Earlier this year, I took a trip to New York to see lots of theatre. One of the plays I saw during that time was Blackbird starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in a two-hander. It was an intense production (you can read my review here) and on hearing it had been adapted by its writer David Harrower in to a film, to be screened during the London Film Festival, I was curious to see it in a different medium.
Renamed Una, the story is a chilling, uncomfortable, examination of the disturbing reality and consequences of child abuse. Una (Rooney Mara) arrives unannounced at Ray’s (Ben Mendelsohn) workplace, to his visible shock and horror. It soon becomes apparent that Una and Ray had a sexual relationship 15 years previously – when she was just 13 (it was 12 in the play and I don’t really understand why the change for the film, seeing as it is well under the age of consent). It’s a horrifying realisation for the audience and over the course of the film, we see the true consequences of such abuse; something we don’t like to think about and the way it affects that child’s life forever, as they mature and become an adult.
Although for the needs of a film, the story is expanded a little, it remains a piece driven by its two central characters and both actors do a tremendous job with such challenging material. Ben Mendelsohn (most recently known for Netflix’s Bloodline) is excellent at portraying Ray as a seemingly normal man. There are times when you almost forget what he has done, so good is his performance. Interestingly, he was quite different from Jeff Daniels, who played him as a much weaker and broken man. Seeing Una terrified him and he often felt weak compared to her. Mendelsohn plays him as a more confident man in my view; far more in control of his emotions. Daniels’ Ray perhaps genuinely didn’t think he was like “those other men”, but I had the sense here that Mendelsohn’s Ray knew exactly who and what he was. This made him much more disturbing.
Rooney Mara is the pivotal piece of the picture and she is astonishing as Una. It’s a role that demonstrates the calibre of actress she is when given the right material (one of the weakest bits of the wonderful film Lion for me was how wasted Mara was). She has an incredible on-screen presence that pulls you in to her world and doesn’t let you go. You see how damaged Una is; how confused she’s been for 15 years about what happened to her. There remains something childlike about her; as if part of her has been frozen in the past. There is also a tension between the two of them that chills you, as you see that as a girl she was more upset at thinking Ray had deserted her rather than what he’d done to her and her complex feelings for him made me ache for her. We rightly think of children who experience such terrible things as victims, but Una’s/Blackbird’s power is in highlighting that at the time those children may not see themselves that way.
One of the most powerful moments in the play was when Una recalled the last few hours she spent with Ray, after they’d ran away together to the seaside, apparently about to embark on a new life. You couldn’t see it then, but through the talent of the writing and Michelle Williams, your mind took you in to the past with Una. One of the most disturbing aspects of the film however, is the fact they can show us young Una as well as adult Una and indeed seeing her as a child with Ray is harrowing.
The film chooses to move beyond the factory setting, which allows us to see both Una and Ray interact with others; Una mainly with her mother (played by Tara Fitzgerald), who she has clearly never really forgiven for how she reacted in the aftermath of what happened, and Ray’s work colleague Scott (Riz Ahmed), someone who she could perhaps be happy with if she wasn’t quite so broken and had circumstances been different. Unlike the play, we also get to see Ray in his new life, with his wife and friends and the film leaves us with the same frightening uncertainty as the play, as to whether Una really was his only victim.
I’ve seen some people comment that they thought this was a paedophile apologist film, but it’s not that at all. It couldn’t be clearer how dreadful the actions of these predators are, while also shining a spotlight on just how such events can happen, when someone who seems to be like any other neighbour can choose to take advantage of a child in this way. It also makes us think again about those children and how they require emotional strength and support long in to adulthood.
I admit I may not have chosen to see this film had I not already watched the play, but it’s a strong, emotional and thought-provoking piece and a very capable directorial film debut by playwright and theatre director Benedict Andrews (most recently director of Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire) and I hope is a performance that will earn Rooney Mara deserved praise. It is certainly a film no one who sees it will forget.
Una does not yet have a release date in the UK or the USA, but I’ll update this post if one is announced.
