Film review – The Cured (David Freyne, 2017)

What happens to the zombies after the disease has been contaminated and cured? This is a question many zombie-horror film fans have thought about, but that is seldom explored in cinema. There’s good reason too – an axe-wielding hero chopping off a zombie’s head is a much easier sell than someone dealing with social exclusion and depression following an almost-apocalypse.

Writer/director David Freyne’s feature debut dares to explore those themes, with considerable success.

The film is set in a ravished, desolate Dublin, in the aftermath of a zombie plague. Scientists have found a cure for the maze virus, but now the living and the former undead are finding the memories of the effects of the virus hard to handle. The cure is successful for 75% of the infected, though 25% remain immune and in secure isolation. Former zombie Senan (Sam Keeley) is released from quarantine and taken in by his American sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page). The film focuses on the reintegration into society of Senan and Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a friend Senan has made during the quarantine period.

The film is an excellent piece of social commentary. It deals with the manner in which modern society lives in fear. It’s something that has always been prominent in humanity, although it seems especially prescient that it debuts in the same year that Donald Trump began his presidency of the USA. The cured are humans living with the horrors of the past, but are treated as lesser beings due to the fear from those who were lucky enough to avoid being infected. Fear is driven by a swirl or rumours, mistruths and a media willing to maintain the confusion and feed the fear. At its best moments it’s a thoroughly thought-provoking piece of drama.

Freyne does his best to maintain the suspense with a smattering of jump-scares, primarily in the form of flashbacks. I felt these were unnecessary but were clearly there to serve a purpose. This is a horror film and for all its successes as a sociopolitical piece, the threat of the maze virus eventually becomes the driving force for the film. The horror credentials of the filmmakers are truly opened up at the point the film finally hits pace, leading to a frenetic and pulsating finale.

thecuredmovie

The central trio of actors all deliver great performances, but it is Ellen Page who has the most complex and thus most fruitful role. Abbie is a mother fearing for her son’s life and a woman mourning the loss of her husband. The complexities unravel as we go on the emotional journey with her and Page is a fantastic actor to take us on it. You can feel that she is giving it 100%, fully committing to a role and getting every drop of emotion out of the character. It’s the sort of performance that other actors love to feed off, and in the one-on-one scenes with Sam Keeley you can feel them both hitting their emotional peaks to devastating effect.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor delivers an unsettling turn as Conor, a former politician attempting to be accepted by society but struggling to come to terms with his newly-assigned job as a janitor. He puts in the groundwork in the early portions of the film to allow himself to deliver a brutal final act performance.

The big risk with this film is that it feels like it’s trying to be a horror film and a drama film at the same time. Fans of horror films hoping for an out-and-out zombie carnival may be bored before the action takes flight. Those looking for a more subtle take on the genre may feel cheated by the ending. That said, those invested in the emotional journey of the characters should find a genuinely refreshing take on the theme and will be rewarded by a superb feature film debut from a very promising director.

Film review – Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2017)

On Thursday 20th September 1973, 55-year-old former male tennis pro Bobby Riggs took on then-current Women’s Wimbledon champion Bille Jean King in a $100,000 winner-takes-all exhibition match. Whilst the prize was significant – King won only £3000 for her Wimbledon title – the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was more significant in terms of what it meant for the game itself. As King herself put it, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

Now, the match and the surrounding attention has been turned into a motion picture, courtesy of the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their third feature film after debut Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006) and follow-up Ruby Sparks‘ (2012).

And it’s really rather good.

battleofthesexesscreenshot

King (Stone) and Riggs (Carrell) pose for the cameras.

The biopic stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. It is clear from the start that both actors are relishing the chance to portray such iconic characters. Both have stories worth telling, which makes the final result feel fast-paced.

Riggs is larger than life, spouting ridiculous phrase after ridiculous phrase in the hope of any kind of attention. Carell is perfect for the role and, as usual, delivers something remarkably entertaining, far beyond the abilities of someone many mistake for a simple comedic actor. It’s amazing that Carell avoids becoming irritating, clearly enjoying with aplomb the misogynistic phrases Riggs became famous for.

