A Star is Born review

Bradley Cooper revitalises one of cinema’s best-loved romances, updating the story of an ageing rock musician and his relationship with a talented rising star with an emotional depth often amiss in romantic-dramas.

With the cinematic release of A Star is Born – a film that had been hovering in development with various directors and actors attached for some time – came a plethora of critical acclaim. That acclaim, widespread and enthusiastic, is not misplaced. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut – an obvious passion project that he has poured his heart and soul into – is a confident film with songs featuring hair-raising live music scenes, moving adult drama, and knockout performances from a small ensemble cast.

Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are sensational, they share an electric on-screen chemistry meaning their relationship is believable and their shared scenes (essentially the whole movie) are a delight to watch. There are many (quite possibly too many) romantic films out there. None are quite as affecting as this one.a-star-is-born

Gaga gives an Oscar-worthy performance, fusing quiet confidence with a rising-star vulnerability that endears us to her and allows us to see beyond the veneer of her real life star persona.  Cooper directs with a curiosity for his characters and the music industry that takes us on a captivating journey. Morphing into haunted rock star Jackson Maine, Cooper gives a physical and emotional performance that is both memorable and tragic, and veteran Sam Elliott is terrific, supporting his co-stars with comfortable ease.

With A Star is Born Cooper explores timely themes with such gut-wrenching force it’s almost impossible to leave the cinema unmoved. The film’s power is in its ability to stay with you long after the credits roll and, this alone, is its true triumph.

Billed as a romantic-drama, A Star is Born is so much more, going beyond its genre to explore the music industry, masculinity and mental health. It might be the story’s fourth incarnation but it is also quite possibly its best. Superb.

Killing Eve review

In Killing Eve a bored MI5 agent (Sandra Oh) is drawn into a violent chase to track down deadly assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer); a psychopathic killer who has targeted a number of well-known public and political figures. As Eve gets closer to tracking her down, she becomes obsessed with the elusive target, enjoying the new-found excitement in her life.

BBC America’s new drama adapted from a series of novels by Luke Jennings, is a superb, expertly crafted game of cat and mouse featuring a star-making performance from Comer. Already confirmed for a second season (before its satellite premiere which vouches for its quality) the series is a super slick, and often bloody, example of television at its brilliant best.

Jodie Comer (My Mad Fat Diary, Doctor Foster) is truly exceptional as Villanelle. An awards-worthy performance from one of the industry’s best new talents, Comer nails the complexity of the assassin and showcases a depth not often seen in small-screen dramas. A truly revelatory turn for an actress so early in her career, Villanelle is a frequently surprising villain. Sandra Oh is similarly fantastic, and despite her character becoming less likeable as the series develops, Eve is a well-written, fully realised protagonist.

The supporting cast are a delight too, and not one person lets this team down. Kim Bodina is devilishly funny; Fiona Shaw (who many will know from the Harry Potter franchise) is fantastically dry, clearly having lots of fun as an eccentric and high-flying MI6 agent; and newcomer Sean Delaney adds a slice of much-needed innocent warmth to this pitch-black story .

Already attaining a kind of cult status, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s adaptation is not only exceptionally written (balancing dark wit with challenging themes) but refreshingly original. There’s an obvious feminist feeling to it and the lead performances from Comer and Oh are worth tuning in for if nothing else, but it’s the near complete perfection of the production as a whole that makes this such a joy to watch. There are moments of narrative frivolity (for it’s all a bit silly) but this made-up world entraps you and it’s the new definition of binge-worthy.

Stylish, shocking and brilliantly acted, Killing Eve is a delight to discover. Raising the bar for what a single 40-minute episode of television can achieve, it’s one of the best (if not the best) dramas to hit the small screen in recent years. Waller-Bridge has masterfully adapted Jennings’ engulfing story for TV and proved that everything she touches becomes pure gold.

Simply a must-see.

The Predator review

The newest incarnation in the Predator series of films, which was first introduced to us in 1987, comes back to the big screen with bad language, bloody violence and a new set of characters that aren’t only forgettable because they don’t all have names (really), but because of choppy editing and one very hazy narrative.

In The Predator a team of rogue soldiers must band together to protect civilisation from a new kind of threat; an evolved Predator that travels to earth to reclaim a ship and wipe out the human race.