During my time at the London Film Festival, I was also able to attend the European premiere of Disney’s Queen of Katwe. Based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, the young Ugandan girl who goes on to become a chess champion, this is a wonderfully uplifting film that had me leaving the cinema with a smile on my face.
The film’s director Mira Nair spoke before the screening about how pleased she was to be able to make a film about Africa that was about the country she knows and loves, not a film about colonial Africa or one filled with animals roaming across the open plains and Queen of Katwe certainly opens your eyes to the reality of those living in the poorer communities of Uganda.
As the story centres on Phiona and her family, it needed a strong central performance and Madina Nalwanga is wonderful in the role. She has a presence on screen that captivates the audience, as we watch Phiona grow in confidence and self belief. She also has a glint in her eye, which allows her to bring out the more humourous moments. She is also excellently supported by David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, who were both at the premiere.
Oyelowo, plays her coach Robert Katende, the man who introduces her to chess and realises the potential she has. He captures Katende’s incredible generosity of spirit and kind heart, as we see how he and his wife support the children of Kampala as if they are an extension of their family, highlighted further by the film’s credits referring to some of the children living with their family. They truly care for them and it’s lovely to watch Katende’s bond with his chess group grow.
Nyong’o, whose breadth as an actress continues to impress me both on screen and stage (Eclipsed in NYC is one of my theatre highlights of 2016), is also excellent. As Phiona’s mother we see her as the strong, protective woman who, after being widowed has to provide for her children in very difficult circumstances. You see where Phiona learnt to have such strength and the two woman have a warm bond that gives the film further depth.
Another wonderful aspect of this film is how much humour is in it. The children of Katwe (or the Phioneers) are a breath of fresh air and play each of their roles so well, capturing the playful and joyful spirit they have. Also, to say I didn’t understand the rules of chess, I didn’t find the scenes in which games are played dry or dull. Director Mira Nair manages to successfully create a sense of drama and anticipation to them, which keeps your attention and interest.
The soundtrack choices have also been perfectly chosen with songs full of the essence and spirit of the Africa we see in this film.
Queen of Katwe is ultimately a story about how anything is possible. Anyone, no matter their place in the world, can go on to achieve great success if they work hard, believe in themselves and have people in their lives to give them strength when they need it. It’s a wonderfully positive story for all ages that I hope will inspire all who see it. Heck, it even made me more interested in chess!
Queen of Katwe opens in U.K. cinemas on 21st October 2016. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/z4l3-_yub5A
There’s happiness inside all of us. We just need someone to help us find it. That’s the message of the latest movie from DreamWorks animation. If you grew up in the 80s or 90s like me, you’ll no doubt remember Troll toys or have even owned a few and now they are making a big screen comeback through this hugely entertaining film.
It’s a very simple premise. The Bergens are a gloomy township, who live under the belief that happiness can only be achieved one way – by eating a troll. So, every year on “Trollstice” that is what the Bergens do, until the brave Troll King leads his people to safety. Twenty years have now passed and perhaps becoming a bit too complacent, the Trolls soon find themselves in danger once again and it’s up to Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and the reluctant Branch (Justin Timberlake) to risk it all to save their friends (well, her friends in Branch’s opinion!).
When watching Trolls, I was marvelling at how far computer animation has come. I’m still a sucker for a traditional 2D animated feature, but when the final production is as polished and impressive as Trolls you can’t not enjoy yourself. The fact that their hair is their big feature requires it to be spot-on and it certainly is. I also loved the glitter Trolls, which were an element that the filmmakers afterwards said the computer had trouble with initially. Every detail is visually brilliant – right down to the shagpile carpet in the Bergen castle, which looks so realistic as the Trolls speed over it in a rollerskate. There’s even the appropriate imprint left behind in the carpet too!
As for the look of the film, the acting and indeed singing had to be on point and the ensemble of voice actors here are very good indeed. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake are both strong leads, able to convey both the fun and more serious moments of the story. They also have wonderful support from, in particular, Zooey Deschanel as Bridget, the lonely and kind-hearted Bergen kitchen maid, who is just as important as the Trolls, and Christine Baranski as the evil Bergen chef, hell-bent on power by ensuring she has the Trolls captured and therefore control of the town.
