Hangman (2017)

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D: Johnny Martin / 98m

Cast: Al Pacino, Karl Urban, Brittany Snow, Joe Anderson, Sarah Shahi, Chelle Ramos, Steve Coulter, Sloane Warren

Not every movie can be accomplished, original, or a must-see. In fact, the majority of movies – the vast majority – often have the effect of making you wonder just how they got made in the first place. And why. Sometimes it seems that there’s a lot of people out there with money to burn. Other times it’s as if a movie has been made on a dare. Some movies challenge the very notion that quality was ever a consideration when the movie itself was being made. And some movies provoke such an abject response – what the hell is all this? – that there’s nothing for it but to carry on watching in the vain hope that the whole sorry mess will find some way to improve (not that it does though). There are literally thousands of these movies made each and every year, and if there’s an end in sight to all of them, then it’s so far off in the distance as to not to be there at all.

And so we come to Hangman, the latest movie to feature Al Pacino in a performance that makes him look like a disinterested bystander and not the lead character. It fits so neatly into the genre of underwhelming thriller movie that should never have been made, that it’s almost scary. It’s bad in a way that actually elevates average movies into looking and sounding better than they are, and provides further evidence – if any were needed – that if you take a script that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever and film it, then the finished product won’t make any sense either. A project that has been in development since at least 2011, Hangman arrives to dispel the notion that if you spend enough time on something then you can iron out all the kinks and grooves in a script and make something of real quality. Let’s make this clear: whatever time Michael Caissie and Charles Huttinger spent on putting the screenplay together, it wasn’t enough.

In a feat akin to shoving a square peg into a round hole, the makers of Hangman have taken one of the world’s most famous and enduring guessing games, and tried to make it the modus operandi of a serial killer (Anderson) whose motivations remain obscure and unconvincing throughout. And not only that, but the word the killer is challenging the police to solve isn’t even in English, a decision that further adds to the confusion created over the killer’s psychological state, and what drives him to murder. All this is as tortuous as it sounds, and the plot – such as it is – quickly surrenders any high ground and goes meekly along with whatever delirious developments Caissie and Huttinger’s screenplay can come up with. This leaves Pacino’s retired detective Archer, and Urban’s moody active detective Ruiney (pronounced Rooney), led by their noses from one staged, and unlikely, crime scene to another while they are gifted clues by a script that really doesn’t care how poorly constructed it is.

The presence of Snow’s Pulitzer-nominated journalist, Christi Davies – no offence, but really? – on assignment to shadow Ruiney for an article, adds a further level of creative insult to the mix as her “signed off by the mayor” involvement sees her included in crime scene searches, put at risk by Archer and Ruiney at almost every turn, and provided with a back story that should be relevant but isn’t. As for the serial killer himself, he’s yet another “brilliant” psychopath who’s always several steps ahead of the police, and can stage the most elaborate murder scenes at the drop of a hat. Thankfully, he’s also susceptible to the kind of cod-psychology musings that Archer comes up with when they finally meet, and Christi’s life is in danger. There are other characters, and much less important ones at that, such as Ruiney’s captain, Lisa Watson (Shahi), who finds herself targeted by the killer, potential suspect, Joey Truman (Ramos), and a raft of even more minor characters who are there to make up the numbers (or the killer’s victims). It’s a measure of the script’s desperate attempts to give these characters some kind of “life” on screen that Ruiney’s wife may have been the killer’s first victim some time before, Watson is in a wheelchair, and Joey and the first victim are lesbians into BDSM.

Wandering through it all, though, as if his reputation as one of the finest actors of his generation, or his position as joint president of the Actors Studio didn’t mean a thing is Pacino. The actor looks permanently surprised in so many scenes it’s hard not to think that each time it happens it’s as if he’s just realising how bad it all is. Whether he’s mumbling his lines or reacting just a beat too slowly to what’s happening around him, it’s a performance that could easily qualify as his worst, even worse than his portrayal as himself in Jack and Jill (2011). There’s no spark here, no animation in his performance, just the sign of an actor treading water and going through the motions. It’s a sad sight, and adds another level of dismay for the viewer to contend with. In contrast, Urban at least tries to inject some energy into his role, but he’s held back by his character’s bull-headed nature and one-note demeanour. Snow fares no better, and the movie wastes her talent as an actress by having her follow her male co-stars around while waiting to be the killer’s eventual last victim.

Making an even worse fist of things than he did on Vengeance: A Love Story (2017), director Johnny Martin continues to show a lack of aptitude behind the camera that, in conjunction with the terrible script, means the movie has no chance of succeeding as the clever, gritty thriller it so desperately wants to be. Whether he’s putting the camera in the wrong place or leaving his talented cast to fend for themselves, Martin does little to lift the material or make it interesting. As a result, the movie lacks pace and intensity, and stutters from scene to scene without any apparent attempt to connect them into a meaningful whole. By the time Archer and Ruiney come face to face with the killer, it’s doubtful just who the average viewer will want to see put out of their misery more: the killer, Archer and Ruiney, or themselves.

Rating: 3/10 – spectacularly awful in a way that, surely, couldn’t have been intended, Hangman is a low-concept thriller that misfires at every step, and makes for one of the  laziest, most apathetic movies of 2017; wrong on so many levels, this should be held up as an object lesson in how not to construct and shoot a movie when the script isn’t there, the director hasn’t a clue, and its main star can’t be bothered.

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Crown Heights (2017)

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D: Matt Ruskin / 100m

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Camp, Luke Forbes, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Ron Canada, Nestor Carbonell, Skylan Brooks, Sarah Goldberg, Adriane Lenox

Crown Heights ends with a sobering statistic: of the 2.4 million people currently in prison in the US, it’s estimated that 120,000 are likely to be innocent. The movie, winner of the Audience Award for US Dramatic Film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, examines a case that, though it all began back in April 1980, could still be relevant today, both for its victim and his friends and family. Following the murder of sixteen year old Melvin Grant in a reported drive-by shooting, eighteen year old Colin Warner (Stanfield), is arrested and accused of being the driver when the murder was committed. Despite his protests, the police tell Colin that they have an eyewitness and they know he’s guilty. The case proceeds slowly but inexorably to trial, where the eyewitness, fourteen year old Clarence Lewis (Brooks), retracts his original testimony and clears Colin of any involvement. But it makes no difference. With Colin connected to his co-defendent (and actual shooter) Anthony Gibson (Forbes), he’s convicted and sentenced to fifteen years to life.

And so begins twenty-one years of incarceration thanks to a combination of mistaken identity, perjury and official misconduct. The police aren’t interested in whether or not Colin is innocent, the district attorney is in cahoots with the police, and it doesn’t matter that there’s no physical evidence or actual eyewitness testimony to place Colin at the scene of the crime – his fate has miscarriage of justice written all over it. Once in prison, Colin pins his hopes on various appeals but they’re all denied. On the outside, his friend Carl ‘KC’ King (Asomugha), tries his best to have Colin’s conviction overturned but encounters setback after setback. It’s not until Carl meets attorney William Robedee (Camp) that there’s a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Robedee examines the case and determines that the only way for Colin to have a chance of being released is not to try and have his conviction overturned, but to reinvestigate the case and prove once and for all that Colin wasn’t involved in the murder of Melvin Grant.

How Robedee and Carl achieve this is forms the basis of the movie’s final half hour, but before then director and screenwriter Matt Ruskin confidently and credibly explores the way in which Colin was effectively framed by the police, first as Melvin’s killer, and then, when Gibson was arrested and admitted committing the murder, as his accomplice. The relentless nature of the police’s efforts to see Colin convicted is reflected in scenes where the lead detective (Grenier) goads and intimidates potential witnesses (whether they are or not) into identifying Colin as the killer. And in some of them the district attorney (Pais) hovers in the background, impassive and implacable. It’s a tragic situation, made all the worse by the implicit sense of impotency that soon settles on Colin as his fate slowly unfolds and the enormity of the injustice he’s facing becomes more and more apparent, and more and more soul-destroying. Once in prison, Colin struggles to find his place, briefly uniting with his Trinidadian brethren, and challenging the authority of the guards before settling into a more stoic existence.

Further injury is added to the insult he’s already experienced when his parole hearing focuses on his previous bad behaviour rather than the strides he’s made since then. Even a blossoming romance involving Antoinette (Paul), a young woman from his neighbourhood (the Crown Heights of the title), isn’t enough to completely dispel the despair Colin begins to feel more strongly as the years pass by. As the beleaguered Colin, Stanfield plays him throughout and is quietly impressive, drawing out a solid portrayal of a man betrayed and ignored by an unjust system, and sometimes justifiably angry at the way he’s treated. It’s not a showy, attention-seeking performance, but rather an attempt to reflect the ways in which Colin sought to keep himself from submitting to self-pity or just giving up altogether (though he comes perilously close to doing both at times). Ever since his debut in the original, short version of Short Term 12 (2008), Stanfield has become an actor to watch, and here he shows an empathy and an understanding for Colin’s situation that is both intuitive and well judged, impassioned and subtly observed as well.

The movie stays with Colin for most of the first hour, and charts the various setbacks he experiences, until it shifts the focus to Carl and his renewed efforts to see his friend restored to freedom. This section of the movie is just as much about one man’s determination to see justice done as it is about the price that justice demands. Carl nearly loses his wife, Briana (Blake), and his children in his efforts to free Colin, and the movie asks the question, is such a selfless and dogged pursuit ever worth the potential pitfalls or drawbacks? Sensibly it leaves the answer for the viewer to decide, but Carl’s commitment and the subsequent drawing together of the people who can prove Colin’s innocence is assembled with a methodical adherence to the rules of evidentiary procedure, and proves unexpectedly gripping. As the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the viewer should be asking themselves, why didn’t the police do this in the first place?

Questions such as these arise throughout the movie, but Ruskin is wise not to explore them too closely or for too long. He even avoids highlighting the obvious issue of the institutionalised racism prevalent in the police force at the time, and leaves it unsaid, more of a given than something that needs explaining. Similarly the pressures of being in prison are given expression through Colin’s attempts to fit in, and Ruskin allows these moments to play out matter-of-factly and with few overly dramatic embellishments. The movie remains steadfast in its approach from start to finish, with Ruskin displaying a command of the material that makes it all the more effective, and all the more emotive when it needs to be. Aside from a handful of sequences where Colin imagines he’s free – sequences that have a hallucinatory, visually powerful feel to them – the movie has a dour, unsettling visual style to it that reflects Colin’s mindset and situation, and which is used with an admirable sense of restraint. Ruskin has put together a modest, yet haunting movie that tells its tale simply but with a depth that’s borne out of the writing and the performances, both of which complement and dovetail around each other with a modest skill that is the hallmark of the movie as a whole.

Rating: 8/10 – a low-key gem that sneaks up on the viewer and gradually reveals just how good it really is, this could have been yet another angry tirade against an uncaring and unfair system, but Crown Heights is more than that, and it deserves a much wider exposure than it’s likely to receive; with Stanfield and Asomugha heading up a splendid cast, and Ruskin able to subvert or overcome so many of the clichés that are inherent in this type of movie, this is sincere, moving, and if those statistics are to be believed, entirely relevant as a commentary on the current US criminal justice system.

Trailers – A Quiet Place (2018), A Bad Idea Gone Wrong (2017) and Game Night (2018)

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The premise of A Quiet Place is a simple one: a family must remain ever vigilant and ever quiet, or some things will find them and kill them. At this stage, the whys and the hows of this particular scenario remain unknown, which makes the trailer that much more effective. Star John Krasinski also directs – making this his third feature after Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (2009) and The Hollars (2016) – and he’s rewritten the original script by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, so this is close to a one-man show, but with an additional dose of nepotism, as Blunt is Krasinski’s real-life wife. This has the potential to be as scary as a mofo, and it will be interesting to see just how long the movie goes on for before a word is spoken, and if at all. Though it will inevitably include sound effects and music, what might be a modern day silent movie is an intriguing idea, and if Krasinski has got a confident grip on the tension and what looks to be a slowburn build up of terror, then the movie could be a breakout hit that attracts audiences wanting to be terrified.

 

When two life-long friends (and loveable schlubs) plan a burglary at a house that they absolutely know will be unoccupied, you just know that it’s not going to go according to plan. And so it proves in Jason Headley’s feature debut, the kind of indie comedy that looks down its nose at more mainstream comedy fare, and then sneezes heavily and appropriately (or inappropriately), as the case may be. As the two friends, Matt Jones and Will Rogers make for a good pair of lunkheads, and Headley’s script seems well set up to provide a mix of belly laughs, moments of wry amusement, and a knowing sense of the story’s complete and utter absurdity. Adding a measure of romance to the mix may be a smart move on Headley’s part, but whether or not the movie needs it is another matter. Unlikely as it may be that the movie will find a wider audience than expected, this still looks as if it could overcome the expectations everyone has for it and gain a lot more kudos for itself along the way.

 

Comedy thrillers are notoriously difficult to pull off, and though Game Night is billed as such, the trailer seems determined to skirt around the movie’s thriller elements and concentrate on the comedy. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen, but what is promising is a cast that includes Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, and Jesse “give this man more starring roles” Plemons. The idea, that a kidnapping of one of a group of good friends may or may not be real, and they have to decide which is the case, could and should provide plenty of laughs, and the trailer does its best to confirm this, but there’s the nagging sense that the best bits have been included in it, and the movie will prove less sharp than it looks (though the squeaky toy is inspired). Still, Bateman et al are all good value for money, and this could be just the silly alternative that’s needed when every other movie in 2018 looks like it’s going to involve superheroes being, well, super and heroic.

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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D: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton / 121m

Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen, Jessica McNamee

Ah, the Seventies, a golden era for cinema, but not quite so good if you were a woman, or more specifically, a sportswoman. The disparity between what the men were paid and what the women were lucky to receive, by comparison with modern standards, was insulting. Battle of the Sexes, the latest from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine (2006), is very loosely based on the efforts of women tennis players such as then champion Billie Jean King (Stone) and several of her fellow players to break away from the United States Lawn Tennis Association, and establish their own independent, Women’s Tennis Association. In doing so, they not only challenged the entrenched male perspective that women’s tennis was somehow “inferior” to men’s tennis, but also that “people” didn’t want to watch women’s tennis because it wasn’t exciting enough.

This patriarchal view was espoused by the likes of Jack Kramer (Pullman), the head of the USLTA. It was refuted by Billie Jean and her (apparent) agent/manager Gladys Heldman (Silverman). Kramer’s blackballing of the women players who refused to play in any of the USLTA’s tournaments proved to be an unintended blessing in disguise, as it allowed them to find their own sponsorship and play in their own tournaments, and for more approrpriate sums of money (when Billie Jean won the US Open in 1972 she received $15,000 less than men’s champion Ilie Năstase). The movie depicts the effectiveness of this approach in establishing the quality of women’s tennis, and bringing it to a wider public, but then along comes Bobby Riggs (Carell), a one-time world tennis champion in the late Thirties and Forties. Riggs, a tireless self-promoter, challenges King to an exhibition match, asserting that he can beat any of the top women players purely because he’s a man. King initially declines his offer, but when he beats her rival, and current world number one, Margaret Court (McNamee), Billie Jean feels she has no option but to play him, and hopefully, advance the cause of women tennis players immensely. But if she were to fail…

Battle of the Sexes is an enjoyable mix of comedy and drama that has an ambitious streak that’s about a mile wide. Not only does it focus on tennis’s version of the glass ceiling, but it also finds time to explore the wider sexism of the time, as well taking a sideswipe at the era’s unhappy approach to gender equality and sexual liberation. Alongside the grandstanding of the match itself, King’s burgeoning awareness of her true sexual identity is dealt with by her having an affair with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough). This aspect of the movie is played out with a great deal of restraint, not just in how it’s presented physically, but also emotionally, with Billie Jean trying to put the genie back in the lamp and pretending nothing has happened. She can’t, of course, but the movie does make the viewer wait for her to stop pretending; after all, everyone else around her knows what’s been going on, including her husband, Larry (Stowell). In the end, the relationship becomes less and less important in the grand scheme of things, and the idea that it was somehow better to address the issue of Billie Jean’s sexual preferences than not, becomes more and more apparent.

