Posts Tagged ‘review’

deepwater_horizon_film

Director: Peter Berg

Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Mike Williams), Kurt Russell (Jimmy “Mr Jimmy” Farrell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), John Malkovich (Vidrine), David Maldonado (Kuchta), Kate Hudson (Felicia), Dylan O’Brien (Caleb Holloway)

“Hope ain’t a tactic”: Director Peter Berg’s angry depiction of the well from hell sticks the knife into BP

Towards the end of Deepwater Horizon, based on the disastrous 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of survivors drop to their knees and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Upon the line “Deliver us from evil” the camera cuts to the rig, completely engulfed in flames, reminding us of a line spoken earlier: “This is the well from hell”. Indeed, the actual incident killed eleven workers, injured seventeen others and devasted marine life (210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean).

I headed to the cinema with a certain degree of trepidation, concerned that this might in some way be an exploitative film that maximised thrills at the expense of reality. I never expect total accuracy from a cinematic dramatisation of real-life events – the demands of story-telling rarely allow that – but it is important that the broad picture is roughly accurate and, in the case of a tragedy like this one, is respectful to those who risked or lost their lives.

In any event, Deepwater Horizon struck me as deeply respectful to the plight of the riggers, though BP executives will no doubt feel they have been painted as pantomime villains (especially with Malkovich channelling his familiar evil side as BP representative, Vidrine). There isn’t much time for in-depth characterisation, but three people in particular are foregrounded to elicit our sympathies. The first of these is Michael Williams (Wahlberg), who we see in the opening scenes spending his last breakfast with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). The latter gives us a potted account of how oil is created, in the form of an essay written for school, and also demonstrates how drilling works, using a can of coke.

The second key figure is “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a rugged no-nonsense figure of authority who has the last word on whether or not drilling can proceed. The third is Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez), the only woman that we see on the rig and whose sensible judgment when disaster strikes is overruled by a bullying male colleague.

The first hint of danger comes when the helicopter transporting workers to the rig experiences a birdstrike. Upon arrival at the free-floating Deepwater Horizon platform, Williams and Harrell are concerned to discover that the previous team have not conducted safety checks on the cement casing around the production equipment. BP’s representatives, Vidrine and Kuchta (Maldonado), blithely assert their confidence in the integrity of the cementing, on the basis of no evidence at all, and are obviously motivated by the fact that a planned experimental drilling operation is behind time and over budget. Harrell insists on a safety test, but when the results are somewhat ambiguous he allows himself to be pressurised into permitting drilling. This leads to a blowout in which methane escapes from the well and up the drillshaft, where it ignites on the platform.

The subsequent depictions of fire, explosions and desperate attempts to control the situation, whilst assisting the injured, are absolutely compelling. For those of us who have ever wondered what an oil rig disaster must be like, this imagining of such an event is a terrifying eye-opener. I was so swept up in events that it was only later that I realised that a considerable amount of CGI must have been involved. It doesn’t show.

If ever there was a picture of human vulnerability, it is surely Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell waking from unconsciousness, naked on the floor of what used to be a shower, half-blind, and his body peppered with glass. After being rescued by Williams, he himself resumes the direction of operations.

It is quite something that a Hollywood movie should so clearly stick the knife into a multi-billion dollar corporation, but that is exactly what Deepwater Horizon does to BP. And it does so without resorting to cliché. Director Peter Berg has chosen to tell this story in a straightforward unfussy way. It just happens to be one hell of a story.

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Director: Liang Zhao

Country: China / France

Runtime: 95 mins

The Behemoth in the title of Liang Zhao’s extraordinary documentary is a huge monster that must be fed from the mountains of China, in this particular case the supposedly autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. However, the area that Zhao concerns himself with, once covered in vegetation, now looks like a vast barren alien landscape. Where once there were grass-covered hills there is now a seemingly endless quarry, populated by coal miners, mechanical diggers and trucks. As we quickly realise, the real Behemoth is our apparently insatiable desire for fossil fuel.

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There is almost no explanatory dialogue to guide the viewer, except for some occasional snatches of narrative based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The mining area is, for example, described as “a purgatory of a place”. The narrative typically accompanies scenes involving two Dante-type figures, one a naked figure usually shown curled up in a fetal position, and the other a “guide” who wanders around with a mirror upon his back. In essence, the film is a poetic meditation on the brutal reality underlying China’s economic transformation, using the power of the cinematic image to highlight the destruction of the environment and the harm caused to the miners.