Justin Timberlake was also overseeing the musical content of the film as an executive producer, which is a huge element of the story. Each song included in the film has been taken and re-recoded by the cast, including the pivotal True Colours, which is the perfect centrepiece for such a vividly colourful movie. Yes, some of the songs chosen do feel a bit cheesy, but it’s such a cheerful film that I forgave it a certain level of cheesiness. Favourites for me were the catchy “Get Back Up Again” and the lovely use of “True Colours”. The songs also add an extra layer of comedy for the adults in the audience who can appreciate how aptly they are chosen. Poppy’s choice of “Hello Darkness” in particular made me laugh and as with DreamWorks’s other hits such as Shrek, there’s enough humour here for the adults as well as fun for the kids.
Overall, this is another success for DreamWorks, which has something to offer adults and children alike and hopefully, in such a serious world, it can be a reminder of how much good can be found if you look for it. I predict a new wave of children are about to start collecting Troll toys just like I did!
Trolls opens in UK cinemas on 21st October 2016 (4th November in the USA). Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/xyjm5VQ11TQ
There are very few films that I can say have moved me to tears, but I can now add Lion to this list after attending last night’s UK premiere during the London Film Festival.
Lion is the astonishing true story of Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) and is based on his book A Long Way Home. Saroo was born in India and lived there with his mother and two siblings until the day when he was five years old, that he was separated from his brother, Guddu, after falling asleep on a train and ending up 1,600 miles from home in Calcutta with no way of getting back to his family. Eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman & David Wenham), he grew up in Tazmania with them and his adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), another homeless Indian boy.
Twenty five years later, in 2008, the faces and memories of his family in India resurface and although he has loving parents and is set for university and a career, it’s clear that a part of Saroo remains lost; caught between the life he has had in Australia and the one he left behind. When a university friend suggests he use Google Earth (quite new back then) to try and locate the area he sees in his memories to look for the remote village he was from, his search for home begins and with it the hope that he will finally find a sense of peace and completeness.
Your emotional connection with this film starts from the outset, as we first see young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his life in India. I hadn’t expected so much of it to be set when Saroo was a little boy, but it’s definitely a strength of the film as Sunny gives such an affecting performance. After last night’s screening, Nicole Kidman commented that for a little boy, who wasn’t an actor and didn’t speak English, to give that kind of performance is a credit to director Garth Davis and I’m minded to agree.
You first see how happy he is, despite the poor conditions they live in and the strong bond he has with his brother, before witnessing the fear and confusion this little five year old experienced, when without warning he was separated from everything he knew. It’s heartbreaking to see the life he and other children have on the streets of Calcutta and certainly feels as if you are watching every child’s nightmare. It comes as a relief when little Saroo finally meets the Brierleys and you know he is safe. I challenge you not to be captivated by Sunny Pawar and the strength of his portrayal of young Saroo creates the affection you have for him as a young man.
Dev Patel (still perhaps most known for Slumdog Millionaire or viewers of The Newsroom) was desperate to play Saroo, resorting to going to the writer’s house and his passion for this young man’s story shines through in his powerful performance. He conveys the conflicted emotions Saroo has; he loves his family and, unlike Mantosh, has settled in to life in Australia. However, the film highlights the guilt he carries with him, guilt for the comfortable Western life he has compared to his poorer childhood, but also guilt as to the pain he must have caused his family in India, who have no idea what happened to him. It’s clearly a heavy burden, which he has kept inside, only revealing it to his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, who I do think is a little wasted in this film), who helps him have the courage to face his past.
