BORG vs MCENROE

 

“…don’t let Metz’s propensity for the obvious and the unashamedly Hollywood deter you. Borg vs McEnroe is most certainly a terrifically entertaining film.”

Wayward Wolf.

One of the many great things about the innocence of youth is that you create your own narrative to play alongside landmark events, even if it flies somewhat in the face of popular opinion or indeed what actually happened; a prime example of which being the Borg vs McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980.

I was aware that my dad was vehemently siding with the ice-cool Swede and that “McEnroe” was to him and many others, essentially a dirty word.

I suppose that John McEnroe and his propensity for ‘ripe’ language and poor sportsmanship wouldn’t have placed him particularly high in any well-meaning parent’s list of ideal role models for their kids.

In my mind, though, I somehow managed to position Mr McEnroe as the poor, misunderstood, put-upon underdog, up against the machine-like oppressor, Björn Borg. Even then, I was distrustful of ‘the man’ and of popular opinion, and never having been adverse to adopting a contrary stance, watching Janus Metz’ thoroughly entertaining (if rather titularly-uninspired) Borg vs McEnroe, it really brought into sharp focus just how contrary and potentially inaccurate in fact my particular take on events had been.

Borg was a hugely successful and universally loved tennis player whose cool exterior, it would seem, belied his true personality. Borg, unbeknownst to most, was in fact prone to histrionics, explosive outbursts and tantrums, ironically the same character traits that had earned John McEnroe (initially at least) the moniker of world’s most universally reviled sports personality – or words to that effect.

Of course, to the world of professional tennis, Borg was unrecognisable from this former volatile incarnation of himself. His coach and mentor, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), had seen to that, ensuring that Björn would internalise all of this rage and release it only through his tennis. This Borg did of course, to devastating effect, resulting in four straight Wimbledon titles, and the opportunity to notch up an unprecedented fifth against the fast-rising American star, John McEnroe.

Janus Metz’s film not only tracks the build up to this epic encounter, detailing the two players’ massively different approaches to big match preparation, but delves back in time by way of a number of flashback scenes, demonstrating how the players had made their way in the game and came to be two of sport’s most prominent characters of the 1980’s.

Sverrir Gudnason does a good job in demonstrating the cool, calm and collected nature of Borg, a perception that was only true, it seems, on a rather superficial level, masking well a man increasingly uncomfortable and at odds with his fame.

Shia LaBeouf, on the other hand – all punk rock, head bands and resplendent in a Ramones T-shirt – is superb as the hyper-active, twitchy, McEnroe; the Alex Higgins of the tennis world, if you will. His portrayal is that of a man on the defensive. Quick-to-anger, this coiled spring of a character, much like Borg, used his explosive tendencies for the benefit of his (if no-one else’s) tennis performances. Unlike Borg, however, McEnroe was obviously not one for internalising anything!

Metz’s film is not without its faults. One of a few particularly clunky moments occurs during the film’s re-enactment of the classic final. A cigar-smoking Swedish commentator up in the Centre Court’s gantry, enthuses about one of the sets going into a tie-break, and then proceeds to spell out to the watching / listening millions, kindergarten-style, exactly what a tie-break is, and how its point scoring system works. Whilst it’s of course important to acknowledge that not every one of your target audience is all-knowledgable with regards to the rules of the game, it’s this kind of pandering to an audience’s lowest common denominator that does tend to cheapen any claim that Borg Vs McEnroe may have to be anything other than a superficial glossy, token overview of the game of tennis.

Perhaps that was in fact the director’s intentions?

Either way, don’t let Metz’s propensity for the obvious and the unashamedly Hollywood deter you. Borg vs McEnroe is most certainly a terrifically entertaining film.

Living in an age as we do now in which sport is increasingly about the big business angle – and being happy to acknowledge that the 1980’s was far from a time of purity and innocence – Borg vs McEnroe nevertheless whisks its audience along on a refreshingly rose-tinted trip down memory lane, to a time when not just tennis, but sport in general, was inundated with engaging characters, and the notion of sport for sport’s sake was very much alive and well.

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THE LEVELLING

“Ellie Kendrick’s performance is terrific – mature beyond her years – and absolutely pivotal to the film’s success.”