King’s agenda is to exact revenge on those who underestimate the abilities of women tennis players, epitomised by Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and ensure that women tennis players were given a level of respect and pay equal to their male counterparts. It is a more complex role than Carell’s, especially when factoring in her failing marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) and her blossoming romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Stone again proves her acting mettle with an absolutely brilliant performance. She truly is an actor at the top of her game. It is her first portrayal of a real person, but she has clearly benefited from time spent with Billie Jean King in getting her mannerisms perfectly nailed down.

Equally, be ready to gasp at the end when you’re reminded exactly how much Steve Carell looks like Bobby Riggs.

This is a story that is as important to the LGBT community as it is to discussions about women’s rights and equality in sport and, more widely, in every profession. Billie Jean King was the first prominent female athlete to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian. Whilst this tale isn’t fully explored – it is limited to the reactions of Billie Jean King, Larry King, Marilyn Barnett and rival tennis player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) – there is certainly a sense of the impact this would have had at a critical moment in the blossoming of the women’s tennis game.

It is rare that a biopic comes together with such a perfect cast and crew and tells a story so effectively and authentically. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a fine achievement in filmmaking and one I will undoubtedly enjoy for a second time when it receives its full UK release later this year.

Film review – Elstree 1976 (Jon Spira, 2015)

Elstree 1976, the latest documentary from Jon Spira, explores the lives of ten people who were involved in the original Star Wars films as extras, supporting characters or inside costumes and thus were unseen. Catching up with them 38 years later, the film gives an insight into their respective positions in the wider Star Wars fandom universe, their take on one of the most bizarrely dedicated communities and their memories of their time on set.

The featured cast includes a mixture of actors and actresses who range from household names to people only die-hard fans will know. The ten are as follows:

Paul Blake (Greedo)
Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett)
Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter)
Anthony Forrest
David Prowse (Darth Vader)
Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader Rebel Pilot)
Pam Rose (Leesub Sirln)
Derek Lyons (Massassi Temple Guard)
Laurie Goode (the Stormtrooper who banged his head)
John Chapman (Red 12 Drifter Rebel Pilot)

For a film where it seems there is a huge difference in the interest in each of the stars, the narrative benefits by giving equal billing to each of them. But then that is the point of the film – it shows the human side of everyone involved and cross-examines the fact that the only reason they are anything more than actors is that they have been part of a great film and the fans have an unfaltering level of affection for everyone involved.

Justice for Greedo

They didn’t realise at the time but their involvement with the film would come to define their lives. It’s something that they have forever been associated with and can’t get away from, whether they like it or not.

The film opens with a humorous montage of each of their action figures, as they talk about how they feel about how they turned out (or didn’t!). There’s also a little controversy with what different interviewees believe is the right level of relevance to permit them to attend the conventions and be classed as an actor in Star Wars.

There are some moments of real emotion, just as there are moments of hilarity. Of course, they offer their own perspective on the film and provide some morsels of tales about the production, but Spira has instead made the decision to give the stories of their subsequent lives the space to breathe. This film gives them the chance to prove that they aren’t just the Stormtrooper who hit his head or the guy whose voice wasn’t quite right for Darth Vader. What makes this film work isn’t the immense details of how the most famous of sci-fi films was made. Instead it concentrates on the human side of each of the ten people we learn about.

It has been a long road to get here for the Kickstarter backers – almost two years in fact – and Jon Spira has been absolutely transparent in what must have lost him many nights of sleep through stress (the whole distribution farce is well documented on the Kickstarter campaign page). For everyone who is now able to watch it, it was well worth the wait.

Elstree 1976 is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on streaming services.

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – First weekend review

I’ve had a fantastic time over the first week of the BFI London Film Festival. I’ve laughed, cried, been angry and been confused by a rich plethora of cinematic delights.

Here is a link to all the films I’ve managed to catch so far:

A United Kingdom
La La Land
Frantz
Dancer
Creepy
Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children
Queen of Katwe

Here’s to the second week of the festival!

Film review – Frantz (François Ozon, 2016)

Set primarily in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, François Ozon’s latest film is an emotional story portrayed almost entirely in black and white. It revolves around Anna (Paula Beer), a woman who is living with the parents of her lost lover and supporting each other in their collective grief. That man is the titular Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who we learn has lost his life in battle during the war. When a Frenchman by the name of Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up at Frantz’s grave to give his respects, he tells them of his close friendship to their mutually lost friend.

