Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

brexit uncivil war benedict cumberbatch dominic cummings james graham toby haynes channel 4 hbo vote leave take back control film review

Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Brexit: The Uncivil War is a film caught between two contrary instincts, unable to quite work out what it wants to be or what it wants to do.

On one level, Brexit is trying to be a character study, an attempt to shine a light on Dominic Cummings – a man most of the film’s audience is unlikely to be aware of. At the same time, though, the film also wants to be a process story ahead of anything else, delving into the idiosyncrasies of a political campaign of near unprecedented significance. It wouldn’t be impossible to be both, of course, but ultimately Brexit is neither – there’s a certain tension borne of this, as the film struggles to find an identity, leaving a rapidly forming sense that none of the major figures involved were quite on the same page throughout.

Screenwriter James Graham, clearly, is most interested in Dominic Cummings – not a huge surprise, given Cummings is apparently the sort of brash genius that so often fascinates writers. Whether Cummings genuinely falls prey to every cliché-ridden convention of the brusque political operative, speaking only in self-consciously lofty references and aphorisms is another question: it’s difficult to tell whether this an accurate account of Cummings’ real-life eccentricities or an artifice on Graham’s part. If the latter, it’s worthy of quite the eye-roll; if the former, then it’s easier to understand why Graham was quite so fascinated by Cummings, but does rather leave the impression that Graham bought into Cummings’ own hype, which is… another problem, to say the least.

That said, though, Graham isn’t helped by Cumberbatch’s visible lack of interest in Cummings. If 2018 held the best performance of Cumberbatch’s career in Patrick Melrose, then Brexit: The Uncivil War is unfortunately a sure example of one of his weakest. In Patrick Melrose, Cumberbatch carved out a space within his established milieu of isolated eccentrics, injecting it with a bracing vulnerability that elevated the performance far above the rest of his filmography. In Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cumberbatch does almost entirely the opposite – he’s sleepwalking through the film, coasting on a reputation for playing irreverent geniuses earned on Sherlock. (There’s reasonable critique to make, on that grounds, that Cumberbatch brings too much baggage to the role – simply by putting him on screen in this role, there’s an implicit suggestion that Cummings is a Sherlock-esque figure.) Cummings, here, is a caricature of ‘a Benedict Cumberbatch role’ – so of course the character study fails. It doesn’t matter what Graham was trying to achieve if Cumberbatch doesn’t show up.

Absent its star, Brexit renders Cummings a cipher around which the Leave campaign as a whole can be – not ‘interrogated’, that suggests a far robust and uncompromising look at events than the film offered – viewed. In that sense, Brexit does reasonably well, finding flair in the mundanities of the campaign trail from focus groups to slogans. It isn’t quite as good as, say, the average episode of The West Wing, but it works – an extended look at the subtleties that set “take control” apart from “take back control” makes for one of the film’s better sequences, for example. Similarly effective is Brexit: The Uncivil War’s look at how the Leave campaign relied on developing social media targeting – which is to say, it works, but it’s nowhere near as good an articulation of the concept as when it formed the fourth act plot twist of an episode of The Good Fight.

brexit uncivil war benedict cumberbatch dominic cummings boris johnson richard goulding michael gove oliver maltman nhs bus 350 million take back control james graham toby haynes channel 4 hbo

Again, though, it doesn’t quite land – a result, most likely, of the fact that the process story was never meant to be the main focus of the script, merely inadvertently accentuated by the vagaries of Cumberbatch’s performance. In turn, it leaves Brexit: The Uncivil War as a drama divided, a film at war with itself – it’s no surprise that film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve. (Director Toby Haynes, who might have been able to stitch the two instincts together, instead offers a third – the equivalent of “well, let’s just be a bit like Norway”. Haynes tries to emphasise the absurdity of it all, presumably angling to satirise right-wing pomposity – but instead directs with a certain baroque pretension, another element that fails to cohere.)

In the end, this adaptation prompts much the same question as the real-life source material: why bother?

Not even three years on from the vote, accusations that Brexit: The Uncivil War has come too soon hold an obvious weight. 2019 is too early for Brexit to have been historicised; indeed, it’s still a palpable part of the present, if the events of this week are any indicator. In the time between Brexit’s Channel 4 debut and this review being written, Theresa May’s prospective deal suffered an unprecedented defeat in parliament; what will happen in the time between writing and publishing the review remains to be seen, let alone in the time between publishing the review and Brexit’s nominal 29th March scheduling.

That isn’t to say, though, that Brexit shouldn’t have bothered because they don’t know how it’ll end. Rather, while the broader ramifications of the event are still ongoing – and while the campaign at the heart of the film is still subject to ongoing criminal investigation – there’s argument to be made that a fictionalised narrative is irresponsible filmmaking. By virtue of being the first major attempt to tackle Brexit on film, Brexit: The Uncivil War is also going to be – for a time, at least – the definitive account of that campaign. What James Graham and company emphasise – and, more crucially, what they omit – is going to have a greater hand in shaping public understanding of the Brexit campaign than any news report or documentary. Looking beyond their depiction of Cummings, there’s little sense that there was any awareness of this responsibility behind the scenes. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage are blustering and foolish, not insidious and dangerous; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are trepidant and cautious, not self-serving and morally negligent; the Leave campaign’s illegal overspending is little more than a footnote. Maybe waiting a few more years would’ve stopped them getting it wrong, maybe it wouldn’t, but the mistakes would likely have mattered a little bit less.

