Borg McEnroe

borg-mcenroe-poster* * *

Hot on the heels of Battle of the Sexes, about the tennis match between Billie Jean King and  Bobby Riggs, comes a film about, arguably, the greatest, tensest tennis match of all time, the titanic, epic, gruelling – for players and spectators – Wimbledon Men’s Final of 1980 between four-time Wimbledon champ Björn Borg and first time finalist John McEnroe. Surprisingly sombre in tone, Janus Metz’s debut scripted feature film ambitiously delves into the psychology of these two men, and that of elite sportspeople in general, coming up with a surprising thesis, which I suppose demands a spoiler alert.

The fascinating – and myth-busting – argument of the film, convincingly put forward, is that these two tennis Goliaths, so noted for the perceived enormous chasm of their differences, were actually vastly more similar than anyone perceived. We all know McEnroe as the hothead and Borg as “ice-cool”, but the film posits that Borg was every bit as temperamental, brash, rude, disrespectful and argumentative as his flamboyant American rival, and that this behaviour was essentially trained out of him by his career-long mentor and coach Lennart Bergelin (played with typical specificity by Stellan Skarsgård).

Metz directed the Borg v McEnroe episode of a TV documentary series called Clash of the Titans in 1996, so he’s obviously been stewing on this material for awhile. His casting of Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf as Borg and McEnroe is perfection (in LaBoeuf’s case, for meta as well as dramatic reasons) and the final match, given plenty of screen time, is masterfully staged (I was tense as hell and I knew the result). But the bulk of the film is surprisingly dry and bitter, with Borg’s crisis of confidence and McEnroe’s arrogance resulting in two unlikeable leads. Now that I’ve met this “real” Borg, I’m sad to have lost my idealised version, who was a hero. These guys aren’t heroes, just self-absorbed people with strange wiring, who must win things to be happy.

Murder On The Orient Express

Old Timey

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* * (out of five)

Agatha Christie adaptations are back in vogue. The recent television versions of And Then There Were None and Witness For The Prosecution were exciting and fresh, keeping the stories appropriately in period while engaging modern camera work, a lived-in aesthetic, and actors playing the high-falutin’ dialogue straight. Unfortunately director Kenneth Branagh goes the opposite direction with Murder On The Orient Express, producing an overblown, over designed, over acted snoozefest that manages to somehow be more old-fashioned than the 1974 version.

At least Branagh’s Hercule Poirot is fun and multi-layered, especially in the film’s somewhat buoyant opening scenes, but the rest of the – ALL STAR! – cast are hung out to dry, hammily looking off into the middle distance to imply that they might have done it. When things turn dark, Branagh the director goes overboard with gravitas, squandering what trust he may have earlier earned. The result is dull as dishwater.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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* * * * 1/2

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is gripping, creepy, intense and wholly original. It slots beautifully into 2017 as The Year Of Intelligent Horror; it is also, easily, one of the best films of the year.

Colin Farrell, re-teaming with Lanthimos from last year’s The Lobster, plays a surgeon whose pretty idyllic family life – nice stone house, wonderful eye doctor wife, two smart and talented kids – is threatened. I’ll say no more; the terrific story deserves its own discovery. It is beautifully told, each element and development revealing itself surprisingly, often because a masterful piece of misdirection has already been laid. We consistently think we’re ahead of the film, but actually, the film is always way ahead of us.

Lanthimos unashamedly borrows from Kubrick’s The Shining, which I have no problem with: steal and steal from the best! He utilises zooms (both towards and withdrawing), a similar sound design (including a musical score of existing pieces that are obviously evocative of the score of The Shining) and even casts a boy actor, Sunny Suljic, who is evocative of Danny Lloyd (Danny) in Kubrick’s masterpiece. But this may be as “meta” as the film gets; structurally and tonally, it is far more coherent, concrete and conventional than The Lobster. Indeed, one might say it is simply a horror film, albeit, like The Shining, an unusually artful one.

