“I’d Like Very Much To Write About You. Your Society…”
Winning the award for most convoluted title of the year so far, Four Weddings and a Funeral director, Mike Newell, returns with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a big screen adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ 2008 novel of the same name which sees Lily James’ (Cinderella) awfully well-spoken but deliriously likeable Julie Ashton, a well-to-do and moderately successful English writer, venture over to post-war Guernsey in order to embed herself into the titular organisation as research for her next literary project. With a cinematic sensibility which reeks of similarity when it comes to moderately successful contemporary Second World War dramas including Their Finest and Churchill, Newell’s latest is a ridiculously twee and wickedly harmless romantic drama which revels in its’ overt Britishness and an unbelievably predictable and paint-by-numbers screenplay, one which seems to be primarily designed to please audiences admiring the film with a slice of cake and cup of Earl Grey on a light and breezy Sunday afternoon.
With an opening twenty minutes which introduces James’ Ashton, the audience is made privy to her recent literary successes and close separate relationships of professional and personal boundaries with both the attentive, publisher figure of Matthew Goode’s (Stoker) Sidney and the charming American soldier, Mark Reynolds, as played by Everybody Wants Some!! highlight, Glen Powell. After receiving a letter from Michiel Huisman’s (Game of Thrones) farmer type, Dawsey Adams, under the umbrella of the titular gang of Guernsey residents however, Ashton swaps war torn central London to the rural heart of post occupied Guernsey where she attempts to unravel the mystery of Jessica Brown Findlay’s (Black Mirror) missing society founder, Elizabeth McKenna whilst slowly falling for the rough and rugged winner of most attractive cinematic farmer ever in the form of Huisman’s Adams. With a supporting band of merry well versed actors including Penelope Wilton (Doctor Who) and Tom Courtenay (45 Years), Newell’s movie never alleviates from being anything other than perfectly fine, and whilst at times the predictability weakens the film’s final product, the film forever linked with one of the worst titles ever just about ticks over.
Overall Score: 6/10
“Are We So Different From Men You Must Teach Us Different Things…”
With 2016’s Lion a solid and warm-hearted Oscar nominated directorial debut for Australian filmmaker, Garth Davis, expectations remained high for a cinematic second coming, no pun intended, and with the Easter holiday’s swiftly approaching, a time in which kids devour chocolate coated eggs with less and less of an understanding each year regarding its’ figurative meaning, the release of Mary Magdalene seems naturally apt. Featuring Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story) as the titular follower of Jesus Christ, whose religious and historical actions tend to primarily focus on her bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion by the hands of the Roman Empire, Davis’ movie unfortunately conforms to the curse of the follow-up album by being a body of work much weaker than its’ predecessor, a staggeringly dull and uninspiring let-down which works much more effectively as a medicinal cure for insomniacs rather than a religious spiritual mediation, and whilst I am all for movies which opt for a slow and ponderous sensibility over choppily edited spectacle in the ilk of Blade Runner 2049 and Mara’s own strangely hypnotically strange, A Ghost Story, a film famous for a ten minute continuous shot of a character eating pie, Mary Magdalene is unfortunately an example of a film which uses the strategy and fails miserably.
With an underwritten screenplay which seems to have been typefaced onto the back of a postage stamp, the lack of real adventure or push results in the on-screen transfer from paper to film one which is tortuously painful to endure, with the film lacking both a simple element of life and a substantial capacity for the audience to not only believe that any of the characters are believable but more importantly, interesting enough to care for. With Joaquin Phoenix (Her) cast as the prophetic figure of Jesus, his whispering tone and shaggy-dog hair demeanour results in a performance which manages to come across as the lovechild of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending and Phoenix himself in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and whilst Phoenix normally manages to pull off decent performances regardless of the overall quality of the movie, his performance is poorly directed and staggeringly dull. With two hours of film to burn through, Davis’ movie just doesn’t offer up a sizeable reason for why it exists in the first place, and even with a slightly interesting concluding contemplation, Mary Magdalene is the cinematic equivalent of a Tesco saver Easter egg; unequivocally bland.
