Cast: Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, İlayda Akdoğan, Nihal Koldaş, Ayberk Peckan, Erol Afşin

Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Writers: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour

In its depiction of female oppression Mustang presents an interesting case. The film is set in a rural Turkish town where the ignorant taboos and outdated misogyny of this family’s cultural beliefs are seemingly a far cry away from our own culture in the West. And yet the emotions and ideas that the film conveys: the sisterly bond, the sexual awakening, the patriarchal dominance and the silent suffering; these are all universal ideas that are immediately recognisable and relatable. The film wisely avoids setting itself at a particular time, meaning we cannot tell if this is something that happened ten or more years ago or if it is happening today. The film also avoids making any direct statement about the religion of this family because to do so would be to misconstrue the point being made. Mustang isn’t a film about a particular place, time, community or creed, it is a universal story of five girls searching for identity and meaning.

The narrator is the youngest of the sisters, Lale (Güneş Şensoy). On the last day of school she and her sisters Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan) and Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) go to play in the water with some of the male students, unaware of the scandal they will cause. An elderly neighbour witnesses their activity and interprets it as something perverse, proceeding to notify the girls’ grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) of their depravity. After being punished by her and their uncle Erol (Ayberk Peckan) everything, in Lale’s words, turns to shit. The house is turned into a wife factory where the girls must spend their days learning to be perfect, silent, obedient wives and are forbidden from leaving the premises or interacting with any boys. From here on the only future they are allowed to have is one of confinement as they wait to be married off to a suitor chosen by their uncle.

The film tackles the complex and provocative issue of female sexuality. It details how women, even at a young age, are viewed and defined in a sexual light and are then punished for it. It does this in a setting where the female status is never questioned, not even by the women who define it. While the girls are punished and then confined for playing around with the boys in the water, the boys as far as we know never receive any form of punishment, nor is it suggested by any of the characters that they should receive any blame for the supposed crime that took place. As far as these characters are concerned female sexual desire is something to be feared and suppressed except in service to male sexual desire. Girls are expected to remain incorruptibly pure and virtuous, otherwise they will never be able to marry and will therefore have no worth as human beings. The film is damning in the patriarchal oppression and misogyny that it depicts and does a wonderful job of showcasing its effects and brutalities through the eyes of the five young girls.

The sisters in the film share a palpable chemistry that is utterly authentic and organic. The girls are so believable as siblings in their appearance, behaviour and unity that it was sometimes difficult to simply tell them apart. Yet each one of them does have a distinctive personality and arc and each one struggles and deals with the oppression in their own way. Sonay for example has a sweetheart she continues to see in secret and finds a way to be with him that preserves her virginity. Ece in contrast is more self-abusive in her attempts to cope with the pains and suffocation of imprisonment. Lale is the most openly defiant of them all and is constantly looking for a way to escape. The one source of strength and hope they have in the middle of it all is their unbreakable sisterly bond. Together their spirits remain alive and their identities remain true. The actresses that Ergüven discovered for this film all deliver sublime performances and together create an astonishing ensemble.

Whatever political, cultural or religious connotations there are in this film should not distract viewers from the hauntingly human story being told. This is a powerful film about the female struggle for identity, desire and freedom. The premise is grim and many of the scenes are despairing, melancholic and tragic. The power of the girls’ sisterhood is the shining light that keeps their will alive until finally the film reaches its hopeful outcome. It’s not exactly a happy ending, at least not conclusively so, but it is one that allows for the possibility and promise of a better future. I was incredibly moved by the plight of the sisters in Mustang and found the film to be marvellous in its empathy and humanity. This film is a landmark in modern feminist cinema and provokes both outrage and compassion in equal measure.


The Angry Birds Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage

Directors: Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly

Writer: Jon Vitti

I’m not really one for mobile games. I do sometimes play Minesweeper on my phone, but that’s about it. I’ve therefore never played a single game of Angry Birds in my life and knew little about it beyond its basic concept. I can certainly remember a time when Angry Birds was the biggest app in the world and can only imagine how popular this film might have been if it came out five years ago. I doubt I know a single person who still plays Angry Birds today. However, since The Lego Movie proved in 2014 that a blatant commercial could still be a smart and entertaining movie, maybe now really is the right time for mobile apps to start making the leap to the big screen. I hope this means that there is a Minesweeper movie in development somewhere. Anyway, whatever the level of popularity it holds today, The Angry Birds Movie is the film we got.

The film takes place on Bird Island, home to a wide variety of flightless birds. One of them, Red, lives in isolation from the rest of the community due to his anger issues. After an incident sends him over the edge Red is ordered to attend a series of anger management meetings held by Matilda. The other attendees are Chuck, a swift and zippy yellow bird, Bomb, a well-meaning black bird with a tendency to explode (literally), and Terrence, a giant, intimidating red bird with an apparently sadistic temperament. One of their sessions is then suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a boat carrying green pigs. Leonard, the leader of the pigs, claims his intentions are peaceful and wins the birds over with his offerings of friendship. Red however is not convinced. He enlists Chuck and Bomb to help him discover the pigs’ true intent and uncovers a heinous plot that will doubtless already be known to the millions of viewers familiar with the game.

