Film Review – A Star Is Born (2018) – Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga take hold of your emotions and don’t let go, in this incredible film

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Last night, I had the opportunity to watch a preview of one of the year’s most anticipated films and I have to say, I was not prepared for the emotional response it would illicit from me. So viscerally real is the emotional gut punch this film delivers, that I left the cinema feeling as if I’d just experienced a story first hand, as is often the case following a powerful theatre show. It is almost as if you are standing backstage watching the story take place in front of your eyes.

For those who, like me, have not seen any of the previous three versions of this story, A Star Is Born sees internationally successful musician and singer, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), struggling with the pressures of a career in the spotlight, the worsening of his tinnitus problem and toughest of all, an addiction to drugs and alcohol.  One night, after a concert, he stumbles in to a bar and is captivated by the raw vocal talent of Ally (Lady Gaga) and the two have an immediate connection.

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What follows is an incredibly moving exploration of two careers at opposite ends of the spectrum – as one takes flight, the other falls to earth and how the pain and heartbreak of addiction affects not just the addict, but those closest to them.

The question I’ve been asked most since seeing the film is whether Lady Gaga can act. The answer is an emphatic yes and she delivers a confident, beautiful performance as Ally, from her early, slightly nervous interactions with Jackson, to a woman taking a hold of her chance at success and shining. I admit, I’d wondered whether I’d be able to see past the extravagant image we all know her for so well. Yet, the film perfectly takes those pre-conceptions and discards them, as we see Ally first perform La Vie En Rose, on stage at a drag show, in full make-up, only for this to be stripped away, in part literally by Jackson, to reveal the person underneath and you soon forget she’s ever anyone else.

It’s no surprise her vocals are stunning, from the intimate gig, to the vast stadiums, but Lady Gaga also brings the soul of her character to the forefront, as we see her struggle to first believe her good fortune, before also finding herself in love with a man she’s trying so desperately to help. Many have wondered whether she’d be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand (both of whom have starred in previous versions). They needn’t have worried and I fully expect award nominations for her performance, which will no doubt introduce her to a whole new audience.

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Another key to the success of this film is the chemistry between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. From their very first scene together, you can feel the connection between them and it certainly adds credibility to a story in which two people almost instantly fall in love. It doesn’t feel contrived or forced. You believe the passion and love they share, which is essential if you are going to invest in the journey of these two characters. Watching them move through the highs and lows, I felt as if I was observing real lives; that’s how strong their relationship on screen is and the trust and affection they clearly have for each other as actors feeds in to their performances. Together, they make you laugh and cry.

As for Bradley Cooper’s performance in the film, in my opinion, it’s his finest performance to date and should undoubtably earn him a fifth Oscar nomination. Not only does he look different, but his voice is lower and more importantly, he is able to convey the complex palette of emotions that are constantly battling within Jackson as an addict. The combination of his hearing difficulties and need to rely on drugs and alcohol to simply exist in the touring world he inhabits have made him a lonely figure and it’s a joy to see the difference meeting Ally brings to his life. You see the light in his eyes at having a new reason to live. Jackson, in the hands of Cooper, is a gentle soul, struggling to keep going and the vulnerability he brings to the role is utterly heart-wrenching to watch, as we see a man with so many personal demons he’s trying to overcome and I confess, there were moments so emotionally raw, that I could barely watch. At this point in time, I can’t imagine a finer performance beating him to next year’s Oscar and 24 hours after watching the film, his astounding performance is still on my mind.

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The film also draws on strong supporting performances, most notably from Sam Elliott, who plays Jackson’s older brother Bobby, who stepped in to the role of the father figure his brother never had, due to their father’s own problems with alcohol and this relationship forms another touching facet of the story. Bringing a lightness and humour to the film is Andrew Dice Clay, as Ally’s father, whose pride and utter joy at her success brought a smile to my face.

A Star Is Born is also the directorial debut of Cooper and what a superb achievement it is. Yes, it’s perhaps a little too long and drags slightly in places, but it’s clear that Cooper had a strong eye and clear vision of what he wanted to bring to the screen. His choices in certain scenes, whether the framing, or the focus on which the camera rests in order to maximise both the stunning scale of the bigger moments and the quiet intimacy in others, is certainly impressive. If this is what he can achieve with his first film, I cannot wait to see what else we’ll see from him in the future.

