Just to be Sure

This latest French comedy from director Carine Tardiou (The Dandelions) mines predictable plot points without following through in the ways we might typically expect. With Just to be Sure, Tardiou, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to seamlessly blend humour and drama with Belgian actor Francois Damiens (so good in The Belier Family and fabulous again here) as a 45-year-old widower who learns that the man he grew up with, and with whom he enjoys a good relationship, is not his biological father. Of course, the dilemma comes in his desire to find his real father and, like so many French comedies, the story that ensues is entertaining, subtle and clever with the director and her cast handling the poignant material every bit as well as the lighter moments. Erwan is a bomb-disposal expert who has forgone working in more exotic locales to take on the responsibility of clearing old wartime munitions from local beaches, ostensibly to be available as a means of support to his heavily-pregnant daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing).

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Father and daughter share an apartment and it is when Juliette undertakes a medical examination to rule out a potentially serious genetic disorder (hence the film’s title) that the truth of Erwan’s paternity is revealed, insofar as it reveals that his father Bastien (Guy Marchand) is not the man from whom he was spawned. In quick time, a private investigator identifies Joseph Levkine (Andrew Wilms), a former activist who is struggling to maintain his dignity amidst the physical and social limitations of life as an old man, as Erwan’s biological father. Whilst returning from a visit with Joseph, Erwan encounters the straight-talking doctor Anna (Cecile de France) and is instantly smitten but, of course, there needs to be an obstacle standing in the way of true love and, in this instance, it is the somewhat problematic fact that Anna happens to be Joseph’s daughter, something that he becomes aware of before her and results in a very humorous scene on the beach as the genial Erwan fends off Anna’s advances.

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Now, this is a romantic comedy so, needless to say, there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome and, although there is considerable ambiguity with regard to how it is that these two can be together that only muddies the waters further with regard to the paternity of both of them, it is inevitable that love will prevail. Damiens and de France bring a great chemistry to two characters whose personalities are poles apart. Both Joseph and Bastien are dignified and vulnerable and it is a great credit to the two actors that neither character ever demands that you feel sorry for them. In fact, the whole cast is great and the characters are all believable (except perhaps for the bumbling Didier, who seems like he is from another film altogether), however de Lencquesaing is the standout as the feisty Juliette who, despite Erwan’s current obsession with fathers and family ties, is adamant that her child will be better off not knowing who its father is and refuses to reveal the identity of the baby daddy.

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There is so much to like about this film that there is every reason to be concerned that a Hollywood studio boffin will decide that an American remake is needed, which of course it isn’t. As it is, Just to be Sure is perfectly fine. From the performances to the way in which Tardieau juggles a lot of heavy issues with a delightfully deft touch, drawing upon the predictabilities and coincidences that drive romantic comedies whilst still delivering something that is quite different, Just to be Sure is an enjoyably intelligent study of fatherhood, family and forgiveness.

The Disaster Artist

The biggest problem with this latest directorial effort from James Franco is not the quality of the film, but more the fact that its mere existence continues to allow a manifestly untalented, delusional and seemingly unpleasant person to bask in the spotlight that has been inexplicably thrust his way for no discernible reason. An individual should not be celebrated for producing a movie that is widely regarded as the worst ever made. Having secured a degree of infamy as the man responsible for The Room, a film that set new standards for ineptitude both behind and in front of the camera, the release of The Disaster Artist has afforded Tommy Wiseau the opportunity to again revel in the infamy of his abject mediocrity. Even though Franco, who also takes on the lead role, doesn’t paint the narcissistic Wiseau in a particularly pleasant light, the fact that he fails to explore the myriad mistruths that Wiseau has perpetuated about his life does raise questions about what Franco was really hoping to achieve. Sure, The Disaster Artist is entertaining enough and is Franco’s most accomplished effort as a director, but in simply reiterating that The Room is awful and Wiseau a clueless clown, the film doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know.