Adrien (Niney) and Anna (Beer)

Ozon is something of a prolific filmmaker on almost the same level as Woody Allen. Since his celebrated debut feature length film Sitcom in 1998, he has written and directed sixteen films, amongst them the critically acclaimed Swimming Pool and the highly successful Potiche. Yet Frantz is, by all accounts, a departure in style for him and sees him in relatively unfamiliar territory with a historical war drama.

It is based on the play ‘L’homme que j’ai tué’ by Maurice Rostand. Before writing his script, Ozon was unaware that the play had already been adapted by legendary filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch as the film Broken Lullaby in 1931, though when he watched the film he realised that it was a completely different treatment to the direction he wanted to go with Frantz. He wanted to give the focus of the film to Anna, who was on the losing side of the war, providing more empathy to her as the central character.

There is an interesting chemistry between Beer and Niney, both of whom are playing extremely complex characters. They share this individual that has had a huge affect on their respective lives and begin to grow closer. Providing convincing characterisations of such  conflicting emotions is a challenge both rise to and it is this that elevates the film above being a wartime drama.

It was amazing to learn that this was Beer’s first performance acting as a French-language character. Many successful actresses couldn’t achieve what she has here in their first language let alone their second one. She revealed in a post-screening discussion that she had to learn and develop the script twice. Initially she developed the emotional responses to the words in her native German, before relearning the entire segments in French to ensure her delivery wasn’t lacklustre.

This is a truly moving film that gives an interesting point of view to the fallout from war that hasn’t often been explored before. Superb delivery from the two complex central characters means this comes highly recommended.

Film review – Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016)

Documentary filmmaker Steven Cantor’s latest cross-examination comes in the form of Dancer, which tells the story of Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who in 2010 became the youngest man to become the British Royal Ballet’s leading principal.

Sergei Polunin dances to Hozier

The film uses talking heads interviews blended with some exclusive home video footage to creature a portrait of a fragile artist. Polunin is shown as a man who knows little outside his art and is desperate to change the future for upcoming ballet dancers who he fears will make the same mistakes as he did. These mistakes led to him quitting the British Royal Ballet Feeling at the tender age of twenty-two, shocking the ballet world and disappointing his fans.

Most insightful are the interviews with his mother and father. Clearly huge sacrifices were made throughout his life to get him to where he is now. The film leaves it open as to whether either of them regret putting him through it, and it’s not something that ever really needs an answer. He certainly has a different life to the one he would have had if he’d stayed in Khersan, Ukraine.

The focal point of the film comes in the form of the Dave LaChapelle-directed video that went viral earlier this year. I urge you to stop reading and watch the video below on the largest screen you can find.

This video has, at last count, been viewed 16.3m times in the last eight months. That is an astonishing amount, but then it is an astonishing piece of art. It was choreographed by Jade Hale-Christophi, a ballet dancer with Polunin met at the British Royal Ballet and one of his closest friends. The purpose of the film was to announce his retirement and have that as his “final dance”, but the response was so great he decided to change tact, and instead wants to do guest appearances and one-off pieces of art.

This is a crucial thing for him. The reason he has struggled throughout his career is a lack of time to step back, ask himself what he really wants, and make an informed decision about the next career choice.

He also spoke after the screening about where ballet’s David Beckham is. I suspect after that video and this film, he need only look in the mirror to find him.

A fascinating examination of a tortured artist now seemingly on the straight and narrow.

Dancer will receive a DVD release in April via Dogwoof.

Film review – La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

WARNING: This review is effusively positive. If you’re a misery-guts then please look away now.

Every once in a while you will go into a film knowing almost nothing about what you’re going to see and get absolutely blown away by a surprisingly perfect masterpiece. As you get further into your film-watching life, enjoying these moments becomes increasingly rare, so when a film like ‘La La Land’ comes along, you can’t help but be overcome by giddy excitement.