The Angry Birds Movie is a harmless film with some nice animation and a few laughs, but that’s about it. It has very little of the creativity, imagination and dynamism that made The Lego Movie such a smash hit. The plot is pretty banal and safe, the characters are distinctive but mostly forgettable and the comedy consists almost entirely of bird or pig related puns and slapstick. There are enough bright colours and movement on screen to hold young children’s attention and distract them for a while but not enough character, story or inventiveness to engage them. The theme of the resentful, solitary loner learning to open himself up to others and become a part of the community is a familiar one we’ve all seen in a hundred better movies and there isn’t much that the film does to present it in a different or fresher light. I suppose the film does kind of distinguish itself by engaging with anger and concluding that there is actually a time and a place to allow yourself to become angry but it isn’t nearly as profound as what Inside Out did with sadness.

Red is the protagonist and the titular angry bird of this film but there isn’t a lot that can be said about him. The film does give him a backstory that provides an explanation for his anger but even then he isn’t particularly interesting, funny or entertaining as a character. The majority of the side characters are hardly worth mentioning. You can work out their quirks and traits within two seconds of meeting them and whatever amusing characteristics they have get worn out very quickly. The weakest character for me was probably Mighty Eagle, a revered figure who turns out to not be as mighty as the tales held him to be. Our introduction to him consists of a feeble, lowbrow joke that isn’t nearly as funny as the filmmakers think it is. I did however enjoy Terrence, a daunting behemoth who only ever communicates in grunts, a characteristic I appreciated all the more at the end when I found out who voiced him. For me he was probably the only consistently funny character in the movie.

The film does pick up at the climax when the birds are finally allowed to be the Angry Birds from the game. Here the film has some fun with its characters and their singular abilities and allows things to get a little creative and chaotic for a while. I’m not sure it was worth the wait though. There are a lot of lame jokes, stale character moments and clichéd plot developments that have to be endured before you can reach that point. The animation is nice enough and the characters are variable enough that your five-year-old won’t be bored while watching it but there isn’t much to be taken away from this film. Maybe if they’d gone the same route as The Lego Movie and just allowed themselves to go crazy they might have made something funnier, more entertaining and more memorable. Instead they played it safe and the result is a cute but forgettable movie.


Sing Street

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aiden Gillen, Jack Reynor, Kelly Thornton

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

John Carney has an intuitive understanding of the power of music in film that few other directors possess. In Once and Begin Again, music is a means of expression for the characters that reaches the audience in ways simple dialogue can’t. He finds value not only in the performance but in the creation of music as well. He uses music as a bridge between fantasy and reality. The music in his films can cross barriers, evoke memories and speak the unspeakable. In Once, for instance, he demonstrated how a couple could use music to express a romance that could never be allowed to happen in either statement or action. The effect captured in these films is a raw and delicate one, feeling at the same time both viscerally real and romantically impossible. In Sing Street Carney takes the effect even further by nostalgically harkening back to a lost time in 1980s Dublin where he reflects on both the memories and dreams of his youth.

It is 1985 in Dublin and Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a young schoolboy going through a rough time. His parents Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are on the verge of separating and money is tight, meaning that Conor has to be pulled out of his private school and sent to a free state-school where he becomes an outcast. Across the street from this school Conor glimpses the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and decides to talk to her. He learns that she plans on becoming a model and asks if she would like to be in a video for his band, a band that doesn’t actually exist yet. With the help of his schoolmates Darren (Ben Carolan), a budding entrepreneur, and Eamon (Mark McKenna), a talented multi-instrumentalist, Conor forms a rock group called Sing Street. Using the education in rock and roll provided by his brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor undergoes a musical journey of self-discovery and love.

With Sing Street Carney has made what is easily one of the most charming and enjoyable films of the year. As in his previous films, the music is sublime and works here on two fronts. The songs are great simply as 80s style pop songs with clear influences from such groups as Duran Duran and The Clash, but they also work marvellously in relation to the story and characters. One highlight is ‘The Riddle of the Model’, Conor’s synthesised ode to Raphina, the video for which exemplifies the classic 80s rock video through and through despite being shot in a Dublin alley on a VHS camcorder. The film’s best sequence however is the performance of ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’, a fantasy where Conor imagines for a moment that all of his problems can be solved with an upbeat choreographed dance number like in the movies. It is this scene, more than any other, that best demonstrates Carney’s astonishing ability to create a film that is both cheerfully optimistic and heartbreakingly sad at the same time.