Having first established the scale of the mining operations, Zhao takes us below ground where we watch dirt-caked men drilling into the rocks above them. The camera follows another miner as he walks through a tunnel, only to be almost rocked off his feet by the reverberations of a controlled explosion somewhere else. On the surface, we see men and women, simple pieces of cloth over their faces, shovelling dirt and coal into trucks or sifting through the earth with their gloved hands. On the outskirts of the quarry, trucks continually deposit their contents onto the edge of farmland, gradually encroaching onto the fertile areas where men and women continue to herd goats and sheep, even as the wind carries coal dust across them.

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From the scenes of the mining operation, Zhao then takes us to one of the film’s most arresting images: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of coal-filled trucks lined up nose-to-tail as they snake their way down a long road to a power station. After this, we are inside a steelworks watching sweltering men in overalls bathed in the orange glow from furnaces and molten metal.

In the penultimate segment of the film, we are shown the impact of the coal mining operations upon the workers, many of whom are poor migrant workers from other parts of China. There are no interviews, but rather a series of extreme close-ups of their dirt-encrusted faces, followed by shots of people scrubbing themselves clean and picking the callouses from their hands. Most devastatingly, we are shown the reality for tens of thousands of Chinese workers: people fighting for breath in hospital beds, with oxygen tubes inserted into their noses. Pneumoconiosis is the main occupational disease in China, and exposure to coal dust through mining operations is the primary cause. Its prevalence far exceeds that of developed nations, due to lack of effective safety measures.

What paradise is being built upon the lives of these Chinese mineworkers? The answer is hundreds of “ghost cities” – brand new urban areas that the state intends to move rural populations into, but which currently lie empty, either because people moved in but left or did not want to go there in the first place.

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Director: David Street

Country: UK, Spain, USA

Runtime: 104 mins

The Flying Scotsman rides again

Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree is a sporting figure of remarkable tenacity. The 2006 dramatic biopic The Flying Scotsman tells the story of how, despite psychological difficulties and run-ins with the cycling authorities, he twice broke the world one-hour distance record on a bicycle (“Old Faithful”) that he had constructed from scrap metal and parts of a washing machine.

David Street’s new documentary film, Battle Mountain, covers a subsequent period in Obree’s life and career after the cyclist decides to enter the World Human Powered Speed Championships. Adopting a filming strategy in which Obree is never asked to repeat any behaviours for the camera, Street observes as the Scot constructs a new bicycle, to be ridden prone-style, in his kitchen at home. Obree complains that people only remember him as a bloke that made a racing bike out of a washing machine (“It was only one part”, he says), yet is soon proudly cutting pieces out of a saucepan to make shoulder supports. There are some wonderfully comic moments, not least when Obree enlists his two sons to squeeze him between the living room wall and a piece of furniture in order to determine the width of the narrow aerodynamic shell that will encase his bike.

During the course of developing and testing the new machine Obree opens up about the psychological problems that he has faced in his life, partly explored in the earlier film, and the contributory factors, which have resulted in suicide attempts. In terms of his psychological well-being a lot appears to be at stake for Graeme in taking on the challenge of breaking the world speed record. However, things do not go smoothly. At one point during training he experiences an unfortunate side-effect from anti-depressant medication, leading to a hospital operation and an enforced period of recuperation.

But perhaps worse than this, the new bike – nicknamed “The Beastie” by Sir Chris Hoy – turns out to be highly unstable. Nonetheless, Obree persists through all the psychological, physical and technical difficulties and finds himself at the allocated location for the Championships – Battle Mountain in Nevada – in September of 2013. His psychologist, he opines, would not be pleased to know about the pressure he is putting himself under. For those who don’t already know the outcome I won’t spoil things by revealing what transpires, but suffice to say that you would need a heart of stone not to come away full of admiration for this most extraordinary of athletes. Battle Mountain is an enthralling, funny and ultimately joyous addition to the pantheon of against-the-odds sports stories.

Rating: 4/5

Speed Sisters

Director: Amber Fares

Country: Palestine, USA, Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada

Runtime: 80 mins

A high-octane documentary that offers thrills as it rides roughshod over stereotypes

Amber Fares’s thrilling high-octane documentary about the first all-female street car racing team in the Middle East begins with a statement of intent from the 19 year old reigning champion: “I want the whole world to know there is a girl called Marah Zahalqa who represents Palestine”. By the end of the film I felt like shouting not just Marah’s name in the street, but the names of all the other team members. They are Maysoon (the manager), Noor, Mona, and Marah’s closest challenger – Betty.