Overall Score: 3/10
“For The Next Hour You’re Not Going To Know What’s Real Or What’s Fake…”
Part of the ensemble of writers behind the screenplay for Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, film-making duo, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein return to directing with Game Night, a blackly comic mystery popcorn delight based on a script by the relatively unknown figure of Mark Perez, featuring Jason Bateman (The Gift) and Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) as the competitive married couple who are sucked into a night of outrageous antics with their weekly “game night” comrades by Kyle Chandler’s (Manchester By The Sea) returning overzealous and annoyingly successful brother figure who promises the players a night of gaming unlike any before it. With laugh out loud gags from beginning to end and a joyous first time viewing in which the audience is pulled left, right and centre in regards to the many twists which come before them, Game Night is an American comedy which ultimately works much more effectively than your average US-based comic farce thanks to a tightly wound script and an ensemble cast who undeniably seem to be having as much fun as the fee paying customers come to observe, and even if the movie may not work as well on repeat viewings after its’ concluding payoff, Daley and Goldstein’s latest is still a resounding full house.
With obvious narrative comparisons to David Fincher’s 1997 mystery drama The Game, albeit with with a much more comical tone, Game Night manages to succeed in intertwining both the whodunit elements of its’ narrative with the sickly black tone of its’ sharp humour, with set pieces featuring amateur bullet hole surgery and the attempted deep clean of a blood soaked dog resulting in hysterical fits of giggles as you soak up the sheer absurdity which unfolds throughout a tightly packed 100 minutes runtime. With Bateman and McAdams leading the line of couples entrapped in the film’s leading mystery, the chemistry between them is undeniably well measured, and even with my own personal reservations regarding the former’s on-screen talents when it comes to comedy, their central relationship is crucial to the more out-there comedy elements which in lesser hands may have indeed folded under the silliness of it all. With Jesse Plemons (Hostiles) stealing the show as the woefully awkward next door neighbour and a fantastically designed post-movie credit sequence, Game Night is if anything, outstanding popcorn fun, and for an American comedy to hold my attention for its’ entire runtime, that is a miracle within itself.
Overall Score: 7/10
“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
“I Think I’ve Made A Terrible Mistake…”
Chosen as Russia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathon) stark and overly moody latest, Loveless, may be a particularly difficult picture to try and seek out thanks to an incredibly limited release, and whilst icy cold Russian mysteries aren’t exactly the type of movies audiences tend to rush and out and catch as quickly as humanly possible, Zvyagintsev’s latest is an interesting tale of extreme familial breakdowns and a depressing vista of Russia society, one which is helmed together by a central narrative regarding the disappearance of a young, seemingly unloved child and a movie that definitely deserves to be sought out. With a staggering plot pace and a claustrophobic overarching sensibility which not only takes its’ time setting the pieces of the narrative chess board in place but may seem too tough to handle for wandering minds, Loveless is an uncompromisingly depressive tragedy which fails to enforce even the smallest amount of redemption, but for those who can withstand the harshness of its’ winds, Zvyagintsev’s latest is an impressive, overly mysterious achievement.
With the first hour detailing in harsh detail the toxic relationship between Maryana Spivak’s Zhenya and Aleksey Rozin’s Boris as they both attempt to conclude an ongoing divorce and build fresh lives away from one another with new partners, Matvey Novikov’s Alexey is the isolated child in the middle, whose decision to abandon both mother and father sets up a second hour in which the picture switches from an uncompromising domesticated drama to a Scandi-esque thriller of ambiguous and uncertain temperament, bringing to mind in more ways than one the brilliance of The Killing (The Swedish one, not the American re-hash) and the ice-cold atmosphere of Let The Right One In. Portraying a society in which the birth of a child is met with disdain in favour of flavoursome trips of winding romance with new lovers and uninterested public services in which authorities are forced to act through procedure rather than through willingness, Zvyagintsev’s portrayal of modern Russia is unflinchingly negative, and with a conclusion which only serves as a reminder of the stark reality of consequence, Loveless is a sucker punch of a movie, one which leaves you gasping for the cheery horizons and one that even with obvious pacing flaws, keeps you thinking about it for days afterwards.
Overall Score: 7/10
“Downsizing Is About Saving Yourself. We Live Like Kings…”
Although, rather ashamedly, awareness of Alexander Payne’s previous work is limited to absolute zilch, resulting in a complete bypass of the likes of Nebraska, Sideways and The Descendants, the Academy Award winning American’s latest, Downsizing, is ironically somewhat unavoidable thanks to an early hurricane of hype regarding its’ quality and the decision for distributors to plaster its’ trailer on every release for at least the past three months. Starring Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a downbeat, struggling occupational therapist, who along with wife, Audrey, played by Kristen Wiig, decides to agree to the titular, groundbreaking operation in order to reap the individual and world wide rewards which are offered, Payne’s latest is a particularly wild oddity, one which revels in a concoction of varying ideas and yet fails to clutch at a single straw and stay strictly on course. Sold as a comedic social satire, Downsizing begins in entertaining fashion, focusing primarily on Damon’s Safranek and his decision to undergo the procedure which reduces his mass to a fraction of his normal size, and with particular attention to detail and a number of cute, size related chuckles, the movie’s first hour is a real triumph, with the pace and script effectively managing to hold the balance between hypothetical science fiction and rib-tickling comedy.