The Predator is Shane Black’s attempt at rebooting the franchise, but Nimrod Antal’s 2010 film starring Adrien Brody achieves much more: it’s well-acted, the effects are spectacular and the story isn’t convoluted. Black’s film has undoubtedly been messed with at editing stage and there’s no question that the director’s vision for the horror is not what we are seeing in the cinema.

The film’s big budget isn’t reflected on screen and a lot of the effects are questionable.  To the movie’s detriment CGI is favoured over practical effects and instead of epic moments of action (which is what we’ve all turned up for) a lot of these scenes pass by in a confusing flash. The moments of violence are bloody and 80’s inspired, but there are also one or two deliveries of poorly-timed humour attached to killing that just don’t fly.

No one turns up to the cinema to watch The Predator expecting sensational filmmaking, but a couple of hours of mindless fun is enough. And the film certainly is funny in moments, particularly early on when Boyd Holbrook meets his ragtag team of  reluctant heroes. The easy humour is lost as the film progresses and with a run time of 107 minutes it’s slightly too long.

It’s almost unbelievable to think Shane Black – the writer-director of The Nice Guys – could have had final say with this film, and, saying that, I don’t think he did. The Predator isn’t the all-out action we wanted, and it certainly isn’t a reboot to remember, but it serves a cinematic purpose with its attempt at old-fashioned fun that, when it works, is worthwhile.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

In Martin McDonagh’s newest film Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother grieving the murder of her teenage daughter, pays for three messages to be painted on deserted billboards. The messages question local Police Chief Willoughby’s ability to find the culprit and rile the small town, setting off a chain of bizarre and violent events.

McDonagh’s third film is a pitch-black comedy that hits you like a punch in the chest with shocking violence and dark wit. Three Billboards is certainly not for everyone, but those who do get it will simply adore it.

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes.

The director and writer follows up indie-hit Seven Psychopaths with a feature of the same vein. Three Billboards is similarly blood-soaked and comedic, yet different in the unsuspecting warmth that creeps in among the dark cracks. Another star-studded affair, the film utilises its starry talent well and introduces the audience to some brilliant young new actors (Lucas Hedges is again spectacular).

The hype is real, folks. Frances McDormand is heart-achingly sensational as Mildred, a character whose former life is over and whose current life is ruled by grief, anger and quiet despair. McDormand is given free reign with this role as McDonagh allows her to explore her range, showing herself a true character actress. The results are nowhere short of magnificent. Giving an eye-watering performance that will go down as one of the best in history, McDormand is simply one of the greatest thespians to have walked this earth.

Three Billboards is a film of memorable performances. Every scene offers something to remember from another of Hollywood’s finest. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are both on top-form, the latter flexing his muscles as a racist cop with a true penchant for violence. Rockwell is often memorable, but here he’s something else, giving such complexity to a character who could otherwise be totally one-dimensional. Although the final scene feels initially abrupt and unfulfilling, the importance of the film as a whole creeps up after watching and banishes any initial disappointment.

Three Billboards is completely challenging but completely worth the watch. Wholly uncomfortable in moments yet giggle-inducing and downright silly in others, McDonagh has somehow created his own sub-genre, and may his spellbinding work as auteur continue on.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet review

Inspired by my recent trip to Secret Cinema, I felt the need to proclaim my love for the inimitable William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.

In 1996 Australian director Baz Luhrmann – a relative unknown amongst Hollywood heavyweights – grabbed Shakespeare by its Elizabethan balls and made it into an MTV spectacle. Luhrmann decided that the Bard could – and would – talk to a contemporary audience of moody adolescents and intelligent young professionals in a way that it never had before. How? He turned Verona into Verona Beach – a dirty, sexy urban hotspot strewn with gangs and seedy pool halls; swapped swords for guns; and made Friar Lawrence a tattoo-wielding chemist.

Still with me?