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A film centring on the love and lives of two singers, also required a strong soundtrack and the original songs written for the film are stunning and crucially, filmed live for the scenes. This decision adds yet more authenticity to the piece, as we see Cooper and Lady Gaga performing in front of audiences at actual venues (including Coachella in California and Glastonbury in the UK). The biggest surprise musically, is perhaps the vocal ability of Cooper, who has a fantastic voice and you can sense the pleasure the two leads had performing together. As well as Lady Gaga and Cooper, collaborators include Luke Nelson, Mark Ronson, Dave Cobb, Diane Warren, Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter. I can easily see the film vying against itself in the original song category at next year’s Oscars!

The film isn’t perfect of course. I’ve mentioned it’s a little too long and although my view may be clouded by his later decisions, which left me so angry, the character of Ally’s manager seems rather two-dimensional.

That being said, my response to A Star Is Born is overwhelmingly positive. In fact it exceeded all my expectations, delivering not just a wonderful love story, but also a very real, painful and heartbreaking insight in to the struggles so many people suffer when caught up in cycles of addiction. Writers Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper himself, have taken a classic story and brought it in to the twenty first century, ensuring it feels utterly relevant for today’s world. I laughed, I smiled, I held my breath during both the highs and lows and I shed quite a few tears. This is a film that will stay with me for a long time and I’ll be returning to see it again at the earliest opportunity.

A Star Is Born opens in cinemas in the UK on 3rd October and the USA on 5th October. Running time: 136 minutes. You can watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/nSbzyEJ8X9E 

 

 

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Film Review Retrospective: Back on the IMAX screen,The Dark Knight remains a highlight of modern cinema & the only Batman I’ll ever need!

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Ten years ago, I remember heading to my local cinema with a group of friends to see the second Batman film by Christopher Nolan. I can still remember how excited we were and this weekend I was able to relive the cinematic experience at the Odeon BFI IMAX at London’s Waterloo, which has the title of being the country’s largest cinema screen. For one week only, to mark the film’s 10th anniversary (where on earth has the time gone?!), it has been re-released on selected IMAX screens and it certainly did not disappoint. It therefore seemed appropriate to take this opportunity to reflect on the film, which is just as powerful on the big screen today as it was back in 2008.

Batman was always my favourite superhero when I was younger. I’ve still no idea why and I enjoyed the films of the 90s, but it wasn’t until Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, that I really felt I’d found my perfect portrayal of this character and the dark world of Gotham City.

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Awaiting the start of the film at the Odeon BFI IMAX, London

 

Having said that, The Dark Knight is so much more than a superhero movie and it is because of the incredibly layered story, its themes and its stunning performances that it has remained one of my top ten films of all time. It’s one of those films that you perhaps went to see expecting it to be one thing and then realised it had so much more depth to it and it may be the second of a trilogy, but it stands firmly as the best of the three and is more than able to be viewed as a standalone film experience.

First, Nolan’s strong script packs so much in to the running time, from Gotham’s courageous, young DA determined to make a stand against the city’s underworld, whose journey takes such a dark and tragic turn, to the crazed terrorising of The Joker, to the emotional pull of Bruce Wayne towards the woman he still loves (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). There are so many twists and turns during the film, that you’re exhausted by the end! It also manages to highlight some interesting social issues, my favourite being our perception of the good and bad of society and who is more deserving of being saved. It certainly speaks volumes that it is the boat of “good” citizens who are very willing to sacrifice the prisoners for the sake of themselves and seemingly only fail because none of them were willing to live with the guilt.

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Christopher Nolan filming in IMAX (Source: Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

The script also managed to throw in a few shocks, particularly (for me anyway) the death of Rachel Dawes. Knowing Harvey had to survive in order to become Two Face, it was very clever to have Batman come to his rescue by mistake, making her death and both mens’ grief so much more powerful.

The film of course also looks visually stunning and seeing it in IMAX, when it was the first Hollywood film to be shot, in part, using IMAX 15/70 mm cameras and thus changed the role of IMAX in films, only enhanced that spectacle. From the opening shots of Gotham, to Batman gliding across the Hong Kong skyline, to the exhilarating armoured car chase (and that stunning lorry flip!), to simply the intensity of the emotions on display on a larger screen, it’s a film that continues to impress whether your first or 100th viewing. We’ve grown to expect films to look this good over the last decade and owe Nolan a huge debt of gratitude for that.

