but with a convincing sense of grungy realism and a superb central performance from one of Hollywood’s rising stars, Hill’s movie is a thoroughly engaging and emotionally stimulating ninety minute character piece which acts as an excellent kickstarter to Hill’s career as a director.

Shot entirely with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and on 16mm film, a cinematic technique used also on Darren Aronofsky’s, mother!, Hill’s movie takes the bold approach to come across as the most nineties inflicted movie ever, at least on an aesthetic level, with the letterbox framing and grainy cinematography actually quite startling and jarringly retro when it first appears on screen, but once the fancy gimmicks are taken in their stride, the drama takes its time to expand Stevie’s character, offering glimpses into his abusive relationship with both his fitness obsessed older brother and emotionally complex and very young single mother, with the only way out in the form of his newly found band of slackish outsiders led by the charming and morally conflicted figure of Na-Kel Smith’s Ray. With a variety of set pieces which tap into the self-destructive nature of a young boy’s journey into adulthood, Hill ultimately chooses to portray his own coming-of-age tale as one of extreme hardship and cruelty, tackling a variety of issues including loneliness, jealousy and despair, and whilst the script does feature elements of seething darkness, the optimism and sentiment you would expect from this sort of movie does eventually fall into place come the final act, and with added excellent supporting performances from the likes of Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts) and the A24 acting staple, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird), Mid90s is a realist portrayal of youth in crisis with enough dedication from its’ creator to win me over completely. Plus, the soundtrack is freakin’ awesome.

Overall Score: 8/10

Film Review: Love, Simon

“I’m Done Living In A World Where I Don’t Get To Be Who I Am…”

With Barry Jenkins’ outstanding big-screen debut, Moonlight, breaking fresh cinematic ground last year by being the first Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards to not only feature an all-black cast, but to have a LGBT centred narrative at the heart of it too, it seems almost incredibly quaint to finally be seeing a strong wave of widely different styled movies which focus on expanding the boundaries of romance within contemporary mainstream cinema as we know it, somewhat making up for the infamous misstep of handing Crash the Best Picture gong back in 2006 when pretty much everyone assumed it was heading in Brokeback Mountain’s direction. Adapted from Becky Albertalli’s 2015 novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda”, Love, Simon, directed by DC’s Arrowverse writing and producing stalwart, Greg Berlanti, follows in the footsteps of Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name by being yet another success story with a predominant LGBT storyline, one which sees Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) as Simon Spier, a repressed gay teenager who attempts to come to terms with the world’s reaction to his possible social revelation whilst seeking out the identity of the mysterious “Blue”, an online pen-pal who has used the luxury of the internet to express his sexuality and whom Simon slowly begins to fall for.

With a warm, chocolate sweet high-school sensibility which takes heed of classic coming of age movies such as the entire John Hughes back catalogue and the more modern examples such as Easy A and The Edge of Seventeen, Berlanti’s movie focuses heavy on the core relationship between Spier and his close-knit group of friends, with the screenplay allowing each character to have enough breathing space to be both convincing and engaging, even when it seems the parent figures of both Josh Duhamel (Transformers) and Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) are seemingly left aside to pick up the crumbs in both metaphoric and literal terms come the end of the movie. With smart, crackling teenage quips and a steady handed tone which doesn’t dwell on the the nature of it’s romance in a sickly sweet saccharin fashion, Love, Simon instead works on the simplicity of its’ storytelling and the dedicated performance of its’ cast, particularly that of the impressive Robinson who manages to convey a rainbow of conflicting emotions with staggering ease, and even when the movie comes full circle and does end with a slight tinge of predictability and Disney-fulled cheesiness, Berlanti’s movie will leave you pleasantly surprised and see you departing the auditorium with a Joker-wide smile.

Overall Score: 7/10 

Film Review: Lady Bird

“I Want You To Be The Very Best Version Of Yourself That You Can Be…”

Arriving as the final Best Picture nomination from the upcoming Academy Awards to be released in the UK before the ceremony takes place on the first weekend of March, Greta Gerwig (Jackie) halts her acting career for her directorial debut, Lady Bird, a coming of age comedy drama formed around a screenplay written by Gerwig herself and starring Saoirse Ronan as the titular troublesome teen from Sacramento, California who in her transference from school to college faces difficulties within both her home-life and her widening taste of the adolescent outside world. Supported by the likes of Laurie Metcalf (Toy Story 3), Tracy Letts (The Post) and Beanie Feldstein (Neighbours 2), Gerwig’s movie manages to break free from the cliches and pressures of coming-of-age dramas in which the film undeniably takes inspiration from, with the likes of particularly Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and 2016’s little seen The Edge of Seventeen obvious reference points in terms of storyline, thanks to a tightly wound script which manages to balance each of the film’s leading characters with their own personal strengths, weaknesses and flaws, resulting in performances which not only feel perfectly rounded and entirely believable, but are so fundamentally humane and empathetic that the movie spins you around and grips you tightly from the opening scene in which we discover the roller-coaster nature of the relationship which is progressively examined between mother and daughter.