Sadly though, and while the movie is enjoyable, it’s ultimately too lightweight for its own good. With themes such as sexism and sexual politics thrown into the mix, there’s ample opportunity for the movie to provide probing examinations of both these themes, but instead it skirts around them, looking to come up with a telling bon mot rather than something more substantial (in one of the movie’s more corny moments, Alan Cumming’s unsurprisingly gay fashion designer, Ted Tinling, tells Billie Jean that one day, they’ll both be able to love freely). There’s also no real sense that anyone is being held back or hampered from doing anything, or that any obstacles can’t be overcome (and at the first opportunity). Billie Jean’s affair with Marilyn relies on Larry being completely understanding about “everything” and not causing a fuss, while Gladys gets their first tour up and running with ease, and every run in with Kramer sees him being knocked down a peg by King at every turn, leaving him looking and sounding like a sexist bogeyman, something that is too simplistic an approach to work effectively (and which even Pullman struggles to pull off). All the real drama is saved for the match, but by then it has to work extra hard to reel in the viewer, who probably has a good idea (if not an actual one) as to the outcome.

Stone is terrific, rescuing some of the milder and less interesting portions of the movie by virtue of her commitment to playing Billie Jean and her ability as an actress to fold herself into the character, so that she brings her own vulnerability as a person to the role and uses her own feelings to establish that character’s interior life. It’s a much subtler performance than you might expect, and Stone is to be congratulated for the layers she brings to her portrayal, shading Billie Jean’s personality in such a way that it helps overcome the script’s more pedestrian moments. Matching her for commitment and sincerity is Carell, a perfect choice for Riggs who plays him as a man whose public persona is used to hide the insecurities he feels since retiring from the one thing that he’s good at (he does play the senior circuit but is unfulfilled by it). Carell has a great deal of fun with the role, and the viewer has every right to have fun right along side him, but Carell also ensures there’s an air of melancholy about Riggs that’s equally affecting.

Faris and Dayton assemble the material with a deft appreciation for the period it’s set in, and the politics of the time, but it’s Simon Beaufoy’s subdued screenplay that holds them back from making this entirely successful (which makes one wonder how the movie would have turned out if original choice Danny Boyle had been able to direct it). Still, they do manage to elicit good performances from the cast, and if there’s not enough in the way of truly emotional or dramatic highs and lows, they do keep things ticking over with a great deal of style and visual panache thanks to Oscar-winning DoP Linus Sandgren. If the movie doesn’t quite achieve its own ambitions, it’s still a good effort that can be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is, even if the material does lack depth and it decides not to take a more extensive look at its various themes and topics.

Rating: 7/10 – a movie that tries hard to draw parallels with modern day issues surrounding sexual politics, Battle of the Sexes is buoyed by Stone and Carell’s performances, and a giddy sense of the absurdity of the whole situation surrounding the “battle”; but while it’s enjoyable on a basic level, any attempt to look deeper under the surface will reveal a movie that trades too heavily on what’s superfluous and not enough on what’s meaningful.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

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D: Noah Baumbach / 112m

Cast: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Judd Hirsch, Rebecca Miller, Candice Bergen, Adam Driver, Matthew Shear, Sakina Jaffrey, Gayle Rankin, Michael Chernus

Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman) is a semi-famous sculptor who hasn’t had a show in years, and who has become somewhat marginalised within the New York art world. His work is admired by those that know of it, but his contemporaries, such as L.J. Shapiro (Hirsch), are still exhibiting and still getting the recognition that Harold thinks they don’t deserve. Harold is on his fourth marriage – to Maureen (Thompson) – and has two children from his first, Danny (Sandler) and Jean (Marvel). Danny is in the midst of separating from his wife, and has a precocious teenage daughter, Eliza (Van Patten), who is about to leave for college. Jean is a spinster but leads an otherwise happy life. Harold has another child from his third marriage, Matthew (Stiller), but he lives in LA, and works as a financial consultant. He’s successful, and has a young son he would like to spend more time with. This is the family Meyerowitz, and despite outward appearances, many of which they foster themselves, they all need help (oh boy, do they need help).

What’s impressive about Noah Baumbach’s latest feature is that he takes a stereotypical dysfunctional family, and spins that stereotype ever so slightly off its axis, so that each nugget of information about any of the characters seems fresh and unexpected, even though a closer inspection reveals tropes and metaphors that we’ve seen countless times before. This is due to Baumbach’s very eloquent and very astute screenplay, a piece of writing that manages to include a number of complex and yet succinct observations on the nature of father-son relationships and the effect that an inwardly scared parent can have on their children. It’s no surprise that Baumbach has chosen to examine the issue of what children need from their parents as this has formed the basis of much of his work in the past, from The Squid and the Whale (2005) to While We’re Young (2014). But this is easily his most impressive and most fully realised project, and it has a smoothness and an ease about it that makes it all the more enjoyable to watch.

The main focus is, at first, on Danny. With his marriage coming to an end and Eliza going off to college, Danny has to reassess what he’s going to do with his life (he’s been a house husband up until now, having chosen that as his “career” instead of being a musician). He and Jean get involved in arranging a retrospective of Harold’s career, but Baumbach is quick to make the viewer realise that this isn’t being done out of love or affection, and not even necessarily out of respect for their father’s work. Like so many other things connected to Harold that they do, it’s done because they view it as the right thing to do; it’s a familial obligation. But Harold is obsessed with how his work is perceived, because his work is the only thing that, to him, makes him stand out from the crowd. He’s constantly seeking approbation from everyone around him, and insists he receives it from his kids. But if they don’t, then he’s oblivious to both them and their needs. Such is their lives as adults, such was their lives as children.

Harold’s narcissistic expressions about himself, and his short-fuse dismissal of anyone he deems unimportant, has had an unpleasant effect on all three of his children. Danny has spent an enormous amount of time and energy in raising Eliza so that they’re more like friends instead of father and daughter. As a result he’s a better father than Harold was to him, but the irony is that in its own way, it’s as unhealthy as the relationship Danny had with him as a child. Baumbach makes the point well: too little attention or love can be just as bad as too much. But while that may seem obvious (and it is), it’s the way in which Danny tries to strike a balance between the two, and without necessarily being aware that he’s doing it, that makes all the difference. Jean has her own reasons for keeping her life separate, and though it seems that she’s perhaps the most “adjusted” of the three, this later proves to be incorrect. And then there’s Matthew, who professes to be “over” his father’s ability to make him angry for having a successful life (Harold is almost as obsessed by money as he is by maintaining his reputation). Matthew, like Danny, is trying to be a better father than Harold was, but he can’t seem to connect with his son, despite his best efforts.

Watching these four people struggle to communicate with each other, and struggle to find the answers that are often in front of them, should be frustrating for the viewer,  but Baumbach, and the sharpness of his script, helps avoid all that. The family dynamic is entirely credible and perfectly judged, with superb performances from all concerned. Sandler has only been better once before, in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and here he proves that he can be a fine dramatic actor when he wants to be (which isn’t often enough). Sandler displays a warmth and a heartfelt sincerity as Danny that allows the viewer a way in to the Meyerowitz family and its myriad issues. He’s a sweet, caring guy trying to do his best, and he has enough self-awareness to know that he doesn’t always get it right. Stiller is equally as good, channelling Matthew’s anger at being unfairly singled out for Harold’s praise as a child when the praise, and what it related to, wasn’t important to Matthew at all. In support, Marvel, Thompson and Van Patten offer touching performances, while there are a clutch of more minor roles that allow for a few scene-stealing moments (Chernus as a snippy nurse is a treat). But this, perhaps expectedly, is Hoffman’s movie, his portrayal of Harold as a manipulative, emotionally remote artist one of the best things he’s done in years.

Baumbach approaches the material and the characters with a great deal of care and attention, and it’s this that makes the movie so effortlessly dramatic, and so effortlessly funny. Nobody behaves in a manner that might seem odd or inappropriate because that’s how they’ve always behaved. With some questions there’s an answer provided, but many’s the time when Baumbach keeps the viewer in the dark, as if to say, “these characters still need time to figure things out, and it’s not going to happen before the movie’s over”. It all adds up to a remarkably humane and sympathetic look at expectations between the generations, and how personal legacies can hamper the growth of those who are raised in the shadow of them. Thoughtful and considerate of its characters’ foibles and muted aspirations, Baumbach’s latest is a sprightly mix of drama and comedy that succeeds on both fronts, and is his best work yet.

Rating: 9/10 – that rarity: a comedy-drama with heart as well as intelligence, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a cautionary tale that never once feels forced or that it’s struggling to find its own voice; the characters linger in the memory, along with Baumbach’s clever script and fluid direction, and a number of quality performances, making this a movie that everyone should try and see, and especially as an alternative to more mainstream, big-budget moviemaking.

Justice League (2017)

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D: Zack Snyder / 120m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton

If Justice League required the writing of a school report card, then that report would likely say, “Must do better.” A movie that furthers Warner Bros.’ insistence on building the DC Extended Universe one laborious movie at a time, this is unlikely to upset fans (who may well point to its lighter tone as reason enough to be happy with the finished product), but it should still provide cause for concern for anyone able to watch the movie objectively or without a vested interest. Although this is an improvement on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), there are still plenty of problems on show, some of which seem inherent in Warner Bros.’ approach to the DCEU, and some that have arisen out of the efforts made to address those same problems. If Justice League is to be as financially successful (if not critically) as previous entries in the DCEU – and early box office returns are casting doubt on this – then even more lessons need to be learnt.

The movie begins with the world mourning the death of Superman (Cavill), and crime apparently on the increase (though strangely, it’s hate crime that the movie chooses first as an example). Batman (Affleck) is still fighting criminals, as is Wonder Woman (Gadot), but an encounter with a strange, alien creature, a Parademon, leads the Caped Crusader to believe that a major threat is coming to Earth (alas, how and why he believes this, is left unexplored, possibly because it would add yet another plot hole to the many already on display). Wonder Woman confirms this, telling him that Earth is being targeted by Steppenwolf (Hinds), the “ender of worlds”. Steppenwolf and his Parademons are looking for three Mother Boxes, power sources that if linked together, could destroy Earth entirely (why he’d want to do this is another plot hole left for the movie to fall through). With one box entrusted to the Amazons on Themyscira, the second to Atlantis, and the third hidden by man, Steppenwolf collects the first two with unseemly ease, leaving Batman and Wonder Woman with only one choice: to find other people with “abilities” who can help try and defeat Steppenwolf; and yes, you guessed it, save the world.

Batman recruits the Flash (Miller) in record time, but has little luck with Arthur Curry (Momoa), the so-called Aquaman. And then there’s Cyborg (Fisher), part man, part machine, whose existence is due to his scientist father’s use of the third Mother Box (conveniently discovered for this very purpose) after his death in a car accident. Keeping hold of the third Mother Box long enough to resurrect Superman (more of which later), Batman and his new friends, including a newly motivated Aquaman, trace Steppenwolf to an abandoned nuclear power plant in Russia (plot hole alert!), and attempt to stop him uniting the Mother Boxes and destroying the world. In the process, Batman, the archetypal loner, learns to become a team player (even though everyone in the Justice League is, effectively, an archetypal loner, it seems to be more relevant to him than anyone else).

In assembling their own version of the Avengers, Warner Bros. and DC have tried to cut narrative corners by curtailing any origin stories and sidelining any character arcs. This leaves the newcomers looking and feeling like late additions to the story rather than integral parts of it. Batman and Wonder Woman are placed front and centre to provide the gravitas this series is committed to, while the Flash is used primarily to ensure there are plenty of laughs to be had (an improvement on previous entries, definitely, but by the end of the movie, a little over-used). But if any one aspect of Justice League should raise concerns about Warner Bros. and DC’s abilities to handle this franchise effectively, it’s in their treatment of Superman. The decision to kill him off at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was possibly that movie’s best idea, but here his resurrection is handled so badly that it feels like an insult. Resurrected purely so that there can be a showdown between Superman and the League, the movie ignores the possibility of a much stronger and more long-term story arc* in favour of a ten-minute punch-up that’s abruptly halted by the appearance of Lois Lane. If anyone is in any doubt that Chris Terrio’s screenplay isn’t up to much (even with Joss Whedon’s additions), then this is the moment that confirms it.

The movie retains the series’ inconsistency of tone, and superficial world building, as well as its plodding attempts at exposition, as well as its over-reliance on big, flashy, hollow set-pieces that deaden the senses and lack imagination (hero hits villain with crushing blow, villain hits hero with crushing blow – and repeat, again and again). It jumps from scene to scene without the slightest concern for its own internal logic – which is continually ignored in favour of getting to the next showdown – and it takes liberties with its minor characters; if you’re not Wonder Woman, but you’re still a female character, be prepared to be given short shrift at almost every turn. Shoehorned into the narrative for no particular reason than that they’re part of the canon, the likes of Commissioner Gordon (Simmons) and Martha Kent (Lane) appear briefly and for little purpose. And yet again, the villain is the least interesting character in the movie, a fully-CGI character who is effectively a thug from another dimension, and who has all the villainous intensity of a playground bully.

For a movie that reportedly cost $300 million to make, Justice League also looks a little on the cheap side at times, with some backgrounds looking incredibly fake (check out the cornfield scene with Lois and Clark for an idea of just how awkwardly the marriage of CGI and on-set footage can be rendered). Snyder still manages to direct as if he can’t believe he’s been given the chance to shepherd such a huge franchise in the first place, and his inability to make individual scenes work as part of a greater whole remains firmly in place. As for Joss Whedon’s contribution, there are certain scenes that bear his imprint, but not enough to offset the dour approach adopted by Snyder, and even though the movie is demonstrably lighter in tone than its predecessor, the inclusion of some much needed humour isn’t enough to make up for the pedestrian plotting and the lack of a convincing storyline (or indeed, any storyline). “Must do better” indeed, and as soon as possible.

Rating: 5/10 – still unable to contend with, or overcome the issues that hold back the DCEU from achieving what it’s capable of, Justice League is what might best be described as “a happy mess”, but that’s doing the lacklustre nature of the overall material something of a favour; Gadot and Miller head up a cast who can only go with the flow and hope for the best, while the mythology building is put on hold in favour of several underwhelming scraps that reinforce the notion that whatever else happens in future DCEU movies, it’ll still be safe to assume that buildings will continue to crumble, and important storyteling lessons will still need to be learnt.

 

*What if the following had happened: Superman returns from the dead but is different, less interested in doing good, more selfish and unapproachable. Unwilling to help defeat Steppenwolf, the League has to find a way to defeat him themselves as a team (which they do). And so, by the time of the next Justice League movie, their foe is Superman himself, whose transition to the “dark side” has become more pronounced (oh, and there’s no Kryptonite to help them out). Now that sounds like a great storyline.

