Month: December, 2017

The Secret Scripture

tssIn this Irish production, director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), has cobbled together a curious mix of romance and intrigue in an adaptation from Sebastian Barry’s book of the same name.  A Secret Scripture leaps out of the gates with a very promising start and from the outset appears to have everything going for it; romance, engaging characters, an alluring mystery, and intriguing themes, but unfortunately, like a soufflé with one too many kids running through the kitchen, the middle can’t sustain the weight of its mixture.

Dusting off her shoes from a very similar role in Atonement, Vanessa Redgrave plays an elderly Rose McNulty recounting her wartime story. Now living in a mental institution, Rose refuses to vacate the soon-to-be-demolished hospital. Psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana), is called in to assess her condition and learns about her younger years and the tragic account of her baby’s departure.  Rooney Mara plays the younger Rose in a role that is well cast and suits her wistful looks. Secrets are revealed in her rudimentary memoir that is scrawled down in the margins of the biblical book of Job. The book of Job offers a powerful metaphor for loss and enduring faithfulness that unfortunately the film doesn’t take the time to explore further and would’ve otherwise encouraged a deeper emotional texture to the film.

Biblical accounts aside, the film has a familiar feel to it. Its narrative structure and tone owe a lot to Joe Wright’s superb Atonement, and thematically there is a hint of Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table. However, it never quite amasses the gravity of either film and suffers from hurried character motivations that lead to some events that could only be described as perplexing.

Visually, however, the film is sumptuous with Russian cinematographer Mikhail Krichman employing the skills that made his previous work on Leviathan such an arresting experience—his visual punch framing the characters centre of screen among the lush Irish backdrop.

Although The Secret Scripture misses opportunities to elevate itself from the masses, it engages more than it confounds and remains an entertaining enough tale to mask the fact that it really is a poor cousin of many films that have gone before it.
   

You can see my published reviews here.

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Borg vs. McEnroe

bvmSeldom do sports dramas work. They tend to be clunky efforts at condensing hours of sporting action into a few minutes whilst explaining the rules of engagement for those unfamiliar … oh, and leaving enough room to tell an engaging story.   Although Borg vs. McEnroe suffers from these problems, it packs just enough narrative punch to elevate itself from the pack.

Swedish Director Janus Mets has a background in documentaries, so it’s little wonder that he has gravitated towards telling a story “inspired by true events”. The intense rivalry between the two tennis greats, Björn Borg and John McEnroe, is no secret, nor is the result of the Wimbledon final around which the film focusses. But where the film covers new ground is in telling the background of the two.

The film examines two wildly different sporting philosophies—the brash expressive American versus the cool focussed Swede. However, it was interesting to learn that both had similar temperaments in their adolescent years, often succumbing to wild outbursts and unsavoury on-court antics. Although, Borg was taught at a young age by his coach, Lennart Bergelin (played by the evergreen Stellan Skarsgård) to channel his anger through his stroke play. McEnroe, as many know, did quite the opposite, emptying his anger all over the court, the crowd, and the umpire. Part of the film’s success is due to the casting of Shia LaBeouf in the role of McEnroe.  His brattish off-screen persona bleeds so well into the on-screen tennis rascal and when he famously berates the umpire’s “seriousness”, it’s a genuine pleasure to watch. By contrast, the very Hiddlestonesque looking Sverrir Gudnason plays an ice cool Borg holding it all in.

Unfortunately, the complexities of serving up a sports drama proves one rally too many and the film overcooks its own melodramatic remedies; lots of contemplative stares into mirrors, anguish on the training run, torment in the post-run shower, and other yearning moments become a tad overbearing. Like a number one player, this tennis film is better than the rest but still doesn’t feel good enough.

   

You can see my published reviews here.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

tkoasd“Our children are dying, but yes, I can make you mashed potatoes.”—it is a line that typifies the strange world of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. His films are clinically measured without an ounce of extra fat and feel like they sit somewhere on the autistic spectrum of film-making, if there was such a thing. His previous outing, The Lobster, with its blunt and robotic dialogue, was as peculiar as it was amusing and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is tonally much the same, if perhaps a little more disturbing.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a seemingly emotionless film, detached and devoid of any warmth. You’d think it has little to offer, but its world of odd characters and absurd situations offer a rewarding mix of dark comedy and painful catharsis.  Steven (Colin Farrell), a renowned cardiovascular surgeon, and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist, are happily married with two children. When a patient dies on Steven’s operating table he feels duty-bound to take the dead patient’s son, Martin (Barry Keoghan), under his wing. However, when Steven’s own children begin suffering a clinically unexplainable condition things begin to unravel. Steven’s relationship with Martin takes a peculiar and sinister turn when Martin offers Steven a horrific solution to their problem.

Farrell and Kidman offer typically measured performances, but the real surprise is Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), whose portrayal as Martin feels like watching a toddler with his hand on the proverbial nuclear button. It is a tour de force of uneasy acting that delivers the perfect balance of ambivalence and malevolent intention—his character taking on an almost biblical role (suggestive of the binding of Isaac) that is central to the film’s exploration of what it means to atone for our transgressions.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer will no doubt divide its audience. The awkward mix of unconventional storytelling and inaccessible characters might be too impenetrable for some. For others (myself included), The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains a macabre psychological satire told in a very unique and refreshing way.
   

You can see my published reviews here.

Wonder

wonderIn a family friendly version of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, director Stephen Chbosky has negotiated the foggy area between trite and truth in this engaging tale of triumph over adversity. It’s been a while between films for Chbosky who gave us the surprisingly good The Perks of Being a Wallflower back in 2012.  His latest outing is an adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s best selling novel Wonder—if you haven’t heard of it, your kids probably have.

Wonder tells the story of August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy deformed from birth due to a genetic disorder.  Having been shielded from the cruel taunts of the school playground, his homeschooling parents (played by Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts) feel it time to integrate Auggie into public school life.  The film is rife with harsh realities and tender moments as Auggie (and the people around him) adjust to the change.  Jacob Tremblay (Room) does a commendable job of playing the lead and presents a broad range of emotions despite the difficulties of dealing with a ton of facial prosthetic makeup.

Although Auggie provides the film with its narrative momentum, Wonder’s strength lies in how his circumstances affect, and ultimately inspire others; his sister dealing with being the forgotten sibling, the classmates who learn to accept him and others who reject him—they all learn important lessons brought about through self-examination.

Other than a chaptered structure which introduces the main players and their point-of-view, and a dusting of magical realism throughout, Wonder prudently avoids getting too caught up in the artifice of film, electing instead to tell its story simply and cleanly.

Wonder is not without a few false steps—Auggie’s dad (Owen Wilson) is relegated to a comic relief role which misses a unique opportunity to examine a father-son relationship, and moments throughout the film are prone to being too maudlin. Despite this, Wonder’s emotive qualities caught me off guard, and try as a might, I couldn’t keep a dry eye … some chilli-flakes must’ve fallen into my popcorn.

  

You can see my published reviews here.