After shining in a wide array of roles including The Grand Budapest Hotel and particularly John Crowley’s magnificent 2015 romantic drama, Brooklyn, Ronan’s portrayal of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is an absorbing and entirely empathetic performance, an awards courting triumph which perfectly captures the wildly inconsistent emotion of teenage angst, acne faced and all, one which is aided profusely by the magnificently resonant aura which the Irish star brings to a leading role bursting with flavourful personality and charisma, a character who although is proven to be riddled with human error and socially shocking flaws, manages to be much more interesting than the standardised Hollywood image of a cinematic on-screen teenager. Although the flashy editing and electrifying pace of the movie interweaves Lady Bird’s in-school debacles and the choppy relationships with both the female and male sex, with Manchester By The Sea’s Lucas Hedges and Call Me By Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet the cameo love interests whose personal narrative endpoints both end in extravagant fashion, the cornerstone of the movie is entirely focused on the exhausting battle between the child and parent, with Laurie Metcalf’s mother figure, Marion, a resoundingly commonplace thorn in the side of youthful curiosity of which many 21st century teenagers are more than accustomed to, with the performance of Metcalf equally as impressive as her younger counterpart, resulting in the many on-screen discussions between the two strong willed characters entirely captivating. With a deep level of care for the characters and precise direction from Gerwig who in her obvious admiration and pride for her screenplay manages to get the best out of even the most bit-part players of the piece, Lady Bird is flawless, a movie full with outstanding performances and a movie which manages to blend laugh out loud and perfectly pitched comic timing with elements of lachrymose inducing tenderness so effectively, you’ll think you would have known each of the film’s characters for years, and for a movie with a runtime with just over ninety minutes, it’s suffice to say, I would have happily stayed for much, much longer.

Overall Score: 10/10

Film Review: Wonder

“You Can’t Blend In When You Were Born To Stand Out…”

Based upon R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel of the same name, Wonder tells the tale of Jacob Tremblay’s August “Auggie” Pullman and his battle with Treacher Collins syndrome as he attempts to manage his way through school and a coming of age lifestyle after years of homeschooling designed to prevent him from facing the potential fear of inevitable youth misunderstanding when it comes to his condition. Supported by the beach burnt Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as Auggie’s father and mother tag team, and directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose previous credits include The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the lead writer’s gig for this year’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Wonder is a solid by-the-numbers tale of acceptance and individual strength which although features an important fundamental message regarding acceptance and the impact of schoolground bullying, does become increasingly tiresome and overly manipulative in its’ emotional bulldozing as it passively lingers on to a conclusion which does manage to seal the deal to some extent and leave its’ audience with an undeniable smile.

Where Lenny Abrahamson’s Room introduced the world to the enviable talents of young Jacob Tremblay, Wonder solidifies once again that a huge future awaits for an actor who although throughout the film is covered in prosthetics akin to John Hurt in David Lynch’s heartbreaker, The Elephant Man, manages to encompass Auggie’s spectral of emotions to such an extent that the audience can’t help from getting on board and totally support the film’s leading character as he makes his journey through the trials and tribulations of a diverse and sometimes ignorant collection of fellow schoolmates. Whilst Wonder does attempt to balance the heavy dose of Auggie’s characterisation with his fellow family and friends, with the movie sometimes wandering off on tangents to do such via Tarantino-esque title cards, such diversions do come across as somewhat pointless, particularly when regarding the film’s overplayed two hour runtime, and with overly saccharin scenes of animal deaths and endless crying montages, the sentimental value of the narrative does become pretty irksome at times, but with Tremblay stealing the show and even Wilson and Roberts having a fair share of effective quick comedic quips as the relatable parents, Wonder is sometimes preachy but undeniably good hearted.