Wayward Wolf.

Following the suspected suicide of her younger brother Harry (Joe Blakemore), Clover (Ellie Kendrick), returns home to help with the funeral arrangements.

On her arrival, Clover’s father (played by David Troughton), or Aubrey as she chooses to refer to him, appears somewhat distracted, not to mention a little evasive with his daughter, brushing aside her understandable inquisitiveness as to her brother’s death, offering only a vague and wholly inadequate line in answering.

Aubrey is a dairy farmer, but with both his farmland and farmhouse all but ruined by the effects of the recent heavy rains and subsequent flooding – something which his insurers are refusing to compensate him for – it is clear that both his livelihood and general mental wellbeing now hang in the balance.

The failed insurance claim has caused Aubrey to drink heavily, and necessitates that he must live for now in a temporary porta-cabin until such time as he can afford to repair the flood-damaged farmhouse. Add to this, the family business, for a number of reasons, appears to be at the point of collapse.

There is a rather dysfunctional dynamic between Clover and Aubrey, much as there had apparently been between Aubrey and his now deceased son and heir to the farm. These rather strained relationships, the slow unravelling of the truth, and Clover’s growing awareness that only through personal sacrifice and the airing of grievances, can the wounds heal and the lingering resentment subside, are all meticulously explored in this unashamedly heavy-going drama.

A bleak and uneasy air of melancholy pervades throughout Hope Dixon Leach’s excellently-observed slow-burning character-driven piece.

Ellie Kendrick’s performance is terrific – mature beyond her years – and absolutely pivotal to the film’s success. Her on-going efforts to ensure that at least somebody remains strong and accountable in her family’s time of need, in spite of both her father’s unjust sniping and bitterness, and the general gathering gloom of the situation, are both noble and selfless.

Rich with symbolism and metaphors, The Levelling is a particularly impressive and rewarding piece to the patient viewer, and testimony to the old adage that blood is indeed thicker than water.

DETROIT

“…whilst I’m sure a fair amount of cinematic licence has been taken in parts to fill the occasional ‘blanks’ accordingly, as an historic account of the events that unfolded, it seems relatively faithful.”

Wayward Wolf. 

Back in 1993 I found myself wandering the streets near a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. The area was absolutely swarming with the media as it was the day of the announcement of a verdict pertaining to the infamous Rodney King trial. I was told by police in attendance that I should make myself scarce as the ‘wrong’ verdict could result in things getting nasty, as had been witnessed just one year earlier in the infamous L.A riots.

The verdict was delivered, deemed acceptable, and mercifully peace reigned.

For some time, the African American community of Los Angeles had felt aggrieved at its unfair treatment at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, but the sheer injustice of the original Rodney King trial verdict had finally tipped them over the edge, resulting in riots that lasted for six days, and caused many a death and much destruction to the city.

It was proof positive, and just one of  a number of more recent examples of the fact that some things just never change.

Some twenty-six years prior to that, a similar police-influenced grievance had caused already heightened racial tensions to finally explode in Detroit City, resulting in huge amounts of rioting. Within the confusion of such carnage, three African American men were murdered in the Algiers motel, and it is this tale and all of its troubling implications that forms the basis of Kathryn Bigelow’s ambitious, hard-hitting drama, Detroit.

The distrust between Detroit’s African American community and the almost entirely white Detroit PD is proven to be fully justified when, in attempting to shake up and force confessions from a number of black folk, as to the whereabouts of a firearm in a motel, three of its guests are shot dead.

This is an entirely avoidable scenario, and whilst essentially unintentional, its outcome has the police perpetrators frantically back-pedalling, re-writing events, desparately trying to cover their tracks. The truth, however, will not necessarily always out; for this is 1960’s America, and there is a certain dismal inevitability regarding the subsequent court case and verdict.

Bigelow’s Detroit provides substantial detailed background to the case in point, and brings together a number of personal accounts of the events of that night, whilst additionally expertly weaving original archive news footage into the piece, lending it historical significance, weight and credibility in the process.

