Film Reviews by JB

Welcome to JB's film reviews page. JB has written 31 reviews and rated 243 films.

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Babyteeth

Charming and sad

(Edit) 13/12/2020

This Australian movie from debut director Shannon Murphy is as charming and life-affirming as it is sad.

The radiant Eliza Scanlen from Greta Gerwig's Little Women plays Milla, a 16 year old girl diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her psychiatrist father (Ben Mendelssohn) and pill-addicted mother (Australian institution Essie Davis) are barely able to cope at the best of times, and threaten to come further off the rails when Milla gets involved with 20 year old dropout Moses (Toby Wallace). But the family's dawning realisation about Milla's limited time left challenges their usual parenting decision-making and Milla's last weeks prove to be pretty wild and inspiring.

Babyteeth is at its best when shining a light on the tensions within love and parenting, illness and life. The direct and generous performances from the top-notch cast tease out the humanity and contradictions within these themes and their character's relationships The script is occasionally a little cheesy (the Christmas scene towards the end is a script draft on from a TV movie of the week; there's also some pretty heavy-handed metaphor about addiction throughout). But the clear-eyed direction from Murphy and the great soundtrack paper over the cracks.

Babyteeth is a fantastic showcase for a talented director and amazing cast and, what's more, a moving, sincere and warm film about a teenage cancer experience, that's arguably better than the more well known The Fault in Our Stars.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

A disappointing folly

(Edit) 12/12/2020

Terry Gilliam's long-awaited reimagining of the classic Cervantes novel Don Quixote sadly turns out to lose itself in La Mancha.

Adam Driver plays a director, filming an ad in rural Spain. He comes across a pirated DVD of his adaptation of the Don Quixote story that opens up an existential crisis for Driver, seeing him plunged into a fantasy world partly inspired by the novel and his own memories of filming the story, where he becomes Sancho Panza, Quixote's sidekick. Quixote himself is played by a game Jonathan Pryce.

In all his films, Gilliam's grip of storytelling can be almost charmingly tenuous but here it's almost non-existent. At times, that's ok - there's a pleasing chaos to some of the scenes that blend fantasy and reality. But at other times it becomes grating in its repetition. There are too many moments of drama that devolve into incessant shouting and hammy performances. There's a running (and running) joke involving Quixote confusing the word "squire" with "squirrel" that I could have done without, too. You always feel Gilliam's enthusiasm but it frequently overwhelms everything.

It also does feel a bit dated - some dodgy CGI and rather retrograde attitudes towards women (throwing themselves at the male characters and not having much substance of their own) are disappointing.

Although not a terrible movie, The Man Who Killed Quixote feels anticlimactic in relation to its infamous conception and also disappointing in its place in Gilliam's career. The man who made Brazil and The Fisher King can do better.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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Eternal Beauty

Thoughtful and moving

(Edit) 06/12/2020

The wonderful Sally Hawkins plays Jane, a woman living with schizophrenia in this movie from Welsh actor turned writer-director Craig Roberts.

Its an empathetic and thoughtful portrait - Hawkins' character is not a victim: she has agency, intelligence and the ability to live a full life in spite of her condition. If anything, it's her family who are more of an impediment for her life although they are drawn very broadly - her deceiving sister (a sour Billie Piper) and her controlling mother (Penelope Wilton) in particular. Her other sister, played by Alice Lowe, is a shining beacon of love although is arguably also quite a two-dimensional character. Jane also suffers heartbreak from a man who jilted her at the alter.

Roberts borrows heavily from the visual styles of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry here, which mostly works when depicting Jane's inner world although occasionally comes across as gilding the lily. But it does create a suitably jarring visual language to depict Jane's illness.

Although the shining star is Sally Hawkins, this flawed, offbeat look at mental illness is definitely worth a watch because of its thoughtfulness.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Matthias and Maxime

Patchy and frustrating

(Edit) 22/11/2020

For a while, Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan was the enfant terrible of French-language cinema, an outspoken 20-something making spiky dramas such as I Killed My Mother and Mommy full of vivid characters, of-the-moment music and wild energy that won awards from his home country to the Cannes film festival. He's had a run of poorly reviewed films recently, including an English-language one starring Kit Harrington that, two years after its initial release, hasn't come out in the UK yet.