Overall Score: 6/10

Second Opinion: Moonlight

“I Won’t Let You Go. Hey Man. I Got You. There You Go. Ten Seconds. Right There. You In The Middle Of The World…”

Within the final paragraph of my first review for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight not but a week past, I came to the conclusion that the eight time Oscar nominated picture was indeed an impressive piece of drama, but too a film which seemingly didn’t hold up to the impressive amount of hype which had surrounded its’ release for months since it first hit the festival circuit in late 2016, at least on first watch. With the review out for everyone to see, the usual state of affairs would be to forget the film and move swiftly on to the next one, particularly as on first glance, Moonlight didn’t seem to be the masterpiece many had declared it to be. However, in a rather surrealist fashion, this past week has been one in which a wild conundrum has been constructed within my cinematic mind, questioning my original decision regarding the movie’s qualities, due mainly to the fact that the sensual feelings and visuals of Barry Jenkins’ dramatic coming-of-age tale cannot escape my mind long enough for it to be regarded as something other than a work of excellence. For a reviewer who finds it hard sometimes to admit when he is wrong and hold his arms out to graciously accept a slice of humble pie, Moonlight is a strange case of a film which hypnotises you the more you think about it but more impressively, captivates you the more times you sit down and admire it.

 Like many films before it in which repeat viewings has either resulted in a film being better or worse than it seemed on first watch, Moonlight is a movie which I now can fully understand for what it is; a social realist drama about the conflicted nature of love within the confines of Miami’s drug-ridden gang-lands, and although the film does still suffer from a middling final act in which the quest for ambiguity and exploration in terms of its’ character’s emotions does still become slightly repetitive and arduous, Trevante Rhodes does do a superb job of portraying a character who although is powerful and intimidating on the surface, underneath is a firework of emotions, lit by the calling of his one and only experience of love, concluding in a battle of repressed emotion which bears similarities to Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester By The Sea, a similarly low-key drama which focuses on the understatement of feelings rather than the dramatic pull of shouty soap-like confrontation. As stated previously, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris are indeed the stars of the show, with the former cementing an unforgettable performance of a cliche-avoiding drug dealer in the short time he has on-screen and the latter on second watch coming across as a terrifying entity of drug-infested mania, with the scene in which her character is filmed backwards harking towards more of a surrealist horror infliction and boy is it startling.

Another element of Moonlight which was more noticeable on second watch was the superb choice of music encompassing the film’s score, with Nicholas Britell mixing a crafty selection of modern hip-hop, classic soul and a striking use of strings, particularly “The Middle of the World”, a violin-heavy piece of music which hits an arrangement of nerves in an almost Lynchian and somewhat surrealist fashion, adding breadth to the evidence of the film’s more horror-inflicted elements. Concluding this particular feature therefore, Moonlight is indeed a working progress of a movie, where although La La Land and Manchester By The Sea are arguably more effective as an entire body of work, Moonlight is a movie which just can’t seem to escape my train of thought for any meaningful length of time. What Barry Jenkins has here is a movie which has been scuppered by the tremendous level of hype surrounding it and whilst many would have shared similar views to my own on first glance, a second watch has improved and highlighted its’ more impressive elements ten-fold. Whilst La La Land is still my personal preference for the Best Picture nod, Moonlight is the type of movie which wouldn’t surprise me if it took the prestigious gong instead, a particular statement I wouldn’t have said a week ago. How things change…

Overall Score: 8.5/10

(At Least on Second Watch)

Film Review: The Edge of Seventeen

“I Am An Old Soul. I Like Old Movies And Old Music. Even Old People…!”

I know the feeling. As one of the minorities who believe they were born in the completely wrong era, The Edge of Seventeen is one of those fantastical coming-of-age comedies in which relating with the leading lady is simple. A conflicted socially awkward teen who believes the current social strata is one of isolation and technological addiction could sum up Hailee Steinfield’s Nadine, a high-school junior who fails completely at fitting in with the modern crowd and unfortunately loses her best friend after she catches her sleeping with her brother. Ouch indeed. The Edge of Seventeen works on a wide range of levels, no more so than Steinfield herself, who after her star-making performance in the Coen’s remake of True Grit, embraces the film’s lead role in her stride and creates a character so effortlessly likeable, the fact that she appears in every shot of the movie makes it an enjoyable ride into the ambiguity of modern youthfulness once again.

Whilst the perilous teen conflicts at the heart of The Edge of Seventeen aren’t entirely organic, the rather understated nature of the narrative helps to inflict a sense of realism into the drama associated around Nadine, with her brother, played by Everybody Wants Some!! star Blake Jenner, seemingly at the heart of the main issues, a problem many siblings across the globe can relate to. Adding a level of droll humour to the proceedings, Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Nadine’s teacher-comfort is a quaint addition, one which allows our heroine to find comfort in the heart of someone much older yet someone who understands her completely. Strangely enough, the 15 rating plastered on the movie will unfortunately dissuade most of the audience the movie is attempting to connect with, yet The Edge of Seventeen is indeed one of the more heartwarming additions to the big screen at the moment and when put up against the likes of Office Christmas Party, it’s Annie Hall. On its’ own however, The Edge of Seventeen isn’t exactly in that particular pedigree but it is still is a worthy addition to the genre.

Overall Score: 7/10