10 Reasons to Remember John Carl Buechler (1952-2019)

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John Carl Buechler (18 June 1952 – 18 March 2019)

If you’re a fan of ultra-low to no-budget horror movies – particularly from the Eighties and Nineties – then you’ll be aware of the work of John Carl Buechler, actor, writer, producer, director, and above all, special effects maestro. It was in this arena that Buechler (pronounced Beekler) found his true calling, having got into the movie business providing special prosthetic effects for Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980). He stayed with special effects make up, and began to make a name for himself as someone who could be relied upon to give a creature feature something of a boost thanks to his ability to come up with practical effects that often belied the paucity of a movie’s budget. He made his directing debut in 1984, contributing the segment Demons of the Dead to The Dungeonmaster, but it was his next outing as a director that cemented his reputation – for good and for bad. The movie was Troll (1986), widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made (and now something of a cult classic – how tastes change). Despite its reputation at the time, Buechler remained as busy as ever, and in 1988 alone he made varying contributions to nine different movies, including Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (which he also directed), A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.

Buechler worked almost exclusively in the fantasy and/or horror genres, and had long stints with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (Corman regarded him as “the best in the business”), but occasionally he would land a gig on a mainstream movie, even providing uncredited animatronic effects on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He formed his own company, Magical Media Industries Inc, and through the Nineties worked more as a designer than a special effects technician, though still on movies with perilously small budgets and minimal resources. Though most of his output since the late Nineties has been available only through home video releases (and some deservedly so, such as the movies he worked on for Donald F. Glut), Buechler maintained his standing within the industry and was an inspiration for many up and coming young special effects artists. He was an affable figure, well respected, and in his own way exceptionally talented. Outside of the world of low budget horror, Buechler may not be particularly well known, but for anyone who has ever watched the likes of Crawlspace (1986) or Scanner Cop (1994) and wondered just who was responsible for their surprisingly impressive special effects, then the very skilled John Carl Buechler is the answer.

1 – Ghoulies (1984)

2 – Troll (1986)

3 – From Beyond (1986)

4 – Cellar Dweller (1988)

5 – Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

6 – Re-Animator 2 (1989)

7 – Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

8 – Carnosaur (1993)

9 – Curse of the Forty-Niner (2002)

10 – Hatchet (2006)

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White Boy Rick (2018)

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D: Yann Demange / 111m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie

Detroit, 1984. Richard Wershe (McConaughey) and his fourteen year old son, Rick (Merritt), are a staple at gun shows. Richard purchases guns that he then re-sells on the street, but when he modifies a couple of rifles, Rick has the idea to sell them to a local drug dealer, Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry (Majors). Later, he’s approached by two FBI agents, Snyder (Leigh) and Byrd (Cochrane); they make it known that one of the modified rifles was used to kill a man.Using this as a means to persuade him, Snyder and Byrd get Rick to start making drug buys as a way of infiltrating Lil Man’s operation. Once on the inside, Rick does his best to keep things from his father, while learning the tricks of the trade – tricks that come in handy when Lil Man and his crew are arrested and Rick decides that he needs a way to make money for himself, his father and sister, Dawn (Powley), and his infant son. Soon he’s in a similar position to the one that Lil Man had, but inevitably there are consequences…

A story that would stretch credulity if it hadn’t really happened, Rick Wershe’s involvement with the FBI and his subsequent life of crime should be a movie slam dunk, the equivalent of a football striker faced with an open goal (to mix sports metaphors). And while White Boy Rick benefits from two detailed and persuasive performances from McConaughey and Merritt (making his movie debut), the screenplay by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller lacks cohesion and a clear through line – though it does try its best. Rick’s story has to vie with several others, and it’s this approach that stops the movie from being as compelling as it should be. Alongside Rick’s fall from grace, the narrative momentum stops from time to time to catch up with Dawn’s on-going drug addiction and Rick’s efforts to help her (the script never quite grasps the irony of a drug dealer trying to get someone off of drugs), and Rick’s continuing liking for Lil Man’s wife, Cathy (Paige), whom he gets into bed with in more ways than one. These and other secondary storylines hamper the flow of the movie, and with its jumping from year to successive year between 1984 and 1987, the episodic nature of the material means that the cast have to work extra hard to keep it all afloat.

In the end, some of the background details have more resonance and relevance than expected, as with the deprived lower middle class neighbourhood that the Wershes live in offering a powerful reason for Rick’s turning to drug dealing as a way out. Looking out for his family is another, and taking advantage of what he’s learnt through working for the FBI allows Rick to be successful in his chosen field (more irony that the script doesn’t explore). But Rick is also a mixture of brains and naïveté, enjoying the rewards of drug dealing while ignoring the object lesson given by Lil Man’s arrest and incarceration: the FBI will always get you in the end (and even if you’ve been an informant for them). Merritt is completely convincing as Rick, cocky and unfazed by anything and everything at fourteen, more mature and focused but still easily outwitted at seventeen, and with that sense of invincibility that every teenager has. He’s matched by McConaughey, his beaten down father still hanging onto dreams of success, even if they’re modest dreams, and always looking to be the best role model for his children that he can be. Make no mistake, both father and son are flawed characters, with a penchant for moral compromise when it can benefit them both, but the bond between them gives the movie an emotional component that is missing elsewhere. Now, if the movie had focused on their relationship to the exclusion of everything else…

Rating: 6/10 – good performances all round and solid direction from Demange aren’t enough to stop the viewer from realising that White Boy Rick is not exactly involving, and that even though the majority of it is true, it’s not always as interesting as its screenplay tries to make out; with a smattering of laughs, and moments of sudden violence to leaven the evenness of the material, this is a movie that tries hard in some places, unconvincingly in others, and which often feels the strain of the effort it’s making.

Triple Frontier (2019)

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D: J.C. Chandor / 125m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Sheila Vand, Reynaldo Gallegos, Maddy Wary, Juan Camilo Castillo

While working as a private military advisor combating a drug cartel in Colombia, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac) learns that the head of the cartel, Lorea (Gallegos), keeps all his money at a safe house in the middle of the jungle. Instead of passing on this information to the authorities, Pope returns to the US to recruit four friends, all ex-Special Forces, for a mission to grab the money for themselves. Each of his friends has a reason for going: Tom “Redfly” Davis (Affleck) is a realtor with financial problems; William “Ironhead” Miller (Hunnam) is a motivational speaker who misses being a part of the military; his brother, Ben (Hedlund), is an MMA fighter who’ll follow wherever Ironhead goes; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pascal) is a pilot whose licence has been withdrawn. They reconnoitre Lorea’s jungle hideout, and determine to raid the place on a Sunday morning when his family and most of his men will be at church. Although Ironhead is wounded, the raid is a success, and they get away with around $250 million in cash. Now all they have to do is stay alive long enough to make it back home…

Triple Frontier‘s production history is in some ways more interesting than the finished movie. Originally set to star Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp, and with Kathryn Bigelow directing, delays since 2010 meant that it wasn’t until 2015 that Chandor came aboard and added his own input to Mark Boal’s original screenplay. With Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy having replaced Hanks and Depp at that stage, Mahershala Ali was added to the cast before all three dropped out, and Affleck et al signed on (Affleck even quit the project himself for a while before shooting began). With all this in mind, it’s interesting to re-imagine the movie with those actors in the main roles – and realise that the right choices were made in the end. For though Triple Frontier is ultimately an uneven movie that puts itself in danger of losing its audience’s interest in the final third, its the strength of its final casting that makes the movie so effective. With impressive performances from all concerned – Affleck is particularly good as the morally ambiguous Redfly – the movie plays well when it’s concerned with issues of camaraderie and masculinity (both supportive and toxic), and in showing the levels of trust these men have in each other, even when things are going wrong and blaming each other is a natural response.

The relationships the five men have form the core of the movie, and give it an emotional resonance that most action thrillers never attempt let alone achieve. And Chandor ensures that it’s not all about the money, but more about how all of them except Pope miss being a part of the action. These are men who’ve lost their sense of purpose, their identities now they’re back in the real world, and when the movie focuses on this, it does so perceptively and persuasively. But this is also an action thriller, and for the first two thirds a very accomplished one, with Chandor staging an opening attack on a cartel building with verve and skill, and the raid on Lorea’s house like a chess match with rifles instead of pieces. But then comes the getaway, and though there’s already the sense that it won’t be as smooth and well planned as hoped for, where Chandor and Boal take Redfly and the others leads to a number of surprisingly flat scenes that lack energy and pace, and which feel like the dictionary definition of padding. As a result, a moment of tragedy lacks the impact it should have, and the movie struggles through to an ending that doesn’t carry the dramatic weight that’s expected. Still, it’s a good movie, for the most part, and Chandor continues to show why he’s one of the best directors working today, but this has to be regarded as something of a disappointment.

Rating: 7/10 – as a three-act narrative with both prologue and epilogue, Triple Frontier is only effective up until the end of the second act, when different forces come into play and the focus shifts from being about five men regaining their sense of purpose in the world, and becomes a generic tale of survival against low odds; with ambitions beyond the standard heist movie, it’s a shame then that those ambitions weren’t as well thought out and worked through as they needed to be.

Blindspotting (2018)

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D: Carlos López Estrada / 95m

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell Martin, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Kevin Carroll, Nyambi Nyambi, Jon Chaffin, Wayne Knight

Nearing the end of a year’s probation following a prison sentence for aggravated assault, Collin Hoskins (Diggs) is doing his best to avoid any trouble. With three days to go he’s living at a halfway house, and working with his best friend, Miles (Casal), at a removals firm called Commander Moving. One night while he’s driving back to the halfway house, he witnesses a white police officer (Embry) shoot an unarmed black man. Unwilling to jeopardise his probation, Collin elects not to come forward, but he does begin to experience nightmares about the shooting, nightmares that make him question if he’s done the right thing. Matters are further complicated by Collin’s ex-girlfriend, Val (Gavankar), working at the removal company, and Miles’ often irrational behaviour, such as buying a gun when he doesn’t need one, and giving in to violent outbursts. As Collin nears the end of his probation, two incidents involving Miles threaten his impending freedom, and he’s forced to wonder if remaining friends with Miles is going to allow him to move on with his life…

Nine years in the making, Blindspotting is the brainchild of Messrs Diggs and Casal, and a movie that aims to show what life is really like in today’s Oakland community, with all its racial variety and simmering intolerance. It’s a heady mix of comedy and drama, with a lot to say about racism, prejudice, and the title term, a phrase that means always seeing what your mind tells you is there instead of looking more closely. It’s an apt phrase for much of what causes pain and suffering in the world, our inability to see beyond what we want to see, and it’s brought out beautifully in a split screen exchange between Collin and Val that explains their whole relationship in a nutshell. The movie is full of perceptive moments like this one, with Diggs and Casal’s script being far more nuanced than anyone might have expected, and along with prejudice and the skewed perception people can have about us, it also examines notions of racial identity (and identification), as well as Oakland’s sense of its own identity now that the area is becoming more and more gentrified. Collin is wondering how he’s going to fit in once his probation is over, but as he’s reminded, he’s now known forever as a convicted felon – and how do you adjust to that?

Miles, on the other hand, knows where he fits in, but maintaining his place is his particular burden, as he too feels threatened by the changes in the community. Loudmouthed and brash, and prone to inappropriate behaviour, Miles is a relic of the past, a dinosaur unwilling to accept that his ways are fast becoming unacceptable, and threatened by the possibility that he’ll lose everything he’s achieved (and particularly his family). As Collin begins to question his future role, Miles is forced to examine his, and for both men it’s not a comfortable situation to be in. How they deal with all this is the crux of a movie that grows in confidence and charm the longer it goes on, and the script is peppered with small gems of observation, and moments of quiet introspection that perfectly complement the more dramatic scenes, such as Collin jogging through a graveyard where the dead all stand by their headstones. With so many disparate elements at work, and all needing their own moments to be effective, it’s a relief to see that Estrada (making his feature debut) never loses sight of what a scene is saying, or how best to get that message across. Directing with an honesty and a focus that boosts the material, Estrada takes Diggs and Casal’s screenplay and invests it with a sincerity and a sense of purpose that makes the narrative feel all the more impressively handled. And with both Diggs and Casal giving excellent performances, this is one occasion where being an indie movie with a voice is easily it’s best recommendation.

Rating: 9/10 – without a bum note anywhere to be had, and without resorting to cynicism or a jaded attitude, Blindspotting proves itself to be one of the most astute movies of 2018; hopefully it won’t be the last time that Diggs and Casal put together a script, but if they do, let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another nine years for it, and that it proves as hilarious, thought-provoking, sensitive, intense, and enjoyable as this is.

Miss Bala (2019)

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D: Catherine Hardwicke / 104m

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, Damián Alcázar, Aislinn Derbez, Anthony Mackie

Gloria Fuentes (Rodriguez) is a make up artist living and working in Los Angeles. She takes a trip to Tijuana in Mexico to see her best friend, Suzu (Rodlo). Suzu is planning to enter the Miss Baja California beauty contest, and that night she and Gloria go to a club where Suzu aims to impress one of the contest’s supporters, Chief of Police Saucedo (Alcázar). However, armed gunmen attempt to kill Saucedo and in the ensuing confusion, Gloria and Suzu are separated. The next morning, and still unable to find Suzu, Gloria seeks help from a policeman. But instead of taking her to the nearest police station, he hands her over to Lino (Cordova), the leader of Las Estrellas, the drug cartel responsible for the attack on Chief Saucedo. Lino tells Gloria he will help her find Suzu, but what this means in reality is that she will have to work for Las Estrellas first. Seizing an opportunity to escape them, Gloria winds up in the hands of the DEA and agent Brian Reich (Lauria), who blackmails her into going back and being a mole in Lino’s organisation…

Comparisons between remakes and their original predecessors is often invidious: the remake rarely makes the same impact, or has the same energy, or succeeds in the same fashion as the original did, and this is doubly so when the remake is an English language version of a foreign language movie. Such is the case with Miss Bala, a re-working of the 2011 movie of the same name that was Mexico’s submission for that year’s Oscars. There’s undoubted talent involved here – director Hardwicke has Lords of Dogtown (2005) and Twilight (2008) on her resumé, Rodriguez is best known for TV’s Jane the Virgin, and DoP Patrick Murguia lensed the under-rated The Frozen Ground (2013) – but there’s not much they can do to offset Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s smoothed over screenplay and its Hollywoodised approach to the basic storyline. Where the original Miss Bala had an ending that was deliberately ambiguous and suited what had gone before, here the ending is contrived and seems designed to pave the way for a TV series. It’s one of many disappointments that will frustrate viewers who have seen Gerardo Naranjo’s version and been impressed by its gritty, psychologically raw attitude. But even if you haven’t, it’s still unlikely that you’ll be singing the movie’s praises.

Part of the problem here is that Gloria is never treated badly enough for the audience to believe that she’s in any real danger. This robs the movie of any tension it may have been able to generate, and it makes Rodriguez’ job that much harder as she tries to sell the idea that Gloria is in real danger. Rodriguez does well to turn an ingenue into a bad ass by the movie’s end, but it’s a triumph that’s against the odds because everything comes so easily to the character, whether it’s learning how to shoot an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, lying convincingly to Lino (who is nowhere near as suspicious of her as he should be), or switching tracking devices in and out of mobile phones at the drop of a hat. There’s an awkward, one-sided romance between Gloria and Lino that seeks to explain the leniency with which he treats her, but it’s at odds with what else we know about the character, and just feels like a misguided attempt to provide the “bad guy” with “layers”. A handful of action scenes are dealt with in a way that could be described as “standard operating procedure” – all low angles, rapid-fire cutting, and the volume cranked up – and they offer some respite from the dreary nature of the overall plot, but they’re not enough to rescue yet another unnecessary English language remake of a much better foreign language original.

Rating: 5/10 – Rodriguez is pretty much the whole deal here, holding Miss Bala together through the sheer strength of her performance, and doing her best to make the viewer forget how homogenised and culturally indifferent it all is; with its sanitised version of a drug cartel not helping to fuel the drama, nor the idea that the DEA are more immoral and/or corrupt than said drug cartel, this isn’t a movie that has a foot in the real world, or anything to say that would make sense, or even be memorable.

The Wandering Earth (2019)

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Original title: Liu Lang Di Qiu

D: Frant Gwo / 125m

Cast: Wu Jing, Qu Chuxiao, Zhao Jinmai, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Michael Kai Sui, Qu Jingjing, Zhang Yichi, Yang Haoyu, Arkady Sharogradsky, Lei Jiayin

In the future, the sun has become a threat to Earth, on the verge of becoming a red giant. All of Earth’s nations have combined to form the United Earth Government (UEG), and in an effort to save the planet, the UEG has devised a plan to use thousands upon thousands of fusion powered thrusters to push the Earth out of its orbit and away from the Sun, with the intention of reaching the Alpha Centauri star system. Planning to use Jupiter’s gravity as a way to sling shot the Earth out of the solar system, an unexpected spike in Jupiter’s gravitational pull causes Earth to be drawn onto a collision course with it. With the future of the planet, and mankind, seemingly doomed, it’s down to a group of disparate individuals, including cocky astronaut’s son, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his adopted sister, Han Duoduo (Zhao), to come up with a way of averting disaster that will restore Earth to its original course, and see them reunited with their father, Liu Peiqiang (Wu), who is based on the space station that is overseeing Earth’s journey…

Some facts about The Wandering Earth: it is China’s second highest grossing movie of all time; it’s already one of the top twenty highest grossing science fiction movies of all time; and right now it’s 2019’s highest grossing movie at the international box office, pulling in over $692 million. Based on the novella of the same name by Locus and Hugo award-winning author Liu Cixin, it’s an absolutely bonkers, over the top sci-fi movie that borrows freely from a host of other sci-fi movies, and never once lets its story get in the way of an(other) overblown special effects sequence. It’s a riot of destruction that soon becomes tedious, but it’s also fascinating to watch, just to see Chinese movie makers competing with Hollywood in terms of Armageddon (1998)/The Day After Tomorrow (2004) -style thrills and spills. As the stakes are raised every ten minutes or so, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles are routinely overcome, Gwo’s movie (which deviates from Liu’s original story, and is the work of eight(!) screenwriters) becomes as much a test of endurance for the characters as it is for the audience. It’s an exhausting exercise in extreme crisis management that batters the viewer more than it impresses, and which, thanks to a lack of character development across the board, makes it hard for anyone watching this to relate to anyone when Liu Qi et al spend most of their time dodging falling masonry.

And no matter how many scientific advisors were on board to guide Gwo and his production team, the narrative, sadly, makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever the merits of Liu’s original novella, it’s unlikely he could have written anything quite so unexpectedly daft as this, with Earth trailing across the heavens like an eyeball shot out of its socket, and a massive, revolving, circular space station that can be driven as easily as a Nissan Micra. It’s not much better on Earth, with surface temperatures in the minus eighties, but still we’ve managed to build an infrastructure across half the globe that appears to be better maintained and run than anything we have now… and that’s without the underground cities… To be fair, Gwo is focused on sci-fi as spectacle, and on that level he’s succeeded admirably, alongside production designer Gao Ang and DoP Michael Liu, who help make Earth’s misfortune that much more credible, even though it’s entirely incredible. But again, this is a romp, albeit a serious one with the usual comic overtones so beloved of Chinese movie makers, but a romp nevertheless, and one that perhaps knows how absurd it all is but which just doesn’t care enough to change its approach or attitude. The performances and direction never aspire to being anything more than perfunctory, and the dialogue ranges from ridiculous to specious (and sometimes in the same sentence), but over all this just goes to show that China is just as capable of making a hollow special effects-laden sci-fi thriller as dear old Hollywood is.

Rating: 5/10 – though it is visually impressive (if more than a little repetitive), and chock full of cliffhanger moments to keep the viewer interested (and fitfully entertained), the sad truth is that The Wandering Earth is not as accomplished as its financial success would seem to indicate; with too many familiar sci-fi elements on display (and not always used to good effect), this is a popcorn movie best seen on the biggest screen possible and with as few expectations as possible.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

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D: Sara Colangelo / 96m

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Gael García Bernal, Michael Chernus, Anna Baryshnikov, Rosa Salazar, Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules, Ajay Naidu, Samrat Chakrabarti

Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) has been a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. She has a family of her own – husband Grant (Chernus), and two teenage children, Josh (Jules) and Lainie (Tahan) – but seems more at ease with the children in her class. In her spare time she attends a weekly poetry class run by Simon (Bernal), but though she tries her best, her poems are regarded as derivative and uninspired. One day, one of her pupils, Jimmy (Sevak), recites a poem that Lisa notes down. Believing it to be both beautiful and profound, she uses it as her own at her next poetry class, where it is well received by everyone. Enjoying this new recognition, Lisa takes more of an interest in Jimmy and tries to ensure she doesn’t miss any more spontaneous poems he might come up with. Certain that he’s a child prodigy, Lisa encourages Jimmy to let her know when he has a new verse. Soon, she is attempting to insert herself more and more into his life in order to foster his talent, but it leads to her making some very unwise decisions…

A remake of the 2014 Israeli movie of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher is that rare remake that is just as good, if not better, than the original. Featuring a bravura performance from Gyllenhaal, the movie tackles its theme of intellectual obsession with a rigour and a complexity that ensures the material retains a number of layers for the viewer to explore even as more and more of Lisa’s motives are revealed. At first, she seems to be exploiting Jimmy’s talent for her own benefit, getting praise at her poetry class, and in time, receiving Simon’s lustful attentions. But as the story unfolds, and we learn more about her, we discover that Lisa is unhappy, with her life which seems to be stuck in a rut, with her marriage which has become stale, and with her children who are striking out on their own and lack any apparent need for intellectual stimulation, something that appals her deeply. Unable to take control of anything other than her standing in the poetry class (and only by deception), Lisa does her best to be the overseer of Jimmy’s talent, and by doing so, to find a new purpose in her life. And as she does so, she becomes more and more willing to take the kind of risks that will cause her downfall – and yet still be grateful to do so.