In a film all about love and family, having an actress of Nicole Kidman’s calibre on board was essential and she gives a beautiful performance as Sue, a woman who has so much love for her sons and is desperate to keep her family together. She has some lovely scenes with Sunny and a very real connection on screen with Patel. A scene in which she tells him that they chose to adopt because they wanted him is particularly moving and Kidman brings a huge depth of emotion to such moments. We also see the strains in the family quite early, as Saroo’s brother Mantosh (adopted a year after him), finds life a struggle, which we assume is a result of experiences he had as a child before his adoption. From the small insight Lion gives us in to what those children go through, I cannot even begin to imagine and Divian Ladwa is very good at conveying trauma and its long-lasting effect on Mantosh.
To say this is his first feature film, Garth Davis has done an impressive job. Lion is a visually gorgeous film, whether the scenes in India or Australia and he cleverly uses the scenery to draw links between the two places Saroo has called home. I also loved his style of adding the flashes of his childhood every so often in to Saroo’s present, forever keeping his memories alive. As the film reaches its conclusion and Saroo travels back to India it’s as if the two halves of Saroo are finally coming together and I challenge you not to be affected by it.
I found Lion to be a hugely satisfying film. It’s beautifully shot, strongly acted and the fact this is a true story only makes the experience of watching it even more uplifting. Buy a ticket and take some tissues!
Lion opens in the USA on 25th November 2016. The UK release date is yet to be confirmed. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/-RNI9o06vqo
Spoiler-Free Film Review – Arrival (2016); an intelligent, enthralling and deeply human science fiction film
Last night saw the UK premiere of Arrival during the London Film Festival, which will prove to be another festival highlight for me. I’ll start by saying I’m going to be careful what I write in this review, as this really is a film that you should watch unspoilt. Part of its brilliance is in not knowing what lies ahead. Are you intrigued enough? I certainly hope so and enough to keep yourself spoiler-free until you see it.
Arrival is adapted by Eric Heisserer from the Ted Chiang short story Story of your Life and the new film from director Denis Villeneuve (whose previous work includes Sicario and Prisoners) and who is currently at work on another sci-fi film – Blade Runner 2049. If this movie is any indication, the Blade Runner legacy is certainly in strong hands!
On a day as normal as any other, the world comes to a standstill when 12 huge spacecraft materialise around the globe. With no attempt at contact, fear of the unknown takes hold, as the UN seeks to bring the nations of Earth together to try and communicate with whoever is aboard in order to understand why they have arrived.
One such craft has appeared in the USA (in Montana to be precise) and the government and military set about bringing the finest scientific and linguistic minds together, which is how we meet Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose reputation and previous linguistic assistance to the military has Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruiting her to the team. Combined with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they must try and determine the aliens’ purpose. However, as time moves on, the willingness of nations to work together comes under strain, which in turn threatens to damage any progress that’s been made, leaving Banks to use all her skill to try and make a breakthrough before it’s too late.
Arrival is not your typical science fiction movie. It is not another Independence Day-style action adventure and I’m very pleased about that. Instead, Arrival is an incredibly intelligent film, which happens to involve aliens, but is actually all about humanity; the need to pull together as a world rather than splinter and to communicate with those you may not understand in order to learn about yourself as well as them. Never has a film of this genre had so much depth and the unexpected path it takes later on, genuinely made me gasp, as I saw the whole film from a new perspective and realised what a clever and surprisingly, profoundly emotional story it is.
On top of such a superbly crafted script and story, Arrival is blessed to have such a talented actress in its lead role. Amy Adams is wonderful as Louise Banks, a woman who seems a little removed from those around her when we meet her, but who has a strength of character that you cannot help but admire. Her story is the axis around which the whole film spins and the further through the story you go, the more emotionally connected you are to her. Another Oscar nomination seems guaranteed and is very much deserved.
There is also strong support from Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, caught between the team at the craft and external government pressures, forcing his hand and also Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, whose scientific mind perfectly balances with Banks’s, to form a strong team. He and Adams have a chemistry which is believable and a pleasure to watch.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score also provides a haunting and eerie soundscape that fits the mood and tone of Arrival perfectly, enhancing the tension as the team take the first tentative steps aboard the craft, but also drawing out the beautifully emotional beats of the film as well. It is also a visually stunning film thanks to the work of cinematographer Bradford Young.