Unfortunately for Payne however, once the movie moves into territory which can only be regarded as mindless, sanctimonious preaching, the film begins to test your patience, and with a final act which discusses notions of apocalyptic foreboding and the survival of the entire human race, Downsizing almost becomes two completely different movies, with the second so wrapped up in a narrative so conflicting with its’ first, the size of our leading characters is somewhat normalised and loses its’ the sense of purpose it ultimately and successfully began with. With Damon on solid form and the likes of Christoph Waltz and Brawl In Cell Block 99′s, Udo Kier, doing the best they can with the little time they have on screen, Payne’s wild card in the form of Hong Chau’s Vietnamese political freedom fighter, Ngoc Lan Tran is also a troublesome element within the film, a broken English speaking Asian with a prosthetic leg whose appearance in the narrative seems only to be there in attempt to widen the comic relief. Whilst not exactly ever resorting to the level of Mickey Rooney’s overtly troubled portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Tran is indeed a misjudged caricature, who although is portrayed as somewhat brazen and overwhelmingly commanding, is still a completely off-kilter inclusion within a movie which rightly can be lauded for its’ ideas but too can be criticised for its’ execution, and whilst Payne’s latest may seem impressive on the surface, underneath it bears a more than a few staggering issues at the heart of it.
Overall Score: 5/10
“What Are You Going To Do, Mrs Graham…?”
Working on its’ production during the latter stages of finalising the upcoming science fiction spectacle Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s first of two movies arriving within the space of just four months, The Post, arrives suspiciously close to the one year anniversary of a certain American President’s inauguration, and in a time when media scrutiny, both on paper and in the online stratosphere, is rife more than ever, Spielberg’s latest is a topical drama which not only manages to balance a hefty load of important and ever-present societal issues, but a film which captures quite brilliantly a moment in media history which ultimately turned the table for press freedom and solidify the right to question and challenge the decisions of our leaders and representatives to rule. Focusing on the high profile leak of the Pentagon Papers, classified documents detailing America’s involvement during the much maligned Vietnam War, The Post follows on the one hand, a Spotlight-esque narrative which features Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee as he battles to locate the sacred papers and subsequently publish amidst legal scrutiny and fears of incarceration, but more importantly, Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Katherine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post who attempts to balance the arrival of the scandalous papers with the survival of her family business after she is made heiress due to the death of her late husband.
With the two leads on top dramatic form, Hank’s confident, swaggering, editor in chief with a crystal clear view regarding the purpose of the press is brilliantly contrasted by the performance of Streep’s Graham, with her managing to convey the radical development of a figure who begins unsure and insecure in a world primarily ruled by men to a fist-pumping advocate for female empowerment. With the narrative funneling through conversations which tackle conflicted interests between the press and those that are meant to being held to account, the righteousness of war and the decision between what is right and what is easy, Spielberg’s latest is undeniably audience pleasing, with even a handful of cheese-twisted dramatic turns somewhat passable, but within all the flashiness and swirly whirly camera angles which convey a heavier sense of cinematic wantness than Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight ever did, The Post works best when the gripping search for the truth is front and centre of the story, and with the holy trilogy of Streep, Hanks and Spielberg, The Post is the slice of entertaining period drama you expected, just with added excellence.