Then, of course, there are the performances, starting with the obvious. I’d been a fan of Heath Ledger for years and yet this role saw his acting talent step up to a whole new level. His Joker is dark, crazed, yet intelligent and crucially, very funny; frighteningly so in fact, which only makes him more fascinating. This isn’t a man in clown make-up. This is a figure to be feared and Ledger’s nuanced performance, full of tics and creepy mannerisms, is still utterly compelling and deeply chilling. You simply cannot take your eyes off him whenever he is on the screen.

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Christian Bale also deserves so much credit for this film (and the trilogy as a whole), as this is not a two-dimensional action superhero role. He conveys the complexities of the man that is both Bruce Wayne and The Dark Knight and finds great depths of emotion throughout, particularly in his scenes with Michael Caine’s sublime Alfred and Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon. Bale not only looks the part physically, but he brings an emotional credibility to the character that hasn’t been matched before or since in my opinion. He isn’t perfect; he’s complex and flawed and you truly care about him.

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Caine and Oldman are also incredible assets to the films, bringing weight to such iconic roles, meaning they truly make them their own and both develop a wonderful bond with Bale, one with Bruce Wayne and the other with his alter ego, allowing each to help shape the man he becomes across the trilogy. This second film also includes Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, whose passion and bravery to stand up for all that is just and decent, makes his ultimate fall in to darkness and despair so much more painful to watch. Eckhart plays both “faces” of Dent brilliantly and you certainly feel the depth of his loss following the shocking death of Rachel. It’s a testament to the strength of this film’s cast that I haven’t even mentioned Gyllenhaal or Morgan Freeman yet, both of whom play a vital role in the story.

Also, as well as looking visually stunning on the IMAX screen, this platform showcased the brilliance of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s gorgeous score. It’s so intrinsically woven in to the film that it’s an extra character and remains some of my favourite film music.

Whether you’re someone who, like me, loves this trilogy, or has never watched The Dark Knight before, if you’re able to catch it this week in IMAX, then I cannot recommend the experience strongly enough. I’m very tempted to go back for a second visit!

The Dark Knight is showing in selected IMAX screens (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco & Toronto in North America and London in the UK) until 30th August 2018. Relive the trailer here: https://youtu.be/UwrOQ2pYDxY

 

Film Review – Bad Samaritan (2018): Yes, I love David Tennant, but he’s so much better than this average thriller

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I’ll start this review by admitting that Bad Samaritan is not the type of film I’d usually be interested in watching. Yes, I love a good thriller, but I’m not a big fan of the “abduct and torture women for entertainment” genre and so there was only one reason I made a trip to Fright Fest this weekend to see this film – David Tennant. Regular readers of this blog will know I am a huge admirer of the actor (especially on stage) and seeing he was actually the lead in a film for a change, I thought I’d give it a try.

Having already heard mixed opinions from those who had seen the film in North America, my expectations were rather low and perhaps because of that, I actually found the film much better than I thought it’d be, although the treatment of women in it did still sit uncomfortably with me.

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The plot of the film makes one thing very clear to the audience – don’t use valet parking! Ever! (Oh and don’t break in to people’s homes, but that really should already be obvious.) We’re introduced to young, aspiring photographer Sean Falco, played by Robert Sheehan (who also gets to keep his Irish accent for the role). He has a fractious relationship with his step dad, little money and direction in his life and other than his girlfriend (more on that later), not much in his life, besides his best friend. Together they act as valets outside an Italian restaurant in Portland, where they identify potential wealthy patrons, access their car’s SatNav and pay a visit to their homes, where they steal items that they hope won’t be missed (oh and take photos of credit cards, cheque books etc.). Not the nicest of people then.

The twist in the tale comes when Sheehan’s character enters the home of Cale Erendriech (David Tennant) and finds a young woman chained up in his office. The chains can only be unlocked by the key around Erendriech’s neck and when he comes looking for his car, Falco has to leave the woman there and vows to send help, but becomes sucked in to the dark games of a man whose house he really shouldn’t have entered (see folks, crime does not pay!) while the authorities just think he’s crazy.