Damien Chazelle shot to fame in 2014 with his critically acclaimed and rather special jazz-bully drama ‘Whiplash’. ‘La La Land’ shares very few similarities with it, bar an affinity to jazz that also featured prominently in his debut feature ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’. It does expand on a topic explored in ‘Whiplash’: the ongoing internal conflict of artists pursuing their dream at the expense of every other aspect of their life.

If you enjoyed his first two feature films but thought he couldn’t “do” mainstream, then prepare to be proven absolutely wrong seconds into the start. It opens with an over-the-top musical song and dance number set amidst a traffic jam. It’s an explosive one-shot (though there may have been some clever linking between extended shots) that received a round of applause at the end from an appreciative audience. Rightly so – it was jaw-dropping.

‘La La Land’ is, at heart, a homage to traditional musicals, with a joyful soundtrack matched by a couple of mesmerising performances from the lead performers Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Gosling stars as Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist going from poor gig to poor gig in LA, with dreams of owning his own jazz club to fend off the death of jazz. Stone is Mia, a young actress moonlighting as a barista at the Warner Brothers Studio sets who can’t get a break she deserves in the film industry. After a number of serendipitous meets, Seb and Mia start to fall for each other and, with both a figurative and a literal song and a dance, their romance explodes.

With Seb being a jazz expert/enthusiast/nerd and them both being performers, Chazelle has given himself the platform on which to produce a naturalistic musical that will doubtless make it more acceptable to those who don’t normally class themselves as musical fans. There is also evidence of a significant amount of effort put in by Gosling to perfect the piano shots, which were impressively all performed by him.


It’s a film so visually stunning it’s hard to take your eyes away from it. There is, however, never a risk that it was simply a platform to reference more familiar films of old. In a breathtaking final segment, we take a walk through memory lane with nods to a number of classic musicals, but they are simply nods in what amounts to one of the most perfectly-balanced final sequences I’ve seen in cinema. Gasps were audible around the auditorium.

The soundtrack is destined to stick around for years to come. Gosling/Stone duets “City of Stars” and “A Lovely Night” are both standouts, but it will be “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” that will be vying for an Oscar early next year. A beautiful number written by Justin Harwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it is left to Emma Stone to deliver an emotionally raw live performance.

The only downside for me is that I have to wait for another two months to see it again. A must see.

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Preview

I’ll be heading down to the BFI London Film Festival this weekend to catch a handful of films. I’ve picked a broad range, from headline galas to complete leftfield choices that may be my only chance to see a film on the big screen.

Here’s what I’ll be catching:

– La La Land (Damien Chazelle, US)
– Frantz (François Ozon, Germany)
– Dancer (Steven Cantor, UK)
– Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
– Paul Verhoeven in conversation
– Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children (Pedro Rivero, Alberto Vázquez, Spain)
– Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, US)

I’m most excited about the Queen of Katwe red carpet premiere that I’ll be lucky enough to attend, and Frantz will be screening at the specially-created Embankment Garden Cinema. 

I’ll be firing out reviews of each as I get the chance over the weekend. Maybe I’ll see one or two of you down there!

Film review – A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016)

Kicking off the 2016 BFI London Film Festival in style tonight was Amma Asante’s triumphant ‘A United Kingdom’. After the glitz and glamour of the red carpet, the film’s central themes proved to be an apt starting point for a programme that festival director Clare Stewart claims will focus on diversity.

The film tells the true story of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). Khama is the King of Bechuanaland (the country now known as Botswana) and in 1948 he marries London girl Williams amid opposition from their families and countries, sparking a political debate that led to the country’s independence movement.

Asante is the first black woman ever to direct an opening night film at the London Film Festival, and she was keen to point out the relevance of her being the person at the helm telling this important story.

“[The Botswanians] were comforted that it was going to be told through the gaze of a woman of colour… There was relief, and of course a curiosity, as to how their country, and they as a people, would be reflected on screen.”

Pike and Oyelowo

The resulting picture is a moving portrayal of a changing time in two countries with a message that is as valid today as it was then. True, there has been much progress in the world since 1948, but looking back at the changes in the past 70 years should give humanity hope that as much progress can be made again in the next 70 years. Indeed, many comments from the stars on the red carpet referenced that there is still much wrong with the world and a film like ‘A United Kingdom’ serves to highlight that we should never give up the fight. This is a fact not lost on Asante, especially given the marginal bandwidth available in the film industry to both people of colour and women – something that should be considered one of the big talking points of this year’s festival.

