Film reviews: Stronger | Brigsby Bear | Better Watch Out | The Dinner | Blade of the Immortal

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany in Stronger
Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany in Stronger
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Based on the true-life tale of Boston Marathon bomb victim Jeff Baumer, Stronger is a well-intentioned attempt to show the human cost of the attack but the central performances feel forced

Stronger (15) **

Brigsby Bear (15) ***

Better Watch Out (15) **

The Dinner (15) ***

Blade of the Immortal (18) ****

The 2013 Boston Marathon attacks have already inspired this year’s underrated true-life action thriller Patriots Day. Now we get the Oscar-baiting human side of the trauma in the form of Stronger, a true life triumph-over-adversity tale starring Jake Gyllenhaal as marathon spectator Jeff Baumer. Baumer lost both his legs during the attack and subsequently became a poster-boy for the city’s “Boston Strong” motto of resilience, in part because he helped identify the bombers from his hospital bed. All of which makes it easy to understand the cinematic appeal of his story and, at its best, Stronger attempts to wrestle with Baumer’s struggle to live up to the hero image conferred upon him while simultaneously negotiating the terrible pain and lifestyle readjustments he has to confront following the loss of his limbs. But while Gyllenhaal digs deep in a very sincere way, the mechanics of his performance are very visible and the scenes depicting his difficulties and his progress play like highlights from an awards-show-friendly sizzle reel. It’s certainly getting harder to justify these kinds of performances when disabled actors are routinely passed over for high profile roles of this nature. It doesn’t help that his family – at least on film – conform so rigorously to the loud-mouthed, consonant-dropping, dysfunctional hellions that have become the norm in Boston-set movies since The Fighter. Miranda Richardson even does her best Melissa Leo impression as Baumer’s mother Patty, a scorned woman competing for the affections of her son with his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), whose participation in the marathon is the reason Jeff was on the finish line in the first place. Sadly, indie director David Gordon Green isn’t as adept as David O Russell in capturing these family dynamics in an organic way and the end result, however well-intentioned, rings a little false.

Cannily capitalising on the imminent release of a certain blockbuster next week, Brigsby Bear casts Mark Hamill in a small but entertaining role as a delusional children’s entertainer responsible for creating a beloved 1980s-style kids’ TV show. That it’s beloved by his son James and no one else is the initially intriguing hook as it quickly becomes apparent that the now adult James (played by Saturday Night Live mainstay Kyle Mooney) has grown up in isolation in an underground bunker, learning everything he knows about the world from obsessively watching VHS copies of Brigsby Bear Adventures. With new episodes mysteriously arriving on tape each week, James doesn’t see anything odd about his life until the FBI raids his home and reintegrates him into a civilisation he didn’t know existed. What follows plays like a cross between Netflix show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth — though sadly without the wit of the former or the satirical bite of the latter. Instead, director Dave McCary and co-writers Mooney and Kevin Costello deliver a sweet, albeit overly quirky, film about the power of imagination, the importance of following your dreams and the need to connect with the real world once in a while. It’s pretty inconsequential, although Hamill – drawing on 40 years of Star Wars conventions – remains good value as the benign-seeming weirdo intent on imparting life lessons via a mythologically dense space saga.

It’s hard to sit through Christmas horror movie Better Watch Out and not wonder how much better it could have been had someone done it as an intense arthouse movie instead of a cheap-looking mainstream one. Revolving around a 12-year-old boy (Levi Miller) and the babysitter (Olivia DeJong) on whom he has a crush, what starts off as a seasonal spin on a boiler-plate home invasion slasher movie takes an unexpectedly dark and nasty turn with all kinds of disturbing implications, none of which the film seems remotely adept or interested in exploring. The end result plays like an uncomfortable – and not in a good way – mash-up of Funny Games and Home Alone (a film Better Watch Out explicitly references). The idea is interesting, but the execution is too tacky to make it fly.

A morality play built around a ridiculously elaborate meal, The Dinner casts Richard Gere and Steve Coogan as unlikely siblings dutifully meeting up with their respective wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall – both excellent) to figure out a plan for dealing with a horrifying incident involving their teenage children that has the potential to tear everyone’s lives and careers apart. Cast as a history teacher dealing with mental health issues, Coogan’s character is intentionally exasperating for much of the movie, but there’s something intriguing about the way his character and Gere’s, a silver-tongued politician, subvert the expected norms in a movie that’s also about class

privilege and social responsibility. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the resolution feels more confused than ambiguous.

Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike delivers his 100th film with Blade of the Immortal, an entertainingly outré action-fest that plays like a fantastical companion piece to his masterful samurai

blood-fest 13 Assassins. Takuya Kimura plays Manji, a samurai cursed – Wolverine-style – with immortality. Determined to reclaim his soul after decades of bloodshed, he agrees to help a teenage girl

avenge her parents’ murder. A lot more bloodshed duly ensues, but even at a patience-stretching two-hour-plus running time, the mayhem Miike unleashes is deliriously inventive. ■