Ultimately, if Brexit: The Uncivil War was meant to hold a mirror up to society, it is instead a far better reflection of James Graham’s interest – and Benedict Cumberbatch’s apparent disinterest – in one man, rather than offering any meaningful commentary on the state of a nation.

5/10

Related:

Who is America? Who cares?

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Film Review | Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (2017)

agatha christie crooked house glenn close gillian anderson amanda abbington terrence stamp max irons review

What’s notable about Crooked House amongst Christie’s oeuvre, however, is that the story has never been adapted for the screen – until now. This means that all the hallmarks and idiosyncrasies that define Christie’s work, the ones that we’ve become so familiar with, here feel slightly different. The stately home, the eccentric family, the mystery and intrigue – it all feels slightly subverted here, in fresh and unexpected ways. Indeed, the way the case unfolds is difficult to anticipate, keeping the audience in suspense to the last possible moment.

Here is a film review. A film review written by me, no less! Admittedly that’s probably exactly what you’ve come to expect on this here website of mine, but hey, sometimes it’s good to be specific.

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Film Review | Easy Living (2017)

Easy Living 2017 caroline dhavernas adam keleman review film movie

It’s the story of Sherry, a door-to-door makeup saleswoman, and the lack of control she has over her life. Sherry is a self-destructive character, one spiraling from extreme to extreme; it’s made immediately clear that she occupies a liminal space within her own life, at a remove from those around her. Caroline Dhavernas gives a note-perfect performance throughout; she embodies the messy, fractured character, managing to strike the exact balance between off-putting and engaging. A lot about the character is left implicit, and this is carried through Dhavernas’ work; it’s perhaps inaccurate to say Sherry has any real interiority, but that’s likely an inevitable consequence of this non-traditional character study.

My review of Easy Living for Flickering Myth. It’s an interesting film; one that’s difficult to like, but easy to appreciate.

I haven’t gone back and re-read this review, but I suspect there’s more than a little element of “I got to see this film for free, and I’m interviewing the lead actress in an hour so there’s a solid chance that the writers and directors and so on will see this review, so I should probably be polite and look for the positives” going on – certainly that’s how I remember feeling while writing it. It does end with a rape scene, which I suspect I didn’t critique enough, which I do regret. So, bear that in mind if you’re going to go and watch it.

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Film Review | Anomalisa (2015)

anomalisa film review charlie kaufman duke johnson tom noonan david thewlis jennifer jason leigh

I think you’re extraordinary. I don’t know why yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.

This is something of a difficult movie to review, I think; in some senses, it’s a difficult one to watch. And I don’t (just) mean how awkward it feels to see stopmotion sex.

Charlie Kaufman has something of a reputation of being, to put it bluntly, a genius. This is the first film of his that I’ve ever watched, so my expectations were high; particularly so, given that the praise for this movie was just through the roof. I mean, take a look at the soundbites on the film’s poster – it isn’t just “perfect”, it’s “a rare sliver of transcendence”. It’s a “rare and haunting marvel” that, apparently, changed someone’s life. So, you know, that’s an astonishingly high bar to set.

Particularly I was drawn to the line that says “the most human film of the year”; not least because that was the only tagline I was aware of before I saw the movie, but there’s something about that which is just so… enticing, to me. I’m quite interested in drama (obviously) and I want to get into writing myself someday, so there’s something about “the most human film of the year” which sounds to me to be a ridiculously high piece of praise to level at something.

Watching the film, though? Hmm. I’m struggling to properly put a pin in what I actually thought of it.

It did feel quite real, right from the off, beginning with the banalities of plane rides and hotels. (It’s possible this resonated with me moreso because I was watching the movie on a plane, having recently left a hotel.) I think in some ways this sequence was made more effective because it was done in stopmotion; it’s the juxtaposition between the very “true” feeling dialogue and the obvious-yet-uncanny-valley-esque puppets that really highlights the more human side of this movie, I think. It draws it into much sharper focus, and I think the film benefits from this throughout; Anomalisa is tied quite closely to its stopmotion format, really availing of the medium in such a way that it wouldn’t work otherwise.

The stopmotion, incidentally, is fantastic. I have some experience with that medium myself, having made a few shorts over the years – but we’re talking weeks’ worth of work, to produce fairly simplistic videos of a minute and a half tops. Anomalisa is so advanced as to be nearly incomparable to what I did, though, and it’s frankly a work of art in itself. A stunning accomplishment, really, which would have taken a hell of a lot of effort; it paid off, in any case, because Anomalisa came out looking absolutely gorgeous.

I just don’t know that Anomalisa was actually as smart as it thought it was, or as smart as it wanted to be.

Anomalisa is about loneliness, to some extent; David Thewlis’ character, Matthew Stone, clearly feels quite isolated and spends the runtime of the movie desperately searching for some meaningful human connection. When he does find it, it’s so fleeting as to barely last at all. In a lot of ways, the depiction of loneliness here is quite well done – the dialogue is fantastic, the feeling permeates the movie, and there’s an aspect of it that seems quite true throughout. Stone repeats with Lisa what he did with the other woman; the irony is that she isn’t an “anomaly Lisa”, she’s just the latest in a long string of women he does that with. He’s sad and lonely and a little pathetic, and he can’t connect with people, because he gets so caught up with the romantic ideals and doesn’t consider the person behind the idealised fiction version. It’s a well-presented story, and in many regards it’s quite clever.