Overall Score: 8/10
“You Know, If You Hadn’t Stopped Coming To Church, You’d Have A Little More Understanding Of People’s Feelings…”
With the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths on his curriculum vitae, Irish screenwrite Martin McDonagh has become renowned in the entertainment trade for snappy and subversive tales which blend the darker traits of the human spirit with rib-tickling comedic undertones, and his return this week with the hotly anticipated jet-black drama, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an interesting example of a movie which has both equal measures of excellence and fundamental, unforgivable sin. Primarily following Frances McDormand (Fargo, Hail, Caesar!) as the grieving, unpredictable and potty mouthed Mildred Hayes, who in her attempt to call out the workings of the local police force after her daughter’s violent death instinctively causes anguish within the community with the implementation of the titular billboards, McDonagh’s latest carries all the traits and features you would expect when glancing over the director’s previous endeavours on film, but with primary characters within the narrative which ease on the side of utmost vulgarity and gaping plot inconsistencies which become too jarring to ignore, Billboards is a movie which is the epitome of a picture where the whole is lesser than the sum of its’ parts. Whilst performances all around are seemingly note perfect, with obvious plaudits directed to McDormand’s fiery justice seeker and Sam Rockwell’s idiotic, racist and utterly despicable local law enforcer, Officer Dickson, the real heart and centre of the piece is undeniably Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Bill Willoughby, whose key involvement in the direction of the narrative is the only true character where emotional investment and engagement is truly viable.
Whilst the character of Hayes has a self defined purpose due to the tragic loss of her daughter, her penchant for unwarranted violence and vulgar sensibility highlights the key flaw in a script which not only is tonally wild, but isn’t comedic or sharp enough to come across anything other than played with a straight face, and for a movie which tackles poorly a wide range of issues ranging from rape to institutionalised racism, McDonagh’s script is one of the most nihilistic portrayals of the human race presented on screen in recent memory. With the comedic elements completely absent therefore, the continued use of petulant swearing and offensive set pieces do ultimately lead to extensive nitpicking in terms of plot inconsistencies, with the most obvious being a complete lack of any realist sense of consequence for any of the major players within the piece, with people being violently attacked in front of gazing witnesses, children being assaulted and police stations being burnt to the ground, with the characters at fault then seemingly left without any sense of punishment, and for a movie whose primary basis is Hayes’ search for justice, the feel of the movie just seems terribly conflicted and contradicted. Finally, we get to the character of Rockwell’s Officer Dickson, whose revolting, old-fashioned sensibilities and racist, sexist and bigoted views are seemingly forgotten over the course of the movie’s runtime, with McDonagh handing the character over to the audience as a sort of redemptive figure of hope which I completely and utterly rejected, and whilst Rockwell’s performance is undeniably brilliant, his respective character isn’t and whilst Billboards is indeed brilliantly made and is helmed by a flashy pace which zips along nicely, the key message and feel of the movie ultimately left me with a nasty taste in my mouth, and for a film to successfully manage that, McDonagh’s latest is a film I can admire but ultimately cannot bring myself to like.
Overall Score: 6/10
“You’re Fifty Years Old And You Still Think The World Was Made For You…”
Tackling notions of the mid-life crisis and looking back on a lifetime gone swiftly by, School of Rock writer, Mike White, directs and provides the screenplay for Brad’s Status, a low-key and pleasantly thoughtful comedy which utilises the leading star skills of Ben Stiller who returns to the big screen after a somewhat nonexistent cinematic footprint over the course of the past few years or so. Whilst Stiller’s comedy can somewhat not exactly hit the mark, take the likes of Zoolander 2 for instance, the emergence of White’s script and a wide range of lovely supporting performances from an extravagantly well-versed cast, proves to be a solid winning return for the comedic stalwart, and although the underlying narrative point of the movie is one which has been tackled before in a wide range of differing movies ranging from American Beauty to last year’s Ingrid Goes West, Brad’s Status is a cool, sombre and sometimes heartwarming drama which doesn’t ever feel the need to raise up from its’ subtle examination of its’ titular leading character.
Accompanying his son, Troy (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) along the East Coast whilst they seek out potential future colleges, Brad Sloane (Stiller) reminisces about the success of his out of touch school friends whilst he contemplates his own life’s middling mediocrity, one which is full with seething regret and unwarranted shame in comparison to his long lost forgotten acquaintances. With the narrative primarily explained through the use of Stiller’s voiceover and some rather excessive yet undeniably comedic dream sequences which convey’s Sloane’s belief of his friend’s individual successes, White’s movie works primarily thanks to a brilliantly conflicted leading performance from Stiller alongside the grounding of its’ youthful cast, with the likes of Abrams and Shazi Raja counteracting Sloane’s contempt for the world by explaining its’ true riches in a It’s a Wonderful Life style monologue. Whilst the movie falls at times for swaying too much from the central narrative and limiting its’ actual comedic zingers to a minimal amount, White’s movie is still an interesting social drama which reinforces the idea that when put to good use, Stiller is still an important and welcome leading star.