A Brief Word About Justice League (2017)

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The hype over Justice League, the fifth movie in the DC Extended Universe series, is at fever pitch. Released internationally tomorrow on a tidal wave of an…ticipation, it’s a movie that has so much riding on it, that it can’t possibly meet or exceed the expectations Warner Bros. and DC, and fans, have for it. The criticisms that dogged the first three entries in the franchise – Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Suicide Squad (2016) – and which seemed to have been at least partially addressed in Wonder Woman (2017), still appear to be in place. The various trailers that have been released give the impression that there will be more humour (a good thing), and even more destruction porn (a bad thing). These things were obvious, but there was also something else that was obvious from the trailers: the lack of an appreciable story.

So far, the one thing missing from any advance discussion of the movie is its storyline. We know its plot: evil villain (is there any other kind?) Steppenwolf comes looking for three Mother Boxes on behalf of his master Darkseid and battles the newly formed Justice League. And… that’s it. It’s simple enough, but lacks any appreciable depth. Anyone looking for something more (except for various explosions and the usual one-on-one pummellings these characters endure) is likely to be disappointed. Warner Bros. have at least restricted the run time to two hours, and for this restraint they are to be congratulated, but this just means that the script will have to work extra hard in between the punch ups and the CGI-reliant action sequences to maintain the viewer’s attention.

It’s a shame for any franchise to have begun so poorly and so quickly, and not been able to learn from its mistakes. But this and the previous three entries have all been made in the last three years, and the writing of each movie must have overlapped. So, perhaps there’s an overall vision for the DCEU that we may not be aware of yet. If so, then Warner Bros. and DC need to start letting people in on it. Not the details – we don’t need those – but perhaps a better understanding of the ambition behind the franchise, or its goals. There’s a whole raft of DCEU movies heading our way in the next few years, but if the same approach is going to be continued, then it’s likely that we’ll be having the same reaction each time (increased antipathy), and be asking the same, inevitable two-pronged question: when are Warner Bros. going to start focusing on the characters and when are they going to start providing convincing, intelligent storylines, and not just showing us how much money they can spend on a universe that is already in danger of collapsing in on itself?

Small Crimes (2017)

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D: Evan Katz / 95m

Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Robert Forster, Jacki Weaver, Macon Blair, Pat Healy, Michael Kinney, Daniela Sandiford, Shawn Lawrence

At one point in Evan Katz’s Small Crimes, the lead character, ex-cop and recent ex-con Joe Denton (Coster-Waldau) sets out to blackmail the local DA (Kinney) by setting him up with an obliging stripper in a motel room. With a camera in place to record the “tryst”, Joe settles back in an adjacent room and waits for the DA, Phil Coakley, to turn up. Coakley duly arrives but just as it looks as if Joe’s plan is going to work, along comes the stripper’s boyfriend – and with a gun. The boyfriend bursts in, Joe hears shots fired, and then looks out the window to see Coakley emerge unscathed with a gun in his hand. Rushing to the room, he finds the stripper and her boyfriend are both dead and the camera is gone. It’s not the first of Joe’s plans to go wrong since he got out of jail (nor will it be the last), but as the movie continues, and there’s no immediate follow up with either Coakley or Joe, it leaves the viewer wondering: where does all that fit in?

This happens several times during the course of the movie, and though it’s all part of Katz’ and co-screenwriter (and supporting actor) Macon Blair’s screenplay, such a non-linear approach – while it can be applauded as a way of making the movie more distinctive than some of its many cinematic cousins – doesn’t help the viewer to become more involved in the plot and with the various characters that pop up here and there, do their thing, and then disappear again. Only Joe is consistent in his appearance and involvement, and while the viewer can be thankful for this, Joe himself is less of a protagonist and more of a violence-attracting bystander. On his very first night of freedom after spending six years in jail for an extremely vicious assault on the same DA he later tries to blackmail, Joe graciously offers a young woman (Sandiford) a ride home from a bar. But it’s a honey trap, one that Joe fights his way out of, only to learn that the young woman is Coakley’s daughter.

Coincidence or set up? A set up is the likely answer, but the script fumbles this, as it does quite a lot else that could be explained by the odd line of exposition, but Katz and Blair aren’t interested in keeping things simple. Instead their brief seems to be the murkier the better. Motivations are kept frustratingly vague, and even when some decisions or events have to be explained, they’re done in such a way that often it makes it even more difficult to understand why something is happening, and where it fits in. Sometimes a scene will play out, and though it may feel important in the grand scheme of things, that scene will find itself isolated from the rest of the script until such time as Katz and Blair decide they can return to it. And sometimes, they never do. What this all means is that Small Crimes often feels arch and tiresome, as if it can’t make up its mind just what sort of tone it should be adopting, and is trundling along in the hope that inspiration will strike and help it on its way.

The movie has been adapted from the novel by Dave Zeltserman, and while it may seem to have all the requirements for a modern day noir – Joe just wants to go straight for the sake of his kids, who he’s not allowed to see – there’s no femme fatale, there’s no devious figure in the background pulling all the strings, and the only mystery involves a death that occurred before Joe went to jail and which he may be responsible for. The machinations that are set up once Joe is out of jail don’t always make sense, and though all the main characters are surprisingly well drawn (even Molly Parker’s superfluous cat lady-cum-love interest), they’re all in service to a narrative that only occasionally flexes its muscles, and which does so only when there’s violence involved. Otherwise, personal animosities are the order of the day, Joe’s efforts to extricate himself backfire then succeed out of nowhere once too often, and the material tries too hard to be ironic when it just needs to be sincere.

There’s humour then, but not so much that it makes watching the movie a more enjoyable experience. It’s often at a cost to the credibility of Joe himself and Coster-Waldau’s performance, which is through necessity, a more passive role than might be expected. Joe makes a lot of noise when he needs to, but that’s all it is: a lot of noise. He’s also surprisingly naïve in his thinking, believing that he can get himself out of the fix he’s in without there being any bloodshed. There’s noise too from Joe’s mother, Irma (Weaver), who seems there only to shout at him in a disapproving, angry manner. Later, she suffers an injury that could have been avoided, but the irony is in the detail of what happens. Alongside her is Joe’s father, Joe Sr (Forster), her antithesis, a man who is calm and confident and coordinated, and apparently unflustered by anything anyone says. Each gives a better performance than might be expected, and though Coster-Waldau is as charming as ever, there are times when he tries too hard, and the result is some obvious mugging.

The movie at least tries to be interesting, but its tired old scenario isn’t gripping enough for it to make a consistent impact, and some viewers may well be asking themselves why, with admittedly a lot going on, that there’s a distance between the material and the viewer. The simple answer is that what’s happening on screen isn’t anything so convincing or compelling that the viewer is ever likely to maintain continued interest throughout, or care about the characters and what happens to them. And even when the movie pulls a surprise out of its hat at the end, what should be a highly effective, and emotional moment, is undermined by there having been so little previously that would warrant that kind of reaction when it’s needed. Things are further hindered by Katz’s low-key directing style and the bland visual palette used to make the characters seem more interesting than they are. When murder and mayhem in a small town are this unaffecting, then it’s time to look elsewhere for your villainy and deceit.

Rating: 5/10 – patchy and rarely absorbing, Small Crimes unfolds patiently but with few moments where the pace quickens enough for the movie to become entirely interesting; the performances help, but the main storyline lacks cohesion and there’s a distinct sense that the material is laboured, something that it never finds a way to overcome.

The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards (2015)

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D: Ryan Moody, Mark Columbus, Sarah Jean Kruchowski, Shadae Lamar Smith, Vanita Shastry, Simon Savelyev, Jeremy David White / 97m

Cast: James Franco, Abigail Spencer, Rico Rodriguez, Matthew Modine, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Kristen Wiig, Tony Cox, Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Parrack, Natalie Portman, Thomas Mann, Keir Gilchrist, Bo Mitchell, Jacob Loeb, Kelsey Ford, Tyler Labine

A collection of seven short movies adapted from the short story collection of the same name by Robert Boswell, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards is that inopportune beast, a movie with no clear, discernible focus other than a plan to relate various tales of longing and regret, and all with the same dour approach to each of the “slices of life” that are depicted. A project that was assembled by graduate students of James Franco’s UCLA moviemaking class, it’s telling that the movie was first seen at the Atlanta Film Festival back in March 2015, but is only now receiving a limited release in the US. It’s an arthouse movie, structured in a way that makes it seem more knowing and truthful than it actually is, and which proves only moderately successful in its aims and ambitions.

The seven tales on display are a mixed bunch, both in terms of their content, and in their relation to each other. The first, A Walk in Winter, sees Conrad (Franco), a young man returning to his hometown to identify the remains of a body that may be that of his long-missing mother. An extended visit to the sheriff’s office reveals a childhood beset by abuse and further mystery. The second, Guests, concerns a young boy, Charlie (Rodriguez), who has to deal with his ailing, cancer-stricken father (Modine) and a school bully at the same time. He’s the quintessential chubby kid who’s picked on because he’s different (thanks to his dad), but he’s not the pushover everyone thinks he is. In the third tale, Almost Not Beautiful, sisters Lisa (Mara) and Amanda (Tamblyn) revisit aspects of their childhood while also trying to reconnect after spending some time apart. In doing so they discover a mutual dependency that they’d forgotten about. The fourth tale, Miss Famous, features a maid, Monica (Wiig), whose antipathy towards her clients provokes fantasies where she is rich and famous.

In the fifth, Lacunae, a young man, Paul (Parrack), also returns to his hometown, ostensibly to see his parents, but also to see an ex-girlfriend, Laura (Portman), who may have given birth to their son. Paul is adamant that the child isn’t his, but he can’t resist seeing for himself. In the sixth tale, Smoke, three friends (Gilchrist, Mann, Mitchell) sit round a camp fire and tell bogus stories of their sexual exploits. Each is seeking approbation from the other two, and each story is clearly a longed-for fantasy. And in the final tale, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, another young man, this time called Keen (Loeb), attends a party where he not only hooks up with a young woman, Lila (Ford), but also finds himself in serious trouble with the law. Each tale is bookended by clips and randomly assembled stills from old home movies and family celebrations, and all of which adds a melancholy feel to the material, and which also serves to provide a sense that these tales take place in a time and a place where nostalgia doesn’t provide a soothing balm, but quite the opposite.

With any collection of stories that are meant to have a unifying theme, that theme needs to be evident – even if it’s to varying degrees – in order for the overall movie to work effectively, and also to offset the obvious problem whereby the viewer is forced to reinvest their attention every ten to fifteen minutes in a new story and new characters, while also attempting to assimilate each tale into an organic whole. This is where any portmanteau movie succeeds or fails, but in this case, it’s very nearly a draw, with three stories lacking any appreciable impact by themselves, three other stories working effectively on their own, and one having a foot in both camps. As a whole, though, the movie remains sporadically engaging, with its broader themes of memory and fantasy pushed to the fore when its more telling themes of disappointment and paralysed ambition should be front and centre. This isn’t a feelgood movie, and nor does it come with any message of hope for its characters. Mistakes have been made, and more mistakes will be made as they move forward with their lives. The question is, will any of them learn from their mistakes?

With childhood trauma leading the way in explaining why these characters behave and struggle as they do, each director approaches their tale in a way that, unfortunately, isolates each one from the rest. There’s no symmetry to the stories, and no unifying directorial approach (other than that there is no unifying approach), all of which leaves each episode feeling under-developed or prosaic. Despite some good performances – Franco, Tamblyn, Wiig, Portman, Loeb – the movie relates each tale as if it contains a singular message within itself, and a broader message for everyone to pick up as well (though just when is difficult to work out). But the problem is that with only three of the stories working effectively enough on their own – and they are A Walk in Winter, Guests, and The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards – too much of the movie feels like there should be more to it, and too much of the movie feels like it should be making more of a connection with the viewer.

That said, there’s no denying the ambition and some of the talent on display behind the camera – Moody, Columbus, and White stand out in particular – but it’s all in service to material that isn’t as compelling as it should be given Boswell’s talent as a writer (he also provides the movie with a jaundiced, earnest narration). Some viewers may find some of the tales hard to decipher, while others may feel there’s no need for any deciphering at all, but what is clear is that some amount of interpretation is required, but that it won’t benefit the viewer in the long run. Sometimes, a teenager bragging about having sex with an older woman, is purely wish fulfilment and nothing more. It doesn’t need to resonate, and it doesn’t here. This, ultimately, is where the movie falters, by failing to resonate. And no matter how much effort has been spent, and no matter how much artistic endeavour is on display, when the tale itself isn’t able to carry the viewer forward then it’s time to move on to the next one… unless the next one has the same problem.

Rating: 5/10 – a great idea for a graduate project that proves to be less than a great idea for a movie as a whole, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards wants to be engaging and meaningful, but hasn’t the consistency to make it all work; some tolerance is required to get through the more sluggish and unaffecting episodes, but despite a clutch of good performances, it remains a frustrating experience and one that should be approached with caution.

Only the Brave (2017)

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D: Joseph Kosinski / 134m

Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andie MacDowell, Geoff Stults, Alex Russell, Thad Luckinbill, Natalie Hall

What to say, and how to say it…

Only the Brave tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of firefighters who were part of the Prescott, Arizona fire department. They attained elite hotshot status in 2008, only six years after they were first formed. A hotshot crew can be called upon to fight large, high priority fires in any part of the US, and due to the training they receive, are often required to work for long periods of time, in remote areas, and with little in the way of logistical support. They are quite simply, the best at what they do. And until 30 June 2013 and the Yarnell Hill fire, so were the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Led by their superintendent, Eric Marsh (Brolin), nineteen of the twenty Hotshots found themselves cut off from their escape route and having to deploy their fire shelters as the blaze swept towards them. It was not enough. All nineteen men perished.

In telling their story, Only the Brave does what a lot of biographical dramas do, and that’s focus on the good points of all concerned, tell their individual stories (well, some of them at least) with a good deal of easy-going charm, and paint a picture of deep-rooted camaraderie allied to unwavering support from their families and friends. Oh, and the rest of the Prescott townsfolk are similarly unwavering in their support. With everyone on the same page or side – as it were – the movie has to overcome the minor problem of where to find the drama it needs to tell the Hotshots’ story, and effectively. It’s a peculiar bind for a true life drama to find itself in, and it’s one that Joseph Kosinski’s direction, from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer (itself based on the GQ article No Exit by Sean Flynn), finds it difficult to overcome. In truth, the Hotshots’ tale is one full of drama and excitement, but here, it’s all a little too tepid for comfort, and a little too restrained in terms of any urgency. These are firefighters, operating in some of the most challenging conditions known to man, and yet – and yet – even when they’re in mortal danger, the movie fails to convince the viewer that they’re anywhere even near mortal danger.

Part of the problem with the narrative, and the wider material as a whole, is that it lacks urgency in its firefighting sequences, and its homebound elements are moribund and unappealing. Away from the forest fires, the movie maintains two distinct subplots, both of which involve children, albeit for different reasons. Marsh is staunchly against having kids, but his wife, Amanda (Connelly), is becoming less and less agreeable to this, and wants to start a family. Meanwhile, rookie firefighter and junkie trying to go straight Brendan McDonough (Teller), has just become a father even though at first, Natalie (Hall), the young woman who has given him a daughter, wants nothing to do with him. But while Brendan tries to be a good father, Eric ensures he avoids any discussion with Amanda about having kids. These storylines are meant to provide texture and depth to the proceedings, and to help the viewer get to know these characters as real people, with real lives and real feelings. But these storylines exist in a vacuum, wheeled out between scenes of firefighting in order to give the cast something more to do than trudge around New Mexico (where the movie was shot).