Detroit is a film that draws decent performances across the board. John Boyega puts in a solid turn as security guard and witness to the crime, Misdukes. Will Poulter is an unusual, yet on balance, successful piece of casting as the baby-faced corrupt police officer Krauss, whilst Algee Smith convinces as fame-hungry soul singer and future star-in-the-making, Larry, whose insatiable appetite for the ladies has unfortunately positioned both he and his good friend in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

It’s all very well pieced together and whilst I’m sure a fair amount of cinematic licence has been taken in parts to fill the occasional ‘blanks’ accordingly, as an historic account of the events that unfolded, it seems relatively faithful.

I’m not sure whether its because Detroit covers such familiar ground, or whether our regular exposure to such grimly inevitable content tends to desensitise us to it, but Bigelow’s piece, whilst certainly lacking no sincerity in its account of the events that unfolded, seems to somehow lack a little impact.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, anticipating Detroit to be something more of a landmark piece, but the truth is that it is a very watchable and very well put together reminder of the age-old issues of racial injustice in the United States of America, and that in itself is of course no bad thing. It just seems to lack that certain something to elevate it above and beyond your commonplace crime and courtroom drama.

IT

“…our heroic nerd node, armed with nothing but bicycles and their sharp and consistently witty dialogue, embark upon filling their summer holidays with the most X-rated of Enid Blyton-esque adventures.”

Wayward Wolf.

As an unusually dark coming-of-age story, by and large, there’s a lot to like about IT. As an iconic horror movie for a new generation, on the other hand, I’m not so sure it really delivers.

Ultimately though, IT is, to all intents and purposes, a horror movie, and will surely therefore be judged primarily upon its ‘fright factor’. Whilst it contains a handful of genuinely creepy and slightly unsettling moments, they perhaps don’t have quite the impact required over the duration of a piece that really could have benefitted from being substantially shorter.

Part horror, part teen coming-of-age tale, IT, follows the exploits of a band of 1980’s nerdy misfits bound together largely by their collective ability to be relentlessly bullied by a gang whose leader is so beside himself with rage, I can only put this down to an air of disgruntlement regarding his bad 80’s mullet. Not only this, but each of the kids has also experienced their own rather unsavoury encounter with a demonic entity masquerading as a clown, named Pennywise, whose presence, when only fleeting and unexplored, is particularly well realised here. This most satanic of circus freaks is hell-bent on bumping off (whilst feeding off the fear of) many an unfortunate youngster in the small sleepy town of Derry.

Indeed, Derry has a worrying trend for disappearing children that stretches way back through the generations.

But who’d have thought it?

Belch Huggins (Jake Sim), that’s who’d have thought it.

The portly little loner has spent many a friendless hour in the local library researching this very thing, and his detective work has paid off handsomely, unearthing all manner of historical ghoulish goings on.

With their resolve strengthened, and united through their common goal, Derry’s answer to the Red Hand Gang will attempt once and for all to put paid to Pennywise’s clowning about, and seek to send him packing to the big top in the sky.

Or something.

If the fundamental staples and building blocks of what have constituted successful horror movies through the ages, are metal – (bear with me here) – then the film IT is one mother of a strong, indiscriminate horror magnet.

From old abandoned ‘Psycho-esque’ houses, sudden loud noises and high-pitched scraping glissando strings, to children singing sweet nursery rhymes to discordant accompaniments, Andy Muschietti has begged, borrowed and stolen from just about every conceivable classic horror source possible, as he absolutely hurls even the (presumably blood-splattered) kitchen sink at this movie.

And it sort of works – to a point.

It helps that surrounding, supporting and at times swamping the scary bits is a thoroughly charming little tale of teenage friendship and camaraderie in the face of the double onslaught of be-mulleted bullies and psychotic circus acts.

Indeed, very much the beating heart of this piece is the entertaining interplay between the film’s excellent and thoroughly engaging young cast whose depiction of young 1980’s teenagers is refreshingly spot on and cause for much unashamedly rose-tinted reminiscing.

With obvious tips of the hat to the classic teen flicks of yesteryear – Stand By Me and The Goonies spring to mind, amongst others – not to mention a very Spielberg-ian approach to the direction, our heroic nerd node, armed with nothing but bicycles and their sharp and consistently witty dialogue, embark upon filling their summer holidays with the most X-rated of Enid Blyton-esque adventures.

