Tightly Wrought Tension – Borg McEnroe (2017) Movie Review

January 23rd, 2018

I’ve been a big fan of tennis for almost twenty years. It was during the 2001 Wimbledon championships that I first got drawn in to the highly athletic and psychological sport, as Tim Henman vied to become the first British champion in sixty five years. He ended up losing in a five set semi-final clash to Croatian player Goran Ivanišević, who remains the only man to enter the tournament as a wildcard and win the whole thing. I experienced the agony of defeat and the surprise of not knowing when the tide could turn, at any moment, on any point. The match was halted and restarted multiple times due to rain, which threw both players off and perhaps cost Henman his last shot at winning the big one.

That’s why I love tennis, because of the stories it can create. One one side you had Henman, searching to prove himself and to validate his own country’s tournament by giving them a home grown champion once more. And on the other, Ivanišević, who had struggled for years to win at Wimbledon, reaching the finals numerous times, and by 2001 had slipped so far down the rankings it was only as a wildcard that he gained entry to the tournament.

I love the sport, I love the one versus one intensity of the game. I love the immense precision and athletic ability required to become great at it, but the stories, the rivalries and the moments are what make it so special. One of the greatest stories in tennis history was the rivalry between Swedish world number 1 Björn Borg and American John McEnroe. It spanned numerous matches but was never more momentous than when they met in the 1980 Wimbledon Men’s finals.

Borg, having won the previous four tournaments consecutively, was on course to be crowned as the five time champion, while McEnroe was chasing his first. Borg was known as the Ice Man, cool, calm and collected, never any emotion on the court. He simply played tennis, and he dominated. McEnroe however, was the complete opposite. Hot tempered, foul mouthed, controversial. He was nicknamed “SuperBrat” in the UK, and his presence at the All England Club wasn’t exactly the most welcome.

When the 1980 tournament had reached its final, the only two men left were Borg and McEnroe. Ice and fire, steely and emotional. To tell you (if you haven’t seen it, or know of the outcome) what happened in the match would be spoiling things some what, but to say enough that McEnroe was booed when he walked out for the final, and managed to win the hearts of the crowd by the end is just one part of what made the match so special.

McEnroe and Borg

The 2017 film, Borg McEnroe (directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen), seeks to capture not just this historic, legendary tennis match that many call the greatest ever played (hotly contested by the 2008 Nadal/Federer Wimbledon final), but the inner workings of both Borg and McEnroe’s psyches during the tournament. Which I’m ecstatic to say, it pulled off wonderfully. Most tennis films are primarily focused on an element beyond the sport and the psychology that goes behind it. 2004’s Wimbledon was more about the romance between Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, and 2017’s Battle of the Sexes was more about the feminist movement Billie Jean King was spearheading in the 1970s.

Borg McEnroe (which is titled differently everywhere: Borg/McEnroe, Borg Vs McEnroe, or in Sweden, where it’s simply and probably more appropriately, titled Borg) acutely focuses in on the pressure that Borg was placing on himself to win Wimbledon again, and McEnroe’s frustration at being talked about more for his on court tempter tantrums than his tennis. If I could level any criticism at the film, it would be that it really is more about Borg, which for the most part, is fine.

We get extensive flashbacks to Borg’s childhood, and his (apparent, and this is where the stickler in me wants to know how true this all was) own foul temper as a young teen training in Sweden. The two young actors portraying the younger Borg were excellent, especially Borg’s own son Leo. These scenes paint a much broader picture of who Borg was, and everything that was leading to his fifth attempt at the Wimbledon title. Not only were they extremely well done, the placing and editing of these flashbacks was superb, dropping in and out of the current 1980 timeline of the movie at the right moments, to where you feel like you’re entering inside Borg’s own doubt-ridden mind.

As for McEnroe, not so much. We get a handful of flashback scenes to his younger self, but there’s not much meat to it and while they work well enough, the balance between the two “back stories” of the two men definitely feels lopsided. Shia LaBeouf was surprisingly convincing as McEnroe, and the casting seems like an obvious one, almost a ploy. However the word is that Shia approached the filmmakers about the part himself, feeling a strong connection with McEnroe’s early struggles as a misunderstood person in the public eye.

Another minor niggle I have is that some of McEnroe’s outbursts to the media and umpire/crowd on court feel just a little bit overdone. I could be off base, but I don’t recall seeing much footage of McEnroe going around telling everyone to shut the fuck up at every opportunity. Yet, Shia really brings a level of believability to McEnroe’s personality that is very watchable. You get the sense that he’s still just a kid, hungry and focused yet still a loose canon. What he loses in looking nothing like a young John McEnroe, Shia gains back in nailing the fiery spirit of him.

Sverrir Gudnason however, is the true revelation here, slipping into the physical resemblance of Borg as if the filmmakers had brought the man himself back from 1980 in a DeLorean. The likeness is truly startling at first, and a true testament to Gudnason’s good genes that he’s in his late thirties playing a man in his early twenties rather convincingly. His acting though is top notch, and he captures the restrained resolve of Borg immaculately. With Shia LaBeouf there’s a little bit of getting past the fact that it’s Shia LaBeouf, but with Gudnason, you just believe you’re watching Borg in front of your eyes, and that’s really quite exciting.

The editing is a true standout, and really puts the film up a notch for me. Not just in the timing of the different strands of both men’s lives that are woven throughout almost every couple of scenes, but the timing of the tennis scenes. Which for the most part do take a back seat to the inner workings of Borg and McEnroe’s mentalities off the court. This was a good move, as by the time we get to the climactic match between the two, the tennis truly takes center stage, as it should. The production design needs to be singled out too, as it felt very authentic to the time period without pushing it too hard to the point of distraction.

And if all of those elements being executed to such a high standard wasn’t good enough, we’re also treated to two outstanding supporting performances from Tuva Novotny as Borg’s fiancee, Mariana Simionescu, and the ever trusty Stellan Skarsgård as Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin. Novotny really conveyed a strong yet underappreciated support to Borg in Mariana, with a quiet restraint that moved me quite a bit. As for Skarsgård, he excels as the coach that only wants the best for Borg, but has difficulty in continuing to fulfill his role as the boy he once coached to stardom has now become his own man. The flashback scenes with Skarsgård’s Bergelin wrestling with a young Borg’s tempestuousness are among the best in the film.

Even though I knew the outcome of the match, the tightly wrought tension (which had been beautifully built, simmering and bubbling throughout the entire film) was literally palpable, and I found myself clenching and unclenching my fingers throughout. The unbearable pressure that both men are put under, both by the world and themselves, is finally released, not in an explosion, but in a slowly unwinding and mentally grueling fashion. Gudnason puts in an unforgettable performance here, and Shia is really not that that far behind, servicing (eh? … eh?) his part in the story exceptionally well, especially in his final moments.

I truly love movies that capture these lightning in a bottle sports rivalries (Rush, from Ron Howard, is a great one), the kinds that can’t be manufactured. They can be marketed and sold (like Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry so quickly was) but the stories of these rivalries are written on the fly, the magic moments appearing out of thin air, through personality, will, character, skill and heart. A masterful depiction of how great tennis can be, and easily the best tennis film ever made. If you can point me in the direction of one better, I’d gladly give it a look.

 

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Achingly Convincing (for the most part) – Jungle (2017) Movie Review

January 21st, 2018

Jungle, set in the early 1980s, tells the true story of Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli backpacker eager to explore the uncharted areas of the Amazon. Traveling with two friends he’d made along the way (Marcus Stamm, a Swiss teacher, and Kevin Gale, an American photographer), Yossi enlisted help to explore the jungle from an Austrian man named Karl Ruprechter, who claimed to know where to find an indigenous village deep in the Amazon.

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Choices of Violence – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) Movie Review

January 14th, 2018

A particularly popular film from the 2000s that has always seemed to slip out of my viewing schedules (I even owned it on Blu-ray for a few years) is In Bruges. From what I gather it’s a dark comedy from director Martin McDonagh, set in Bruges. Everyone raves about it. One day I might actually get around to seeing it (cue people messaging me that I REALLY need to see it).

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Discounted Worth – The Florida Project (2017) Movie Review

January 12th, 2018

A couple of years ago I saw a film called Tangerine that was picking up buzz as a feature film entirely shot on iPhones. Beyond the gimmick itself (which was nicely pulled off), I quite enjoyed the film and was quite keen to see director Sean Baker’s next film: The Florida Project. Unlike his previous effort, it’s not shot on phones, but on 35mm film, the complete opposite end of the filmic spectrum. While I haven’t seen any of Baker’s other movies, it’s clear that he’s very interested in telling stories about marginalised people in society, and as impressive as Tangerine was from a technical standpoint, with The Florida Project I wasn’t ever thinking about how it was shot, I just got lost in the story.

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My Top 10 Favourite Films of 2017

January 10th, 2018

So here are my (as of January 1st, 2017) Top 10 Films of 2017. As always, these are my favourites, not what I would consider the “best” films of 2017, though I’d argue that at least most of the movies on my list this year are “great” films.

As it goes every year, I spend December through February playing catch up, and getting to as many of the films I missed as possible, so this is my “rough cut” so to speak. I saw 67 new releases in 2017.

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Subtlety Suffers, Spectacle Triumphs – Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 4DX

January 3rd, 2018

So today I took my brother Tommi into Cardiff to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film has been out for a few weeks at this point and he still hadn’t seen it. As I’d already watched it six times, I felt like taking it in via a different format. The Vue cinema was screening it in 4K, but I wanted to venture even further into cinematic progress, and arrived at the relatively new format called 4DX. It’s impossible for me to think of the term 4DX without hearing Doc Brown in my head saying “Marty, it’s perfect! You’re just not thinking fourth dimensionally!”

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20 Years of Harry

So. Twenty years ago today, a little book about a boy who learns he’s a wizard was released in the UK. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit book shops on the 26th June 1997, following in the US on the 1st September 1998 as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I first heard about it in high school when I was eleven years old in 1999. A friend of mine, who my mind tells me was called Harry, had stood up in class and talked enthusiastically about it. The name alone caught my attention: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It wasn’t until my best friend Chris Marshall revealed he was a fan of Harry Potter that I even saw a copy of the book. He agreed to lend it me.

I can remember how my room looked, how the row of back gardens and garages outside my bedroom window appeared in the late evening, as I reached the moment in the book that Harry finds out from the half-giant Hagrid that he is a wizard. I’d put the book down to reflect on the beginning of the story, and began grinning, hardly believing my luck. It’s one of my earliest memories of purposefully delaying further discovery of a brand new story, because I valued the precious moment of enjoying it for the first time. These days I tend to do it with movies I know I’ll love, I’ll leave them on the shelf for years at a time, as if they’re ageing like a good wine, ready to be experienced at the perfect moment. (Sidenote: I don’t necessarily recommend this process, it can occasionally backfire.) I was already in love with the world that J.K. Rowling had created, and it had barely even been revealed to me.

I don’t remember finishing the book, just feeling ever so slightly anxious that the second one wouldn’t take place at Hogwarts, the school for witchcraft and wizardry that Harry attends. (Wait, did I really just type that needless explanation out?) Chris assured me that it did, and promptly lent me the sequel, The Chamber of Secrets. I loved it even more than The Philosopher’s Stone, and recall being utterly chilled to the bone by the moment when Harry finds the final message: Her skeleton will lie in the chamber forever. *shudder* The series was utterly thrilling, in a way that the books of my youth had never delivered. My childhood favourites were of the Enid Blyton variety: The Adventurous Four, The Magic Faraway Tree etc. They were wonderful little adventures, and admittedly perhaps, catered more to under 10s. Harry Potter presented rich characters and believable relationships in an unbelievable setting. The adventure, intrigue and mysticism of Harry’s story was supported by an ever deeper beating heart that lay underneath and alongside the humour and charm of Rowling’s writing.

I would eventually borrow Chris’ copy of the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, rounding off what was then a trilogy of novels, all read at the perfect age of 11. I too was entering a new world at the time (high school) and the time and place of me finding the Harry Potter universe couldn’t have been more appropriate. I got lost in the world, fell in love with the characters, and had the good luck to grow up with the series as it continued until 2007, maturing along with the characters of the story. In 1999, I was starting high school, it was exciting, scary, and new. In 2007, I was a young adult, utterly lost, but hopeful. My experience with the series was bookended at very pivotal points in my life.

The excitement at getting to buy The Goblet of Fire, the fourth book, at launch in 2000, is truly hard to describe. Unaware of exactly when it would be coming out, I spotted it for sale in a makeshift book shop set up in my school, and was subsequently filled with adrenaline for the next few hours before I got home and begged my mum to buy it for me. The following day I returned to school, money desperately clutched in hand, bought the book, and cradled it in my bag like the Holy Grail, trying not to smirk broadly in Maths, knowing the NEW Harry Potter book was under my desk!

The movies were a whole other kind of excitement, which really peaked with the first two films, then my interest petered out for most of the middle of the cinematic series. I remained enraptured with the books however, and the only time I went to one of those midnight launch gimmicks was for The Deathly Hallows, the final of the seven novels. A car drove past WHSmith at 11:58pm, and a girl brandishing a copy out of the window bellowed “HARRY DIES! HARRY DIIIIIIES!”

At no point before it, and perhaps at no point ever again, did people take such utter glee in trying to spoil other’s enjoyment of something than on the launch of the last Harry Potter book. Weird. Nevertheless my reading experience was incredible, as I devoured the final novel wide-eyed and accompanied by a few boxes of Cadbury Milk Chocolate Fingers.

Harry Potter has provided me with an alluring escape at many difficult periods of my young life, whether it was bullying, depression, heartache, heartbreak, or life’s great evil: boredom. It’s one of the ultimate comforts, always there to transport me to a fictional plane that welcomes me warmly every time, whether it be through the movies, the written word, or even Stephen Fry’s delicately performed audio books.

I suppose this is a personal account of my history with these books (it is a blog after all, right?) and any attempt to answer why Harry Potter has been such a phenomenon over the past twenty years would be quite pointless, and yet I still feel like taking a bite sized shot at it. What Rowling did was combine elements that have been quite familiar in children’s fiction before (boarding school story, young witch and/or wizard story, distinctive British humour) but with the loaded and expertly crafted back story of Harry being an orphan, and the continued presence of death in his life. Then you follow it up with six more books that get progressively darker and mature, each making an almost seamless transition to the next.

I once heard that the death of Rowling’s mother heavily coloured her creation of Harry Potter, and that seems to really ring quite true, the entire story is all about mortality. I’m forever tied to a morbid fascination with death, it terrifies me as an eventuality, draws me in as an unknown experience, and captivates me as a subject to be explored in storytelling. Amidst all of the great characters, superb writing, razor sharp yet realistic wit, textured plot and tremendous fun that make up the skeleton, flesh and blood of Harry Potter, at its heart it is just that, heart.

The central theme is compassion, and, quite cheesily, but not ineffectively, the power of love. In the overall arc of the story, it’s quite a broad stroke, but it really is about how love is the most powerful and positive part of the human condition. From confronting your fears to doing the right thing, finding inner strength and courage, the importance and weight of friendship, and making sure you’ve managed your mischief, all of life’s great lessons are contained within the few thousand pages of Rowling’s magnum opus.

Authors and publishers the world over have no doubt been scrambling to create and discover the “next Harry Potter” for years, and that’s actually a phrase I have heard multiple times from writers, prompting an inner eye roll. There is no next Harry Potter, it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence, not too dissimilar, I would imagine, to The Lord of the Rings. A fantastical event story that truly captures that wonderful thing we all take for granted, and all have unlimited access to: imagination.