The White Tiger

Showing on Netflix.

Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani adapted from Aravind Adiga’s book that tells the story of a young ambitious Indian man, Balram. Told in flashbacks we learn about Balram’s story from poverty stricken upbringing to entrepreneur. His path is not easy as he starts his journey working for the family who are landlords to his village, he sees the opportunity to learn from the son of his employer until an incident changes the direction of his life drastically and drives his passion to escape a life of servitude and become his own man.

The White Tiger is a much darker story than expected, set in the mid 2000’s it explores a range of challenges in a rapidly changing India via Balram’s story. He battles to throw off the restrictions of expectation and to become master of his own destiny at whatever cost and doing this while fighting against years of corruption and inequality in the very system he’s trying to succeed in.

Built around a fantastic performance by Adarsh Gourav this is a hugely interesting story told in a smart way, Gourav balances Balram’s dual personality of loyal servant and ambitious entrepreneur perfectly, with Rajkummar Rao acting as the prefect foil as his seemingly modern thinking boss. With a slick script that keeps the story moving it stays intriguing thoughout with an unsuspected dark twist in its final act.

If you’ve fancied a bit of Indian cinema but not sure where to begin then The White Tiger is a good place to start.

Malcolm and Marie

Showing on Netflix.

Written and directed by Sam Levinson. Malcolm is a film maker, Marie, sometime actress and Malcolm’s girlfriend, return to their production company rented home in the Californian hills after attending the premier of his new film. There they wait for the first review and what begins as a discussion about the night soon turns into a detailed and often unpleasant examination of their relationship.

There have certainly been mixed reviews for this film, some feel a little over the top, but in many cases the issues with the film are fair. However, I certainly sit at the more positive end of the scale with more to enjoy in Malcolm and Marie than endure.

I won’t pretend this is easy to get on with, the relationship between the two often seems toxic and unpleasant and does leave you thinking, what on earth are they doing together? There is long, very long, monologues as the characters talk at each other and there is very little to lighten the mood. That said, you do get two very watchable performers, John David Washington continues to be a very engaging screen presence and Zendaya is an increasingly interesting actor, talented and not afraid to take on tough characters separating her from the life of Disney, Spiderman and The Greatest Showman. Both certainly give their all.

The choice of black and white adds to the atmosphere of the film, with the contrasts of the images matching the contrasts of the evening, where we switch between love, almost abusive manipulation and a few light moments (Malcolm’s reaction to the first review I found particularly entertaining).

While this clearly is not and will not appeal to everyone and it’s heavy going. The two leads do deliver impressive performances and give an interesting insight into a complex, if somewhat melodramatic, relationship. It is well made and for me much more to admire than dislike.

If you want light hearted cinematic fun, give this a miss, but if you want to see two talented performers perform and don’t mind the heavy going, it may work. Approach with caution!

The Dig

Available on Netflix.

Directed by Simon Stone with a screenplay by Moira Buffini and based on a novel by John Preston. The Dig is based on the true story of the 1939 excavation by Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) of a 6th century burial ship in Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, on the land of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) a wealthy widow, who had hoped to discover what rests below the mounds on her farm land with her now late husband. What they uncover was, and still remains, one of the most significant archeological finds on British soil.

What I want from a film are characters to care about, a story that interests me and something that engages me emotionally and this had all of that in spades, excuse the pun. Built around two superb central performances, the story telling oozes with charm. Set against the dark skies of impending war, there is a palpable sense of time passing and a risk of losing what is important, the rush to compete the dig before the outbreak of war, Mrs. Pretty concerned she will not see the digs end and the risks of having their discovery and passion taken away by the establishment in the form of the British museum.

For me the films real strength comes from the broader relationships, with some fine support, especially Monica Dolan as Brown’s wife and relative newcomer Archie Brown as Pretty’s son Robert, who having lost his father is terrified that he can not “look after his mother” and who develops a strong bond with Brown as a father figure and guide to what lies ahead.

The only mistep is a seemingly superfluous love story between Peggy (Lily James) and Rory (Johnny Flynn), but it’s only a small qualm and doesn’t detract from all that’s good else where.

The Dig is a really beautiful film with lovely story telling, gorgeously shot, patient, engaging and draws you into its world from start to finish. It is well worth digging out of the Netflix library.

Irresistible

Showing on Sky Cinema and VOD services.

Written and directed by Jon Stewart, Irresistible has Steve Carell as political campaign strategist, Gary Zimmer, who after the chastening defeat of Hilary Clinton at the 2016 election, finds himself in a small Wisconsin town where he and his team want to help local farmer and former marine, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), to become the town’s democratic mayor and a new symbol of the democratic party. Jack’s campaign catches the attention of the Republicans who send their own strategic heavyweight Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), to run the mayors campaign and beat her old adversary Zimmer.

Irresistible is a great example of how the final act can change your view of a film. For two thirds of it what you have is pretty standard political satire, built on the premise of Washington politico’s heading off to small town USA and patronising their “small minded” political views and cares, with the town no more than a means to an end. With the story heading to one of two predictable ends, however the final act twists the story and shines a light at the nonsense of the political system and the objectionable amount of money that pours into it, for no other reason than to support its own existence and lifted Irresistible to something a bit more interesting and smart.