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Adapted from the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the film tells the story of the making of The Room from the perspective of Sestero, an actor who befriended Wiseau and subsequently found himself featuring in the film. From the physical aspects of his persona – such as his accent or ridiculous hair – to his psychological shortcomings, James Franco is pitch perfect as Wiseau, a character who is so ridiculous that it would be impossible to believe such a person exists if we didn’t already know that he does. A delusional dolt who sees his continued failure to secure any acting roles as a conspiracy rather than a reflection of the fact that he has no talent, Wiseau decides that the only way to make a name for himself as an actor is to create his own project. There is nothing wrong with such an approach and plenty of successful actors have been ‘discovered’ in small, independent films made outside of the Hollywood machine. The difference in this instance is that Wiseau actually has very little knowledge about any aspect of the film making process yet refuses to cede any aspect of the production to those who do.

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Given that The Disaster Artist is adapted from his book, it is perhaps not surprising that Sestero (played by Dave Franco) is pitched as the hero of the piece, sacrificing other opportunities to remain loyal to Wiseau’s vision, even if it is a vision that nobody else understands. Wiseau is dismissive of any advice that is forthcoming and becomes increasingly hostile and dismissive of the crew led by Sandy (Seth Rogan) as the costs mount. Jackie Weaver, Josh Hutcherson and Zac Efron make hilarious cameos as characters in the film within the film, while Alison Brie features as Greg’s girlfriend Amber and the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Bryan Cranston, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith and Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some) also pop in for the briefest of bits, however it is Judd Apatow who steps up as an unnamed Hollywood producer who proves the only person willing to tell Wiseau exactly what he needs to hear (which, of course, falls on deaf ears).

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In recent years Franco has himself become the subject of much ridicule with some strange career choices, a penchant for provocation and an unwavering belief that he is a master of all trades, but The Disaster Artist serves as a reminder that he is, first and foremost, an actor of considerable talent. He is extremely good here, nailing Wiseau’s strange mannerisms and exploring the insecurities buried beneath the bravado. It’s easy to laugh at Wiseau, and the film does that in spades, but it is much harder to care about him and, as a result, we tend to extend our sympathies to the other characters. In the vein of Florence Foster Jenkins, the rousing finale demonstrates that even a really bad performance can bring great joy to those who witness it, just not for the reasons the artist might have hoped.

Wonder Wheel

Write a screenplay. Make a movie. It seems as straightforward as that for Woody Allen and therein perhaps lies the problem. Seemingly with the freedom to make whatever ideas he develops, usually on a miniscule budget and with no studio interference, Allen has churned out at least one film (and sometimes more) every year since winning two Academy Awards for Annie Hall in 1978. The problem is though that Allen, whose every work these days exists in the shadow of the accusations and controversies of his private life, seems to be more occupied with maintaining this level of output than he is with developing his ideas to their fullest potential, which often results in considerable inconsistencies in both the quality of his various productions and individual elements within each film. As such, the quality performers that Allen invariably secures for each of his productions are often hamstrung by moments that suffer, or so it seems at least, from a lack of oversight.

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This is very much the case with Wonder Wheel as Allen again mixes some impressive elements (particularly in light of his budget limitations) with some moments that are almost laughable in their execution, largely due to a screenplay that not even the likes of Kate Winslet or Justin Timberlake can elevate to something beyond mediocre. Winslet is Ginny, the put-upon wife of alcoholic Coney Island carousel operator Humpty (James Belushi) with a son whose only interests are, apparently, watching movies and lighting fires, sometimes at the same time. The three live in a small apartment directly behind the Ferris wheel from which the film takes its name. When Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives unannounced after ditching her mobbed-up husband, a frustrated Ginny finds herself falling under the spell of charismatic lifeguard Mickey (Timberlake), who serves as the fourth-wall breaking narrator whose running commentary adds little of consequence. Nothing he says during his several to-camera monologues is particularly insightful with regard to the various characters, the relationships between them and the course of events in which they find themselves embroiled. Rather than adopting the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to his storytelling, Allen has opted to show AND tell, which becomes somewhat infuriating as the film progresses. If we are going to see it unfold anyway, we don’t need the commentary from Mickey.