But herein lies a major problem. Once it becomes apparent that our gang of crusading crime-fighters is not in fact merely comprised of readily-dispensable units, ripe for the  slaughter at the massive feet of Pennywise, and is more a cohesive band of brothers (and sisters) on whose collective survival the film’s narrative rather depends, then all sense of foreboding and fear for their safety that has been carefully harnessed up until this point, takes something of a sharp left out of the nearest window. Sadly, this leaves the film to trundle predictably through the motions towards its underwhelming conclusion.

In terms of horror, it could be argued that IT is probably more Harry Potter than Hellraiser, for example, and there really is only so far that a tsunami of horror clichés, psychotic laughing and an unremitting, massively over-the-top soundtrack can take you when it comes to conjuring up the perfect, genuinely unnerving atmosphere.

As ever, less would have been so much more.

On balance, it should be stressed that IT does get an awful lot right though, and in many ways it makes for a highly entertaining couple of hours. But I suspect that Andy Muschietti’s vision for this film was to be a little less fantasy, and a lot more fear; and on that basis – and it could just be me – this has to be chalked up as a slightly disappointing re-make of this classic Stephen King novel.

 

 

 

TISZTA SZÍVVEL (Kills on Wheels)

“The chief success of Tiszta Svívvel is its ability to switch confidently and effectively between the thoughtful, the action-packed and the at times downright ridiculous…”

Wayward Wolf.

Tiszta Svívvel (re-badged for the UK market as: Kills on Wheels) is the latest offering from Hungarian writer and director, Attila Till.

Whilst, on one rather simplistic level, this is the story of a hit man and his two willing accomplices, it is on another far more nuanced level, the depiction of the daily ordeals experienced by those living with severe disabilities.

Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi), a young man with serious spinal issues, lives in a care home along with his best friend and Cerebral Palsy sufferer, Barba Papa (Ádám Fekete).

Barba Papa’s ability to walk, albeit in an ungainly fashion, makes him decidedly able-bodied compared to Zolika, whose back condition leaves him permanently confined to a wheelchair, and often to his bed.

There is a ray of light however for Zolika as his estranged father has agreed to fund corrective life-saving surgery for him, but Zolika harbours great anger towards the man who effectively abandoned him during his childhood, and whilst being in danger of cutting off his nose to spite his face, Zolika point-blank refuses to accept any such help, much to the chagrin of his concerned and doting mother. Zolika will need to raise the money himself, but how?

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Rupaszov, a man that has suffered a partial paralysis of his own. He too is wheelchair-bound. Previously a fireman, a work accident and its subsequent after effects have seen the poor man’s world and well-being fall apart, and he has descended into a dark state of bitterness, chaos and criminality.

Zolika and Barba Papa lack focus and drive in their lives, but a chance fractious encounter with Rupaszov leads to these two eager, wide-eyed innocents being taken under the ex-jailbird’s wing.

Though clearly an act of absent-minded madness to any right-thinking person, by teaming up with Rupaszov the young pair see an ideal opportunity to give some meaning to their lives which up until now have been very much defined by what they can’t do. They volunteer to aid Rupaszov in his work as a hired hit man for Serbian drug baron, Rados (Dusán Vitanovics). This decision alone would appear to be problematic enough, but Rados – with three decidedly tetchy Rottweilers for company – not only gives this collaborative idea the big thumbs-down, he then proceeds to administer Rupaszov with the most ruthless of ultimatums.

The chief success of Tiszta Svívvel is its ability to switch confidently and effectively between the thoughtful, the action-packed and the at times downright ridiculous, blending as it does a curious mixture of brutality with darkly humorous observational comedy. Underpinning all of this, however, there is a genuinely compassionate heart to this film which beats hard and true.

Zoltán Fenyvesi and Ádám Fekete put in commendable performances as Rupaszov’s helpers in what are perhaps, through no fault of their own, slightly limited roles, whilst Szabolcs Thuróczy’s performance as the embittered Rupaszov carries sufficient weight to convince as a man in the throes of a personal crisis; a man who can no longer find peace or any sense of meaning in his life.

Be it the challenge of pressing the correct buttons on a vending machine with a hand so severely affected by spasticity, being likened to the much loved Star Wars duo, R2D2 and C3PO, or Rupaszov simply watching with unaffected indifference as a knife is plunged into one of his paralysed legs, Attila Till’s script and direction never shies away from acknowledging the more comedic side and frequent absurdity of the trio’s daily plight as they lurch from one awkward scenario to another owing to their collective hampered physicality.

That said, for them to even attempt feats that would present a challenge to even the peak condition able-bodied amongst us, is testament to the group’s inner strength of belief and a refusal to give in – something that is very much a core theme of Till’s engaging film.

Tiszta Svívvel offers not just a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted and refreshingly original take on the gangster flick, but more importantly, provides a spirited and uplifting lens through which we can view disability, and its impact upon those who must live with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICAN MADE

“Tom Cruise is excellent as the perma-grinning, all-American charmer, Barry Seal, whose genial personality seems to combine elements of psychosis and death wish with an undeniable joie de vivre.”

Wayward Wolf.

Given its penchant for the big, bold and the frequently barmy, it’s fair to say that the United States of America never really does things by half, and rarely misses an opportunity to dumbfound and amaze.

“Only in America” they say, and how right they are.

On such a theme, American Made is Doug Liman’s superbly entertaining biopic of American anti-hero, Barry Seal, whose extraordinary life in the skies is a story that you just simply couldn’t make up, let alone believe actually happened.

Seal is a relatively young gifted TWA pilot flying commercial airliners in the 1970s. With a slightly left-field approach to his job, he’s not adverse to bending the rules a little. As a benefit of his particular flying route, he takes the odd back-hander smuggling Cuban cigars into his home country.

This being a time in which the U.S / Soviet cold war was in full swing and the perceived Communist ‘threat’ was foremost in the mind of Uncle Sam, when a CIA operative gets wise to Seal’s misdemeanours and obvious aviation talents, he wastes no time in recruiting him to fly reconnaissance missions over particularly volatile military bases in Central America.

Taking pictures of such strongholds, in-flight, whilst dodging sprays of gunfire may not be everybody’s idea of fun, but Seal positively thrives in his role, and soon finds himself smuggling guns into Nicaragua to support the efforts of the Contras.

Seal’s activities, whilst most irregular to say the least, are nonetheless part of a covert U.S mission and therefore deemed acceptable. What Seal hadn’t banked on, however, was the timely intervention of the Colombian Medellín drug cartel.

Blinded by the lure of megabucks, Seal soon finds himself doubling-up his workload and in the ludicrous situation of using gun-running for the U.S government as cover for the smuggling of kilos of cocaine for Pablo Escobar.

And that’s just the beginning of the madness!

Just how much artistic / creative licence has been taken with the truth here, I’m blissfully unaware of, but I imagine there’s been significant strategic embellishment to suit the big screen.

And why not?-  as a certain peerless, recently departed film critic was known to opine. If it makes for fun and games such as this, it can only be a good thing.

Tom Cruise is excellent as the perma-grinning, all-American charmer, Barry Seal, whose genial personality seems to combine elements of psychosis and death wish with an undeniable joie de vivre.

It’s quite some combination, and perfectly understandable considering the nature of Seal’s ‘career path’ not to mention the sheer volume of cash that he is eventually forced to bury in the grounds of his not-at-all small house, due to increasingly critical spatial constraints.

Domhnall Gleeson puts in a good turn as the slightly shifty CIA agent, Monty Schafer, and Sarah Wright, although in a limited role, doesn’t disappoint as Seal’s wife, Lucy.

Liman’s film is beautifully realised and above all, tremendous fun. Think The Wolf of Wall Street, airborne. A momentum-filled whirlwind of a tale that tips its hat to Martin Scorcese on more than a few occasions and boasts a cracking soundtrack placing the film slap bang in the era.

There’s no question that behind Seal’s charm offensive, there was a criminal life that most would understandably frown upon. Nevertheless, Liman’s film is so massively outrageous and entertaining, it really doesn’t matter.

American Made will leave you grinning from ear to ear.