Of course, there are moral and ethical dilemmas to be addressed here, and Colangelo, who also wrote the screenplay, covers these issues astutely, and displays a keen awareness of Lisa’s emotional needs, and the maternal instincts that have been dulled by her children’s growing independence. In Jimmy she can see a redemptive opportunity, and by nurturing his talent and making sure it’s not squandered as he gets older, Lisa is able to validate her own sense of self-worth. Gyllenhaal is magnificent as Lisa, giving the kind of assured, dazzlingly authoritative performance that we haven’t seen from her in ages, and she dominates the movie from start to finish, expressing Lisa’s hopes and fears and initial lack of personal direction with a fierce intelligence that makes the character entirely credible throughout, and which makes a last reel admission all the more heartbreaking for its wrenching honesty. There are good supporting performances from Sevak and Chernus (though Bernal is under-utilised), and Colangelo makes good use of an often unsettling score courtesy of Asher Goldschmidt. Some viewers may be expecting a tragic ending to such a tale of obsession, and while there is one, it’s far more tragic for what it implies than what actually occurs, something that adds a chilling grace note to what’s gone before.

Rating: 8/10 – with a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and a storyline that embraces the emotional turmoil of someone who’s desperate to restore some meaning to their life – however they can – The Kindergarten Teacher is compelling and thought-provoking at the same time; as much about one woman’s skewed maternal instincts as it is about the path she takes to redeem herself in her own eyes, this is a movie that slowly and quietly grabs hold of the viewer and doesn’t let go until the final, haunting shot.

The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

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D: Joe Cornish / 120m

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Denise Gough, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Genevieve O’Reilly

Alexander “Alex” Elliot (Serkis) and his best friend, Bedders (Chaumoo), are twelve year olds with a common problem: they’re being bullied by two older pupils, Lance (Taylor) and Kaye (Dorris), at their school. When Alex finds himself chased by them after school one day, he takes refuge in a nearby building site. There he discovers a sword lodged in a stone pedestal. Alex removes it, and takes it with him: later, he and Bedders learn that the sword is the legendary Excalibur. The next day, a strange new pupil calling himself Mertin (Imrie) arrives at the school and seems very interested in Alex. That night, Alex is attacked by a skeletal creature at his home, and is only saved by Mertin’s intervention. Revealed to be the ancient sorcerer Merlin, “Mertin” explains to Alex that his finding the sword wasn’t an accident, and that King Arthur’s malevolent half-sister, Morgana (Ferguson), long imprisoned within the earth, has grown strong enough to be on the verge of regaining her full powers; it’s down to Alex as Arthur’s true heir, to defeat her and save Britain once again from being plunged into irrevocable darkness…

The release of Joe Cornish’s first movie, Attack the Block (2011), seems like an Arthurian age ago now, and though he’s been busy with other projects in the meantime – most notably the script for Ant-Man (2015), and being in the running to direct Star Trek Beyond (2016) – the wait for his second feature has created a palpable sense of anticipation. Alas, the movie he’s devoted most of his time and energy to, isn’t as rewarding as his first. On the surface it’s a fun children’s movie, a modern day medieval romp replete with swords and chases on horseback, a wicked sorceress, and the fate of the world as we know it in the balance. There are further elements included: bullying, an absentee father for Alex, and the burdens of leadership, and though Cornish throws them all into the mix with the best of intentions, his modern fantasy never fizzes with the necessary invention needed to make it entirely successful. It’s a shame, as The Kid Who Would Be King is a terrific idea in theory, but in practice it stumbles too often, and there are too many narrative lulls that hamper the flow of the material. A trip to Tintagel is a strong case in point, an extended section of the movie that feels like it should be important to the overall story, but which, ultimately, only provides the solution to a minor plot point.

Little about Cornish’s movie feels like it’s working in the way that he envisioned when he set out to make it. Too much feels perfunctory or blandly rendered, and it always feels like it’s having to work harder and harder as it progresses to maintain the audience’s attention. Cornish throws in the odd visual flourish – Morgana’s skeletal army is an asset, the Lady of the Bath, erm, Lake is another – but this is also a movie that betrays its modest studio budget by looking drab for most of the running time, and by allowing the work of its normally reliable DoP Dick Pope to look like it’s been deliberately underlit as a conscious directorial choice. And unfair as this may seem, the young cast aren’t very interesting to watch, their lack of experience leading to some uncomfortable moments when things need to get emotional. Only Imrie is able to inject any energy into his performance, and he does so by somehow managing to play his role both completely straight and with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek at the same time; when he’s not on screen he’s sorely missed. As a family movie it’s not without a certain degree of likeability, and Cornish adds some solid humour to leaven the serious fantasy aspects, but it’s likely that only children will submit to its charms, while adults may well find it something of a struggle to sit through.

Rating: 5/10 – already likely to lose the studios that bankrolled it around $50 million, The Kid Who Would Be King has a solid basic premise, and Cornish should have been able to use it as the springboard for a truly entertaining magical adventure, but instead it feels listless and inassertive; one to watch when The Goonies (1985) – or even Holes (2003) – isn’t available, this is the first major disappointment of 2019.

Monsters and Men (2018)

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D: Reinaldo Marcus Green / 96m

Cast: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Chanté Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Nicole Beharie, Rob Morgan, Cara Buono

Manuel “Manny” Ortega (Ramos) is a young man with a family who is trying to make a living in the Bed-Stuy area of New York. He skirts along the edges of the local criminal community, although in  a very minor capacity. While out one night he witnesses six police officers attempting to detain an unarmed black man called Big D. As he films the incident on his mobile phone, the man is shot and killed by one of the officers. In the days that follow, Manny wavers between posting the incident online or keeping quiet. When his home is broken into, Manny suspects the police have done it, and so he uploads the footage. For local police officer Dennis Williams (Washington), his knowledge of the officer involved and the clearcut nature of the killing, causes him to have mixed feelings about the growing outcry at the death of Big D, and his own position as a black police officer. For promising teenage baseball player Zyrick Norris (Harrison Jr), the shooting prompts him into joining a local activist group headed by Zoe (Adams), while putting his professional future on the line…

The debut feature of noted short movie maker Reinaldo Marcus Green, Monsters and Men takes an all too familiar scenario, that of a potentially unlawful killing by police, and instead of focusing on the rights or wrongs of the act itself, examines the wider effects of such an incident on a handful of connected individuals. It’s a deceptively bold approach, and one that allows Green to give his movie a simple yet dramatically daring structure, one that doesn’t provide the viewer with any resolutions or permanent outcomes. Instead, each of the three main characters is left at a pivotal moment in their life, their futures undecided but influenced by the actions that have brought them to these moments. Manny has just started a new job and is in the process of putting his criminal past behind him; releasing the footage will bring him a notoriety he can’t afford. But he’s also proud, and he won’t be intimidated by the attentions of the police, so he posts the footage online, only to find that doing the right thing can come at a price. It’s a bittersweet victory, but one that, surprisingly, still offers hope for Manny and his family.

Dennis is a career police officer, aware that some of his fellow officers aren’t afraid to cross the line, but unwilling to do the same. This brings him into conflict with his friends and colleagues, and facing potential problems from Internal Affairs, but like Manny he has his own personal moral code, and he won’t submit to compromise, even if deep down, he knows he should. Perhaps the most interesting of the three is Zyrick, a teenager on the verge of a lucrative baseball career who discovers a willingness to be politicised when marches and protests are organised in the wake of Big D’s death. Zyrick has the fervour and the commitment of a neophyte, and it’s his nascent moral code that drives the movie’s final third, and finds the character making a choice between baseball and activism that is both powerful and galvanising. The three leads all give tremendous performances, their varied characters providing the viewer with different inroads to different aspects of the story, and their inner conflicts convincingly expressed and portrayed. Along the way, Green avoids any obvious preaching, and keeps things pleasingly realistic, an achievement that highlights just how intelligently handled it all is, and just how good Green is as a writer/director.

Rating: 9/10 – with a growing sense of urgency that’s allowed to unfold at a steady, yet engrossing pace, and photography to match it from DoP Patrick Scola, Monsters and Men is a gritty reminder that some racial tensions may never be resolved; persuasive and effective thanks to the decision to present differing, complex moral attitudes – and not judging any of them – this is a movie that creates its own narrative template, and is a terrific example of purposeful firebrand movie making.

All the Devil’s Men (2018)

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D: Matthew Hope / 99m

Cast: Milo Gibson, Sylvia Hoeks, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Joseph Millson, Elliot Cowan, William Fichtner

Following a successful assassination attempt in Morocco, covert US operative Jack Collins (Gibson) just wants to go home and be with his wife and their first child (whom he hasn’t seen yet). But before that can happen he’s drafted into a CIA mission to track down and eliminate a rogue soldier turned arms dealer called Terry McKnight (Cowan), who is planning to acquire a Russian nuclear warhead on behalf of a suspected terrorist organisation. Intelligence has placed McKnight in London, and Collins, along with old friend and mentor, Bennett (Fichtner), and CIA hotshot Samuelson (Akinnagbe), head there to intercept McKnight’s deal with the Russians. They make contact with an old friend of Collins’ called Deighton (Millson), who is a known associate of McKnight’s, but though he is initially cooperative, he soon betrays them. It transpires that Deighton is helping McKnight to facilitate the warhead deal, and keeping him safe in the meantime. With Collins’ handler, Leigh (Hoeks), insisting that McKnight must be stopped at all costs (and having personal reasons for being in charge), Collins must find a way of first eliminating Deighton before he can get to McKnight, and then finally get home…

Eight years ago, writer/director Matthew Hope made the edgy and well received The Veteran. It featured Toby Kebbell as a soldier returning from Afghanistan and discovering a conspiracy between the intelligence services and a gang of local drug dealers. Kebbell spent much of the movie popping up in various out of the way London locations and putting a messy stop to it all. Now, in All the Devil’s Men we have Milo Gibson doing much the same thing, but to far less rewarding effect. Saddled with playing a character suffering from an unexplored and ill-defined form of PTSD, Gibson spends a lot of screen time staring at, or taking, little red pills (but called gold pills by everyone else for some reason), and grimacing in pain from time to time. This and Collins’ need to return home to his family is the entire extent of his character development, and though you’d expect his PTSD to come into play during any showdown between Collins and McKnight at the movie’s close, Hope lets the idea lapse in favour of an over-the-top, gung-ho, ultra-macho shootout. It’s not the only time Hope sets things up for a later payoff only to renege on the deal and leave the viewer wondering why a plot point was included in the first place.

Perhaps the problem lies in the paper-thin transparency of the plot, which attempts to create thrills out of a nebulous geo-political intrigue, and then populates it with characters who remain woefully one dimensional and lumbered witn the kind of dialogue that serves only to highlight that Hope has no idea just how real life covert operatives etc would talk (Samuelson describes himself as a “shadow warrior”, while McKnight continually spouts aphorisms about the nature of conflict). There are the requisite number of action scenes but these largely consist of everyone running around shooting at each other in those aforementioned out of the way London locations, while Hope tries his best with limited resources to make them as exciting as possible. Sadly, he doesn’t always succeed, and the scenes in between the shootouts are of the “let’s set up the next action scene” variety and not terribly interesting. It’s clear that the movie has ambition, but its reliance on action thriller clichés and lack of investment in the characters – there’s literally no one to root for – are problems it’s unable to overcome, and Gibson, whose career trajectory has so far been on a steady upward curve, is ill-used and under-served by the material and his character. All in all, it’s a movie that somehow got made, but waaaay before it was ready.

Rating: 4/10 – despite attempts at being atmospheric and brooding, and opening with a tense, well executed sequence set in Morocco, All the Devil’s Men betrays its generic, meaningless title, and offers little from then on for the viewer to connect with; a massive backward step for Hope, and one that the likes of Hoeks and Fichtner might conveniently erase from their resumés, this lacks pace and energy, and any sense that a coherent, fully developed movie was ever on the cards.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014)

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D: Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane / 89m

With: Lazarus Lake, Brett Maune, Jared Campbell, John Fegyveresi, Wouter Hamelinck, “Frozen” Ed Furtaw, Julian Jamison, Nick Hollon, Raw Dog

It’s billed as one of the most challenging ultramarathons in America, if not the world. Founded by Lazarus Lake (real name Gary Cantrell) and Raw Dog (real name Karl Henn), the Barkley Marathon was inspired by a remark made by Lake in relation to the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King, was on the run for fifty-five hours but only covered eight miles in that time. Lake thought he could do at least a hundred miles – and so, in 1986, the Barkley Marathon had its inaugural run. It’s a punishing race against time: the competitors have to complete five “loops”, a circular route through the Tennessee mountains that begins and ends at a yellow car park gate where the entrants’ assemble. The first three loops are referred to as the Fun Run, while the remaining two loops are more challenging. Each loop is twenty miles in distance, all five have to be completed within sixty hours, and there’s a maximum of forty runners. As of 2018, around 55% of the races have ended without anyone completing the course…

Though the Barkley Marathon is an endurance test for those who compete in it – and many runners come back year after year, pushing themselves to do better than last time – what The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young does best is to focus in on the little details associated with the race and how its managed. From the entrance fee of $1.60, to Lake’s never having completed the marathon himself, to the collection of pages from books with titles such as The Human Zoo (found near to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary – part of the loop goes under it), it’s the paraphernalia attached to the race that makes it all the more appealing. It’s also a marathon that isn’t widely advertised, or easy to apply for. Many of the competitiors hear about it through word of mouth. With all this adding a degree of mystery and intrigue to the event, what emerges is a sense that the Barkley Marathon isn’t about its being famous or recognised across the globe (though it is), or even the challenge of taking part, but instead it’s about its existence and what it means to Lake and everyone who does take part. In many ways the race is a symbol, a metaphor for self-awareness, and how each entrant learns something more about themselves.

It’s not immediately obvious, but when each runner is given a number, the one to avoid is Number 1. Lake explains it all casually, and with a tinge of regret that he has to do it, but Number 1 is given to the runner who is expected to call it quits during the first loop. At first this seems unnecessarily cruel, to single out the weakest competitor (it’s even explained to them before they begin), but when it happens, that person somehow finds it easier to acknowledge that this isn’t for them. The message is clear: there’s no harm in trying, and there’s no shame in quitting, no matter how far you get; it’s about discovering and recognising the extent of your own strengths, and being comfortable with that. As the runners drop out, and the impact it’s having on them physically is shown, it’s hard not to admire these people for their perseverance and determination (and you may find yourself questioning your own limits as well). By focusing on the runners and the reasons they take part, Iltis and Kane have made their documentary about the human will to overcome – not the course and its numerous hazards, but each individual’s perception of their own limits. It all makes for an engaging, appealing movie that has a streak of mordaunt humour running through it, and a solid appreciation for the absurdities connected with a race that’s begun by the lighting of a cigarette.

Rating: 8/10 – with Lake acting as a casual but friendly commentator on the history and the background of the race, and the willingness of the runners to reveal their motives for taking part, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is a low-key yet quietly compelling documentary that both surprises and delights; when a movie, fictional or otherwise, has you rooting for the runner who’s going to come in third, then you know it’s got its priorities right, and is doing justice to the material.

Happy Anniversary (2018)

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D: Jared Stern / 78m

Cast: Noël Wells, Ben Schwartz, Rahul Kohli, Joe Pantoliano, Annie Potts, Kristin Bauer van Straten, David Walton, Leonardo Nam, Kate Berlant, Sanchita Malik, Isidora Goreshter

Mollie (Wells) and Sam (Schwartz) have been together for three years. On the morning of their third anniversary, Sam treats Mollie to a special breakfast in bed, which soon leads to their starting to make love, and then Mollie’s blurted admission that she’s not happy. What follows is an argument where the couple pick out each other’s faults, and generally explain why they shouldn’t be together. This continues as Sam drops off Mollie at her parents’ home, where she reveals that she’ll be staying there while she sorts out her feelings. Sam is in the process of starting up an online clothing business, and he and his business partner, Ed (Kohli), are due to make a pitch that day to a supplier, Willa (van Straten). While they prepare, Mollie spends time with her parents, and tries to decide if her relationship with Sam is worth saving, while also encountering an old flame, Arik (Walton), who helps put things into perspective. Later, though, an emergency involving their dog brings them together again. But it proves to be temporary – thanks to a message Mollie receives from Arik, and which Sam sees…

You could argue that the romantic comedy is something of a spent force as far as genres go these days. Sure they still get made, and some even show up in cinemas, but when was the last time you saw a truly satisfying romantic comedy? And particularly one that was actually about how romance can endure, and not the standard boy-meets-girl scenario? That’s where Happy Anniversary comes in, the debut feature of screenwriter Jared Stern – Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) – a bright, appealing look at how we determine if we’re happy in a relationship, and what things convince us that we are (or we’re not, or we might be). When Mollie announces that she’s not happy, Sam calls time on her “bullshit” and accuses her of never being happy unless she’s feeling unhappy. And though this leads to the kind of recriminations we’ve all seen before, Stern is canny enough to make those recriminations more relatable because they’re exactly the kind of things that most of us have probably brought up at times in our own relationships. Mollie wants Sam to be the same romantic guy he was when they first got together, and Sam wants Mollie to acknowledge that she doesn’t know what she wants (sound familiar?).

As Stern explores the couple’s feelings about love and romance, the movie addresses further relationship issues such as getting married and having children, but thankfully not in a way that sounds pedantic or contrived, and Stern’s screenplay finds time for subtle, pithy moments such as when Mollie’s mother (Potts) tells her that marrying her father wasn’t a mistake, but not leaving him was. The movie makes the obvious point that relationships are difficult (possibly the hardest work you never get paid for), and that knowing the person you’re with is Mr or Miss Right isn’t always easy to work out, but it does all this with an easy charm, and a lightweight, comedic approach that will keep viewers smiling throughout even if there aren’t any real belly laughs to be had. Wells and Schwartz make for an appealing couple, and they share a slightly off-kilter chemistry that benefits their characters’ predicament, while there’s solid support from Kohli as the friend who does his best to help but can only do so as inappropriately as possible. There’s a bright, sunny feel to the movie thanks to DoP Nicholas Wiesnet’s use of space and light, and editor David Egan knows just when to focus on Sam or Mollie to get the most emotion out of a scene, while Stern provides us with the requisite happy ending – though one that’s tinged, for once, with a remaining sense of unresolved issues that feels in keeping with Sam and Mollie’s journey.

Rating: 7/10 – though much of Happy Anniversary follows established romantic comedy tropes, and its tone is breezily upbeat while it explores the downside of having “second thoughts”, it’s nevertheless an engaging, enjoyable movie that avoids any hint of cynicism and roots for its main characters throughout; a minor gem that has just enough dramatic heft to make it look and sound like more than just an average rom-com, it’s quietly perceptive, and just as quietly effective.

Vox Lux (2018)

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D: Brady Corbet / 114m

Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott, Logan Riley Bruner, Maria Dizzia, Willem Dafoe

In 1999, teenager Celeste Montgomery (Cassidy) is seriously wounded in a school shooting that leaves the rest of her classmates dead. Along with her sister, Ellie (Martin), she writes a song about the experience that is first played at a memorial service for the victims, and which draws the attention of an influential manager (Law). He takes the sisters under his wing, and gets them signed to a record company. Using their song as the launchpad for an album, their manager takes them to Stockholm, where they record new songs, while experiencing the kind of lifestyle that is both attractive and dangerous. In 2017, Celeste (Portman) is on the verge of releasing her sixth album – and making something of a comeback – when terrorists kill a number of tourists at a beach resort in Croatia, and wear masks that are similar to ones used in a music video Celeste made when her career was just starting. Faced with probing questions from the press about any possible links to the terrorists, Celeste also has to cope with the needs of her teenage daughter, Albertine (Cassidy), and her now fractured relationship with Ellie…

With The Childhood of a Leader (2015), actor turned director Brady Corbet established himself in one fell swoop as a movie maker to watch out for. With Vox Lux, Corbet has chosen to explore a familiar narrative – the perils of achieving stardom at a young age and how that same stardom can be both empowering and corruptive – but in an unfamiliar, avant-garde way that frequently stretches the narrative out of shape (and sometimes out of context as well), and presents viewers with two versions of the same character: the naïve, impressionable Celeste, and the jaundiced, disillusioned Celeste. Corbet allows the former version to be likeable and appealing and someone you can sympathise with, an ingenue whisked away from her parents and her small town life and exposed to the “real world” at a bewildering speed, and despite the best intentions of her manager, to the harsh truths of that world. But the latter version is the opposite, jaded and bored and prone to flying off the handle because she’s the one with the talent – Ellie has been all but forgotten in 2017 – and she’s the one carrying everyone else. She wants to connect with her daughter, but has never developed the skills to do so. All she knows is her career.