It’s not that clever, though. Because Anomalisa doesn’t really say anything about loneliness, and I don’t feel it presents anything particularly new or all that interesting. The high concept, essentially, is “let’s tell a story about a lonely middle-aged man who has an affair… except it’s stop motion!” and then that’s just sort of the extent of it. There’s a rather out of place, yet wholly predictable, dream sequence; it adds little, feeling largely superfluous, and you can sort of guess what’s going to happen in it from the first time you see the stop motion models. Towards the end of the movie, we’ve even got Stone saying “sometimes there is no meaning, and at times that’s a meaning in and of itself”; this feels rather like a cop-out, to be honest, as if the movie itself is rejecting the idea it needs to have some level of substance. It’s taken the simplest representation of loneliness you can have, and presented it in an interesting way – that’s not enough to make the heart of the movie feel anything other than quite superficial.

I’m quite frustrated, really, that I feel this way. Primarily because I actually did, generally speaking, enjoy most of it; it was reasonably clever, and entertaining enough, despite feeling terribly lacking in a few key areas. More than that, though, I want to understand why everyone else loves it so much, and what they took away from it that I didn’t. While I’m not exactly disinclined to go against the critical consensus, I do feel like “yeah it’s just not that great” isn’t really a strong enough argument in the face of such significant praise. There was a distinct feeling that I’d missed something about the movie; I did some more reading, and I did pick up on some more nuanced ambiguities before. The Japanese sex doll, for example, wasn’t quite as gratuitous as I thought and did open up some questions as to whether or not Stone’s night with Lisa was hallucinatory; I was also able to clarify a few points regarding the voice work and the impact of it.

Ultimately, though, none of what I’ve read actually made me feel any the wiser. Anomalisa feels like a movie that needs a rewatch to fully appreciate it, but there was little about it that made me think it deserved an immediate rewatch; I suspect I’d only be watching it to keep searching for some deeper meaning that I’m just not going to find. If you’ve got any clever comments on it, or you can link me to a great essay about the movie, I would love to hear from you; I get the sense that I’m going to be trying to make Anomalisa into something it’s not for quite some time.

I’m going to eschew a rating for this movie, in part because I still don’t feel that I “get” it, but also… well, sometimes there is no rating, and at times that’s a rating in and of itself.

(See? Such a cop-out.)

Note from Alex of 2018: I’m inclined to tell you to disregard most of the above, though I’ve not actually rewatched Anomalisa since writing this. It’s going to be near the top of my list, though, because I still think I’ve missed something.

Related:

I’ll add this bit in later.

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Film Review | Inequality for All (2013)

inequality for all robert reich jason kornbluth documentary film review clinton sanders trump economy left wing

We make the rules of the economy – and we have the power to change those rules.

This is a documentary by Robert Reich – more on whom later – about inequality in the United States. Having lived in London for my entire life, that was a little bit outside my general knowledge base, but I can’t say that particularly mattered. One of the best things about this documentary was how accessible it was; I was watching it as part of an Economics class, so obviously that helped, but I do think that this particular documentary is likely to be quite easy to get into even without a background in those sorts of details. It’s a very coherent, very cogent piece – it’s structured around Reich, who’s now a professor of economics, giving explanations of different concepts, and then cutting away to first hand footage and testimonials that are relevant to the idea and further expound upon it. There’s also segments from lectures that Reich gives at the University of California, which are in and of themselves quite informative, as well as being quite well presented – a particularly notable segment breaking down the economics of an iPhone comes to mind.

Inequality for All takes quite a left-wing perspective – understandable, I imagine, given that Reich is a former democrat, and in recent years a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders. In terms of the general message, the stance is quite clear; Reich feels that inequality is one of the biggest problems facing the US today, and has been trying to deal with it for nearly 30 years now. Some of the facts are quite galling, actually – the US is close to being the most wealth unequal country in the world, for example, with the poorest 47% of Americans having no wealth at all. (You can read more on the film’s website, if you’re interested.) He makes a strong and quite well substantiated case that the concept of “trickle-down economics”, with a focus on the super-rich rather than the working and middle classes, is fundamentally flawed; an interview with one such super-rich individual highlights the fact that, since he mostly saves money and actually spends little, that’s essentially a withdrawal of money from the economy. It’s far better, in a broader sense, to have a flourishing working and middle class, given that they will spend money and thus help the economy to grow.

Having said that, I don’t think that this movie does particularly lambast or deal an unfair hand to more right wing economic views. It’s very clear than Reich disagrees with them, as does the director; an IMDb review cites him as saying “there always doesn’t have to be two sides to a story”, essentially taking the stance that all the facts within the movie are presented accurately, and that’s enough in and of itself. Equally, though, the movie takes time to deal with those it criticises (the aforementioned super-rich), as well as presenting the story of some Republican voters who have been hurt by those right wing economic policies – individuals who remain Republic voters, that is. While I imagine they wouldn’t agree with Reich’s ideology, there’s no sense that they’ve been treated unfairly, or that they’re being criticised. Indeed, you see something of a debate between they and he, with footage of a talk Reich gave in their community.

