Stronger

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“Stronger” is directed by David Gordon Green and stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

This film is as much about acceptance, overcoming adversity, and taking ownership of your responsibilities as it is about Jeff’s recovery from a life-changing injury, and Green does well to frame the entire movie around these themes.

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At the start of “Stronger” Jeff is a funny, likeable, care-free man chasing a girl he’s been dating on-and-off for a prolonged period of time. Immediately the idea that Jeff doesn’t show up is planted in the audience’s mind as Erin (played by Tatiana Maslany) cites this as one of the reasons why she recently broke up with him, and it’s this character trait which sparks the conflict of the movie into motion.

In this film just as in real life Jeff goes to the Boston Marathon to cheer Erin on, attempting to displace the aforementioned idea that he isn’t reliable and therefore isn’t a good choice of partner. In doing so his life is altered dramatically as not only does he lose his legs but he also identifies one of the bombers from memory and becomes a local hero in the process.

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This movie works on a number of levels – in one sense it’s a film about coping with a horrific injury and the trauma that comes with that, but in another it’s a story about handling celebrity whilst struggling to keep a stable personal life. It’s a very complex and emotionally affecting drama which is made all the more powerful by two immaculate lead performances from Gyllenhaal and Maslany.

The love story between Jeff and Erin is the thread that ties the film together and it’s worth saying that Maslany is perfect as Erin. Erin is devoted to Jeff throughout the film and loves him sincerely, but before the accident she was tired of putting up with his lack of dependability and although Jeff’s injuries create an obligation for her she’s strong enough to do what’s right for herself regardless of the situation that she’s in.

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She’s a very well-realised and relatable character and she certainly isn’t a plot device in this movie. She doesn’t feel as though she’s there to act as a pawn in Jeff’s story and if anything this is as much a film about her as it is about him – as she points out in the movie Jeff’s injury didn’t just happen to him, it happened to all the people that love him and are there for him every day.

To summarise, “Stronger” is a wonderful movie about a painful event in our recent history and a family’s struggle to recover from something that they never could’ve expected. It tackles its subject matter with care and within the ugliness there’s plenty of joy to be found. The visuals are harrowing, the performances are fantastic, and from start to finish I was emotionally invested in what was happening.

8/10

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Borg vs McEnroe

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“Borg vs McEnroe” is a surprisingly cinematic film which is much prettier than it has any right to be. Colours pop off the screen and strike you with their clarity, although at times the artificially enhanced visuals can take away from the fact that this is a movie designed to interpret true events.

This is an accomplished film with much to enjoy, but there’s a sense in which the technical aspects have to be exceptional in order to make up for a limited narrative. Whilst screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl does well to focus on the mental side of tennis and the pressure that success brings, the margins that this movie sets itself are inescapable. It’s a well-made film with many positive features, but the experience as a whole is very samey.

Nothing stands out beyond the presentation because the story is narrow and ultimately predictable regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with what happened in real life, so it can be difficult to feel invested in the narrative.

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Thankfully, “Borg vs McEnroe” boasts strong performances and thus remains compelling in spite of its flaws, although I would’ve liked Sandahl to explore the psychological conflict at the heart of the titular characters in a more inventive manner.

The characters in this film are developed mainly through exposition and flashbacks; these writing tools are tired and contrived and their inclusion can make the film feel lazy. Mainstream audiences aren’t likely to recognise the shortcuts that the script takes when using these plot devices but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating from my perspective.

There are also points at which certain characters can seem slightly exaggerated which takes away from the realism of a story which is inspired by true events. However, because Shai LaBeouf (McEnroe) and Sverrir Gudnason (Borg) capture the basic flavour of their real-life counterparts this issue is somewhat mollified. The dynamic between the ice-cool Borg and the hot-headed McEnroe is interesting and I appreciated the fact that the two were kept separate for large periods; this made their personalities clear before they were thrust together in the movie’s final act and allowed their characters to feel properly realised.

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In summary, “Borg vs McEnroe” is a limited but well-presented film with good performances and a fascinating real-life story. Framing the narrative around the psychological struggle of being a top sportsman was a smart decision and I enjoyed the movie for what it was, but I felt it could’ve been improved with a few careful tweaks. I would happily recommend it to mainstream audiences and I think that it’s a much better film than its lack of meaningful marketing would suggest, but it wasn’t creative enough to be a great movie.

6.5/10

Mother!

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“Mother!” is a psychological horror film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, the director of the Oscar-nominated “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream”. It stars acting powerhouses such as Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and Ed Harris, and tells the story of a woman who is marginalised in her own home.

The first thing to say regarding this film is that it simply isn’t for everyone. The narrative is abstract and symbolic to the point that it can often seem pretentious and much of what is shown is left up to interpretation.

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However, it’s important to note that the story that’s being told wouldn’t be more compelling if it was presented in a less figurative manner. The issue at play isn’t whether or not the plot should’ve been presented in a more straightforward way; it’s whether or not this kind of film has any sort of narrative value to begin with.

From my perspective this type of filmmaking is exciting and challenges mainstream audiences to consider how narrow their understanding of film as an art form actually is, so although many viewers might leave the cinema thinking that they’ve watched something nonsensical they’ll at least have been tested. Some may even be intrigued enough to widen the scope of the movies that they go to see in the future which in my opinion can only be a good thing.

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Jennifer Lawrence’s presence in “Mother!” will certainly go some way to enticing unsure cinemagoers in and I’m pleased to say that she’s fantastic in this movie. She plays a character (Mother) who is constantly treated poorly and she easily evokes the sympathy that you’re supposed to feel for her. She’s expressive and her performance is committed which makes all the difference to the overall quality of the film because the camera almost exclusively centres on her face.

Most of the shots in “Mother!” track Jennifer Lawrence’s character through her house and they’re carefully framed so that you’re focused on her whilst still being able to make out images on the periphery of your vision.

This works well at the start of the film because many audience members will be of the impression that the experience is going to mirror that of a conventional horror movie, with characters jumping out of the shadows at regular intervals in order to surprise the audience. Of course this isn’t actually the case and the real reason that the film’s cinematography is so captivating is that it forces you to enter Mother’s perspective and experience the events of the film with her, creating an intentionally confusing and disorientating atmosphere.

