Wonder ****

Following on from Anti-Bullying Week 2017 in the UK, and based on the New York Times bestseller, this heartwarming screen story adapted by Beauty and the Beast writer Stephen Chbosky is highly poignant, reminding us that we are all different but the same inside. In the same vein as the 1985 film that propelled Cher’s on-screen career, Mask, there is a central character that is extraordinary, both physically and mentally, trying to fit in and be ordinary. Personal journeys cannot fail to hit the right chord, if attempted well.

This is the story of August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with facial differences who has had years of corrective surgery. Homeschooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), he decides it is time to enter fifth grade in a mainstream elementary school. It means going out in the world without his trusted spaceman’s helmet. He encounters many reactions to looking ‘different’.

Chbosky and team have developed a convincing back story to the Pullman household – that includes Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and big sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) – without relying on schmaltz for reaction. We get a very real sense of each character’s place in the family unit and their hopes, frustrations and reactions to the position they find themselves in. Indeed, the Pullman world does revolve around Auggie and protecting him, but the little boy resists this to an extent, wanting to be judged on merit and personality alone.

The strength of the tale lies in the comparisons between siblings. Wonder juxtapositions their life experiences, and examines how one child gets more parental limelight than the other, through no fault of their own. In fact there is a great deal of ‘selflessness’ to all four characters making truly inspirational viewing. It is outside forces and opinions that propel the narrative forward, using Auggie as the litmus test in each new scenario.

This sweet coming-of-age tale does not leave any of its leads behind either – each one gets a chance to grow their character arc, not just Auggie, which is refreshing. This means none are left as two-dimensional caricatures propping up another, pointing to some great writing and direction.

We are used to seeing Roberts in fighting mom spirit, though this is commendably understated in Wonder, complimented by Owen’s gentle humorous input as Nate. Both Tremblay and Vidovic give engaging performances as the Pullman children. Even though Roberts and Owen are big names on the project, the film belongs to the younger stars.

This enlightening family viewing is full of morals, incentives and solutions for all – not just the standard “you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it” mantra. It is in the little details that Chbosky’s film speaks its greatest volume and empathizes with all characters: There is no black and white in Wonder as the storyline unfolds – even the school bully has a back story that goes some way to explaining his hurtful actions.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Mudbound ****

This year’s BFI LFF was full of richly layered film-making that seemed poignantly relevant to current affairs, even though the story may have been set in another time and era. Perhaps we never learn our past mistakes?

One such example is writer-director Dee Rees’s Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, a beautifully rendered tale set in the Deep South about the impact of post-war America on the various communities. Not only does it explore racial tensions of the time, present-day unrest in Charlottesville, for example, makes us project latter-day opinions on the film’s events.

When two men – one white (Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan) and one black (Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson) – return home from World War II to work on a farm in Mississippi, they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to daily life after war. One belongs to a white family who own the land (the McAllans), and the other to family who, along with its descendants, works it (the Jacksons).

Nothing is taken for granted in Mudbound. No back story is left untold. Hence there are no plot holes to contend with. Rees fully fleshes out each character, as well as gives them an individual journey to embark on. Coupled with some fantastic casting/acting in Hedlund and Mitchell and Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan, this film offers a plethora of events and surface tensions to dissect and submerse in that parallel present-day tensions in America.

The storytelling is emotive in nature, as is to be expected. However, it is not drawn out for effect and exploitative in sentimentality. Events play out with real-time significance, with some of the most violent scenes very real indeed. In fact, Clarke’s McAllan brother, Henry, actually hits actor Hedlund for full effect in the brothers’ confrontation scene. The irony is there is also sensitivity invested in the characters and their story that Rees’ coaxes out on screen that is powerful in the mundane of moments.

Mudbound could fall into the clichéd Deep South screen story of racial divide but addresses all injustices using the most traumatic, humbling and leveling device: war.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Good Time ****

Robert Pattinson has come a long way from his Edward Cullen years in Twilight, having to carefully pick his roles as to throw off the vampire mantel. He has had some successes and some duds. However, with the Safdie BrothersGood Time, an urban thriller on speed, he may just have done it. Its edgy pace and sense of ‘in the moment’ fixes makes the actor’s underdog character Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas not just an exhilarating one to try and keep up with, but a complete change from the normally laid-back Pattinson.