By showing Celeste at the beginning of her career, and then where she is now, Corbet makes some damning comments about the nature of fame and celebrity, but though the movie is visually fresh and exciting, his narrative isn’t, and Portman’s Celeste is prone to saying things like, “The business model relies on the consumer’s unshakable stupidity” as if this is a) profound, or b) something we didn’t know already. It’s the flaw in Corbet’s screenplay: none of what he’s showing or telling us is new; there are no great revelations here, merely reiterations of ideas that we’ve heard many times before. This makes the movie visually arresting – Corbet isn’t one to shy away from experimenting with an excess of style – but less than intriguing, and though Portman and Cassidy are terrific as Celeste, the character doesn’t get under the viewer’s skin in a way that would allow an emotional response to what she’s going through. Corbet puts Celeste in the midst of tragedy time and again, but how all this actually affects her remains something of an unexplored mystery, and by the end, and an extended sequence that sees Portman strutting her stuff on stage to a buoyant electropop song medley, whatever message Corbet has been trying to get across is lost amongst all the bright lights and the glamour. Or maybe that is the message…

Rating: 6/10 – with narration from Willem Dafoe that feels like it should be attached to an adaptation of a classic novel, and inventive approaches to both its tone and content, Vox Lux is a mixed bag that has the ability to frustrate and reward at the same time; not as compelling a tale of burdensome fame and fortune as it wants to be, but fascinating nevertheless for Corbet’s confidence behind the camera, this is one movie whose merits are likely to be debated for some time to come.

The Aftermath (2019)

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D: James Kent / 108m

Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schümann, Fionn O’Shea, Alexander Scheer

In the winter of 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) comes to Hamburg to be with her husband, Lewis (Clarke), who is a colonel in the British Forces. They are to live in a requisitioned house on the outskirts of the city, the home of an architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Thiemann). Though Lewis has a great deal of respect for Lubert – and for the ordinary German people – Rachael is less than friendly. She has a reason: their son, Michael, was killed in a bombing raid when he was eleven. But as Lewis spends more and more time trying to track down the members of a group of fanatical Nazis called the 88’s, Rachael becomes more and more reliant on Lubert’s company, and while Lewis is away for a few days, she and Lubert become much closer. The pair make plans to leave Hamburg together, and when Lewis returns Rachael determines to tell him their marriage is over. But danger lurks in the wings: Freda has unwittingly aided a member of the 88’s, Albert (Schümann), in targeting Lewis for assassination…

Put Keira Knightley in a period costume, and she shines. It’s as much a cinematic given as Tom Cruise doing a dangerous stunt (though without the broken ankle). With a gift for interpreting closeted emotions and their eventual impassioned expression, Knightley is always the best thing about the movies she makes, and The Aftermath is no exception. Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie takes full advantage of Knightley’s skills as an actress, and provides viewers with a central character whose sense of morality, and her sense of loyalty, is challenged by the (somewhat staid) attentions of a man she sets out to hate, but who, in time honoured romantic fashion, she later falls in love with. That this happens at all is predictable enough, and there are many clues to tick off along the way, from the less than convincing reunion between Rachael and Lewis at the train station, to Lewis’s inability to talk about the death of their son, to the meaningful stares Rachael and Lubert exchange whenever anyone isn’t looking. With Lewis playing the absent, work-focused husband, it’s left to Rachael to occupy her time by having an affair and hoping for a better life. It’s the crux of a movie that feels as familiar, and therefore as empty, as many before it.

And so, it’s left to Knightley to rescue the movie from its self-imposed doldrums and minor soap opera theatrics. In many ways the movie doesn’t deserve her, because she seems to be the only one who’s trying. There’s a scene where Rachael breaks down and talks about her son that is truly heartbreaking for the depth of the despair and the grief that Knightley expresses. And that scene sticks out like a sore thumb because there’s no other scene to match it for its emotion, and its power, and its impact. Likewise, Skarsgård and Clarke are left in her wake, playing monotone versions of characters we’ve seen a hundred times over, and unable to make them look or sound like anything other than broad stereotypes. With the narrative offering nothing new, and Kent maintaining a steady but too respectful pace, the movie fails to excite, and remains a placid affair about a – well, placid affair. The wintry locations at least add some visual flair to proceedings, and the recreation of bomb-ravaged Hamburg is effectively realised, but these aspects aren’t enough when the main storyline should be passionate and convincing, instead of moderate and benign. Thank heaven then for Knightley, and a performance that elevates the material whenever she’s on screen.

Rating: 6/10 – a movie that means well, but which starts off slowly and stays that way (and despite an attempt at adding thriller elements towards the end), The Aftermath is rescued from terminal dullness by the force and intensity of Keira Knightley’s performance; a period romantic drama that at least gets the “period” right, this is a cautious, overly restrained tale that allows the odd flourish to shine through from time to time, but which in the end, doesn’t offer enough in the way of rewards to make it more than occasionally memorable.

The Rider (2017)

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D: Chloé Zhao / 99m

Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford, Alan Reddy, Derrick Janis

Following an accident at a bull riding event, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) has a metal plate in his head and recurring moments when the motor function in his right hand seizes up. Living with his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), and younger sister, Lilly (Jandreau), who has autism, Brady knows he has to take it easy, and that a return to the rodeo circuit isn’t going to happen any time soon, but being a cowboy is the only thing he knows how to do. His friends all seem to think his return to bull riding is a foregone conclusion, and Brady hopes they’re right, but as time goes on, and his motor seizures don’t improve, he takes to breaking in wild horses instead. Inevitably, Brady starts to ride again, but this proves to be a problem as well, and he collapses while out on a horse he’s bought after breaking it in. Still wanting to live the life he wants to lead, and on his terms (and despite medical advice and his father’s counsel), Brady decides to enter the next rodeo event, and return to doing the one thing he’s good at…

In her follow up to Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), writer/director Chloé Zhao returns to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (and some of the same non-professional actors she used before), and again uses real life incidents – Jandreau suffered the head injury depicted in the movie – as the basis for a story that examines and explores what it’s like to have your livelihood taken away from you when your personal situation is already pretty bleak. Brady and his family live on the edge of poverty, with his father wasting much of his wages on gambling and alcohol, and along with many others on the reservation, opportunities that would enable Brady to start again are slim to non-existent. Having nothing else that can motivate him as much, Brady clings on to the idea that he can continue to be a cowboy, but he’s somehow forgotten that being a cowboy isn’t just about staying on a bull for eight seconds, it’s a way of life – and he’s already living it. Zhao highlights Brady’s pride and resilience, and his determination to resume the life he’s used to, but she also shows how this isn’t as good for him as he thinks. Sometimes, Zhao makes clear, letting go of our dreams is better for us than trying to live them.

Once again, Zhao uses the backdrop of the South Dakota Badlands to reflect the mood and tone of the material, its sprawling vistas and huge skies providing a sense of freedom that can’t be achieved through the characters’ daily lives. And once again the movie is beautifully photographed by DoP Joshua James Richards, his trenchant eye for intimate compositions amidst the rolling hills and grassy plains offering an elegiac feel to the narrative, and underlining the mythology of the cowboy. There’s sadness and pessimism here, and disillusionment too, but there’s also hope, and in the unlikeliest of places, such as the brain-damaged form of Brady’s friend, Lane (Scott), and the relationships Brady is able to form with horses. As with Songs…, Zhao focuses on the good things in her main characters’ life, the things that truly matter, but which we often don’t recognise, or worse, take for granted. She’s rewarded (again) by a number of terrific performances from her non-professional cast; the realism they bring adds to the sincerity and honesty of Brady’s story. Though necessarily downbeat because of the declining social structure of reservation life, this is ultimately an intelligent, thought-provoking, and above all, moving, portrait of an important turning point in a young man’s life.

Rating: 9/10 – directed with confidence and skill by Zhao, and offering a pensive yet richly detailed examination of a way of life that still holds meaning for many living in the American Midwest, The Rider is a beautifully realised movie about loss and hope that is simply breathtaking; simply told but with a scope that puts it in a league all its own, Zhao’s sophomore feature is an immersive, exceptional movie that, like its predecessor, shines a light on a corner of America that rarely recieves such illuminating attention.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

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D: Chloé Zhao / 90m

Cast: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard, Taysha Fuller, Eléonore Hendricks, Travis Lone Hill, George Dull Knife, Cat Clifford, Kevin Hunter, Justin Reddy, Alan Reddy, Derrick Janis, Dakota Brown

Johnny Winters (Reddy) and his younger sister, Jashaun (St. John), live with their mother, Lisa (Bedard), on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Although he’s in high school and on the verge of graduating, Johnny sells illegal alcohol to other residents on the reservation in order to help support his immediate family (his father, Carl, has had many wives and children in the past, and now lives with another of his families). But even though he’s doing what he can to care for Jashaun and his mother, Johnny is planning to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Aurelia (Fuller), when she begins college there. When his father dies in a house fire, Johnny begins to find that his life isn’t quite as clear cut as he’d like: he runs afoul of the organised bootleggers on the reservation, Jashaun discovers his plan to move to L.A., Aurelia appears reluctant to tell her family about their being together, while his older brother, Cody (Justin Reddy), who’s in prison, pushes him to leave with or without her…

A perceptive and convincing look at the trials and obstacles that can obstruct young Native Americans from finding their place in the world – either on a reservation or away from one – Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a melancholy, and largely pessimistic debut feature from writer/director Zhao, and one that paints a sad portrait of life in general at Pine Ridge. Zhao, who spent four years making the movie, and who got to know the residents of Pine Ridge (many of whom appear in the movie  as fictionalised versions of themselves), focuses on the age-old question: why stay in a place that offers so little? Johnny wants a better life for himself, but has no clear idea of how he’s going to achieve this. Going to L.A. with Aurelia seems like the perfect choice, but Johnny hasn’t thought about where he’ll live, or what he’ll do for money. And his relationship with Aurelia doesn’t feel as if it’s strong enough to survive away from the reservation. Distributing alcohol gives him something to do, as well as an income, but the cruel dependency it has created amongst his fellow Lakota tribespeople only adds to his determination to leave.

Zhao tackles all this on a micro-budget, but imbues her telling narrative with a brooding atmosphere that’s punctuated by the presence of far-off lightning storms, and in one startling moment, a line of fire crossing the Badlands that feels apocalyptic. It’s all beautifully shot by DoP Joshua James Richards, and the landscape acts as a potent backdrop to the narrative: austere and harsh in places, yet still offering both a respite and a promise of escape from the hardship and the adversity that hampers so many lives. The performances of Reddy and St. John are remarkable, with much of their combined story drawn from events in their real lives (the scene where Jashaun retrieves items from her father’s burnt-out house takes place on the site of her own childhood home, which burnt down during production). There’s an honesty about their portrayals that shines through as a result, and however rough and ready they may be at times when required to “act”, that self-same honesty makes those times all the more credible and affecting. Zhao’s debut is also remarkable for its intelligence and its commitment to telling its story with tenderness, sincerity, and a non-judgmental approach that gives the material an almost documentary feel to it. At times both poetic and heartbreaking, this is a movie that is quiet yet stirring, and reticent yet intensely emotional.

Rating: 8/10 – with its exploration of the problems affecting the Lakota people at Pine Ridge, and its portrait of a community in cultural and social crisis, Songs My Brothers Taught Me allows moments of hope to shine through amongst all the pessimism (which can’t be avoided); lyrical in places, and offering breathtaking views of the South Dakota Badlands, Zhao’s debut is important too, as it shines a light on a corner of America that rarely recieves such illuminating attention.

Songbird (2018)

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aka Alright Now

D: Jamie Adams / 95m

Cast: Cobie Smulders, Richard Elis, Jessica Hynes, Noel Clarke, Emily Atack, Laura Patch, Holli Dempsey, Mandeep Dhillon, Griffin Dunne

Twenty years after they were first successful, rock band The Filthy Dukes are reduced to playing working men’s clubs in small British towns. Their lead singer, Joanne Skye (Smulders), is still living the rock n’ roll life, partying hard and trading on past glories whenever she can. When her manager-cum-boyfriend, Larry (Clarke), calls it quits on their relationship, and the rest of the band call it quits too in the same evening, Joanne ends up in a pub where she meets Pete (Elis) – but it’s not the best first encounter. Afterwards, Joanne meets up with old friend, Sara (Hynes), and under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol, they decide to enrol in a marine biology course at the local university. The next day they decide to go through with their enrolment, and at the university Joanne discovers that Pete is the admissions officer. Blagging their way onto the course, they also get a dorm room, and find themselves surrounded by young women half their age. For Joanne, it’s a chance to continue being a rock chick, but a growing attachment to Pete has her re-thinking her priorities…

Sometimes, a movie maker makes enough of an impression to ensure that his other work is tracked down or taken advantage of when it surfaces. Such a movie maker is Jamie Adams, whose Black Mountain Poets (2015) showed promise even though it was uneven and inconsistent in its approach. Songbird is the second of two movies made by Adams and released in 2018, and at first it looks as if it’s going to be a spoof of a pretentious Nineties indie band, with excerpts from a dreadfully arch music video for a Filthy Dukes song that was number one for fourteen weeks(!). Alas, it’s not to be, as instead, Adams decides to concentrate on Joanne and her bullish, hyperactive behaviour. She’s a verbal bull in a china shop, a slave to the persona she created twenty years before, and perilously close to having no self-awareness at all. She’s also really, really, really difficult to connect with as a character. Thanks to Adams’ further decision to have Joanne behave like the most annoying person in a room full of annoying over-achievers, most of the movie’s first half is a chore to sit through as she displays the kind of childish, free-form expressions (both verbal and physical) that denote either someone suffering from arrested development or incipient mental health problems.

All this is – of course – meant to be funny, but thanks to Adams’ leaden direction and a script that feels largely improvised (and which, like Black Mountain Poets, Adams appears happy to go along with, no matter how laboured it is), the movie struggles through long periods of dramatic and comedic inertia before it finally begins to tease out the semblance of a crafted storyline, instead of the fractured narrative it’s adopted up until then. The jittery romance between Joanne and Pete comes to the fore, and the movie almost sighs with relief at having something more defined to focus on, and the performances improve as well, with Smulders and Elis at last able to flex their acting skills in the service of something more meaningful and emotive. It’s a long time coming, and some viewers may well have hit the Stop button, or decided to head for the pub (or anywhere) long before this, but the movie’s last half hour shows just how good it could have been if Adams had been more rigorous in his approach to the material. It’s still fairly rough around the edges, and it does seem as if everyone suddenly woke up to the fact that more effort needed to be made, but it’s the one section of the movie that succeeds by actually having something to say – and knowing, at last, how to say it.

Rating: 4/10 – shot in five days (and it shows), Songbird has a dire first hour that acts as a challenge to the viewer to keep watching, and a final half hour that rescues the movie from obtaining a much lower rating; ill-advised and sluggish, with occasional flashes of inspiration that are quickly snuffed out by the next woeful occurrence, it’s to be hoped that Adams’ next endeavour has more structure and attention to both characters and plot than this does.

A Private War (2018)

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D: Matthew Heineman / 110m

Cast: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Faye Marsay, Stanley Tucci, Greg Wise, Corey Johnson, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Raad Rawi

Marie Colvin (Pike) is a journalist and war correspondent working for the Sunday Times. She goes where most other journalists wouldn’t even think of going, but her work is highly personal and highly praised. However, in 2001, while in Sri Lanka, her return journey from a meeting with the Tamil Tigers is ambushed and Marie is wounded in the attack, losing the sight in her left eye. Back home she adopts an eye patch, and after a period of recovery, throws herself back into the fray by visiting Afghanistan and Iraq, and despite suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. She also meets freelance photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), and they form a dedicated partnership, as they document the effects war has on the people of these countries, and the atrocities they have had to endure. But continued exposure to civil wars and the suffering of others has made Marie erratic and unpredictable, and her editor, Sean Ryan (Hollander), is concerned about her continuing to travel to war zones. But then, in 2012, comes news of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and what’s happening in the city of Homs, and Marie determines to see for herself how bad it is…

Adapted from the article Marie Colvin’s Private War by Marie Brenner, which was published in Vanity Fair in 2012, A Private War begins (and ends) with a quote from Colvin: “You’re never going to get to where you’re going if you acknowledge fear.” It’s an appropriate message, as the movie shows just how fearless Colvin was when she was in the middle of a war zone, or if her life were in immediate danger. Her fierce determination and selfless behaviour allowed no time to be afraid; that was for when she was at home, and dealing with the nightmarish images that she’d seen over the years, and which continued to haunt her. At one point, Conroy states what may well have been the truth: that Colvin was addicted to her work, and that being waaaay past the front line in any given conflict was what she lived for. Brave or foolish, the movie doesn’t judge. Instead, Arash Amel’s psychologically complex screenplay, and Matthew Heineman’s tightly controlled direction highlight the ambiguity of emotion that prompts someone to only truly feel alive when they’re in the midst of death. And the ways in which Colvin rejects any concern for her safety shows just how addicted she became.

To show all this, the movie doesn’t attempt to lionise its heroine, or sugar coat the fact that Colvin could be abrasive and demanding. She also had a drink problem, but Amel’s script acknowledges this and then moves on; it doesn’t define her, her passion for the truth of an issue does. All of this is brought out by an incredible career-best performance from Pike. Tough, vulnerable, overwhelmed, arrogant, devastated, removed, passionate – Pike is all these things and more as Colvin, and she shows an understanding of the journalist’s mindset that adds an emotional resonance to the material. When Colvin’s story reaches Homs, the movie manages to be both hopeful and triumphant even though the outcome is inevitable, and Pike plays the part as if Colvin is invincible. This makes the ending all the more heart-rending, but in keeping with the serious tone adopted throughout, any melodrama is avoided, and Heineman’s matter-of-fact approach to the material wins out. Given the intensity and power of Pike’s performance, the rest of the cast don’t fare quite as well, and secondary characters such as Colvin’s best friend, Rita (Amuka-Bird), and late arrival lover, Tony (Tucci), pop up now and then to little effect, while some of the London-based scenes border on perfunctory, but otherwise this is a gripping exploration of one woman’s need to make a difference when no one else could – or would.

Rating: 8/10 – an intelligent, fascinating movie about an altogether different form of addiction, A Private War is sobering and thoughtful, and not afraid to reflect the horrors we inflict on each other in the name of religion or ethnicity or just plain hatred; visceral and uncomfortable in places, and as determined not to apologise for this as Colvin would have been, the movie acts as a reminder that heroism comes in many different forms.

Ben Is Back (2018)

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D: Peter Hedges / 103m

Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, Myra Lucretia Taylor

Arriving home on Xmas Eve, Holly Burns-Beeby (Roberts) is surprised to find her teenage son, Ben (Hedges), waiting on the doorstep. She’s surprised because Ben is supposed to be in rehab and not allowed home yet. Nearly three months clean, Ben tells Holly – and his younger sister, Ivy (Newton) – that his sponsor thought it would be a good idea to spend Xmas at home. Ivy isn’t convinced, and nor his her stepfather, Neal (Vance), when he comes home. A deal is struck: Ben can stay for twenty-four hours, but he has to abide to Holly’s rules, which mainly involve being in her sight at all times, and no shutting of doors in the house. Ben soon chafes against these rules, and a trip to the mall to get his much younger step-siblings presents results in his needing to attend a meeting. There, and with Holly present, Ben reveals some of the pain he’s caused his family (and himself), and meets a young woman, Cara (Park), who he used to deal to. Back at the mall, it’s then that Holly disovers Ben has drugs on him, and her faith in him takes the first of several blows that occur throughout the rest of the night…

An austere and sobering movie, Ben Is Back is writer/director Peter Hedges’ fourth feature, and a far cry from the magical realism of his last movie, The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012). But it’s also unapologetically blunt about the way it treats drug addiction, and the way in which Holly clings to the desperate hope that her son will conquer his demons. Early on we learn that there have been previous Xmases where having a drug addict in the family hasn’t worked out so well, and it’s easy to understand Neal and Ivy’s concerns; you know from Ben’s unexpected arrival that there’s going to be trouble ahead. But Holly doesn’t (want to) see it. She has to believe everything will be alright. She misses her son too much, and though she has to police him, for her it’s a small price to pay. And no matter how many times in the course of the ensuing twenty-four hours her confidence in him is proven to be unfounded, still her love for her son, her firstborn, keeps her going; she just will not give up on him. Roberts is simply mesmerising as Holly, every hopeful smile tinged with a sadness borne of previous experience (never has Roberts mega-watt smile been used to such moving effect).

Roberts is matched by Hedges fils, the young actor’s performance a mix of guilt and self-loathing that anchors the character as a lost soul who knows his future better than his mother would like. Time and time again he warns her not to trust an addict, and time and again she refuses to believe him because he’s her son; Hedges takes this naïvete and uses it to make the pain Ben is feeling all the more acute. The movie becomes a two-hander as Ben’s recent past comes back to haunt him and he and Holly deal with the consequences of a home invasion that is the one aspect of the plot that Hedges père fumbles. With the pair trying to track down the whereabouts of a drug dealer (Esper), and eventually being separated, Ben has to try and stay focused enough to reward his mother’s faith in him, while all Holly can do is hope that her belief in him is enough to influence his actions. Hedges keeps the viewer guessing as to the outcome, and is confident enough in his screenplay to offer an ending that combines pessimism and continued hope to poignant effect, but it’s the way in which he paints a bleak yet compelling portrait of Ben’s struggles and Holly’s obstinate positivity, and how they clatter against each other, that rewards the most.

Rating: 8/10 – the secondary characters are given short shrift, and there are a couple of moments of uneasy foreshadowing, but on the whole Ben Is Back is a gripping, salutary lesson in how a family dynamic can be twisted out of shape thanks to one member becoming an outsider; there are no easy answers on offer, and Hedges keeps the tone downbeat and sombre throughout, making this a movie that wears its tattered heart on its sleeve, and which makes much more of an emotional impact than is bargained for.

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

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D: Mimi Leder / 120m

Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Gary Werntz, Francis X. McCarthy, Ben Carlson

It’s the 1950’s, and recently married Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jones) has no intention of being a housewife. Instead, and like her husband, Martin (Hammer), she wants to be a lawyer. She attends Harvard Law School but finds herself treated poorly because of her gender. When Martin gets a job at a legal firm in New York, Ruth tries to transfer to another university, but is refused due to existing though male-centric rules. Ruth transfers anyway and comes top of her class, but when it comes to working for a law firm, no one wants to employ her because she’s a woman; in the end she takes a position as a law professor at Rutgers Law School. When Martin tells her about a tax law case his firm is dealing with, she realises that the issue – that of a male caregiver (Mulkey) being denied tax deductions because of his marital status – is a clear infringement of gender equality. Ruth takes on the case, and with the aid of the ACLU, takes it all the way to the Supreme Court…

Ah, the humble biopic… Somewhere in Hollywood, there must be a template for screenwriters to use when assembling a biography, one that they should follow almost to the letter. There will be moments of adversity, a general struggle to be recognised or achieve fame/fortune/a place in history/all three that is overcome by sheer perseverance (and a surplus of self-belief), and a number of setbacks for the main character that help them develop more as a person. All these, and more, are present and correct in On the Basis of Sex, the second of two movies released in 2018 about Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the other is a documentary, RBG). As with many movies that are “based on a true story” or “true events”, there are liberties taken with Ginsburg’s life and career, and those liberties go to ensure that the screenplay adheres to the biography template. What this means as a whole is that the movie is sleekly efficient at exploring the basics of Ginsburg’s early life and career, but horrendously awkward at making any of it look and sound like it ever happened to real people. It all looks perfectly fine and sincere, but underneath all that sincerity, the movie is as hollow as an Easter egg.

It’s a movie built almost entirely on the idea that what really happened needs to be improved on dramatically, otherwise why would anyone watch it? So Ginsburg suffers gender-based discrimination over and over again before she gets a chance to upset the legal apple cart and show her true mettle in front of a trio of male Supreme Court justices, and the audience gets to watch a series of encounters where she caves under the sexist rhetoric of pretty much every other male in the movie that’s not her husband. Of course, she comes good in the end, but the wait just isn’t worth it. Even the good work of Jones and Hammer isn’t enough to offset the predictable nature of Daniel Stiepleman’s by-the-numbers screenplay, or Leder’s equally perfunctory direction. Whether this approach to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, and her efforts to ensure legal parity for everyone truly works, will depend largely on the viewer’s acceptance of this approach, and how prepared they are to overlook the arch theatrics on display, as well as the number of dramatic clichés trotted out in order to make the movie feel as anodyne as every other big screen biography. Like RBG, the movie makes use of the famous quote by Sarah Moore Grimké: “I ask for no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Perhaps a better version would be to ask our movie makers to have more faith in their real life characters and not to assume that their idea of what should have happened is an improvement on the real thing.

Rating: 6/10 – tiresome, and with little to say that isn’t obvious or bordering on condscension, On the Basis of Sex wastes an opportunity to tell a fascinating story with verve and vigour, leaving the viewer to wade through a series of loosely connected scenes that tell a familiar story of triumph over adversity; given the importance of Ginsburg’s efforts, and the impact that they’ve had, it’s a shame that this fictionalised version of her life and early career doesn’t live up to the momentous nature of what she achieved.

The Witch in the Window (2018)

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aka The Vermont House

D: Andy Mitton / 77m

Cast: Alex Draper, Charlie Tacker, Arija Bareikis, Carol Stanzione, Greg Naughton

For Simon (Draper) and his twelve year old son, Finn (Tacker), the chance to spend six weeks together while Simon flips an old house in Vermont, gives them a chance to have some father-son time, and to give Finn a time out from being with his mother, Beverly (Bareikis), who is struggling to cope with his antagonistic behaviour. Finn is acting out because his parents are estranged, but he harbours a hope that they’ll get back together again. When he sees the house that Simon is renovating, he learns that his father isn’t thinking of selling it, but thinks instead it will make for a good family home for the three of them. However, the house has a history, one that involves a tragedy, and the subsequent, lonely death of the previous owner, Lydia (Stanzione). As the pair work on the house, they begin to experience strange phenomena, occurrences that they attribute to the possibility of Lydia’s ghostly presence (though they’re not entirely serious). And then one day, their assumptions are brought into sharp focus when both of them see Lydia sitting in the very same chair that she died in…

These days it seems that there’s around twenty new horror movies released on an unsuspecting (and likely uninterested) general public every week, and sorting through all the slasher knock-offs, paranormal investigations of haunted houses/abandoned prisons/derelict mental hospitals, and straight up gore fests, in order to find something a little bit different and a little more rewarding, can be a downright chore. But when a horror movie does come along that shows a lot more thought has gone into it than would ever be expected, it’s something to cheer about. Such is the case with The Witch in the Window, the third feature from writer/director Andy Mitton, and a great example of a simple ghost story told well and with a great deal of care. Despite its short running time, Mitton invests first and foremost in the characters, and ensures that the relationship between Simon and Finn is believable and honest, so that when it comes time to put them in danger, the viewer is genuinely worried for them. There’s a credibility too to the conversations they have, and the way that they interact with each other, and both Draper and Tacker give good performances, displaying an easy camaraderie as actors and imbuing their characters’ relationship with an attractive sincerity.

As well as spending time building the father-son dynamic to good effect, Mitton also weaves Lydia’s story into the narrative, and provides the movie with a sense of foreboding that never dissipates. Viewers will derive a degree of fun from spotting Lydia in the background of various scenes, her ghostly presence not always obvious, but unnerving nevertheless. There are more obvious scares involving her, and Mitton isn’t always above using her to make viewers jump (some tricks of the horror movie trade seem as unavoidable as last minute resurrections in a slasher movie), but it’s in the movie’s later stages that Lydia is used in different, and more disturbing ways. She’s also a character with a purpose, one that drives the narrative to an unexpectedly poignant denouement, and one that allows Mitton to explore further the issue of how parents can – or can’t – protect their children from all that’s bad in the world. With Justin Kane’s cinematography providing carefully framed moments of dread, and Mitton providing a score that is seemingly at odds with the tone of the movie but which proves oddly in sync with it, the movie works well on a variety of levels and shows that Mitton is a movie maker with a great deal of talent.

Rating: 8/10 – sometimes the simpler the story and the simpler the approach the better the movie, and that’s definitely the case with The Witch in the Window, a chiller that wants to do more than just scare its audience; thoughtful and intelligently handled, and with moments of quiet audacity, this is short but sweetly horrifying, and offers an unexpectedly moving depiction of parental sacrifice.

Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson (2017)

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aka Breaking Free

D: Patrick Makin / 78m

Cast: Alexander Perkins, Edyta Budnik, Zara Day, Gary Heasman, Josh Wood

It should be a good day for Toby Simpson (Perkins), but his birthday is lining up to be anything but. His stewardess girlfriend, Hannah (Day), is either accusing him of seeing someone else or demanding he finish work early so he can take her to the airport; the train he normally takes to work is cancelled and the replacement coach service makes him late, something his boss at Sun Soaps, Terry (Heasman), goads him about; Terry refuses to let him go early, and so he’s forced to head home on the replacment coach – which will make him late in meeting Hannah. On the return journey he gets talking to festival goer Renata (Budnik); when the coach reaches its destination, Toby discovers that he’s lost his keys, his phone and his wallet. Realising that they’ve been stolen by someone on the coach who was wearing a purple hat, and that they’re heading to the festival, Renata persuades Toby to let her help him retrieve his belongings. Once inside the festival grounds however, the possibility of finding the thief amongst thousands of music lovers becomes less and less likely. But Renata is determined that Toby shouldn’t give up…

The debut of writer/director Patrick Makin, Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson is a light-hearted and easy-going romantic comedy that in time-honoured fashion, takes its put-upon central character on a journey of self-discovery and personal redemption. It does all this amiably and with a great deal of subdued charm, and though there’s nothing new in its boy-gets-treated-badly-by-everyone, boy-meets-girl-who-believes-in-him, boy-regains-self-respect scenario, by offering viewers a pleasant enough diversion from more standard fare, it’s far more successful than might be expected. Toby is a classic under-achiever, unable to stand up for himself, and when he tries to be more assertive he ends up worse off than he was before. Makin and Perkins make Toby a sympathetic character from the start, and even when he’s flailing around trying to justify his weak-willed behaviour (or excuse it), the sense of quiet desperation he’s projecting remains sincere and awkwardly appealing. It makes the inevitable romance with Renata all the more credible, even though their relationship is a movie staple. Thanks to the quality of Makin’s script, and of Perkins’ performance, Toby’s journey of self-discovery is amusing and warm-hearted, and because there are no detours into melodrama or more serious territory, it retains that subdued charm that helps it along so much.

Shot during the set up of Wiltshire’s End of the Road festival (and careful not to show any of the artists who played there in order to avoid any copyright problems), Makin’s debut is a good example of what can be achieved on a very small budget but with plenty of forward planning. Utilising a number of visual techniques to make it look as if Toby and Renata are actually “there”, the movie uses some of the energy from the festival as a way of adding a sense of urgency to the plot device of Toby trying to retrieve his personal effects, and the short amount of time that he and Renata have together. As the couple thrown together by the movies’ idea of fate, Perkins and Budnik have an easy chemistry that makes their characters’ growing relationship convincing, while their portrayals adhere to the idea that sometimes the shortest but most intense connections are the ones that stay with us, or influence us, the most. The romantic elements are handled with confidence and a clear sense of affection on Makin’s side, while the humour stems from the characters rather than the circumstances they find themselves in. With a great indie soundtrack working well to support the action (An Horse’s Trains and Tracks is a particular standout), those lucky enough to see this won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 8/10 – though its basic storyline is as old as the hills, and has been done a million times over, there’s still much to enjoy about Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson, not the least of which is the performances of its two leads, and the happy-wise approach adopted by its writer/director; sometimes keeping it simple is the best formula for success, and by doing this, the movie overcomes its lack of originality by having characters you can care about, and by being unrepentently good-natured throughout.

10 Reasons to Remember Stanley Donen (1924-2019)

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Stanley Donen (13 April 1924 – 23 February 2019)

Though Stanley Donen decided at a young age to be an atheist, his Jewish heritage often led to his being bullied by anti-Semites when he was a child. To escape this unwanted attention he went to the movies, and though he liked Westerns, comedies and thrillers, it was Flying Down to Rio (1935) that had the most effect on him. He took dance lessons soon after, and though he had a brief flirtation with studying psychology, he moved from his home town of Columbia, South Carolina to New York City in 1940 to pursue a career as a dancer. He soon secured a role in the original stage production of Pal Joey; the star was a talented dancer and actor called Gene Kelly. It wasn’t long before Kelly asked Donen to be his assistant choreographer, and when both men wound up in Hollywood in the early Forties, Donen worked as a choreographer, often on the movies Kelly was making. It was during this period that Donen came up with two dance sequences that helped cement Kelly’s reputation, and Donen’s own: the dance routine in Cover Girl (1944) where Kelly’s reflection jumps out of a mirror and dances with him, and perhaps one of the most famous dance routines of all, when Kelly dances with the cartoon mouse, Jerry, in Anchors Aweigh (1945).

Donen continued to perfect his knowledge of music and sound and photography, and in 1949 he was given the chance to co-direct a movie with Kelly. The result was an instant classic, On the Town. The movie was innovative in its use of location photography in a musical, and for the way in which its New York, New York sequence was edited. The movie won that year’s Best Picture award at the Oscars, and Donen’s reputation (as a director now) was secured. The Fifties saw Donen work on a number of high profile musicals, and in 1952 he reunited with Kelly for another instant classic, Singin’ in the Rain (though it didn’t receive the best notices at the time). Further success with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers actually placed Donen on a better footing within Hollywood than Kelly, and though they worked again on It’s Always Fair Weather, their relationship deteriorated, and working together was described by Donen as a “one hundred percent nightmare”. The movie was the last production he worked on exclusively under his contract with MGM, and in 1957 he became an independent director and producer, and formed Grandon Productions along with Cary Grant.

The Sixties saw Donen working and living in the UK, and switching from musicals, which were waning in terms of public popularity, to comedies and romantic comedy thrillers. Donen continued to be successful, both with audiences and critics, and he found working away from Hollywood to be something of a relief, so much so that his work during this period, particularly on Two for the Road, showed a director displaying supreme confidence in the materiel he was working with. He returned to Hollywood in 1970, but that decade saw him release just three movies, none of which were successful, and as time went on he worked less and less, until he made his last theatrical movie in 1984, Blame It on Rio. Donen’s career as a director spanned fifty years in total, but it will be the musicals he made in the Fifties and the comedies he made in the Sixties that he will be remembered for chiefly. His contributions to the movie musical form were invaluable in terms of what musicals could achieve by breaking away from the stagebound environment that had been the norm until On the Town. Innovative, ground-breaking, breathtaking – his work during the Fifties was all this and more, but it was the way in which he “re-invented” his career in the Sixties that was just as remarkable. If he fell out of favour later in his career, he wouldn’t be the first. But what he gave us will always endure, because what he gave us was a new way of looking at musicals that continues to inspire movie makers today – and the world over.

1 – On the Town (1949)

2 – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

3 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

4 – It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

5 – The Pajama Game (1957)

6 – Funny Face (1957)

7 – Charade (1963)

8 – Arabesque (1966)

9 – Two for the Road (1967)

10 – Bedazzled (1967)

Paddleton (2019)

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D: Alex Lehmann / 89m

Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor

For Michael (Duplass), the news is very bad indeed: he has terminal cancer. For his neighbour Andy (Romano), the news is also very bad indeed: he will lose his only friend in the world. The two live at the same apartment building, and have developed a close bond, spending their evenings and weekends together, watching kung fu movies and eating pizza, and playing a game of their own invention called Paddleton. When Michael decides that he doesn’t want to reach the stage in his illness where he’ll be connected to tubes and wires and spending more time in hospital than not, he tells Andy that he wants to kill himself before he reaches that point. Having arranged through his oncologist to pick up medication that will allow him to do this, Michael and Andy set off on a road trip to collect it. Along the way, Michael becomes aware of just how much his impending demise is affecting Andy, and encounters with a pharmacist (Hardison) and a motel owner (Taylor) reinforce the sense of loss that Andy is beginning to feel. When they return home, it remains to be seen if Michael will carry out his plan, and if he does, whether Andy will help him…

Made under the banner of the Duplass brothers’ production company, Paddleton rolls out its stall in the very first scene. With Michael calmly receiving the news that he has a mass and it should be checked out by an oncologist, it’s left to Andy to react in the way that you’d expect most people to react: he gets flustered, questions what Michael has been told, and looks for a more positive response from the doctor they’re speaking to. There’s comedy and pathos here alongside the obvious drama of the situation, and these three elements are the mainstay of a movie that takes a subtle, nuanced approach to the idea of euthanasia, while also exploring the strength of a friendship that has never been tested by something so serious – and life changing – before now. It’s a measure of the way in which the script (by Lehmann and Duplass) tackles these issues that the movie remains affecting and emotional all the way through, and without coming across as melodramatic or insincere, or worst of all, patronising. With the friendship between its two central characters having been so carefully plotted and constructed, Paddleton is a bromance that has unexpected depth and honesty.

This is thanks to both the screenplay, and the combined efforts of Duplass and Romano. Duplass is a quiet, solid presence, imbuing Michael with a sombre nobility, and entirely convincing as a man who wants to die on his own terms. Romano is something of a revelation, taking Andy’s many insecurities and inhibitions and making the character a fully rounded individual whose lack of social skills hides a greater capacity for love and affection than even he may be aware of. Romano’s performance is affecting and full of little touches that illustrate just how much he’s already grieving even though Michael hasn’t gone through with his plan yet. And yet there are small moments of hope dotted here and there for both characters, and though the movie has no intention of proving itself untrue to both the characters or the narrative, it’s these small moments that add detail and poignant circumspection to a story that is both heartfelt and intelligently handled. Lehmann builds on the promise shown in Blue Jay and Asperger’s Are Us (both 2016), and ensures that the more dramatic elements don’t overshadow the comedy – which is both bittersweet and meaningful – and vice versa. The end result is a movie that tells its simple story with a great deal of subdued yet effective panache, and without short changing either its characters or its audience.

Rating: 8/10 – low-key but brimming with confidence in the material and the downbeat nature of its themes, Paddleton is the kind of low budget indie movie that comes along every now and again and reminds us that there are still valid stories to be told about the human condition; touching without being sentimental, and bold in not pandering to any unnecessary romanticism about Michael’s decision, this is a well crafted and beautifully acted movie that shows just how complex and rewarding brotherly love can be.

RBG (2018)

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D: Julie Cohen, Betsy West / 98m

With: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Arthur R. Miller, Nina Totenberg, Clara Spera, James Steven Ginsburg, Jane C. Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Shana Knizhnik, Irin Carmon, Sharron Frontiero, Stephen Wiesenfeld, Lilly Ledbetter, Orrin Hatch

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth Bader earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University; it was there that she met her husband-to-be, Martin Ginsburg. Stints at Harvard Law School and Columbia University led to her becoming a law professor. It was during this period of her life that RBG (as she has come to be known) encountered various and wide-ranging examples of gender inequality. Recognising the unfairness of the situation, in 1972 Ginsburg co-founded the Womens Rights Project at the ACLU; over the next four years she argued six gender discrimination cases before the US Supreme Court – and won five of them. In 1980 she was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and stayed there until she was appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 1993; she has remained in the post ever since. Because of her work as a legal advocate, litigator, and judge, Ginsburg has become something of a cultural icon in the last couple of decades, and an inspiration to young women around the globe…

A documentary about an octogenarian Supreme Court justice whose fame as a trailblazer for gender equality within the framework of the US legal system has been overshadowed in recent years due to a meme that referred to her as The Notorious R.B.G., Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s affectionate yet sobering movie is a tribute to Ginsburg’s tenacity over six decades. As RBG explores the legal, political, and social upheaval that Ginsburg was involved in during the Seventies and Eighties, it becomes abundantly clear just how much of an impact she had, and just how much has changed thanks to her efforts. That she remained as focused and determined as she did, while having a successful marriage and raising two children (James and Jane), and earning the respect and admiration of her male peers as well, is an amazing feat that reinforces just how well regarded she has become, and why it’s so well deserved (and how many associate judges of the US Supreme Court can say they’ve appeared, albeit very briefly, in both Deadpool 2 (2018) and The LEGO Movie 2 (2019)?). And she remains entirely self-effacing, a fact that makes watching RBG all the more interesting and enjoyable.

What the movie does so well, aside from ticking off most of her considerable achievements over the years, is to find out who the woman behind the meme really is, and thanks to an astute combination of archive material and modern day interviews, Cohen and West have assembled a documentary that does just that. Ginsburg emerges as a quiet, introspective woman with a good sense of humour, a stronger sense of natural justice, and fiercely independent in her thinking. She appears relaxed on screen, and in many ways curious about being the subject of a biographical movie, further traits that make her endearing to those who’ve never heard of her before, and which reinforce her stature as a right-thinking liberal for those who have. Her marriage to Martin is given a lot of emphasis, and while there’s an argument that she wouldn’t have been as successful in her career if he hadn’t been her bedrock (which she acknowledges), it’s this decades spanning love affair that provides the emotional core of a movie that might have otherwise been much drier. That said, it’s a heartfelt mix of serious historical reportage and sometimes surprisingly goofy humour, and provides viewers with an insight into the mind of someone who truly did have an impact on the way two generations of American women are now able to live their lives.

Rating: 8/10 – a stirring and enjoyable documentary that highlights the incalculable influence that one individual can have when they are determined enough, RBG is a sincere, intelligent, and captivating movie that serves as a reminder that it wasn’t just racial equality that was being fought for during the Sixties and Seventies; there might not be too much in the way of criticism of Ginsburg, but then this isn’t a fawning hagiography either, settling as it does for serving up large swathes of her life, and leaving the viewer to judge her more controversial actions – such as her pre-election criticism of Donald Trump – on their own merits.

A Brief Word About The Oscars 2020

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Yes, you read that right: 2020.

With all the ballyhoo and bones of contention surrounding this year’s Oscars ceremony – does anyone really care that it’s a hostless affair? – it’s tempting to wish it was all over and done with already. The Oscars have messed up badly this year, so it seems more appropriate to forget this year’s annual round of privileged back-slapping, and do something a little different. In that vein, here are some predictions for next year’s ceremony. Too far ahead, you say? Perhaps, but then that’s part of the fun of these things: these predictions are unlikely to be anywhere near as divisive at this stage as any movie that actually gets a nomination. And so, the nominees for Best Picture are…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Cats, The Goldfinch, The Irishman, Little Women, Motherless Brooklyn, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Yesterday.

If just one of those movies gets on the actual list next year, I’ll be happy. If there’s two or more then this post will have been brought to you by the mysterious Dr. Schreck. And to anyone who still intends to watch the ceremony this coming Sunday, don’t let my cynicism about it all stop you from having a great time (not that I think it really would). Good luck though!

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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D: Barry Jenkins / 119m

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Bryan Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock, Dave Franco, Pedro Pascal, Emily Rios

Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (James) are childhood friends who have grown up and fallen in love. But building a life together has become something of a challenge: Fonny’s mother (Ellis) doesn’t like her, and finding a place where they can live together is hampered by most New York landlords’ reluctance to rent to black couples. Eventually finding a place through a Jewish landlord (Franco), the pair are shopping nearby one evening when Tish is accosted by a stranger. Fonny sees him off, but not before a passing policeman, Officer Bell (Skrein), gets involved and tries to arrest Fonny. The store owner intervenes, but Fonny’s card is marked. Some time later, Fonny is arrested by the same officer for the rape of a woman (Rios) who lives in another district; Bell states he saw Fonny running from the scene and the woman picks him out of a lineup. Fonny has an alibi, though, but with the police and prosecutors dismissing it, Tish and her family set out to prove Fonny’s innocence…

Told in non-linear fashion, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, begins with the revelation that Tish is pregnant. Fonny is already behind bars, awaiting trial, and Jenkins depicts the scene where Tish informs both families. It’s a good scene, and gives Ellis a chance to shine as Fonny’s mother, a religious zealot with a vicious streak a mile wide. And yet, though it is a good scene, it also provides the first indication that Jenkins’ adaptation might not prove as rewarding a movie overall as his previous feature, Moonlight (2016). For all the drama and outbursts of physical and verbal violence, the scene is overwritten, and filled with the kind of structured dialogue that only occurs in the movies, or on stage. And despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, this leads to the scene having only a certain amount of energy and power. As the movie progresses, there are many more scenes that reflect this problem with the screenplay, including an extended scene between Fonny and his friend, Daniel (Henry), and the moment when Tish’s mother (King) meets the woman Fonny is supposed to have raped. Many of these scenes have an unfortunate tendency to drag, or feel under-developed, and the movie suffers as a result.

The overall feeling is that Jenkins is being too respectful of the source material, and in attempting to remain faithful to Baldwin’s work, has done so at the expense of making it a truly cinematic experience. There is emotion here, and much of it is expressed through the love that Tish and Fonny have for each other, but it doesn’t resonate or linger from scene to scene, and in the end it doesn’t matter how many affecting close ups of Layne and James are used, they’re unable to improve on the minimal impact that’s present throughout. Though it’s an intelligent, perceptive movie when it comes to racial matters and the details of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, and Jenkins places the action in an ersatz combination of the Seventies and modern day that is oddly effective, even James Laxton’s excellent cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s Seventies-influenced score can’t overcome the deficits inherent in the material. Layne and James make for a sweetly likeable couple, and there’s terrific support from King, Henry, and the aforementioned Ellis, but there are times when the use of some cast members is a distraction of the “oh look, it’s…” variety (Pascal, Franco). Somewhere in If Beale Street Could Talk there’s a definitive version of Baldwin’s novel trying to break out, but thanks to Jenkins’ inconsistent efforts, it never gets the chance to show itself.

Rating: 7/10 – with enough about it to justify the good reviews it’s getting elsewhere, in truth If Beale Street Could Talk looks and sounds like a movie that doesn’t know how to connect with its audience; technically well made, and with a number of relevant things to say about the nature of love and commitment, it’s ultimately a movie that’s difficult to engage with, and not as powerful as it could have been.

Minding the Gap (2018)

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D: Bing Liu / 93m

With: Zack Mulligan, Keire Johnson, Bing Liu, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Mengyue Bolen, Roberta Moore

in the city of Rockford, Illinois, three friends have grown up with a love of skateboarding that has kept them united in the face of personal tragedies, mutual family dysfunctions, and the trials of becoming adults along with all the expectations that come with that. Zack works as a roofer. He drinks a lot, spends as much time skateboarding as he can, and work aside, shows no sign of adopting any other responsibilities. That all changes when his girlfriend, Nina, becomes pregnant and they have a baby, Elliot. Keire is quieter, still living with his mother, Roberta, while trying to decide what he’s going to do with his life. He finds a job as a dish washer in a restaurant, but only seems truly happy when he’s skateboarding. Bing is a would-be movie maker, always filming his friends, and as time goes on, he begins to explore how they all feel about becoming “men”, while also examining what it means in today’s terms. Over the passage of time, Bing also learns that all three of them have been affected by events in their childhood, events that it appears none of them have fully, or even partly, dealt with…

If you’re thinking, “gee, skateboard movies seem to be all the rage these days”, what with this and Skate Kitchen and Mid90s (both 2018, and both worth watching) out there, then you’d only be half right, as the beauty of Bing Liu’s impressive documentary debut is that skateboarding is just the launching point for an extraordinarily perceptive, and moving, examination of issues such as domestic abuse, casual racism, and social and economic deprivation. Made over a period of twelve years, Liu captures those painful moments when he and his friends come face to face with the realisation that they have to step up and become the men they’re expected to be, but without any male guidance in each of their lives to help them. As the movie unfolds, Liu reveals that each of them have had to endure emotional and physical abuse as children, and all from their fathers or stepfathers. This has left each of them with issues that they are struggling to overcome, and Liu shows how well or how badly they cope with those issues, from the deterioration of Zack and Nina’s relationship and their eventual separation, to how the absence of Keire’s father from his life (he died when he was young) has left a void in Keire’s life, to how Bing’s mother, Mengyue, was (possibly) oblivious to the physical abuse that Bing suffered at the hands of her second husband.

Thanks to the closeness and the bonds shared by the three friends, Liu is able to get a number of candid admissions, and confessions, from Zack and Keire that might not have been possible if the movie had been made by an “outsider”. From these admissions and confessions, Liu is able to paint a subtly devastating portrait of compromised and misunderstood notions of manhood, as well as the social and familial backdrop that promotes these notions. As he delves deeper and deeper into this, he reveals how domestic abuse is something that one of his friends feels can be justified, while the other views the discipline he received when he was young in this offhand manner: “Well, they call it child abuse now, but…” (nothing further is said, there’s just a shrug). Violence is another recurring theme in the movie, and Liu expertly ties all these strands together to make a movie that is astonishing for its awareness of the depth of the problems it’s exploring, and the heartfelt sincerity with which the camera stays focused on the bad moments just as much as the good ones. For a first movie, this is powerful, enlightening, and disturbing at times, but always astonishing for the way in which Liu dissects such complex topics with precision and grace, and recognises that there aren’t any easy answers to the questions he raises.

Rating: 9/10 – there are a slew of tremendously good documentaries out there right now – Free Solo, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Three Identical Strangers (all 2018) to name but a few – but Minding the Gap is a seriously great documentary that stands in a league of its own; insightful and intimate on so many levels, and holding up a less than flattering mirror to the tattered social fabric of the American working class, Liu has crafted a moving and substantial movie that continues to resonate long after it’s over.

Border (2018)

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Original title: Gräns

D: Ali Abbasi / 105m

Cast: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren, Kjell Wilhelmsen, Rakel Wärmländer

Tina (Melander) is a Swedish customs agent who has a very special gift: she can literally smell people’s guilt. One day, she stops a man whose phone (it’s later revealed) contains child pornography. She explains her gift to her boss (Petrén), and she’s asked to help with the investigation into who filmed the images on the man’s phone. At around the same time, she encounters a man (Milonoff) who has similar facial features to her own, and it turns out, a scar in the same place where she has one. His name is Vore, and he tells her he will be staying at a local hostel. Puzzled by the number of things that they appear to have in common, Tina visits Vore, where she finds him eating maggots off a tree. Despite this strange behaviour, Tina invites Vore to stay in her guest house. Her partner, Roland (Thorsson), is unhappy about this, but as she gets to know him better, much of Vore’s approach to life begins to make sense to her, including his disdain for other people. However, it’s not until a fateful walk in the nearby woods that Tina’s life is turned completely, and unexpectedly, upside down…

What if you felt completely different from all the other people around you – including your parents – but you could never work out why? And what if that sense of being different kept you apart from everyone? How would you react if you met someone who could answer those questions for you, and put your feelings into perspective? Would you embrace wholeheartedly what you’re told, or would you be frightened by what it all means? And how would you feel if the truth was darker, much darker, than you could ever have expected? Those questions and more are at the centre of Border, an adaptation of the short story by John Avjide Lindqvist. And the answers take Ali Abbasi’s second feature into uncomfortable territory indeed, a fantasy world where Tina’s life and sense of reality are challenged at every step. For some viewers, it may prove to be too much of a challenge as well, because where the narrative takes us is somewhere so strange and so off-kilter that it almost dares us to look away. It’s a twilight world of unspeakable horror, with character motives that are both unjustifiable and strangely appropriate at the same time. Watching as this dynamic unfolds, the movie exerts a terrible grip that keeps us watching even though we might not want to.

Giving away too much of the plot and storyline would be to spoil what happens once Tina and Vore take that fateful walk in the woods. Suffice it to say, there’s not another movie like it, and it’s as grim and unrelenting as possible, with malevolent undercurrents that make for a chilling, uneasy, and yet unforgettable experience. Featuring sombre, melancholy visuals courtesy of DoP Nadim Carlsen, Border is strong on atmosphere, and also features several moments where it projects an eerie, oppressive nature that is both unnerving and compelling. It also has two equally compelling performances from Melander and Milonoff as the outsiders who have a common origin, and who might share a common destiny. Both buried under layers of prosthetic makeup, the pair still manage to explore and reflect their characters’ emotions and their desires, and though the expression of some of those desires may not be entirely palatable, there is a sincerity to both portrayals that is affecting (albeit for different reasons). Working with Lindqvist and Isabella Eklöf – whose own disturbing look at a dysfunctional relationship, Holiday, was released in 2018 – Abbasi has fashioned a grim fantasy for our times that speaks to the darkest impulses of human behaviour but which still offers us hope from the unlikeliest of sources.

Rating: 9/10 – with a sex scene that ranks as a first in cinema history, and a number of moments of true, visceral horror, Border begins as a dark, brooding thriller before morphing into something that’s darker and more sinister than could ever be expected from its low-key opening; not for all tastes, and unwilling to compromise in telling its story, it’s a movie that unsettles as much as it fascinates, but it’s a rewarding experience nevertheless.

Viper Club (2018)

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D: Maryam Keshavarz / 109m

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Edie Falco, Matt Bomer, Lola Kirke, Julian Morris, Sheila Vand, Adepero Oduye, Patrick Breen, Amir Malaklou, Damian Young

Helen Sterling (Sarandon) is an ER nurse whose son, Andrew (Morris), is a journalist who covers war zones. When he’s kidnapped by terrorists, Helen approaches the FBI for help, but their lack of urgency in dealing with Andrew’s abduction causes Helen to become frustrated and angry at how long it’s taking to get him back. A fleeting visit from a friend of Andrew’s, Sheila (Vand), prompts Helen into exploring different options than the ones “official channels” want her to pursue. She is given the number of Charlotte (Falco), someone else whose son was abducted, and who got him back with the help of the Viper Club. Helen learns that the Viper Club lobbies individuals to help with ransom payments, and has a network of contacts that can allow those payments to reach the right destinations (Helen has been repeatedly advised that paying terrorists, under any circumstances, is a criminal offence). When she receives a message from the terrorists asking for $20 million for Andrew’s safe return, and both the FBI and the State Department show no further sense of urgency, Helen decides to ask the Viper Club for their help…

A straightforward “issue” movie that tries to deal sincerely with the efforts of one lone mother to have her kidnapped son returned to her safely and well, Viper Club wears its sincerity and seriousness like a badge of honour, and though it tries hard – sometimes too hard – it often finds itself mired under a welter of good intentions. At its heart is another tremendous performance from Sarandon (who seems drawn to these kinds of roles and stories), but although her portrayal of Helen is nuanced and intelligently handled, and passionate too, it’s in service to a screenplay by director Keshavarz and Jonathan Mastro that doesn’t live up to its star’s efforts. Instead of this being a movie about the determination of a mother to rescue her son no matter what, there are too many stretches in the movie where that story is held up while the narrative explores Helen’s work life, and in particular, the case of a young car accident victim who’s in a coma, and the victim’s mother (Kirke). This leads the overall story nowhere (except occasionally into soap opera land), and though it highlights Helen’s compassionate nature and willingness to bend the rules, we already know this through the main thrust of the material.

Away from the ER, the movie is on firmer ground, but there are still problems to be overcome. It’s no surprise to find the FBI and the State Department represented as bureaucratic suits who believe there should be only one way of dealing with kidnappings by terrorists: their way. And Helen is kept in the dark about a lot of things that the Viper Club are doing on her behalf, more so for dramatic purposes than for any logical reasons (she’s treated quite patronisingly when there’s no need for it). Secondary characters such as Falco’s facilitator, and Bomer’s journalist-cum-Viper Club liaison officer, Sam, have a place in the narrative but it’s largely expositional, while flashbacks to when Andrew was last home and when he was a child are meant to be poignant, but only achieve this on a superficial level. Making only her second feature, Keshavarz has aimed high with her story and been blessed by obtaining Sarandon’s services, but there’s a pervading sense that she hasn’t worked out fully what she’s trying to say – or if she has, then she hasn’t worked out the best way of getting that message across. Some individual scenes work well in themselves and there’s a spirited energy to others that also helps, but this is a patchwork movie that doesn’t do itself – or its main character – the justice it needs.

Rating: 5/10 – anchored and improved by a powerful performance by Sarandon, Viper Club is another movie where the sum of its parts adds up to less than what was needed; well intentioned, and with a pertinent story to tell in today’s troubled times, it’s a shame that the focus shifts so often, and in ways that makes it very diffcult for the movie to make up all the ground that it loses by doing so.

10 Reasons to Remember Bruno Ganz (1941-2019)

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Bruno Ganz (22 March 1941 – 15 February 2019)

Although he made his start in a variety of German movies and stage productions, where he made his reputation, Bruno Ganz was actually Swiss by birth, having been born in Zurich. He knew he wanted to be an actor quite early on, and his initial attraction was to the theatre. He made his screen debut though in 1960, and his theatre debut the following year, and switched between the two over the course of the Sixties, but had more success on the stage. In the early Seventies he co-founded the Berliner Schaubühne ensemble, and was given the Actor of the Year award by Theater heute in 1973. In a few short years though it was to be a collaboration with Wim Wenders that would bring him to international attention, as the terminally ill picture framer, Jonathan Zimmerman, who is coerced into becoming an assassin in Wenders’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. With his screen reputation now firmly established, Ganz was able to move back and forth between screen and stage with even greater confidence.

During the Eighties, Ganz worked solidly in a variety of movies and genres, always giving good performances, even if the majority of them were in productions that were barely seen outside their countries of origin, or were included only as part of the festival circuit. In 1987 he made the first of three screen appearances as Damiel the angel in another Wim Wenders movie; the role became so iconic that some people in real life actually regarded him as a guardian angel. He continued to work mostly in European productions, and began playing people such as Ezra Pound and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but it was his second iconic role, as Adolf Hitler for director Oliver Hirschbiegel, that truly cemented his position as one of the greatest actors, both in the German language, and of his generation. He made more English language movies from then on, but often in supporting roles that didn’t allow him to do more than make a minor impression before his character was sidelined. Still, he remained a pleasure to watch, and he continued to make interesting choices.

Indeed, it’s not until you take a closer look at the movies Ganz has made that you begin to realise just how many quality directors he worked with. Wim Wenders aside, Ganz made movies with Barbet Schroeder, Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, Franklin J. Schaffner, Éric Rohmer, Theo Angelopoulos, Volker Schlöndorff, Stephen Daldry, Ridley Scott, Lars von Trier, Gillian Armstrong, Jonathan Demme, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Jeanne Moreau. He was a subtle actor, always looking for the truth in the characters he played – even Hitler – and his performances reflected the capable, methodical manner in which he explored each role’s vulnerabilities and strengths. A persuasive presence whether on stage or on screen, he has left us with a number of indelibe performances, and the hope that his final role in Terrence Malick’s Radegund won’t end up on the cutting room floor.

1 – The American Friend (1977)

2 – Knife in the Head (1978)

3 – Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

4 – Circle of Deceit (1981)

5 – Wings of Desire (1987)

6 – The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)

7 – Downfall (2004)

8 – Youth Without Youth (2007)

9 – The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

10 – The Party (2017)

Journey’s End (2017)

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D: Saul Dibb / 107m

Cast: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp, Rupert Wickham

March 1918, Northern France. With rumours growing of a German push to break the deadlock that currently exists, the British have decided that each company should spend six days of every month on the Front Line. On the eighteenth it’s the turn of Company C, led by Captain Stanhope (Claflin). Once at the trenches, Stanhope and his second in command, Lieutenant Osborne (Betttany), discover that they are low on weapons, and even lower on supplies. The arrival of Second Lieutenant Ralegh (Butterfield), who was at school with Stanhope (albeit three years below him), doesn’t aid matters as Stanhope has taken to heavy drinking as a way of dealing with the stress of being in command, and he doesn’t want Ralegh writing home about him (Stanhope is in a relationship with Ralegh’s sister, Margaret). This causes a rift between them that is further abrogated when a raid is required and Ralegh returns alive, though others don’t. With the German offensive revealed to be taking place on the twenty-first, and Company C being tasked with holding the line, Stanhope and his men prepare themselves for the worst…

The fifth screen adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s play of the same name, Journey’s End relies heavily on its creator’s theatrical inspirations and presents much of the action as if this was a filmed stage production. This isn’t a bad thing on the whole, as it keeps the material confined in physical terms, making any escape from the officer’s quarters (where most of the movie takes place) or the front line trenches, entirely welcome, even though it’s likely to be fleeting. Focusing instead on the psychological damage suffered by Captain Stanhope and its effects on the officers around him, their quarters are another battleground for the group to navigate. Osborne, known as “Uncle” to the other men, is forbearing and supportive, but not so forgiving when Stanhope acts in bad faith, as when he plans to read, and censor if necessary, Ralegh’s letters home. Trotter (Graham) is the brunt of Stanhope’s unkind jokes but seems inured to them, while Hibbert (Sturridge) has his own struggles, and tries to avoid fighting by claiming an illness. Ralegh has a bad case of hero worship, and has a hard time getting to grips with a much different Stanhope than the one he knew in school.  As the fateful day approaches, Stanhope’s anger and self-loathing at the man he’s become is displayed in markedly different ways, and with markedly different results.

By retaining the close quarters and intense emotional outbursts that Stanhope has no choice but to express, Simon Reade’s anxiety-inducing screenplay and Saul Dibb’s assured direction maintain a tight grip on the narrative, and make this adaptation genuinely affecting. Any melodramatics are kept to a minimum, and the claustrophobic setting adds its own power to the mix, but its the performances that elevate the familiarity of the material and make it impactful. Claflin takes Stanhope’s self-hatred and sense of duty and makes them two sides of a divided character whose commitment is never in doubt even as he spirals ever further towards self-destruction. Butterfield as Ralegh is the perfect embodiment of innocence informed by inexperience and boyish exuberance, while Bettany is quiet and contemplative, yet just as aware that a soldier can only count on so much luck to survive the absurdities thrown up by war (and so it proves). Even down to the supporting roles, the movie is perfectly cast (Jones is particularly memorable as the dyspeptic cook, Mason), so that when the raid, and then the offensive, actually put them at risk, the movie has succeeded in making the viewer care about them. The story may not be new any more, but this is one version that succeeds by acknowledging this and relying on Sherriff’s original themes to get its message across – and it does so with passion and conviction.

Rating: 8/10 – with a necessarily gloomy visual style to support the gravity of the characters’ situation, Journey’s End isn’t interested in the politics of the era, or the stupidity of the military top brass (though these are accepted), but in the hopes and fears, and the camaraderie, of the men who fought so bravely; fatalistic and yet strangely optimistic as well, this is affecting and sincere, and a powerful reminder – if it were needed – that in war the idea of “winners” is patently, and utterly absurd.

Black Tide (2018)

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Original title: Fleuve noir

D: Erick Zonca / 113m

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, Sandrine Kiberlain, Élodie Bouchez, Charles Berling, Hafsia Herzi, Jérôme Pouly, Félix Back, Lauréna Thellier

When a teenage boy disappears, it looks at first as though he’s run away. But as police commander François Visconti (Cassel) begins his investigation, an encounter with one of the boy’s neighbours, Yan Bellaile (Duris), causes him to wonder if this is actually a murder case. Bellaile reveals he tutored the boy the previous summer, and his opinion is that the boy’s disappearance is due to his need to rebel against his parents. Something about Bellaile’s attitude rings alarm bells for Visconti, and he begins to investigate the man. Meanwhile, Visconti begins to find himself falling for the boy’s mother, Solange (Kiberlain). An anonymous tip off leads to a search of the nearby woods, and Bellaile’s presence there – plus his use of a phrase used in the tip off – causes Visconti to become certain that the teacher has killed the boy and hidden his body. As the investigation continues, Visconti becomes more involved with Solange, and his suspicions about Bellaile grow ever stronger. And then the boy’s parents receive a letter from him…

Adapted from the novel Disappearing Disappearance by Dror Mishani, Erick Zonca’s first big screen movie since Julia (2008) is a dark, brooding and unrelentingly grim trawl through the darker side of human nature that offers no absolution for the majority of its characters, or imbues them with any sense of remorse (or even understanding of the term). From the start, with Cassel’s magnificently monstrous Visconti bellowing and swearing at his son (Back) who’s been caught dealing drugs (in a subplot that seems like it should be the focus of another movie altogether), Zonca invites us to enter a world where moral ambiguity butts up against compromised morality so much that the two have become indistinguishable from each other. Visconti drinks on the job, thinks nothing of having sex with prostitutes, and bullies his way through the rest of his life as if it’s of no consequence. He is good at his job, though, the one thing that goes some way to excusing his behaviour, but as the movie progresses and more and more secrets are revealed, Visconti doesn’t even have the luxury of being regarded as an anti-hero. And like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, he doesn’t even solve the case; circumstances gift him the solution, and even then he’s still wrong about what happened.

Cassel is on blistering form as Visconti, but he’s matched for intensity – though in quieter, more self-contained fashion – by Duris’ turn as Bellaile. Their game of cat and mouse drives the middle section of the movie, and it’s fascinating to see how Duris’ performance sparks and spars with Cassel’s, the two men circling each other like prize fighters looking to land that one knockout punch that will end the fight. Bellaile is an unsettling character, one who has a hollow centre where his conscience should be, but it’s the manner of his duplicity that is truly shocking, along with the pride he feels. And then there’s Solange, a femme fatale in any other version of this tale, but here a numb, almost dumbstruck presence whose grief at the loss of her son hides a terrible complicity. Zonca ensures that the viewer is unable to trust anyone, even Visconti, and the resulting nihilistic miasma that the narrative unfolds under is deliberately oppressive. Aided by some impressive framing by DoP Paolo Carnera that corrals and contains the characters in any given scene, and Philippe Kotlarski’s skillful editing, Zonca and co-screenwriter Lou de Fanget Signolet have created a disturbing, yet compelling movie that doesn’t shy away from exposing the worst ways in which human nature can exploit and justify itself in equal measure.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie that is deliberately bleak and uncompromising, Black Tide offers a twisting, off-kilter narrative that doesn’t always go where you think it’s going, and which doesn’t believe in happy endings for the sake of them; a modern-day noir thriller that plays by its own rules, Zonca’s latest is a potent reminder of the director’s abilities, and is also a movie that gets under the viewer’s skin – and nestles there uncomfortably.

Untogether (2018)

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D: Emma Forrest / 99m

Cast: Jamie Dornan, Lola Kirke, Jemima Kirke, Ben Mendelsohn, Billy Crystal, Alice Eve, Jennifer Grey, Scott Caan

Andrea (Jemima Kirke) is a recovering heroin addict (straight for a year now) who wrote a successful literary novel when she was twenty-one, but who hasn’t written a word since. She has a one night stand with a doctor, Nick (Dornan), who has had recent literary success himself with a memoir of his time in a war zone. For the first time since her recovery, she feels a connection to Nick and finds herself pursuing a relationship with him. Meanwhile, her younger sister, Tara (Lola Kirke), is in a relationship with Martin (Mendelsohn), a former musician who’s much older than she is. When she meets a rabbi, David (Crystal), and he offers to help her reconnect with her faith, Tara finds herself smitten by him, and unsure suddenly about her feelings for Martin. Both sisters find themselves dealing with their own insecurities as they navigate these new relationships, and having to also deal with the fallout of the decisions they’ve made. Things are made even more difficult when Tara doesn’t attend a comeback gig that Martin has arranged, and an unexpected truth about Nick’s memoir is revealed…

The feature debut of English writer/director Emma Forrest, Untogether is another of those LA fables that revel in presenting a handful of characters with a surfeit of insecurities, and traits that keep them from ever being happy, no matter how hard they try. Your patience for this sort of thing will be dependent on how many similar movies you’ve seen already, because although there’s no shortage of pointed humour and affecting drama in Forrest’s debut, ultimately the problems and the issues her characters face aren’t all that original. Andrea is another in the long line of movie novelists who struggle to find that elusive second book, and detest the negative attention that comes with it. Nick isn’t a writer, and his easy success rankles with her, and it’s this and her own doubts as to whether she’ll ever write again that causes Andrea to do what she can to sabotage her relationship with Nick, and take steps toward self-harming. However, a lot of this perceived angst is just that, perceived, as Forrest’s script never takes Andrea to a dark enough place to make her as sympathetic as she should be. You just want her to get over herself and stop brooding about what she hasn’t got, and to focus instead on what she has got.

Unfortunately, the same is true of Tara. While we can assume that she likes older men given her relationship with Martin, her sudden attraction for David is never convincingly portrayed, despite good work from the ever reliable Kirke, and Crystal in a serio-comic role that carries a lot of warmth. This leaves the relationship between Tara and Martin to founder more and more as the movie goes on, becoming less and less interesting as Forrest moves her characters from Point A to Point B by way of convenience instead of natural progression. As for Nick, Dornan is stuck with a role that has no arc, and makes little impact, leaving Andrea’s infatuation for him something that comes across as more curious than plausible. Though her script struggles to avoid the clichés inherent in such intertwined stories, Forrest has better luck in the director’s chair, and keeps the viewer involved thanks to a combination of placing the emotion in a scene front and centre, and a cast that enters into the spirit of things with a commitment and gusto that smooths over the screenplay’s rougher patches. By the end, you may be glad that it’s all over, and that the journey wasn’t worth the time and the effort, but there are enough good moments along the way to make sticking with it a reward in itself.

Rating: 6/10 – another tale of lost souls in LA (just how many can there be?), Untogether sees its characters tasked with taking risks in their lives, but having no idea what to do, or being too afraid to do so in the first place; frustrating for its lack of a coherent message, but worth it for the performances (Mendelsohn is particularly effective), perhaps it’s an indication that Forrest should focus on directing instead of writing.

The Golem (2018)

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D: Yoav Paz, Doron Paz / 95m

Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Kirill Cernyakov, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravich, Alexey Tritenko, Adi Kvetner, Mariya Khomutova, Veronika Shostak, Konstantin Anikienko

Lithuania, 1763. In a small isolated village made up of an entirely Jewish community, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) and Benjamin (Golan), are a couple who are struggling to have a second child following the death of their first born, Joseph, seven years before. Their marriage seems mired in the expectations of the village elders, one of whom suggests Benjamin should renounce Hanna and take another wife. However, these considerations take a backseat with the arrival of Vladimir (Tritenko). Vladimir has come from a nearby, plague-ravaged village and his eldest daughter is dying, while no one in Hanna’s community is affected. Threatening to kill everyone and burn their village to the ground unless his daughter is saved, the task is taken up by the village’s healer, Perla (Brynie Furstenberg). But Hanna bristles under Vladimir’s threats, and challenges the elders to create a Golem, an ancient creature out of Jewish myth that could defend them. When they refuse, Hanna takes matters into her own hands, and brings the creature to life herself. What she doesn’t expect is the form the Golem takes: that of a young boy who reminds her too much of her lost son…

Taking some of its inspiration from The Witch (2015), the latest outing from the Paz brothers – fans of Jeruzalem (2015) will be pleased to know there’s a sequel in the works – is a sterling effort that does its best to explore the myth of the Golem, while placing the creature within a convincing setting. Though it doesn’t explain why Jewish lore would have such an acknowledged demon at its (potential) disposal, Ariel Cohen’s screenplay does highlight the circumstances under which it might be called upon, and then mixes those circumstances with the grief and sadness felt by Hanna over the death of her son. Though Hanna does come across as something of a modern day heroine, and her challenges to the orthodoxy of her community go unpunished, her motives are predominantly maternal; she’s being protective, albeit in a way that may prove more dangerous to the community than Vladimir’s murderous intentions. Her motives devolve with the Golem’s arrival, and the bond they share reawakens the feelings she had when Joseph was alive. And through all of this, there’s a palpable sense of threat from the Golem, its blank stare hiding much darker intentions than those it has been brought to life for.

Hanna’s maternal instincts inevitably lead to tragedy, and thanks to a first-rate performance from Hani Furstenberg, there’s an emotive undercurrent to events that lifts the material and makes it more than just a period horror movie with a generous sampling of gore effects. The Paz brothers also know when to focus on character over action, and the opening scenes establish both the sense of a tight-knit community, and a number of the stories that exist within that community, from the neighbouring widow who may be the second wife Benjamin needs, to Hanna’s sister who is on the verge of getting married. Vladimir’s arrival allows the movie to add a layer of historical persecution to the mix (his threats amount to a promise of a pogrom), and to highlight the elders’ belief in the power of prayer, but without forgetting that sometimes violence has to be met with violence. That these elements are present is a tribute to the density and complexity of Cohen’s screenplay, and the Paz brothers’ approach to the material, making the movie as a whole more involving and more effective as a result. With bleak, shadowy cinematography by Rotem Yaron, and  a pervading sense of menace throughout, this is necessarily grim stuff, and all the better for it.

Rating: 8/10 – it’s not often that a horror movie takes the time to explore the nature of evil, but it’s one of many surprises that The Golem has to offer, along with a lead female character who drives the story forward, and an ending that is both poignant and bittersweet; though there are moments where the dialogue sounds altogether too modern, and Hanna’s actions appear to be in defiance of historical accuracy, this is still an impressive outing from the Paz brothers, and one that augurs well for their future projects.

The Bookshop (2017)

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D: Isabel Coixet / 113m

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, James Lance, Honor Kneafsey, Charlotte Vega, Reg Wilson, Jorge Suquet, Frances Barber, Lucy Tillett, Michael Fitzgerald, Hunter Tremayne

In 1959, in the Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough, Florence Green (Mortimer) decides to open a bookshop on the site of a rundown property called the Old House. The Old House needs more than a lick of paint to make it look presentable, but with the help of a group of local sea scouts, the bookshop is soon open and prospering. Soon, Florence needs the help of an assistant, and duly hires young Christine Gipping (Kneafsey), who proves to be a conscientious worker, and good company as well. Florence’s efforts attract the attention of local recluse, Edmund Brundish (Nighy), and he soon becomes her best customer, despite rarely leaving his home due to his perceived misanthropic behaviour. However, Florence’s efforts also attract the less supportive attention of Violet Gamart (Clarkson), the wife of a local bigwig who has her own plans for the Old House, and who isn’t about to let Florence stop her from getting what she wants. It’s not long before Florence is encountering problems to do with her bookshop, problems that can all be traced back to the interfering Violet Gamart…

Narrated by an uncredited Julie Christie, and adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, The Bookshop is a subdued, and somewhat musty, tale that is often too polite for its own good. Its easy-going style, and restrained dramatics, make for a gentle, nostalgic trip down memory lane – Llorenç Miquel’s production design and Marc Pou’s art direction put the viewer squarely back in the late Fifties – but also one that is in danger of leaving the same viewer wondering if the movie is ever going to get started. There’s no shortage of incident, but it’s all presented in such a low-key, genial fashion that even when it looks inevitable that Florence will lose the bookshop, the tone and the pace remain the same: even-handed and slow. This may be an attempt at reflecting the time and place in which the movie is set, but if it is, it makes for a disappointing experience. Florence is a forbearing soul, thoughtful, kind and considerate, but it’s a measure of Coixet’s screenplay that on the one occasion she does express the pain and anger she’s feeling, it’s not for herself, and it’s directed at the wrong character. On its own it’s a good scene, but taken as part of the whole, it sticks out by being too melodramatic (though it is also a welcome relief from the blandness of the rest of the material).

Coixet also has a problem with the story’s “bad guys”, the pompous, acidly arrogant Violet Gamart, and her easily manipulated stooge, Milo North (Lance). Violet’s idea for the Old House is to have an arts centre, but the why of such an idea is never fully explained, and her motives remain as shrouded in mystery as the motives for Milo’s duplicitous behaviour late on in the movie. Clarkson and Lance are good in their roles, but they also seem unable to do more with them than is in the script. This may have something to do with Coixet’s direction, which focuses for the most part on Florence’s efforts to introduce modern literature to Hardborough (including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita no less), while also accepting the need to include Violet’s behind-the-scenes scheming. The two story strands never really gel together, even when Nighy’s melancholic recluse tries to intervene on Florence’s behalf and takes the (up til then muted) fight to Violet at her home. Keen observers of foreshadowing in the movies will be able to work out the ending long before we get there, but when it does happen, where there should be a sense of irony – or even poignancy – it’s lost in the perfunctory nature of it all. Inevitably then, this is one occasion where the book is much, much better than the movie.

Rating: 5/10 – despite good performances from Mortimer and Nighy, The Bookshop is a sluggish adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, and spends too much time being respectful, when it really should have been all the more dramatic; the beautiful Irish locations are a plus, but when the backgrounds are more interesting than the “action” in the foreground, then you know there’s a problem.

All Is True (2018)

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D: Kenneth Branagh / 101m

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Hadley Fraser, Ian McKellen, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Sam Ellis, Gerard Horan

In 1613, following the destruction of the Globe theatre by fire, William Shakespeare (Branagh), having been away from his family for most of the last thirty years, decides to return to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and there live out the rest of his life. His arrival isn’t as well received as he would like: his wife, Anne (Dench), treats him as a guest, while his daughter, Judith (Wilder), is angry at his presumption that he can just come home and nothing should be said about it. Shakespeare finds himself finally mourning the death of his son Hamnet seventeen years before, but this brings out an unexpected animosity from Judith (who was Hamnet’s twin). Meanwhile, his eldest daughter, Susanna (Wilson), is trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan doctor John Hall (Fraser). She has an affair that nearly leads to public ruin, while after several disagreements with her father over what a woman is for, Judith pursues a relationship with local wine merchant, Tom Quiney (Hirst). There is scandal in their relationship as well, but before it can threaten to ruin Judith’s standing in the local community, a revelation about Hamnet causes Shakespeare’s memory of his son to be changed forever…

In using the alternative title for The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth, All Is True opens itself up for close inspection of its claim, and inevitably, is found wanting. As much as any historical biography can be “true”, Branagh’s take on Shakespeare’s final years (from a script by Ben Elton), labours under the necessity of finding enough material to fill in the blanks of what we know already – which isn’t that much. And so, we have a movie that makes a handful of educated guesses as to the events surrounding Shakespeare’s self-imposed retirement, but can’t quite come up with a reason for it. For the most part, the script is more concerned with the problems affecting his daughters, while the great man himself is reduced to being a secondary character, one seen creating a garden to honour his son’s memory, or indulging in melancholy conversations with the likes of visiting guests the Earl of Southampton (McKellen), and Ben Jonson (Horan). They’re odd scenes to have, as both see Shakespeare downplaying his genius while his visitors do their best to boost him up. And the scene with Southampton is there simply to support the theory that his sonnets were the product of a homosexual infatuation; all very possible but at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.

Indeed, the overall tone is one of overwhelming grief and sadness as Shakespeare attempts to deal with the loss of Hamnet. Whether seen in moments of contemplation, or through the verses he wrote before his death, Hamnet is the ghost that haunts everyone, and Shakespeare’s grief is tainted by the false recollections he has of him. This allows Branagh the director plenty of opportunities to let Branagh the actor look sad and distant, though mostly it makes him look as if he’s spotted something far off in the distance but can’t quite work out what it is. Still, it’s a good performance from Branagh, and he’s given able support from Dench and the rest of the cast, but in the end, Elton’s script rambles too often from subplot to subplot without ever connecting them in a cohesive, organic fashion. And Shakespeare himself, as a character, is only saved from being a complete dullard by virtue of Branagh’s efforts in front of the camera; there’s more fire and intensity from Wilder’s defiant Judith. A curious mix then of the effective and the banal, and tinged with soap opera moments that are out of place, it’s bolstered by Zac Nicholson’s naturalistic cinematography (all the night-time interiors used candlelight only), and James Merifield’s expressive production design.

Rating: 6/10 – not as definitive as it might have wanted to be, nor as engrossing as the subject matter should have merited, All Is True stumbles too often in its efforts to be intriguing, and features a seemingly endless array of establishing shots that seem designed to pad out the running time for no other reason than that they look pretty; anyone looking for an introduction to Shakespeare the man should look elsewhere, while those who are curious about his later years would do well to treat the movie as an interpretation of events rather than a retelling of them.

Then Came You (2018)

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D: Peter Hutchings / 97m

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Maisie Williams,Nina Dobrev, Ken Jeong, Tyler Hoechlin, David Koechner, Peyton List, Tituss Burgess, Sonya Walger, Colin Moss

(And the award for worst movie poster of 2018 goes to…)

Calvin (Butterfield) is nineteen and a committed hypochondriac: he keeps a journal of his symptoms, and is a regular at his long-suffering doctor’s. When his doctor sends him to a cancer support group in the hopes that it will put Calvin’s “problems” into perspective, he meets Skye (Williams), a sixteen year old whose condition is terminal. Skye latches on to Calvin, and browbeats him into helping her tick off the items on her bucket list. As they get to know each other better, and Calvin sees how Skye copes with her illness (and her impending demise), his own fears and worries begin to fall away, and he even entertains the idea of talking to the woman of his dreams, an air stewardess called Izzy (Dobrov) (Calvin works as a baggage handler at the local airport). With Skye and Calvin’s friendship helping both of them to recognise what’s important in their lives, a reticence on Calvin’s part threatens his budding relationship with Izzy, while Skye comes to realise that the items on her bucket list aren’t as important as she first thought…

And we’re back… in that strange realm where teenagers are saddled with the kind of emotional baggage that can only come from having back stories forged in the mind of a cruel screenwriter (here the wonderfully named Fergal Rock). Calvin’s hypochondria is the by-product of the guilt he feels for surviving the car accident that killed his twin sister when they were eight. Skye’s devil-may-care attitude hides her genuine fear of dying before she’s had a chance to really experience life. And in true movie fashion, their friendship allows them both to shrug off the emotional chains that they’ve allowed themselves to carry around (like teenage versions of Jacob Marley’s ghost), and to become better people as a result. All of which begs the question, just why is teenage suffering so widely explored in the movies? And why is it so often explored in such a lightweight, overly familiar, and generally superficial manner as it is here? Even if you had never seen this kind of movie before, you’d still be able to work out its dynamic and where it’s headed, and pretty quickly too. It’s a strange conundrum – why keep combining a coming of age drama with a tragic, illness of the week scenario?

In the hands of Rock and director Peter Hutchings, Then Came You lacks surprises, depth, and any appreciable consistency in the tone of the material, preferring instead to make an amiable comedy out of dying, and to use one character’s terminal illness to make another character feel better about themselves. If this leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, it’s as nothing to the scene where Calvin takes Skye to visit his sister’s grave, and explains how she died. It’s such a monumentally insensitive thing for Calvin to do, and yet you can tell this is meant to be one of those “important” moments that speaks to the pain he’s been suffering (poor thing!). Badly thought out as it is, it could have been a whole lot worse, but thanks to the combined efforts of Butterfield and Williams, scenes such as this one, and many others, look and sound better than they would do under closer inspection. Their performances (and Dobrov’s) are enjoyable, and their efforts allow Calvin and Skye’s relationship to appear more credible than it has any right to be. And this all speaks to the overall problem that the movie struggles to overcome: it never feels real and it never feels as if you could ever meet the likes of Calvin and Skye in real life.

Rating: 4/10 – with its central message – if you’re feeling bad about yourself, go find someone who’s worse off than you – Then Came You is a romantic comedy drama that plays derivatively as a romance, uneasily as a comedy, and disastrously as a drama; its attempts at being quirky fall flat, and without its talented cast to prop it up, it would all collapse like a poorly cooked soufflé, an analogy that is entirely apt once you realise just how little this movie has to say about death, love, and finding happiness.

10 Reasons to Remember Albert Finney (1936-2019)

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Albert Finney (9 May 1936 – 7 February 2019)

You could argue that Albert Finney was destined for acting greatness by the company he kept in his first outings on the stage. Fresh from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), one of Finney’s earliest roles was alongside Charles Laughton in The Face of Love, and later he replaced an unwell Laurence Olivier in a production of Coriolanus. He made his first appearance on the big screen, and this time with Olivier, in The Entertainer (1960), but his breakthrough role came in the same year, as the disaffected factory worker, Arthur Seaton, in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It was a blistering, angry performance, and one that put him in the running to play T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But at the point of being offered the part, he baulked at the idea of being signed to a multi-year contract, and returned to the stage until another screen role came along that did change his life: that of the lust-driven rogue Tom Jones.

Established internationally as a major star, Finney eschewed the limelight for further returns to the stage, and throughout the Sixties he would alternate between treading the boards and appearing on the silver screen. His body of work during this period – and on into the Seventies – was astonishing for the breadth of the roles he took on, and the consistent high quality of his acting. Finney became dependable in a way that few stars would ever match in their careers, turning his hand equally well to dramas, comedies, and musicals. He was versatile, and unafraid to take risks, though his role as Hercule Poirot in the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express nearly typecast him with audiences for years. In the early Eighties he had a string of roles that cemented his position as one of the leading actors of his generation, and even though the projects he chose from the middle of the decade onwards weren’t as successful as his previous choices, Finney always gave his best, and in the case of movies such as Orphans (1987), was often the best thing about them.

The Nineties saw Finney continue to work steadily across all media, and on television he made memorable contributions to a couple of plays by Dennis Potter, even appearing in one of them, Cold Lazarus (1996), as a disembodied head. He had something of a banner year in 2000, thanks to a wonderfully expressive performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, and by refusing a knighthood from the Queen because he felt the UK honours system “perpetuated snobbery” (though he did accept a BAFTA Fellowship in 2001). The rest of the decade again saw Finney working steadily, and continuing to pick up awards for his work, and maintaining a level of quality in his work that was always hugely impressive (and which over time was heavily rewarded, though he never won an Oscar, despite being nominated five times). He was always a challenging, instinctive actor, true to the characters he played, and no stranger to versatility. Like many of his peers – he was at RADA with Peter O’Toole, and he was born on the same day as Glenda Jackson – Finney came to prominence at a time when cinema and the theatre were pushing at the boundaries of what both disciplines could achieve, and to his credit, he continued to do the same for the rest of his career.

1 – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

2 – Tom Jones (1963)

3 – Two for the Road (1967)

4 – Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

5 – Shoot the Moon (1982)

6 – The Dresser (1983)

7 – Under the Volcano (1984)

8 – Miller’s Crossing (1990)

9 – Erin Brockovich (2000)

10 – The Gathering Storm (2002)

Holiday (2018)

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D: Isabella Eklöf / 90m

Cast: Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer, Yuval Segal, Bo Brønnum, Adam lid Rohweder, Morten Hemmingson, Mill Jober, Laura Kjær, Stanislav Sevcik, Saxe Rankenberg Frey, Michiel de Jong

Sascha (Sonne) is the girlfriend of “businessman” Michael (Yde). Together with some of Michael’s associates and their partners, the pair are on holiday in Bodrum in Turkey. They’re a tight-knit group, but Sascha sees no problem in engaging with other tourists and holiday makers, including Thomas (Römer), whom she meets in an ice cream shop. Though Michael is attentive, when he becomes aware that Sascha and Thomas have met and are friendly towards each other, his affections begin to wane. When Sascha spends time with Thomas on his boat, tension develops between Sascha and Michael, and it leads to a violent incident between them. An invitation to join them one evening, sees Michael prove to Thomas that there can’t be any relationship between him and Sascha because of the influence and the power Michael has over her. But driven by a compulsion that even she doesn’t fully understand, Sascha goes to Thomas’s boat to see if she can salvage their friendship. What follows is further violence, and further proof of how just how much Sascha needs Michael in her life – and despite his treatment of her…

The debut feature of Danish writer-director Isabella Eklöf, Holiday is a simmering exploration of pent up emotions and the violent outbursts that ensue when those emotions can’t be contained any longer. It’s also about power and control, and dominance and submission, and the numbness that comes with constant exposure to a world where weakness is inexcusable, and is punished severely. And more appropriately, how these conflicting aspects can co-exist with each other in order for one person to survive. There’s a cost, of course, for all this, and through Sascha we see the effects of living in such a way, as the screenplay (by Eklöf and Johanne Algren) slowly strips away Sascha’s happy, carefree nature to reveal someone whose sense of freedom is amorphous, and whose character and personality has been compromised by the abusive relationship that she has become inured to. The “violent incident” mentioned above occurs at a point in the movie where there are enough suspicions as to the true nature of Sascha and Michael’s relationship that when it happens, it’s shocking as much for what happens, as for Sascha’s reaction to it. It’s a scene that will no doubt offend many for its graphic nature, but it serves a valid purpose in revealing just how damaged Sascha has become, something that’s borne out by subsequent events.

As the movie heads into thriller territory in its final twenty minutes, Eklöf and Algren shift the dynamic in such a way that the line between controller and controlled becomes blurred, and the level of co-dependence between Sascha and Michael is brought into question. It’s not an entirely successful shift, designed more to provide the movie with a dramatic ending that would otherwise seem unlikely, and the psychological motivations at play have a loose conviction that don’t bear up under closer scrutiny. But it’s a bold, uncompromising approach, and one that Eklöf and cinematographer Nadim Carlsen ensure has plenty of visual impact thanks to the decision to have much of the action take place against the sun-drenched backdrop of Bodrum and the surrounding Turkish Riviera. Ugliness and beauty are juxtaposed to good effect, and the central performances by Sonne and Yde dovetail and meld to equally good effect, their characters steeped in conflicting shades of light and dark. A disquieting sojourn into a world of conspicuous wealth and ever lurking violence, Holiday is visceral, unnerving, and uncompromising, and a movie that is likely to divide audiences as to its merits (or lack of them).

Rating: 7/10 – with a slow, measured build up that introduces us to too many characters who fall away as the movie progresses, Holiday isn’t for all tastes thanks to the harshness of its narrative, and the treatment of its main character; those willing to give it a chance will find a movie that lingers uncomfortably in the memory – though only the individual can decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

Dogman (2018)

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D: Matteo Garrone / 103m

Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi, Francesco Acquaroli, Gianluca Gobbi, Alida Baldari Calabria, Laura Pizzirani, Giancarlo Porcacchia, Aniello Arena

In a rundown seaside resort during a miserable winter, Marcello (Fonte) makes a living as the local dog groomer. Operating out of a small shop that’s part of a small parade of other businesses, Marcello is a quiet, inoffensive man whose marriage has broken down, but who has a daughter, Alida (Calabria), who dotes on him. They go on expensive holidays together, which Marcello pays for by dealing cocaine on the side to his friends at the parade. But one local individual, Simone (Pesce), an intimidating and thuggish former boxer, takes advantage of Marcello’s timidity and never pays for his cocaine when he wants it. Marcello is further taken advantage of when Simone “persuades” him to be the getaway driver in a house robbery. Later still, Simone bullies Marcello into letting him have the keys to his shop so that Simone can break through the adjoining wall of the jewellers next door, and rob the place. Marcello is compromised by the robbery, and is arrested and then jailed when he says nothing about Simone’s involvement. But when he comes out, he goes looking for reparation…

As much a delicate character study as it is a bruising drama, Dogman is many things, but each aspect has been carefully melded to ensure that the whole is entirely effective, and the viewer is left with the sense that this is an entirely credible slice of life. Dealing with ideas related to loneliness, bullying, moral lethargy, and the modest aspirations of its main character, Garrone’s follow up to Tale of Tales (2015) is like gaining access to a world that we’ve heard about but never seen before, a world where a combination of weakness and strength is a vital component in the struggle to survive. Marcello is always deferring to others, even amongst the other shop owners who are ostensibly his friends, and outside of his relationship with Alida, he’s a loner who struggles to make himself stand out. His need for acceptance leads him to spend time with Simone, as if the two of them were friends, but so desperate is Marcello’s need to be included he allows himself to be patronised and exploited in equal measure. When he’s released from prison, there’s the initial impression that he’s toughened up, and to a degree he has, but as his pursuit of Simone and the restitution he feels is owing to him unfolds, it becomes clear that much of this change is only on the surface – and this leads to an uncomfortable, bittersweet ending.

Garrone has fashioned a tense, often unnerving movie that doesn’t shy away from portraying Marcello’s struggles against the backdrop of a demoralised seaside resort that has seen better days, and having the resort mirror the continual setbacks that Marcello endures. The only relief there is comes from beautifully lit underwater scenes where Marcello and Alida scuba dive on their holidays, a respite for both of them from the tawdry gloom of their home town. Garrone places these scenes carefully throughout the movie, but not to offer hope; instead they’re an acknowledgement of just how far Marcello is from those wondrous experiences. Fonte gives a subdued yet expressive performance, always apologetic, always nervous, never feeling at ease, and ready to excuse any inconvenience. It’s a subtle exercise in character building, with Fonte working from the inside out, and showing how Marcello’s innate passivity has fostered a kind of perverse self-preservation. As the hulking brute, Simone, Pesce is all blunt force and deliberate condescension, and he brings a cruel menace to his scenes with Fonte; you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do, but you do know that it won’t be pleasant. The relationship between Simone and Marcello is the unlikely focus of a movie that doesn’t believe in happy endings, and by showing how happy Marcello can be in this relationship, Garrone makes Marcello’s predicament a thing of undiluted tragedy.

Rating: 9/10 – sombre and unhesitatingly harsh, Dogman paints a bleak yet compelling portrait of moral and emotional ambiguity, and what some people will do to feel included; a standout performance from Fonte anchors a menacing script by Garrone and co-screenwriters Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, and the whole thing benefits from superb work by DoP Nicolai Brüel that matches the darkness inherent both in the material, and the souls of its two main characters.

The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940)

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D: Bernard Vorhaus / 67m

Cast: Jean Hersholt, Dorothy Lovett, Robert Baldwin, Tom Neal, Maude Eburne, Vera Lewis, George Meader, Bobby Larson, Bobette Bentley

Outside of the small town of River’s End, lies an area of hardship and poverty called Squatters Town. With its people ignored by their more affluent neighbours, it’s only kindly local doctor, Paul Christian (Hersholt), who has any time for them. A visit to a sick girl at the site leads to Christian taking in a young man, Dave Williams (Neal), while his younger brother and sister (Larson, Bentley) are looked after by town matriarch, Norma Stewart (Lewis). Norma has a vacant lot in the centre of town that Christian thinks would be ideal as a new housing development for the people of Squatters Town to move into. He secures the deed to the land – at a personal price – but soon faces opposition from local businessman, Harry Johnson (Meader), and the town council. Dave takes matters into his own hands and gets everyone from Squatters Town to move onto the vacant lot. Johnson and his cronies on the council invoke a little known by-law, and arrange for the police to have everyone dispersed. But just as a violent confrontation seems inevitable, Dr Christian realises that the sick girl he treated before has spinal meningitis – and it’s highly contagious…

One of the benefits of watching old black and white movies from the Thirties and Forties, is the number of pleasant surprises you’re likely to come across, and often in the unlikeliest of places. Between 1939 and 1941, RKO made six movies based around the radio character, Dr Paul Christian. They were family friendly dramas with a recurrent streak of obvious, gentle humour, made quickly and cheaply, and featured Hersholt in the role he’d become famous for over the airwaves. The Courageous Dr. Christian was the second in the series, and is remarkable for the quality of its screenplay, which was written by Ring Lardner Jr and Ian McLellan Hunter. An original story, its depiction of the social and class divisions between the people of River’s End and Squatters Town, and the inequalities experienced by the latter (along with prejudice and blatant xenophobia), mark out the movie as something of a departure from the standard small town fables that the likes of Andy Hardy were focused on. Here the movie has a clear message about tolerance and the true meaning of community spirit. There are differences on either side – Dave is just as contemptuous of the people in River’s End, as George Johnson is of Dave and his fellow Squatters Town inhabitants. How then to bring them all together?

An outbreak of spinal meningitis might not be the most obvious motivator for public and personal contrition, and Lardner Jr and Hunter aren’t about to lather on the altruism (one couple decide to donate their blankets – because they need new ones anyway), but their screenplay is sharper than this kind of movie usually deserves, and the characters all appear to have inner lives, something that is also unusual. Even the likes of Roy (Baldwin), drug store owner and the series’ romantic stooge, comes across as more rounded and capable of surprising the viewer than he does in all the other entries. With the cast given more to bite into, and the humour (a necessary component of the material) arising from the drama instead of sitting alongside it, the movie exerts a more compelling interest than expected, and offers director Bernard Vorhaus a chance to show just why he was a mentor to David Lean; his approach to the material is intelligent, sincere, and unforgiving of the prejudice shown by both sides. There’s good camera work by John Alton, and a score by William Lava that knows when to throw off the small town whimsy, and engage in more serious motifs. Hersholt impresses as always in the role he’d made his own (and which has never been played by anyone else), and there’s sterling support from Lewis and Meader, stalwarts at this kind of thing, and exactly the kind of familiar faces that you know will do the whole thing the justice it deserves.

Rating: 8/10 – an above average entry in a series that never again attained the heights it does here, The Courageous Dr. Christian is proof positive that “old, low budget, and black and white” doesn’t have to mean a poor quality experience; entertaining and thoughtful at the same time, it’s well worth seeking out as a simpler and more effective alternative to what passes for small town drama in the 21st century.

NOTE: It may not come as a surprise, but there’s no available trailer for The Courageous Dr. Christian.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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D: Marielle Heller / 106m

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Anna Deveare Smith

New York, 1991. Author Lee Israel (McCarthy) is struggling with a combination of writer’s block, alcoholism, and financial troubles. Her last book wasn’t well received, and her agent (Curtin) is unable to get her an advance for her latest project, a biography of Fanny Brice. In order to make ends meet, Lee sells a letter she received from Katharine Hepburn to a local bookseller, Anna (Wells). Anna’s chance remark that she would have paid more for “better content”, allied with the discovery of a letter by Brice while doing research, leads Lee to forging and selling letters by well known literary figures. She’s successful at first, but in time suspicions are raised, and Lee is blacklisted. To combat this, Lee enlists the aid of her friend, Jack Hock (Grant), an aging British actor who is as much down on his luck as she is. But though he too is initially successful at selling Lee’s forgeries, it’s not long before she becomes aware that the FBI is involved, and actively talking to the people she’s sold to. And then Jack is arrested…

What would you do to maintain your fame and (minor) fortune? How far would you go to retain the idea that your work is still relevant when the evidence points otherwise? And how would you go about it without jeopardising what little respect you still have amongst your peers? These are all questions asked by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a sobering yet archly humorous exploration of the ways in which bitterness and a misplaced sense of entitlement can lead someone to abandon their principles in pretty much a heartbeat. What makes Lee’s fall from grace so ironic is that she was arguably more successful as a forger than she was as a legitimate writer. It’s another aspect of the cautionary tale that made up most of Lee’s later life that the screenplay – by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty – correctly focuses on. With its bittersweet coda, that sees one of Lee’s forgeries regarded as real (and priced accordingly), there’s an argument that what she did was her best work of all, and she herself would have probably agreed (at her trial, she relays the fact that her time spent forging literary letters was the best time of her life). Was she aware of this while she wrote them? It’s possible, and if she did, it goes some way to answering a good number of the questions the movie raises about her.

In raising these kinds of questions, the movie is helped immensely by the performance of Melissa McCarthy. An actress who is in many ways hampered by her comedy persona, McCarthy is a revelation here, unlikeable yet likeably tenacious, arrogant yet without cause, and undermined by her own insecurities. It’s a tremendous portrayal that allows Lee to appear vulnerable, and unerringly caustic at the same time, while giving McCarthy her best role so far (and one that enables us to forget her other two movies of 2018, Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders). Partnered with an equally unforgettable performance from Richard E. Grant – the relish with which he tackles his role is infectious; no wonder he’s already won eighteen awards – McCarthy channels unexpected depths as Lee, and makes her more than just a hack with a drink problem and a (deliberate) shortage of friends. If the movie does Lee any kind of injustice, it’s in distancing itself from her being a lesbian, something that’s awkwardly, and unconvincingly, addressed through a tentative friendship with Anna. Otherwise, this is a tremendously unfashionable biopic about an unhappy, disreputable woman (and her equally disreputable sidekick) who seek to repair their fragile egos through lying to others, and themselves.

Rating: 8/10 – with a transformative performance from McCarthy, and astute, carefully layered direction from first-timer Heller, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a dark comedy that touches on some very serious topics while daring the viewer to like its main character; fascinating and smartly handled, it’s a movie you feel the real Lee Israel would have been happy with, as long as she got the right credit.

Under the Tree (2017)

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Original title: Undir Trénu

D: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson / 89m

Cast: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Dóra Jóhannsdóttir, Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving

Inga (Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurjónsson) are an elderly couple who live next door to Konrad (Bachmann) and his second wife, Eybjorg (Björnsdóttir). The two couples get on for the most part, but there is a large tree in Inga and Baldvin’s garden that blocks out much of the light when Eybjorg uses their sun deck. This bone of contention has been raised once or twice, but Inga is determined that the tree will remain as it is. Meanwhile, her son Atli (Steinþórsson), has been kicked out by his wife, Agnes (Jónsdóttir), and has come back home while he tries to put things right between them. When all the tires of Baldvin’s car are slashed, and then Inga’s cat goes missing, these events trigger a further string of occurrences that threaten to – and then do – spiral out of control. Atli goes about reconnecting with Agnes in ways that serve only to antagonise her further, and which also have an effect on their young daughter, Asa (Scheving), and relations between the two sets of neighbours deteriorates to the point where tragedy and violence ensues…

In this pitch black comedy from Iceland, the opening scenes set the tone for the rest of the movie, with Atli caught masturbating to a sex tape he made with someone he knew before meeting Agnes. As awkward moments go, it’s pretty awkward, and there are many more to enjoy as the movie progresses, with each character either the victim of something horrible, or being the catalyst or instigator of something horrible. What’s clever though about the set up by writer/director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson is the way in which he escalates matters between the two sets of neighbours, but without showing us if any of them really are responsible for, say, four slashed tyres, or the disappearance of a cat. This ambiguity hints at the possibility of a third party being involved, but again, Sigurðsson offers no clues as to this third party’s identity, and so the cycle of revenge plays out with a high degree of angry absurdity, as each couple blames the other for their woes. Tit for tat gives way to targeted, violent (even criminal) behaviour, until tragedy is compounded by further tragedy, and the original disagreement seems petty and inconsequential. Sigurðsson acknowledges what we all know to be true: all’s fair in hate and war.

Sigurðsson also isn’t afraid to make some of his characters unlikeable, or in Inga’s case, downright horrid. With a caustic tongue and a mind that’s been warped by grief – her other son, Uggi, has disappeared and is presumed dead, though no body has been found – Inga is played with angry gusto by Björgvinsdöttir, and it’s she who provides the movie with its most awful moment as the disappearance of her cat causes her to do something so terrible you can’t stop thinking about it after the movie has ended. That it also sets up one of the funniest moments in the movie is a tribute to the care with which Sigurðsson has crafted his narrative. But though the humour is as dark as it can be, this is ultimately a movie about loss, and the things people will do to avoid dealing with it. Inga hasn’t dealt with the loss of her son (Baldvin states at one point that it perhaps would have been better if Uggi had died in front of her), while Atli is struggling to come to terms with losing his family through his own stupidity, and Eybjorg is scared of losing altogether the chance of becoming a mother. Driven by these fears, and the grief that comes with them, each character fights their own corner, but without the understanding that their feelings aren’t exclusive, or that by concentrating only on themselves, that the tragedy stalking all of them will happen all the sooner.

Rating: 8/10 – with terrific performances from all concerned, and a grim, relentless intensity to the material, Under the Tree is impressively detailed when it comes to the various ways in which people rush to ensure that revenge can be eagerly justified – if only to themselves; unsparing and cruel in places, but fiercely intelligent and with a small measure of optimism to cling on to, it’s a movie that doesn’t pander to its audience, or offer them an easy way out from all the suffering of its characters.

Free Solo (2018)

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D: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin / 100m

With Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Sanni McCandless, Jimmy Chin, Mikey Schaefer

Climbing, whether it involves mountains, cliff faces, escarpments, or domes, is always a risky, sometimes highly dangerous endeavour, even for the professionals. Imagine though, if you took away any ropes or pitons or other safety equipment, and you attemptd to climb, say, a sheer cliff face using only your hands and feet to get to the top, how much more risky, or highly dangerous do you think that would be? If you’re not sure, then Free Solo is the movie that will provide a definitive answer (as if anyone really needs convincing). It introduces us to Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber who has become famous for his free solo ascents of sites such as Northern Ireland’s Fair Head, Mexico’s El Sendero Luminoso, and the Yosemite Triple Crown – Mt Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome. For most people, these sites will mean nothing at all, but they are all genuinely challenging climbs that Alex Honnold has completed on his own, and without any equipment to help him. But there has always been one ascent that Honnold has always dreamed of conquering as a free solo climber: the 2,900 ft Freerider route of El Capitan. And on 3 June 2017, he set out to make his dream come true…

There are several moments in Free Solo where the camera adopts a vertiginous angle, and we look down on Alex Honnold as he carefully navigates his way across and over rock surfaces that look almost smooth and lacking in finger and toe holds. But while Honnold effectively clings to those rock surfaces, the image – whether it’s courtesy of a drone or one of the team of climber photographers organised by co-director Jimmy Chan – nearly always keeps his position in context with the wider surroundings. And that context is scary. If you suffer from vertigo, or have even the slightest fear of heights, then this movie is not for you. What Honnold does, and the danger that he puts himself in, is nothing short of both courageous, and insane. And yet, Honnold is a genial individual, likeable and passionate about what he does, and quite open about his feelings on a range of matters from his own shortcomings to when it might be time to call it quits. And even if he also appears to be someone who enjoys behaving like an outsider (he lives in a van and feels more comfortable there than in a plush hotel room), his personality is endearing, and he comes across as the nerdy kid at school who grew up to do something incredibly cool. It’s no surprise to learn that he has few friends outside of the climbing community, and it’s equally unsurprising that those he does have are fiercely supportive of him.

As to why Honnold is able to do what he does, there’s a fascinating segment where he undergoes an fMRI, and the results reveal that his amygdala, which governs our responses to fear and anxiety, isn’t entirely active. Honnold takes it all in his stride, and moves on to the next stage of his preparations to climb El Capitan. His focus is incredible, but more incredible still is the actual climb. As a feat of physical endurance, it’s unparalleled. As the cameras follow him through each of El Capitan’s treacherous sections, there are moments where it seems impossible that Honnold will be able to continue, and the viewer is likely to find themselves holding their breath in anticipation of the worst happening. This sense of dreadful anticipation is amplified by Marco Beltrami’s urgent score, and Bob Eisenhardt’s precision-tooled editing. And yet, Honnold makes it look easy, smiling at times with the enjoyment of it all, and rarely looking perturbed. The movie also takes time to explore Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, and how both deal with the potential for harm in what Honnold does. Inevitably, when he sprains his ankle during his preparations, they react in different ways, he by carrying on regardless, she more quietly and with forbearance. It’s unexpectedly bittersweet moments such as these that help to make the non-climbing sequences as involving as the various ascents we witness.

Rating: 9/10 – with its breathtaking, awe-inspiring visuals and jaw-dropping imagery – there are several moments where it just seems impossible that Honnold has found a toehold or a rock to grip onto – Free Solo is the kind of documentary that impresses and impresses and impresses, and then impresses some more; a perfect blend of biography matched to a tribute to human endeavour, this is best watched on the biggest screen possible so that the impact of Honnold’s achievements can be appreciated all the more.

The Mule (2018)

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D: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Ignacio Serricchio, Andy Garcia, Taissa Farmiga, Alison Eastwood, Eugene Cordero, Clifton Collins Jr

In 2005, Earl Stone (Eastwood) is a thriving and award-winning horticulturalist whose commitment to his work life has left him estranged from his family. Twelve years later, Earl’s business has failed, his home is on the verge of being repossessed, and his appearance at the engagement party of his granddaughter, Ginny (Farmiga), leaves him in no doubt that he still has a long way to go in making amends. But a surprise suggestion by one of the guests at the party – that he accept a job just “driving” for some people the guest knows – leads Earl to working for a group of Mexicans who he comes to realise are part of a drugs cartel. His job is to transport cocaine across country, and he’s well paid for his time and effort. Earl uses the money to help his local community, and his family, while becoming the most successful drug mule in the cartel’s history. But the DEA, in the form of agent Colin Bates (Cooper), soon learns of Earl’s existence, and they become determined to catch him. With the cartel shadowing him on one side, and the DEA chasing him on the other, Earl finds himself in an untenable position…

Making his first appearance in front of the camera since Trouble With the Curve (2012), here Clint Eastwood reminds us that when you need a grizzled old-timer who has to be both charming and stubborn – fractious, if you like – then there’s no better choice than the former Man With No Name. Based on the real life story of octogenarian Leo Sharp, who eluded capture by the authorities for over ten years, The Mule is an enjoyable, if rickety, drama that relies heavily on Eastwood’s presence, and which treats its subject matter with a lightness of touch that should feel alarming. But thanks to Eastwood’s performance, and a great deal of goodwill garnered by his direction of Nick Schenk’s uneven screenplay, the movie plays like a strange wish fulfillment fantasy where someone can be part of a drugs cartel and still be considered a “good guy”. The script has Earl behaving like Robin Hood, using his new-found wealth to help others, while avoiding any suggestion that his impaired morality is in any way wrong. And yet, when you have your main character flying down to Mexico to meet his employer (Garcia), and embracing the lifestyle (and the women; this sees Eastwood get more “action” than in all his other movies combined), it’s hard to accept the movie’s own compromised attitude.

It’s this inability to make a firm decision about Earl’s status – is he an anti-hero or not? – that stops the movie from plumbing any depths that can’t be called superficial. There’s no sense of threat here either, with Earl ignoring repeated instructions and threats from the cartel and being let off the hook time and time again. And inevitably, Earl reunites with his family as a reward for his criminal endeavours. Through it all, Eastwood gives one of his best performances, elevating the material and showing the likes of Cooper (all starch and buttoned-down restraint) and Peña (in another sidekick role) how to maximise an under-written character to good effect. On the plus side, Yves Bélanger’s romanticised cinematography adds a layer of nostalgia to proceedings, harking back to a time when the likes of Earl were straightforward heroes (he’s a Korean War veteran), and running drugs would have been impossible to even imagine. And though the humour can sometimes be misplaced or inappropriate – Earl’s casual racism is awkwardly handled throughout – there are laughs to be had, and the movie’s genial attitude is appealing. It’s not a  bad movie per se, and Eastwood is the reason why, but it’s not quite so good that it deserves anything more than average praise.

Rating: 6/10 – whimsical and unpretentious, The Mule is a lightweight offering from the veteran actor/director that lacks some much needed grit, and which opts for enforced poignancy as a substitute; the supporting cast aren’t allowed to do much, and there are stretches where the movie coasts along happily, but to no great effect, all of which adds up to a pleasant but unremarkable experience that fails to make a lasting impact.

At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

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D: Julian Schnabel / 111m

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Neils Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez

In 1888, and with his work not gaining the attention he feels it deserves, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (Dafoe) decides to leave Paris for the rural town of Arles, where he can sketch and paint without all the distractions of city life to hinder him. Backed by his brother, Theo (Friend), Vincent lives in the Yellow House, and soon begins producing a prodigious amount of work. An extended stay by Paul Gauguin (Isaac) is, at first, welcomed by Vincent, but it soon becomes clear that the two men have very different ideas about art, and that the friendship Vincent is looking for – along with Gauguin’s respect – isn’t going to develop. Eventually, Gauguin leaves, and in a fugue state, Vincent severs his left ear. Now more isolated than ever, Vincent spends time being assessed as to the suitability of his being released from hospital, and though his behaviour, and the possibility of more manic episodes can’t be dismissed, he appears rational enough to return to Arles. But Vincent is still plagued by doubts and worries, and he eventually moves to Auvers-sur-Oise, where a tragic fate awaits him…

Covering the last two years of van Gogh’s life, At Eternity’s Gate (the title is taken from a painting the artist made during his last year) is not your average portrait of a suffering, unappreciated artist. Instead it’s a movie that does its best to make the viewer understand the depth of van Gogh’s passion for painting, and which does so thanks to a combination of Benoît Delhomme’s glorious cinematography, and director (and co-screenwriter with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg) Julian Schnabel’s own artistic sensibilities. Here, the viewer is allowed to immserse themselves in the details of van Gogh’s paintings and sketches, and to gain a sense of the passion that drove van Gogh to create such a unique body of work. Whether it’s a still life, or a landscape, van Gogh’s commitment and drive is readily apparent, and Schnabel uses a number of visual and aural tricks to help us get inside the head of a man who wasn’t always comfortable with his own thoughts. This makes our engagement with van Gogh a little intrusive but also highly instructive: he’s a man tormented by his personal demons, but also an artistic genius because of them.

Van Gogh is played with a masterly brio by Dafoe, the actor displaying a rare skill in inhabiting the character, and in doing so, bringing him to life in ways that are surprising and profound. It’s as if Dafoe has found a way of channelling van Gogh’s own spirit and energy (and his mania), and as a result, it’s a performance that is often mesmerising for its empathy and understanding of just how tortured and driven van Gogh was. Dafoe is ably supported by Friend and Isaac, and there’s a tremendous supporting turn from Mikkelsen as the priest who gets to decide if van Gogh can be released from hospital (their one scene together is the movie’s highlight), but even with all these pin sharp interpretations, it’s Schnabel’s distinctive handling of the material that stands out the most. This is Schnabel’s own idea as to how van Gogh existed in the last two years of his life, and though it’s based on fact, the movie remains an imagining, an artistic depiction of how Schnabel views the van Gogh of that period – just as van Gogh depicted what he saw and made it his own. Often very, very beautiful to watch, and with much to say about the nature of art and its relation to us as individuals, this is easily Schnabel’s best movie since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and a fitting tribute to van Gogh and his work.

Rating: 9/10 – with a peerless performance from Dafoe, and Schnabel providing a masterclass in how to depict artistic expression on film, At Eternity’s Gate is a small miracle of arthouse movie making; moving and sincere, it’s the kind of endeavour that will always struggle to reach a wider audience, but for those who are willing to give it a try, it’s one of the most rewarding movies of 2018.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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D: Josie Rourke / 124m

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester, Martin Compston, Ian Hart, James McArdle, David Tennant, Gemma Chan, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle

Scotland, 1561. Following the death of her French husband, Mary Stuart (Ronan) returns to take up her rightful place as Queen. Her return is viewed with dismay and suspicion by the English court, as Mary has a claim to the English throne should Elizabeth I (Robbie) die without issue. Elizabeth suggests that Mary wed an Englishman, Robert Dudley (Alwyn), and despite Dudley being her lover. Aware that this is a ploy designed to weaken her claim, Mary agrees on one condition: that she be named heir to the throne. With Elizabeth unwilling to consent to this, she sends Henry Darnley (Lowden) to infiltrate Mary’s court, but Mary and Henry fall in love and marry. In time, Mary gives birth to a son, James, but political intrigue sees her own half-brother, the earl of Moray (McArdle) mount an insurgency against her. She quashes this, but further unrest is whipped up by militant preacher John Knox (Tennant), and Mary finds herself being forced to abdicate when James is taken from her by her former protector, Lord Bothwell (Compston). She flees to England, where she seeks help from Elizabeth…

If you have a keen interest in Scottish history, and in Mary Stuart in particular, you might be perplexed by some of the “revelations” that Mary Queen of Scots includes as part of its adaptation of the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. For instance, who knew that Henry Darnley and David Rizzio (Cordova), Mary’s “gay friend” (in reality her private secretary) slept together shortly after Mary and Henry were married? (That’s a rhetorical question.) It’s one of many historical inaccuracies and inventions that the movie comes up with to heighten the drama, as if the real story wasn’t exciting or dramatic enough. Also, the action takes place over twenty-six years, from Mary’s return to Scotland, to her execution in 1887. Not that you’d necessarily realise this as the movie appears to take place in a timeless period where no one ages, and plot developments come so thick and fast, that by the time you’ve absorbed one, two more have already gone by. With so much to cram in in two hours, Beau Willimon’s screenplay can only act as a yardstick for excessive historical exposition. But conversely, the movie is strangely reticent when it really matters, such as when Mary pardons Moray and others for their part in the insurgency, leaving the viewer to wonder if they really have missed something.

As the movie progresses, it becomes less and less involving, and less and less impactful, as all efforts to make Mary’s plight appear tragic slowly evaporate, and the narrative trundles on from one historical action point to the next with all the energy of someone trudging through treacle. First time director Josie Rourke, whose background is in theatre, does elicit two compelling performances from Ronan and Robbie, but hasn’t adapted her talents to meet the needs of her movie, and the result is a patchwork of disparate scenes that don’t always allow for a consistent narrative, or characterisations (Bothwell’s change of conscience is particularly troubling). But this is first and foremost a movie that affords Ronan and Robbie the opportunity to reveal just why they are two of the best actresses working today. Ronan is appropriately fiery as Mary, passionate and determined, but unable to combat the forces that lead her to tragedy. Good as Ronan is, though, Robbie is superb as Elizabeth, making her a tragic figure who knows what must be done to protect her kingdom, but whose conscience leaves her feeling sad and isolated. There’s good support too from Pearce and McArdle, and the sets and costumes are a highlight, but ultimately, this is a movie for those who don’t mind if their history lessons are compromised from start to finish.

Rating: 5/10 – coming away from Mary Queen of Scots, the realisation soon sinks in that as a retelling of tumultous events and times in Scotland’s history, it’s not as robust as it needs to be, or as insightful; inevitably, it’s the modernism that lets it down, with Willimon’s script making a bad hash of trying to make the movie feel relevant to today’s feminist outlook, but worse than that, it just doesn’t hold the interest in a way that would make it more compelling.

Jonathan (2018)

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aka Duplicate

D: Bill Oliver / 101m

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Suki Waterhouse, Patricia Clarkson, Douglas Hodge, Matt Bomer, Souleymane Sy Savane, Shunori Ramanathan, Joe Egender, Ian Unterman

For Jonathan (Elgort), life is lived in just twelve hours every day, from 7am to 7pm. During that time he works and sleeps and and exercises and takes care of his apartment, the one he shares with his brother, John (Elgort). John’s life unfolds between 7pm and 7am, and he has a similar routine. But their relationship isn’t exactly like that of other brothers, because Jonathan and John inhabit the same body. They are two distinct personalities, able to live their separate lives thanks to the intervention when they were children, of Dr Mina Nariman (Clarkson). Using technology to keep both identities in their own daily “time zones”, the pair communicate through video messages, thus ensuring that their lives don’t overlap. But when Jonathan starts to notice a difference in John’s behaviour, he becomes curious and hires a private detective (Unterman) to check on John’s movements. Jonathan discovers that John has a girlfriend, Elena (Waterhouse), a relationship that both have agreed not to have because of the difficulties involved. When Jonathan’s involvement causes the relationship to end, John refuses to communicate with him, which leads Jonathan into doing two things he’s never done before: explaining their condition to Elena, and falling in love with her…

How well do we know our siblings? How confidently can we say that we know what they would do or how they would react in any given situation? And how much more difficult would that be to judge if you’ve never met that sibling in person? In Bill Oliver’s debut feature, questions of identity are clearly to the fore, but more than whether you can truly know someone through the medium of video messages takes a back seat to the question of how well you can know yourself in those circumstances. It’s an intriguing idea, and Oliver, along with co-screenwriters Peter Nickowitz and Gregory Davis, spends much of Jonathan‘s running time exploring the tilte character’s personality and how it responds when the ordered world it exists in is threatened. Jonathan’s life is governed by rules and responsibility, and his lifestyle is one that he has embraced wholeheartedly because it keeps him safe. John is more outgoing, more likely to indulge himself or be spontaneous, things that Jonathan would never dream of doing. So when John’s relationship with Elena is revealed, it sends Jonathan into a tailspin that, ironically, has him behaving in similar ways to his brother. And in exactly the same way that John kept Elena’s existence a secret from Jonathan, so too does Jonathan keep his relationship with her secret from John.

All of this has inevitable consequences, and as the movie plays out, Oliver adds a fine layer of foreboding to the narrative, as Jonathan becomes ever more confused and afraid of where his new-found feelings will take him. In the title role (and the supporting one), Elgort gives perhaps his best performance so far, tightly wound as Jonathan and unravelling faster and faster as the movie goes on, his initially placid features and economy of movement giving way to expressions of muted horror and staccato bursts of physical energy. There’s also an emotional depth to Elgort’s portrayal that highlights Jonathan’s dependence on his brother, and which is allowed more and more expression as he struggles to understand what’s happening to him. Oliver keeps the sci-fi elements deliberately low-key, preferring instead to focus on the brothers’ relationship, while also affording time to explore Elena’s reaction to her involvement in a unique ménage à trois, and the motherly affections and attentions of Dr Nariman. As the latter, Clarkson brings further gravitas to the material, while Waterhouse brings a much needed looseness to her character that offsets the serious nature of the other performances. With Oliver opting for a restrained, observational feel to much of the material, it’s not entirely engaging, and there is the sense that we’re looking at a lab rat navigating a maze that doesn’t have an exit, but when Elgort is struggling for a clarity that he just can’t grasp, the movie becomes poignant and more than a little bittersweet.

Rating: 8/10 – a polished, thought-provoking drama with an impressive central performance from Ansel Elgort, Jonathan is a low budget indie movie with lofty ambitions that it can’t always attain, but which has a sense of purpose about it that helps it through some of the rougher parts of the script; a neat idea that could have been expanded further, it succeeds thanks to the wise decision not to Hollywood-ise either its romantic elements, or the dramatic nature of Jonathan’s emotional turmoil.

Destroyer (2018)

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D: Karyn Kusama / 121m

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson, Zach Villa

Seventeen years after an undercover operation in which she was involved went badly wrong, leaving her partner, Chris (Stan), dead, and the head of the gang they’d infiltrated, Silas (Kebbell), vanished along with most of the rest of his gang, LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) learns that Silas is back. She receives a dye-stained $100 bill in the mail that can only have come from Silas, and which relates to the bank robbery that his gang carried out, and which saw Chris killed. Determined to make up for not being able to save her partner, Erin decides to track down the other members of Silas’s enclave, beginning with Toby (Jordan), who leads her to Arturo (Villa), who in turn leads her to a shady lawyer called DiFranco (Whitford). After some “persuasion”, DiFranco confirms that he makes monthly payments to Silas via Silas’ girlfriend, Petra (Maslany). At the next drop off, Erin follows Petra to her home. The next morning, Petra meets up with five men, one of whom could be Silas. But there’s a snag: when Erin sees them meet up, it’s just before they attempt to carry out another bank robbery…

A tense, riveting thriller, Destroyer is also a tough, uncompromising, and visceral crime drama, where almost all of its characters exhibit shifting moral perspectives, and notions of right and wrong are deliberately occluded. It’s hard to think of a recent movie that has been as deliberately and purposefully gruelling as this one, and it’s hard to think of another recent movie that has painted such a bleak portrait of human behaviour. This is not a movie where good fights evil and emerges triumphant. Instead, good takes an early retirement, and bad flourishes in its place. The nominal heroine, Erin is so plagued and consumed by her demons that even when she tries to do the right thing, it’s no good because she’s fatally compromised from the word go. Her motive for catching Silas – Chris’s death – may be the nearest thing to pure that the movie can come up with, but even that reason is revealed to be dubious at best and self-serving at worst. Erin is damaged in ways that even she doesn’t fully comprehend, and she moves forward like a shark, refusing to let anyone stop her. She avoids her colleagues and her superiors, bullies, threatens and cajoles (and in one scene, gives a handjob to) Silas’s accomplices, and retaliates in kind when she’s violently assaulted. It’s tempting to nickname Erin Dirty Harriet, but even that wouldn’t cover the psychological damage that she has failed to deal with over the past seventeen years.

Of course, all this is brought to vivid and impressive life thanks to an incredible peformance from Kidman. With her blank stare and ravaged, withdrawal-like features, she’s impossible to look away from. A physical and emotional mess, it’s only Erin’s recollections of the undercover operation that allow us to see her when she had ambition and hope for the future. As these recollections unfold we see the circumstances that have led her to her current situation: alone, unhappy, and at odds with her teenage daughter, Shelby (Pettyjohn). Spiralling ever further down the rabbit hole, Erin looks to make amends for her past, but she’s a doomed soul, and redemption is frustratingly out of reach. Kusama, making only her fifth feature in eighteen years – we can forget Æon Flux (2005) now, okay? – is on dazzling form, tightly controlling the narrative and doling out pieces of the larger puzzle like all good film noirs, modern or otherwise. However, she’s unable to breathe convincing life into the subplot involving Shelby and her much older boyfriend (Knapp), or make Silas into the badass bogeyman he’s painted as. These issues, and a couple of times when the script connects the dots a little too conveniently, stop the movie from being as all round devastating as it should have been, but this is still a strong, intelligent and bold movie that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

Rating: 8/10 – some may complain that the pace lags at times, but Destroyer‘s narrative allows for a slow build up of details that makes the ending all the more effective for making you question everything you’ve seen already; the rest of the cast trail (understandably) in Kidman’s majestic wake, but Julie Kirkwood’s exemplary cinematography paints Los Angeles in gritty, washed out colours tthat make LA seem at times like an alien landscape.