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On top of the cinematography and the performances the sound design is immaculate as every sound echoes through the cinema. This is perfect for early scenes in which Mother and her partner are alone in the house and it continues to work as characters enter the fray and begin to make the pair’s life together more chaotic. The sound feels as though it’s invading the silence and destroying the tranquillity inside Mother’s home, which makes a great deal of sense when you read about Aronofsky’s intentions for the film.

Nevertheless, whether or not these decisions on Aronofsky’s part create an enjoyable viewing experience is entirely down to the individual. This is the epitome of what people would call a divisive movie and many will detest it for its conceited nature. Personally I found it to be a rewarding and absorbing watch and I feel that the value of the film comes from the way that the narrative is told rather than the direction of the narrative itself, but I will concede that it’s ostentatious and difficult to digest at times.

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Cinematically, “Mother!” is interesting, assured, and constantly engaging. I wouldn’t recommend it to casual cinemagoers but Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are brilliant and they deserve praise for their performances. The narrative is often perplexing and after watching Mother suffer throughout the film the pay-off isn’t necessarily worth the wait, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a movie made by a master of his craft.

8/10

Pro Evolution Soccer 2018

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“Pro Evolution Soccer 2018” is a step backwards for the world’s second most popular console football game. It retains the realistic passing techniques of the last iteration and the quirky non-simulation nature of the series, but it doesn’t move the franchise forward in any discernible way.

Last year’s game was a fun and moreish experience which left you wanting to play another match every time you completed 90 minutes. It wasn’t the most accurate depiction of football as a sport but it was an enjoyable game to play which made up for its peculiar sensibilities.

Unfortunately, this year Konami have attempted to portray a more truthful version of the beautiful game and in doing so have undone much of what worked about “PES 2017”. This game isn’t as entertaining or as easy to play as its predecessor and it isn’t as fluid.

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The best thing about “PES 2017” was its contextual moments, in which players would choose the right technique for a particular pass or shot depending on the situation without requiring the player to insert another input. However, because the game is much slower this year these passes feel idiotic, especially given the fact that the AI react slowly and dwell maddeningly on the ball when in their own defensive area.

Previously I was able to ignore many of the issues that “PES” had – whether it be the AI passing the ball straight to the opposition from free-kicks or playing the ball across their own box – but in a game which feels as though it’s been stunted so that it can transition towards being a football simulator those problems aren’t as easy to swallow.

In many ways this game feels like just that – a transition. It doesn’t feel as though it actually works when you’re playing it and much of the time the experience is a bit of a chore. I can still have a good time when I’m playing on a team with my brother because he makes runs that the defence don’t track and when it gets too easy we can enjoy passing the ball laterally, but when I’m playing on my own there’s very little joy to be had.

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I don’t want to be too hard on this game because “PES” is one of my favourite franchises and I think it gets unfairly overlooked because of licensing issues and graphics which are restricted by a budget, but it’s hard to overlook a game’s flaws when they represent the dismantling of something you love.

For many years “Fifa” has felt the way that “PES” feels this year – a game that has taken a lot from the previous iteration and then tried to change the wrong things. This approach is infuriating for the player, not least because the changes being made aren’t tangible in any positive way.

I want to believe that Konami are taking the game in a new direction (one which feels more deliberate when playing) for the right reasons, but to me it feels as though they’re trying to make a game which is more like “Fifa”. This, in my opinion, is a lost cause.

I’m not “Fifa’s” biggest fan and I’ve made that clear in the past, but Konami can’t compete with EA when it comes to realism or presentation. They have to win on gameplay and offer an experience which feels substantially different to EA’s football behemoth – sadly they haven’t done this with “PES 2018”.

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Of course, there are positives mixed in with my mostly negative comments – the shooting is still satisfying with efforts flying past the keeper from distance, some of the player faces are great, and as previously mentioned most of the techniques are superb. The issue isn’t that “PES 2018” is completely awful or that Konami aren’t trying, it’s that this game’s positive features were all present in the previous game and thus the issues I’ve mentioned make “PES 2018” substantially worse than “PES 2017”.

I wish that I could endorse this game more confidently and delve into a list of positive features but the reality of the matter is that “PES 2018” represents a misstep for Konami and a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the last game great. I have a better time playing the free “Fifa 18” demo than I do playing this £40-£50 game so I can’t recommend it without being disingenuous.

5/10

Game of Thrones: Season Seven Finale – “The Dragon and the Wolf”

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“The Dragon and the Wolf” started in King’s Landing with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) looking down on the Unsullied army. Tensions were high and for the first time in the series you really got the feeling that the Lannisters were the underdogs.

I enjoyed the dialogue in this opening scene because although I don’t think that comedy works particularly well on “Thrones” it’s more effective when it’s used to highlight the fact that characters are nervous and want to talk their worries away. Here you could feel what the characters were feeling and by starting in a subdued fashion the writers eased the audience into an episode which was designed to be incredibly tense.

After two throwaway scenes, (one with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Jon (Kit Harington) and the other with The Hound (Rory McCann)), the episode continued in King’s Landing. Cersei (Lena Headey) spoke briefly to Qyburn (Anton Lesser) before giving The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) instructions on who to kill if something went wrong. It was pretty transparent that this was intended to make the audience wonder whether or not there would be bloodshed at the meeting, but this was okay because it was a viable possibility.

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Next Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) entourage delivered exposition about the Dragonpit before bumping into Bronn and a group of Lannister soldiers. Seeing Pod (Daniel Portman) and Tyrion interact again was nice, as was the exchange between Tyrion and Bronn, but neither of these conversations lasted long enough to really excite me. The same can be said for the moment in which The Hound spoke to Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) about Arya (Maisie Williams), although in my opinion this worked better because it served to show how far The Hound has come since season four.

With the formalities out of the way the episode finally got going as the main characters found themselves together in the Dragonpit. The first thing to note here is that The Hound got a glimpse of The Mountain and all but confirmed Cleganebowl. I enjoyed this moment because it’s going to be important in the future, but the dialogue that Rory McCann was given was a little on the nose for me.