There is hardly a weak link in the cast so it’s difficult to decide who to single out for praise. Obviously newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is to be commended for playing Conor, a young romantic going through a difficult time in his life and discovering music as a way to cope with it all. Lucy Boynton also shines as Raphina, an aspirational girl who isn’t as confident or indifferent as she pretends to be. Although both characters are fanciful in their worldviews and ambitions, the romance between them is hardly a fairy tale. Through the disappointment, disillusionment and heartbreak that they both experience, they learn the hard way that life isn’t always going to work out the way they want it to. They do however learn more about each other and themselves and are stronger, wiser and more hopeful for it. I also want to single out Jack Reynor as Brendan, the older brother who wasted his chance and wants to save Conor from making the same mistakes that he made.

Although there are some hard life lessons to be learned by these characters, Sing Street is nevertheless a hopeful film that holds a soft spot for dreams and fancies. The film is a marriage between kitchen sink realism and musical fantasy that moves, saddens and delights. It is a coming of age story that captures the angst, awkwardness and troubles of youth but also the impulsiveness, fancifulness and optimism. It is a nostalgic film that recalls the good times fondly and the bad times pensively. Fans of the 80s will certainly get a kick out of the wonderful soundtrack which features a good mix of original songs as well as some classics by Genesis, The Jam and Spandau Ballet, amongst others. Sing Street is an irresistibly charming film created by a master of cinematic music that will make you laugh, cry and smile throughout.


Bad Neighbours 2

Cast: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloë Grace Moretz, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz

Director: Nicholas Stoller

Writers: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Nicholas Stoller, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

This is a film that I was really dreading. After the horrid, sordid experience that was Dirty Grandpa, I was in no mood to see another Zac Efron offering in his campaign to prove that he’s no longer the squeaky-clean Disney kid from High School Musical. While I thought the original Bad Neighbours had its moments, I felt that it lacked direction and discipline in its humour and that some of its gross-out elements came across as crass rather than funny. There was certainly potential for good comedy in the film but I only ever saw flashes of it in the semi-improvisational riffs between the actors. Since the cast had no solid writing or clear direction to work with, most of these riffs amounted to little more than the exhaustive throwing around of random gags. I was not looking forward to the prospect of watching two more hours of the same. Even if had enjoyed the first film, I still would’ve been concerned by the thought that I can probably count the number of successful comedy sequels that I’ve seen on one hand.

Some time has gone by since the events of Bad Neighbours and now Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) have decided to sell their home. However the prospective buyers decide to put their house on escrow for 30 days, meaning that they can drop by for a surprise inspection at any time and can opt to drop out of the deal if they find any problems. Meanwhile college freshman Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) has just joined the Phi Lamda sorority only to find that they are forbidden to throw their own parties on campus. Instead they must attend frat parties, which end up being perverse and depraved affairs marked by female objectification and sexual harassment. Therefore Shelby teams up with Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) to form their own sorority. The girls look at the house next door to the Radners where they meet Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) who, having recently been asked by his friend to move out of his apartment, agrees to help the sorority in exchange for residence. Afterwards it isn’t long before Kappa Nu’s parties start to aggravate the Radners and the two houses go to war with one another.

In short, this film is pretty much the same as its predecessor. Same gross-out humour, same ad-libbed banter between actors, and same abundance of shirtless scenes for Seth Rogen and Zac Efron. This time however the premise is gender-reversed. If you’re a fan of the original film then this is all good news. To me however it meant more drawn out riffing that doesn’t really go anywhere, more crass jokes that aren’t as funny as the filmmakers think they are, and more directionless humour that only manages to hit the mark on occasion. These films seem to think that cussing, vulgarity and slapstick alone are enough to generate laughs and so little of the humour is actually derived from either the characters or the plot. This time around however the film does introduce an unexpectedly sound feminist perspective as it outlines some of the sexism, both casual and perverse, that young women often undergo. It’s not exactly Mustang but it’s still more than I expected from this film.

For some viewers the cast alone may be enough to make this film work. Those who enjoy watching Seth Rogen quip the odd one-liner, make a whole bunch of weed jokes and show off his chubby physique will not be left wanting. Rose Byrne rarely ever disappoints and it is refreshing that the film allows the wife to be just as bad as the husband rather than a joyless stick in the mud. Zac Efron is by all means a charismatic and talented actor but, for whatever reason, he continues to make these trashy, red band comedies where he’s expected to do little more than spout expletives and provide eye candy. The girls in this film do have a bit more going for them than the guys did in the previous film in terms of character but that isn’t really saying much. Moretz does have her moments but she can do so much better than this film.

It’s simple really. If you liked Bad Neighbours and want more of the same then there is no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy the sequel. If the former did nothing for you however then the latter has very little to offer. I’d probably rate this film a little higher than I would the original but I certainly wouldn’t call it a good film. Most of the jokes fell flat for me, the parts that some viewers might find uproarious were quite simply vulgar to me, and there was little the cast could do to save any of it. When I think back to Dirty Grandpa however and just imagine what this film could have been, I’m relieved that the film never tried to be more than a silly, coarse, unapologetic comedy. While I still don’t think it’s good, I also don’t think it’s without comedic merit. If crudeness, slapstick and shamelessness is what you’re looking for, then by all means enjoy.