To an extent, it also doubles as a profile on Robert Reich, who’s a very interesting person himself. As Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labour, he’s been involved in politics at a pretty high level for quite a long time; even before that, though, he’d began working for the government during the Carter administration. We get a lot of insight into what drives Reich as a person, and why he does dedicate his life to trying to “fight the bullies, to protect the powerless, to make sure that the people without a voice have a voice”. He presents himself quite well – certainly he looks to be a very good lecturer and teacher – and it’s also abundantly clear he’s got a brilliant sense of humour. Reich is under five foot tall, and there’s plenty of jokes surrounding that; there’s a clip from his inaugural speech when appointed Secretary of Labour, for example, where he opens the speech with something along the lines of “All modesty aside, somehow I always knew I’d be on Bill Clinton’s short list for Secretary of Labour”. He also presented an economics based television programme with a tall Republican friend of his called “The Long and Short of it”. I found it quite funny, in any case, but I’m easily amused.

Ultimately, Inequality for All is one of the most informative, and indeed most engaging, documentaries that I’ve watched in a long time. True, I’m drawing from a limited sample size there, but this is undoubtedly a very good piece of media; I think if you live in America, or you’re interested in politics & economics, this should be required viewing.

9/10

Related:

Film Review: Money Monster (2016)

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Film Review | Everything is Copy (2015)

everything is copy nora ephron scripted and unscripted jacob bernstein documentary review hbo tom hanks meg ryan nora ephron

Most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments.

Something of a departure from the norm for me here, given that this is a documentary, rather than a piece of fiction. (I say that, of course, but I’m working on reviews of another documentary and a biography at the minute, so perhaps this is just the new norm.)

This movie caught my attention not because I knew who Nora Ephron was – though I soon realised that I was actually reasonably familiar with her work – but rather because the documentary was one about a journalist and screenwriter. With the former ostensibly being my current “job”, and the latter my destined dream job, it seemed like this was a documentary that would be, at the very least, quite interesting to me.

Given that little preamble, I suppose I should point out now that you’re not necessarily going to be getting advice on how to become a writer, but rather a lot of insight into the life of this particular writer, and how she approached her work. The title, Everything is Copy, refers to the mantra of Ephron’s mother, who was a writer herself; it also comes to reflect, however, the manner in which much of Ephron’s best work was that which was personal to her. Indeed, the whole documentary is quite an intimate and personal affair, with close friends and family members musing on Ephron’s life and their relationship with her, following her death from leukaemia in 2012. That the movie is directed and presented by her son, Jacob Bernstein, only adds to the intimacy with which her life was viewed.

It becomes quite clear that Nora Ephron had quite an interesting life rather early on in the movie, as it tracks her career across its different stages, from her first job at the New York Post (which she got after writing a satirical piece criticising the paper which impressed the editor) to her final theatre play, which starred Tom Hanks as a journalist himself. In a way, it’s quite circular; perhaps another manner in which everything is copy. Between these two events, though, Ephron had a long and distinguished career, with a host of articles, books, and movies to her name – including one of my favourite romcoms, You’ve Got Mail. (It’s really great.)

A series of different guests, with actors such as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Meg Ryan, to other collaborators such as Mike Nicholls, alongside Ephron’s sisters Delia, Amy, and Hallie, really help to flesh out the picture of Ephron that we get. It’s very clear how much of an impact she had on their lives; they were all clearly quite upset, in the way that one is when you’ve lost someone special.

What also became very clear, though, was how talented Ephron was as a writer. Across the film there are a series of excerpts from Ephron’s writing across the years, with Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, and Reese Witherspoon all providing readings, and even Ephron herself in archive footage; it’s immediately evident how incisive and insightful Ephron could be, with a very strong voice, as well as being quite funny generally.

Ultimately, Everything is Copy is quite an engaging documentary, and I’d really recommend giving it a look if you’re interested in writing, or indeed the life of Nora Ephron. It’s a respectful yet fair historiography, which shines a light on the trials and tribulations of a genuinely fascinating – and genuinely talented – woman.

7/10

Related:

Film Review: Inequality is for All (2013)

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Film Review | Money Monster (2016)

money monster film review lee gates george clooney patty fern julia roberts jack o'connell jodie foster 2016 thriller poster hd dominic west

So what the hell kind of show are we going to do next week?

I happened to watch this movie on the plane recently – it’s not, to be honest, something I would have necessarily sought out myself had I not been on the plane. Equally, though, it had an interesting premise, a nice runtime (99 minutes), and also George Clooney, who I’m quite fond of. So it’s not like it had nothing going for it.

The movie is about a hostage scenario that unfolds during a television broadcast; the poster for the movie, pictured above, doesn’t really represent this very well. George Clooney is playing Lee Gates, a television presenter who’s pitched somewhere between Craig Ferguson and Dr. Phil – he’s the frontman for a program that’s about stocks and investment, and gives advice on what to buy, what to sell, so on and so forth. Money Monster, also the name of Gates’ television show, picks up the day after a company experiences particularly bad stock crash – a company that Gates had recently quite publically endorsed, telling everyone they should invest in it. A particularly angry viewer, Kyle (Jack O’Connell) sneaks onto the set with a gun, and then the hostage situation begins. The television producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), has to co-ordinate the situation to keep Gates alive, which is the source of much of our tension.

That’s the basic premise, although the movie is admittedly a little more complicated than that; there’s a running subplot throughout about finding out just why exactly the company experienced the stock crash that it did, which is actually a nice little accompanying mystery alongside the main thriller aspects. That, I assume, is where the “Not every conspiracy is a theory” tagline comes from, although I think that probably overstates the importance of that aspect.