I had no idea what I’d think about Arrival before attending the screening and on watching it I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you don’t normally watch sci-fi films, then don’t let the premise put you off, as Arrival is so much more than a lazy genre label. It is smart, enthralling, thought-provoking and incredibly satisfying on an emotional level. I guarantee you will not be able to stop thinking about it once you’ve seen it. It’s general release can’t come quickly enough so I can talk about it with people!
Arrival arrives in UK cinemas on 11th November 2016. Watch the teaser trailer here (it gives far less away than the full trailer): https://youtu.be/AbHGLYLbQFI
This year I decided to buy a ticket to one of the hottest events at the London Film Festival, the Surprise Film. It’s ironic that one the screenings most people are keen to attend is the one where you have no idea what film you are going to see until it begins! It was a fantastic cinema experience as the audience speculated as to what film we’d see.
In the end the choice this year divided the audience as to whether it was a worthy Surprise Film. Some see it as an opportunity to showcase a film that perhaps won’t otherwise have as large a profile, while others expect to see something not yet on wide release. This year’s choice was Sully, which has already opened in most markets outside the UK. However, despite the disappointment of many, I was pleased it was a movie that had been on my to-see list, primarily due to its lead actor and overall it was an enjoyable cinema trip for me.
As for the film itself, Sully is the story behind 2009’s incredible landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, mere minutes after take-off after a flock of geese flew in to both its engines. The event received worldwide attention, with universal praise given to Captain Chesley Sullenberger, whose quick actions miraculously meant that all 155 people on board the aircraft survived.
Like most of us, I’d heard about it on the news and marvelled at the incredible achievement of this pilot. However, I had not known about what happened afterwards and this film, directed by Clint Eastwood, focuses on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) investigation which, with an aircraft written off at great expense to the airline, was looking to apportion blame to the captain. Everyone may have survived, but was his decision not to try and make it to an airport correct or was he reckless with the lives of his passengers and crew and responsible for the loss of the plane?
Sully is a fairly mainstream movie, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism. I can’t see it winning any big awards, but it is still an enjoyable film. One of its weaknesses is the fact that there isn’t too much of a story to tell, as unlike in a documentary film, delving in to the detail of the 18 month NTSB investigation in to Sully’s actions that morning, wouldn’t have worked. Therefore the film does at times feel a bit padded and repetitive, as we see the landing in the river more than once and scenes in which Sully remembers the events and later the listening to the cockpit recording are practically the same.
However, with such a strong leading man in the title role, the film is given an extra weight that it may not otherwise have had. I’ve always loved Tom Hanks and he never disappoints in terms of giving a believable and human performance, which always brings the character to life so vividly. The fact that here he is playing a real person means this is even more important. Through him we see the toll the experience put on Sully; if the lead up to and landing weren’t traumatic enough, he then had to endure the accusations and insinuations afterwards, during which his career, pension and reputation were at stake, while trying to cope with PTSD (scenes in which he dreams of the plane crashing in to buildings are quite harrowing). I admit watching the events unfold made me incredibly angry at how this decent man was treated!
Aaron Eckhart is also great as First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, who remains a loyal and staunch friend and colleague throughout, as the only other person to truly know what it was like in the cockpit that day. Eckhart said a few words after the screening about how Sully had been with them every step during the making of the film and how it was an aspect of the miracle on the Hudson River that he too hadn’t been aware of. The rest of the cast have very little to play with in terms of material and so talent such as Laura Linney (who plays Sully’s wife) are left feeling rather wasted.
Visually, the effects are very good and it’s incredibly chilling to watch an aircraft fly so close to Manhattan and you can imagine how those witnessing it at the time would have felt. Indeed a scene in which we see people’s reactions as the plane appears was quite unnerving. Director Clint Eastwood also successfully managed to create dramatic tension in scenes in which the audience knows there is going to be a happy ending. You are aware everyone survived Flight 1549, however the moments on board the flight and the immediate aftermath as the passengers rush to escape the plane as it fills with water are no less frightening, as you can’t help but imagine yourself in that situation.
