Thirteen Lives Review

The Plot

The astonishing true story of a young soccer team in Thailand who became trapped in the terrifying depths of the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave and the fearless team of divers desperately trying to bring them back to their families on the surface as the watching world held its breath.

The Good

Ron Howard brings his peerless directing talents to bare on yet another iconic true story. Just as he previously turned the Apollo 13 mission into a piece of Oscar worthy big screen drama, he succeeds again in breathing tense life into the struggles of a vast international rescue team to do the impossible and retrieve 13 young boys and their coach from the depths of the earth.

Howard’s direction deftly balances authenticity with emotional pathos. The film combines gripping re-enactment of the rescue with subtle exploration of the profoundly emotional journey of the boys, their families and the rescue team. It’s a constant tribute to the power of hope to conquer fear and seemingly impossible challenges.

The film’s excellent cast lead by stars Viggo Mortenson, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton all deliver outstanding performances that do true justice to the real life heroes they portray. Their eagerness to largely shun stunt performers in favour of genuinely plunging into the murky underwater world of the caves gives the film a critical added layer of reality. They also do a fantastic job of reminding audiences that their characters aren’t fearless super humans, but merely ordinary people desperately trying to use their accomplished expertise to prevent unspeakable tragedy.

In sharp contrast to the costume clad comic book heroism more typically celebrated on screen, this film provides a poignant and tense reminder of the reality of those who find themselves called by circumstances to face up against unspeakable odds.

Perhaps even more importantly this film doesn’t reductively seek to simplify the agonisingly long and complex rescue process by merely focusing on the divers physically tasked with extracting the boys from the caves. The film documents and celebrates the full scope of the massive multi-national team of thousands of volunteers, experts, officials and locals that worked tirelessly to help the boys survive and making saving them even a possibility.

In particular the film stands as a fitting tribute to those who did lose their lives and made other immeasurably huge sacrifices for the sake of rescuing these children. The film never seeks of sanitise the true cost of accomplishing this impossible feat of salvation.

Even for those who remember following the unfolding drama of the rescue via the constant global media coverage this film remains an important and rewarding experience. The film reveals much about the rescue that will astonish and inspire audiences even further. It’s a gripping and revelatory first-hand account of a ‘story’ which has already captured the hearts of people across the globe.

The Bad

Anyone that suffers from claustrophobia will find the film’s intensely realistic portrayal of the terrifyingly cramped and constantly perilous experience of diving 2.5 miles through submerged caves to be a deeply uncomfortable experience. In truth even those who aren’t overly sensitive to cramped spaces will mostly find themselves squirming uncomfortably the first time the film follows the diving teams underwater. It’s simply impossible not to have a strong reaction to the daunting dangers the rescue team faced constantly during the weeks of rescue work.

While the film’s entire purpose is to share that authentic experience with an audience, it will be unavoidably overwhelming at times for some people.

It’s undeniably important for people to understand the reality of this astonishing rescue, but this celebration of hope and heroism does require a willingness to endure rather than just be entertained.

The Ugly Truth

Thirteen lives is a masterclass in suspense and hope from one of Hollywood’s very best directors. An all-star cast breathes astonishing life into one of the most compelling tales of modern day heroism. Claustrophobic, breath-taking and simply brilliant this is true five star drama that urgently demands to be seen on.


We Met In VR Review Sundance London 2022

The Plot

Shot during the pandemic and exclusively in the online world of VR chat this unique documentary follows a varied group of people as they live, work and play in the newly emerging worlds of virtual reality.

The Good

While wealthy tech tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg greedily try to sell the dream of someday escaping to a fully immersive digital reality, this wonderful documentary shows that for millions of people across the globe that is actually already a huge part of their daily existence.

Uniquely filmed entirely within the luridly colourful worlds of popular platform VR Chat, this film serves as a fascinating and immersive deep dive into that environment. Explored intimately through in depth interviews with the people who are literally living second lives in this strange and ever evolving new digital space.

As the film unfolds it does a magnificent job of answering fundamental questions about what this new technology currently is and what it could ultimately one day become. In particular the heartfelt and often deeply personal stories shared by those who have already embraced this new ‘reality’ goes a long way to countering the inevitable scepticism of those most perplexed by why people would actually want to seemingly abandon the real world in favour of life in a ‘video game’.