 

It’s an interesting, if far-fetched, concept and the film is a bit of a mixed bag. There were elements of it I enjoyed, but others that I found rather annoying. Although it does have some great jumps and times when I was sitting waiting for the next one, the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out, so can feel rather two-dimensional and for some supporting characters, surplus to the plot. Take Falco’s girlfriend Riley for example. She has little purpose in the story, other than being humiliated and then attacked, only to then be forgotten. The FBI agents brought in to the mix are also incredibly cringe-worthy (especially the guy) and I found it hard to take them seriously, with their role seemingly just to help quickly wrap up the ending. Also, Kerry Condon, who plays Erendriech’s prisoner does well with the material given to her, but is never fully developed as a character.

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I did however, enjoy seeing Tennant play a darker role again, with his recent stint in Jessica Jones the first one in a long time (since 2005’s disturbing Secret Smile) and it reminded me how good he can be at subtle menace. Tennant is best in Bad Samaritan early on, with those piercing stares, dark looks and creepy smiles, as he works out Falco is on to him and begins his games. It’s a creepy performance that holds the tension, as you’re not sure what he’ll do next. Towards the end of the film, however, Tennant’s portrayal is forced down the OTT crazed psychopath route which, in my view, weakens the overall menace of the character. As someone who is very familiar with his career, I can say with confidence that he’s capable of so much more than this film is able to offer and it frustrates me that a film role really showcasing his talent still eludes him.

Sheehan does a decent job in this film. Starting off playing a not particularly likeable character, he does a great job of changing your view of Falco, once he discovers the girl and risks jail to try and bring help. His determination to help her, despite the threats to himself and those around him certainly redeem him and Sheehan gives a very genuine performance, of someone finding themselves in a situation way over their head.

Overall, Bad Samaritan is an average thriller, but much better than I expected and for those who enjoy films that have you waiting for the next jump, or simply enjoy watching Tennant on screen, then it’s worth a watch.

Bad Samaritan is out now in selected UK cinemas and also available to rent on Amazon and iTunes. In the US, it’s now out on DVD. You can watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/o1_iqyaQEi0

Film Review – Mission Impossible: Fallout – the best mission yet!

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Action films may come and go, but ever since I ventured to my local Odeon in 1996 to see the first one, I’ve been rather fond of the Mission Impossible film franchise. Yes, some have been weaker than others, but overall this remains one of the most consistent action franchises in recent decades and I’d been looking forward to the latest one since it was in production.

There’s certainly been a lot of hype about Mission Impossible: Fallout, with some saying it’s the best action film of the last decade. That may be a bit much in my opinion, but it’s certainly my favourite since 2012’s Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises. Plus, a big strength of the MI franchise is that it knows its place and style. It isn’t Bond and it isn’t Bourne and it isn’t meant to be. There is something quintessential about these films and thanks to their lead actor / producer, that quality flows through each one. They are the perfect mix of action, intrigue and humour (and sometimes, even emotion).

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This sixth outing for the IMF sees Ethan Hunt and his trusted team trying to track down plutonium before it is used to set off multiple nuclear bombs across the world. The culprits are The Apostles, followers of Solomon Lane, who was the face of the shadowy Syndicate in the last film before being captured by Hunt and co.

Over the 147 minutes running time (which really does fly by, due to all the action packed in), we watch Hunt cover the globe in order to complete his latest mission and this certainly looks impressive on screen, with car and motorcycle chases across the busy streets of Paris, dashes on foot across London’s Bankside, not to mention some impressive scenes inside and around St. Paul’s Cathedral, culminating in an incredible rooftop getaway shot atop the Tate Modern, which certainly ups the ante for any other chase scenes set in London. Then there is the stunning backdrop of New Zealand’s Remarkables, the setting for an exhilarating helicopter chase through the mountains. You can certainly see the money on the screen in this movie, but director (and writer) Christopher McQuarrie also ensures the pacing and visual look of the film matches up with a decent story and strong performances.

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Fallout (and indeed the franchise as a whole) has also benefitted from the cast it is able to attract. Some of our old favourites are back; Ving Rhames’s Luther, who’s been here since day one, provides both humour and heartfelt friendship for Hunt, Simon Pegg continues to shine as comical Benji and Rebecca Ferguson returns following her introduction in Rogue Nation, as does Alec Baldwin as their boss, who this time gets to enjoy some time in the field.