Florence Foster Jenkins

Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Nina Arianda, Rebecca Ferguson

Director: Stephen Frears

Writer: Nicholas Martin

Advertised as “the inspiring true story of the world’s worst singer”, Florence Foster Jenkins struck me as a thematically similar film to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. This film took the life of a man who had garnered a reputation as the worst director of all time and found inspiration in it. Despite being utterly oblivious to his incapability as a filmmaker, the film showed that Ed had an intense passion and deep love for cinema that ended up proving irresistible to the audience. Like Burton, Frears finds inspiration in the story of an individual who found immense joy in doing what she loved, even if she wasn’t any good at it. However atonal or delusional this person could be, there is still something moving about her heartfelt sincerity and vigorous enthusiasm for music. This is the side of Florence that Frears wants us to see. He wanted to make a film in which we are laughing with Florence rather than at her.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is an heiress living in 1940s New York. Her greatest passion is music and her greatest dream is to be an opera singer. She performs concerts for her friends and colleagues and is uniformly received by them with praise and adoration. What she does not realise however is that they are all humouring her. Florence’s husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), himself an actor and fellow patron of the arts, sees to it that she never performs in front of an audience that he cannot control, thus allowing her to perform freely and openly without ever becoming aware of her terrible singing voice. We learn of this arrangement through the eyes of Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a skilled but struggling pianist who gets paid handsomely for both his talent and discretion. As the United States is drawn further into the war at this time, Florence resolves to do her part by putting on a show for the troops at Carnegie Hall, a venue and audience that Bayfield desperately realises he cannot control.

In this day and age where TV shows like The X-Factor encourage us to mock and ridicule those without talent, I was astonished by what a touching film this proved to be. It makes no qualms about Florence’s singing abilities; she cannot hit a note to save her life. Her passion for music however is never in doubt. She owns a music club that showcases a variety of acts, she is massively generous when sponsoring musicians and she appreciates music on an intellectual and emotional level. It is after watching an opera performance where she is moved to tears that she realises she wants to express that passion by singing. Should it be a surprise then when Bayfield, who knows better than anyone else what singing means to her, utilises their wealth and influence to allow Florence her moment in the spotlight? The film takes its shots and has its fun with Florence’s tone-deaf screeching, but what is made plainly clear through it all is that she is singing her heart out with each melody and lyric.

After such a long and illustrious career it seems redundant to say this, but Meryl Streep is truly sublime in this film. Here she embodies an endearing but tragic figure who unwittingly became a subject of derision in pursuit of her dream. Streep delivers on both the laughs and tears and come awards season will surely receive her obligatory Oscar nomination for this performance. The real surprise for me was Hugh Grant who gave what is easily his best performance in years. At first we think we have this man figured out; he appears to be little more than an exploiter, allowing Florence her delusion so that he can enjoy her wealth while spending his nights with his mistress. Yet what becomes abundantly clear before long is that Bayfield both loves and adores Florence and is completely and utterly devoted to her. Although he may not desire her sexually, he proves time and time again that he truly does care for her and that he allows Florence her delusion because he wants her to be happy. It is an affectionate and sensitive performance that Grant delivers, one that I had never expected from him.

While Florence Foster Jenkins was a figure many dismissed as being laughable, spoiled and self-indulgent, Frears’ film is very much sympathetic to her cause. Although she may not possess the talent to voice her musical passion or the ability to hear her own shortcomings, the Florence in this film has a deep love for music that simply demands to be expressed. We might find amusement in her attempts at some of the most distinguished and difficult arias in the history of opera but, because we can feel her fervour so potently, we still root for her to do well. When she becomes the discreet subject of scorn and ridicule, we feel badly for her even though she is completely oblivious to such mockery. Florence Foster Jenkins is a film that is surprising in its earnest charm and heartfelt pathos, much like Florence herself.


Everybody Wants Some!!

Cast: Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Will Brittain, Glenn Powell, Wyatt Russell

Director: Richard Linklater

Writer: Richard Linklater

This film has been described by Richard Linklater as a spiritual sequel to Dazed & Confused, a film that was very much an ode to a long-past age. The 1970s, the decade of Linklater’s youth, is one that he remembers fondly with nostalgia but not to the extent that he forgets about the awkwardness and frustration. In the film he recalls his days as a high schooler contemplating the passage into adulthood still ahead of him and wondering whether the future will live up to its promises or if this is all that there ever will be. Everybody Wants Some!!, set in the 1980s, marks the next stage of this journey. The characters are too old and too experienced to be boys but are perhaps not quite mature enough to be considered adults yet. They are embarking on a new stage of their lives, one that will be shaped by the pursuit of identity, belonging, escapism, competition and sex. As with his days of adolescence, Linklater has fond memories of his days of maturity and has succeeded in creating another movie that showcases them.