There’s more than a faint whiff of soap opera about these scenes, with Brendan unable to connect with his infant daughter because firefighting keeps him away from home for long stretches, and Amanda driving home one night and falling asleep at the wheel (the car’s a write-off but she walks away with barely a scratch). Minor incidents like these come and go, but these too exist in a kind of vacuum, introduced by the script and then quickly abandoned because their dramatic potential is limited. Even when Brendan is bitten by a rattlesnake, what could have been a nerve-shredding race against time to get him to a hospital is glossed over in a matter of minutes, and has all the impact of watching an infomercial. There’s bags of potential in the Hotshots’ story and their tragic demise, but it’s all wasted thanks to the tepid nature of the script and the distant nature of Kosinski’s direction. There are long periods where the movie feels flat and lifeless, as if it’s going through the motions, and even the CGI-augmented forest fires lack a true sense of their enormity and the devastation they must have caused. And if the depiction of raging, out of control fire isn’t gripping, then how is anything else in the movie going to work anywhere near as effectively?

While the ball is dropped dramatically and often, leaving the viewer to wonder why this movie was made in the first place – this is, after all, another US movie that celebrates failure by calling it heroism – the above calibre cast do their best, but aren’t helped by some redundant dialogue (“I’ll probably be home by lunchtime,” says Eric on the day of the Yarnell Hill fire), or paper-thin characterisations (Bridges’ role as a supporter of the Hotshots is remarkable for his not being given a reason for being so). Brolin gives a solid but unspectacular performance, Teller does the same, all of which leaves it to Connelly to inject some much needed energy into the often dull, often banal proceedings. (Kudos though to the casting team of Jo Edna Boldin and Ronna Kress for hiring an actor called Forrest Fyre to play the Prescott mayor.)

As a tribute to the fallen firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – Brandon was the group’s only survivor – Only the Brave defaults towards being trite and devoid of meaning on too many occasions for the movie to be anywhere near successful. This is hammered home by a scene where Amanda puts aside her grief to help prop up Brandon and disavow his (understandable) sense of guilt at being alive. It’s a scene that screams Hollywood! at the top of its voice, so lacking in subtlety and credibility is it. Sadly, the movie also coasts along for much of its running time as well, and by the end, you’ll be wondering if any of this will have been worth it. The firefighters’ story could have been an exciting, terrifying tale of extreme bravery and making the ultimate sacrifice. Instead, any bravery is smoothed aside, and as for an ultimate sacrifice, it’s a shame that the firefighters’ sacrifice has led to this turgid and shallow exercise in hagiography being made in the first place.

Rating: 4/10 – top heavy with dramatic clichés, and enough soap opera dialogue to stun the fiery bear Marsh sees in his dreams, Only the Brave is a disappointing addition to the “men in peril” sub-genre of true stories; with Kosinski unable to connect with the material, neither can the viewer, making this an uneasy recreation of a group’s tragic, and unwanted, claim to fame.

The Villainess (2017)

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Original title: Ak-Nyeo

D: Jung Byung-gil / 123m

Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Bang Sung-jun, Kim Seo-hyeong, Jo Eun-ji, Lee Seung-joo, Son Min-ji, Min Ye-ji, Kim Yeon-woo

Beginning with a bravura Hardcore Henry-style action sequence where a lone female takes on a warehouse full of goons before despatching their boss (who may have killed her father), The Villainess makes one thing very clear: this isn’t going to be the kind of generic, Hollywood-style action thriller we’re all used to. Instead, this is going to continue the trend where the Far East shows us just how to put together an exciting, pulse-pounding, and above all, gob-smacking slice of mayhem, with its shoot/stab/gouge first, don’t even bother with questions afterwards characters lashing out in all directions and sending blood flying all over the place (even on the camera lens). This is brutal, uncompromising, stunt-filled stuff that combines excellent fight choreography with sometimes astonishingly fluid camera work, and yet still finds the time to tell a compelling story of love and revenge, as well as layering the action with an emotional weight that is expertly expressed by its cast.

Our heroine is called Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a young woman whose father is killed over his possession of a rare and valuable jewel. She witnesses his death as a young girl, but is saved from being killed herself by aspiring gangster Joong-sang (Shin). He raises her as his own and trains her in the art of assassination. When she becomes an adult, her feelings for Joong-sang lead her to marry him. But shortly afterwards, he’s killed, and apparently by the man we see Sook-hee kill at the beginning. Having avenged both her father’s death and her husband’s in one fell swoop, Sook-hee allows herself to be arrested, but instead of being put on trial she finds herself being recruited into a secret South Korean government agency. There, under the watchful eye of her commander, Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong), Sook-hee’s skills as an assassin are added to, and she is offered a chance at a normal life if she works for the government for ten years as a sleeper agent. She agrees, and is soon set up with a new life as an actress, and with an apartment for her and her daughter, Eun-hye (Kim Yeon-woo) (Sook-hee was pregnant with Joong-sang’s baby when she was arrested).

Sook-hee moves in on the same day as her neighbour, Hyun-soo (Bang), and they soon strike an easy friendship. But Hyun-soo also works for the agency, and is there to keep an eye on Sook-hee. Their relationship becomes gradually more and more romantic until he asks her to marry him, ostensibly as part of his cover but because he has fallen in love with her for real. She’s sent on a couple of missions, neither of which is entirely successful, but it’s the third assignment she’s given that makes all the difference. Tasked with carrying out this assignment on her wedding day, Sook-hee is shocked to discover that her target is someone from her past, someone who she believes is dead. With her loyalties potentially in question (the hit is botched), Sook-hee is watched even more closely by the agency, while also coming to the attention of her target. Soon, no one is safe as Sook-hee’s past comes back to haunt her, and no one in her present day life is safe from harm…

The Villianess tells the bulk of its story in non-linear fashion, skipping backwards and forwards between episodes of Sook-hee’s life as a child, her time with Joong-sang, and her time working for the government. Thanks to a taut script by director Jung Byung-gil and Jung Byeong-sik, there isn’t an ounce of narrative flab on the movie’s carefully constructed bones, and each development and revelation in the script is expertly crafted to provide the maximum effect as Sook-hee first tries to adjust to a “normal” life and at last finds a measure of true happiness, and then sees it all put at risk. As she fights to preserve life instead of wantonly despatching it, the movie invests Sook-hee’s character with a desperate craving for the peace she’s never truly known. And though when that peace is destroyed she reverts to the crazed killer instincts she has managed to keep under wraps, for once it’s entirely understandable that she does so. Revenge is an easy motive in too many action thrillers, but here there’s an emotional element to it all that makes Sook-hee’s murderous retaliation all the more credible.

As with so many of the best action movies coming out of South Korea these days, the movie isn’t just about the action, and there’s strong character development to offset some of the more predictable aspects of the script (it’s not an original story by any means but it is better assembled than most). As the tormented Sook-hee, Kim Ok-bin gives a terrific performance, tough as nails when in a scrap, and yet tender and vulnerable in her scenes with Bang and Kim Yeon-woo. Bang portrays Hyun-soo as a bashful romantic with a floppy fringe, and his role is a nice counterpoint to the testosterone-fuelled bellicosity of his other male colleagues, as well as some of Sook-hee’s fellow students. In the pivotal role of Joong-sang, Shin is equally as tough and tender as Sook-hee, and this ambivalence in the character makes him more intriguing than expected.

But when all’s said and discussed, and despite the need for a compelling narrative to fill in the gaps between the action sequences, The Villainess is still a movie that stands or falls on the quality of said action sequences. And it doesn’t disappoint at all. The opening sequence is a blast, slickly choreographed and edited (and with yet another bloody showdown in a corridor; what is it since Oldboy (2003) about corridor fights?), and as brutal as anything you’ve yet seen. Individual set pieces punctuate the rest of the movie, and maintain a similar intensity despite being briefer, but then Jung ups the ante and provides viewers with an incredible final showdown that includes Sook-hee and the principal villain fighting on the outside of a building, and a section involving a bus where bodies are flung all over the place, even through the rear window and onto the bonnet of a car. It’s impressively bonkers, and shows more visual invention and technical prowess in roughly twenty minutes than most Hollywood action thrillers manage in two hours (even John Wick isn’t this outrageous). If there is to be a Hollywood remake, rest assured it won’t be as good as it is here. But then, we all know that already, don’t we?

Rating: 9/10 – with a great deal of heart and soul amidst all the blood and broken bones, The Villainess is fierce, imposing stuff that has plenty of OMG moments as well as quieter, more character focused moments that help elevate the material throughout; bold in its visual design and enervating cinematography (take a bow, Park Jung-hun), this is everything you could ever want from a South Korean action thriller, and a lot more besides.

The Only Living Boy in New York (2017)

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D: Marc Webb / 89m

Cast: Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Bill Camp, Wallace Shawn, Tate Donovan, Anh Duong, Debi Mazar, Ben Hollandsworth, John Bolger

Pity poor Thomas (Turner). He’s the quintessential college graduate who can’t work out what he wants to do with his life. His father, Ethan (Brosnan), is a brusque senior editor at a publishing firm, and his mother, Judith (Nixon) appears to be a nervous soul who surrounds herself with people from the arts in order to offset her nervous disposition. Thomas has been discouraged by his father from becoming an author, and he doesn’t seem to have a fall-back career to help him move forward. Instead he spends time with his best friend Mimi (Clemons). He’s in love with Mimi, but his love isn’t reciprocated. One day, Thomas meets W.F. (Bridges), who’s just moved into his building. They strike up a friendship, and soon Thomas is sharing his woes and actively seeking advice from his new-found friend. Soon after, while Thomas and Mimi are out together one evening, they see Ethan in the company of another woman. From this, Thomas decides to find out who the woman is, and to stop any affair she and her father may be having.

The woman is Johanna (Beckinsale), a freelance book editor who has been working on and off with Ethan over the past year. Thomas tells W.F. about his father’s affair, but instead of being equally outraged or supportive of Thomas’s efforts to sabotage the affair, W.F. questions his motives, asking him if he, Thomas, wants to sleep with Johanna instead, and making it plain that this is the reason why Thomas wants to put an end to the affair… Of course, this is all true, and in the way that only the movies can offer, Johanna proves receptive to Thomas’s advances and they begin their own relationship. It’s at this point in the movie when it’s likely that many viewers will throw their hands up in the air and cry, Wish Fulfilment! It’s also the moment when the movie, struggling already to make us care about Thomas or any of the other characters, throws in the towel and decides to play out its insubstantial narrative with all the emotional finesse of an after hours drinking contest.

It’s always hard to work out just who qualifies as the potential audience for a movie like The Only Living Boy in New York, with its self-torturing central characters, middle class aspirations, mock intellectualising (W.F. quotes Ezra Pound at one point), and lazy approach to character building. Oh, and let’s not forget the usual number of occasions where people talk in riddles and never… explain… themselves… fully. It’s hard to understand just why so many of these movies get made, especially when the aim is to try to make these tortured souls and their mock-important lives relevant to the average viewer. Even if this is exactly the social milieu that you inhabit, and even if many of the characters on display reminded you of people you actually know, would you still be interested in watching them whine about how hard done by they are, or how sad or lonely or misunderstood they are? (It’s probably very unlikely.) So if even the people this truly relates to aren’t likely to engage with this particular story, why should anyone else?

Granted, some viewers might be attracted to the movie by the talent involved. Actors of the stature of Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan will always garner interest in any movies they appear in, but on this occasion, they’re at the mercy of a script that challenges the audience to be emotionally involved at nearly every turn. No matter how good the performances – and Brosnan is very good (which is really nice to see after some of the movies he’s made in recent years) – if the script isn’t up to it, or isn’t as compelling as it should be, then no amount of acting experience can compensate for a story that carries little or no emotional weight. And Allan Loeb’s screenplay has exactly that problem: it’s dry and superficial, and any sympathies for Thomas et al. can only be arrived at by a huge amount of effort on the viewer’s part, and an effort that isn’t rewarded at any point during the movie. Even when the movie tries to be clever with the introduction of a back story that, once mentioned, gives away a large chunk of the plot, it stumbles on looking for a payoff that won’t feel forced or intrusive (hint: it doesn’t succeed).

Following on from the much more engaging experience that was Gifted (2017), director Marc Webb does his best to make the various plot developments more interesting than they are, but too often finds himself trying to coax some much needed animation into the material, and struggling to provide any sense that all this is happening in the real world and to “real” people. He’s not helped by Turner’s less than stellar performance, his interpretation of Thomas unnecessarily making viewers wonder just why Johanna would sleep with him, or why Mimi – in a plot “twist” that can be seen coming from space, let alone a mile away – eventually decides she really does love him. It’s a role that unfortunately exposes Turner’s limited range as an actor, and especially in his scenes with Bridges, and it sometimes he does more harm to the movie than even the script. Bridges is good value as always, Beckinsale is trapped by a character arc that is actually one long downward spiral, Nixon does anxious (and should be on medication) because that’s the only thing we know about Judith, and Clemons shows flashes of inspiration as she attempts to make Mimi more than just the best friend whose knowing comments get ignored by the main character.

In the end it all builds to a confrontation that lacks energy, emotion, and purpose (except to help wind things up quickly). An awkward, and unnecessary, coda undermines everything that’s gone before, and is so dramatically redundant that it’s like a slap in the face to the viewer. It reinforces the notion that whatever message the movie is trying to make, whether it be about relationships and how hard they can be, or finding one’s way in the world (by sleeping with your father’s mistress; always a good starting point), or even selecting a career based on what you know you can’t do, the movie itself hasn’t fully made up its mind what that message is, or even if it’s sure about it. In that way it’s a lot like Thomas himself: confused, hoping for inspiration to strike, and held back by so many missed opportunities to do the right thing.

Rating: 4/10 – a glossy snapshot of a semi-privileged lifestyle that proves as empty as the shallowness of the characters and their wretchedly expressed desires, The Only Living Boy in New York is pretentious on one side, and wilfully obtuse on the other; a tale that lacks passion despite its use of affairs and sexual exploitation, it’s another exercise in trying to make middle class angst interesting when we’ve seen it waaaaay too many times before.

Love of My Life (2017)

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D: Joan Carr-Wiggin / 106m

Cast: Anna Chancellor, John Hannah, James Fleet, Hermione Norris, Hannah Emily Anderson, Katie Boland, Greg Wise

Extended families, eh? What can you do with them? (Run as fast and as far away as you can is the best answer.) In the movies, there’s another answer: use them to ask questions about love and fate and dying and the meaning of a life, and much more besides. This is the main idea behind Love of My Life, an uneven look at what happens when a middle-aged woman, Grace (Chancellor), is told that she has a brain tumour that, hopefully, surgeons can remove in five days’ time – or maybe not. Grace is an architect, and she’s married to Tom (Fleet), her second husband after her marriage to prize winning author Richard Feekery (Hannah) broke down when he had an affair with Tamara (Norris). Grace and Richard had a daughter together, Zoe (Boland); she lived with her father who married Tamara. Grace married Tom and they had a daughter as well, Kaitlyn (Anderson). Now, Grace’s ill health brings them all together over the course of the few days before her operation.