Speed Sisters follows these racers through two seasons of the street car championship, during which director Fares drives donuts over stereotypes about Palestinian women. In the conservative city of Jenin we see the young women walking around with their heads uncovered, long hair flowing. Marah’s father tells us he has always supported her ambition to race cars and has made sacrifices for her. When her grandfather says she ought to have a job that would get respect, such as being a doctor, dad points out that she is respected. He’s right, too. It’s not just the female audience at races that cheer on the women; the men are cheering for them as well. The biggest problem for the team is not the conservatism of Palestinian society, but the Israeli occupation.There are few places to practice and to get to race events the women must waste hours getting through checkpoints, sometimes with soldiers tear-gassing stone-throwing youths as the traffic passes through.

Towards the end of the first season some tension arises within the team after Betty is awarded a race win despite having infringed the rules. There is a suspicion that the racing authorities recognise the publicity value of her photogenic good looks and are trying to tilt the championship in her favour. Betty herself emphasises her femininity, getting herself prettified so as not to appear a “tomboy” and doing pouty photoshoots after getting a sponsorship deal. However, just when it appears that Betty might be turning into a sporting pantomime villain (rather like Tony Hawk in All This Mayhem), the occupation rears its ugly head and draws our sympathy back to Betty.

Whilst on the way to practice, the car carrying a few of the girls runs over a rock and they stop to check for possible damage. A hundred or so metres away there is a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. One of them, completely unprovoked, fires a tear gas canister which hits Betty in the back. This act, deliberate and cruel, is caught on camera for all to see. The girls speed away with Betty on the back seat, in pain and crying. The attack leaves a particularly nasty bruise, from which she recovers, but who knows what psychological scars might remain? On another occasion, one of the girls, upon smelling teargas, remarks that it reminds her of her childhood.

I don’t want to give away the results of the championship, but the rivalry between Betty and Marah continues until the last moment of the final race, and the final update before the credits tells us that the rivalry will continue into the next season.

Speed Sisters is troubling, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. This is the best documentary I have seen so far this year.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

Hooligan Sparrow

Director: Nanfu Wang

Writers: Mark Monroe and Nanfu Wang

Country: China / USA

Runtime: 83 mins

Feminist activists in China run up against the authorities as they try to expose corruption and child abuse

Nanfu Wang’s extraordinary debut documentary covers a story of horrific child sex abuse involving corrupt Chinese government officials. Wang’s reward for her effort is that she is now unsure whether she will be allowed entry back into China or, if she is, whether she will be allowed out again.

The story begins with the disappearance of six schoolchildren in the city of Wanning. They are discovered alive but traumatised. The girls, aged between 11 and 14, have been forced to have sex in a hotel with their school principal, Chen Zaipeng, and a government official from the housing department. It transpires that the children were given to the official as a bribe, something that is distressingly common in China.

The police initially try to deny that anything untoward has happened, but when a hotel security camera shows the children with their principal a new tactic is adopted. The principal’s story is that the two men paid the girls for sex, an important distinction in Chinese law. Paying children for sex is treated under child prostitution laws and carries a less severe penalty than rape.

Wang’s film follows a group of activists, led by Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow), as they call for justice. They begin by protesting outside the school, an act that clearly carries some risk. One onlooker notes that the women won’t be stopped from protesting, but that the police will come for them later. This turns out to be the case and the women find themselves, variously, imprisoned, harassed by demonstrators in the pay of the government, and run out of town.

After a campaign that becomes international, including the involvement of famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the women achieve a justice of sorts, albeit a rather inadequate justice. Many of those who stood up to the authorities are now paying a price. Wang Yu, the human rights lawyer who assisted the activists has been held without trial since July 2015 and the Chinese authorities announced in January this year that she will be prosecuted on charges of subversion, an offence that can carry a life sentence. Five feminist activists (Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong) were arbitrarily detained for over a month and are now on bail but under police surveillance.

This is a film that deserves to be seen.

#FreeWangYu

Shown at the Curzon Soho as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

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Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Screenplay: Emma Donaghue

Country: Ireland / Canada

Runtime: 118 mins

Cast: Brie Larson (Ma), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker)

A tender mother-son relationship is the focus of this tale of captivity and its aftermath

Recent years have brought to light several cases of women being kept captive by men, most notoriously in the case of the Austrian Josef Fritzl who kept his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years. She bore seven children as a result of his abuse.

In Room Emma Donaghue has adapted for the screen her own novel of the same name, which itself was inspired by the story of five-year old Felix in the Fritzl case. The film begins with young Jack (Jacob Tremblay) walking around a small room saying hello to various objects. It turns out to be the morning of his fifth birthday and his mother, Ma (Brie Larson), bakes him a cake. However, there are tears when Jack discovers there are no candles for the cake. Gradually, we discover that Jack and Ma are being held in captivity, and are living on basic rations supplied by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). He turns up in the evening and slips into Ma’s bed, whilst Jack sleeps in a cupboard.

To young Jack, however, their room is the whole world. He has never known a life outside and Ma has kept from him the truth about their situation. His only knowledge of anything external to the room is the sky, which is visible through a skylight, the sole window.

Eventually, Ma arranges an escape from their prison, but adjustment to a new life is not at all straightforward.

At the time the story starts, Ma has been led captive for seven years. Thankfully, perhaps, we are spared the details of her capture and of the abuse she has suffered.The focus of the story is on the mother-son relationship, both before and after captivity. This is beautifully depicted by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. The latter is in reality a few years older than the boy he plays, but has deservedly garnered awards and nominations for his portrayal of a child whose entire understanding of the world is suddenly turned upside down.

Brie Larson is likewise utterly convincing as a mother who will do anything to protect her child, but who then struggles to adjust once she has obtained the freedom she craves.

For most of us it is almost impossible to imagine the travails of someone who is kept in illegal captivity.  But with Room, Emma Donaghue and director Lenny Abrahamson have given us a glimpse into such a world. With its emphasis on the psychological effects of captivity and its aftermath, the film makes clear that the title word has connotations beyond its physical meaning.

Rating: 5/5

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Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire)

A brilliant performance from Johnny Depp is just one of the good things about this superb crime movie

In Black Mass Johnny Depp gives us the acting comeback that so many have been waiting for. Playing the real-life Irish-American crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp dons a bald-wig and puts any memory of his heart-throb good looks behind him. His portrayal of Bulger as a cold, ruthless psychopath is eerily convincing.

The story concerns an unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI, both of whom have an interest in breaking the grip of the New England Mafia on Boston. FBI agent John Connolly is a childhood friend of Bulger and persuades the latter to become an informant, a decision that Bulger justifies to himself as a sensible business deal. However, the end result of this pairing is that Bulger’s empire grows,  as does the body count of his victims, whilst Connolly himself becomes compromised and corrupted. One wonders if there is a hidden message here for Western governments: doing business with your enemy’s enemy may not work out the way you were hoping.

Black Mass can’t avoid one or two genre stereotypes, notably when Bulger chews out a terrified looking colleague of Connolly’s, only to reveal that he was just putting him on. But in the main, a strong story, strong characterisation, and refusal to romanticise mobsters give this a sense of realism that makes it a cut above the average gangster movie.

Whilst Depp is superb, the script also allows the other performers to shine and there are strong performances from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch as brother Billy and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly.

Rating: 5/5

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Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Joy Mangano), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy)

Jennifer Lawrence wipes the floor with the rest of the cast in this against-the-odds tale of a housewife-turned-entrepreneur

Hot on the heels of Carol comes another end-of-year title consisting only of a woman’s first name. Joy opens with the statement that the film has been inspired by true stories of daring women, and one woman in particular.That woman is Joy Mangano, an Italian-American who, in the 1990s, devised a “Miracle Mop” and made a lot of money selling it on the QVC home-shopping channel.

It isn’t clear how much fictional license  writer/director David O’Russell has taken with Joy’s story, but as told here it is a pretty gripping rollercoaster. An inventive child and valedictorian in her class at school, any aspirations Joy may have had have been crushed by family demands and a failed marriage. Her ex-husband, a failed musician, is still living in the basement two years after their divorce and is joined at the start of the film by Joy’s father Rudy, who has bailed out of another broken relationship. Her mother spends most of the day in bed watching soap operas.

Joy is constantly cleaning up after everybody. After an episode where she cuts her hands squeezing out a mop-head containing broken glass, she comes up with the idea for a mop that avoids any such inconvenience to the user. From this point on Joy has to battle a variety of forces ranged against her, from sceptical family members to unsympathetic corporate executives and corrupt business operatives. Just when you think Joy has made it, there always seems to be another knock-back.

If the real Joy Mangano only had to face half the battle depicted here, then I’m full of admiration for her. Perhaps other women will draw inspiration from this film, though I did find myself thinking that the business world appears to be so awful that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a part of it.

David Russell doesn’t present Joy as a linear narrative. The film opens with actors in a black-and-white soap opera delivering stilted dialogue and is followed by a flashback to Joy’s childhood, as narrated by her grandmother. References to TV soap operas recur throughout the film, explicitly linking the QVC channel’s marketing of Joy’s mop to the target audience. There are also dream sequences that tell us something about Joy’s hopes and fears.

Jennifer Lawrence gives another stellar performance as the title character. I particularly liked a scene in which she marches away from father Rudy’s auto business, a look of furious determination on her face, then picks up a rifle at the nearby shooting range and starts blasting away.

However, it must also be said that Russell’s script does not really give any of the other actors room to shine. Bradley Cooper does well enough as a top executive at QVC, but we never really feel we know him. And Robert De Niro is sadly wasted as Joy’s father. His role here is little more than a slightly more serious version of the father in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. De Niro’s opening scene requires him to angrily smash up some crockery, a largely pointless action that the film could easily have lived without.

In short, this is Lawrence’s film through and through, and whilst the other performers are completely overshadowed I nonetheless enjoyed this a lot.

Rating: 4/5

 

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Directors: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Writers: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Country: UK

Runtime: 98 mins

Cast: Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Nina), Abigail Hardingham (Holly), Cian Barry (Rob), Elizabeth Elvin (Sally), David Troughton (Dan)

This blood-soaked modern-day Blithe Spirit is a real treat

Nina Forever is a perfectly-realised first full cinema feature by the Blaine brothers, Ben and Chris, in which a young couple, Holly and Rob, find theselves haunted by Rob’s deceased former girlfriend, Nina. A rather moving comedy-horror, Nina Forever is like a modern-day rendering of Blithe Spirit. Here, though, Noel Coward’s posh drawing rooms are replaced by a cramped flat on a fog-bound housing estate, the stock room of a supermarket, and a graveyard over which an electricity pylon looms ominously. Oh, and there is lots of blood and sex.

Holly is a trainee paramedic with slightly morbid leanings, who works in the supermarket during the day. There she meets Rob, who is trying to get over the death of his girlfriend Nina, the victim of a car crash. Unfortunately, whenever the two of them try to get it on between the sheets a scarred and bloody Nina appears and makes it clear to “silly little girl” Holly that death is not going to stop her staking a claim to Rob.

It is a credit to the Blaine brothers’ script and Abigail Hardingham’s performance that we are able to engage in a pretty big suspension of disbelief by accepting Holly’s return to Rob after the first alarming bedroom encounter with Nina. Credit must also go to Cian Berry who gets laughs as the bereaved Rob, by playing it completely straight. Fiona O’Shaughnessy revels in the role of Nina, coming on as a wide-eyed (blood-soaked) innocent whilst delivering the bitchiest of comments.

There are some recognisable and delightful everyday observations that add to the comedy, such as when a long-awaited text message turns out to be a special offer from a local pizza parlour, and when a luckless chap on a bus finds himself stuck between a quarrelling Rob and Holly. But beneath the comedy there is a very real recognition of the pain of grief and the difficulty of moving on with life after a loved one dies.

Nina Forever brings a refreshing originality to the comedy-horror genre.

Rating: 4/5

Amy_Movie_Poster

Director: Asif Kapadia

Country: UK / USA

Runtime: 128 mins

A tale of a tragic downfall by the director of Senna

There are many popular musicians who have followed a drink- and drug-fuelled pathway to an early death but few, if any, who have done it as publicly as Amy Winehouse. In the same way that he did with his earlier film, Senna, director Asif Kapadia has woven a highly affecting picture from contemporary footage taken from a variety of sources, including home movies, news items, fans’ mobile devices and camcorders, and an ever-present video camera in recording studios, cars and hotel rooms. There is no commentary but the visuals are regularly overlaid by the voices of participants in Amy’s story.

At the time of her death there was much criticism of the paparazzi’s intrusive behaviour but Kapadia’s documentary makes clear that the causes of the star’s death were multiple and complex, and that the seeds of her destruction were sown much earlier. Winehouse appears to have been a wilful force of nature, even as a child. She describes herself as uncontrollable once her father had left home. As a teenager she was bulimic.

Winehouse cheerfully states that her real ambition is to be singing jazz in clubs. Fame, she says early on, is something she wouldn’t be able to cope with but the success of her first album and the touring that follows means fame is unavoidable. From this point on Winehouse’s life is complicated by a dangerous cocktail of negative influences, including an obsessive relationship with Blake Fielder, heavy drinking and drug-taking, and the reappearance of her father who becomes involved in her professional life in a not wholly helpful fashion.

What I found particularly disturbing is the way that, as both Fielder and Winehouse begin to fall apart in front of the world’s cameras, they are treated as a source of laughs by various popular television comedians (the guilty parties include Graham Norton and Jay Leno; by contrast, former drug addict-turned comedian Russell Brand tried to get Winehouse to rehab).

As someone who was only passingly familiar with the music of Amy Winehouse this documentary made clear what a huge talent and charismatic star she was. None other than Tony Bennett hails her as one of the all-time great jazz singers. Amy is a gripping tale of a brilliant life cut tragically short.

Rating: 4/5