In the fall of 1980 college freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) moves into the house he will be sharing with college baseball team for which he will be the pitcher. There he meets several of his new teammates including Finn (Glenn Powell), Roper (Ryan Guzman), Dale (Quinton Johnson) and Plummer (Temple Baker). Together they embark on a quest to meet female students during which Jake catches the eye of Beverly (Zoey Deutch). Later a team meeting is held where Jake makes the acquaintance of such colourful characters as McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the ultra competitive captain, Jay (Juston Street), the intensely eccentric jerk, and Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the philosophical stoner. The coach informs them that there will be two rules on these premises: no alcohol in the house and no women upstairs. In the weekend that follows however, before the Monday where the baseball season and the college classes are set to begin, the guys resolve to enjoy themselves as much as possible.

From Slacker to the Before trilogy, Linklater is often at his best when he is unburdened by the mechanisms of plot. Many of his movies are more concerned with capturing moods and feelings than they are with telling stories and so, without a plot forcing him onwards, his movies are allowed to breathe and to move along organically. Everybody Wants Some!! is in keeping with this style. When it comes right down to it, this movie is about a bunch of college guys enjoying a weekend of baseball, parties and women. They make heroes and arses of themselves, they get lucky and strike out, they share deep truths and brazen lies with each other and they party like only the 80s knew how. The real question however is whether Linklater is actually saying something with this movie or if he’s simply sharing some of his favourite memories of college with us.

If Linklater’s only objective with this movie was to capture the 80s, then the film is a marked success. Everything from the stylish hairstyles to the colourful clothing to the superb music (Van Halen, Blondie, Dire Straits, the list goes on!) screams of the 80s. If Linklater wished to simply make an entertaining film about the antics of college jocks then he can tick that box as well. The casting in this movie is pitch-perfect as each member of the baseball team comes into his own with fully realised personalities. There is no doubt that Linklater must have known players exactly like them and the actors he found succeeded not only as individuals but as an ensemble. The way they interact and work off each other allows for many enjoyable moments. Some praise must also be granted to Deutch for playing the exuberant Beverly (the only female character with any dialogue of actual substance). Is the movie a true successor to Dazed & Confused though? Does it have that same level of honesty, depth and poignancy that made its predecessor a classic? The answer for me, regretfully, is not really.

I did enjoy Everybody Wants Some!! and I have no trouble believing that it is an authentic representation of Linklater’s memories of the 80s. However I didn’t find the movie to be as contemplative or as reflective as Linklater’s other movies have proven to be. While many have praised this movie as a nostalgic portrait of a bygone era that still resonates today, to me it was simply a movie about twelve guys trying to get laid. An entertaining movie to be sure, just not a particularly profound one. There are occasional glimpses of insightfulness where the characters take a moment to consider such themes as identity, responsibility and the future. One part that struck be as poignant was when one character was revealed to be a thirty-year-old posing as a college student. For the most part however I found Everybody Wants Some!! to be a simple but enjoyable college movie helmed by one of the best directors working today. It may not be Dazed & Confused, but it’s enough.


Son of Saul

Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn

Director: Lázló Nemes

Writers: Lázló Nemes, Clara Royers

There are few subject matters as painful and unspeakable as the Holocaust, a monstrous event that even today remains living memory for many. This makes it a difficult subject to approach in cinema or indeed in art. Such an experience goes so far beyond basic human comprehension that no work of art, fiction or otherwise, can ever fully capture it in its immense tragedy. Although I consider Schindler’s List to be a magnificent picture, there are some who have validly criticised Spielberg for sentimentalising the Holocaust. An inherent limitation of cinema, commercially at least, is that it must present a narrative that’s accessible to an audience. If any film has ever come close to truly capturing this horrific episode on an emotional level it is perhaps Shoah, a film that measures at an exhaustive nine hours that few viewers have the patience to endure. Such is the challenge faced by Son of Saul which has set out to depict a harrowing story set in the Holocaust in a way unlike any other film that I’ve ever seen.

It is late 1944 and Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner of Auschwitz. He works as one of the Sonderkommando whose duty is to dispose of the victims that have succumbed to the gas chamber. As he performs this task he comes across the body of a boy whom the audience is made to understand is Saul’s son. He takes the body into his own custody in order to give the boy a proper Jewish burial and proceeds to scour the camp looking for a rabbi to perform the ritual. Meanwhile there is talk of a rebellion amongst the inmates, most notably from Abraham (Levente Molnár), also part of the Sonderkommando, and Oberkapo Biedermann (Urs Rechn). When Saul asks Abraham for his help in finding a Rabbi he offers his assistance in return. In the story that follows Saul undertakes inordinate risks to complete his impossible task, one that seems both foolish and futile to those around him.