On paper it sounded bonkers. Today, it still sounds bonkers. But, it works. It’s busy, and unabashedly loud, but also tender, thoughtful and – this is the best part – now timeless. Most people remember Shakespeare as an irksome GCSE task, an irrelevant text that can’t possibly be relevant to today because, well, it was written then. Luhrmann’s auteur eye meant that Romeo + Juliet was no longer a melodramatic tragedy that didn’t relate to now, it was a stylish story of prohibited love that felt new. The melancholy spills off the screen and into our laps, and we can’t help but stay glued to it.AA8FCC55-3A9E-44DA-B134-0D9B0285A20A

Upon release the flick was a major hit because it was a colourful celebration of the time. Today, it’s revered for its zeitgeist approach to filmmaking, and its all-out attack on the world’s best-known love story. The 90’s setting has given the film a new lease of life too, as a joyous throwback to a fondly-remembered decade. There’s a lot to love about this adaptation, not least Harold Perrineau’s complex Mercutio. A part-time drag queen with a penchant for drugs (a clever re-thinking of Queen Mab), this Mercutio lives to cause a stir, and Luhrmann’s decision to portray his love for Romeo as more romantic than brotherly reinvents a character whose role in the play is often overlooked.

A young Leonardo DiCaprio, on the cusp of stardom, puts in an Oscar-worthy performance as lonely Romeo looking for his soul mate, and Claire Danes – one of the most diverse actresses to grace the modern screen – comes alive as a Juliet longing to experience life, and love. The real feat with this adaptation – which really only stays faithful to the Shakespearean dialogue – is in making us, bizarrely, want for the romance between the two titular characters. It’s achieved through a cool-as-hell visual and minute by minute pacing that takes us on a whirlwind story of family feuds, capitalist America, and, of course, untimely death.

Whether you’re falling for Quindon Tarver’s soulful cover of Prince’s When Doves Cry, or rooting for a love that was doomed from day one; William Shakespeare – no, sorry, – Baz Luhrrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, will have you hooked.

Hereditary review

Hereditary, Director Ari Aster’s bold directorial debut, has achieved global word of mouth. Following its midnight screening at Sundance word quickly spread about the scale of real horror on offer here; a genre triumph that echoed The Exorcist. Buzz about a film doesn’t always serve it well though, particularly when it sets expectations sky high. So while Hereditary doesn’t quite serve up a complete slice of sinister cinematic horror, it does triumph as an indie film that has garnered the uninterrupted attention of mainstream audiences.

The narrative is open to interpretation but its central themes are that of grief, family torment and an underlying unease that centres around distrust. The real horror moments come in seeing Collette’s Annie break down following a tragic accident, her son’s fear of being guilty and unloved, and of not having control of that which is determined to unfold.

Director Aster takes a slow-burn approach, allowing events to unfold at a frustratingly slow pace. Had the flick been sold as a tense thriller rather than a psychological horror, the jump scares, clever camera tricks and  haunting set pieces would deliver a fuller effect. But these moments are fleeting, and they don’t achieve the impact they would were they unexpected, and you’re ultimately left wanting events to shuffle on faster.

Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne support newcomers Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, but Byrne isn’t given nearly enough screen time. Collette is, as always, a gem. Channeling raw emotion as a grieving mother, her role as Annie is demanding – and perhaps the most terrifying element of the whole feature – but she never falters.

The final twenty minutes delivers a series of eye-covering moments which ultimately descends into a strange and slightly disappointing finale. Genre cliches continually threaten to creep in, but they never overwhelm the power of the bleak aesthetic or the goosebump-inducing score – this isn’t any old horror fare, Aster leans more towards art house tropes and directs with confidence.

A lot of comparisons have been drawn with The Babadook, another horror centred around grief but one that masters the slow-building dread effect with more force. Despite the perceived flaws there’s no denying that Aster has achieved a lot with this daring debut; if only in drawing mass audiences to an indie film, thus supporting the industry. The writing is pretty spectacular too, human emotion is captured quite perfectly, and Collette leads the film into outstanding territory performance-wise.

It won’t scare you like you might want it too, but it’s certainly an impressive debut from a director who is no doubt now in high demand.

1001 Movies: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

In Ang Lee’s visual masterpiece famed warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is charged with finding the Green Destiny; a treasured sword which has been stolen by his nemesis Jade Fox.

Released in 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a success both at the Box Office and with critics. Ang Lee directed a foreign language film that appealed to mainstream western audiences; a true triumph in itself. It also launched the Hollywood career of Zhang Ziyi; an actress who’s captivating performance as Jen cemented her as one of the finest talents seen in years.

