Manchester By The Sea Review

The Plot

An Uncle (Casey Affleck) is asked to take care of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the boy’s father dies.

The Good

Casey Affleck gives his career best performance in this small but powerful story of family and loss. Set years after a tragedy has befallen him, Lee Chandler (Affleck) returns to his hometown to settle his brother’s affairs after he dies. Instead he discovers that he has been named as the legal guardian to his nephew, Patrick (Hedges) and is expected to relocate to Manchester By The Sea to raise him, leaving behind a life of solitude he was content with and returning to face demons of his past.

While Affleck brings an intense sense of loneliness with perfect precision, it is enhanced by the acting skills of Hedges who manages to give as good as he gets alongside Affleck. With Lee unprepared for dealing with bringing up a grieving teenage boy, and Patrick struggling to come to terms with the loss of his father, these two characters bring a melancholy sense of despair between them.

Also of note is the addition of Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife, Randi. Williams doesn’t get as much screen time as her male co-stars but the time she is allowed is not left to waste with one particularly heart-breaking scene with Affleck becoming instantly memorable before it’s even over.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directed film manages to bring a cold and desolate story to the screen in every way possible thanks to cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ (Martha Marcy May Marlene) dull tones of a wintery Manchester By The Sea.

The Bad

As mentioned above, Williams doesn’t get much screen time in the films 137 minute runtime, which makes the film feel much emptier than it could have been where she given more room to breathe. Lonergan manages to bring awards worthy performances to the screen which is still a triumph, but the spotlight seems to drown Affleck in the spotlight and only gives Williams the briefest of light.

The Ugly Truth

Lonergan directs this cold and heart-breaking film which succeeds in bringing career best performances particularly from Casey Affleck. While Michelle Williams brings a performance just as strong, it is focused on a little less than it should have been.

Underworld Blood Wars Review

The Plot:

Vampire outcast Selene is yet again pulled reluctantly back into the never ending war between Vampires and werewolf Lycans. Pursued by both the Lycans new leader Marius and the remaining Vampire Covens, Selene must unite with her dwindling allies to fight if she hopes to continue to protect her disappeared hybrid daughter.

The Good

The surprisingly resilient box office success of the Underworld series can essentially be distilled to one simple truth. Kate Beckinsale looks pretty cool brandishing twin handguns in slow motion while clad in a shamelessly skin-tight faux leather catsuit. Her miraculously ageless appearance has helped give this character a semi-iconic status by virtue of longevity alone.  13 years after the original film established her as a viable action heroine Beckinsale remains entirely capable of portraying an immortal warrior blessed with superhuman strength, model good looks and a stoically blank expression.

Among the relatively few returning faces form the past films, Theo James and Charles Dance make the best of things. Divergent star James manages to hold his own as vampire warrior David, introduced in the last film and promoted this time to leading man duties by virtue of contractual obligations. Game Of Thrones scheming star Dance also adds some much needed gravitas to his scenes. New cast member Sherlock star Lara Pulver does well to inject actual presence into vampire villainess Semira.

The Underworld franchise also trades heavily on the perpetual pop culture appeal of Vampire, Werewolves and overly stylized CGI action sequences. The massive advances in visual effects in the past decade means that the trademark noirish fantasy world of this sequel is about as slick and well-polished technically as anything the past films could offer.

The Bad

Marking the fifth film in the franchise it’s very difficult for Blood Wars to ever hope to condense the increasingly convoluted backstory and tangled plot lines of the past 13 years of sequels and prequels in a way that makes it readily accessible for a new audience. Though the film tries to give newcomers and more forgetful fans a quick recap there’s still plenty of references to past events and characters that could soon find them feeling lost.

Though the film focuses on a fairly simple new narrative, it’s fair to say that whenever the action slows down audience interest may wane. In truth exposition ridden dialogue has never been one of the series strong suits. The film’s attempts to prologue half-forgotten subplots while also injecting entirely new elements of supernatural mythology into the series have mixed results at best.

The forth film in the franchise Underworld Awakening was very much billed as a climactic chapter when it breathed belated new life into the series in 2012. Reviving the story yet again after another five years is asking a lot of audience’s patience, especially when the series had already always lacked a true sense of narrative necessity.

Though Blood Wars sets up an adequate series of plot points and CGI loaded battle scenes it’s all overly familiar for anyone who has by now sat through over 8 hours of the past films. Weak initial box office results suggest that perhaps audiences may finally have had enough and that teasing hopes of a sixth film will likely prove overly optimistic.

The Ugly Truth

Blood Wars represents a fairly satisfactory continuation of the Underworld franchise that should at least please any remaining die-hard fans and those looking for a guilty pleasure action flick.

Live By Night Review

The Plot

Disillusioned army vet Joe Coughlin returns home to Boston during the height of the prohibition era, determined make his fortune as a career criminal while navigating a dangerous world of guns, girls and gangsters.

The Good

Ben Affleck has indisputably proved his directing credentials with the well-deserved awards glory of Argo. Once again with Live By Night he demonstrates that he’s entirely capable of carrying the responsibility of leading man duties at the same time as those of the director’s chair. Affleck’s performance as Coughlin plays to his strengths, making good use of his gravel coated voice and a never ending supply of sternly confident expressions. Perhaps the best compliment is that looking the part in classic gangster attire Affleck manages to avoid ever looking or feeing like an embarrassing Hollywood cliché.

Live By Night has a well-honed and evidently lavish production value that elevates every aspect of both the story and the performances from a strong supporting cast of recognisable character actors. Fans of classic cars will especially get a kick out of seeing such a wealth of vintage vehicles in pristine condition and high speed use. The film’s look and feel instantly elevates it above a host of low quality gangster flicks. Lush cinematography and attentive production design lend the film an extra dimension of historic credibility.

The Bad

Though the sprawling American gangster genre has produced many popular and critically acclaimed classics, sadly Live By Night does not quite do enough to join those distinguished ranks. Though boasting laudable production value and competent performances from a watchable cast, the film ultimately meanders through a fairly familiar and predictable narrative. Perhaps the true problem is that given the long held cinematic obsession with the golden age of American gangsters it’s simply impossible to avoid comparison with the near perfect versions of those stories that already exist. The Godfather series among others still casts an overwhelming shadow over the genre. There’s simply very that audiences haven’t already seen countless times from the genre.

The Godfather expertly articulated the ruthless scheming and moral complexities of true ‘Gangster’ life. Likewise more modern icons like Goodfellas or Scarface celebrated the shameless excess and anarchic fun of uninhibited criminals truly living without rules. Unfortunately Live By Night does neither. Despite delivering heavy handed monologues about ‘not playing by societies rules’ Coughlin isn’t truly bad enough to give audiences vicarious thrills or to act as an effective cautionary tale.

Though the film delivers moments of action and builds towards a partially satisfying climax, it also falters at times with subplots that inject redundant melodrama into proceedings rather than an intended emotional depth. Ellle Fanning is undeniably talented but her tragic character remains a key example of this. Likewise Sienna Miller may share headline billing but her minimal screen presence simply doesn’t lend her charter the compelling significance the story strains to place upon her.

The Ugly Truth

Live By Night is a competently made if unremarkable addition to the gangster genre. A solid cast and impressive visuals keep proceedings watchable in a story that while predictable in places is at least peppered with frequent bursts of attention grabbing action.

Review by Russell Nelson

Rogue One Review

Warning: This review may contain spoilers

The Plot

A group of lost causes band together in a plot to retrieve the plans for the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.

The Good

Director Gareth Edwards joins the Star Wars saga in this, the first Star Wars Story set between the main episodes (unless you count the infamous Holiday Special), in this case between the prequel and original trilogy, telling the story behind the plans for the Death Star.

Opening with an interesting though perhaps not necessarily planned alternative take on the opening crawl, synonymous with the saga, Rogue One instantly sets itself up as a film both completely removed from the usual formula yet still honouring its roots. Felicity Jones heads the cast as Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) chief engineer of the Death Star, who is recruited by the rebellion in an effort to find her father for information.

What sets Rogue One aside from its brother saga is undoubtedly its action sequences. Edwards manages to bring harrowing war sequences to life both on the ground and in the air with real gravitas. It’s a refreshingly realistic take on sci-fi war that instantly apes any attempts previously made in the series so far.

The Bad

With Rogue One chronicling the timeline leading right up to A New Hope, it’s inevitable that some familiar faces will return to the screen. The main face of course being everybody’s favourite Sith Lord, Darth Vader. His return to the big screen is quite simply triumphant, albeit only in the latter half. His one scene preceding the already much discussed fight sequence does dampen things slightly thanks to an awkwardly placed pun which just feels out of place and out of character.

The other main returning face is that of Peter Cushing’s General Tarkin. Just as with Vader, Tarkin is a vital role that would make Rogue One feel extremely lacking if it wasn’t included. And in the few scenes he turns up it’s clear that the production team have put every effort into rendering the likeness of Cushing. Unfortunately all this work feels ultimately pointless. While the effort is admirable the simple truth is that it still looks obviously fake. Due in large part to the fact that any Star Wars fan would know as soon as Cushing appears that it can’t be. What’s especially disappointing is the fact that this could have been so easily averted by either recasting the role or keeping the appearances minimalistic, perhaps covering his face in shadow which would have been just as effective if not more so. Instead Tarkin begins to stick out like a sore thumb the more he is used.

The third and last issue of returning faces comes from the two faces who are the constant s throughout the entire franchise and ironically aren’t technically faces. R2-D2 and C3PO make the briefest of cameos in what feels like a very shoehorned in scene that serves just to keep the record going. It’s a shame that they don’t make one final appearance at the very end to make the appearance feel warranted.

The Ugly Truth

Rogue One manages to successfully stand apart from the Star Wars Saga while still able to keep it’s connections. While the attempts to do this through returning characters doesn’t tend to work particularly well, Gareth Edwards’ fantastically realistic action sequences and Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso are more than enough to bring you back into A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away.

Review by Johnny Ellis

Snowden Review

The Plot

The NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques are leaked to the public by one of the agency’s employees, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in the form of thousands of classified documents distributed to the press.

The Good

Director Oliver Stone brings the story of Edward Snowden to life in this dramatic retelling of actual events. Set between 2004 and 2013, Snowden goes through its titular subjects career from his early days as a patriotic army cadet, through to his work with the NSA and ultimately his whistle blowing which made him a household name around the world. At 2 hours and 14 minutes, Snowden surprisingly feels much shorter. This is thanks mainly to the screenplay, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) which manages to balance the importance of the story with the personal side of Snowden while explaining technical jargon with ease.

Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt embodies the character perfectly in both looks and emotion. As we see Snowden become increasingly paranoid about the morality behind the going-ons at the NSA, Gordon-Levitt manages to bring a thoroughly believable piece of acting across all boards.

Co-starring with Gordon-Levitt as the journalists and documentary maker respectively, are Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson and Melissa Leo who manage to bring as much as their characters can to the film. Nicholas Cage and Rhys Ifans also join as the faces of the NSA, the former a bitter man who gives the alternative viewpoint for how Snowden’s life could have turned, and perhaps Cages best performance in recent years simply due to the fact that he doesn’t have enough screentime to really screw it up. Ifans conversely plays the scenery chewing high-level intelligence operative Corbin O’Brian who serves his role as shady paranoia building character effortlessly.

However, with the film obviously revolving around Snowden himself, the real standout co-star is Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Woodley proves herself yet again to be an actress of particular note no matter what she does (even, Divergent…) and brings some true chemistry alongside Gordon Levitt.

The Bad

Those hoping to find a deeper more thought provoking storyline may feel a tad sidelined with this biopic which, as its title suggests, leans much more heavily upon Snowden himself than the real issues at hand. While Fitzgerald and Stone’s script does indeed manage to balance the two it is perhaps inevitable that it feels like a documentary, like 2014’s Citezenfour would perhaps offer more in the truth and technicalities of the hacking scandal which Snowden does of course still delve into, albeit in a much more popcorn friendly scene involving a Rubik’s cube.

The Ugly Truth

Oliver Stone presents a technically faultless biopic which explores the character of Snowden while also managing to explain the importance of the events surrounding him with ease. Those looking for more information would best be suited for Citezenfour.

Review by Johnny Ellis