The most immediately striking aspect of this film is the filming itself. Shot on 35mm with a 1:1.375 frame, allowing for a narrow portrait-like window, the camera is fixed squarely on Saul’s face for the vast majority of the movie. We follow Saul through extended takes as he goes about his tasks and bear witness to the horrors of the camp from his perspective. As the camera continues to stare steadily at Saul’s impassive expression we become aware of his surroundings through the sounds that penetrate their way past his field of vision. The screams, the gunshots, the crackle of the fires and the mechanisms at work; however numb or desensitised Saul has become to the atrocities around him, these sounds are ever present and are inescapable. The innovative use of sound in this film taps into an emotional core that the use of visuals might otherwise have diluted. By focusing the camera on Saul himself in painfully drawn-out sequences we get a staggering insight into the daily terrors of the Nazi extermination camps from the individual’s perspective. For each victim of the extermination camps the Holocaust was a living nightmare that they couldn’t escape and through this format Son of Saul provides us with a petrifying glimpse into that consciousness.

But in the middle of all the anguish, torment and chaos, there is a personal story being told. In a place where people are treated like cattle being herded into rooms to be slaughtered, Saul has made it his mission to ensure that his son is given a proper funeral. What isn’t made clear to the audience however is his reason. Is Saul simply a father trying to save his son’s soul in the only way he can or does it go beyond that? In a world where Saul and his people have been robbed of their identity and culture perhaps holding a Jewish burial for his son is Saul’s way of holding on to his humanity. Living a life of death and suffering where such notions as hope, freedom and compassion have long since been forsaken, perhaps holding this funeral is the only thing that makes sense to Saul in the middle of all the pain and madness. Or perhaps he doesn’t even know why he has to do this; it’s just something that he has to do. Whatever his reasons Saul sets to complete this futile task at whatever the cost with a blind determination that struck me as Sisyphean.

While there have been films that have been able to convey the horror of the Holocaust on a visual level, few have succeeded in portraying it to the viewer on a truly personal level. This is what makes Son of Saul a monumental achievement in cinema. It manages to capture a mentality (or an impression of a mentality) that is communicable to the viewer, one that allows them to comprehend on an emotional level the perpetual state of fear, dread, agony, grief and helplessness shared by the prisoners in the camps. Although they can recall painful memories and reveal deep wounds in our history, it is important for films like Son of Saul to be made. It is only through art that we can remember these stories and learn to understand and identify with them intellectually, spiritually and emotionally so that they might never be forgotten or relived. Son of Saul is a remarkable and devastating film that portrays its subject with deep profundity and affecting humanity.


Captain America: Civil War

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

In order to talk about Civil War, I feel like I first need to talk briefly about Batman v Superman as both films have virtually the same concept. Although I enjoyed Dawn of Justice I felt that the movie suffered from a lack of focus and direction. Snyder, being the great visual director that he is, delivered spectacularly on the action but where he fell short was in the characters’ motivations and the thematic conflict. These elements might have been allowed to flourish had the movie not been so cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos that were immaterial to the central conflict but, alas, it wasn’t the case. This is something that the Russo Brothers clearly understood when they directed Civil War. They understood that character is more important than spectacle; that conflict depends more on motivation than it does on combat; and that a movie can be cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos as long as they exist to serve the central conflict. This is why it is not an exaggeration to say that Civil War is Dawn of Justice done right.

After a mission in Lagos goes badly and results in civilian casualties the government decides to push for a Hero Registration Act to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), feeling guilty for the part he played in Ultron’s creation and Sokovia’s destruction, supports this bill. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) however believes that government supervision would hinder or even compromise his ability to save lives. This disagreement causes a rift between Captain America and Iron Man that is made all the worse when Bucky (Sebastian Stan) resurfaces and commits a terrorist act in Vienna. Determined to bring Bucky in himself and to protect him, Captain America has to work against the government and enlists Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to his cause. It is up to Iron Man to stop him with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Vision (Paul Bettany). This conflict escalates into an all-out war between the two sides with the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) at the centre of it all.

As the summary has probably shown there are a lot of characters in this movie, something that I found to be an issue with Age of Ultron. What makes it work however is that the Russo Brothers, drawing from their experience with such shows as Community, approach this film as an ensemble piece. As the film builds up to its climatic battle between the opposing sides, it masterfully shifts enough of the focus onto each character so that they all have a reason to actually be there. It helps that many of these characters are already familiar to us from the previous films and therefore don’t need any introduction, but still each one is given a motivation that is made clear to us without drawing the focus away from the central conflict. And yet this is a Captain America movie and not an Avengers movie. Although the film makes terrific work of the ensemble at its disposal, the movie belongs to Cap above all others and allows his part in the story to take precedence above all others without making it all about him. The film demonstrates a superb balance in its focus that should make movies like Dawn of Justice blush with shame.