Irresistible was never going to be a bad film for me, I’m a big fan of Steve Carell, who has shown himself to be an equally fine actor in serious and comedic roles and is at home here, supported well in an extended cameo, from the always watchable Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper as the stoic but caring Harrison and McKenzie Davis as his smart and defensive daughter Diane.

The script moves along rapidly and although this leaves the characters a little thin, it stops it becoming too self indulgent and “preachy” leaving its observations as, while not necessarily earth shattering, smart and witty.

If you enjoy a smart political comedy with strong performances, then this while not quite irresistible, is an enjoyable and thanks to the final act an above average piece of political satire.

Miss Juneteenth

On Sky Cinema and various VOD platforms.

Wriiten and directed by Channing Godfrey People and stars Nicole Beharie as Turquoise Jones, a former Miss Juneteenth, whose life has never quite matched what it promised. She now finds herself trying to instil the same ambition to win the prestigious pageant into her 15 year old daughter Kai, Alexis Chikaeze. All while trying to balance a tough life of financial hardship, endless work and constant let down from those closest to her.

Miss Juneteenth can be a difficult watch, but that is also its strength. Turquoise’s life is tough, there are few to rely on, a religious zealot mother, an untrustworthy estranged husband, but the difficulties are countered by her desire to make it better and drive to make sure Kai’s life doesn’t repeat the same cycle.

We also see the consequence of that drive, most notably with Kai who doesn’t share her Mum’s dream and has no real interest in the pageant, she’d rather dance and is frustrated as her dreams are ignored.

But in amongst this we see the strength of community, there is support and a sense of family. As well as a daughter who understands what her mother is sacrificing for her and looks to meet her and her mothers ambition.

While life is clearly hard, the real success of Miss Juneteenth is that it builds characters who you care about, I wanted to see Turquoise succeed and Kai given the room to grow and sometimes that’s all you want in a film an emotional engagement and characters to care about.

The warmth for the characters comes from the writing and fine performances, Beharie is excellent carrying the bulk of the film with warmth and vulnerability. Chikaeze’s Kai and Kendrick Sampson as her father Ronnie also offer good support.

Miss Juneteenth is tough going at times, but that’s what life can be like for many, but importantly it never feels sorry for itself and has a real warmth and heart that engaged me and gave me characters to care about and ultimately a positive story to enjoy.

One Night in Miami

Showing on Amazon Prime Video.

Directed by Regina King with a screenplay based on his own play by Kemp Powers. One Night in Miami is a fictional account of the night in 1964 that Cassius Clay, soon to be Mohammed Ali, becomes world champion for the first time and celebrates in the company of three friends and prominent black figures Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. However, rather than the party the men had hoped for, what they get is Malcolm X taking the opportunity to encourage Brown and Cooke, in particular, to do more to support the struggle for civil rights in the way Clay, who the next day will announce joining the Nation of Islam. What starts as a celebratory night soon descends into an evening of recriminations and arguments.

The challenge with bringing a stage play to the screen is to do it while maintaining the benefits of a play but avoiding the stagey feel. One Night in Miami under King’s direction does that well, while at times the stage roots show overall it delivers a cinematic experience. Our four leads all provide compelling versions of their famous characters. Kingsley Ben-Adir carries most of the story as Malcolm X struggling to balance the bigger fight with his own internal battles with the Nation of Islam and their controversial leader Elijah Mohammed, Aldis Hodge brings a calm authority as the older Jim Brown, while Eli Goree’s Clay and Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke bring a wisdom and energy as young, powerful black men.

I found this a really intriguing story, a fascinating snapshot of 1960’s America and the, what seems on-going, fight for equality and rights in the United States and beyond. The four leads are all compelling and hugely watchable while avoiding slipping into mimicry. Under Regina King’s direction the story takes time to make its points while maintaining a pace that keeps you engaged.

One Night in Miami, while loosely based on “true event” still delivers a fascinating insight into the 1960’s and with hugely enjoyable performances is well worth a watch.

Blithe Spirit

New to Sky Cinema.

Directed by Edward Hall and adapted by Piers Ashworth from Noel Cowards 1940’s play. Blithe Spirit stars Dan Stephens as Charles Condomine, a successful author, tasked with adapting a successful novel into a screenplay. However, he has struggled with “writers block” since the death of his first wife who he still pines for, much to the frustration of his current wife Ruth (Isla Fisher). However, life changes after going to see famous “medium”, Judi Dench’s, Madame Arcati Charles and Ruth find a third wheel in their relationship in the shape of “interference” from Charles’s late wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), what for Charles seems a dream increasingly becomes a nightmare.

I didn’t know this was based on a Coward play which perhaps explains why I spent my time thinking, I’ve seen this story before and, unfortunately, done much, much better.