His new movie, Matthias and Maxime, sees him return to more familiar ground and is slightly more toned down than the histrionic heights of Mommy. Matthias (Gabriel D' Almeida Freitas) and Maxime (Xavier Dolan himself, in a rather good performance) are childhood friends whose friendship is put under strain when they're asked to kiss one another in a friend's new art film. Something awakens between them, but as Maxime is leaving for Australia, the question is: is it too little too late?

There's something really unfocused about this movie. This is most evident in a subplot, not entirely connected to anything else, which sees Maxime's difficult relationship with his deeply troubled mother, that he's trying to tie up before his trip. It takes up a chunk of the film but is by far its most fully realised, affecting part. The will-they-won't-they Maxime/Matthias storyline feels rather thinly spread between those scenes, only really picking up in the second half again. There's also a lot of time spent on on their wider friendship group - partying and generally being obnoxious - that doesn't seem to serve a real purpose and is often actively annoying.

At his best, Dolan's movies are full of wild but invigorating energy but this, for me, showcases his worst excesses… patchy storytelling, too many characters often thinly drawn and an over-reliance on music and clichéd stylistic tics from slow motion to time-lapse photography to generate drama. It's a shame as he can do so much better and you can see traces of brilliance all the way through this messy and unsatisfying film.

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Hope Gap

Middling drama

(Edit) 21/11/2020

Adapted from a stage play of the same name, Hope Gap is the story of what happens when a couple in their late middle age living in an English seaside town, separate after 29 years of marriage. Annette Bening and Bill Nighy are the couple, and Josh O'Connor is their grown-up son, living away from the family home. It's a powerhouse of performances that give life to this otherwise middling drama.

To give credit to writer-director William Nicholson, adapting his own play here, he gives it some welly… there's beautiful seaside shots, lashings of piano and string music and he does try to break up some long scenes of dialogue that would remind an audience it's adapted from the stage. But it's not enough - in particular, the remaining dialogue feels very stagey and distracting; rich in metaphor and details of people's inner lives exquisitely expressed that would sonorously fill the glorious vacuum of a theatre, but here it feels stilted. The drama is sometimes affecting but mostly static and it does feel thin, as if this is just a vehicle for some big performances but without the substance to give them much to say.

If you're an Annette Bening fan, it's another good role for her although on occasion her performance feels larger than it needs to be, including an extravagantly posh English accent. But otherwise this stage play adaptation is faintly if inevitably disappointing, like a wet weekend at the English seaside.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Short Cuts

Inventive and influential but hard to like

(Edit) 15/11/2020

Robert Altman spent his career experimenting with depictions of normal life in extraordinary circumstances - meandering dramas with great actors conversing in overlapping dialogue in a sprawling semi-chaos. Short Cuts is a quintessential example of this but at three hours long, with an ensemble cast of 22 lead characters and with some dour, if brilliant, source material from Raymond Carver, it's frequently impressive but not easy to warm to.

The stories include a phone sex worker whose husband is suspicious and jealous of her job, a waitress who knocks down a child in her car, an artist with marital difficulties, a melancholic children's party clown… you get the picture. That cast adds a bit of levity, though - Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Lili Taylor, Tom Waits, Jack Lemmon, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins to name just a few.

Clearly an influence on Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia amongst others, it's heady stuff but the dour tone, lack of much fleshed-out plot and its unchecked misogyny (there's any excuse for the women to disrobe and it is arguably a parade of weak male characters who come across as martyrs) make it hard to like. But come for the cast and the technical wizardry.

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And Then We Danced

Desire and ambition in modern Georgia

(Edit) 25/10/2020

This tale of career ambition and competition in the dance world and how that intersects with same-sex love was controversial in its home country of Georgia, but quite rightly praised at international film festivals.

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) has dancing in his blood - various people in older generations of his family have had successful if ultimately unfulfilling careers in traditional Georgian dance. He wants to be the best - but so does new classmate Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Gossip flies about Irakli and how he was kicked out of his former school after he slept with another male dancer. This awakens something in Merab and it's not just the spirit of competition.

This is such an assured, beautiful and sad film. How in some parts of the world same-sex desire is still taboo and how it has horrible consequences for those who feel unable to express it. It's wonderfully shot and acted and you feel every uttered and unuttered desire thanks to great chemistry between the leads. There's also a moment of emotional intimacy later on between Mehrab and his brother that's as good as that climactic father-son exchange in Call Me By Your Name. But not only that, it's also about career ambitions and how love and vocational success are not so far apart - how going your own way is ultimately sometimes the right thing for someone, if they're lucky (or talented) enough to be able to do it.

Although Georgian dancing is alien to me, the emotional power of this film makes the dancing's high drama universal. And the movie's other themes of self discovery and self actualisation are just stunningly and movingly conveyed.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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Fanny Lye Deliver'd

Sound and fury, but ultimately empty

(Edit) 24/10/2020

A period-set sort-of psychosexual religious thriller, Fanny Lye Deliver'd has a great, of-the-moment cast (Maxine Peake; Freddie Fox and Sex Education's Tanya Reynolds, who also acts as the film's narrator) and a perennially brilliant Charles Dance, but it has a curiously quaint disposition.

Set shortly after the English Civil War in a wintery, misty, muddy and Puritan Shropshire, it's largely about what happens when a young, definitely not Puritan young couple (Fox and Reynolds) seek shelter at a law-abiding and straight laced family's farm (Peake and Dance, who live there with their young son). Needless to say, what happens is not all bibles and big hats (although the millinery on show here is scene-stealing).

Fanny Lye Deliver'd is in debt to potent 70s cinema like the Wicker Man and Straw Dogs from its melodramatic and oppressive tone, sometimes literal lashes of violence and sex, to its use of now unpopular stylistic techniques such as crash zooms. As films have obviously moved on from then, it can feel rather lurid, at times overheated, and a little self conscious.

A studied throwback nature and very watchable performances make Fanny Lye Deliver'd diverting enough, but despite an interesting religious and historical context, it's arguably a rather empty exercise in style and tone.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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You Don't Nomi

Showgirls might still be rubbish, but something good came out of it

(Edit) 19/10/2020

It's been a while since I've seen the subject of this documentary: the infamously poorly reviewed, 90s smut-athon movie Showgirls. But I don't think that matters: You Don't Nomi is still a wildly entertaining polyphonic loveletter to cinema… good and bad.

You Don't Nomi puts Showgirls in its original context: in its director Paul Verhoeven and star Elizabeth Berkeley's careers, where it sits in 90s US studio cinema and in film culture at the time. But it also explores the weird afterlife of Showgirls including its cult status as, depending who you ask, a misunderstood masterpiece or inadvertent camp classic in the vein of Mommy Dearest and Valley of the Dolls. And it's all told by numerous critics, writers, academics and drag queens.

You Don't Nomi has got this kinetic, creative energy with its editing of clips from Showgirls and other Verhoeven films. The result is often really funny (the compilation of women vomiting everywhere from various Verhoeven's films encapsulates a central question: is this film just gross or is there deeper, hilariously bizarre transgressive themes?). You Don't Nomi also has this tumbling rabbit hole quality with obsessive fans relaying multiple readings of Showgirls … is it misogynistic, deeply problematic exploitation? Is it empowering to some gay men and some straight women? Or, in the words of one commentator… is it "like it's been written by a brain-dead Harold Pinter"?

I still think Showgirls is deeply awful but this pleasingly raucous, playful, intelligent and sometimes moving documentary almost makes me want to watch it again, just to be sure.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Flashy but thought provoking

(Edit) Updated 19/10/2020

The story of the homicidal Australian Bush-ranger Ned Kelly has itself been done to death but director Justin Kurzel (of the 2015 Michael Fassbender Macbeth) has given it a bold and bruised crack here.

Adapted from the Peter Carey novel, we follow Ned's disturbing childhood here almost as much as his infamous (short) adulthood. He loses his abusive father at a young age, grows up in poverty, and when still very young, is "rescued" from it all by bush ranger Russell Crowe, who buys him from his mother (Essie Davis) but exposes Ned to his first taste of robbery and murder. Flash forward a few years, Kelly's now got his own gang and is played by a muscled, sinewy George Mackay, full of anger and no direction.

Unpopular opinion alert- I didn't love Kurzel's Macbeth, which to me felt like Shakespeare watered down and luridly visually adorned for the Instagram generation, and there's a bit of that here… beautifully shot vistas occasionally given precedence over substance. The use of strobe lighting, sped up shots of weather and high contrast photography also don't really add much.

However, there's a lot more depth in this movie - the focus on Kelly's childhood gives the story some excellent context, for example, and the time given to Kelly's own writings and how they're then used against him is interesting too. It's also really well cast and Davis and Mackay are particularly good, despite occasionally thin material. Finally, the film is spectacularly violent and loud, in a way that's properly bracing.

Although I still struggled to get emotionally involved in the later sections (Kurzel's actors can only pump so much nuance into the relationships rather lacking in the script), and it does seem rather over stylised (like a kind of macho Baz Luhrmann movie), there's a lot of great stuff here and it's a worthy addition to the long list of Ned Kelly lore.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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The Assistant

The banality of evil

(Edit) 04/10/2020

A commentary about a monster at the heart of a system which continues to enable him, The Assistant has the steady low hum terror of a classic horror film but the difference here is how real this situation is.

The excellent Julia Garner is the titular assistant, just five weeks onto the job in a Hollywood producer's office, has already seen too much. She has the look of someone genuinely haunted, as we follow her around a day's work - dealing with the wife of the producer, cleaning up the drugs on his desk and women's underwear on his office floor and writing apology emails for the times she's upset him. Like a monster movie, we don't see him for a while but his presence is always felt - partly in the actions of other office staff who've been long inducted into perpetuating the culture of sleaze and worse. They crowd around the assistant's desk when she's writing emails to him parroting to her the words he wants to hear.

It's a quiet, slow but immensely powerful film, even more remarkable because it does this with a lack of much music and minimal on-screen dramatics. It's about the small things which are symptoms of the bigger things, the everyday examples, the banality of evil. We don't see the sexual abuse so widely reported - but we see its shadow everywhere. The open, ambiguous and quietly horrific ending also asks whether the assistant will become part of the system, too.

1 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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Postcards from the Edge

A mixed success

(Edit) 04/10/2020

Penned by the late, great Carrie Fisher based on her own semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge should have been better.

Meryl Streep plays a version of Fisher - a Hollywood star dealing with drug addiction whilst trying to maintain an on-screen career. She has a close but problematic relationship with her mother (Shirley MacLaine) - viewers might find parallels here with the relationship between Fisher and her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds. There's a dodgy boyfriend on the scene, too (Dennis Quaid), who exploits and enables her in equal measure. It all comes to a head where she's checked into a rehab unit following an overdose.

Although the script has plenty of good jokes and Mike Nichols direction plenty of fun touches (particularly visual gags about life on a film set), it feels all a bit inconsequential. For me, there's two big problems. Firstly, Meryl Streep feels a little too earnest or studied, and too squeaky clean to play this role. Secondly, the film has plenty of dark material but focuses on the jokes and in-jokes rather than engage fully with its themes of addiction, mental illness and being a woman in Hollywood. There's a bit on the mother-daughter conflict but even that seems rather evasive.

So although not without its moments, this is a rather thin and superficial film, not helped by a miscast central performance.

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Philadelphia

Dated and clunky, but Hanks shines

(Edit) 27/09/2020

Partly inspired by a real-life court case, Philadelphia is the story of Andrew Bennett, a gay man who loses his job at a prestigious law firm after they find out about him hiding his sexuality and his diagnosis of AIDS.

Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for his role here as Bennett, and is definitely the best thing about the film (with an honourable mention for the mumbling beauty of the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name that opens the movie). Hanks is a quiet, emaciated and sad, doomed angel in this movie.

Philadelphia was groundbreaking, albeit belatedly - this was Hollywood's first full depiction of AIDS that in 1993 was over a decade after the pandemic made the news. It also portrayed a same-sex romantic relationship (albeit a rather sexless and vague one between Hanks' character and Antonio Banderas) that wasn't seen as comical or sinister, unusual for a US studio movie at the time.

Unfortunately, the film hasn't aged well - for example, the Denzel Washington character, Hanks' lawyer in his case against his former employer, is depicted as a homophobe and the movie thinks that's ok. He doesn't go on a Hollywood redemptive journey of homophobe to LGBT ally… instead, he becomes just less intolerant to Hanks and his social circle, still cringing at the sight of men being affectionate to one another late on in the film in the party scene, without further comment. It's also rather worthy and bloated in its running time - there are too many opportunities for Hanks to "act", including a rather excruciatingly prolonged scene involving Hanks and Washington listening to opera, with Tom disappearing into some kind of reverie.

A Hollywood milestone probably only on paper - Philadelphia does showcase one of Tom Hanks' very best performances, but the LGBT credentials that could have made it a classic of its type are undermined by some rather suspect and clunky scriptwriting decisions.

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Misbehaviour

Not subtle, but a great story well told

(Edit) 26/09/2020

Misbehaviour tells a remarkable story - what happened at the 1970 Miss World pageant where a Women's Liberation group caused chaos during the show and where a notable number of women of colour took part (and did pretty well in the competition), including - controversially at the time - its first black South African contestant.

The story gets a relatively unsubtle treatment, in a similar fashion to the movies Pride or Made in Dagenham. Although its speechifying and exposition-heavy style can feel clunky and contrived (people speaking in a way no real person ever would, but written to summarise debate at the time, in situations blatantly set up to let them do so), Misbehaviour gets away with it, with its otherwise lightness of touch, empathetic characters and humour. It's topped off with some energetic and memorable performances from a great cast: Jessie Buckley typically stands out but Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Lesley Manville are great too. Keira Knightley basically plays herself but she does it well.

Although not the most sophisticated movie about the themes of second-wave feminism and racism, Misbehaviour works really well as engaging, entertaining social commentary. It's endlessly watchable, very well acted and shocking in equal measure.

3 out of 4 members found this review helpful.

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Mother

Thrilling stuff from a sensational director

(Edit) 06/09/2020

A mother's love is a powerful thing and this movie from writer-director Bong Joon-ho, made before his sensational crossover hit Parasite, dramatises this to an extreme and devoted effect.

The mother in question, just known as "Mother" (Kim Hye-ja) lives with her twenty-something son, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) in near-poverty in a small South Korean town. Mother and son gain national attention when evidence implicates the son in the murder of a young woman and he is locked up, awaiting the outcome of the process. But he has been falsely accused - he has learning difficulties and the legal system favours the most articulate, and the rich, and his mother decides to step in herself to clear her son's name. She can't afford the supposedly necessary lawyer, who might not be interested anyway, but she has love on her side.

Fans of Parasite will recognise the mixture of shifting tones and attributes here; high drama and tension, mystery, violence, social commentary and off-kilter humour, to name but a few, often all existing side-by-side in a scene. It's a combination that constantly disarms and completely enthralls once you click into it. And that judicious use of an orchestral soundtrack… it's like stepping back into a warped Hitchcock movie, in the best possible way. Like Parasite, there are moments of real cinematic panache and beauty too ("Mother" in those fields… stunning).

This movie is also blessed with an extraordinary performance by Kim Hye-ja as the titular "Mother", who binds it all together. Like the film, her performance is a display of many facets… here, we have rage, anguish, determination, haughtiness, fragility and love. And that dancing at the beginning and end of the movie... Often, her son doesn't seem to understand what she's doing to help him, but that's not why she is doing it.

This is no dry essay on social inequality in South Korea, although that's the message we take away (quite rightly) from Mother. This is a full-blooded and unusual psychological, emotional, thrilling beast of a movie that ranks up there with cinema's most memorable depictions of motherhood of the last twenty five years, from Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother to Xavier Dolan's Mommy.

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