While every film included in 1001 Movies was carefully selected, the inclusion of Crouching Tiger is one that doesn’t need deliberating. Culturally important (one article on the film boldly, and rightly, declares ‘America had never seen anything like this before’) and sublimely shot and choreographed, Lee’s delicate film balances moments of spectacular violence with quiet, pensive romance. Indeed, a film for everyone – which is rarely the case with world cinema – the feature is a how-to in enticing audiences to see something new.

Essentially an action film, there are plenty of awe-inspiring martial arts moments that are both superbly choreographed and genuinely flawless. There are three stand-out scenes in a film which is, of course, entirely unforgettable, all featuring Ziyi as a master martial artist, including a stunning fight which includes ‘flying’ across a forest of bamboo. It’s breathtaking, and wholly original.

Crouching Tiger successfully shakes up perceived gender roles too; both Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh play talented martial artists and are often superior to their male peers, this in itself is an important aspect of a multi-layered movie which goes against convention to deliver an astounding cinematic experience.

The film also serves as a contemporary introduction to world cinema alongside the likes of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and A Bittersweet Life (none of which are included in 1001 Movies but deserve mentions here). While Ang Lee’s epic covers all bases – romance, history, action – it’s most important feat was in introducing new audiences to a genre of incredible filmmaking they hadn’t previously been privy to.

Accessible, visually-clever, and simply a whole lot of fun, Crouching Tiger is a must-see.

New on Netflix: God’s Own Country

Netflix is upping its array of indie delights and its most recent addition – God’s Own Country – is not to be missed. Released in October 2017, Francis Lee’s debut follows the relationship between two men. Quietly tender and arrestingly urgent, this moving story will have you bleary-eyed and seeking out more indie gems on the platform.

A great example of what people mean when they say ‘Very British Cinema’, God’s Own Country is set on a Yorkshire farm during a cold, dirt-strewn spring. Director Lee celebrates the beauty of this county while showcasing the inherent loneliness of farm life, while the central theme of the film focuses on the relationship between farmer Johnny Saxby (a fantastic Josh O’Connor who you’ll know from ITV’s lavish period dramedy The Durrells) and migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). The success of Lee’s film can’t just be seen in the silently arresting performances of these two actors, but also in the way it tackles two vital themes: masculinity and Britishness. And more specifically, the pressure of upholding a family tradition that is founded on very British values.

Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor in God’s Own Country

We aren’t exactly a nation known for wearing our hearts on our sleeve, irritatingly stoic when it comes to talking about our feelings, the struggle to say how we feel is explored throughout the 105 minute run-time, and predominantly through silence. Director Lee masterfully tells the story of Johnny and how he breaks free of his own emotional prison with the tender, sentimental support of Gheorghe in a story that transcends the specifics of gender. Centrally about loneliness, rumination and how, without real, meaningful relationships, men can and will break down, the tale is refreshingly honest, and quite bittersweet too.

From start to finish the flick runs with little dialogue or music, placing us in the literal and metaphorical silence that Johnny lives with. What begins as a seemingly bleak British farm drama evolves into a hopeful story of love and friendship, responsibility and hardship, and the ability to begin again. God’s Own Country isn’t only a great film, it’s thematically relevant and undeniably important.

Next time you turn to Netflix, take a trip to God’s Own Country.

Jessica Jones season two: Krysten Ritter’s titular anti-hero returns

Season two of Jessica Jones was long-awaited and highly-anticipated because series one wasn’t only a masterclass in how to make good TV, it introduced us to a new, undeniably likeable superhero. An anti-hero of sorts. Jessica Jones; a PI with a past, superhuman strength and a penchant for whisky. Jess is smart, witty, stubborn and vulnerable and although incredibly special, she was also introduced to us as exceptionally relatable. We got to know Jess over 13 carefully crafted episodes of Netflix genius, and she quickly became a bona fide small-screen favourite. While season two has been met with just a smattering of the same acclaim its predecessor received, our hero is still back, and the importance of the show shouldn’t escape our notice.

Without too much analysis, Jess is just a totally likeable, completely bad ass protagonist. Her apparent unwillingness to be a textbook hero is what endears us to her more. Delving in deeper, Jess is a brilliantly written example of a contemporary feminist whose narrative background – and genre in which she’s placed – allows women and men to enjoy the series without feeling alienated by in-your-face feminism. This is in itself is a true triumph of the series.