After a botched bank robbery by brothers Connie and Nick (Benny Safdie), the latter gets caught and jailed. So begins the desperate 24-hour countdown by Connie to collect together bail money and stop his mentally-ill brother from being sent to Riker’s Island prison, where he knows Nick will not survive.

With its film noir nods, punctuated by psychedelic colour and energizing pop tracks, the Safdie Brothers take us on a journey through the underbelly of Queens – their home turf, with Connie as our unwilling guide. The gritty, hand-held production was often shot without filming permits – as is the Safdies’ ‘urban opera’ style, further complimenting the whole affair.

With elements of Taxi Driver to it – the Safdies are working with Scorsese on a new film, there is a pressure-cooker environment waiting to come to boil. Unlike the 1976’s cult classic, Good Time has moments of release, only for a split second, to show the idiocy/absurdity of certain events throughout.

At the heart is a criminal with a heart – thieves may not stick together, but brothers do. Pattinson’s casting is a clever choice by the Safdies, who have pluck unknowns from the street to act. Pattinson embodies Connie completely, including clinching the accent. That said there is a softer edge to his hardened exterior, allowing empathy with his plight to filter through at times.

This is in stark contrast with Queens native Buddy Duress, a real-life, reformed felon who the Safdie Brothers cast in their earlier film, Heaven Knows What (2014). Duress plays Ray this time, a pathetic small-time crook who knows how to get cash quick for Connie. The fact Pattinson is so convincing opposite Duress in their scenes is credit to the Brit’s complete transformation in this.

Good Time is a ride of the night, a pulsing, high-octane race against the main enemy – time. It may surprise some Pattinson’s fans, but it will certainly hold him in greater acting regard by everyone who sees this.

4/ 5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Paddington 2 *****

Most people know who Paddington Bear is; a classic childhood character that loves marmalade sandwiches and travels from Peru to London, where he comes to live with the Browns. The first film three years ago did an enchanting job of introducing the bear to the Big Smoke, complete with some fun and memorable moments (like the bathroom flooding scene) and a villain in taxidermist Nicole Kidman.

Having established the bear, the sequel ups the ante, delivering a wonderful storyline fans can really get on board with. Now settled with the Browns, Paddington decides to buy his Aunt Lucy a 100th birthday present. However, the present he wants costs too much, so he reserves it until he can collect together enough money. Sadly, the gift catches the eye of vain local actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Then it goes missing from the shop in an apparent burglary. Paddington gets into trouble hunting the culprit, resulting in him having to clear his own name.

The excellent returning cast of Ben Whishaw (voices Paddington), Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters etc is always a positive. The location also plays on nostalgic London – the kind tourists seek out, where affluent Brits can be as eccentric as they please in their own local community, rendering a bear living in their midst as ‘normal’. There is also the introduction of an old-fashioned fun fair to enchant further in other scenes and hark back to childhood memories.

This film is better than the original because there is an actual adventure to follow and two brilliant new characters; camp Buchanan (Grant) and menacing prison chef Knuckles McGinty, played by Brendan Gleeson. Adventure-wise, the story leads us (and the bear) to all kinds of places, some you wouldn’t expect Paddington to be in. But through his impeccable manners and innocence, he wins over hearts and minds – just another part of the whole film’s charm.

Grant steals the show though – this will be sweet music to the musical-theatre-loving thespian he plays. Grant is having a ball hamming it up – so do we watching him. This climaxes in a colourful finale that will have you in hysterics, especially as the actor has proclaimed not to be too fond of dancing. In contrast to the showy Buchanan, Gleeson’s no-nonsense Knuckles goes on a personal journey, thanks to Paddington. There is even a scene straight out of a Bond/Bourne film that bonds the unlikely pair further.

Paddington 2 is good-value family entertainment, with all kinds of characters in the mix, but still enjoying the full support of the Browns – not relegated to the sidelines as the bear goes on his hunt/adventure, but still very much in action. Do catch this if you can!

5/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2017: Breathe ****

The ‘based on a true story’ mantra either triggers interest or groans – the latter from cynics crying “Oscar baiting”. However, some tales deserve a little more credit and attention, and Breathe is one such story. The sentimentality is kept firmly in check by debut director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum) who works here with long-time friend and producer Jonathan Cavendish to deliver a truly inspirational and surprisingly upbeat drama about Cavendish’s parents.

