Adam Driver

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

21/12/19

In the early 70s, a young filmmaker called George Lucas had a vision. He wanted to make an epic space saga that would consist of nine episodes in total. (And one for which he would, naturally, retain all merchandising rights.) For reasons best known to himself, he decided to begin, in 1977, with episode four of what, for me, is one of the most overrated film franchises in history.

It began well enough – indeed, the first two films are great – but, from that point, it has descended into a whole series of misfires. There’s the one with the Ewoks. And those three awful prequels… oh God, those prequels!

Finally, here we are at episode nine: The Rise of Skywalker. After the bewildering cul de sac of The Last Jedi – and after the ignonimous departure of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow – J J Abrams is back on board to bring the saga to an end. This seemed like a sensible decision when it was first announced. After all, his The Force Awakens was easily the best Star Wars movie in a very long time, a sort of lively ‘best of’ compilation. If anybody could offer a safe pair of hands, surely he was the man? So it’s sad to report that (for my money, at least) this final chapter provides a decidedly lacklustre conclusion.

The plot: a familiar voice from the past is threatening the rebel resistance, which is still being commanded by Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, courtesy of some visual trickery). Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) head off on a quest to try to find where that pesky voice is coming from, accompanied by C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still intent on ruling the universe. And then… ah, who cares? It’s all lumpen and – dare I say it? – dull. I find myself bored after just twenty minutes of viewing. And considering the film opens with an all-out action sequence, that’s a problem.

So what has gone wrong? Is it the unnecessarily complicated storyline that sinks it? The seemingly endless procession of people we think are dead, but aren’t any more? (Maybe even the ones who actually are dead but don’t seem to know it – and I’m not talking about Carrie Fisher here, but the fictional characters.)

Is it the series of hopelessly turgid lightsaber duels that drag it down? The fact that people talk in a series of fridge magnet quotes? Is it that characters still can’t decide if they’re good eggs or dark, demonic nasties? Or is it simply that not enough time has passed since Jedi to allow audiences to summon up enough enthusiasm for this nonsense? Whatever the reasons, by the time we hit the (ho hum) extended space battle climax, I’m looking at my watch and praying for it to be over.

I appreciate that the diehard fans will rally round to support the film, because, well, that’s what Star Wars freaks tend to do but, apart from a couple of scenes here and there, I can’t honestly say that I enjoy this. And that’s a shame because, despite the curse of diminishing returns, Star Wars has had a remarkably good run down the decades and I want it to go out on a high.

Of course, I’m not so dumb as to imagine it’s really going to end here. As long as there’s more money to be made, there will be spin-offs and prequels and homages and tie-ins.

But I seriously doubt I’ll be watching them.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Marriage Story

09/12/19

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a tale of unravelling, of thwarted hope and bitter frustration. Here, divorce rewrites the past, reframing a loving relationship as a decade-long battle, impoverishing its players while enriching their lawyers. For the latter, the higher the stakes, the brighter the rewards; any sense of peace or perspective is lost to their big-dollar game.

Based on Baumbach’s own experiences during his 2013 split from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, this semi-autobiographical movie is told mainly from theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver)’s point of view. His wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), has had enough. He’s cheated on her, and it’s the final straw. She gave up a promising LA film career and relocated to New York to be with him; her fame ensured publicity for his then-fledgling theatre company. Now he’s successful, fêted as the toast of the avant-garde, and he’s stopped paying attention to what she wants.

And what she wants now is a divorce.

Not only that, she’s also moving back to LA, where she’s been offered a part in a TV pilot. Charlie doesn’t rate TV, and he doesn’t think the project will go anywhere, so he doesn’t object when she takes their eight-year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), with her. But Nicole has no intention of returning – why would she? – and, when the pilot is given the green light, she employs a lawyer to help her wrangle the details.