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When Carolina also finds herself charmed by Mickey, tension mounts between the two women as a hapless Humpty finds himself in the cross hairs oblivious to the goings-on despite everything unfolding quite literally within the confines of Coney Island. In many ways, Humpty can be likened to Ralph Kramden from the 1950’s television sketch comedy The Honeymooners – short tempered, frequently yelling and making hollow threats – but Belushi falls a long way short of making Humpty as likeable as Jackie Gleason does Krampton. In fact, as the film progresses, it becomes impossible to shake the notion that John Goodman in this role might have resulted in a character significantly less simplistic and soporific. It is the distinct lack of nuance in Belushi’s portrayal of Humpty that makes his performance a less than memorable manifestation of a character who, to be fair, is a wholly unremarkable individual.

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Allegations of sexual abuse have dogged Allen for years in the aftermath of his marriage to his teenage stepdaughter so when Ginny, in a jealous rage, accuses Humpty of having an ‘unnatural attachment’ to his daughter, you can’t help but cringe a little before you begin to question whether this a conscious act of provocation from the 82 year-old fimmaker, or whether he is simply incapable of seeing how this moment might leave many viewers feeling particularly icky. Far from Allen’s best work, yet still a cut above his worst, Wonder Wheel is beautifully shot at times but the constant transitions between bright colour palettes become a distraction, as if they have been designed specifically to mask the deficiencies in the screenplay and the lack of character development that prevents the film from leaving any lasting impression.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Rest assured that no deer, sacred or otherwise, was harmed in the making of this film, the follow-up to The Lobster from director Yorgos Lanthimos. The title is apparently inspired by the mythic Greek tale of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, the king who led the Greeks into battle against the Trojans. When Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to Artamis – the goddess of hunting, the wilderness and wild animals – Iphigenia’s life is sacrificed in retaliation for her father’s indiscretion. This is, essentially, the plot for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with the series of events transplanted to a contemporary setting where Agamemnon is now Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a skilled surgeon who finds himself faced with an impossible decision in the aftermath of an operation that resulted in the death of a patient.

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There is a sense of unease from the moment the movie opens due to the stilted, monotone dialogue delivery and the distinct, almost robotic, lack of emotion that pervades every conversation. Sensing an opportunity to atone for what we later learn may have been an act of negligence, Steven has befriended Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of the man who died in surgery. Something seems off-kilter with the relationship between them though – and we don’t learn of the circumstances of their connection until later – with Steven introducing Martin to his colleagues as a friend of Kim’s. Steven buys gifts for Martin and, as their relationship develops, he invites him into his family circle, which includes his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and young son Bob (Sunny Suljic). There is something equally off-putting about the Murphy family dynamic and it’s not only the fact that Steven likes Anna to pretend to be under general anaesthesia when he has sex with her. It is when Bob suddenly collapses and can no longer walk that Martin’s true intentions are revealed and the tension amps up as the Murphy’s find themselves at the mercy of Martin’s merciless ultimatum.

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Fresh from their work together on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Farrell and Kidman are the marquee names, but it is Keoghan who steals the show when it comes to performance. He is astounding as a vengeful, manipulative, pathologically resentful young man whose penchant for revenge is understandable, even if the way in which it plays out requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. The fact that Martin ingratiates himself with Steven and his family is difficult to fathom given he is such an oddball character whose best attempts at charm come across as creepy, although nobody seems to notice until it is too late. It is not surprising the Keoghan, who first came to notice as the wide-eyed innocent George in Dunkirk, has been mentioned in despatches as an awards contender though because it really is a remarkable achievement that he makes you so uncomfortable long before you actually have any tangible reason to feel that way.

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Darkly comic at times and utterly bizarre at others, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is populated by characters devoid of any redeeming qualities that might engender our sympathy for their plight, yet it is somewhat mesmerising and quite poetic at times. Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, Blast from the Past) features in one scene as Martin’s mother and it certainly would have been good to see more of her character, particularly with regard to her relationship with Martin. A mixture of stylised realism and the supernatural, Lanthimos has delivered a film that is both horrifying and hilarious in its satirical skewering of the ‘perfect family’. Much like his previous work, this will no doubt leave some amazed and others appalled and that, it seems, is exactly how he likes it.