Beginning in the 1950s, dashing, active, fun-loving Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) is struck down by polio while living in Africa with his pregnant wife, Diana (Claire Foy), and is paralysed from the neck down for the rest of his life. Struggling to accept being bed-bound in hospital, Robin becomes depressed, and begs Diana to get him out. So begins an extraordinary life journey that defies the medical profession. When the couple’s friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) invents a wheelchair with built-in breathing apparatus this allows Robin to live – and even travel.

Breathe avoids failing into cliché on the whole. It has some very funny and uplifting moments, once Robin leaves the confines of the hospital. There is a wonder at what the character will achieve next that prevents the narrative from being bogged down by mawkishness. The central performances from Garfield and Foy are illuminating. The pair has a natural screen rapport that extenuates the bubbly moments of joy and wonderment at the Cavendish’s achievements, while focuses our attention on the more serious aspects. Serkis’ care with the source material is such that by the time the inevitable arrives, the viewer is not emotionally drained and actually celebrates the good that has come out of Robin’s situation.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Victoria and Abdul ****

Stephen Frears’ period drama Victoria and Abdul about an unlikely friendship at the heart of the British monarchy, set at the end of the 1800s, is as topical now as it was controversial back then, with prejudices threatening unity between races. Frears tackles this by ramping up the pomp and circumstance to the point of absurdity that the story has plenty of highly hilarious moments and reactions to those events.

These circus scenarios buffer the real tragedy of a desperate need for human connection. Queen Victoria to many commoners appeared to have the world at her feet. Her Indian attendant Abdul Karim acts as the ‘whistleblower’ showing there was more life outside of the confines of the royal household. This is the story’s aching heart that beats through the delightful frivolity.

Returning as Victoria – after Mrs Brown (1997), Judi Dench knows her queen very well, stepping into an older version of her character with ease and empathy for Victoria’s ‘caged bird’ existence. Although not ‘funny’ in herself, Dench’s po-faced performance as Victoria, especially at yet another formal meal is the stuff of great British cinema. Dench forever commands authority on screen and captives her audience, like many of her characters, including M from the Bond movies. As with the former, Dench is a master at breaking down her character’s stony façade to let the real human being inside shine through, piece by piece, as she does here.

This witty and energetic romp – that plays with historic facts somewhat – is even funnier, thanks to the supporting cast of scheming, bigoted ‘fools’, played by Eddie Izzard as Victoria’s son Bertie, Paul Higgins as Dr Reid, Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill. These big screen and stage players are utterly brilliant as they try to cling onto the formalities of the crown that have seen them pampered, all the while reflecting the prejudice against other races and religions that speaks volumes today.

Adeel Akhtar of Four Lions fame expertly delivers his own brand of po-faced scorn at the whole fiasco that faces him on privileged British soil, contrasting delightfully with Ali Fazal’s Abdul’s child-like wonder at the new opportunities his ‘servant’ position brings and in turn ‘wakes’ the queen from her royal sleepwalk. Frears initially paints these two as ‘fish out of water’ in the opulence of 19th century England, like an Indian Laurel and Hardy. However, as the story unfolds, they adapt and become the sanity (and breath of fresh air) that Victoria craves; in fact the voices of reason. It is another dig at the royal establishment by Frears who admits he is a Republican, but he obviously is still sentimental towards the queen – as per his 2006 film The Queen that won Helen Mirren an Oscar.

Victoria and Abdul is enchanting British drama, blending laughter and sadness that once again, cements Dench’s mastery in such roles, even if it bends the historic truth.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Cars 3 ***

With Cars 1 and Cars 2 always on at some point at home (with our two kids), the prospect of a third outing is inevitable, kind of a pilgrimage that must be made (parents nods in unison). In fact, we have waited six years for the latest installment, after first encountering youthful, cocky racing legend Lightning McQueen getting lost in Radiator Falls off Route 66 in 2006.

What the third film, Cars 3, highlights is how quickly time passes – McQueen is now the geriatric motor like mentor Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman) was, making you surprisingly reminisce on what a decade has brought you? It’s this reflection that Cars 3 makers Disney Pixar want you to experience, using a cross-generational storyline.