Laura Dern plays Nora Fanshaw, a fancy LA divorce lawyer with a tendency to kick off her heels and over-sympathise, a vulture feigning friendship. She’s terrific in the role, all hard-as-nails faux-comforter and, along with the other lawyers in the piece (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda), provides much light relief in what is, at times, a harrowing story. Young Azhy Robertson is a delight too: his Henry is wonderfully truculent, never saying quite what his parents want him to, refusing to perform for either one of them, turning his deadpan eyes away.

But this is Adam Driver’s movie, really. Johansson performs well too, but we see more of Charlie, understand his grief better, and his failings too. He despises LA, and we share his sense of helplessness as he’s forced to semi-relocate there in order to be a dad, while his New York directing career begins to suffer his absence. Despite their privilege, he and Nicole are nearly broken by the process, their plain apartments in clear contrast with their lawyers’ glitzy offices and designer clothes.

It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but rather funny and lovely too. Catch it on Netflix now.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Dead Don’t Die

13/07/19

Jim Jarmusch’s mumblecore zombie movie, The Dead Don’t Die (or Dawn of the Deadpan, as I like to think of it) is typically understated, the somnolent residents of Centreville downplaying the impending apocalypse even as it overwhelms them.

Bill Murray is the small town’s chief cop, Cliff Robertson, cheerfully supported by officers Ronnie and Mindy (Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny respectively). They’re an easy-going trio without much to tax them, apart from occasionally rebuking Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) for stealing Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi)’s hens.

True, strange things are certainly afoot: fracking has caused the earth to tilt on its access, blurring the lines between day and night; phones don’t work and TVs stutter; pets are missing all over town. But no one pays these things much heed – they shake their heads and carry on, with no real concern for where it might all lead…

The metaphor is hardly subtle. We’re all sleepwalking towards our own destruction, tutting and frowning about climate change and the rise of the far right. Jarmusch’s version of middle America (and, by extension, most of the western world) is not far from reality.

The zombies here (including, marvellously, Iggy Pop) are never really frightening. They’re not too dissimilar from the townsfolk they want to eat: shuffling in pursuit of banal and transient aims. “Wifi!” they moan, “Sweets! Chardonnay! Coffee!” They want what we want, and they move among us – and we won’t know until too late just how dangerous they (we) are. Sure, they’re bloody and hungry and the images are visceral, but it’s all very low-key and unremarked upon. The townsfolk never think to band together, to coordinate a response against their own demise. (Like I said, it’s not subtle.)

Having read several lacklustre reviews, I wasn’t expecting much from this. But I find myself really enjoying it – even the inconsistent post-modernism – largely because of its lugubrious tone. Sure, there are issues: Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton)’s story arc certainly jumps the shark (although Swinton is the luminous enigma you’d expect her to be) and the strand concerning three sweet inmates at the local juvenile detention centre leaves them, well… stranded. But it’s beautifully acted throughout, and – I think – a great addition to the zombie pantheon.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

BlackkKlansman

29/08/18

Spike Lee is a passionate and prolific filmmaker, but few would deny that it’s been a while since he released anything of real gravitas. BlacKkKlansman is therefore, far and away the most exciting movie he’s made in years, even though (perhaps typically for him), it’s far from a straightforward proposition.

Take the opening scenes for example. We get that famous sequence from Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett O Hara wanders through hordes of injured Confederate troops and then cut to a 1950s KKK recruitment film shoot featuring Alec Baldwin as ‘Dr Kinnebrew Beauregard,’ spouting his white supremacist worldview as scenes from D W Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation are projected onto his face. The problem with this is that we’ve already been advised that the film is based on a true story – yet Beauregard is a completely fictional character, a twist that seems to undermine Lee’s good intentions. Why not feature the words of a genuine racist? There are surely plenty to choose from.