While Civil War is a movie that is very much built on conflict and character, it also boasts of some of the best action that Marvel has ever put on screen. The tunnel chase scene alone is a stunning sequence of intense running, flying, driving, punching, kicking and clawing but it is the airport fight where the film truly shines. Bringing all of these heroes (including Spider-man) together into a single arena and pitting them against each other is epic enough, but the way the film played their different abilities against each other and allowed each character their own moment in the spotlight raised it to a whole new level. The film is full jam-packed with strong action and compelling conflicts but, being a Marvel movie, it also makes room for much humour and light-heartedness. Even when the conflict between Cap and Iron Man escalates in seriousness, watching them fight each other never ceases to be fun.

As far as superhero blockbusters go there is very little to fault. I suppose I could have used a little more focus on the villainous Zemo and perhaps a slightly stronger motivation from him but that’s just a nit-pick. This is as magnificent as a superhero movie can get. When Civil War is compared with Dawn of Justice the contrasts between them are incredibly revealing. Dawn of Justice is what you get when your movie contains little more than impressive action. Civil War succeeds where the Batman v Superman failed by placing its emphases on its characters and employing them to serve the central conflict above all else. Civil War is captivating, immersive, hilarious, action-packed, thrilling, emotional and fun. It is the pinnacle of everything that Marvel does well and is without question one of their finest cinematic offering to date.


The Jungle Book

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks

Of all the Disney movies to be treated to a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is perhaps the most beloved of all. It boasts of unforgettable characters, enjoyable music and a timeless charm, traits which leave little room for improvement. Although I can understand why Disney might want to update some of these tales and introduce them to a new audience, I so far haven’t been sold by any of their attempts. On one end of the spectrum is Cinderella which contains some aspects that were better than the original but also just as many that were worse. On the other end was Alice in Wonderland which completely and fundamentally misunderstood what it was that made the original cartoon (and the books for that matter) good in the first place. The Jungle Book has posed a curious dilemma for me because while there are very few aspects of the film that I’ve found to be worse than the original, there are just as few that I’ve found to be better. I enjoyed the film, there’s no question about that. The trouble is that I’m not sure whether this film should actually exist.

Like the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub”. As an infant Mowgli was found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was taken to the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) where he was raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Years later Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a ferocious tiger with a bitter hatred of men, who swears he will kill the boy. Mowgli agrees to leave for the sake of the pack and runs away with Bagheera. The two are separated when Shere Khan makes his attack, leaving Mowgli stranded in the middle of the jungle. After an encounter with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an enormous python with hypnotic powers, Mowgli falls into the company of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). The two form a friendship as Mowgli agrees to help him make preparations for the winter. Mowgli however remains in great danger as Shere Khan relentlessly continues the hunt for him.

Although the same characters, songs and basic plot as the original cartoon are all present in this movie, it should be noted that it is by no means an exact copy. The Jungle Book offers a slightly different take on the story by drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s original works. Thus the film includes such additions as the Law of the Jungle, details of Mowgli’s backstory and the red flower. There is certainly a degree of weight and significance to the characters’ actions that isn’t present in its predecessor but it doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage. Shere Khan for example is an attempt by the film to combine his literary counterpart, a manipulative brute who wants to rule the jungle, with that of the cartoon, a charming but menacing beast who simply does as he pleases, and the result is a confused character with an inconsistent motivation. I was never sure whether Shere Khan’s ultimate plan was to assert his dominance in the jungle or to simply kill Mowgli. In either case the plan he concocts just doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the confusion with Shere Khan is symptomatic of a certain disharmony in terms of story and tone. The original books, on one hand, are serious in their approach as they tell tightly-structured stories with clear morals while the Disney cartoon, in contrast, is much more light-hearted and is more interested in simply portraying comedic highlights and character interactions than in focusing on its narrative. Both of these stories had clear ideas of what they were. It seems to me this film wants to be the best of both worlds: an enjoyable, daring and adventurous family movie with a serious story complete with comedy, music and darkness. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film fails to blend these two different styles together, there were still moments when I felt it struggled. For example in the scene where Mowgli meets King Louie (played magnificently by Christopher Walken), the character comes across as brutally intimidating and for a moment I was afraid for the little boy. The tone in that scene was then shattered when Louie suddenly burst out with ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, a song that has no business being sung by a ruthless, terrifying giant.

However I’m getting too caught up in the negatives and want to talk about the positives, of which there are a lot. For one thing The Jungle Book could very well be the most visually stunning film of the year with its breathtaking landscapes and astonishingly lifelike animals. The animals may not have the advantage of being as expressive as those in the cartoon but that’s when the voice acting comes in. Whatever my issues with Shere Khan I definitely cannot dispute the menacing charm in Elba’s voice. Murray is also perfectly cast as the lovable Baloo and provides the film with plenty of heart and laughs. The bond he forms with Mowgli is a truly affectionate one and when they sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ together I was grinning from ear to ear. Mowgli himself is played splendidly by newcomer Neel Stehi whose performance is especially praiseworthy considering that he was the only living breathing person actually in front of the camera. That the jungle and the animals in it were able to come to life in this movie is a remarkable achievement in both visual effects and direction.