Everyone has a different reaction to the news, of course. Grace tries to be optimistic and carry on as usual, going to work and making sure that the latest project she’s overseeing continues as planned. Tom goes to pieces, and hits the bottle in order to numb his feelings of despair (and also because he’s a bit of an alcoholic anyway). Kaitlyn is concerned, obviously, but allows herself to be reassured by her mother. Richard turns up unexpectedly, professing his love for Grace and intent on winning her back. Zoe comes with him, and though she too is upset by the news, she has her own problems that occupy her thoughts more. And then Tamara arrives as well, convinced – correctly – that Richard wants to seduce Grace, while also suspecting that Grace wants him to. As the day of the operation approaches, old animosities and betrayals are aired with ever increasing frequency, relationships shift and slide in the wake of secrets revealed and feelings expressed, life changing decisions are made, and one character does something so irretrievably stupid and selfish that you can’t believe you’re seeing it. There’s definitely a lot going on, but is it enough?

Curiously, the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no, and it largely depends on which character is speaking at any given time. Grace is meant to be the voice of reason, the sensible one treading a median line through all the tantrums and the emotional wreckage that’s been cast up by the news of her tumour. She’s also the audience’s connection to the material, and how she behaves governs how the audience responds to it all. She’s attractive, intelligent, has terrific relationships with her daughters, can be self-deprecating when needed, clearly loves Tom despite his being a bit of a bumbling, blithering idiot (note to casting directors: is James Fleet the only actor who can play these roles?), and comes to realise that the work she’s doing as an architect hasn’t been challenging her – so she changes things for the better. In essence, she’s exactly the kind of person you’d want to be if you found out you have a brain tumour that might prove to be inoperable. In the capable hands of Anna Chancellor, she’s also witty, charming, and a delight to spend time with.

But this is the movies, and inevitably, there have to be challenges, obstacles for Grace to overcome on her way to the operation. And this is where the movie begins to wobble. If we had been presented with a portrait of a woman whose illness prompts her to reassess her life and change things for the better, this could and should have been a warm, endearing movie about the power of self-belief and second chances. That would have been a drama worth seeing. Instead, we have a “dramedy” where Grace (and the audience) has to contend with a collection of supporting characters who, Kaitlyn aside, are self-indulgent, self-important, and relentlessly self-flagellating in their efforts to make you feel sorry for them. Richard is the misunderstood genius – with words at least – using every trick he knows to remind Grace of the wonderful time they had when they were married, as if all that negates the affair he had with Tamara. Richard’s level of self-interest is at least consistent, and is actually more convincing than when he begins to reveal a more sincere, and more soulful side to his relentless self-aggrandising.

At least, though, some effort has gone into writer/director Joan Carr-Wiggin’s script into making Richard at least halfway interesting, and something of an acceptable foil for Grace’s more credible behaviour. If there hadn’t been that effort, we would have been left with a handful of supporting characters seemingly designed to test our patience and our sympathies. Tom is, as already mentioned, a bumbling, blithering idiot, and he behaves stupidly throughout, making you wonder why Grace is with him in the first place. Tamara, played by Norris as a combination of Wicked Witch and jealous harpy, is manipulative in a way that can only be regarded as comic, while Zoe might as well have “airhead” tattooed across her forehead, such is the vacuity that she expresses at pretty much every turn. Kaitlyn survives by virtue of being as level-headed as her mother, something that the viewer has to be thankful for, as the only other character of note is Grace’s boss, Ben (Wise), who she may or may not have hidden feelings for. Seeing these characters interact so ungraciously, and with scant regard for each other’s emotions or histories, isn’t very appealing, and Carr-Wiggin rarely stops them from trying to impose their own ideas and desires on each other, and without any moral imperative to stop them (that Grace has a brain tumour and might just die seems to carry no weight at all with any of them).

The script does try to make some informed (or what seems like informed) comments on life and love, and envy and lust and regret, but it does so in such a way that any effect is muted by the attitudes of the characters. There’s always a degree of sermonising in this kind of movie, and it’s often trite and unprepossessing; Love of My Life embraces this kind of posing and tries to be relevant and incisive all at the same time. That it’s not successful in its aims is purely down to the way in which Carr-Wiggin manipulates her happy bunch of malcontents into acting and sounding like children who’ve been naughty and had their favourite toy taken away as punishment. Against this, only Chancellor and Anderson emerge unscathed, with Chancellor proving that she’s a much better actress than the material she’s working with, and Anderson giving a measured performance that some of her more experienced co-stars could have done well to adopt for themselves (to be fair, though, Hannah tries his best, and gives an earnest portrayal as Richard, but he’s just not sympathetic or likeable enough for anyone to care). In the end, what happens to the people orbiting around Grace fails to engage the viewer, and this takes away from learning more about Grace herself, and what makes her (actually) so intriguing.

Rating: 5/10 – with some obvious humour, a spirited if slightly curtailed performance by Chancellor, and a jumping off point that could have led to something more, Love of My Life ends up being yet another movie where a number of self-absorbed characters bemoan their lots in life – and as if this was anywhere near interesting; a muddled time frame doesn’t help (there are moments when five days seem to be four), and a dull, uninspired visual design helps even less, leaving the movie feeling less than the sum of its parts, and straining too hard to be relevant or meaningful.

M.F.A. (2017)

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D: Natalia Leite / 92m

Cast: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr, Leah McKendrick, Peter Vack, David Sullivan, David Huynh, Marlon Young, Jess Nurse, Mary Price Moore

A movie that invites the viewer to play an extended version of Spot the Influence, M.F.A. (that’s Master of Fine Arts in case you didn’t know) is a splatter cake of references and themes from other features, most of which are really obvious, and which have an unfortunate tendency to interrupt the narrative, and pull the viewer out of the strange effect that the movie creates in between these interruptions. So every now and then, the viewer is forced to exclaim, “Hey! That’s from [insert relevant movie title here]” before being able to reconnect with art student Noelle (Eastwood) and her attempts at university-based vigilantism. That’s the first, really obvious influence: Michael Winner’s seminal Death Wish (1974). But don’t worry, there are plenty of others to pick out. (There’s a game derived from Withnail & I (1987) where the viewer is required to have a drink every time one of the characters has a drink; you might want to train for it. You could play a similar sort of game with M.F.A. and have a drink every time a movie influence, or reference, appears on screen.)

At first, this is all kind of fun, but the movie soon runs the risk of adding all these references to the detriment of the script as a whole, with Eastwood’s revenge focused antagonist seemingly at the mercy of every pause and insert that writer, producer and co-star Leah McKendrick can come up with. It all begins well enough with under-achieving Noelle in danger of failing her class and not graduating due to a lack of emotion in her paintings. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she gets an invite to a party by a guy she likes, Luke (Vack), and while she’s there he takes her to his room and rapes her. Understandably shocked, she’s further shocked by the attitude of her best friend, Skye (McKendrick), who tells her to forget about it, and a school councellor, Mrs Sanders (Moore), who questions Noelle as if she were making it all up. When Luke invites her over to his place as if nothing has happened, he ends up dead and Noelle begins to walk a very dark path of revenge and cold-blooded murder.

By this stage, the movie has begun its salute to Death Wish, and has done so via a shout out to The Hunting Ground (2015). We learn that Balboa University, the fictional campus where Noelle studies, has never acknowledged the rape of a student within its grounds in its entire history, and the script winds this into the narrative in an effort to make a point about contemporary gender politics, but while it’s a noble aim, it feels just as forced as the idea that a counsellor would dismiss a claim of rape entirely (especially these days), and just as forced as the idea that because they’re male and likely to be sports stars, rapists will always get away with it (even if there’s widely available video evidence to prove they did it). The script adopts then a very black and white attitude that seems intent on providing Noelle with a reason for going all Paul Kersey, but which also doesn’t forget to include moments of sexploitation when she does so (her first targeted victim has to be seduced before he dies). Despite this kind of direct approach, the combination of McKendrick’s screenplay and Leite’s direction doesn’t ensure this means an effective approach, and the two elements tend to work against each other.

Of course, Noelle isn’t satisfied with avenging her own assault, though it’s only when she becomes aware of another rape – that went unpunished – that she decides to do something more. As she works her way through a list of rapists, Noelle finds that her art work gains that missing emotion, or passion, that was holding her back. This idea, that murder can be an inspiration for artistic expression, has been seen several times before, including the likes of House of Wax (1953) and Color Me Blood Red (1965), but here it seems like an afterthought, so long does it take for Noelle to begin using her new feelings in order to improve her work (which of course is immediately recognised as being significantly better by her tutor and the rest of her class). And of course, once she begins killing her fellow students, Noelle has a detective on her trail called Kennedy (Collins Jr), who’s always one step behind her until the end (though like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner (1982) he doesn’t actually do any detecting, but is gifted her identity when an intended victim survives her attack on him). The tropes and long range subtleties of low budget horror thrillers are all present and correct, from the ease with which Noelle carries out her crimes, to the fetishisation of Eastwood herself, as she’s called upon to wear revealing outfit after revealing outfit before finally appearing nude.

With M.F.A. throwing together so many disparate elements, and sometimes in the same scene, it’s inevitable that the movie itself doesn’t always work as well as intended. Some of the dialogue is clunky and several moments of exposition sound like they’re being read from cue cards, but in a strange way the movie is quite hypnotic to watch. This is partly due to the various influences on display (which one will the viewer spot next?), and partly due to Eastwood’s committed performance, which anchors the movie and helps gloss over some of the longueurs that occur when the script tries to be didactic. Utilising a sympathetic approach to the character of Noelle that she manages to retain even when she’s wearing her vigilante hat, she gives an emotionally redolent, purposeful performance that could well prove to be her break-out role. In support, Collins Jr has very little to do except grow a beard very quickly, while McKendrick is erratic as the poorly written best friend whose involvement in Noelle’s life leads to an easily anticipated tragedy.

But again, even with all this going on, the movie is worth a watch, it’s strangled dynamic proving unexpectedly gripping in places, and with a dark thriller atmosphere that, for the most part, is well handled by Leite and which adds power to the material. There are brief moments of levity, a few nods to the kind of life Noelle could have had if she didn’t become a vigilante, and a couple of painful instances where Noelle’s self-awareness has the potential for self-destruction. The ending at least is dramatically satisfying, even though the build-up to it is wayward and not entirely confident in what it’s trying to say. A good try, then, and one that shows promise for all concerned.

Rating: 7/10 – thematically bizarre, and unabashedly dogmatic in places, M.F.A. is nevertheless a dour but entertaining, low budget rehash of the vigilante movies of the late Seventies; with a persuasive central performance by Eastwood, it’s a movie that wears its influences on its sleeves, and which isn’t afraid to mix things up – even if that mixing isn’t too successful – in order to tell its uncompromising tale.

Guest in the House (1944)

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aka Satan in Skirts

D: John Brahm / 121m

Cast: Anne Baxter, Ralph Bellamy, Aline MacMahon, Ruth Warrick, Scott McKay, Marie McDonald, Jerome Cowan, Margaret Hamilton, Percy Kilbride, Connie Laird

A semi-remote house on the cliffs of Maine, a psychiatric patient who can’t help her manipulative ways, a family about to be torn apart thanks to jealousy and the propagation and belief of certain lies, and a dark, brooding atmosphere to cap it all off. Welcome to the psycho-noir theatrics of Guest in the House, a movie that is as brazen and as wanton as it can be given the decade it was produced, and which was unfairly derided on its initial release. Time hasn’t been entirely kind to the movie, as seeing it in its original full length is now very difficult – most extant prints run around one hundred minutes – but it’s definitely one to seek out and admire for its fervid tone and rampant paranoia.

Adapted for the stage by Hagar Wilde and Dale Eunson, from a story by Katherine Albert, this screen adaptation by the wonderfully named Ketti Frings (who would go on to write the screenplays for The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) and Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) amongst others), and with an uncredited contribution by André De Toth, is a cuckoo in the nest tale that concerns Evelyn Heath (Baxter), who suffers from a heart condition and a traumatic past. She’s been a patient under the care of Dr Dan Proctor (McKay), and now they’re engaged. Having decided that she needs peace and quiet in order to recover from a recent bout of ill health, Dan brings her to his home on the Maine coast, and persuades his family to let her stay there indefinitely. Although she’s initially fearful of her new environment, and stays in her room a lot, Evelyn soon earns the sympathy of Dan’s family – his artist brother, Douglas (Bellamy), Douglas’s wife, Ann (Warrick), their daughter, Lee (Laird), and Dan and Douglas’s aunt Martha (MacMahon) – as well as their good friends, Miriam (McDonald), who lives there and works as a model for Douglas, and Mr Hackett (Cowan).

Douglas is an attentive and supportive substitute for Dan, and though she has feelings for Dan, she soon decides that she needs to clear the way in order that she and Douglas can be together permanently. She begins by insisting that Dan returns to the clinic where they met and continue his work there; she also maintains that she’ll be reunited with him when she’s better (so no patient-doctor dilemma there). With Dan out of the way, Evelyn sees to it that, one by one, everyone else is either forced to leave the house or leaves of their own accord thanks to the web of lies she weaves. A once happy and carefree household becomes a hostile, prejudicial environment where not even Lee is safe from Evelyn’s machinations. And as Douglas becomes more and more withdrawn from the people who love him, and falls victim to Evelyn’s plan, his antipathy and anger towards them appears to be the one thing, that if it remains unchecked, will see Evelyn achieve everything she’s aiming for.

Guest in the House is a movie that betrays its stagebound origins at almost every turn, and while there’s an awful lot of scenes that require the cast to go up and down stairs as if it’s going to break out into a farce at any minute, these scenes do serve to highlight the increasing aloofness of the characters from each other, and the dramatic significance of what goes on behind the closed doors on the house’s upper level. The house is used in quite a clever way, looking and feeling bright and airy and welcoming (particularly to Evelyn) at the beginning, but becoming increasingly claustrophobic as the movie continues. This is helped tremendously by Lee Garmes’ cinematography, which adds more and more shadows to bolster that sense of claustrophobia, and which acts as a measure of the psychological effect that Evelyn’s plotting has on all concerned. The weather too transforms from bright and sunny to dark and stormy, further adding to the sense of impending disaster, and in the hands of director John Brahm (himself brought in after original director Lewis Milestone fell ill, and second choice John Cromwell was unavailable), the movie’s tone becomes equally as dramatic and the characters more and more isolated thanks to their location.

As a psychological thriller, its success or failure rests entirely on the character of Evelyn, and though there are times when her manipulation of others is likely to strike viewers as entirely too obvious, and Baxter’s performance borders too often on being overly melodramatic, in the end it’s the effect she has on the other characters that is compelling rather than whether or not she’s credible in her actions and her dialogue. Seeing Douglas and Ann’s marriage unravel makes for disturbing viewing, not just for the ease with which Evelyn makes it happen, but for the way in which Douglas – our hero, at least at the beginning – embraces it. Overlooked for the most part, it’s Douglas’s descent into antagonsim and dissent that is the movie’s strong suit, and the psycholgical underpinnings that allow him to do so are exploited superbly, making Bellamy’s performance much better than usual – it’s a far cry from the second-string romantic roles he played in movies such as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Affectionately Yours (1941).

The cast as a whole contribute solid, considered performances, and there’s fine supporting work from the likes of MacMahon and Warrick, and Hamilton as the housekeeper whose morality is offended by the lies that Evelyn fosters. It all races to an over the top finale that stretches credibility quite a bit, but where a degree of ambiguity may have made for a better ending, what there is is satisfying (for the most part) on a dramatic level, if not a psychological one. Brahm orchestrates the sometimes over-ripe material to maximum effect, and throws in odd visual moments that are startling in their appearance, such as Evelyn looking intently out of a rain-swept window. Elsewhere, there are times when certain scenes wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hitchcock movie, and despite its often florid approach, it maintains a mordaunt sensibility that keeps the viewer in thrall to the unfolding narrative.