After losing the latest speedway race to a new generation of race cars like suave winner Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson back in the driving seat) sets out to prove he still has what it takes to win. However, his true direction is revealed after an unexpected off-track journey taken with trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

The success (or failure) of Cars 3 really does depend on what you want from the film – and your dedication to the characters. The story has to progress – Lightning McQueen cannot race forever, as every sportsman knows too well. This is Disney too, so there has to be a happy, albeit poignant, family-friendly ending.

It’s not so much the McQueen character progression here, but whether you want action scenes verses lovable character moments for committed fans. Indeed, those craving more Mater moments will be disappointed – the Doc gets more of an outing that the goofy tow truck whose quirky quips feel a little flat. The Radiator Springs bunch – much like the second film – gets driven out as the cheerleaders once more, like spectators to their own franchise. Dwell on the (mis)fortunes of the former characters, and you get a sense of great sadness that they are being resigned to the Disney store cupboard.

This film’s hook relies on Lightning McQueen’s interaction with the new characters. Here, the studio has gone with more ‘girl power’ with Cruz – remember Emily Mortimer’s Holley Shiftwell spy car in the second film? Cruz is really peppy and great fun, but also self-doubting, which allows McQueen to give the pep talk and ‘grow up’.

What film three lacks though, is an actual adventure that the second had and kept little ones really entertained by. Indeed, there is ‘a journey’ going on, but this self-discovery version begins to feel like it’s wallowing at times, threatening to dislodge any little ones’ interest. It’s then you will the film to move on speedily to the next action scene to stop the inevitable “can we go now” line from being utter in the cinematic darkness. This happened three-quarters of the way through from a Cars-obsessed, 4.5-year-old – very telling indeed. Just be prepared.

As for action, the effects and graphics are superb especially the near-realistic mud pit in the ‘demolition derby’ race McQueen and Cruz compete in that feels like a bit of Radiator Springs nostalgia. However, it’s the first-person gamer view of the speedway racing track that really wows and gets the juices going of any speed demon watching. This wizardry shows how far the franchise has come and Disney Pixar must be commended on.

Cars 3 does have ‘something for everyone’, which is why it’s still proved so lucrative both in theatrical and home entertainment terms. This saga just forwards the narrative towards (maybe) a new fork in the Cars road map? One that doesn’t necessarily say good-bye to Radiator Springs and Route 66, but could take another interesting path…

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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War For The Planet Of The Apes (3D) *****

 

If you’ve ever doubted viewing one of these films – as this reviewer has, this could be your introduction to one of the most thought-provoking ‘man verses beast’ films of present-day cinema. Through the magic of digital technology, War For The Planet Of The Apes manages to transport you from ‘human to ape’ then makes you question our species’ impact on nature around us. All of this comes to brew in a rocky microcosm of human suffering. It’s that powerful that is makes you think long afterward viewing. Throughout, you are too busy willing the apes to survive and save the planet.

Having followed Caesar’s journey from his intelligent ape origins, in the third chapter, he (Andy Serkis returning) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

Believe the hype: Serkis is superb in this, leaving no emotion unexplored, and becoming more ‘civilised’ and messiah-like than any human could hope to be. You are completely won over to his side, his morality and view on the world, along with his ‘apes in arms’ (Karin Konoval as Maurice, Terry Notary as Rocket and Michael Adamthwaite as Luca).

The most powerful scenes are Serkis’s Caesar verses Harrelson’s Colonel. Initially, both feel as though they are playing to stereotype, but both character arcs are way more subtle, surprising and ultimately satisfying than that, as both have darker and lighter shades to their nature, which the film always pauses to reflect on. These muted moments, however, are never to the detriment of the film’s urgency and pace. They merely add greater value.

There are also some wonderful companionship and group-bonding moments among apes – and ‘token’ primate, a young mute girl called Nova (Amiah Miller) who is there for ‘cute’ value and to shine a light on the apes’ sensitive nature. In scenes that resemble The Great Escape and Schindler’s List, the apes are resourceful, considerate and in destructible in what is thrown at them. It is all-engrossing. Director Matt Reeves and team never forget to lighten the emotional load, with a charmingly funny turn by Steve Zahn as the comedic Bad Ape, the character that actually makes the greatest progression in hindsight.

As for big-screen effects, some of the jungle scenes are spectacular, especially when Caesar firsts encounters the Colonel at the waterfall. Details that could have been lost in the dim tones are all present and alive, feral, even down to the emotions in the eyes between man and beast. This is a production that does not squander its budget, making use of every effect, production design and vista.

War For The Planet Of The Apes concludes in the only way possible, squeezing out one last emotional response from the viewer. As Hollywood endings go, it’s as expected, almost clichéd. However, the full impact of what you have just watched hits you like a tidal wave soon after. It’s the unexpected that renders War For The Planet Of The Apes one of the most powerful post-viewing experiences in a long time.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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My Cousin Rachel ****

Daphne du Maurier novels are primed for screen use – just take Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now, for example. After all, she was a master of intrigue, dark imagination, and open endings, and was one of Hitchcock’s favourites to adapt. Hence, the second big-screen incarnation of My Cousin Rachel (the first made in 1952, starring Olivia de Havillard and a young Richard Burton) ought to be an enticing affair, starring Rachel Weisz this time around. It is, and just as moody in production as in acting as any ‘period film noir’ should be. It also retains the mystery right up until the very last frame, which some might find utterly frustrating.

After the sudden death of his beloved cousin/father figure in Italy, young Englishman Philip (Sam Claflin) begins to plot revenge against his cousin’s widow, the enigmatic and beautiful Rachel (Weisz), believing foul play at his cousin’s demise. He waits for Rachel’s imminent arrival, after news that she is to settle in England on her husband’s estate – which Philip has been running and will inherit at on his 25th birthday. However, the more Philip gets to know her, the more he falls for her charm and individuality. But what are Rachel’s real intentions?

The ‘did she, didn’t she’ yarn is engrossing enough to have you hooked throughout and continually looking for clues to solve the mystery. At the same time, it almost makes excuses for some of the lesser explained sub plots that writer-director Roger Michell leaves ‘hanging’. Perhaps, this whole mystery works because both Michell and his leads did not discuss who is to blame throughout filming? This certainly translates onto screen, as all the characters have is to react to the present situation they find themselves in, while they (and we) try working out what the devil is going on?

My Cousin Rachel cleverly swings between sympathy with and suspicion of Rachel, partly due to the great acting talents of Weisz – without her, this film might have been a non-starter. Weisz delivers just the right amount of torment and teasing, composure and melodramatics to keep you guessing, playing the full spectrum of emotion. She is entrancing to watch even when she says nothing, dressed in mournful black most of the time, like some ever-present dark menace in the room, even in her lighter moments.

Michell does make full use of the Rael Jones music score to prompt changes in mood perhaps a little too frequently, but Claflin’s ‘lesser acting experience’ compared to Weisz’s actually plays to his character’s advantage in dealing with the more worldly-wise woman. Claflin says he did not know what Weisz’s next move would be on set and this certainly shines through.

The actual surprise for those fans of Austen and Dickens-adapted films is the modern vein of humour coursing through it, even the language that My Cousin Rachel employs – cue the moment Philip’s butler deals with men wrongly dressing the Christmas tree. This is a feature of du Maurier’s written word which Michell has captured well, and it feels quite in place and ‘fresh’, punctuating languishing moments in such a period drama, even though the time’s decorum is still maintained.

Game of Thrones’ star Iain Glen and Holliday Grainger are brilliant support to Claflin’s Philip as the Kendalls (father and daughter), who worry about his position and mental health. As onscreen mentors and wiser figures, even they are susceptible to Rachel’s lure, making for an intriguing dynamic.

My Cousin Rachel is a curious one to describe to those who haven’t seen it. It creeps up on you slowly and makes you think before frustrating the hell out of you in the end. It has love, mystery, drama and comedy, without all the stuffiness of period drama that might turn some off. It is a period ‘coming-of-age’ film too, where the ‘bad guy’ is female – or is she? Is she just very independent and sexually liberated for her time? As Philip asks in the end: who is to blame? Perhaps, that’s where du Maurier’s opening line in the novel might help: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days”… You decide.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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