Primarily, this movie is a vehicle for Clooney to just be quite charming; a lot of the movie revolves around his character interacting with Kyle, the gunman, and trying to stall and stay alive longer. It’s not just his charisma that matters, though, as we begin to peel back the layers of Lee Gates and realise that despite his success in life, his abrasive nature hides someone who’s actually quite miserable. It’s not exactly the deepest or most nuanced writing in the world, but it does help to give proceedings a little more depth; without this character arc, I think the whole thing would be a little flat.

Part of Gates’ character arc is defined in terms of his relationship with producer Patty, who was I think my favourite character of the movie; I’m reminded of the old Kubrick quote that the best way to make an audience like a character is to show them doing their job, and doing their job well. Patty absolutely fits into that mould, with Julia Roberts giving a great performance as the extremely competent woman who does, essentially, save the day through her professionalism and aptitude for her job. Over the course of the movie, both her and Clooney’s character come to realise that, despite their difficulties, they do genuinely appreciate one another; I quite liked the fact that the movie positioned them as close friends, as opposed to lovers, which tends to be the standard these days.

It’s not necessarily a complex movie – the theme, or message I suppose, can be quite easily summarised as “capitalism is bad!”. That’s clear enough on the surface, really, but it does permeate the entire movie when you think about it – our (ultimately sympathetic) gunman is motivated by anger at inequality, our true bad guys are crooked businessmen, and the true heroes were our honest working people in the TV studio. It’s fairly simple, but equally, I’m not exactly inclined to criticise a movie that says capitalism is bad, even if other movies say it better.

All of the above – while it did add to my enjoyment of the movie – is largely immaterial, is has to be said. What this movie is, above all else, is an effective thriller. It’s well directed by Jodie Foster, and it’s actually very tense; it had me on the edge of my seat (figuratively speaking, it was quite cramped on the plane) and I was genuinely very excited throughout. It’s very well paced, the actors all give great performances (Jack O’Connell particularly) and it’s quite a lot of fun to watch. I’d definitely recommend it.

Ultimately, Money Monster is very good at doing what it set out to do, and has a lot more going for it besides. I don’t think you could ask a lot more than that.

8/10

Related:

Film Review: Inequality for All (2013)

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Film Review | Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

me and earl and the dying girl film review Alfonso Gomez-Rejon jesse andrews thomas mann rj cyler olivia cooke

This isn’t a touching romantic story.

I recently managed to watch Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while. I read the book a while ago, as part of my efforts to get through 100 books in a year (I managed 12), and I quite enjoyed it.

Just for reference, here’s what I said about the book at the time:

The book is positioned as very much Not A John Green Novel. There’s a sort of low key reference to it at one point – the narrator very explicitly says that there will not be any schmaltzy messages or tumblr style quotes. He gives an example; I forget what it was, but it may as well have been “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”

It works, I think. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is much more acerbic and rough around the edges than a John Green novel. It feels very real. At the end of it, there’s no real message. (At least, not one that I took away from it.) There isn’t a love story, or a great romantic climax. Death just happens, and you’ve got to live with it.

If you’ve not yet gathered, the story is this: Greg befriends Rachel, a girl with leukaemia. It’s a bit awkward, but over time they get close; Rachel takes a particular interest in the films that Greg makes with his friend Earl. The pair of them then work on a film for Rachel, which they’re able to show to her before she dies. This is the basic plot that both the film and the book share; there are a few subtle changes made to the film which, though seemingly quite slight, I would argue actually fundamentally change the whole movie.

Primarily, there’s the dynamic that Rachel and Greg share. In the book, the pair of them had previously known each other, and sort of had a relationship that had petered out in the past. In the movie, however, they meet essentially at the start, not long after Rachel is diagnosed. It’s a subtle, but I think quite meaningful, change to the relationship and interactions between the pair. It becomes less about Greg confronting his own previous mistakes (because he’s quite an antisocial individual, who actively avoids making friends) and is much more about a guy who just becomes friends with a cancer patient because his mum asked him to.

That leads into my next point, then, because I think that the emotional arc and character development that Greg goes on is quite severely limited in this movie, compared to the book. Part of the story in the book is that Greg learns to open up to people and make genuine connections; one of his big character traits is that he’s a social floater by choice, with no real friends. Indeed, something he learns from Rachel is linked into this, with Greg ultimately realising that a standard university isn’t for him, and choosing to go to film school. This, weirdly, wasn’t included at all, as Greg chooses to go to the normal university, without really changing as a person particularly at all – I found that quite surprising, because it seemed to me that this was quite an important part of the story and its resolution.

(I think because of this, The Fault in Our Stars actually looks a lot better by comparison – because The Fault in Our Stars is actually about a cancer patient. This movie is just about a cancer patient’s selfish friend, and in some respects comes across as rather cynical in its approach to the audience.)

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun movie, and I found it quite entertaining. The cast was quite strong – Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal (for some reason I thought he was Tom Hardy) were great to see, and Thomas Man (Greg) and RJ Cyler (Earl) both did quite well too. The real standout, though, was Olivia Cooke, who played Rachel, and was a real breath of fresh air whenever she was on screen – funny, passionate and engaging, she was very easy to like, making it all the more poignant when she eventually met her end.

I guess my problem with this movie, then, was that it wasn’t enough like the book – not because I think that the point of an adaptation is to slavishly dedicate oneself to the original text, but rather simply because the book was better. It’s odd, because I think this is a story that would have translated rather well to film, particularly given that the main character is something of a cinema aficionado; the extent of this, though, was a few stop-motion sequences and excerpts from their home movies. It’s not obtrusive or bad, it’s just… the concept could probably have been pushed further, I guess?

Thinking back on what I said in the original review – it’s not that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t have a message. The point of the original book was that there isn’t an easy message – death is complicated, and you can’t distill it down to something as simple as “pain demands to be felt”. There are lots of different things, with the characters having their own outlook on it all. For the film, though, they seemed to do away with this, focusing on one particular message from Jon Bernthal’s teacher character, and ending the movie essentially on this note.

In the end, I think that sums up the differences between the book and the film. One was far more generic, and far less insightful, than the other. It’s a shame, given that probably didn’t have to be the case.

6/10

Note: This is another movie I’ve come to wonder if, in hindsight, I was pretty unfair on – if nothing else, I’m normally fairly sceptical of any “it’s not like the book” film criticism. So I’d like to give this another watch and see what I make of it some time.

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Film Review | The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)

the fundamentals of caring paul rudd craig roberts selena gomez rob burnett netflix film movie review poster banner hd

Caring is a funny thing.

So, Netflix has a new movie out. It was released a week or so ago, I think, but I’ve only just gotten around to watching it tonight. I was looking forward to it a lot, because the trailer seemed like the film would be quite fun; the film also had various actors that I’m rather fond of. Paul Rudd is extremely charismatic and improves basically everything he’s in, and I knew both Selena Gomez and Craig Roberts from television I watched when I was much younger.

And, you know, that’s a decent assessment of what the film was. It was a lot of fun! Lots of good jokes, striking a decent balance between the more lighthearted stuff and darker humour, and it was ultimately quite enjoyable to watch. As expected, Rudd, Roberts and Gomez all gave rather wonderful performances. Interestingly, actually, there was a fourth character who wasn’t really in the trailer much; her name was Peaches, and she was played by Megan Ferguson. I can’t say I know her from anything, but I quite liked her character – she was very different from the others, and I think that helped establish some more variety in their interactions and general rapport.

It was quite positive, in terms of the tone – despite the dark humour it never really descended into outright darkness. That was something I appreciated, actually; often with films about disabled people, there’s this… not a temptation, but a common trend for these films to have some sort of tragic ending in an attempt to generate pathos and give the film a greater meaning. Thankfully, The Fundamentals of Caring never really goes down that road, and ultimately subverts that trope quite frequently. In the end, the only meaning of The Fundamentals of Caring is that life can still be worth living, and still be rewarding, even with a disability or following a trauma. On the whole, that’s a pretty nice message, and it’s far better than what you get in something like Me Before You.

However, it did get me thinking about representation of disability in movies, and how we approach that – as writers, filmmakers, and viewers.

That was because, ultimately, I’m not really sure how much this film was actually about Trevor (that’s Craig Roberts’ character, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and is wheelchair bound) – the main character, really, was on Paul Rudd’s Ben. Certainly, the focus was on him far moreso than the trailer initially indicated; there was a whole subplot about his wife and family that didn’t make it into the trailer at all. To an extent, this makes sense to me – Paul Rudd was acting as our audience identification character, and you can sort of understand the mindset there. The non-disabled person is our ‘way in’, as it were, to a life that most of the audience isn’t necessarily going to be familiar with. In turn, then, it makes sense to give Paul Rudd’s character some subplots of his own.

Equally, though, it definitely did feel like Paul Rudd’s story was more emphasised across the film. And I’m not really sure how I felt about that, and whether or not it was a good thing? On the one hand, yes, there are a lot of great stories to tell about carers for disabled people – but this wasn’t that, was it? This was about a guy dealing with his own problems, who became a carer to try and work through them; Trevor and his disability was a secondary concern. I kind of feel like, if you’re going to have a film that purports to be about disability, it should actually be about it, rather than just be a film with a disabled character?

I don’t know. I’m not an expert. This isn’t exactly something I’m knowledgeable about. Perhaps everything I’ve just said was wrong, and this was actually a really great movie in terms of representation. From my own limited view, I thought the fact that Trevor’s “big” wish was to be able to pee standing up; there was something quite impactful about how mundane it was, I think, and attempts to do so were a great throughline across the movie.

Ultimately, I think… The Fundamentals of Caring is a pretty good movie. It’s not a perfect movie. But then, a lot of the flaws – insofar as they can be considered such – don’t really come from this movie in and of itself, but rather the context in which it was produced, and the general state of disability representation in films.

I’d still recommend it, though. It’s an enjoyable movie, and a fun way to spend an evening in. Plus, it’s got Paul Rudd in it, and he makes everything better.

8/10

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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And this is the new one. The film we’ve all been waiting for since 2013 when the Lucasfilm deal was first announced. The Force Awakens has, as I understand it, already broken several records with regards to pre-opening ticket sales, and I think it’s on track to beat Jurassic World as the biggest opening weekend of all time.

This review will, obviously, contain spoilers. They’re going to be fairly in depth in terms of an examination of the film, so beware of those. I don’t want to ruin Jar-Jar’s cameo appearance for anyone, and so on and so forth. The actual spoiler-y discussion begins after the read more jump; first up, I want to talk a little about my expectations and thoughts having gone into the film.

For a fairly long time, I was hesitant about the movie; my expectations were pretty low, and I was interested simply because it was Star Wars, rather than because I had any real or genuine expectations of legitimate quality. Over the course of the two year wait, though, and particularly in the last few months as new trailers began to be released, I began to get more and more excited. In the end, it was my Star Wars Retrospective rewatch that really got me immersed in this world again, and really looking forward to the new film.

So, as I was sat there watching the beginning of the film – the Lucasfilm logo appears, the music blares, the credits scroll – I ended up sat there with a great big stupid grin on my face.

And rightfully so.

Once again, I feel the need to stress – from hereon out, there be spoilers. If you are still reading at this stage, you’re an idiot, or you just don’t care. Regardless, make sure you know which you are before you keep reading.

Anyway.

The Force Awakens opens strong, with the attack on the village in Jakku. It serves as a great introduction to both Poe Dameron and Finn; rather effectively, we get to see the battle from Poe’s perspective, with the Stormtroopers doing all of these brutal things… before slowly moving across to focus on one of those Stormtroopers, with their conviction clearly wavering. This is, of course, Finn, who’s played by John Boyega, and he’s going to be one of our key focal characters for the rest of the film; after an extremely entertaining escape sequence, which does a great job of showcasing both Finn and Poe as characters, Poe Dameron gets a much more reduced focus. It’s a shame, to be honest; Oscar Isaac gives a great performance as an interesting character who has a lot of potential, and while I can understand the in-story reason for taking him out of the action, I do hope his role is bumped up a fair bit next time.

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Regardless, though, John Boyega as Finn is a perfect protagonist for this new movie. There’s a lot of heart to his character, and he has a great character arc; moving from First Order soldier to deserter, before eventually joining with the Resistance, and all because he has such a keenly tuned sense of right and wrong. I think Finn is, in fact, my favourite character across each of these movies; he’s a really compelling character, and John Boyega gives a great performance. I love the fact that he’s driven by a fairly simple desire to do what’s right, and by compassion for others; a fairly simple, small touch that was included, and I quite liked, was that at one point Finn is knocked out, and the first thing he says when he comes around is “Are you okay?”. His primary concern is Rey, and whether or not she’s alright. It’s a nice thematic thread which follows through the entire movie.

Rey, similarly, is a lot of fun as our other main protagonist. In many ways, she’s our Luke Skywalker analogue here; stuck on the desert planet, wanting to leave, before ending up on a strange adventure across the galaxy. Interestingly, though, there’s an added complication: she feels like she has to stay on Jakku, because of some familial obligation. She’s waiting for someone. It’s an odd little detail, added in presumably to build up to a reveal in the next movie, as we find out who her family are, and why they left her on Jakku. I’m guessing she’ll be Luke’s daughter, but perhaps they’ll surprise us.

Aside from that, though, Daisy Ridley gives an engaging performance as Rey. I really like her voice, actually. That’s an odd thing to pick up on, I suppose, but it stood out to me anyway. There definitely seems to be the basis of an engaging character here, and I’m looking forward to seeing her grow and develop across the next two movies. Certainly, Rey was a lot of fun to watch on screen, and her return will be welcome, regardless of whether or not we find out more about her background.

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I was also quite impressed by how the return of the Original Trilogy characters was handled, by gradually introducing them to the plot. We didn’t begin with Han or Chewie or Leia; first it was an X-Wing, then Stormtroopers, then the Millennium Falcon, and then Han and Chewie. By layering the reveals like this, it let each aspect have the opportunity to breathe, and have a much greater impact in its own right.

The Force Awakens also works, of course, as a showcase for the best of Han Solo – which is what you’d expect, really. They do a great job of reminding us of exactly what we loved so much about him in all the previous movies, and why Han Solo is such a cultural icon; it’s because he’s such a genuinely compelling and engaging character to see on the screen. It’s wonderful to see Harrison Ford back, and to get quite so many great scenes and fun lines. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan really make us fall in love with Han all over again, before – well, I’ll talk about that in a minute. The point is, then, that Harrison Ford’s appearance here really elevates the movie, genuinely adding to it’s strengths.

Similarly, it’s nice to see Leia, C3PO and R2D2 back, each in their various capacities. Honestly, I think C3PO’s appearance was my favourite of these three; it was a genuinely funny little segment, and I appreciated the efforts made to introduce some humour into these movies. As nice as it was to see Carrie Fisher back as Leia, I did have a few problems with the fundamental nature of her role here, so… we’ll talk about that in a moment, anyway.

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One of the most interesting aspects of the new movie is our new bad guy, Kylo Ren. It’s a difficult thing to pull off for this movie – The Force Awakens is having to compete with Darth Vader, who is genuinely the best villain in movie history. Even the prequels never quite had that issue, given that they were the story of a young Darth Vader – here, now, we’re looking at a Star Wars movie that is almost entirely divorced from the story of Vader.

Whilst Kylo Ren isn’t quite on Vader’s level, JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have managed to create the basis of a villain with a lot of potential to be explored in the future movies. They’ve written a villain who is genuinely conflicted, and Adam Driver has done an amazing of portraying this. Lines like “I can feel the power of the light calling to me” give the impression of the potential for an interesting examination of the dichotomy between the darkness and the light; for Kylo Ren, evil is something is aspires to, rather than something that comes naturally. He self harms throughout the final fight, constantly hurting himself in an attempt to tap into the dark side – Ren is demonstrably volatile, using his lightsabre to smash and destroy some display monitors as a result of some bad news, all in a pique of teenage rage. His instability is clear as well; even though he’s strong with the Force, it’s evident that this strength is not something he’s in complete mastery of. The creative team involved have managed to find a new angle from which to approach the idea of a force using bad guy, and I’m really excited to see where the story goes from here.

Of course, Ren’s identity was hotly debated before the beginning of the movie, with two theories starting to prevail. Quite a few people believed it could be Luke Skywalker (under the tutelage of Supreme Leader Snoke, also known as Darth Darth Binks)… but there was another. The other prominent theory was that Kylo Ren was, in fact, Luke’s former apprentice, and the son of Han and Leia. This was, of course, proven to be true. And then, of course, Kylo – or rather, Ben – eventually killed his father Han.

It was an interesting moment, but I’m not convinced of how well it was handled. The actual demise of Han worked very well (though I’d have preferred it if he had some final lines), and I think it’ll serve to emphasis the danger that Kylo Ren poses in later movies. I do think the actual reveal of Kylo’s identity could have been structured much better; the information is given across as little more than some throwaway dialogue, rather than built up as the seismic revelation it should have been. That is, I think, a bit of a failing on the film’s part – not a debilitating one, but certainly a notable one.

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That predictability, though, is something that hampers the film throughout. It’s two major moments were far from surprises – the identity of Kylo Ren, and the death of Han Solo, were both fairly obvious. Or at least, they were to me; the average movie goer isn’t going to have been sat theorising about the movie for months, considering whether Kylo Ren would be akin to a new Jacen Solo, or if Harrison Ford would finally have convinced them to let Han Solo die. So, in fairness, it’s difficult to honestly and legitimately argue that this is a serious fault or detriment to the plot.

No, the main issue with the plot is how derivative it ultimately proved to be. We’re watching a remake of A New Hope; the plot strays too far into nostalgia territory, and ends up dangerously close to being a perfunctory remake. We have something of a remixed collection of Star Wars’ greatest hits – a desert planet, an aerial battle over an ice planet, and even a brand new Death Star. It’s this last one that was, I’d argue, the worst – a huge superweapon was introduced, simply so that it could be destroyed in an essentially identical way to the original Death Star. There was little interesting to the concept – yes, it’s a planet, and yes, it drains stars, but so what? Essentially, all it is is a massive Death Star. They even make this comparison explicit within the story.

In fact, the only narrative purpose this Starkiller base serves is to destroy what appeared to be Coruscant; the new Republic has been destroyed, and our heros are reduced to a small group of ragtag soldiers with limited resources – the Resistance – fighting against a much larger and more powerful organisation, the First Order. Sound familiar? That’s because it is.

The Force Awakens is, in essence, hiding in nostalgia. For fear of alienating audiences in the same way the prequels did, they undid much of the development of the Original Trilogy to try and re-establish the status quo from A New Hope. I think that can only really be considered a mistake; the Empire and the Rebellion wasn’t what made Star Wars great, it was the struggle between good and evil. You don’t need to simply redress the originals to bring that back, particularly when it takes away the triumphant ending of Return of the Jedi. Leia’s role here, even though she’s a General rather than a Princess, is ultimately a regression.

I always kinda thought that the Yuuzhan Vong were a bit of a stupid idea – for those of you who don’t know, they’re aliens from another galaxy who, in the novels and EU, invaded some time after Return of the Jedi. They seemed to me to be too much of a departure from the Star Wars I knew, but I do think I appreciate them a lot more now – they were a new idea, and that’s important, it really is.

That lack of new ideas in The Force Awakens – in terms of the plot and general status quo, I mean – is a real disappointment. I do think the movie would have been strengthened had they approached it from a different angle; make the First Order the small, ragtag group this go around. Show that the new Galactic Alliance is struggling to succeed as a young intergalactic government. Emphasis the intimate, personal, small scale struggle caused as Ben Solo became Kylo Ren.

Just don’t give us reheated leftovers.

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Now, honestly, I really did enjoy The Force Awakens. It’s a stunning film, visually speaking – it looks amazing, moreso than any of the other Star Wars movies than preceded it.

And, even despite the issues I highlighted, the plot issues aren’t hugely noticeable whilst watching the film – JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and all the actors involved did such a genuinely compelling job with the character arcs throughout that the plot problems almost just didn’t matter. Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron are a great new trio for us to be introduced to; Kylo Ren is an intimidating villain with a lot of potential, and it wonderful to see characters from the original trilogy again.

The Force Awakens is, undeniably, better than all of the prequel movies. And certainly in some regards, it’s better than the original movies. Not in all aspects, though.

As a reintroduction to the franchise, The Force Awakens does a pretty stellar job. As a movie, it does a wonderful job – I’ve emphasised, all throughout this review, how genuinely fun it is to watch, and that’s true. Seeing this movie is a genuinely enjoyable experience, and I’d really recommend it to anyone who enjoys fun movies.

I’ll likely have a lot more thoughts on this over the coming week (obviously, I’m going to watch it again) but for now, this is essentially where I stand. A hugely enjoyable movie, with one fundamental flaw.

9/10

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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