Rating: 8/10 – not a masterpiece by any means, but still a terrific example of what might be described today as a “home invasion” thriller, Guest in the House is subtler than it looks, and more gripping than you’d expect; with a troubling, unsettling subtext relating to sexual desire to make it even more interesting, it’s a movie that deserves to be rediscovered, and hopefully in its full length version.

NOTE: At present, there is no trailer for Guest in the House.

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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D: Matt Spicer / 98m

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen, Pom Klementieff

In today’s social media obsessed society, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have some kind of social media account, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, or any of the myriad other “services” that allow people to connect with each other, and in doing so, provide them with a sense of belonging that they might not otherwise be able to achieve. Being “liked” is important to so many people across the world that it’s become akin to having an addiction, but instead of drugs, it’s about being recognised and having your life, and your lifestyle, acknowledged, admired, and affirmed. If you have thousands of followers (millions if you’re a global celebrity), then what does that do for your self-esteem? And equally, what does it say about the people who follow you? With all the advice that’s out there about being an individual, and being true to yourself, how does social media support that?

That’s just one of the broader issues addressed in Ingrid Goes West, a movie about appearance and image and wanting to find your place in life. Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza) is a fantasist who’s never learnt how to make friends the “normal” way. Instead she looks to Instagram as a way of meeting new people and beginning new relationships, but at the same time she’s not aware of the ephemeral nature of those relationships. Believing that if she receives a Like on a post then it means she’s made a new friend, Ingrid is predisposed to believing that she has a long-lasting friendship, and that she is important to that person. At the beginning of the movie, Ingrid gatecrashes a wedding and sprays mace in the bride’s face. Why? Because Ingrid wasn’t invited. Later, the truth is revealed: there was no friendship, it was all in Ingrid’s head. A brief spell in a mental hospital combined with the recent death of her mother leads Ingrid to try and reassess her feelings, but she’s undone by an Instagram posting by a social media influencer called Taylor Sloane (Olsen). Ingrid comments on Taylor’s post, Taylor responds politely, which prompts Ingrid to decide to move to California, and using over sixty thousand dollars she’s inherited, do her best to become Taylor’s new best friend.

How she does this involves liking the things and places that Taylor recommends, and doing some low-level stalking. Then she kidnaps Taylor’s dog, Rothko, and returns him the next day, leading to Taylor and her husband, Ezra (Russell), admitting her into their lives and the three of them becoming friends. As the movie allows Ingrid the opportunity to make a real and lasting friendship, it also shows how she’s incapable of doing such a thing. Ingrid weaves a web of lies when she doesn’t need to, and does so not just with Taylor and Ezra, but also with her landlord, Dan (Jackson Jr), an aspiring screenwriter and Batman afficionado. But though she does all this, she manages to avoid any major trouble, keeping herself just this side of “normal”, and managing to gain a degree of trust from both Taylor and Ezra that Ingrid herself is unable to return.

Inevitably, things start to go wrong. Ingrid’s lies and ulterior motive for getting to know Taylor begin to unravel, but in the process, the movie cannily shows how similar Ingrid and Taylor are, and how both women, in their own ways, are seeking approval and affirmation from the people around them, and the wider world. The role of social media is hugely important to all this, and the dependency that both women have is explored in a way that tries to be non-judgmental but which can’t help but come down on the side of taking a step back and not using social media as a guide to life. Ingrid has mental health issues, so her obsessional behaviour can be explained, but Taylor has used Instagram to create a public profile for herself that isn’t too far from her real personality. So, the movie asks, which character has the real problem? (It’s still both, but at least the movie is trying not to be simplistic in its approach.) In the end, Ingrid is forced along the road to despair, while Taylor remains seemingly unaffected by having a de facto stalker in her life. Though how Taylor would feel about the twist the movie reveals in the final scene, would be worth seeing.

There’s a sincerity and a purpose about Ingrid Goes West that makes its forays into the darker side of social interaction, whether via electrronic devices or in person, far more astute than is readily apparent. This is not a comedy, though there are humorous moments, but instead it’s a tragedy, one that attempts to highlight how the perception of peer pressure isn’t the preserve of troubled teenagers, but can also affect adults as well, and have a much more lasting, negative, effect. The script, by director Spicer (making his feature debut) and David Branson Smith, maintains its tone as a tale of social horror throughout, even going very dark during an ill-judged section of the movie that involves kidnapping and attempted murder, but always returning to the notion that everyone, even the good-natured Dan, is struggling to find themselves and their place in the wider world. Ingrid thinks she’ll find her place by associating with someone she believes is “cool”, while Taylor thinks that’s she’s already found her place by sharing her opinions about what she believes is “cool”.

The pervasive nature of social media in our daily lives is reflected by the number of photographs Ingrid takes (as if it won’t be real unless she can record it), the number of posts Taylor shares, and the number of followers that both accrue over time. Both have convinced themselves that their engagement with social media will improve their lives – Ingrid, literally – but both women look and sound as shallow as their dependency makes them. As Ingrid, Plaza gives a desperate, sharply expressed performance that is by turns sympathetic and horrifying, her character’s emotional detachment a reflection of the focus she needs to maintain in order not to ruin things. She treats Dan badly, betrays confidences without a second thought, and doesn’t have a clue about real relationships. Olsen is equally as good as Taylor, the self-made social media guru who’s lost sight of the person she once was, but who can recognise herself in Ingrid’s need to be a part of something bigger than either of them. Jackson Jr brings a much needed sweetness to the role of Dan, but Russell is hampered by his role as a pretentious “artist” who wouldn’t dream of doing anything so banal as selling his work. With stylish cinematography by Bryce Fortner and perfectly judged editing from Jack Price, this is a trenchant, relevant look at a generational battleground that shows no sign of abating, or improving.

Rating: 8/10 – a persuasive and intelligent drama that doesn’t hold back in terms of showing how desperate some people can be to “fit in”, Ingrid Goes West is blackly comic in an “if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry” kind of way that emphasises the dramatic nature of the material; with terrific performances from Plaza and Olsen, and confident direction from Spicer, this is a cautionary tale that should resonate with anyone who’s liked a post by somebody they don’t know in the hope that their like will be liked as well… and so on.

Brigsby Bear (2017)

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D: Dave McCary / 97m

Cast: Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Mark Hamill, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, Alexa Demie, Claire Danes, Kate Lyn Sheil, Beck Bennett, Jane Adams

James Mitchum (Mooney) is in his mid-twenties and has never strayed beyond the immediate confines of the underground bunker that he and his parents, Ted (Hamill) and April (Adams), live in due to the outside air being poisonous (though the cause is left unexplained). James has grown up watching a TV show called Brigsby Bear Adventures, which concerns a bear called Brigsby and the adventures he has in space as he tries to stop the evil Sunsnatcher from destroying all the light in the universe. Brigsby is aided by two twins, the Smile Sisters, who are roughly eight or nine. James knows the show inside out, and for good reason: it’s the only TV show he’s ever seen. But James’ life is turned upside down when police arrive at the bunker, and it’s revealed that James was stolen as a baby from his real parents, Greg (Walsh) and Louise Pope (Watkins).

United with his birth parents, and his younger sister, Aubrey (Simpkins), James finds much that is puzzling about this new world he’s been thrust into, and his obvious lack of social skills don’t help, but the one thing he has that he can rely on, the one thing that continues to make sense to him, is Brigsby Bear. But when he’s informed that Ted created the character and made all the shows himself, instead of trying to put this information into the context of his “abducted” life and its structure (the video tapes of the show that Ted made were as much educational as they were entertainment), James decides to make a Brigsby Bear movie, and use it as a way of completing Brigsby’s story. James’s reasoning is plain: if Ted can no longer finish the story, who better than James? With the aid of some of Aubrey’s school friends, including budding movie maker Spencer (Lendeborg Jr), and admirer Meredith (Demie), and police detective Vogel (Kinnear) (who helps with “access” to some of the show’s original props), James sets about making his dream come true.

If you see a movie that’s more sincere and more touching than Brigsby Bear in 2017, then that movie definitely needs to be brought to everyone’s attention, because this movie is both those things and much, much more. A feelgood movie that takes a truly original notion and explores it with unexpected depth and compassion, Brigsby Bear is a terrific, wonderfully constructed movie that touches on universal themes of acceptance and individuality and belonging, and does so in such a well thought out and affecting way that it’s hard not to find yourself smiling to yourself without always realising it while the movie is playing. Conceived and written by its star, Kyle Mooney, and his friend, Kevin Costello, James’s own adventure is one that is both touching and heartfelt, and which pulls the viewer along by the sheer exuberance that emanates from the screenplay and its use of the characters involved. James isn’t a socially awkward teenager in an adult’s body, he’s a socially awkward adult with a teenager’s mindset. But his commitment to Brigsby Bear isn’t a sign of a child whose emotional growth has been stunted by prolonged exposure to the show. Instead it provides clear evidence that James has absorbed many of the life lessons that Ted has tried to teach him; all he has to do now is recognise the situations in which he should use them (it’s an interesting subtext – that Ted has actually done a good job of being a father to James despite the circumstances – that, sadly, isn’t followed up).

That he gets so many things wrong becomes understandable, but Mooney and Costello’s screenplay, ably realised by McCary, also shows how James develops as a person, and how he learns from his mistakes. Mooney is superb as James, always seeming as if he’s just on the verge of working out some diffuse mystery, and always in a way that keeps everyone around him slightly on tenterhooks, unsure of where his enthusiasm for Brigsby will take him. It leads to some wonderfully charming moments that emphasise and highlight the joys of extremely low budget movie making, and how the making of this particular movie serves as a final chapter for the first part of James’s life; it’s his way of putting the past behind him and beginning to move on. And as he reconciles his past with his future, more lessons are learned and James’s growth as an individual helps him to forge the new relationships that will allow him to rebuild his life.

Directed with confidence, and with a focus on the emotional core of the screenplay by McCary (making his feature debut), the movie is quirky, and infused with a sweet-natured humour that allows for easy laughs throughout, but not at the expense of the sentimental nature of the drama. Some viewers may find that the movie isn’t “dark” enough, as if the initial set up should lead on to darker material, but that idea is quickly undermined (and dismissed) when Vogel asks James if the Mitchums ever “touched” him. James confirms this, saying it happened often, and demonstrates by shaking Vogel’s hand. This isn’t a movie where any physical or psychological damage to its lead character is either mandatory or relevant – there are plenty of other movies where those aspects are addressed. Instead it’s a movie that in its own compassionate way, avoids those issues but only because it’s not the story it wants to tell. (And even when James is sent to a psychiatric hospital, there’s still the opportunity for laughs rather than misery.)

With great supporting turns from the likes of Kinnear (as a cop with thespian leanings), Danes (as a domineering therapist), and Hamill (as the not quite so evil abductor that you’d expect), the movie is also careful to portray the Pope family dynamic as one of protracted confusion mixed with dwindling hope that James will ever be fully integrated into that dynamic. The script provides answers to many of the questions it raises (including that one), but is shrewd enough to keep James’s future an enigma that even he may never solve. This ambiguity allows the movie to end on a high note that is actually more poignant and more apt when considering where James’s story began, and which is in keeping entirely with its off-kilter nature. Few movies this year are likely to be as engaging or as captivating as this one, and that’s because this movie is a true one of a kind.

Rating: 9/10 – with its fully rounded central character, offbeat yet creative scenario, and effortlessly endearing atmosphere, Brigsby Bear is like a surprise present you weren’t expecting – at all; smart, funny, and genuine, it’s a movie that eschews moralising for optimism, and does so in such a warm, convivial manner that it’s entirely too hard to resist.

Breathe (2017)

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D: Andy Serkis / 118m

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Stephen Mangan, Hugh Bonneville, Jonathan Hyde, Ed Speleers, Steven O’Donnell, Miranda Raison, Harry Marcus, Dean-Charles Chapman, Sylvester Groth, Diana Rigg

In December 1958, while working in Kenya, twenty-eight year old tea broker Robin Cavendish (Garfield) was struck down by polio, leaving him paralysed from the neck down and dependent on a mechanical respirator in order to remain alive. He was brought back to England where at first he was given three months to live, and then a year. His own reaction was to have his respirator turned off. He saw no future for himself and wanted his wife, Diana (Foy), whom he’d recently married and who was still only twenty-five, a chance at a better future for herself. To her credit, and his good fortune, Diana refused to entertain the idea, and told Robin in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t going to give up, even if he wanted to. They also had an infant child, Jonathan, to consider. Still facing a bleak future though, Robin’s only wish was to leave the hospital where he was effectively confined. Against the advice of his doctor (Hyde), he left the hospital, and the Cavendish’s moved into their own home in the countryside, where Diana took on the roles of wife, mother and nurse with the help of friends such as Colin Campbell (Speleers), and her twin brothers Bloggs and David (both Hollander).

In the way that only real life can manufacture, that could, and perhaps should have been the end of Robin’s story, but a truncated lifespan wasn’t on the cards. With the aid of his friend, Oxford professor Teddy Hall (Bonneville), Robin conceived the idea of a wheelchair with a built-in respirator that would allow him to leave the house, and eventually go on trips with the further aid of a converted van. Now more mobile than he could have ever predicted, Robin decided to show the progress he’d achieved to other disabled people, and the medical community. Thanks to private funding, Hall was able to construct a fleet of wheelchairs such as Robin’s, and these enabled other disabled people to leave hospital, and to function in the “outside” world. Robin soon became an advocate and champion for the rights of the disabled, and by the time of his death in 1994, was regarded, quite rightly, as a medical phenomenon, having lived with his deteriorating condition for thirty-six years.

The directorial debut of Andy Serkis – it should have been his version of The Jungle Book, but delays on that production have pushed it back to 2018 – Breathe is exactly what it looks like from the poster and anything you may have heard about it: a tale of inspiration and personal courage. Though Serkis is best known for his motion capture performances as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar, as a director he’s clearly learnt a lot from those he’s worked with over the years because the movie is an assured, likeable production that tells its story in a measured, positive manner that allows the viewer to fully understand Robin’s plight, and the feelings that come with it. Thanks to an equally assured script by William Nicholson, Breathe tackles the various issues related to quadriplegia (though it studiously avoids the issue of sex) with sympathy and no small amount of understanding, most of which is provided by yet another excellent performance by Andrew Garfield. Following on from impressive turns in Silence (2016) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Garfield makes sure that every emotion, every feeling, every consideration or decision that Robin makes is clearly expressed so there can be no misunderstanding for the viewer. It’s a performance that also reflects the innate humanity that Robin possessed, and his complete and utter love for Diana, something that could have caused the movie to become cloying and overly sentimental, but which Serkis avoids through a combination of his knowing direction and Garfield and Foy’s awareness of, and immersion in, the characters.

Inevitably, it’s not all triumph over adversity and lives lived happily ever after. This is a movie that starts off on a bright summer’s day at a cricket match where Robin and Diana meet. It couldn’t be more lovely, a replication of happier days when falling in love seemed so easy and uncomplicated. But once he’s struck down by polio and his lifestyle is curtailed, Robin’s life takes on an urgency and a scariness that makes for a number of scenes that are nail-biting even though we know the outcome must favour Robin. At home, their dog catches the lead to the respirator and pulls it out of the electrical socket. We already know that he can’t survive for more than two minutes without it (or someone using a manual respirator), and Serkis plays out those two minutes to the second, creating tension even though we know everything will be fine, but still making the viewer apprehensive and nervous as to how he’ll be saved.

