Benjamin review

Simon Amstell’s feature debut, Benjamin, is a subtly funny, deeply romantic picture starring Colin Morgan and Phenix Brossard. Led by a powerhouse performance from Morgan, the film explores the idosyncracies of twenty-somethings in the creative industries in London in classic Amstell fashion.

At its core, Benjamin is a romantic character study interested in the unsaid. Exploring what constitutes art (and what inspires it, too), the film gently and playfully mocks the industry it focuses on. Interested in the formation of relationships, Amstell shakes off unrealistic displays of romance and instead grounds the film in everyday examples of love; the kind you can relate to. The kind you might have experienced.

It feels like a personal narrative for Amstell, who has spoken openly in interviews about his own experiences as a gay man navigating relationship territory. Indeed, Benjamin‘s mannerisms are comparative to Simon’s, as is his dry humour and awkward quality. These traits only endear us to the titular character more, as we watch his relationship with Phenix Brossards’ Noah blossom.

Brossard and Morgan share an enigmatic chemistry, both are a joy to watch. They share porridge, take mushrooms and wash each other’s hair. They support one another’s creative ventures. They both feel fear at the strength of their feelings. This is not an exploration of unchartered territory but instead a film interested in honest, innocent love and one that understands the complexities of it.

Joel Fry co-stars as Benjamin‘s best friend Stephen, a struggling comedian battling with depression. The scope of male friendship is explored in a manner both unobtrusive and moving, but Fry isn’t present enough and the short run time doesn’t leave space to explore his story more. However, this is just one small gripe and the feature, as a whole, is beautifully shot and refreshingly original in its take on modern love.

Simon Amstell, known previously for his cut-throat comments on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, shows his penchant for warmth and wit – and it’s not at the expense of others. Simply yet powerfully crafted, Benjamin is a relatable tale of young love that will resonate with anyone who has ever had, or sought out, organic romance.

 

 

The OA season two review

The OA, Netflix’s bizarre, otherworldly drama, first appeared on our screens in 2016. It was a whirlwind ride of near death experiences, strange dance moves and teenage angst that ended on a cliffhanger which allowed it to transcend its mythical realm and echo terrifying real life trauma. Cut to three years later and the series has finally made its eagerly-anticipated return but it’s more confusing than ever and strangely detached from its predecessor.

Brit Marling’s sci-fi drama series was gone so long that, much to the relief of its returning fans, it began with a lengthy reminder of what took place in season one. We were collectively reminded of Marling’s Prairie / OA, a beguiling young woman who returns to her small town after disappearing for seven years. Season one mixed two major storylines: flashbacks to OA‘s life as Hap‘s (a brilliant Jason Isaacs) prisoner and her new life in the present among a mismatched group of outsiders. The formula worked well but series two loses itself to big budget moments, forgoing the touching dialogue and in-depth study of human nature that season one thrived on. Instead, this new incarnation takes us on a confusing journey towards giant octopus, interactive games and mysterious houses. It’s still engulfing as a narrative, but feels, oddly, like a totally different creation from that of the first season. The only moments that echo the first, in terms of direction and narrative tropes, are the three episodes that centre around BBA, Steve and gang, and the whole piece suffers because of this.MV5BZjVhYTMyYTktZGFhMi00M2ZmLTlhMTAtZWM2NzNiZDkwYmZlXkEyXkFqcGdeQWFybm8@._V1_CR0,68,3600,2025_AL_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_

While the effects are impressive, and something to be marvelled at, they don’t feel as though they belong in this piece. Series one was so gritty and played on this idea that certain aspects could indeed happen; it mixed harrowing drama with fantastical elements and turned out something that scared us with a strange kind of sci-fi realism. Series two loses touch with its humanity, instead focusing on seemingly unrelated (not to mention unexplained) sub-plots. While the season suffers because of this, it redeems itself with the return of the fabulous Phyllis Smith and the introduction of Kingsley Ben Adir as new character Karim. The best moments of this suspend-your-belief series come from both actors and Adir is a total joy to watch as he steps his way to stardom. There are moments of horror in this new series too, but not the real-life kind, the best-of-the-genre kind. The slow-creeping dread and jolting scares are effective and enjoyable and make for a welcome addition to a show that tries to cram a lot of unnecessary moments into what was, initially, a relatively simple starting point.