New to the party is Angela Bassett, as the no-nonsense CIA boss, who has taken on Baldwin’s scepticism regarding the IMF and Henry Cavill, as Bassett’s right-hand muscle (who, perhaps, raises the discussion on his suitability to move from CIA to MI6 in another film franchise!). As a theatre addict, it was also a joy to see the incredibly talented Vanessa Kirby have a decent role in the story as The White Widow, the daughter of Max (is that the Max played by Vanessa Redgrave in the first film?).

 

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Then, of course, there is the lynchpin of every MI film and that’s Ethan Hunt and as always, Tom Cruise gives everything he has to the role and the film as a whole. His commitment and dedication to these films is well known (breaking a foot and finishing the scene, just one example) and this shines off the screen. The MI films are now known for their stunts and Cruise’s determination to perform them all himself and Fallout takes this to a whole new level.

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There are so many jaw-dropping sequences in this film, that you barely have time to take a breath between them and guess what, Cruise does most of them himself! That HALO jump? Yep, that’s him. The helicopter sequence? Him as well (after 18 months of training and learning how to fly it himself in order to do those terrifying shots)! They make the thrilling chases through Paris and the leaping from building to building seem like a walk in the park! Say what you want about Mr Cruise, but he knows how to make fantastically thrilling movies!

Is some of it totally bonkers? Of course! This is Mission Impossible after all, not “Mission Difficult” (as Antony Hopkins once said in the second film, that would be easy for the IMF) and I have no problem leaving reality at the door and settling back for a truly entertaining couple of hours and Fallout proves to be one of the best action films of recent years. The best of the franchise? It certainly is for me.

Mission Impossible: Fallout is now on general release in both the UK and the US. You can watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/wb49-oV0F78

Film Review – Breathe – a beautiful, true story, that makes you want to try and truly live to the full.

 

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I was unable to go to this year’s London Film Festival and so I was relieved that one of the films I had been most looking forward to seeing, was coming out this month in the UK. The film is out now, but I was lucky enough to go to a preview screening last Monday, complete with Q&A with its star Andrew Garfield, director Andy Serkis and producer Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the couple depicted on screen, but more on the Q&A later.

Breathe is a beautiful film. From hearing what it is about you may think it is going to be a very sad one, but, although containing some very moving scenes, the overall spirit of Breathe is one of hope, love and the resounding message that we all need to live, as richly and fully as we can.

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Robin & Diana Cavendish

It is the story of Robin and Diana Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy), who meet in 1957 and soon marry. Robin is a tea broker and so they travel to Kenya for his work, enjoying a happy and loving life together. It is when Diana is pregnant with their first child, that Robin contracts polio, which results in the devastating news that he will be permanently paralysed from the neck down. He can only last two minutes at most off an external ventilator and doctors give him mere months to live.

Understandably Robin’s reaction is one of depression and defeat. He does not want to live, locked away in a hospital, unable to move and dependent on a machine and the staff around him and Garfield plays his withdrawal with such rich depth, not an easy task, when so much has to be conveyed through the face and the eyes. Not many actors could convey such emotions, but Garfield is one of the best around, both on stage and screen (his recents roles in Hacksaw Ridge on screen and Angels In America on stage, both had me shedding tears).

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Claire Foy & Andrew Garfield

However, the key to Robin’s renewed sense of living, is thanks to the love and unwavering support he receives from his wife Diana and Claire Foy is utterly superb in this film (give her the nominations for the awards now). As with Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, a lot of my tears shed during Breathe, were due to seeing the other person affected by such a prognosis and Foy shows how much strength Diana Cavendish had to have. She was away from home, pregnant and faced with losing her husband. It is clear that the reason Robin went on to live for decades is because of her and I left the cinema inspired by her strength.

Their story is not just about their determination to continue to live as a family, as the Cavendish’s fought for rights of those with disabilities, who at that time, were simply locked away and forgotten about by society. The resistance they face at removing Robin from the hospital is frightening and a scene in which he visits a hospital in Germany, in which people with similar paralysis are housed in storage units, seems unimaginable and highlights how important their work to have those with disabilities seen as human beings really was.

Breathe is blessed with many components that come together to create such a wonderfully satisfying film. First, it has been brought to the screen by producer Jonathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana. He talked during the Q&A about how this was the most truthful biopic you would see, as everything in it happened. The involvement of those who were there, or knew those who were, ensures that you feel the authenticity of the film and also adds to the emotional response you have to the story, on knowing it all happened.

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The film also has a strong script from William Nicholson (who refused payment until the Cavendish family had read it and were happy for it to be made), which balances the sadder moments, with the overwhelming sense of joy and fun that you see. Yes, I did shed some tears throughout Breathe, but I also laughed a lot too. There are many moments of fun and humour, as we see how the Cavendish’s and their group of close friends adapt to Robin’s new circumstances, including when the family goes on holiday to Spain and have to pull over by the side of a cliff road, when Robin’s ventilator breaks. While help is called from England (in the form of Hugh Bonneville as their wonderful friend Professor Teddy Hall) and the manual pump is used to keep him alive, they are soon surrounded by locals, setting up caravans and fires and a party atmosphere! It seems so crazy, yet it happened, meaning an event that could have been frightening, actually still seems full of life and humour and joy.

4473The film is also wonderfully directed by Andy Serkis (known best for his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit). This is the first film Serkis has directed (although he did work as second unit director on The Hobbit films) and he has delivered a truly lovely film. He spoke on Monday about how close he felt to the material, having once played a polio sufferer himself and by also growing up with a mother who taught special needs children and a sister who was diagnosed with MS. He read the script and was moved by it, asking to direct it, as part of his and Jonathan Cavendish’s company, The Imaginarium Studio. He also had to contend with the tricky task of filming Tom Hollander in two different roles, as he plays Diana’s twin brothers. Serkis spoke during the Q&A about how much work this took to achieve and commended Hollander’s talent in pulling it off.

The talent of the cast is the final crucial element of Breathe. Garfield is fantastic as Robin, first as the athletic, young man and then as someone having to cope with such a terrifying change in their life. Watching Garfield go through the stages of pain and grief at his limitations is heartbreaking (a scene where Diana lays their newborn child by his head just one example). He conveys so much emotion without saying much at all and you feel all of Robin’s pain and sense of loss. However, what makes his performance all the more incredible, is the way he also brings Robin’s playfulness and humour to the forefront too. You laugh along with him, as he continues to live and thrive against all the odds.

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Jonathan Cavendish, Andy Serkis & Andrew Garfield at the Q&A at Picturehouse Central Cinema

Breathe wouldn’t work if the actress portraying his wife Diana wasn’t an equal to Garfield and in Claire Foy (best known for Netflix’s The Crown), they found the ideal talent. It is hard to imagine having to find the strength Diana did and Foy is superb from start to finish as she comes to terms with what has happened, stubbornly refusing to let Robin give up and then doing everything humanly possible to make their lives as rich as possible. They were clearly an incredibly devoted couple and it’s heart-warming to see. Jonathan Cavendish talked in the Q&A about how well they depict his parents, calling it extraordinary, also saying his own 83 year-old mother, who never cries, does cry every time she watches Breathe, shocked by the accuracy of Garfield’s performance.

Surrounding Foy and Garfield is a tremendous cast of British acting talent. Bonneville is wonderful as the friend who builds Robin’s mobile chair, allowing him more freedom than had ever been thought possible at the time and Stephen Mangan plays Dr Aitken, the friend who helps on their mission to raise the profile of the need for rights for those with disabilities. Playing two twin brothers couldn’t have been easy for Hollander, but he’s perfect in the roles, bringing another layer of fun and comedy.

Combine all of these elements with beautiful music from Nintin Sawhney and you really do have a very special film, that feels incredibly personal to those who have brought it to life. I certainly hope it features in the nominations list next awards season and cannot recommend it highly enough. You will cry, but you will also laugh and leave the cinema with a reminder that life is precious and we should do everything we can, to live it to the full.

Breathe is now on general release in UK cinemas. For more information, visit its website here: http://www.breathefilm.co.uk/home/ and watch you can watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JycCFypvgmI

 

 

Film Review – Dunkirk (2017): Powerful & emotional filmmaking at its best

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On exiting the cinema tonight after seeing Dunkirk, one thought struck me in particular. After all the big, loud, brash Hollywood fodder in the trailers before it, here was a film that proves that a big budget does not have to mean over the top, overly long, Hollywood rubbish! Thank you Christopher Nolan!

Dunkirk is quite simply breathtaking in its raw, powerful, emotional depth, across a mere [96] minutes. I had expected quality from Mr Nolan and he delivered in spades, with a film that everyone should take time out of their lives to see. Those of us in the UK are perhaps more likely to be aware of the story of Dunkirk and it is fantastic that this incredible tale from WWII is being presented to a wider audience.

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For those less familiar, in 1940, after Nazi Germany had invaded France, the Allied forces were pushed back to the city of Dunkirk, resulting in almost 400,000 stranded soldiers in need of rescue on the beach. Attacked on land and by air, they were trapped and the fact so many survived is thanks to not only the bravery of the Royal Air Force, but also the civilian boats that answered the call to cross the English Channel to provide rescue, putting themselves in great danger in doing so, due to U-Boat attack and enemy fire.

I've been a fan of Nolan as a film-maker for years and he truly shows his skill as both a writer and director with this film. Structure-wise, Dunkirk is written in a very clever way, in that it is not a simple linear story. It takes a bit of time, but you start to pick up that the boat you saw capsized a few minutes ago is still afloat, or the people in the water earlier are suddenly characters you realise you know well from a different story strand. The script's movement from storylines on land, sea and air, over varying lengths of time (one week, one day and one hour respectively) means that you see moments more than once, from different perspectives, which only enhances their emotional power. It also means you have to pay attention as an audience member and I certainly found it a brilliant way of packing so much story in to a relatively short running time.

I know some have complained about the lack of introduction of the characters, but for me, simply throwing us in to the film's events and us having to learn who everyone is, gave the film another layer of realism; as if we were stepping in to a moment in time and witnessing it first hand.

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The acting is also excellent. There isn't loads of dialogue, requiring the cast to capture and convey the events and experiences we see through more than simple dialogue. It takes confidence for a film maker to not try and saturate a story with needless words and Nolan's use of this style also makes the film seem so much more real and true to life. We are watching people simply trying to survive.

The cast contains some of the most respected actors around. Tom Hardy moved me to tears by the end as the RAF pilot determined to stay in the air as long as he could to provide air support for those trying to rescue those stranded below. Cillian Murphy is wonderful as the shell-shocked survivor of a U-Boat bombing, Kenneth Branagh brings weight and authority as the Navy Commander, determined to try and get his men home and Mark Rylance gives yet another quiet, nuanced performance as the civilian determined to play his part in helping save his fellow countrymen. Much has also been said about the inclusion of Harry Styles in the cast, but he gives a solid performance as a simple soldier, who desperately just wants to make it home, despite feeling shame that their attack has resulted in retreat. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead is also excellent as Tommy, also struggling to be rescued.

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Each aspect of the story is handled beautifully and as the strands begin to crash together, as the intensity of the events increases, I found myself gripped by just how real it all felt. Visually, it is excellent too. Nothing is done to extreme, so that the film always feels authentic and the opposite of Hollywood. The visuals of the battles in the air over the vast water of the English Channel are incredible, as are the shots when the full scale of the civilian rescue operation become apparent (I had a lump in my throat).

On top of that is Hans Zimmer's intense score. There is an undercurrent of music constantly and the strong use of strings and a ticking clock effect (produced using Nolan's own pocket watch) add an urgency and tension to every scene. It keeps you on edge. Therefore, the brief moments when the music disappears carry even more weight. Add in the inclusion of a slowed down version Edward Elgar's beautiful classical music "Nimrod" and the final scenes in particular had me shedding some tears (the track is Variation 15 on the soundtrack for those who want to hear it again).

All in all, this was every bit as brilliant a film as I had hoped for. Cleverly structured, fantastically and confidently directed and terrifically acted; the result being a truly powerful, realistic insight in to one of the most memorable stories of WWII. I urge everyone to go and see it as fast as you can (preferably on an IMAX screen if you can get to one).

 

 

 

Film Review – Una (2016); David Harrower brings his intense play Blackbird to the screen

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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.

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Rooney Mara as Una (Photo via: Entertainment Weekly)

 

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.

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Ben Mendelsohn as Ray (Photo via: Entertainment Weekly)

 

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.