Other moments such as the wheelchair respirator blowing up on a trip to Spain, and the deterioration of the lining of Robin’s lungs, serve as reminders as to the reality of his situation, and they’re used for maximum impact. But if there’s one scene, one image that highlights both Robin’s past predicament, and those of thousands of disabled people across the world at that time, the Sixties, it comes during a visit to a German hospital that is highly regarded for its treatment of the disabled. It’s the movie’s most impressive moment, one of tragedy and despair as we see rows of disabled people like Robin stacked on top of each other in gleaming iron lungs. And when Robin enters the room, the reaction of the head doctor (Groth) is one of horror and embarrassment: horror at the difference between Robin and his patients, and embarrassment at being so badly caught out for treating said patients so appallingly. It’s moments like this one, where the movie challenges the medical and social attitudes of the time that adds depth to the narrative and reminds us all that Robin wasn’t just making these improvements to his life for his own sake, but for the thousands of others just like him.

Breathe is also one of the most beautifully realised movies of the year, with Serkis and cinematographer Robert Richardson combining to provide a richly detailed series of shots and compositions that are often breathtaking in their simplicity, and in their ability to add an emotional layer to scenes that accentuate and support the performances at every turn. The score by Nitin Sawhney is another aspect of the production that Serkis uses to good effect, never allowing the music to overwhelm a scene or prove intrusive, using it instead to provide another sensitive layer to the proceedings. Garfield and Foy have a definite chemistry that makes the enduring love between Robin and Diana entirely credible, and there are terrific supporting turns from Hollander and Mangan (as Robin’s doctor in later life). In covering nearly forty years of one man’s life, the movie is necessarily episodic, and there are occasional lulls in the drama as the story moves from one period to the next, but other than this and some of the supporting characters having little to do except hang about marvelling at Robin’s progress, this is an admirable and accomplished feature debut by Serkis that isn’t afraid to “go dark” when it needs to, and which is inspiring without sounding like it’s preaching.

Rating: 8/10 – a sincere and affecting look at a man’s life and the positive choices that can be made even in the face of extreme adversity, Breathe is a testament to Robin Cavendish’s determination to still lead a fulfilling life, and the equal determination of his wife, Diana, that he should be able to; a moving and immensely entertaining movie, it bodes well for any future turns behind the camera that Serkis embarks on, and is one of the few “lead character with a disability” movies that doesn’t seem like it’s been made just so it can garner nominations and win awards in the year ahead.

Hampstead (2017)

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D: Joel Hopkins / 103m

Cast: Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson, Lesley Manville, Jason Watkins, James Norton, Simon Callow, Adeel Akhtar, Alistair Petrie, Hugh Skinner, Will Smith, Brian Protheroe, Rosalind Ayres, Deborah Findlay, Peter Singh, Phil Davis

Hampstead is a curious movie, one that’s inspired by a true story, but structured in such a way that it seems to be deliberately insulting the memory of the real-life person that Brendan Gleeson’s character is based on. That man was called Harry Hallowes, an Irishman who was evicted from his flat in Highgate, London in 1987 and who built a makeshift home for himself in a corner of Hampstead Heath. When property developers tried to evict him, the case went to court and he was able to claim squatter’s rights because he had been “resident there” for over twelve years. In 2007 he was awarded the deed to the half-acre of land on which he was living; it was worth over £2 million. Hampstead takes that story and makes it into a lightweight romantic comedy that flits along unobtrusively and in banal fashion while making it more about Diane Keaton’s American widow in London, Emily Walters, than it does the movie’s fictional Harry Hallowes, Donald Horner.

Emily lives in an apartment building overlooking Hampstead Heath. Her husband has died leaving her in financial difficulties that she’s doing her best to ignore. She works part-time in a charity shop, but otherwise is fairly aimless, and spends much of her spare time trying to avoid her friend, Fiona (Manville), who also lives in the building and who is doing her best to set up Emily with a new man. One day, while looking through her husband’s things in the attic room she finds a pair of binoculars and uses them to look out over the heath. She spots Horner’s makeshift home, and becomes intrigued enough to continue spying on it, and eventually him. When she sees him being attacked, she calls the police, but doesn’t come forward until a few days later when she sees him in Highgate Cemetery. They become uneasy friends at first, then a romance develops, but it’s when Emily learns about the efforts to evict Donald that she finds a new purpose in her life and determines to help Donald whether he likes it or not.

It’s a measure of Robert Festinger’s underwhelming screenplay that Donald’s plight can only be addressed through the intervention of a woman who’s looking for some meaning in her life. That she takes on his cause for herself is both selfish and self-serving, but the script ignores this in its efforts to make Emily appear selfless instead. As a result, she isn’t quite as sympathetic a character as perhaps was intended, and she comes across as a busybody with good intentions rather than the supportive friend (and eventual lover) that she’s meant to be. It makes watching long stretches of the movie difficult as Emily, under the guise of making a difference, does so in order to make herself feel better about her life. In other movies this might be acceptable – it’s a standard character arc, after all – but when this is in service to someone else’s story, someone who actually existed, then it comes across as insensitive and inconsiderate. Was Hallowes’ story so undramatic that it needed a fictional character, and a self-centred character at that, to give it relevance and/or meaning?

The answer is obviously No, but still, it’s the path the movie has chosen to take in its efforts to tell a version of Hallowes’ story. On that basis though, the movie is still unsuccessful in its aims as it tries to create a romance out of convenience, and a drama out of necessity (there’s broad humour in there too but it’s not the movie’s strongest suit). The movie ambles along during its first half, building the relationship between Emily and Donald, and making it all so innocuous and inoffensive that when they eventually sleep together, it’s hard to actually believe that they did anything more than just sleep together. In this particular rendition of “normal life”, sex is something to be referenced but not explored, or regarded as believable. This further undermines the credibility of the relationship between Emily and Donald, and makes it seem even more artificial than Festinger and director Joel Hopkins would like.

With the central relationship so hamstrung by the needs of the script, and with Hopkins unable to make more of it than there is on the page, it’s left to Keaton and Gleeson to do what they can with the material and hopefully flesh it out. But neither of them is able to do much more than provide the odd frisson to their roles, and despite their best efforts, both Emily and Donald remain as insubstantial at the end as they were at the beginning. Character traits are embedded from the word go, and they remain firmly in place throughout. Emily may appear emotionally tougher by the end, but it’s not because of her time with Donald, but because she has no choice in the matter; she either toughens up or goes under, and the script naturally chooses the former for her. Donald though, remains the same throughout, and in a chauvinistic approach that the movies love to continue peddling, gives Emily no choice in how their relationship will continue after the court case (it also makes Emily look as if she hasn’t been paying attention to anything Donald has told her about his lifestyle, and why he lives the way he does).

In the end, Hampstead doesn’t have enough substance and/or depth to make it all work, and the movie ambles along quite predictably and with a soupçon of charm to help guide it over the rough spots. The courtroom scenes are played for humour rather than the drama that’s required, the supporting cast all meld into one with the exception of Manville’s deliberately obtuse friend and Watkins’ would-be Romeo to Emily’s Juliet, and there are too many occasions where the movie is trying way too hard to appear whimsical or poignant. Felix Wiedemann’s cinematography is a welcome bonus, as is Stephen Warbeck’s score, both elements helping to give the movie a boost from the obvious nature of the material, but when all’s said and done, this is a movie that takes a remarkable story and uses it as a backdrop in order to tell an unremarkable story that, sadly, we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

Rating: 4/10 – amiable, and watchable enough if you approach it with few expectations, Hampstead rarely gets out of first gear, and when it does it’s only to slip into neutral, where it stays out of being comfortable; Keaton and Gleeson’s performances are undermined by the paucity of the material (and Hopkins’ static direction), and the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the real-life Harry the Hermit are given less than their due, something that should have been addressed before even the first draft was considered.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017)

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D: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk / 98m

With: Al Gore, John Kerry, Konrad Steffen, Philip Levine, Eric Schneiderman, Marco Krapels, Lyndon Rive, Piyush Goyal, Cristina Gonzales Romualdez, Alfred Romualdez, Christiana Figueres, Dale Ross

When Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about the dangers of climate change was adapted for the screen in 2006 as An Inconvenient Truth, few could have predicted the effect that a small-scale documentary would have around the globe. The movie won a Best Documentary Oscar at the 2007 awards, and has been used as an educational tool (with some clarifications) in various school systems the world over. It was the first movie to address the issue of climate change head on, and in a way that the average person could understand. And it made a number of predictions about the way that climate change would affect the world in the coming decades unless governments worked together to prevent the situation from worsening.

Eleven years on, and Gore is still out there, still attempting to educate as many people as he can about the continuing climate change issue, but with the aid of over three and a half thousand activists who use Gore’s presentation in their own communities to foster greater awareness. This is the Climate Reality Project, begun by Gore in 2006, and one of the elements of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power that shows to what extent things have either moved on or changed, or even remained the same, since the release of its predecessor. What definitely hasn’t changed is Gore’s passion for the issue, and his seemingly tireless pursuit of getting the message across that traditional fuel methods such as coal and gas can no longer be allowed to be the first choice of countries looking to provide reliable energy sources for their populations. It’s a message he gets across, though, through Scotland being able to provide one hundred per cent of its electricity in August 2016 from wind power, to Chile’s solar market, which has grown from 402mw at the end of 2014 to 848mw at the end of 2015, and in 2016, was estimated to reach approximately 13.25gw.

Gore puts forward a strong case for renewable energies such as solar and wind power to take the place of fossil fuels, and he’s able to show that even in the US, where conservative attitudes might decry the message Gore is trying to get across, that some cities have already elected to provide one hundred per cent renewable energies for its citizens, and that as with An Inconvenient Truth, the need for change isn’t seen as a political one, but a moral one, an imperative that should be agreed across the political spectrum. That these cities have taken up the challenge and made it work is one area where Gore’s passion and commitment have been rewarded. But as with any crusade, it’s not all plain sailing, and even though Gore has continued to press for environmental change, it’s still an uphill battle against vested interests and political inertia, a fact that’s cruelly pointed out by a coda added to the movie after filming had been completed. Here, we see Gore’s dismay at hearing of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.

Alongside Gore’s promotion of renewable energies, the 2015 Paris Agreement is the movie’s secondary focus, showing how Gore helped to bring about India’s commitment to the agreement and the behind the scenes efforts that brought this about (though it does make it look as if Gore was the sole instigator, which isn’t entirely true). The movie also finds itself in the midst of an unfortunate event that occurred two weeks before the conference, where a live twenty-four broadcast featuring Gore and some of the conference’s key players had to be cut short in the wake of the November 2015 terror attacks, including the mass shooting at the Bataclan theatre. Gore makes an impromptu and heartfelt speech that is the movie’s most emotional moment, and it serves as an unexpectedly poignant reminder that climate change, important an issue as it is, isn’t the only global issue that needs addressing at this moment.

But where the movie really hits home, as with its predecessor, is in its presentation of the many increasing natural disasters that have occurred in the last ten years, and the reasons why they’ve happened. Gore visits a Swiss Camp Climate Station in Central Greenland where he has to climb a ladder to go inside the main hut, something he wouldn’t have had to do a few years before, but has to now because the surface mass of the area has dropped so much in such a short time. He talks with the mayor of Tacloban City in the Philippines which was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, and includes footage of the destruction, footage that in recent years we have become all too familiar with from other devastated cities around the world. But most telling of all is the footage relating to the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in parts of New York in October 2012. Gore predicted this could happen in An Inconvenient Truth, and that it would affect the site of the World Trade Centre memorial. He drew a lot of flak for suggesting this, but was proved absolutely right. This is the point in the movie where you have to ask yourself, what more does the man have to do to get our undivided attention?

When he’s on stage giving his presentation, Gore is energised and persuasive and committed and often angry. But privately, there are moments where he looks tired and a little despairing, as if doing all this for the best part of twenty years is beginning to take its toll. It’s a sobering thought, but Gore will be seventy years old next year, and though he doesn’t always look it, there are times when he does and it’s these times that give rise to the idea that this sequel is perhaps the best chance he’ll have to bring the issue of climate change back to the attention of a general public who may have forgotten the warnings he made over ten years ago. Gore has fought long and hard over this issue, and the movie does spend time exploring what continues to motivate him, and why the issue is still so important to him that he devotes so much of his time to it. It’s a key element, one that wasn’t there as much in the first movie, but it does go hand in hand with the still timely message that none of us, not even a “recovering politician” such as Al Gore, can afford to ignore.

Rating: 8/10 – not quite as powerful as its predecessor, but still a necessary reminder that there’s a long way to go before the issue of climate change can be seen to have been addressed effectively, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is a salutary ode to the power of one man’s commitment to change; if it’s a more personal movie in that sense, that’s not a bad thing, as Gore continues to be the best guide a lay person can have in understanding why climate change is still so divisive, and why it still remains the most important issue facing future generations, generations who may not have a choice in the world they’ll inherit.

Jungle (2017)

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D: Greg McLean / 116m

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Thomas Kretschmann, Alex Russell, Joel Jackson, Yasmin Kassim, Luis Jose Lopez, Lily Sullivan, Jacek Koman, Angie Milliken, John Bluthal

After serving three years in the Israeli military, and forgoing his father’s wish that he study to become a lawyer, Yossi Ghinsberg (Radcliffe) travelled to South America where he spent time travelling around the region until he wound up in Bolivia in 1981. There he made two new friends, Swiss school teacher Marcus Stamm (Jackson), and Marcus’s friend, Kevin Gale (Russell), an American and an avid adventurer-cum-photographer. Yossi also met an Austrian named Karl Ruchprecter (Kretschmann). Karl persuaded Yossi and his two new friends to go on an expedition into the jungle to find a lost Indian tribe that Karl was certain could be found. They set off on foot, and were soon miles from any kind of human habitation. But the dynamic of the group began to sour, especially when Marcus’s feet became badly blistered and he became unable to keep up the pace. With the expedition only partly completed, Karl announced that he was going back on foot, but that the others could use a raft to traverse the river that would take them to their destination. Marcus went with Karl, and Yossi and Kevin put together a raft and set off. But when the current proved too strong, and an accident caused the two to be separated, it left Yossi alone in the jungle, and with no tools to help him survive or find his way to safety…

As Jungle is based on the book of the same name by Ghinsberg himself, there’s no surprise in how the movie ends, but what is surprising is how compelling it all is once Ghinsberg is separated from Kevin, and the perils of being lost in the jungle become all too apparent. However, before all that, the viewer has to wade through some fairly tortuous scenes in the first hour, where the four main characters are introduced but without providing them with any appreciable depth, or Yossi aside, any clear motivations as to why they’re all there in the first place. Karl remains a mystery right until the end, when we learn something very important about him, while Kevin and Marcus come across as the unfortunate tag-alongs who share part of Yossi’s trials and tribulations, but whose own dilemmas don’t rate as much interest in Justin Monjo’s straightforward screenplay.

Once tensions arise within the group, it’s Yossi’s unintended lack of sympathy for Marcus’s plight that provokes the turning point where the quartet split up, but once that happens, the movie seems to breathe a huge sigh of relief, as if now it can concentrate on the story it really wants to tell. And aided by yet another impressive performance from Daniel Radcliffe, the movie quickly comes into its own and puts both Yossi and the viewer through the wringer as days pass and Yossi’s situation worsens with every step. He has to combat starvation, fatigue, disorientation, hallucinations, jungle predators, and the likelihood that he will wander round and round in circles without ever coming close to being found. It’s a horrifying situation to be in, and the script (perhaps unfairly) revels in giving Yossi moments of hope only to have them dashed a moment later. But these occasions also help to sharpen the narrative and accentuate the idea that the jungle has no time for sympathy if you’re unprepared for what it can do.