The one issue that continues to nag at me however is that, as much as I enjoyed this movie, the visuals were the only aspect that I found to be substantially better than the cartoon while the characterisation of Shere Khan was the only part that I found to be worse. The rest of the film, while certainly different in terms of content, still felt more or less the same in terms of the impression it left on me despite its attempts to distinguish itself. The film draws so heavily from the cartoon that I don’t think it’s possible to assess it in isolation and, as enjoyable as this movie could be, there were moments when I felt my enjoyment was inspired more by my nostalgia than by the movie itself. And yet, for children who may not have grown up with the cartoon the way I have, I can absolutely imagine their imaginations being awestruck by the visual spectacle and their hearts being captured by the delightful characters. I’ve tried for so long to reconcile my feelings for this film that I’m not sure I could ever choose a star rating that can truly encompass them. However, in the words of the great Roger Ebert, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”. On that basis I have to give The Jungle Book credit for the enjoyment that I got from watching it, however ambivalently.


Bastille Day

Cast: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Eriq Ebouaney, José Garcia

Director: James Watkins

Writer: Andrew Baldwin

Given the tragedies that Paris has seen in recent months, an action-thriller featuring a terrorist plot in the French capital seems like the last kind of film that any studio would want to release. Bastille Day, which was filmed before either of the attacks on the Bataclan theatre or the Charlie Hebdo offices took place, seems to me to be more a victim of bad timing than anything. This film is at its core a silly but enjoyable action movie and shouldn’t be misconstrued as something it is not. While it may seem a little inappropriate to some, it is just too trivial and meaningless to be offensive. In a way the fact that it was released at all might even be a good thing. It signifies a refusal to be defeated by the tragic events that have befallen Paris and other places like it. While Bastille Day is not nearly smart or sophisticated enough to be anything more than a typical run-of-the-mill thriller, I’m still glad that I was able to watch and enjoy it.

A few days before the French national holiday of Bastille Day a con artist called Michael Mason (Richard Madden) stumbles into a crisis beyond anything he could have imagined when he steals and disposes of a bag containing a bomb. The bomb ends up detonating and killing four people, leading Michael to become a target for the CIA. Leading the investigation is Sean Briar (Idris Elba) who immediately tracks Michael down and takes him into custody following a chase over the rooftops of Paris. During the interrogation Michael manages to convince Sean that he is nothing more than a bystander who was in the wrong place at the wrong time stealing the wrong bag. Realising that he can use a man with Michael’s talents, Sean enlists him to help discover whether the intended explosion is part of a larger plot.

What saves this film from being a bore is that it contains two leads who work well together and who add much energy to the story. What holds it back from being a marvel is that the story itself is quite silly and the action isn’t particularly thrilling. There’s enough going on in this film to hold your attention for about 90 minutes (provided you’re willing to switch off your brain for that time) but certainly not enough to bring you back. The film tries to be socially relevant with its use of revolutionary hashtags and viral videos as the inspiration behind an attempted uprising against the government, an attempt that utterly fails when confronted with logical thinking and common sense. However things like logical thinking and common sense have no place in a film such as this which at its best thrives when you aren’t getting caught up in the implausibility or absurdity of the story. Admittedly overlooking such flaws would doubtless have been easier had the action been more impressive but what action they did have sufficed.

Luckily Idris Elba and Richard Madden are both there to liven things up. Even though they’re both British actors putting on American accents who sound like British actors putting on American accents, they share a chemistry that is most enjoyable to watch on screen. Elba’s character is effectively a simplified, less nuanced version of John Luther; a reckless, belligerent agent who plays by his own rules but who also gets results. It’s fun and all, just don’t expect to see Elba bring his A game. Madden plays a similarly standard character as a swift and nimble pickpocket who keeps getting himself into trouble but who is ultimately noble at heart. Hardly revelatory or groundbreaking stuff but it gets the job done. I enjoyed following these characters as they went about saving the day and they made what was otherwise a generic, run-of-the-mill movie fun and memorable.

A complex and challenging drama Bastille Day is not. It is far-fetched, clichéd and more or less by the numbers. Anyone who expects anything more is watching the wrong film and anyone who expects anything less will, I think, be pleasantly surprised. There is nothing in this film that you will not have seen in a dozen other thrillers, but Elba and Madden are both good enough that the film never quite feels banal or redundant. This is the kind of movie where you can happily switch your brain off for an hour and a half to enjoy some over the top action with a little bit of language and T&A mixed in. While knowledge of the attacks in Paris does inevitably have a dampening effect on this movie, Bastille Day should not be interpreted as any sort of commentary on the subject. It has neither the brains nor the inclination to be that kind of movie. It would be almost like viewing Commando as a representation of the United States Army. Just enjoy it for the trivial, nonsensical action movie that it is.