Oyelowo and Pike work together perfectly, each delivering powerful performances worthy of the story they are telling. The film’s genesis lies with Oyelowo, who started writing the script six years ago after reading the Susan Williams book Colour Bar, and his passion for the story seeps into his emotional delivery.

The film perhaps suffers from appearing saccharine, with the story telling us that their love was so strong it overcame political opposition and brought a continent together. The truth is that the film isn’t too far from being perfectly accurate, with only a couple of timeline changes for the benefit of pacing.

This is a story that is one piece of a much larger puzzle that can be filled in with what can be seen as companion films: Mandela – Long Walk To Freedom (2013) and Hotel Rwanda (2011) are two good recent examples. There is a rich history that is still being written in Africa, from which deeply moving stories continue to be drawn in both film and literature.

It is remarkable that the actors and actresses involved knew little of the source material before receiving the script. It is likely that the same can be said of the many viewers this film will eventually reach – I have to admit that I was also blissfully unaware of the history of Botswana before seeing this film. Khama’s story isn’t one that has been well-documented and that is something that Oyelowo and Asante will be more than happy to rectify.

A truly important story told in such a captivating manner deserves to be seen. A wonderful start to the festival.

 

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015)

The 2015 BFI London Film Festival came to a close this evening with the European Premiere of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. With all the stars out on the red carpet, it had all the hallmarks of a blockbuster finale on the scale of any of the Apple product launches we’ve become so accustomed to.

The biopic plays out in three distinct acts, all during iconic Jobs-headed product launches: the 1984 launch of the first Macintosh home computer; the 1988 launch of the NeXT Computer for NeXT Inc. (the company Jobs set up after being forced out of Apple); and ending with the 1998 launch of the first iMac computer.

Jobs worth

Jobs worth

Whilst it may risk being a big advert for Apple, the poor picture painted of the figurehead of the company throughout ensures that is never the case. The Steve Jobs we get to know over the course of the three acts, which play out in real time in the lead up to each of the presentations Jobs is giving, is narcissistic and self-centred, only relenting from the power trip when he finally achieves the success he has been driving for. It shows softer sides of his personality and attempts to justify his unique traits but the focus on his tempestuous relationship with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and their child Lisa ensures his best side is never seen.

It is actually a difficult watch throughout. It is basically two hours of arguments, eventually becoming tiring. It does successfully portray the frantic and intense atmosphere of a huge-scale product launch in a very real manner. It fails, however, to convince that this is a good platform for great cinema.

Michael Fassbender plays the Steve Jobs we see here to perfection, capturing the nuances required of someone who is heartless to the extent of being cruel. Kate Winslet’s turn as Joanna Hoffman is steadier than her accent, and Seth Roger puts in an adequate performance as Steve Wozniak. The standout performance is quite minor but nontheless critical: Michael Stuhbarg is exceptional as the bullied inventor Andy Hertzfield.

The biggest success is the genius move to film the picture on era-appropriate equipment. The three scenes were each filmed using totally different techniques: 1984 was captured on beautiful 16mm film, 1988 on 35mm film and 1998 on digital film. The evolution of technology is reflected in the format change and portrays each era in a manner that would have been impossible with digital post-production.

Whilst it isn’t a let down, it will be difficult to find a sustainable market for this film. It’s not a straight biopic, it isn’t hugely in favour of Apple, nor is it against it. It’s a struggle to watch and is unlikely to have people raving about its successes as they leave the cinema. 

It could be Danny Boyle’s Newton moment.

Steve Jobs is released in cinemas in the UK in November.

Further Viewing

If you enjoyed the film so much you’re interested in some further viewing, then check out the below videos. In the film you see the 40 minutes building up to the release of three products, but never get to see the keynotes themselves.

1984 – Original Macintosh home computer

The original keynote:

The Superbowl “1984” advert:

1988 – NeXT

The 1988 keynote speech isn’t available on YouTube, but this ABC news segment is a close fit:

1998 – iMac

The full video in all its glory: