STRONGER

“…Tatiana Maslany’s depiction of Erin Hurley is one of genuine sentiment and a warm almost tangible sense of goodness.”

Wayward Wolf.

In many ways, Stronger is one of those ten-a-penny ‘triumph over adversity’ films that have been such a mainstay of cinema over the years.

However, what separates David Gordon Green’s tale from most are the superbly powerful performances of the film’s principal characters.

Owing to Jeff Bauman’s erratic nature and inability to turn up when he’s meant to, his relationship with Erin Hurley is something of an on and off affair. At the time in which Erin is due to run the Boston Marathon, their relationship is firmly in the off position, yet Jeff is clearly still obsessed with ‘his’ girl-next-door, Erin, and in a chance meeting at their local bar, Jeff, in a grand gesture aimed at winning her back, not only encourages the bar’s many patrons to sponsor Erin, but vows himself to cheer her on at the finish line.

Home-made banner in hand, for once Jeff just about sticks to his word, but it’s a decision that will dramatically change his life forever as he falls victim to the cowardly bombings of April 2013.

Surrounded by many well-meaning friends and family, in theory Jeff has the support network in place to help him overcome his disability. But with his alcoholic mother and good-time friends’ better judgement so frequently blighted by the bottle – not to mention having to live in a tiny room in his mother’s pokey apartment that is entirely unsuitable for the needs of a a disabled person – it soon becomes apparent that if Jeff is going to have any chance of coming to terms and indeed being at peace with his now drastically changed existence, it’s going to have to be down to him.

If it weren’t for Erin, that is.

Erin, a girl so sweet and caring, will prove over time to be an absolute rock of dependability, ensuring that Jeff’s road to some form of recovery may not be quite so fraught with problems after all.

Little is made of the actual bombings themselves in Green’s film, with only a hint of politicising events or finger pointing at suspects. Instead, the focus turns to Bauman’s psychological struggles in coming to terms not only with his disability, but with the expectation of a city positively tripping over itself to laud him as being some kind of hero, to be wheeled out in public at every given opportunity.

“Boston Strong” is the mantra of the city’s people as its population closes ranks and comes together in the face of adversity.

But Jeff’s life fast descends into a circus of celebrity revolving around rather anodyne acts of flag waving at Bruins matches or tossing first pitches at Red Sox games, not to mention a proposed visit to Jeff’s home from the TV Queen of all-American sentiment, Oprah Winfrey.

It’s understandably all too much.

The one ray of light throughout though is the wonderful Erin. But Jeff’s innate unreliable nature combined with the psychological scarring of recent events threatens to undermine everything good that this girl undoubtedly brings into his life.

Stronger boasts decent support performances most notably from Miranda Richardson who is a good piece of casting as Jeff’s well-meaning but troubled alcoholic mother, Patty, but it is the film’s leading pair who predictably steal the show.

Jake Gyllenhaal is tremendously visceral in his portrayal of Jeff Bauman whilst Tatiana Maslany’s depiction of Erin Hurley is one of genuine sentiment and a warm almost tangible sense of goodness. Together the couple demonstrate the most solidly believable on-screen chemistry as they attempt to navigate their way through the most harrowing scenes of tension and heartbreak.

Just how much of David Gordon Green’s film has been embellished for cinematic purposes only Jeff and Erin themselves will know, but as a cinematic spectacle, Stronger stands alone well as an engaging, thought-provoking film absolutely brought alive by way of some truly memorable performances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

“…if we’re judging Murder on the Orient Express upon pure entertainment value alone, it’s only fair to say that this Kenneth Branagh adaptation is something of a success.”

Wayward Wolf.

This 2017 version of the Agatha Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express (MOTOE from hereon in), seems to have received a rather mixed bag of reviews since its release. Certainly having on board (literally in this case), such a who’s who of acting royalty, demonstrates a certain confidence by Twentieth Century Fox that this weighty cast of A-listers would be sufficiently alluring to transform this well known who dunnit from being merely potential TV fodder into something of a big screen epic.

And if we’re judging MOTOE upon pure entertainment value alone, it’s only fair to say that this Kenneth Branagh adaptation is something of a success.

Branagh himself heads the cast, portraying famous Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Like many of Agatha Christie’s heroic lead characters, Poirot proves yet again to be something of a jinx; his very presence unsurprisingly coinciding with a murder. In this instance it occurs aboard the luxurious Orient Express train en route from Turkey to Paris.

Only a limited number of passengers are booked to travel on this particular journey, however, all of whom instantly become suspects in the murder of one Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), found dead in his sleeping quarters having been stabbed repeatedly.

Ratchett’s shady past is then slowly revealed by those that knew him, a past that more than justifies such a potentially retaliatory action; something that he had in fact made known to Poirot himself, that he was rather fearful of.

With Ratchett’s grave fears proven correct, and with all suspects aboard the train unable to flee the scene of the crime, it is once again down to Belgian’s famous bloodhound to sniff out the truth in this particularly gruesome case of murder.

When one thinks of Poirot, one probably thinks of David Suchet’s long running portrayal on the small screen. Whether that is to be considered the pinnacle of all things Poirot-related is of course open to debate, and there are many far better qualified than I to cast their judgement. Regardless of this, Branagh, it should be said, is excellent in his own portrayal, depicting Poirot as a fastidious stickler for both detail and equilibrium in all things; personal traits that will come to be severely tested in the course of time.

In support, Judi Dench plays the sour-faced Princess Dragomiroff, with Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt) – a lady of few words – her companion and dog carer.

Johnny Depp is decent enough as Ratchett, though his mumbled American drawl gets a little lost amidst the ambient din of a chugging steam train.

Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer more or less complete an all-star line-up of egos, something that Director Branagh will have been tasked with containing during the film’s shoot. Though given his admirable thespian credentials, there would arguably have been no-one better suited to that particular task.

Blessed with Haris Zambarloukos’s stunning cinematography, a quality cast, an overall keen eye for the small details, and a healthy dose of humour thrown in to boot, Branagh’s adaptation of MOTOE, whilst not necessarily adding anything particularly new or revolutionary in its vision, is nevertheless one worthy of both its place on the big screen and more importantly, of the Agatha Christie novel itself.

 

 

WONDER

“…thanks to some genuinely excellent performances and a director’s unashamed mission to absolutely yank upon our collective heart strings, Wonder is an absolute lip-wobbler of a feel good film.”

Wayward Wolf.

Earlier this year, Marc Webb’s sassy, touching drama, Gifted, told the story of a highly intelligent precocious young child who had been home schooled up until a certain age. Her father was then adamant that she should be ‘unleashed’ into the real world in order to improve her social skills and to learn how to integrate with other children.

A child so intellectually advanced yet socially inept was always going to struggle to fit in and it’s therefore no surprise when her integration proves to be fraught with complications.

The similarities between Webb’s film and Stephen Chbosky’s latest offering, Wonder, are obvious and plentiful.

Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), is a young lad with severe facial disfiguration. He too is somewhat gifted – in the field of science – and has been home schooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts). She has made the brave decision to now enrol Auggie in school in order that he too may have the opportunity to assimilate with others of his own age.

It’s a courageous step for all concerned given Auggie’s special circumstances and knowing how cruel children can be at that young, impressionable age, and one that Auggie’s father, Nate (Owen Wilson), is understandably unsure about.

Nevertheless, the young boy, shielded within the security of his favourite astronaut helmet, is encouraged to take the plunge. Predictably, life’s lessons come thick and fast for the poor wee thing, weighing heavily not only upon Auggie’s vulnerable young shoulders, but upon those that love and look out for him too.

If we’re being brutally honest, there’s very little by way of originality in Stephen Chbosky’s film. This is a familiar story of not fitting in, and all of the assorted trials and tribulations that go along with that. Lessons, however, will be learned and ultimately the director is keen to relay an entirely positive message, and to say that, is really not to give away anything that you wouldn’t already have suspected.

Far from being a predictable cliché-ridden waste of everyone’s time, however, thanks to some genuinely excellent performances and a director’s unashamed mission to absolutely yank upon our collective heart strings, Wonder is an absolute lip-wobbler of a feel good film.

Naturally, Auggie’s story is very much at the forefront of things, but Chbosky also weaves in a number of the support characters’ own stories into proceedings as explanation for why they have come to be how they are, and act like they act. This is a nice idea in theory, adding a little depth to the characterisation, though it should be said that it only partially works here, and one or two of these character biographies are so short and unrevealing that they might as well have not been included at all.

It is the side story of Auggie’s older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), however, that is most pertinent. A young, well-adjusted girl whose life has understandably been one of constantly having to play second fiddle to her brother. Auggie’s many years of surgery and continual need for attention and reassurance has left Via feeling as though she is a bit of an after thought for her parents. A simmering resentment is therefore never far from the surface whenever she and her mother are together, and even any shared plans that they may have to spend dedicated quality time together are never more than one Auggie-related phone call away from being unceremoniously aborted.

But such is life in the Pullman household.

Original it may well not be, but thanks to some beautifully played key roles, Wonder cannot help but hit the mark. Julia Roberts in particular blends both strength and tender maternal concern quite beautifully and with great sensitivity. Jacob Tremblay – so convincing in 2016’s Room –  demonstrates that the trajectory arc of his career continues to rise in one direction only, and a special mention should be made for Izabela Vidovic, whose portrayal of Auggie’s sister, Via, is one of subtle depth and know how.

With films like Wonder, and Gifted before it, there is aways a danger that they may slip on the treacly mess of their own over-sentimentality. But whilst there is no doubt that Stephen Chbosky is unafraid to slap on his own brand of emotional emulsion, thick, and with numerous coats, the end result is a film so finely glossed and beautiful, it’ll bring a lump to your throat.

Though admittedly that may just be the paint fumes.

 

 

 

 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

“It’s big, it’s bold, fairly nonsensical in places, but crucially pretty faithful to the requirements of the franchise.”

Wayward Wolf.

From informative wording rising up shakily over a star-speckled screen (you’d have thought they might have sorted all such text-related jitters by now considering today’s super slick digital technology), to the triumphant opening fanfare of John Williams’ seminal theme, it can only mean one thing, folks. That’s right, it’s time for another thinly-veiled religiously over-toned lesson in good and evil by way of everybody’s favourite intergalactic science fiction box-ticking franchise.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (SW:TLJ from hereon in), is upon us, and receiving a considerable amount of thumbs-up activity it would appear.

But is this Rian Johnson-directed two-and-a-half-hour epic fully deserving of all such lavish praise being bestowed upon it?

First and foremost, it’s important to establish one simple truth: directing any Star Wars film is akin to wearing a strait jacket, such are the restrictions under which any director must surely operate. There is a certain level of expectancy amongst your typical Star Wars-viewing public, a formula away from which one can not veer significantly, and a check list containing  any number of core requirements that must be met before any level of personal influence and input can be injected into or stamped upon proceedings.

I’d imagine.

In fairness to Rian Johnson, his Star Wars directorial debut probably ticks enough boxes and sufficiently grooms enough executive egos to keep those that matter sufficiently happy.

There are return outings for the franchise’s two newest stars, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and  Finn (John Boyega), along with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who, in spite of his undoubtedly wonderful abilities as an actor, remains the worst piece of villainous casting in living memory. Just what were the Star Wars powers-that-be thinking?

We are also treated to a reclusive, grizzlier and somewhat wiser Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and an inexplicably large amount of computer generated Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) imagery, including an amusing incident in which, following an attack on her ship – in scenes reminiscent of the opening credit sequence of the 1960’s science fiction classic, Lost In Space – she tumbles arse-over-tit out of a spaceship into the great black beyond before being fished back in once again like some sort of cosmic carp.

Whilst it’s a nice homage to the late Carrie Fisher’s memory, quite what such an excessive amount of this CGi wizardry actually adds to the film as a whole, is debatable to say the least.

There are very limited and fairly forgettable roles for Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro, and a predictable smattering of bizarre mechanical and other worldly entities and critters – both new and old, including an unexpected cameo from Yoda himself – to keep everyone happy.

Certainly no expense has been spared in fully furnishing this latest instalment with a wide variety and excellent quality of characters, yet once again I arrive at the conclusion that there is still yet to be a Star Wars movie that succeeds in creating and developing characters of any sufficient depth or substance, and certainly none that one can fully engage or empathise with – perhaps with the exception of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo character. Talking of which, Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of pilot Poe Dameron evokes welcome memories of Solo, and it’s no surprise therefore that Poe is easily the most convincing character in SW:TLJ.

As for the plot, it’s a fairly simple affair. Aren’t they all? Essentially it’s a tale of rebels on the run. “Tom & Jerry in Space” is one particularly harsh summary that I’ve heard, which, give or take a side story or two, is actually probably a fair assessment.

It’s big, it’s bold, fairly nonsensical in places, but crucially pretty faithful to the requirements of the franchise, and if the blue light sabre-wielding fella sat behind me – hyper-ventilating with joy like an over excited spaniel on glimpsing its favourite squeaky toy – is the measuring stick here, then it’s fair to say that SW:TLJ is nothing short of a triumph. Then again, listening to the opinions of those attending a screening on Star Wars opening night probably doesn’t guarantee the most impartial of reviews.

Balance this against my own predictable apathy towards all things Star Wars and subsequent conservative assessment of them, and the true measure of Rian Johnson’s big budget blockbuster almost certainly lies somewhere in-between.

 

 

 

 

MOUNTAIN

“…the film boasts some impressive height-perspective shots of wide-eyed lunatics free-climbing their way up hundreds of metres of sheer rock face.”

Wayward Wolf.

Director Jennifer Peedom’s documentary, Mountain, is an impressive piece. An unassuming film embellished with only a very sparse smattering of voice-over supplied through the husky tones of one Willem Dafoe.

That said, to label Mountain a documentary is perhaps stretching the truth somewhat. A ‘meditation’ or ‘appreciation’ would perhaps be more appropriate.

It’s a fine combination of sweeping footage of various mountainous vistas taken from all over the globe, set to the stunning music of Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Additionally, a masterfully curated selection of some of history’s most powerful orchestral music is used to great effect here, culminating most fittingly with the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.

Beautifully shot throughout, it’s hard not to be in total awe and reverence of the sheer scale and imposing nature of these sprawling ranges – the results of millions of years of plate tectonic and volcanic activity.

Peedom’s film, whilst never preachy or particularly intrusive, touches upon the affect that these colossal masses of rock have had upon the human psyche over time. Initially believed to be the domain of either Gods or Monsters, life at the foot of these gigantic monoliths was considered hard enough without people ever feeling any need to tempt fate by exploring their giddy, perilous heights.

The confirmation of Mount Everest as being the world’s highest peak, however, lay down the gauntlet to many an intrepid explorer, and once finally ‘conquered’ by Hillary and Norgay in 1953, the floodgates positively ruptured with regard to man pitting his wits against not only nature’s highest challenge, but indeed against every mountain range the world over.

Mountaineering suddenly became something of an obsession, no longer to be considered the past-time of the foolhardy or clinically insane.

Talking of insane, the film boasts some impressive height-perspective shots of wide-eyed lunatics free-climbing their way up hundreds of metres of sheer rock face – footage that left me frozen to my seat in terror, questioning just exactly how much has really changed with regards to the perceived mental state of the climbing fraternity.

Perhaps most sweaty palm-inducing of all though was a section devoted to extreme sports, following a variety of thrill-seeking wack jobs in their assorted attempts to free dive / parachute / bike or off-piste ski themselves into certain oblivion, often simultaneously outrunning avalanches in the process.

Madness! Yet utterly enthralling.

Whilst those of us that have had any sort of fascination with mountains and mountaineering over the years may not necessarily learn anything new from Jennifer Peedom’s film, Mountain is however a stunning, heart felt ode to their breathtaking majestic beauty, and a stark reminder of humanity’s sheer insignificance; dwarfed in their very presence.

 

 

SUBURBICON

“Suburbicon is a rather disjointed hotchpotch of ideas and concepts, like a mis-matched outfit thrown together by an owner racked by indecision whilst going through something of an identity crisis.”

Wayward Wolf.

I’d love to wax lyrical about the merits of a George Clooney-directed film based upon an original Coen Brothers script with all of the sort of gushing praise that those particular ingredients should probably warrant.

But I can’t. It’s just not possible. And considering that I was entirely convinced by the film’s superbly enticing trailer, this therefore represents something of a significant disappointment.

Suburbicon is a tale of dark deeds and whole-scale unrest that occurs on an idyllic housing development in 1960’s America. It follows the exploits of up-standing pillar of society and middle-class family man, Gardner Lodge (a fine performance from Matt Damon it should be said), whose life is suddenly rocked by the death of his disabled wife; an event instigated by a couple of ne’er-do-well hoodlums whilst carrying out a bungled burglary / hostage scenario at Gardner’s family home.

Friends and relatives understandably all rally around during such troubled times, and Gardner decides that in the interest of maintaining some sort of home-life stability, his wife’s identical twin sister, Margaret, should move into the family home for a while.

But things are not quite what they seem in this land of neatly-kempt lawns, white picket fences and twitching curtains, and with the cat threatening to bolt clean out of the bag, Gardner’s life begins to unravel, descending ultimately into outright chaos.

The basic premise of Clooney’s film is a fairly simple one – a tale of dodgy insurance claims and bungling mafiosi, and whilst it’s perhaps not a tale representing any great sense of originality, it certainly contains sufficient substance and intrigue from which to fashion something perfectly watchable.

Certainly Suburbicon‘s cast all put in dependably solid performances. Damon, as mentioned already, is excellent and is ably supported by Julianne Moore in her twin roles as both Gardner’s wife (Rose), and her twin sister (Margaret). Credit too to Oscar Isaac and his portrayal of wily insurance claim investigator, Bud Cooper, which is something of a highlight.

Yet, in spite of such a stellar cast, mysteriously, Clooney’s Suburbicon succeeds only in underwhelming, bringing to mind Ridley Scott’s 2013 hugely disappointing, The Counsellor. It too was a film boasting an impressive who’s-who of top acting talent with a big name director on board, yet ultimately absolutely stank the gaff out.

Suburbicon is a rather disjointed hotchpotch of ideas and concepts, like a mis-matched outfit thrown together by an owner that’s racked by indecision whilst simultaneously experiencing something of an identity crisis. And I’m still trying to work out the true relevance of the the story’s race-related sub-plot which felt both peripheral and largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Add in the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat’s dreary omnipresent score splashed lavishly and unnecessarily all over the place, and Clooney’s film – one which threatened to be something of a devilishly dark comic romp, on paper – is one that’s probably worth giving something of a wide berth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EN MAN SOM HETER OVE (A Man Called Ove)

“…just how did he become this petty harbinger of headaches, and what does the future hold for this archetypal grumpy old man?”

Wayward Wolf.

If Peter Bradshaw’s rather dismissive review in the Guardian is anything to go by, A Man Called Ove is, and I quote: “…not very funny, not very sad, not very believable, and not very interesting.”

That’s not very favourable really, now is it, Peter?

More pertinently, it’s a truly baffling point of view that’s had me scratching my head.

Fortunately, I was not party to Mr Bradshaw’s peculiar conclusions prior to viewing this particular piece of Swedish cinema – conclusions that appear to have been arrived at whilst simultaneously tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole, I should add.

Obviously it’s all subjective and there are no right or wrong answers here, but far from being the poor excuse for a film that Mr Bradshaw insinuates, Academy Award-nominated A Man Called Ove – based upon Fredrik Backman’s novel of the same name – is in fact, I’m delighted to inform you, a soulful, witty, wonderfully engaging piece. And whilst we’re in the business of overdosing on superlatives, let’s throw warm-hearted and life-affirming into the mix, too.

As for believable? Well, yes and no, but that’s hardly a critical factor when one considers that cinema is by its very nature a means of escape, frequently calling upon us to suspend our collective sense of disbelief. But let’s be clear here, A Man Called Ove is not in any way shape or form a film whose content defies belief in such a manner as to ultimately risk spoiling our enjoyment of it.

But enough with the tub-thumping and attempts at balance redressing.

Hannes Holm’s film – originally released in Sweden at the tail end of 2015, but only given its limited UK release this year – tells the story of Ove (a wonderful turn by Rolf Lassgård), a man who has always been socially awkward, bordering on the autistic in some ways. But over the years, owing to tragic circumstances, that awkwardness has since morphed into unconfined anger and misery.

Adhering to a strict daily routine, he patrols the grounds of the gated neighbourhood in which he lives, making note of any fool-hardy transgressors of the community regulations that he had helped to initiate during his time as Chairman of the neighbourhood committee. The fact that he no longer holds such a prestigious title and that the community tends to unwittingly flout his rules, is just one more trigger for multiple bouts of po-faced bitterness on his part. Regardless, Ove remains resolute, and continues to rigorously enforce ‘the law’ for what he perceives to be the good of the community.

But just how did he become this petty harbinger of headaches, and what does the future hold for this archetypal grumpy old man?

Ove’s back story is gradually revealed by way of a meandering narrative, initially through the series of flash-backs that he experiences during each of a number of unsuccessful suicide attempts, but latterly through the unlikely friendship that he develops with his Iranian-Swedish pregnant neighbour, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars). She, together with her boisterous family, are unknowingly the sole reason that Ove has yet to shuffle off this mortal coil, unable as he is to complete the ‘simple’ process of taking his own life without their unwelcome yet timely interruptions.

It is true that Hannes Holm’s touching tale, when broken down into its constituent parts, is probably a fairly routine and familiar one. A man, unable to cope with the accumulated sadness in his life and seeing little or no reason to go on, gradually, through a varied set of circumstances, manages to come to terms with the prospect of actually ‘living’ once again, thanks principally to the kindness of people that are able to recognise a good man with a good heart, even when it’s obscured by a particularly miserable demeanour.

For want of a better term, you would probably classify A Man Called Ove as something of a feel-good movie with stylistic parallels and general inspiration drawn from the sort of sentimental – bordering on slightly schmaltzy – Hollywood formulas that have unearthed such big screen favourites as Forest Gump; films that, if we’re deeply honest with ourselves, we probably love all the more for that very reason.

Rest assured though, Hannes Holm’s film, whilst certainly guilty of being whimsical at times, never comes close to achieving any sort of off-putting saccharine-overload.

Genuinely touching in places, A Man Called Ove is a witty, poignant and effortlessly charming tale.

One of the hidden gems of 2017 in fact.