The entire cast nail Lanthimos’ dry, unemotionally-laden line deliveries, but never to the point of distancing us from the seriously disturbing material. Nicole Kidman and Farrell are excellent as are Suljic and Raffey Cassidy as their kids, while Barry Keoghan, in the film’s other major role, gives one of the best supporting performances of the year. It is astonishing that all three of the latter are British (the film takes place in an unidentified US city).

The film is thematically rich and pungent, looking deep into marriage, family, ethics, morals and trust. Most immediately, it asks that classic question, “What would you do to protect your family?” – but you’ve never seen it asked like this. Outstanding.

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DETROIT

hero_Detroit-2017

* * * * 

Detroit is magnificent. Director Kathryn Bigelow and investigative screenwriter Mark Boal have, as with their masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty, presented a historical incident with both clinical precision and political reverberation. They tell their stories coldly so your blood can boil.

Boil it will. Detroit will make you sad and mad as hell. It tells of an incident in the ever-expanding United States Book of Shame that is disgusting, despicable and should have caused uproar, consternation and most importantly, change. Instead it seems to have achieved nothing and has largely been forgotten, while the character of its venality continues to this day across the “united” States.

Contrary to the poster – and, possibly, what you’ve heard – the film is not a detailed rendering of the Detroit riots of July 1967, although those riots form the backdrop, and the swift first act indeed plunges us into the causes of the riots and their outbreak. The meat of the film, however, is a detailed depiction of the “Algiers Motel Incident”, which was a disturbing event that took place involving civilians, police officers, national guardsmen and state troopers on one night of the riots (July 25th). The film’s long second act is a forensic portrayal, almost in real time, of the incident, relying on Boal’s detailed interviews with everyone involved who was willing to talk to him. Legal aspects of the case prevent Boal and Bigelow from naming every character according to their real-life counterpart, but a quick google when you come out of the film will allow you to easily find out everything you need to know. Truman Capote was able to name everyone populating In Cold Blood because the fates of his villains differed to those here, but Bigelow and Boal’s storytelling is not dissimilar to Capote’s famous piece of novelistic journalism, save for being in the form of a two and a half hour film.

It is to Bigelow, Boal and their intrepid producer Megan Ellison’s immense credit that they have spent their time, resources and talent to bring this semi-forgotten episode to light, especially given the state of their nation, and the world. They must have known that the project was unlikely to generate spectacular box office (it’s only made $16million in the US) given its subject matter and the relentlessness of its telling, but they’ve spent years of their lives on it for whomever is willing to listen. You get the sense that this trio really give a shit about what stories they tell (Ellison, who is independently wealthy, ponies up her own money) and we are the benefactors. I was moved, shaken, angered and thrilled by Detroit, the last because it was an American film of substance and ambition, something not widely available so far this year.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

professor-marston-and-the-wonder-women-600x882_large* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Angela Robinson’s extremely tasteful advocation of everything right in the world – or at least, sexual freedom for all – could be re-titled My First Guide To Bondage and Threesomes. The tale it tells is wondrous strange and could have been told – in the hands of, say, Amy Seimitz (The Girlfriend Experience) – with a hard R rating and a lot of salt, saliva, spanking, sperm and sweat; instead, Robinson focuses on flutterings of the heart rather than lashings of the whip, and a fascination with coats more than corsets. It’s all very nice, and at the moment, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Ostensibly, it’s the story of William Marston’s inspiration for, and creation of, the comic book character Wonder Woman (and how timely then, this long-gestating project of Robinson’s is). In the telling, it’s a love triangle between his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), Marston (Luke Evans) and one of his university students, Olive (Bella Heathcote). The spin here is – as it was in real life – that this is a three-sided, three-pointed triangle, not the “two vying for one” situation from a hundred thousand other movies.

wonder-woman-bondageIn focusing on the three-way love affair, the trio’s growing fascination with bondage gets short shrift, and the creation of Wonder Woman almost feels tacked on. But there’s a towering, commanding, technically impeccable performance from Hall at the heart of the film – one of the best lead performances of 2017, easily – and the underlying story is rather irresistible. An obvious labour of love, this is a film with extremely deep affection for its characters, which you will certainly share by the end.