The OA is still an interesting watch; Brit Marling is a fierce talent as writer, actor and producer, alongside artistic partner Zal Batmanglij. The pair dive deeper into the unknown, exploring the multiverse with probing interest which translates enthusiastically, if a little confusingly. The heart of this show lies with OA‘s motley crew from series one and with not one scene shared in series two comes a lack of sentimentality, not to mention apathy.

Still intriguing, if a little misjudged, The OA will return for a third series but will its viewers? I for one am no longer sure.

Mayans M.C. – season one review

Kurt Sutter’s fascination with motorcycle clubs continues with Mayans M.C., a spin-off from the immensely popular Sons of Anarchy. In this new iteration we’re placed with the Mayans, a drug-running charter based in the fictional town of Santo Padre involved in the dealings of dangerous cartel family the Galindo’s.

Fans of Sons of Anarchy will already be familiar with the Mayans who were at first rivals, then allies, of Jax Teller and co’. Emilio Rivera returns to the fictional world as Alvarez, the Padrino of the M.C., alongside brand new characters and one or two cameos from familiar faces. The series’ main character – essentially Charlie Hunnam’s equivalent here – is EZ Reyes, a Mayans prospect, played by J. D. Pardo. Other memorable performances include Richard Cabral as Coco and the brilliant Clayton Cardenas as EZ’s brother Angel

The Sons ran guns, the Mayans run drugs. Both are questionable career choices but Sutter is careful to demonstrate that his club members are only in it for the money and actually care about their communities. Honest. This theme was more prominent in SOA with real focus on the Teller family’s loyalty to Charming. The biggest challenge any spin-off faces is in successfully forging itself as stand-alone. While Mayans M.C. is entertaining drama it’s difficult to create a set of characters as beguiling as those in Sons and struggles slightly because of this.

Much like its predecessor Mayans M.C. is blood-soaked, drug-addled fare featuring scantily clad women and testosterone-fuelled fights. What it’s missing is SOA’s thought-provoking exploration of masculinity and male friendship and its deeply-rooted themes of brotherhood. Instead it serves up a highly watchable series that treads new ground, looks visually impressive and introduces likeable characters. It’s highly unrealistic and will offend some, but take it at face value and it’s actually a lot of fun.

Sutter’s new series is not yet of the calibre of SOA, but there is plenty of time for that.

Sex Education review

Sex Education, Netflix’s newest original series, follows a group of sixth form students as they discover the joys and misadventures that come with having sex. Created by Laura Nunn and starring a string of fresh faces, the comedy-drama is pitch-perfect and completely of the moment.

There is an appealing universal nature to Sex Education, with its effective balancing of timely themes (abortion, masculinity and sexual orientation) and a whiff of the surreal, giving it the chance to speak to both men and women. It’s entirely adult in nature and not for younger audiences, but its exploration of sex holds a genuine relatability that older audience members – who this was made for – will, undoubtedly, find refreshing.

Similar in ways to Skins but much funnier and less inescapably depressing – as well as being embedded in more realism and less cliched drama – Sex Education encompasses a fantastic Britishness while embracing an 80’s American aesthetic. Also, much like Skins, it’s successfully providing a platform for a plethora of young, talented actors, many of whom put in star turns here.

Asa Butterfield leads the ensemble as Otis, a sixteen year old boy coping with rising sexual pressures as he embarks on his first year at sixth form. Butterfield is simply fantastic; relatable, funny, likeable, sweet, slightly weird – as a viewer you can’t help but root for him. This, in itself, is a feat of great serial storytelling. It’s not often – even with the very best of television – that you can binge-watch a series and not find one annoyance with the main character but, with Butterfield’s Otis, this really is the case.

Asa is supported by Ncuti Gatwa (Eric) and Emma Mackey (Maeve), as well as Gillian Anderson; an acting pro who here shows off her knack for delivering understated comedy. The four put in equally memorable performances but it’s Eric‘s story that holds the most emotional depth. With a want not to give anything away, his journey as a gay man with a penchant for styling feminine attire is thoughtfully developed and deeply moving and Gatwa gives an unforgettable breakout performance.

Sex Education is intelligently penned, fiercely relevant and confidently acted cementing it as Netflix’s best original series in recent memory.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool review

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a deeply moving story tracing the relationship between Peter Turner, a young Liverpudlian actor, and Gloria Grahame, an aging Hollywood star. Adapted from Turner’s memoir of the same name by Paul McGuigan, the film is a portrait of sincere companionship and unexpected romance, featuring Annette Bening in a career-best performance.

McGuigan’s film is charismatic, capturing the surreal glamour of Hollywood with clever visuals, and the immense complexity of Gloria Grahame, an Oscar-winning actress who, in 1981, was coming to the end of her life. Gloria’s character – brilliantly funny, entirely self-aware, and quietly vulnerable – is celebrated in this biopic; a film that is at times great fun, and at others undeniably sad.

Director McGuigan seamlessly weaves scenes together in an unconventional mode of storytelling, intelligently playing with the chronology of the story that charts the pair’s unique love. Grahame’s relationship with Turner – a man who was 20 years her junior – is the focus of the film, but beyond this surface story McGuigan focuses in on the idea of one person giving another a sense of home in a way that feels so familiar, so honest, and as a viewer involves you entirely.

Jamie Bell stars alongside Bening and the pair share a searing chemistry; not only depicting a deep romantic connection, but a sense of friendship often amiss in stories of this kind. The fact that this tale is true of course makes the emotional impact heavier, but McGuigan’s genteel exploration of Turner and Grahame’s relationship gives the film a sensitive quality that is genuinely effecting and totally absorbing.

The support cast are reliably brilliant, bringing in Stephen Graham and Julie Walters, alongside a swift, but no less memorable, appearance from Vanessa Redgrave. It’s not the star power that propels the film to great heights though, it’s the modes of storytelling McGuigan deploys to bring this compelling experience in Turner’s life to the screen.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a terrific feature which tells a truly fascinating story of life, love and death, and one that explores its characters with brilliant warmth. Simply fantastic.

Widows review

Steve McQueen adapts Lynda LaPlante’s iconic mini-series Widows, leaving behind London for inner city Chicago, tackling race, capitalism and contemporary America along the way.

Steve McQueen is a director who, through a handful of exceptional films tackling tough subjects, has cemented himself as one of the best filmmakers working today. From Hunger and Shame to 12 Years a Slave and, now, Widows – perhaps his most Hollywood effort to date – when news hits that McQueen is working on something new, there is a collective buzz among film critics and fans. So, with the release of Widows, an Americanised version of a very British 80’s drama series, we expect big things.

In Widows, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew make money stealing from gangsters but their latest job goes wrong leaving their wives to pick up the pieces. Viola Davis is Rawling’s wife Veronica; a wealthy woman who, upon losing her husband, is left with nothing. Threatened by gangster-turned-politician Jamal, she recruits the other lost wives to pull off a heist laid out by Harry. McQueen unites a cast of superb actresses, supported by a handful of acclaimed actors, for a reimagining of Lynda LaPlante’s much-loved heist story. It’s a simple premise which delivers a fantastic twist, but something is slightly amiss.

The treat of the film comes with the cast. Oscar winner Viola Davis is exceptional as Veronica; a woman whose experiences with loss have left her cold and, ultimately, alone. Daniel Kaluuya is excellent as Jatemme, Jamal’s psychotic brother with a penchant for violence. It’s great to see him flex his acting muscles, playing a character who is truly awful, and believably so. The youngest of the esteemed cast, his role leaves a memorable mark, alongside Elizabeth Debicki whose character transforms her emotional vulnerability into a surprising strength. Michelle Rodriguez is cast against type; frequently known as a bad-ass heroine, here she is seemingly out of her depth as a young mother fighting for economic survival. The film establishes McQueen as a director fascinated with people, one who directs with such a fierce virtuosity and understanding of human nature.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay is paired back and refreshingly realistic; there isn’t a trace of unnecessary dramatics, with the characters reacting to events in a wholly relatable fashion. Every aspect of the film comes together to make it a complete movie that is really rather excellent, but the genre detailing isn’t as fast-paced or exciting as expected and this ultimately leaves us with a sense of dissatisfaction come the end scene.

Carefully, considerately shot – with an ensemble cast of dreams – Widows is, as expected, a fantastic film, but when the final job comes it doesn’t quite deliver the genre punch we came for.

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.

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.