But then we are into the ‘fo’ real shit’ as Lee likes to call it – and I can’t help thinking that if this wasn’t a true story, nobody would believe it ever happened. It’s the 1970s and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black man ever employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is eventually allowed to prove his worth and is promoted to the role of undercover cop and, on a slow day in 1979, he impulsively decides to answer a newspaper ad by the Klu Kux Klan, who are looking to form a new chapter. He does this by simply picking up the phone and giving them a call. He hits it off with the man on the other end of the line, former soldier Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), by telling him that he hates blacks, Jews and homosexuals and, on that merit, is promptly invited to pop along for an informal chat.

Obviously, that won’t work, so Stallworth talks his white fellow-cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into impersonating him for the meeting. Despite his Jewish upbringing (the KKK are, after all,  equal opportunities racists), Zimmerman manages to infiltrate the organisation, even hooking up with head honcho David Duke (Topher Grace). Meanwhile, Stallworth is becoming romantically involved with black rights activist, Patrice Dumarr (Laura Harrier), who is unaware that he is a police officer and clearly won’t be pleased if she ever finds out…

The tone of the film veers alarmingly between laugh-out-loud depictions of the KKK’s trusting naivety, sprightly ‘afros and flares’ nightclub scenes, full-tilt action sequences and searing polemics about historical injustice. Veteran screen actor Harry Belafonte appears as Jerome Turner, relating the true story of the horrific murder of black teenager, Jesse Washington, accused of raping a white woman in 1916 (the same year that Birth of a Nation was released). This is intercut with scenes at a Klan get-together, where the film is being screened to an enthusiastic crowd. It’s a powerful concept, beautifully shot, but it’s a tad overlong and there remains the overall conviction that, trimmed down a little, the film could have made all the same points just as effectively. It’s as though, Lee, enthused by the project, wants to throw in every idea he has – and sometimes, less is more. But that said, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, not least Washington’s solid and immensely likeable performance in the lead. Driver is good too, but then, I don’t think I’ve seen him make a bad job of any role he’s undertaken.

Just when I think the whole things’s being neatly wrapped up with a pink bow, Lee brings me suddenly and shockingly up to date, with a montage of recent real life footage that sends the audience stumbling out into the night in stunned silence. There is no doubting the director’s commitment to the cause of black rights and no arguing with his view that the world is in dire danger of slipping back into the kind of horrors we thought had been vanquished forever. It’s a sobering moment.

BlacKkKlansman may not be perfect, but it’s nonetheless a heartfelt and important movie that stays with me, long after viewing.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15/12/17

Well, Episode VIII is suddenly upon us and everybody’s going crazy to see it, so I thought, what the heck, how bad can it be? I know I’ve gone on record as saying that Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises in history, (and I genuinely believe that) but J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was pretty decent stuff, largely because it had the good sense to deliver a sort of ‘greatest hits’ package, featuring all the best bits from A New Hope. This time out, we have writer/director Rian Johnson at the controls and I have to say, rather than the exhilarating flight we had last time, this is more reminiscent of an interminable train journey, packed with passengers you neither know nor care about. Will we ever reach our destination?

Proceedings kick off (of course they do) with a great big space battle, as the tattered remnants of the resistance flee from the overwhelming might of the Empire. (Sound familiar? Get used to it.) You quickly get the sense of worse things to come when the usually reliable Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux is reduced to stamping around and leering at his underlings like a pantomime villain. Yes, there are state-of-the-arts special effects, but I feel completely unmoved by the spectacle. Shortly thereafter, we cut to a remote island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) that he should stop being such a moody monkey and come back to join the rebels. (You may remember this was where we left the previous film.) Luke manages to spend pretty much the entire two hours and thirty two minutes running time trying to make his mind up, though of course, we all know he’ll get there in the end…

This procrastination seems to be key to Johnson’s vision. Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) faffs around trying to decide whether he’s good or bad (when of course we all know which one it is), Rey seems, for quite a while, to be suffering from exactly the same malady and Finn (John Boyega) spends much of his time scampering around a variety of exotic locations with his new sidekick, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). The main problem is, everything feels turgid here and whenever we sense we’re approaching some kind of resolution, we discover that there’s another ending tacked on – and then another, and just for good measure, one more. The film is dedicated to ‘our Princess, Carrie Fisher,’ and perhaps the saddest thing is to see her hanging around in scene-after-scene, with very little to do but look mournful and mutter lines about ‘the Force’. (At one point, the script even has her put into suspended animation, which, I can’t help thinking, doesn’t feel entirely respectful to her memory.)