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Then, after a moment of tension, Cersei broke the silence by asking Tyrion if Daenerys had travelled with them. Tyrion told her that she hadn’t which obviously annoyed Cersei, but it wasn’t long before the real Queen of Westeros made her grand entrance. As usual Lena Headey’s facial expressions were perfect in this scene and throughout the episode, and I think every fan of the show would’ve been excited to carry on watching at this point.

Dany then arrived, bringing both her remaining dragons with her and looking like a woman with a purpose. This moment was cool but it annoyed me slightly because it would’ve been smarter on Daenerys’ part if she’d brought just one of her dragons so as to keep Viserion’s death a secret. Nevertheless, I liked the fact that Cersei was unmoved by the dragons because this made the reveal of the wight more impactful later in the episode, and I thought that Emilia Clarke was commanding when she appeared on screen.

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Euron (Pilou Asbæk) then spoke up and was typically irritating, telling Tyrion that his kind aren’t allowed on the Iron Islands. I’m not sure why Tyrion didn’t respond to this because he’s a quick witted character and I imagine that the writers could’ve got some clever dialogue out of this interaction, but at least Euron was featured in this episode because we haven’t seen him in a while.

Tyrion and Jon then tried to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation, but Cersei quickly put them down. Her logic made sense given that in the South the White Walkers are nothing but imaginary monsters used to scare naughty children before bed, but obviously her resistance was tiring because we know that she’s wrong.

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The wight reveal came next and was brilliantly effective, although it was silly that the wight was chained up just enough so that Cersei was out of its reach. Nobody had the opportunity to test the distance that the wight was able to run and this coincidence broke my immersion. Still, Lena Headey sold Cersei’s fear impeccably and this made her lie later in the episode more believable.

Part of me would’ve liked Cersei to simply accept the truce that Daenerys was offering and get on with fighting the White Walkers because this would’ve been a real surprise and changed the direction of the series, but I concede that this wouldn’t have been fully believable. The showrunners have spent the best part of seven seasons developing Cersei’s character and an act of nobility wouldn’t have made sense at this point given that development.

I’m not going to talk about Cersei’s ultimatum with regards to Jon’s allegiances in any great detail, because although this moment set up later scenes I didn’t think that it was very compelling. This request from Cersei was there purely to prolong the tension and from where I was sitting it felt somewhat forced. Jon was rightly berated for his stupidity and for making the same mistake that Ned (Sean Bean) made in season one, but he also displayed a strength of character which the world will need going forward if the right people end up on the Iron Throne.

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When the episode finally left the Dragonpit we were treated to one of my favourite scenes of season seven, in which Tyrion tried to convince Cersei to fight alongside Daenerys. For the first time in a long time Peter Dinklage was allowed to show off his considerable talents, delivering his dialogue with passion and believability, and as was so often the case in the early seasons he played off Lena Headey beautifully. Both Cersei and Tyrion brought up the past and their hopes for the future and at one point I really did think that Cersei might have him killed for the fun of it.

The presence of The Mountain made the scene almost unbearable to watch because at this point Tyrion’s death would be a real gut-punch, and I thought that the end result of Cersei pretending to side with Daenerys was interesting. When Cersei announced that she was going to fight with Daenerys I initially thought that the dialogue was clunky and too honourable coming from such a detestable villain, but on a re-watch it actually works really well because this type of wording fits with the fact that she was lying.

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At around the halfway point this episode turned its attention from King’s Landing to Winterfell and began to deteriorate in quality. I was enjoying the episode up until this point but once again I found Littlefinger’s (Aidan Gillen) behaviour quite tedious. For someone who has been telling Sansa (Sophie Turner) to fight all of her battles in her mind before they happen he was so overconfident and idiotic in this episode. His strategy was to force Sansa to think the worst of Arya in order to take the latter out of the picture, but surely he must have realised that his advice extended to him as well.

This is an issue with the writing and the characterisation of Littlefinger but it’s pretty obvious that it’s the former which causes the latter. Up until this point Littlefinger has pulled all the strings and has been a master of manipulation so it baffles me that he’s become so lazy late in the game. It seems to me that the writers simply ran out of ideas for what to do with the character and wanted to give the Stark children a moment of triumph, but surely this could’ve been achieved in a more believable way?

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The most effective way to kill Littlefinger off would’ve been to have him survive The Great War and be left in a world that he couldn’t bend to his own liking. Imagine how much more impactful it would’ve been to see Littlefinger out of his comfort zone in a world run by honourable people like Dany, Jon and Tyrion. He could’ve still been executed just as he was in this episode but the difference would’ve been that it would’ve served his arc as much as it served his killer’s. That wasn’t the case here, and all this moment did was make a great character look foolish.

I get the basic idea behind the death because Littlefinger was in an unsalvageable situation. Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) knew everything about him so he couldn’t deceive Sansa in the way that he might’ve been able to if Bran wasn’t there, but if this was the plan all along then Littlefinger could’ve at least been portrayed as dismissive towards Bran’s powers. Earlier in the season Bran told Littlefinger that ‘chaos is a ladder’, revealing the fact that he knew more than he was supposed to. This should’ve raised a red flag for Littlefinger because as previously mentioned he fights every battle in his mind before it happens, but for some unknown reason he disregarded it.

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Back at Dragonstone Daenerys spoke to her advisers about how she planned to travel to the North, deciding to make her way there by ship rather than by dragon (mainly so that she could be closer to Jon Snow). Then Theon (Alfie Allen) had the chance to speak to Jon and essentially revealed the conflict at the heart of his character to the audience. This was a redemption scene for the character so it was a shame that it happened so quickly and out of the blue. The writers don’t have enough time to properly explore Theon’s attempted rescue of Yara (Gemma Whelan) at this point so in my opinion they shouldn’t bother. With six episodes left they can leave Theon aside because his arc has been good and although it might not be completely finished there’s no reason to ruin it in the same way that Littlefinger’s has been ruined.

After Littlefinger’s death scene which I’ve already explored “The Dragon and the Wolf” went back to King’s Landing. Jaime and Cersei finally had it out and Jaime’s arc progressed nicely. He wouldn’t break the promise that he made earlier in the episode to fight alongside Dany against the White Walkers and he finally disobeyed Cersei. His reasoning was sound, as was Cersei’s in its own deluded way, and both actors gave powerful performances. You could see the disgust on Jaime’s face and the realisation of what his sister really is, and Lena Headey was as awesome at playing an arrogant bully as she’s always been.

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When Cersei threatened to have Jaime killed I believed that it might happen and I was frightened by the possibility – I thought this might be the token shock moment in the finale and I was genuinely worried that one of my favourite characters was going to die. Jaime’s arc has been building to this point for a very long time and this was a suitably well-executed scene which was topped off by the fact that it began to snow in King’s Landing as he left. I’m excited to see what Jaime does next season – hopefully he’ll team up with Bronn to fight the White Walkers – and I thought that this was a superb scene.

Finally, the season closed with two contrasting sequences. The contrast that I’m talking about is a contrast in quality rather than a contrast of themes, as the Daenerys/Jon sex scene was silly but the destruction of The Wall was magnificent.

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Bran’s narration over the top of the sex scene cheapened it significantly and it felt like it was only there to make sure that less attentive audience members realised the importance of Jon’s ancestry. The fact that Jon and Dany are now an item is great and I’m sure that casual fans were excited by this, but I care about how the episodes are executed rather than whether or not the narrative goes in a direction which suits the protagonists. In this scenario the narrative was fitting but the execution was disappointing, so I didn’t like the scene.

It’s a good thing then that it was followed by a spectacular moment to end the episode and the season. Arya and Sansa had a quick chat before Bran warged into a raven to cast his eye on Eastwatch. There Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) looked out beyond the Wall to see the Army of the Dead marching in formation, followed by the harrowing sight of the Night King (Richard Brake) flying towards him on Viserion’s back.

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From there it was only a matter of time before The Wall came crashing down, and when it did I have to say that I was impressed. Viserion breathing blue fire was a nice touch because the fact that wights can be killed by fire would’ve made a conventional flame a little confusing, and I thought that the CGI in this scene was wonderful. I’m sure that this moment will be played many times on adverts building up to next season and I think it’s one of the best things the series has done to date, so it deserves a lot of praise even if the rest of the episode was fairly underwhelming.

Overall, “The Dragon and the Wolf” was a decent season finale but it certainly wasn’t the best that “Thrones” has had to offer. The final sequence was visually outstanding and season eight is well-poised, but the pacing of this episode wasn’t perfect. I enjoyed every scene in King’s Landing, particularly the interactions between Cersei and her brothers, but events at Winterfell were frustrating. “The Dragon and the Wolf” did nothing to hide the issues that have plagued season seven as a whole but it did leave me excited to see where the story will go next.

7.5/10

Logan Lucky

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“Logan Lucky” is an American crime comedy directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”); starring Channing Tatum (“Foxcatcher”), Adam Driver (“Frances Ha”), and Daniel Craig (“Layer Cake”). I would describe “Logan Lucky” as a heist movie with moments of comedy rather than a comedy which depicts a heist, because although it’s funny in places it doesn’t constantly throw jokes at the audience.

The heist itself is well thought out and you can tell that Soderbergh knows how to craft a film of this ilk, but the twists and turns in the movie aren’t particularly compelling because there’s no persuasive reason to care about the characters.

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In order to make Jimmy Logan – this film’s protagonist played by Channing Tatum – likeable Soderbergh does the typical Hollywood thing of giving him a child. Usually this is designed to artificially make the lead character relatable because almost everyone has/had a family and therefore can relate to the parent-child dynamic. Unfortunately this doesn’t work in “Logan Lucky” because the relationship between Jimmy and his child isn’t carefully explored and it doesn’t feel as though he’s doing the heist to make his daughter’s life better.

There’s a suggestion that Jimmy plans the heist because his ex-wife (played by Katie Holmes) wants to move across state lines with his daughter, but it isn’t clear whether or not this would be a bad thing for the child. Essentially Jimmy has a conversation with his ex-wife which ends in the revelation that she plans to leave town. Jimmy isn’t happy about this and so he threatens to get a lawyer, presumably to fight for custody. The implication is that he needs money to do this which leads to the heist, but because Bobbie Jo (Jimmy’s ex-wife) isn’t particularly dislikeable or antagonistic you don’t feel as though the child would be any worse off without her father; therefore the heist feels selfish rather than necessary.

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Of course, Jimmy doesn’t have to be likeable for this movie to work. “Logan Lucky” would’ve been fine if it had been a witty and action-packed heist movie but slow pacing and a lack of conflict means that it falls flat. There are moments of comedy such as when a group of prison inmates take hostages and demand a copy of George R. R. Martin’s unwritten “Winds of Winter” before agreeing to release them, but a couple of good jokes don’t make up for a largely uneventful film.

Almost all the performances in “Logan Lucky” are acceptable and the cast is excellent on the whole: Adam Driver and Daniel Craig are great, Channing Tatum and Riley Keough (“It Comes at Night”) are perfectly serviceable, and Brian Gleeson (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and Jack Quaid (“The Hunger Games”) play likeable side characters. However, the actors’ efforts don’t translate to an entertaining movie because nothing brings individual elements such as the script and the cinematography together in an exciting way.

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It’s clear that Soderbergh cares about the presentation of “Logan Lucky” and by all accounts it’s a visually interesting film, but he doesn’t do enough to bring clarity to the narrative. The film has three clearly defined acts; the set-up, the heist, and the aftermath. The first two acts work well and although the pacing is slightly arduous my perception of the movie would’ve been positive if I’d left the cinema once the heist was complete, but sadly the third act lacks direction, is predictable, and bafflingly introduces new characters!

From the moment the heist finishes to the time the credits roll “Logan Lucky” is a pain to watch. Soderbergh comprehensively destroys the rest of the movie in the space of 30 minutes and makes you wish you hadn’t bothered buying a ticket in the first place, so it’s hard to say that the overall product is good.

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I feel that the best way to describe “Logan Lucky” is confused. The performances, dialogue, and cinematography are great but it doesn’t entertain and nothing about it is special. The third act is completely forgettable and audience members would be forgiven for falling asleep before the end which makes it a difficult movie to praise. “Logan Lucky” certainly isn’t awful and parts of it are done well, but nothing about it is exceptional so I would advise that you give it a miss.

5/10

Game of Thrones: Season Seven, Episode 6 – “Beyond the Wall”

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“Beyond the Wall” is the penultimate episode of the penultimate season of “Game of Thrones”. After a season of middling quality it was important to move the plot forward and make a step-up in quality prior to next week’s finale, so I’m pleased to say that this episode was my favourite of the season so far.

However, the fact that I preferred it to the rest of the episodes in season seven doesn’t mean that I think it was perfect, and in fact there are numerous issues with it that are only mollified by the episode’s climax.

“Beyond the Wall” began in the eponymous location, with our band of misfit heroes venturing into the snow on a mission to capture a wight. Several conversations took place between the likes of Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), Jon (Kit Harington) and The Hound (Rory McCann), and although most of them were used as exposition I still appreciated them for what they were. Tormund advised Jon to bend the knee to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), using Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds) as an example of where an over reliance on pride can leave you, and he also had an interaction with The Hound later on which I particularly enjoyed.

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The episode then turned its attention to Winterfell. Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) continued to bicker despite the fact that not long ago they were laughing together in the crypts, and once again their presence brought the episode down in quality. Maisie Williams’ acting in this scene was atrocious – I don’t think I’ve ever singled her out for criticism before in a “Thrones” review because I think she’s good at her job and also quite likeable, but her delivery here was artificial and she wasn’t believable at all.

The thing that’s so jarring about the scenes between Arya and Sansa at this point is that in every conversation they have I come out on Sansa’s side, which is laughable because Arya is trying to protect Jon whereas Sansa is being influenced by Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). We should find Arya entertaining and enjoy the fact that she’s being so ruthless, especially given that she’s doing things for the right reasons, but she’s always wrong and she doesn’t give Sansa a chance to explain herself! I couldn’t care less about this storyline at this point and the constant tease that Arya might kill Sansa makes it abundantly clear that by the time the season is over they’ll be friends again and Littlefinger will be dead.

With that scene out of the way the episode focused once again on its main attraction, with Tormund and The Hound having the conversation which I previously praised. Tormund expressed his infatuation with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), with The Hound picking up on who exactly he was talking about and thus looking mildly annoyed. I thought this was a funny moment and the dialogue worked because somehow Tormund has become one of the most endearing characters on the show.

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Next we were also treated to a conversation between Beric (Richard Dormer) and Jon in which they bonded over being brought back from the dead and explained that there is only one real enemy; death itself. Again I thought this was a decent interaction and I had a fun time watching it play out. I’m a fan of Richard Dormer in this role and I think that Beric is an interesting character who I’d like to see more of. For me the only issue here was that conversations continued to take place between pairs of characters rather than the whole group, because generally this is a cheap and easy way of developing characters in isolation. It’s something that “The Walking Dead” did a lot of in its early seasons and I was annoyed by it then so it would be inconsistent not to complain about it now.

Following this scene, Daenerys and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) appeared for the first time in the episode and spoke about what it means to be a hero. Dany said that the thing she liked about Tyrion was that he wasn’t one, but she also said that he wasn’t a coward because she wouldn’t have chosen a coward as her Hand. These two work well together on screen so this was another moment that I enjoyed, but I’m not sure whether or not I can fully buy into the idea of Jon and Dany being in love after such a short period of time.

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Nevertheless, Tyrion’s logic when it came to how Daenerys should empathise with her enemies in order to defeat them was sound and I thought it was interesting that he brought up succession in an episode so close to the series’ end. What exactly this means going forward is up for debate, but it seems to me that either the showrunners were teasing the idea that Dany will die before the series finishes or more likely that she will have a child with Jon Snow. Either way this conversation was well written and it generated interest from me about where Daenerys’ character is headed in season eight.

Back beyond the Wall things quickly became perilous as the weather took a turn for the worse. In the distance a bear could be seen wandering the winter wilderness when suddenly it turned to look at Jon and his men with bright blue eyes. Whether or not they would’ve actually been able to make out the colour of the bear’s eyes in the middle of a snow storm is certainly questionable, but the idea of starting the action off with this kind of mini boss battle was a good one and I thought it was a cool scene. I was slightly confused by the fact that people ended up getting killed randomly, because prior to this scene I didn’t realise that there were nameless characters within the group. When people started dying I thought that important characters were being discarded which was made worse by a lack of visibility.

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My biggest complaint about this scene was that Thoros (Paul Kaye) survived the bear attack because it clearly took a major bite out of his chest. If the bear had swiped at Thoros with its claws rather than biting him then I could’ve accepted his survival, but given the nature of the attack I thought it was particularly stupid that he managed to live when the plan was to have him die later in the episode anyway.

When this was over the showrunners once again tried to fool gullible members of the audience into believing that the Arya/Sansa conflict might go somewhere. Littlefinger tried to turn Sansa against Arya and suggested that Brienne could intercede on Sansa’s behalf if Arya became volatile. This in itself was an intriguing idea, but for people paying attention it was quashed later in the episode when Sansa sent Brienne to King’s Landing in her stead.

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Cersei (Lena Headey) had requested that Sansa return to the capital, presumably to hear about the threat of the White Walkers from Jon and Dany, but being the suspicious person that she is Sansa decided to send someone else in her place. By sending Brienne the writers effectively told the audience that Sansa didn’t believe that she needed to be protected from Arya, and thus wasn’t listening to Littlefinger. This destroyed any tension that audience members may have been feeling after the earlier scenes at Winterfell and also made the last scene that took place there (which I’ll get onto later) feel incredibly contrived.

The episode continued to shine during scenes which took place beyond the Wall, as the group finally made their move to kidnap a soldier from the Army of the Dead. The cinematography leading up to this moment was quite nice and the music was also good, ramping up the tension when the time came for Jon and his men to attack a White Walker and his minions. The main takeaway from this scene was that when you kill a White Walker you also kill every wight that they’ve brought back from the dead. This was a major reveal and explained how it will be possible to defeat the Night King (Richard Brake) in the long run, but what wasn’t explained was why this didn’t happen back at Hardhome in season five.

The scene only got more exciting from this point as Jon and the others tried to tie a wight up and take it back to Eastwatch. The wight didn’t seem to appreciate being manhandled and thus proceeded to screech, alerting masses of his friends to charge on the group and leave them exposed in the middle of a frozen lake. This was a tense moment which got my blood pumping and left me ready for more from the episode, and I thought that the special effects were superb.

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My only issue with this scene was that by sending Gendry (Joe Dempsie) back to Eastwatch the writers made it too obvious that Daenerys was going to rescue the group. I understand why this choice was made because somebody had to alert her to the situation for the climax to make sense, but it would’ve been more impactful if we knew that Gendry was on his way back but didn’t see him make it there safely.

With the group surrounded they began to wonder how they could possibly survive, particularly given the extreme weather conditions and lack of food, and to press this point home the writers decided that now was the time for Thoros to die. I know why this decision was made and I thought that it was smart to kill Thoros in order to make the rest of the characters more vulnerable – given that Thoros could’ve brought them back from the dead – but for me it would’ve been better if he’d died when the bear attacked him rather than when his death wasn’t the focal point of the scene.

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After a brief visit to Winterfell, (which I’ve already touched upon), the action continued as The Hound threw rocks at the wights in frustration. The first rock that The Hound threw hit a wight on the jaw and shattered the bottom half of its face, but the second rock ended up doing more damage to our heroes than it did to the wights. The Hound’s throw fell short and as it hit the ice it bounced forward and came to a stop. This was followed by a moment of silence in which both the audience and the characters came to the same realisation, which was that the ice was sturdy enough to walk on and therefore the wights could start to attack.

The problem that I had with this scene, and indeed with the rest of the scenes beyond the Wall, was that the wights didn’t attack with any kind of cohesion. They attacked the heroes separately, as though they wanted the fight to be fair, when what they should’ve done was swarm on Jon and his men as a group and overrun them. There were hundreds of wights in frame at one point and yet when it came to the battle it felt like the heroes were always in control, which from my perspective was nonsensical and destroyed my immersion.

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Eventually Daenerys made her grand entrance and began to even the odds, but by this point any sense of tension had evaporated because it was clear that the writers had no intention of killing off any of the human characters. Daenerys’ timing was incredibly convenient, and it seemed silly to me that she didn’t immediately fry the Night King because the blue man with the spear orchestrating the battle should’ve been her first target!

However, I will concede that the effects were amazing especially given that this is a television show and not a studio movie, and Dany’s outfit looked fantastic. Once my initial frustration at the convenience of Dany’s entrance dissipated I began to appreciate what I was watching again, and I was genuinely shocked when the Night King killed Viserion. For me this was easily the best moment of the season and the only moment so far that I believe has been truly exceptional. Emilia Clarke’s acting was awesome in this scene, as it has been all season, and I think that Daenerys is as likeable now as she was back in season one.

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The episode then devolved slightly as the writers tried to trick the audience into believing that Jon was going to be left behind, because although this could’ve been a frightening moment it never felt as though it was actually going to happen. The fact that Benjen (Joseph Mawle) appeared out of nowhere to save the day was irritating and just didn’t seem plausible, and I was waiting for the episode to move on at this point. I also thought that it was ridiculous that Benjen stayed behind to fight the wights because he only killed about three of them before being murdered mercilessly. He could’ve easily fit on the horse beside Jon and this wouldn’t have harmed the moment in any way whatsoever!

Once Jon reappeared at Eastwatch the episode took its final trip to Winterfell for what was undoubtedly the worst scene of “Beyond the Wall” and one of the worst the show has ever produced. Sansa searched Arya’s bag and found the faces of some of Arya’s victims, which lead to Arya explaining where she’s been and what she’s become. The faces looked awful and the scene was completely devoid of tension because if Arya had actually killed Sansa at this point the reaction from the audience would’ve been disgust rather than shock. Nothing about this scene was good and I can’t wait for the season to end so that we can be done with this storyline.

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Finally, Daenerys walked in on Jon as he was being treated at Eastwatch, seeing his scars for the first time and realising what he’s been through. Once he awoke the pair had a brief conversation about their intentions going forward and Jon agreed to bend the knee. He said that the rest of the North would ultimately see Daenerys for what she really is, leading to a momentary embrace between the two and the clear indication that they will eventually become intimate. I enjoyed this scene and I thought that Emilia Clarke was excellent, but for me Kit Harington gave an underwhelming performance.

The episode then concluded with a significant moment in the narrative as the Night King placed his hand on Viserion’s head and brought him back to life. This moment has a number of connotations, with the main one being that the White Walkers now have a one way ticket to Westeros. Viserion is capable of bringing down The Wall with fire or even carrying the wights over himself, making their invasion inevitable next season or even at the end of this one.

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Overall I thought that “Beyond the Wall” was a fun episode of “Thrones” but it was also a problematic one. The narrative was riddled with plot holes and the scenes at Winterfell were miserably bad, with Arya and Sansa both coming across as naïve and idiotic. Fortunately the episode came into its own when it ventured further North and big moments such as Viserion’s death elevated it substantially. I had a good time watching it, but people who claim that this episode was the best of the series so far either don’t understand what made “Thrones” great or they aren’t really paying attention.

8/10

The Dark Tower

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“The Dark Tower” is a film adaptation of Stephen King’s series of novels by the same name. It stars respected actors such as Idris Elba (“Luther”) and Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”), as well as English child actor Tom Taylor (“Doctor Foster”), and was intended to launch a film and television franchise.

“The Dark Tower” is an awkward film to review because although it gets almost everything wrong its inadequacy isn’t offensive. I wasn’t upset or angered by the mistakes that director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”) made; I was merely disinterested because his inability to tell an interesting story was clear from the outset.

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This film had potential, but to get the most out of it there was always going to have to be a degree of invention on the part of the director. Unfortunately, this movie is completely devoid of anything resembling an original thought, and any potential that the narrative had was monumentally squandered from the moment the movie began. From the outset the presentation was immensely uninspired, lacking any kind of imagination or personality, and I didn’t feel as though Arcel had any love for the material that he was adapting.

Characters and concepts were thrust at the audience without so much as an inkling as to why we should care about them, and every aspect of the movie felt like a rehash of elements taken from better films. The characters are just there, much like everything else in the film, and there’s nothing special or interesting about them to create a feeling of investment.

The protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who for some unknown reason has the ability to see into another world (Mid-World) through his dreams. Due to nothing other than narcissism Jake comes to the conclusion that his dreams have significance, believing that the events taking place in his visions are causing earthquakes in the real world, and we as an audience are expected to believe this.

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Jake is immediately dislikeable because the writers don’t give us a reason to sympathise with him when people dismiss his warnings. There’s nothing exceptional about him which dictates that we should believe what he’s saying – other than the fact that we’ve read the film’s synopsis – and his ramblings are consistent with those of a child with an overactive imagination! When reading a book this isn’t overly jarring because you’re constantly confined to one characters’ perspective and you can identify with their situation because you’re explicitly told how they’re feeling, but in a movie you have to make a character likeable before expecting people to care about what’s happening to them.

Jake’s mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), is a much more relatable character than her son because she responds to his hyperactive imaginings in a logical way… by trying to put him in an asylum. Jake is being irrational and he needs help, so when Laurie tries to get him the help that he needs we don’t feel sorry for him or hope that he can somehow make an escape!

The reason that I’m making this point is that the first act ends with Jake running from monsters pretending to be workers from a psychiatric facility, in a scene which should’ve been triumphant for the character. However, because we don’t like or care about Jake we don’t want him to run away; we want him to get caught so that we can enjoy some action in a movie which lacks any kind of emotion.

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Herein lies the main problem of “The Dark Tower”, which is that the plot consistently takes the most boring avenue towards its conclusion. The most exciting direction that the plot could’ve taken at this point would’ve been to have Jake wheeled off to the asylum by the monsters because this would’ve created tension and allowed us to get a proper look at the villains of the film, thus giving us a reason to root for the protagonist. Instead, Jake ran from the supposedly threatening monsters and found a way to Mid-World on his own, rather than simply being taken there by the monsters and then escaping their grasps.

These kinds of issues are present throughout the first act, with the set-up of the film asking questions which are never answered. The start of the film could’ve been extended by another 30 minutes and it wouldn’t have suffered as a whole, and I have to ask myself what the writers thought they were achieving by skipping character development in the first act in order to focus on lacklustre action during the second and third acts.

Another issue which arises right at the start of the movie pertains to the titular tower. The tower is nothing more than a McGuffin and it doesn’t feel significant because we have no idea where it is geographically or why it requires a child to destroy it. Who made it? Why is it the key to the universe? Why should I care about it? If I don’t know anything about it and also have no reason to empathise with the film’s protagonist then how am I supposed to become even minimally invested in the narrative?

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The Man in Black (the film’s main villain, played by Matthew McConaughey) is also underdeveloped and never feels like a threat because he’s always outside the main story. McConaughey’s performance is fine for what it is, but calling a performance fine in this film isn’t a compliment. I was constantly aware of the fact that I was watching McConaughey play a character, and at no point did I look at him and feel intimidated or enthralled.

The sad thing about “The Dark Tower” is that none of the performances from the main cast are actually awful. They’re definitely bland, but none of the actors are afforded the opportunity to be anything more than that because they’re stunted by a woefully ordinary script!

At the end of the day there’s nothing exceptional or even passable about “The Dark Tower”. It takes liberties with its story, the cinematography is uninspired, and the characters are underdeveloped. The material lends itself to an entertaining film – there’s a road-movie, a fantasy epic, and even a young adult film within this awfully tedious science-fiction western – and any one of those movies would’ve been infinitely better than this one. The only positive thing that I can say about “The Dark Tower” is that it wasn’t compelling enough to frustrate me with its inadequacy, which isn’t exactly a glowing recommendation. Do yourself a favour and don’t bother paying to see this movie – if you’re interested in the material then there are eight books written by a brilliant author that you can read at home.

2/10

A Ghost Story

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“A Ghost Story” is a haunting supernatural drama film directed by David Lowery (director of 2016’s “Pete’s Dragon”). The film stars two exceptional actors in Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”), with the latter wearing a bedsheet for the majority of the movie.

It’s very easy to explain the basic premise of “A Ghost Story” – a man, played by Casey Affleck, dies at the start of the film and we watch him live the lonely life of a ghost. It’s a simple idea but David Lowery gets the most out of it by capturing the implicit horror of such an isolated existence. The conditions of the man’s existence after death are never fully explained – we don’t see his face because he’s covered by a sheet, we don’t know if time moves at the same speed for him as it does for us, and we don’t know if by the end of the movie he even remembers who he is or why he’s still here – and that’s part of the film’s charm.

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“A Ghost Story” doesn’t pretend to know any more about the afterlife than we do – it doesn’t present a viable possibility, it simply explores what life as a ghost would be like. The existence that this film portrays is a miserable one, and although Casey Affleck doesn’t have much opportunity to emote under his sheet you feel the man’s pain throughout. If anything the fact that the man is covered by the sheet actually adds emotion to the film, because it highlights his inability to interact meaningfully with the world around him and accentuates the hopelessness of his situation. Every time the man slumps down or is on his knees the sheet crumples with him and his movements are deliberate as it sways behind him when he moves. It’s astoundingly effective despite its simplicity and it gives the film more gravitas than it would’ve had if the man had existed in the same physical state as he did before he died.

This film is visually fantastic throughout and this together with the score makes the whole experience quite emotional. The start of the movie was exceedingly smart because the way that the relationship between the man and the woman was depicted was much more honest than the norm. Throughout the film scenes are allowed to drag on – we don’t cut away when the point of a scene is revealed; instead we act as voyeurs, invading the private moments of people who are struggling to exist. The two most powerful scenes of the movie for me would be completely disregarded in a less intelligent film, but in this one they’re allowed to linger on screen and in the audience’s memory.

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The first of these scenes occurs before the man loses his life and it goes a long way to creating a degree of investment in the relationship that the film revolves around. The woman (Rooney Mara) and the man (Casey Affleck) wake in the middle of the night after they hear something bang on their piano. They get up but there’s nothing there – no one has broken in and nothing seems to have fallen to cause the noise. We as the audience suspect that the noise was made by a ghost because we know what the film is called, but the couple isn’t in the know so they go back to bed and embrace. They’re tired and shaken so they take comfort in one another, and we’re afforded the chance to watch them kiss for what seems like minutes. When watching this scene you really do feel invasive, but once it’s done you know all that you need to know about the couple to be invested.

The second scene comes shortly after the man’s death and focuses on the woman as she tries to cope with her grief. It’s not an eventful scene but it’s incredibly poignant – the woman sits on the floor of her kitchen eating a pie which a friend has made for her, clearly loathing every bite. She manages to eat most of it as she sniffles and sighs, before putting it down and running to the toilet to be sick. I think the effective thing about this scene is not merely that it occupies the screen for a very long time but also that it accurately depicts what it’s like to go on living when you lose someone you love. The woman doesn’t want to eat but at the same time she doesn’t know what else to do; she’s absent from the moment, going through the motions, but at the same time she’s trying to feel something other than sadness which for me rings true when it comes to coping with loss.

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The power that these scenes have wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for two outstanding performances from Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. Neither actor is actually present on screen for a great deal of time but their performances are sincere and without this the movie wouldn’t work. They bring emotion to a film which otherwise would’ve been pretentious and they become their characters almost immediately.

Before concluding this review I have to admit that one scene did disappoint me quite a bit, and although it didn’t ruin the experience it brought the film down in my estimation. This scene failed because it fell into the trap that the rest of the movie managed to avoid, which is that it turned to the audience and told them what they were supposed to feel. it was a hollow and unnecessary scene which felt completely out of place in such a thoughtful piece of cinema, and when watching it I couldn’t help but think that it was the director’s way of saying ‘look how clever I am’ to the audience.

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The scene that I’m talking about is the most dialogue heavy moment in the movie, as a nameless character essentially delivers exposition regarding the film’s message and sets up what’s to come in the third act. It frustrated me that this scene wasn’t cut during the editing process because it seemed so obviously superfluous, and the only way to explain its presence in the film is to say that the director didn’t trust all members of the audience to understand the point of the narrative. In telling the audience what they’re supposed to feel you devalue the experience because you’re expressing a lack of confidence in their intelligence and your ability to convey meaning, and in this case it’s impossible to disregard the purpose of the scene because it directly opposes everything that the movie did well up until that point.

This criticism may seem slightly excessive when talking about such a technically sound film but once the scene had finished I spent the next ten minutes questioning how it made it into the final product, and thus my immersion was broken. Thankfully the film quickly transitioned back to being brilliant again so I was able to continue enjoying it once I let my irritation dissipate, but if this scene had been omitted “A Ghost Story” would’ve been close to a perfect film.

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Nevertheless, one bad scene doesn’t extinguish everything that this movie does well. Of all the films that I’ve seen this year “A Ghost Story” is the most interesting and perhaps the most complex, not simply in concept but in how Lowery tackles that concept. The more I think about it the more infatuated I am with it, and I will definitely buy it on DVD when it’s released later this year/early next year.

8.5/10

The Big Sick

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“The Big Sick” is a romantic comedy produced by Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and co-written by Emily V. Gordon (writer for “The Carmichael Show”) and Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”). The film loosely tells the real-life story of how Gordon and Nanjiani met and fell in love – with Nanjiani playing a version of himself – and the title refers to an illness which left Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) in a coma after a rocky spell in the pair’s relationship.

“The Big Sick” could’ve easily been another average comedy destined for the bargain bin but honest performances and a strong script elevate it to a level which is rarely achieved in the genre. The fact that the story was close to the hearts of both Nanjiani and Gordon undoubtedly helped on this front as there’s a sincerity to Nanjiani’s performance and also to the script. In the film none of the characters are perfect but they’re all decidedly human and their mistakes stem from intentions that we can all relate to and understand which in turn makes them extremely likeable.

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Kumail and Emily are a couple that you can invest in and you can understand their motivations enough to route for them. The performances of Nanjiani and Kazan go a long way to achieving this because they seem to have genuine chemistry on screen and their relationship doesn’t feel forced or contrived. The first half of the film belongs to Kazan and you’re always on Emily’s side from the moment that she’s introduced, but she’s in a coma for most of the second half which allows Nanjiani to come into his own.

Narratively this film doesn’t shock or surprise you but you’re always worried that it will. You want the stars to align for Kumail and Emily and you’re concerned by every moment of adversity that they face. The likeability of both characters creates tension without the need to take the story to a place that feels unrealistic or manufactured which in itself makes the film better than most romantic comedies.

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What I enjoyed most about this film was that it didn’t overdo anything, because there are plenty of opportunities to focus too heavily on Nanjiani’s Pakistani roots or his stand-up comedy. We do get a flavour of both of these things and they’re important to the film’s narrative, but they’re there to service Nanjiani as a character and they aren’t overwhelming.

The only issue that I had with “The Big Sick” was that the ending was slightly predictable. I completely understand and accept this because at the end of the day the reality of the story has to shine through, but part of me would’ve preferred a “La La Land” style ending rather than the traditional one that the writers went for. The ending still worked but I left the theatre wondering what could’ve been if the film wasn’t beholden to what happened in the real world.

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It’s hard to talk excessively about “The Big Sick” because there’s nothing to focus on narratively that sets it apart from any other rom-com. However, the performances make the characters incredibly loveable and because of this you find yourself enjoying the experience and caring about what happens to them. The script is solid and the jokes hit most of the time which makes for an entertaining movie. I can’t fault any particular aspect of the film because for me there was nothing wrong with it that could’ve been fixed without ruining what made it great. I’ve mentioned that the story is predictable but it’s based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s real-life experiences and it’s the honesty that stems from this which makes the film exceptional, so to change it would be nonsensical. The fact that it’s a rom-com which doesn’t break the mould makes it difficult for me to give it a perfect score, and it isn’t my favourite film of the year, but it’s about as good as it possibly could’ve been.

9.5/10