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Suburbicon

157855A baffling misstep from director Clooney.

* * 1/2

George Clooney’s sixth feature as a director, Suburbicon is an unsatisfying movie. Adapted by Clooney and his longtime professional partner Grant Heslov from a Coen Brothers script, it attempts to be a black comedy noir, a satire of 50s/60s-era United States suburbia, and a statement on US race. It only succeeds at pulling off the first, and even then, only just, without much aplomb.

The noir plot feels very, very much like early Coen Brothers, and, as it turns out, that’s what it is – their screenplay has been dated to 1986. They’ve surpassed themselves many times over since then, and this story feels like a draft of their future abilities, an exercise, or at the very least an obviously nascent work. Themes that continued to intrigue them are here in abundance and character types they love are present in basic, unshaded form, but they themselves have done this type of stuff so much better since, and often. The obvious (and very thematically similar) masterpiece is Fargo, which has now inspired three seasons of an homage/pastiche television show; The Man Who Wasn’t There also may have drawn some of its characters from the draft versions present here. Ultimately, this part of the film – and this is the part that sort of works – feels, at its best, stale and redundant.

Worse – much worse – the racial story is incredibly, sloppily undercooked. The motivations of black families moving to all-white suburban enclaves, and the organised tactics used to drive them away, is fascinating and rich fodder for its own movie. Unfortunately, shoehorned around the edges of the main story as it is here, this emotionally and historically weighty element is hurried and simplistic, coming off as exploitative and cheap. Clooney is a political man, and has directed at least two movies which are directly political (and good), so his almost childish attempt at a statement here is simply baffling. This entire strand should have been left on the cutting room floor, for it simply and blatantly does not work. That would have left a pretty brief movie, but it may at least have been fun, if redundant; Suburbicon’s flaws ruin the fun.

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Ingrid Goes West

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Social Media Must Die.

* * * 1/2

Arriving with impeccable timing, as they world seems to be waking up to the idea that social media is causing tremendous problems throughout all levels of society – from handing Trump the presidency of the United States to causing mass distraction and anxiety among many of the world’s teenagers – Ingrid Goes West hits a very specific bullseye. As the father of a little girl who will, as surely as night follows day, have to deal with the madness of “likes”, “follows” and virtual relationships, I found the film rather terrifying and certainly urgent.

Not that it’s a horror movie by any stretch. Bathed in the naturalistic, sunny aesthetic of the modern American California Indie, with its gentle handheld camera, perfectly aligned pop soundtrack and über hip cast of Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, Wyatt Russell and O’Shea Jackson Jr., it looks like a comedy on the poster, but it’s a black comedy in the cinema, and one that earns the badge.

Plaza plays a grieving young East Coast woman who relies too much on her phone and social media; “going west” means heading to California to meet a social media contact (Olsen). Both are perfect in their roles. Olsen makes her subtly nuanced portrayal of a modern social media princess look effortless; if, like most of us, you’ve only seen Plaza in comedy, you’ll stand up and take notice of her drama chops here. Jackson Jr., Russell and, in particular, Billy Magnussen are all terrific as alternate versions of Very Californian Dudes.

How Ingrid Goes West affects you will almost certainly depend on your current relationship with social media. If you’ve already disabled your accounts and gone back to simpler ways of communicating, such as speech – or thrown away everything and started building a dwelling by hand somewhere – you’ll be able to scoff at the shenanigans of these tragic hipsters and more than likely find disdain for a movie about their plight. If, like me, you’re a parent of a young ‘un, I suspect the film will light even more fires under your ass and get you thinking of raising your precious spawn so that they can survive the coming horrors of the electronic playground. And if you’re at all like Ingrid – if you’re young and in love with your device and your online connections – I can only hope this alarm bell of a movie hits you like a freight train, if you can stop Instagramming long enough to watch it.

Ingrid_H