The joy in watching Jessica Jones is in the character Krysten Ritter has created. Jones might just be the best new TV lead we’ve seen in some time and Ritter shows herself as not only a tremendous talent, but as an important part in the evolution of female roles found on the big and small screen (another recent example being Gal Gadot’s fantastic Wonder Woman). Whether or not season two lived up to our high expectations, Jessica Jones is an incredibly important character during a time of vital change in the entertainment industry. Jess is an unconventional – but key – advocate for the importance of strong women being highlighted, celebrated and not defeated by their (usually) male foes. Strong, troubled women have been seen on screen since the dawn of cinema but never quite like this. Often shown to need rescuing by others, female roles were initially one-dimensional but are now multi-faceted. Here, Jones rescues herself with her own unique strength (and not just the physical kind).

So, let’s not all jump at once to point out the apparent lack of brilliance season two of Jessica Jones brought. Instead, lets praise the exceptional writing, the inimitable performance of Ritter (an entirely underrated actress), and the team of talented women behind the lens. By the time series three comes around, I suspect many more female heroes will be given the praise they most definitely deserve.

Lady Bird review

In Lady Bird we meet Christine, a 17 year old high school senior frustrated with adolescent life and bored of her Sacramento upbringing. We follow Christine, who now demands to be called Lady Bird, during her senior year of school as she embarks on first relationships, applies to colleges and discovers the importance of true friendship. The central theme of the film is Lady Bird‘s relationship with her mum, played beautifully by Laurie Metcalf. It’s a seemingly simple story of every day life that brims with heart.

Greta Gerwig’s first feature length film has had critics and audiences raving. It even holds the highest rating to ever have been handed out by Rotten Tomatoes, certifying it as one of the most applauded releases of the year. Gerwig handles every relationship Lady Bird experiences with a unique realism that is often missing in coming-of-age films and entries into the genre are usually quirky indie films with small budgets but big ambitions. Recent notable examples are The Perks of Being a Wallflower and James Pondsolt’s exceptional The Spectacular Now. Greta Gerwig explores similar themes to those films but here focuses in on the tumultuous love shared between a mother and her daughter, and it’s told with an inimitable caring eye and loving touch, one that hasn’t been seen on film in a long while. Seemingly throwaway moments, like when Lady Bird turns 18 and buys a pack of camels, a scratch card and Playgirl – just to celebrate the freedom of her new age – perfectly showcases how it feels to be on the cusp of adulthood.

Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird with ease, channeling the complexity of being 17 with such severe talent. Metcalf is similarly fantastic, and it’s astonishing that these women, and this film, didn’t clean up at the awards. But it doesn’t matter, not really. Everyone who has seen Lady Bird knows just how remarkable it is, a once-every-few-years gem. It’s a feature that reminds you why film is important. It’s a film that lifts you up, and makes life feel better. It’s a film that celebrates our idiosyncrasies. And most importantly, it’s a film that joyously revels in not fitting in, and embracing your quirky, eccentric, individual self.

Gerwig’s main focus is on Lady Bird‘s relationship with her mum, and there are several notable scenes that give this film real heart. Metcalf’s turn as Marion is a stunning performance, incredibly dynamic yet understated and drawn from life. There’s no unnecessary dramatics here just simple, effective storytelling, with characters played by some of Hollywood’s most talented. Lucas Hedges also gives a moving performance, leading a sub-plot that is achingly poignant.

Lady Bird is a fiercly unique character who, at times, is desperate to fit in and experience as much as possible. As an audience, we’ve all been there and it’s the relatability of this narrative aspect that gives the film its universal appeal.The soundtrack is a nostalgic dream too, and the 2002 setting is equally enjoyable. Special mention must go to April Napier’s costume design; there’s a lot of humour in seeing certain fashions come full circle.

Lady Bird is so supremely special. Greta Gerwig has created something that brims with warmth and wit, that at its core runs on an emotional depth that will seep into your soul and refuse to let go. I left the cinema with joy, smiling at the story I’d just seen, feeling as though I was now part of a secret club that got to see this mega piece of cinema. But, of course, it’s not a secret club, because Lady Bird has received worldwide recognition. I reveled in every second of pleasure the film offers, and I can’t wait to show this film to every person I love, so they can fall for it just as I have.