I’ve already seen a few decent reviews for The Last Jedi and no doubt, the hardcore fans will come out saying they adored it. (They generally do.) But for me, this one ranks very low down the pecking order, better than those terrible prequels, of course (though to be honest being beaten repeatedly over the head with a fresh haddock would be a step up), but limping along behind Rogue One, which at least a few fresh ideas to offer.

I can’t help feeling that the well is running pretty dry and unless somebody comes up with something very inventive soon, it may just be time to press the ‘self-destruct’ button on Star Wars.

Yeah. Like that would ever happen…

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Logan Lucky

07/09/17

It’s four years since Steven Soderbergh made the shock announcement that he was retiring from filmmaking. Mind you, he hasn’t exactly been putting his feet up with a cup of cocoa. There’s the little matter of directing two seasons of medical TV show, The Knick (under an alias) and his involvement in the upcoming project Mosaic (of which I know very little, other than it’s a ‘branching narrative’) So there’s the distinct impression that he may have returned to the big screen with Logan Lucky for a quieter life.

In a way, he’s returning to familiar territory, as this is a heist movie, a path he’s already worn fairly smooth. But put aside all thoughts of the slick, ultra cool Oceans 11. As one character observes in Rebecca Blunt’s caustic script, this is more like Oceans 7/11 – a tattered, down-at-heel story set in West Virginia. (John Denver on the soundtrack? Naturally.)

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his luck former sports star, who loses his job as a bulldozer driver because of an old injury which has left him with a permanent limp. Divorced from his wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and with a precocious young daughter to care for, he comes up with a desperate scheme to make money, one that he shares with his taciturn one-armed war veteran brother, Clyde (Adam Driver). The two of them will rob the Coca Cola 600 Race in Charlotte, Virginia, a massive sporting event that generates millions of dollars. Clyde decides that he’s ‘in’ but, to carry out the robbery, the brothers will need to enlist the services of infamous explosives expert, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, as you have never seen him before). Only problem is, Joe is already doing time for other misdemeanours, so the brothers will need to break him out of jail, do the heist and get him back inside without his presence being missed. Complicated? You bet. Impossible? Well, it’s going to take some planning and, of course, this is exactly the kind of premise that Soderbergh loves to play with.

There’s plenty here to enjoy. Tatum and Driver work well together, even if they are the most unlikely film siblings since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Riley Keough puts in an appealing performance  as Jimmy’s resourceful sister, Mellie, and both Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are brilliant as Joe’s dumb-and-dumber brothers, Fish and Sam, who Joe insists must be brought on board to help expedite the robbery. And Craig really does have a whale of a time as the outlandish explosives expert, addicted to eating hard boiled eggs and able to create explosives from the most innocuous ingredients. Gummy Bears? Who knew?

But not everything in the mix is perfect. I could have done without Seth MacFarlane’s oafish Max Chilblane, sporting an English accent that’s almost as bad as the one employed by Don Cheadle in the Oceans movies. Hilary Swank is mostly wasted in the role of a ruthless investigator trying to nail the perpetrators of ‘the Hillbilly Heist’, given little to do but stand around and glower at people and, in my opinion – at just under two hours – the film is about thirty minutes too long. A leaner, meaner narrative would have helped no end here, but perhaps I’m quibbling. This is a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema and there’s no doubt that Soderbergh has returned to the movie business with a palpable hit.

What next for him, I wonder? Another ‘retirement?’ More TV? And that branching narrative he keeps mentioning? We’ll just have to wait and see.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Silence

03/01/17

If I were ever asked to nominate somebody as ‘Greatest Living Film Director,’ Martin Scorcese would be a serious contender for the title. He has an exceptionally strong and eclectic body of work, which includes bona fide masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Good Fellas –and even occasional misfires like The Last Temptation of Christ are never less than interesting. Silence is a film he’s been trying to make for something like thirty years. Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo and co-written by Scorcese with his old collaborator, Jay Cocks, it’s essentially a meditation on the power of belief – and the lengths to which people will go to in order to observe their chosen religion.

In seventeenth century Portugal, two young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), set themselves a difficult mission – to travel to Japan in search of their old tutor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared whilst trying to convert the locals to Christianity. Rumour has come back that Ferreira has ‘apostatised’ – renounced his faith – and is now living the life of a Buddhist under the watchful gaze of his captors. The young priests refuse to believe that this can be the case and they set off on the perilous journey to Japan, knowing that from the minute they arrive they will be in grave danger. Christians are hated there and are cruelly tortured and executed in large numbers. But that’s not to say that the film is necessarily pro (or anti) Christian; indeed, questions are raised about the very nature of missionary work, and the religious zeal that prompts people to try to force others to accept their ‘truth’.

Silence is a powerful slow-burner of a film, that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. It takes a while to unfold an intriguing story and with a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, it will undoubtedly test the patience of many; but there’s a great deal here to enjoy – the ravishing cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, Dante Feretti’s costume design and a superb central performance by Andrew Garfield, clearly delivering on a role that’s a bit of a stretch from his earlier turn as Spiderman. Liam Neeson, now the go-to guy for any performance requiring gravitas, delivers his cameo role with aplomb and I particularly like Yosuke Kubozuka as the Jesuit’s guide, Kichijiro, a would-be Christian who continually betrays his chosen faith only to come scrabbling back seeking forgiveness through the act of confession.

There are also some scenes of terrible violence here; the unflinching depictions of the barbaric treatment meted out to those who refuse to renounce their faith are not for the faint-hearted. People are burned alive, crucified and drowned all in the name of religion.

As to the film’s central tenet – is there a God? – Scorcese (who himself trained as a priest before deciding to seek his absolution through celluloid) is wise enough to resist offering a definitive answer. In the end, it is left to the individual viewer to decide. But I would urge you to go and see this film. It may have taken a very long time to bring it to the screen, but in my opinion at least, it has been well worth the wait.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Paterson

20/11/16

Jim Jarmusch is one of America’s most respected indie directors. After the somewhat disappointing Only Lovers Left Alive, he’s back on more confident form with this quirky tale of a would-be poet and the daily grind which he must endure, whilst filling all of his available down-time with his cerebral scribblings.

Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey – in typical Jarmusch fashion, this is presented as mere coincidence. By day he’s a bus driver and the film follows a week in his life, starting each morning with him waking up beside his partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and then following him to work, sharing his bus route and after he has returned to one of Laura’s nightmarish attempts at cooking,  accompanying him on his evening walk with Marvin (the couple’s bulldog) which inevitably ends with Paterson having a beer at his local bar. If this sounds dull, rest assured, it’s not. Through Paterson’s eyes we meet a host of fascinating local characters and experience their disparate stories – and we also share Paterson’s attempts to write new poems, which announce themselves onscreen as lines of text. His poems aren’t exactly earth-shattering, (his writing hero is William Carlos Williams, and the influence is apparent) but they do show a real intellect at work, and the fragmentary quality of them is strangely beguiling. I’ve rarely seen a more convincing onscreen portrayal of the writing method.

Back at home, Laura seems completely obsessed with making it big as something – a cake maker, an interior designer, a fashionista, a country and western singer – she’s not fussy, she’ll try anything, despite the fact that she never really rises above the ‘fairly accomplished’ in each successive project she takes on; and in the end, this is essentially what Paterson is about; the way in which people nurture some particular talent they have (or think they have) as a way of dealing with the mundanity of everyday existence.

The film throws us a late googlie-ball in an incident that really is any writer’s worst nightmare.  I  wish Jarmusch had resisted signposting it quite as much as he does; although the gasps from the row behind us suggested that not everyone had seen it coming. This however, is a minor niggle. As a celebration of the creative spirit, Paterson is a little delight, and one that deserves your consideration.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

While We’re Young

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13/04/15

Reviewing Noah Baumbach’s previous film, Frances Ha, I remarked that it was the best Woody Allen movie in ages and I think that still holds true for While We’re Young. The spirit of Woody in his prime haunts this sprightly comedy, though perhaps this is mid-period Woody, around the time of say, Hannah and Her Sisters. This isn’t intended as a criticism, by the way, but as a compliment of the highest order. Even Woody Allen can’t make movies like this any more.

Josh (Ben Stiller) is a once-promising documentary maker who has stalled on his second project, still incomplete after ten years of tinkering with it. His wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is a film producer who works alongside her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin) a documentary maker of near legendary fame, a cross which Josh has had to bear for most of his life. When Josh and Leslie encounter cool young film-maker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his free-spirited girlfriend Darby (Amanda Siefried), they soon find themselves being inexorably drawn into their quirky universe, complete with a change of wardrobe and a visit to a spiritual vomiting course. Jamie professes to be Josh’s greatest fan… and he soon has him working as his collaborator on a new film project – but is Jamie everything he claims to be? Or does he have more mercenary objectives in mind?

The film is funniest when examining the ‘chalk and cheese’ aspects of the two male leads. While Josh plays CD’s, Jamie prefers vinyl. Where Josh frequents Facebook, Jamie prefers scribbling down obscure messages on bits of paper. It soon becomes clear that Jamie is actually a total jerk. Despite that, it’s also obvious that he’s likely to make a big success at his chosen vocation. There are plenty of laughs along the way, but the story falls down somewhat with a conclusion which suggests that people cannot really be complete until they become parents. Since Josh and Cornelia have spent most of the movie professing how lucky they are to have escaped that particular ‘trap,’ it seems a little facile to have them both willingly falling headlong into it.

Still, for all that, this is that rarest of things, an intelligent comedy that hits most of its intended targets with ease. It may not quite be in the same league as Frances Ha, but it’s not so bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

13

Tracks

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23/11/14

This film came and went at the cinema without making much of a splash. Catching up with it on DVD, I found myself wishing I’d managed to see it on the big screen, because its dazzling depictions of the Australian outback are one its strongest features and there are scenes here that are genuinely jaw dropping.

It’s based on the autobiography of Robyn Davidson, who as a teenager in the 1970’s, decided to walk across the Australian desert, (a trip of some 1,700 miles which took her nine months to complete), with just four camels and a dog for company. Quite why she chose to do so remains something of a mystery, as Davidson, as portrayed by Mia Wasikowska, remains something of an enigma throughout, a young woman who shuns the company of her peers and clearly possesses incredible courage and determination. Her only human company for the trip are encounters with aborigines and the occasional meeting along the route with photo journalist, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). His interest in the trip obtained Davidson’s funding from National Geographic and he is required to provide photographic evidence, but apart from one furtive sexual encounter in the desert, he’s mostly treated with the general contempt she doles out to everyone else.

There’s not much of a story arc here. The film unfolds slowly, almost hypnotically, as Davidson walks further and further into the wilderness, suffering thirst, sun burn, hallucinations  and a series of flashbacks based around her troubled childhood. To its credit, it never palls and by the conclusion, you do feel as though you’ve been on the trip yourself. A series of photographs that accompany the credits show just how realistic the film is, with both Wasikowska and Driver looking uncannily like their real life counterparts.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney