JACKIE (Chile | France | USA15A/100mins) Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt. THE PLOT: After the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) in November 1963, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) finds herself not only dealing with the trauma of her husband being shot while sitting beside her, but also organising the assassinated President’s funeral, the almost immediate loss of her standing as First Lady of the US, moving out of the home that she had lovingly restored and considering her husband’s – and her legacy – for generations to come. THE VERDICT: There has been a lot of talk about ‘Jackie’, director Pablo Larraín’s first film to be shot in the US, since Steven Spielberg was once attached to the project as producer, when it was to be a HBO miniseries, and Natalie Portman has been Golden Globe nominated for her performance as the bereaved, strong but fragile Jackie Kennedy.
Natalie Portman, as the title might suggest, is the heart and soul of ‘Jackie’. Framed around an interview with an unnamed journalist – played by Billy Crudup – the story of the film is told through flashback, and Portman does an impressive job in making Jackie a strong but guarded woman, yet one that is fascinating and difficult to look away from. It is in the quieter moments of the film that Portman truly excels – although scenes of ‘Jackie’ in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s shooting are incredibly powerful – and Portman is luminous and utterly engaging in the lead role. The rest of the cast features Peter Sarsgaard in a pivotal role as Bobby Kennedy, Billy Crudup as the challenging and challenged journalist around whose interview the film is framed, John Hurt sporting a great Irish accent, as well as compassion and heart as Jackie’s priest, as well as Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, Beth grant and John Carroll Lynch.
It is almost surprising that the screenplay for ‘Jackie’ was written by Noah Oppenheim, whose previous films are the YA dystopias The Maze Runner and Allegiant, since this is a complex, dignified and telling portrait of grief, legacy and fame. Natalie Portman has some great lines as Jackie, and is always biting, smart and quick, and it is this that allows the audience to truly get to know the character. Focusing the film on the four days after JFK’s assassination means that ‘Jackie’ is a film about grief and trauma – themes that are universal, but also personal and private – but shining the spotlight of fame and legacy on these, since Jackie was a public figure, makes for compelling viewing. One complaint, if there is one to be made, is with the final few minutes of the film, which has the feeling that the film could end at any time, but seems to drag its heels.
As director, Pablo Larraín makes sure that the film is firmly focused on the personal, the feeling of being left behind to deal with the trauma of having someone snatched away so suddenly and so cruelly. Larraín coaxes a wonderful performance from Portman, who could easily have hidden behind Kennedy’s distinctive accent and manner of speaking, but makes this a facet of her personality, rather than a curiosity. Although ‘Jackie’ has wonderful dialogue, it is in the quiet, almost silent moments of the film that it excels, with Jackie walking through the halls of the White House, almost like a ghost. Larraín excels most in humanising a woman that many know the image of, but few her personality, and allowing the audience to root for a bereaved woman whose world has suddenly been turned upside down.
In all, ‘Jackie’ is a fascinating and compelling piece of work. Natalie Portman cements her place as a powerful actress, and excels at humanising Jackie Kennedy and bringing her to life. The rest of the cast do well, and Larraín directs carefully, the only complaint about the film is that with several false endings in the final few moments, ‘Jackie’ begins to feel drawn out, even though the pacing until then has been strong. That said, ‘Jackie’ is a powerful and engaging portrait of grief, fame and strength. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
SPLIT (USA/15A/117mins) Directed by M. Night Shymalan. Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley. THE PLOT: After Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) goes for a meal with some of her classmates, she accepts a lift home from one of their parents. As Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) are engrossed in their phones in the backseat of the car, it is only Casey who notices that the man who gets into the driver’s seat is not her friend’s father. When the three awake in a locked room, they realise they have been taken hostage, but not by one person; it seems as though there are many personalities living inside one man’s body. THE VERDICT: ‘Split’ feels like a companion piece to ‘Unbreakable’ in some ways, M. Night Shymalan’s 2000 thriller, in that this is a film that focuses on the physical aspects of one person, and whether the power of suggestion and belief is enough to change someone physically. While there may be merit to this idea, the fact that ‘Split’ is a film about a man struggling with multiple personalities, but the film focuses on the physical, is problematic from the beginning.
The cast of ‘Split’ do well in their roles, Anya Taylor-Joy makes Casey the heart of the film, and the more we learn about her, the more we empathise with this seemingly vulnerable character. Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson have less to do, but they hold their own on screen, and Betty Buckley makes Dr. Fletcher an engrossing character, as she struggles to get through to the young man in her care. James McAvoy plays every other character in the film, to illustrate the fact that he is a man living with Dissociative Identity Disorder. McAvoy does well with most of the characters, making them feel fully fleshed out and real, and any disservice he manages is the fault of the script, and not the man who plays a 9 year old, a prissy and controlling woman, a flamboyant fashion designer and someone a lot more sinister.
M. Night Shymalan’s screenplay is divided into three parts; the kidnap drama, the sessions that McAvoy has with his therapist Dr Fletcher, and flashbacks to when Casey went hunting with her father and uncle. The flashbacks help to round Casey out, and allow the audience to understand why she responds differently to her situation than the other girls she is captured with, while there are times when the kidnap drama is interesting and engaging, especially when interspersed with a seemingly well-balanced character going to therapy. It is in the second and third acts of the film that everything begins to fall apart; the depiction of mental health – and the manifestation of the idea that your thoughts influence your body – is a troubling one, and never truly sits well with the rest of the film. The idea of watching a man struggle with multiple personalities on screen has never truly been done so explicitly before, and watching Casey react to them is an interesting one, but Shymalan treats the character’s mental health issues like a path to superheroism – much like Unbreakable – rather than something that exists within the world that we know.
As director, Shymalan tries to make ‘Split’ a good old fashioned thriller, but the world of the film does not feel heightened enough to support a character like the one – ones!? – that McAvoy plays. The portrayal of mental health issues in ‘Split’ are problematic from the start, and they only get worse as Shymalan tries to make his main character believable. The performances are strong in the film, but the pacing struggles, ‘Split’ looks great, but it is hard to shake the feeling that the film is silly, and potentially dangerous.
In all, ‘Split’ is a well-acted, well-shot but decidedly silly and problematic film. Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy shine, but ‘Split’ is troubling in its depiction of mental health issues, and the film is simply too long for questions not to arise. RATING: 2/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
LION (Australia/PG/118mins) Directed by Garth Davis. Staring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar. THE PLOT: 25 years after he fell asleep on a decommissioned train and awoke in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home, Saroo (Dev Patel) – now living in Australia, having been adopted by an Tasmanian couple – sets out to find out just where he came from, with the hope of being reunited with the family he lost so many years before. THE VERDICT: Based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, and adapted from his book ‘A Long Way Home’, ‘Lion’ is a heartbreaking and engrossing film, but definitely one of two halves. The first, which tells just how young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) came to be lost on the streets of Calcutta is almost silent, powerful and enlightening, but the second, where the adult Saroo sets out on an almost impossible mission to find his home using Google Earth is a lot more conventional, but no less moving.
Sunny Pawar, the young actor who plays Saroo as a child, is the heart and soul of ‘Lion’. A tiny child with huge eyes, Pawar inhabits the character of Saroo and not only makes the child likeable and gutsy, but also vulnerable and lost with ease. Dev Patel carries on the role of adult Saroo carefully, there are still touches of the lost child within the character, but he also makes Saroo confident and tenacious as he searches for his family. Nicole Kidman dials it way back as the likeable and gentle Sue Brierley, making the character very much a supporting one, Rooney Mara shows there is more to her than restraint and coldness with the warm and relatable Lucy, and David Wenham rounds out the cast as John Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive father.
The story is based on Saroo Brierley’s book ‘A Long Way Home’, but screenwriter Luke Davies – whose previous works include Candy and Life – obviously changed some details to make the story work for the screen. The choice to have the first half of the film almost silent, with very little dialogue, serves to underline how lost young Saroo is, compounded by the fact that he does not speak Bengali. Almost all of the first half of the film is told through the visual, and this allows young Saroo to be the live and relatable heart of the story; we have all been momentarily lost as children, and this first half of the film draws this out with frightening effect. The second half of ‘Lion’, as mentioned, becomes more conventional, as the adult Saroo finds himself obsessed with solving the mystery of where he came from. Still economical on dialogue, it is undeniable that the story is moving, but there are times where the second half of ‘Lion’ feels predictable and obvious as to where it is headed. It is in the last few minutes, however, that ‘Lion’ claws back the good will created in the beginning, with a moving and carefully handled finale.
Director Garth Davis has coaxed wonderfully understated performances from most of his cast, and by allowing Sunny Pawar to carry the first half of the film, makes sure that the emotion and affection created by the young actor carries through to the second half of the film. All of the cast are remarkably on form, and play characters we recognise from our own lives, making sure that this outlandish true story feels as though it could have happened to any of us. Add to this Greig Fraser’s beautiful cinematography underlines the power that the idea of home carries.
In all, ‘Lion’ lives and dies by dividing the tale into two halves; the first is engrossing, moving and utterly remarkable, before the second heads down more familiar roads. That said, ‘Lion’ contains powerful performances, unusually economical dialogue and beautiful cinematography. Even though it is clear where ‘Lion’ is headed, it is a beautiful and rewarding journey, full of thrills and hear, to go on. Oh, and keep an eye out for Sunny Pawar, he is a tiny powerhouse. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE (USA/12A/107mins) Directed by D.J. Caruso. Starring Vin Diesel, Toni Collette, Samuel L. Jackson, Roby Rose, Nina Dobrev. THE PLOT: Long believed to be dead, former xXx agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) comes out of retirement when a powerful weapon known as Pandora’s Box is stolen from the CIA. THE VERDICT: Fifteen years after he last played Xander Cage – the character did not appear in 2005’s ‘xXx: State of the Union’, Vin Diesel returns to kick some ass and save the world, in a deeply flawed, loud and dumb action flick.
As mentioned Vin Diesel returns to the role he last played in 2002, making Xander Cage a tough, rebellious character who is prone to a quip before saving the day. The rest of the cast features Ruby Rose, Samuel L. Jackson, Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev and Toni Collette, who only just about manages to make the expository and clichéd dialogue her character is given work. The rest of the cast labour under stereotypical roles, with the women coming out particularly badly; Dobrev’s character manages to introduce herself by telling Xander Cage her safe word, and it’s all downhill from there.
Scott Frazier’s screenplay focuses squarely on the action sequences, with the storyline – something about crashing satellites and double crosses – coming resolutely second. The characters in the film are given little chance to come across as real people, and the women in the film are little more that objects of desire, even as they kick ass, they manage to look sexualised as they do it. The dialogue is cheesy and cliché, and the story often defies logic in order to make Cage look just that little bit better and more badass.
Director D.J. Caruso obviously relishes the action sequences in the film, which are mostly well-realised and corny dialogue aside, a bit of brainless fun, but he gives his actors little chance to round their characters out and make them anything more than one dimensional. There is definite feel of misogyny about the whole film, as lingering camera shots down women’s bodies, overly sexualised costumes and love scenes that arrive out of nowhere make sure that women are objectified and discarded as soon as the film has no use for them.
In all,’ xXx: The Return of Xander Cage’ is a film for the fans of the franchise. If, however, you like your action movies big, dumb and loud, and your women completely objectified, then this is the movie for you. RATING: 1/5 Review by Brogen Hayes