I found Blithe Spirit hugely disappointing, so poor in fact even the wonderful Judi Dench couldn’t lift it beyond decidedly average. Its main problem was the failure in the story telling, the performances are fine but they have so little to work with we only get paper thin and uninteresting characters. Its main failure though, as a comedy, is it just isn’t funny.

Its final crime was its ending, because for all that had preceded it, it had a twist at the end that was intriguing and a little unexpected (maybe it was obvious and I’d stopped caring) and that was hugely frustrating because, suddenly, you think that there was a story there all along but they chose to hide it amongst a series of uninteresting and unfunny randomly thrown together scenes.

It’s only saving graces are, at 95 minutes its thankfully short (felt longer) and of course there’s Judi Dench. So if you want 20 minutes of Dame Judi and happy to ignore 74 of the other 75 minutes this could work, but really, beyond that, I’d suggest watching something else.

Babyteeth

Now on Netflix as well as VOD services.

Written by Rita Kalnejais, directed by Shannon Murphy and starring Eliza Scanlen, Babyteeth is a gritty Aussie drama centered around Milla (Scanlen) a seriously ill teenager, who via a random run-in at a railway station finds a new love in twenty-something drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace), much to the horror of her parents Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelson). The story follows a short period in Milla’s life, her frustrations with and her fight to live it and the impact this has on those around her, all of whom have their own troubles.

Babyteeth was an odd experience, it felt a little unbalanced at times, introducing characters and storylines at random that then either disappeared or didn’t make sense, yet at other times it took time to explore its subject. It showed me characters that didn’t seem that likeable, yet I found myself liking them very much and at times a storyline that seemed difficult to engage with, yet I became very engaged, especially at the films heart-breaking conclusion which made me realise I had invested hugely in all of the characters.

The performances all capture the films quirky nature Scanlen anchors it brilliantly in the central role, bringing to screen the frustrations and pains Milla is going through, Mendelson and Davis excellent as her quirky and troubled parents and Toby Wallace captures the troubled, lost and lonely life of Moses.

This is the type of drama the Aussies do really well, quirky, shining a light into dark corners and not afraid to get dirt under its fingernails. While watching it I wasn’t sure how much I was enjoying it, but looking back it tells a heart wrenching story but is never voyeuristic or sentimental as it captures life at both its most difficult and beautiful.

It is certainly quirky and takes some watching but its heart-breaking end makes you realise how much you have enjoyed spending time in its presence.

The High Note

Available on VOD.

Written by Flora Greeson and directed by Nisha Ganatra The High Note stars Dakota Johnson as overworked PA to superstar singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), Maggie. Both have dreams and are frustrated by restraints on them, Maggie wants to he a producer, Grace wants to record new music rather than endless replaying of her greatest hits. Maggie then gets an opportunity when she meets singer/songwriter David (Kelvin Harrison jr.) and he gives her the chance to produce.

If the synopsis sounds familiar it will be no surprise that the film feels pretty familiar, following a handful of well trodden romcom paths. But, for me, that isn’t a criticism, those tropes are familiar because, when done well, people enjoy them and I thought The High Note made a decent effort at it.

The comedy was quite melancholic and the story telling never reduced it to farce or melodrama and was patient enough to let it develop and remain interesting. Occasionally, particularly with Grace’s story, it asks some interesting questions about career progression, opportunity limitation and the difficulties of overcoming it.

While it is a pretty standard romcom, it does it well and I found it rather enjoyable. Although it eventually wraps the story up in a pretty neat bow, it didn’t detract, performances are solid enough from Johnson, Ross and Harrison jr. With good support, especially from Ice Cube as Grace’s long time manager.

If you’re looking for a light, not overly “mushy”, subtle comedy, which asks some interesting questions, This may just hit the right (high) note.

Hope Gap

On Netflix and VOD services.

Written and directed by William Nicholson, starring Annette Bening and Bill Nighy, Hope Gap focuses on the difficulties that come with marriage breakdown. Eddie and Grace are an older couple, married for 29 years, but as we join them it is clear things are not right. When Eddie invites their son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) home for the weeknd, he does it with an ulterior motive, so he can support his mum when Eddie makes a life changing decision.

Hope Gap is basically a three hander between Bening, Nighy and O’Connor and focuses on the emotional impact of Eddie’s decision on him, his wife and their son. What we get is a well performed piece Bening and Nighy are particularly good, Bening balancing anger and heartbreak really well, Nighy is full Nighy, as the quietly spoken, seemingly bullied but determined husband. With O’Connor allowing the two main characters to bounce off him as the caught in the middle son.

However, the crux of the problem with Hope Gap, is there just isn’t enough there to justify it’s 100 minute run time, as 60 minute TV drama this could really of worked, but beyond that it feels stretched with the story plodding along and taking the occasional unnecessary detour to fill the time. Which is a pity, as it is nicely shot, well played and tries to deal with a difficult story with appropriate care and attention.

However, it is a story we have seen done before and unfortunately done much better, but that said it is not a total dud and if you are looking for a well played delve into the world of relationship breakdown and you don’t mind a flaw or two, it may fit the bill.

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