It’s also a lovely touch to involve so many of the real people who were there, as Eckhart told us after the film that all of the coastguard and crew of the vessels that go to the plane’s aid are played by the actual individuals who helped Flight 1549. It’s clearly a very personal film for those involved, highlighted by the end credits, which include the actual passengers and crew, gathered at the Carolinas Aviation Museum (where the aircraft is on display), whose close bond is evident.
No, this isn’t a classic film, nor one that is destined for high acclaim. It is however a very well made and strongly acted story of something that should be more widely known and hopefully now Sully’s position as a true hero cannot be denied.
Sully opens in the UK on 2nd December 2016. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/mjKEXxO2KNE
In a weekend packed with films, Saturday evening saw me at the European premiere of Terence Lonergan’s new film Manchester By The Sea and it certainly proved to be a powerful example of film-making.
Both written and directed by Lonergan, it’s the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor who lives a solitary life in Boston, only to be pulled back to his former home of Manchester when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away. Although suffering from a known condition and given a limited life expectancy, Joe’s death shakes Lee and through a series of flashbacks we see how close the two brothers were.
Joe’s death also brings an even larger adjustment for Lee, in the form of his 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). With his mother out of the picture, Lee is his only family and the film’s highlight is the relationship we see develop between these two men, as they each cope with their losses in their own way.Lee’s return to Manchester also requires him to face his past and it’s only as the story moves forward that we begin to understand the underlying reasons behind his closed-off, almost emotionless at times, personality. It is here where the true brilliance of Affleck’s performance becomes so apparent. His portrayal of a man trying (and perhaps failing) to deal with so much pain, loss, grief and guilt is a revelation and it’s a performance that stays with you. He beautifully captures all of these emotions, while all the time keeping them tightly reined in, resulting in Lee always be somewhat apart from everyone around him. You understand what he’s thinking, even when he’s still and on the surface, calm. Through the glimpses into his previous life, we see when his world was simpler, as a husband to Randi (Michelle Williams) and a father and this makes the film all the more heartbreaking.
Affleck has been a great actor for many years, but with such a stunning performance, Manchester By The Sea marks a turning point in his career that I sincerely hope earns him the recognition he deserves.
Williams may have a smaller role than I expected, but she gives a very believable, delicate and moving performance of a woman whose life took an unexpected turn, which has left her irreparably broken. However, the other performance of note is that of Lucas Hedges as Patrick. The film marks his biggest role to date and it’s a performance which I’m sure is only the beginning of a successful career.It is a film that is quite slow in pace and its subjects of grief and loss could have resulted in a rather difficult story to sit through. However, although I do think it is perhaps a little too long, what surprised me about Lonergan’s script is how witty it is in places and this is emphasised by Hedges’ performance and his rapport with his uncle. Patrick is dealing with the loss of his father in his own way, which includes his continued efforts to sleep with one of his two girlfriends, even going as far as to ask his uncle to keep her mother occupied! Indeed Affleck and Hedges have a genuinely lovely relationship in this film and even when I felt it was a little too slow in places, the strength of their scenes maintained my interest and emotional investment in the lives of the characters.
It is also wonderfully shot by Lonergan (who even has a brief cameo in the film) and the setting adds to the general mood. You can see how this fishing community would be both a beautiful, but perhaps also lonely place to be.
Overall, I enjoyed this film and am pleased I went to see something I may not have picked out at my local multiplex. It won’t appeal to everyone and I can see how, for some, it may be just too slow a story. However, I found it to be a delicately crafted exploration of human emotion and how we each cope (or try to cope) when we have to face heartbreaking moments and that moving on is harder for some of us than others. This isn’t an easy, light film by any means, but I would still urge anyone with an appreciation for quality storytelling and tremendous acting to go and see it.
Manchester By The Sea opens in the UK on 13th January 2017 (in the USA it’s 18th November 2016). Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/gsVoD0pTge0