The film celebrates the surprisingly wealth of opportunities that VR presents as people find love, learn, play and briefly escape or even overcome the loss, turmoil and anxiety of their ‘real’ lives. Perhaps the film’s most impressive achievement is that by the closing credits the question about what exactly constitutes our ‘real’ lives has become a much more nuanced discussion.

While the film doesn’t carelessly gloss over the obvious issues with people’s behaviour in the anonymous mostly consequence free wild west of the internet, it’s simply purposefully more preoccupied with the many amazing positive qualities of this vibrant and ever growing digital community.

Ultimately the film becomes more intriguing the longer you watch. Fully realising its ambition by the end of challenging our current perhaps soon to be outdated concepts of identity, social interactions and the very limits of technology itself.

The Bad

The early phases of the film may be especially jarring and disorientating for those unaccustomed to the very specific visuals of Virtual Reality. In contrast to the real world or even the amazingly polished special effects of Hollywood blockbusters, the current state of Virtual reality is far more modest and glitch ridden.

On a big screen every moment of temporarily frozen graphics or characters and objects moving in suddenly erratic and nonsensical ways in on stark display. While it doesn’t diminish the emotional and philosophical impact of the documentary, it is something the uninitiated will have to get used to.

Likewise it’s fair to say that the largely anime inspired avatars that inhabit the virtual world may feel a little odd to novice eyes. The literally glittering array of cat ears, dragon wings, jiggling boobs, animal tails and technicoloured hair may simply seem a little ‘silly’ at first. Perhaps this might at least initially mask some of the thought provoking and serious topics the film explores. But the film offers exceedingly rich rewards for the patient and open minded.

The Ugly Truth

We Met In VR is a truly fascinating piece of documentary cinema that captures the birth of a transformative new technology. It serves as a handy initiation for those unfamiliar with the ever expanding digital horizons of this brave new world and also as a surprisingly poignant meditation on human identity and relationships.

Anatomy Of A Scandal Review

The Plot

After public revelations of an affair, a prominent politician and his wife are swiftly plunged into even greater drama when more damning allegations find him on trial in court accused of rape.

The Good

Framing this drama around a court case instantly gives this series a convenient narrative structure and offers the absolute certainty of a definitive outcome. The inescapable desire to uncover that result is easily enough to make viewers enthusiastically binge through six episodes of fraught courtroom drama.   

Homeland star Rupert Friend does a magnificent job of bending his performance to portray the many different versions of his character that the story presents. At times he’s a mostly well intentioned man fighting to salvage his marriage and career from the hyperbolic fallout of his selfish indiscretions, while at others he’s a shamelessly predatory political monster oozing arrogance. Repeatedly exploring scenes from different perspectives, he adeptly convinces as both, keeping audiences guessing for much of the series about his ‘true nature’.

Alongside Friend’s central antagonist a trio of star turns from Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery and Naomi Scott breathe compelling life into the traumatized wife, determined lawyer and lover turned accuser each respectively fighting to expose that truth. Their earnest and effective performances allows the series to sustain much of its suspense and drama.

Notable supporting turns from Josette Simon and Joshua McGuire also helps the series deliver credible legal and political tension. Josette Simon’s defence barrister is a perfect counter to Michelle Dockery’s ‘righteous anger’ in court, while Joshua McGuire’s unapologetically odious spin doctor is a fractious thorn in the side of Sienna Miller’s efforts to cling onto a rose tinted view of her once devoted and inspiring husband.

Arguably the series greatest success is that it consciously avoids allowing audiences to second guess the outcomes of the trial or each characters individual journeys for as long as possible. By jumping back and forth between events of the past and present day as experienced form different characters perspectives, the series presents a far more ambiguous and interesting dilemma. To at least some extent it manages to force audiences to avoid becoming too complacent in their initial expectations and pre-existing prejudices.

That knowingly jumbled uncertainty compels audiences to watch all the way to the final scenes and even then will likely leave them with some provocative lingering questions about the true nature of privilege, power and the unreliable perspective we have on our own actions.

The Bad

Five years of relentless public debate and numerous self-reflective tv/film dramas addressing the MeToo movement sadly robs this series of much of its potential impact and originality. In particular critically acclaimed series like Liar and National Treasure have already expertly explored the complex and compelling themes of he said/she said courtroom battles. Those productions and copious real life drama may leave this specific series feeling somewhat overly familiar and a little more redundant than it probably should.

While Anatomy of a Scandal starts out as a fairly grounded and realistic dissection of real life questions of power, privilege and politics; it ultimately resorts to increasingly implausible twists and turns in order to sustain an ever escalating sense of sensational drama. Arguable injecting that shock value into proceedings sacrifices credibility in favour of a more entertaining but silly melodrama.

While the series also purposefully paints all its characters in murky shades of grey, undoubtedly some audiences may find it consequently more difficult to emotionally invest any of them. The series doesn’t offer audiences the convenient escapism of clearly defined heroes and villains. Instead it perhaps uncomfortably reminds us of a grim reality where everyone seems almost equally flawed, selfish and hypocritical. It’s a deeply cynical portrait that might not be especially welcome or entertaining for many.

It’s also true that while the gifted cast perform well, they’re still tied to a script largely built upon fairly heavy handed stereotypes. Of course many would argue that unapologetically debauched politicians, sneering spin doctors or cynically ruthless lawyers are undeniably part of real life. However there’s a fine line between piercing portrait and clumsy caricature. As the series proceeds its’ well intentioned eagerness to lash out against any form of privilege and power perhaps forces it to cross that line. It increasingly turns characters into clichés, sacrificing subtly to deliver mostly blunt two dimensional commentary.

While the series also tries hard to purposefully defy expectations with an unpredictable plot, it only manages to achieve this by occasionally veering into more wildly unrealistic territory and ultimately remains otherwise exactly as expected.

The Ugly Truth

Anatomy Of A Sandal is a very deliberately timely slice of courtroom drama that explicitly reflects on some of the most prominent political and social problems of today. An excellent cast, polished production and copious plot twists make it an easy binge watch. It’s also a mostly compelling experience, even if it has been undoubtedly robbed of impact by copious real world introspection and similarly themed recent dramas.

The Lost City Review

The Plot

A bereaved romance writer gets reluctantly thrown into an exotic real life adventure alongside her handsome cover model when an eccentric tycoon becomes convinced her latest novel is the key to uncovering real life treasure in the ruins of a mythical lost city on a remote private island.

The Good

The Lost City is unapologetically silly fun of the highest calibre that delivers consistent laughs thanks to a perfectly playful script and a terrific line up of acting talent.

Hollywood icon Sandra Bullock successfully adds yet another memorable romantic adventure to her glittering cinematic cv. This latest romp as an introverted author dragged into an adventure quite literally ripped from the pages of her own book, takes its place proudly alongside Bullock’s most beloved work. She pairs effortlessly well with the films embarrassing riches of leading men, with Daniel Radcliffe, Brad Pitt and most especially Channing Tatum.

Channing Tatum has spent much of his career perfecting his unique brand of legitimately handsome swagger and amiable idiocy. It’s an absolutely ideal fit for this role. There’s endless joy to be found in Tatum’s surprisingly sweet natured male model and his enthusiastically fumbling attempts at real life dashing heroism. Tatum’s brilliant buffoonery makes him quite literally the butt of many of the film’s best jokes. Routinely sacrificing his own dignity to ensure audiences’ get the greatest giggles.

Brad Pitt indisputably remains one of Hollywood’s most compelling leading men, but in The Lost City he is on astonishingly good ‘scene stealing’ form. As the ruggedly heroic Jack Trainer, Pitt injects some authentic action into proceedings and serves as an absolutely perfect comedic counterpoint to Tatum’s hapless but well intentioned model. Pitt’s own uniquely golden aura as a Hollywood superstar gives his character an even more hilariously impressive charisma. Making the absurd contrast between his ruthlessly efficient Special Forces vet and Tatum’s fumbling well-groomed wannabe even more entertaining.  In truth, not since Tom Cruise’s infamous appearance in Tropic Thunder has an unexpectedly A-List supporting turn so magnificently improved an already great comedy.

Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe clearly also delights in embracing his darker side as he revels in providing the film with a suitably grand pantomime villain. Bearded and immaculately suited his treasure hunting tycoon is an effective blend of well-spoken awkwardness and sneering intensity. Providing just enough genuine menace to propel the plot convincingly. A clumsier comedian would likely have taken the role too far and drowned out other performances by being too suffocatingly flamboyant. But Radcliffe wisely plays the part with enough sincerity to allow him to still play the ‘straight man’ when the film requires.

The end result of this smorgasbord of acting greatness is a film that exceeds expectations as a delightful does of hilarious high adventure. Poking gentle fun at pulp fiction page turners The Lost City captures many of the very best qualities of the eternally popular romance genre. The film is affectionate rather than acerbic and sincere instead of sarcastic, allowing audiences to revel in the good natured glee.  Making it a delightful rare treat with truly re-watchable charm.

The Bad

Much like the guilty pleasure romance novels the film playfully mocks, there is a certain level of predictability to its’ plot. The film treads mostly familiar paths towards obviously expected conclusions. However that really shouldn’t diminish the joy most audiences will undeniably have along the way.

It’s also fair to say that this is a romantic comedy that leans heavily upon its’ comedic charms rather than offering any especially steamy romantic chemistry. Even when the film does deploy Tatum’s famously well chiselled physique it’s exclusively played for laughs. Likewise the playful banter between him and Bullock tickles funny bones but rarely comes close to tugging meaningfully on any actual heartstrings. Providing plenty of giggles but little opportunity for those who want to be swept of their feet with swoon.

The Ugly Truth

The Lost City is a riotously funny ride that takes full advantage of an amazing a-list cast on top comedic form. Self-aware, sharply satirical and satisfyingly silly it’s the perfect antidote to the real world woes of 2022. Packed with memorable moments it’s a glorious haul of comedy gold that deserves to be enjoyed on the big screen.

Belfast TIFF Review

The Plot

An Ulster Protestant families’ life in Belfast during the height of the infamous ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in 1969 is retold form the perspective of their nine year old son Buddy.

The Good

Award winning director Kenneth Branagh has described Belfast and his most deeply personal film to date. That earnest and intimate act of uninhibited personal storytelling is laid bare in both a finely worded script and well-crafted direction. The result is a shamelessly crowd pleasing tale that is drenched in affectionate nostalgia and teary eyed poignancy. The deep connection between one boy’s transformative childhood experiences and the tumultuous upheaval in a vibrant and uniquely complex community is a powerful piece of narrative framework that enables the film to speak to a wide and deeply affected audience.

Branagh is assisted in his storytelling ambition by a truly all star cast with Catriona Balfa, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Morgan and Dame Judi Dench all on excellent form in a memorably brilliant ensemble. In a true star making performance the film’s young leading actor Jude Hill also provides the film with the heart and humour of an authentically childlike perspective.

The film might be accused of being overly sentimentalised, but it does feel like a truly authentic tribute to an ultimately uplifting childhood set against the backdrop of an admittedly painful collective history and complex social struggles. The film is alluringly imbued with an affectionate array of earnest energy

The Bad

Those who have their own personal recollections of this period of Irish history or ardent views about the admittedly sensitive and enduringly complex social situation in Northern Ireland, may of course find that their own emotions and opinions aren’t entirely matched with those captured in this film. In particular perhaps more cynical critics will suggest the film presents an overly simplified or saccharine view of a difficult world, filtered explicitly through childish eyes.

Likewise those who find themselves irrationally off put by the mere sight of a prepubescent protagonist may be a tougher audience for Jude Hill’s star making turn as Buddy.

But that shouldn’t really been seen to diminish the films broad appeal and undeniably fine qualities.

The Ugly Truth

As a crowd pleasing piece of well-crafted childhood reminiscences, Belfast serves up a delightful cinematic treat that is almost certain to be richly acknowledged come awards season. The deeply personal project represents an undisputed high point in Kenneth Branagh’s career behind the camera.