As the beleaguered Yossi, Radcliffe provides further evidence that he’s a more than capable actor, and though the role of Ghinsberg could be considered as just another in the long line of physical endurance roles that actors take on from time to time, thanks to Radcliffe’s commitment and understanding of the effects these rigours can have, Yossi’s deteriorating physical appearance and fast-eroding mental stability is made all the more credible and shocking when at last he reveals the extent of his (admittedly CGI enhanced) malnourishment. Ghinsberg somehow managed to survive for nineteen days before he was found, and though McLean fumbles the moment of discovery through some poor editing choices, there’s still an emotional kick to be found that is undeniable.

In telling such a dramatic true story, McLean and Monjo have crafted an old-fashioned survival story that focuses (eventually) on its central character’s will to cheat death and find their way back to civilisation, no matter how remote. McLean knows how to maintain dramatic tension – even if he hasn’t applied that ability to some of his more recent movies; The Darkness (2016) anyone? – and he uses close ups and an always unsettling, always encroaching soundscape to highlight both the pressure and the impending sense of doom that Yossi is experiencing. It’s a shame then that all this tension and pressure doesn’t come into play until around the halfway mark, and that McLean hasn’t been able to make Munjo’s script as compelling from the first page as it is to the last. Still, it’s a movie that goes someway to redeeming McLean’s “street cred” as a director, and there are plenty of moments where his skill as a director can be recognised in the claustrophobic nature of the jungle itself, and the ease with which he integrates Yossi’s hallucinations into the narrative so that they look and feel like an organic part of the whole.

True stories ultimately stand or fall based on the risks a movie maker is willing to take with the material, and though McLean has been stuck in something of a creative rut in recent years, here those risks relate to the various hallucinations/dream sequences that Yossi has, some of which provide some much needed humour into the mix. By taking Yossi, and the viewer, away from the threatening environment of the jungle, McLean gives both a chance to grab a breather and prepare themselves for the next part of Yossi’s heroic journey. The jungle itself is a fearsome opponent, and helped by cinematographer Stefan Duscio, McLean disorients and distracts both Yossi and the viewer so that each new setback to his finding safety increases the sense of fearfulness and increasing despair that the real Yossi must have felt all those years ago. That his predicament has proven so effective in terms of his will to survive, is as much a testament to the man himself, as it is – for the most part – to the movie itself.

Rating: 7/10 – an unfortunate first hour aside, Jungle is a harsh, unblinking look at a stranger in a strange land and the unwise decisions that cause him to be lost and alone in an inhospitable and deadly setting; Radcliffe is the main draw here, and then it’s McLean, and though McLean could have been tougher with some of the narrative decisions that were made, all in all this is a tough, unsentimental true story that impresses more than it disappoints.

Monthly Roundup – October 2017

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Miss Tulip Stays the Night (1955) / D: Leslie Arliss / 68m

aka Dead by Morning

Cast: Diana Dors, Patrick Holt, Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtneidge, A.E. Matthews, Joss Ambler

Rating: 6/10 – a crime writer (Holt) and his wife (Dors) discover that a weekend break in the country is no guarantee that murder won’t come calling to disturb them, and so it proves when the garrulous Miss Tulip (Courtneidge) is found dead in the cottage; an amiable if too leisurely paced murder mystery, Miss Tulip Stays the Night relies on hoodwinking the viewer from the start and keeping a vital piece of information all to itself until the end, but as a vehicle for Dors it isn’t quite as successful as may have been hoped originally, as the actress is too often sidelined in favour of having Holt attempting to solve the mystery before the police do.

Power Rangers (2017) / D: Dean Israelite / 124m

Cast: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader, David Denman

Rating: 4/10 – five teens discover the remains of a space ship buried in a hillside, and also find that they have been chosen to defend the Earth from an evil alien called Rita Repulsa (Banks), something that means wearing colourful outfits and playing with super powers; as if the likes of the Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises hadn’t already shown that there is a dwindling audience for this kind of thing, Power Rangers goes ahead and makes the same narrative mistakes as its confederates, and only makes a decent fist of things when it’s focusing on the inter-relationships of the teens, and not the frankly ridiculous storyline that needed four writers to work on it.

Sunset Murder Case (1938) / D: Louis J. Gasnier / 60m

aka High Explosive

Cast: Sally Rand, Esther Muir, Vince Barnett, Paul Sutton, Lona Andre, Mary Brodel, George Douglas, Reed Hadley, Kathryn Kane, Dennis Moore, Henry King

Rating: 4/10 – when her policeman father is murdered, a showgirl, Kathy O’Connor (Rand), decides to pose as a fan dancer at a nightclub in an effort to find out who killed him; Rand’s presence is the only interesting thing about this deadly dull drama that stops too often for musical interludes, and which seems to run longer than it actually does, making Sunset Murder Case a disappointing exercise that lacks for thrills  and any kind of appeal that might make it look or sound better.

The Guest House (2012) / D: Michael Baumgarten / 82m

Cast: Ruth Reynolds, Madeline Merritt, Tom McCafferty, Jake Parker, Jennifer Barlow

Rating: 3/10 – wild child Rachel (Reynolds), stuck at home for the weekend after splitting up with her boyfriend, gets to know her father’s new employee, Amy (Merritt), when she comes to stay in the guest house…and not just as a friend; a low budget insult to any lesbians who happen to watch this farrago, The Guest House is ludicrous in the way it depicts lesbian lovemaking, and ludicrous in the way that writer/director Baumgarten could have ever thought that his script was even halfway adequate enough to make this worth watching – and that’s without the two terrible performances at the movie’s centre.

Sparks and Embers (2015) / D: Gavin Boyter / 88m

Cast: Kris Marshall, Annelise Hesme, Waleed Akhtar, Valda Aviks, Sean Baker, Len Trusty

Rating: 4/10 – five years after they met while stuck in a lift, Tom (Marshall) and Eloise (Hesme), meet up again just as she’s on the verge of leaving London to go off and marry another man, making this Tom’s last chance to win her back after their relationship has ended; a movie that wants so much to say something profound about love (but doesn’t know how to), Sparks and Embers wastes its two co-stars’ time, and the audience’s, on a story that lacks any kind of spark, and which sees the couple wandering along London’s South Bank, aimlessly back and forth, and oddly, at different times of the year, which is no mean feat when Tom has just forty-five minutes to persuade Eloise not to leave.

My Name Is Lenny (2017) / D: Ron Scalpello / 91m

Cast: Josh Helman, Michael Bisping, Chanel Cresswell, Charley Palmer Rothwell, Nick Moran, John Hurt, Rita Tushingham, Frankie Oatway, George Russo, Martin Askew, Jennifer Brooke

Rating: 4/10 – the story of British bare knuckle boxer Lenny McLean (Helman) as he tries to deal with the demons that still haunt him from his childhood, while also trying to keep his marriage from falling apart, and defeat main rival Roy Shaw (Bisping) – and all at the same time; a raucous, cheaply made biopic that has a good sense of the period it’s set in, My Name Is Lenny is undermined by Helman’s decision (supported no doubt by director Scalpello) to portray McLean as a constantly gurning nutjob with all the self-awareness of, well, someone who’s taken too many punches to the head, and a number of violent scenes that are there to make the movie more interesting (though only briefly) than it actually is.

The Living Ghost (1942) / D: William Beaudine / 61m

aka Lend Me Your Ear; A Walking Nightmare

Cast: James Dunn, Joan Woodbury, Paul McVey, Vera Gordon, Norman Willis, J. Farrell MacDonald, Minerva Urecal, George Eldredge, Jan Wiley, Edna Johnson

Rating: 5/10 – when a wealthy businessman disappears only to return in a semi-comatose state that no one can explain, ex-detective Nick Trayne (Dunn) is persuaded to investigate; eerie goings-on coupled with a lot of broad comedy makes The Living Ghost more entertaining than it has any right to be, particularly as the script flits from one ill-thought out idea to another, and the more than competent Dunn is left to carry the picture on his own, a situation that isn’t any good for him or the audience.

Turn the Key Softly (1953) / D: Jack Lee / 78m

Cast: Yvonne Mitchell, Terence Morgan, Joan Collins, Kathleen Harrison, Thora Hird, Dorothy Alison, Glyn Houston

Rating: 7/10 – three women – lovelorn Monica (Mitchell), selfish Stella (Collins), and good-natured Granny Quilliam (Harrison) – are released from prison on the same day, but though all three have plans to stay on the right side of the law, temptations put them all in jeopardy of landing right back where they started; a nimbly executed drama that poses some unexpected questions about the likelihood of prison being a place of reform, Turn the Key Softly benefits from the performances of Mitchell, Collins and Harrison, and by an assured use of London as a backdrop to the action.

No More Ladies (1935) / D: Edward H. Griffith / 80m

Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Charles Ruggles, Franchot Tone, Edna May Oliver, Gail Patrick, Reginald Denny, Vivienne Osborne, Joan Fontaine, Arthur Treacher

Rating: 5/10 – lovesick Marcia (Crawford) finally lands the man of her dreams, committed Lothario Sherry (Montgomery), only to find that being married hasn’t dampened his ardour for the company of other women; though the script is by Donald Ogden Stewart and Horace Jackson, neither man can make this turgid tale of jealousy and vengeful scheming as credible as it needs to be, and despite the best efforts of Crawford and Montgomery, it fails to impress, leaving only Ruggles and Oliver to elevate the material, and then merely by being present and on fine form.

Rough Night (2017) / D: Lucia Aniello / 101m

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Paul W. Downs, Ryan Cooper, Ty Burrell, Demi Moore

Rating: 6/10 – when five friends get together for a bachelorette party, they don’t plan on the male stripper they’ve hired ending up dead, or how difficult it will be to dispose of the body without anyone finding out; an uneasy mix of sweet-natured girl power and the kind of gross-out material that always makes for an equally uneasy combination, Rough Night features a great cast as the five friends (McKinnon is on good form as usual), but often leaves them stranded while the next set up is… set up, making this a comedy that relies on too much exposition to be truly effective, and which is only occasionally funny – though when it is, it is funny.

Geostorm (2017) / D: Dean Devlin / 109m

Cast: Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Andy Garcia, Ed Harris, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Eugenio Derbez, Amr Waked, Adepero Oduye, Robert Sheehan, Talitha Eliana Bateman, Richard Schiff

Rating: 5/10 – when a satellite system (called Dutchboy) that controls the Earth’s weather starts to malfunction, causing all sorts of catastrophes, it’s up to warring brothers Jake (Butler) and Max Lawson (Sturgess) to save the day, and to uncover the person behind it all – which might just be the US President (Garcia); despite having a ton of sincerity poured all over it, Geostorm is still as silly and as earnestly po-faced as you’d expect, with Butler in full-on macho mode, Sturgess doing perpetual anguish, Cornish wondering if her career will survive this, and all in support of a number of disaster porn episodes that, frankly, have lost the ability to impress thanks to all the other disaster porn movies that have come before it (some of which writer/director Devlin will be all too familiar with).

Oh! the Horror! – Happy Death Day (2017) and Jigsaw (2017)

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Happy Death Day (2017) / D: Christopher Landon / 96m

Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Bayle, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews

For Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Rothe), her latest birthday is not a day to acknowledge, laced as it is by the tragic death of her mother three years before, who also shared the same birthday. Waking up in the dorm room of schoolmate Carter Davis (Broussard), Tree spends most of her day being unpleasant to her friends and sorority housemates, skipping a planned lunch with her father, meeting her lover, professor Gregory Butler (Aitken), and planning to attend a party later that night. But on the way to the party she’s attacked and killed by a masked killer in a subway tunnel. Tree wakes up on her birthday in exactly the same place and in exactly the same circumstances. As the day continues the strangeness of reliving the same day a second time causes Tree to avoid the subway tunnel and stay at her sorority house. There she finds that her housemates have arranged a surprise party for her birthday. Reassured that she won’t be killed a second time as well, she hooks up with one of the boys she likes, but the killer appears and kills her again. And Tree wakes up on her birthday in exactly the same place and in exactly the same circumstances…

Yes, it’s another horror-themed variation on Groundhog Day (1993), with Tree forced to relive her birthday over and over again until she can discover the identity of her killer. Along the way there are plenty of red herrings, almost everybody she knows is a suspect at one time or another (even her father for a few moments), and her efforts to avoid being killed are entirely a waste of time. Eventually she manages to persuade Carter of what’s happening to her and he suggests that she use each day to work out who the killer could be. Of course, he doesn’t know he’s done this and so Tree is still left to work it all out for herself, and when one attempt leaves her in the hospital and not dead somewhere, she becomes aware of the presence, at the hospital, of a serial killer, John Tombs (Mello), and becomes convinced he’s her killer. But that particular idea leads to a quite different revelation, one that provides the movie with its inevitably obvious twist in the tale.

For a movie that was first announced a decade ago, Happy Death Day does at least feel a little fresher than most teen-based horror movies, and it’s blend of terror, college campus hijinks and waspish humour is at least attractive to watch, and the script’s determination to do something a little bit different with its familiar premise is to be applauded, but it’s still a movie that doesn’t follow its own agenda or guidelines too convincingly, as evidenced by the killer popping up wherever they’re needed to on any given day, and leading to the assumption that they’re aware of the time loop Tree is experiencing, and that they’re somehow ahead of it (and especially when they still manage to turn up inside a locked room). Of course, the script also takes the opportunity to show Tree the error of her rude, dismissive ways, and the time loop acts as a learning curve, which at least gives Tree a chance to grow as a character, even if it’s not really necessary.

Tree is played with a great deal of tenacity and conviction by Rothe, and as she’s in every scene, it’s fortunate that she’s as good as she is, as in the wrong hands, Tree could have been a character that the audience might not have had any sympathy for. As it is, Rothe is a terrific heroine, caustic and unlikeable to begin with (“Who takes their date to Subway? Besides, it’s not like you have a footlong”), to responsible and more able to deal with the problems in her life, such as her deteriorating relationship with her father. Sadly, the rest of the characters don’t fare so well, with Broussard’s potential new boyfriend coming across as too fresh-faced and bland to attract Tree in the first place, and Matthews’ obnoxious sorority leader, Danielle, giving new meaning to the phrase, “stupid is as stupid does (and says)”. Landon, who’s yet to make a completely successful horror movie after the entertainingly flawed Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015) and the unnecessary Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014), shows an understanding of the various masked killer tropes the script relies on, and how to use them to the movie’s best advantage, but he’s not quite able to combat the many non sequiturs that crop up throughout. And if the killer’s look is too much like Ghostface from the Scream franchise – but with a baby’s visage instead – it doesn’t actually hurt the movie, but it’s not an intrinsically scary image either.

Rating: 6/10 – a pleasant enough diversion in these days of overly lacklustre horror movies, Happy Death Day isn’t as bad as it sounds from its tagline, but it’s also not as good as it’s premise may promise; Rothe is a great choice for Tree, and Landon stages the murder scenes with a great deal of visual flair, but ultimately, and despite a good effort from all concerned, it still can’t overcome the familiarity of the material to make it stand too far out from the crowd.

 

Jigsaw (2017) / D: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig / 91m

Cast: Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson, Clé Bennett, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black

John Kramer (Bell), the notorious serial killer known as Jigsaw, and who never actually killed anyone, has been dead for ten years. But now, bodies are popping up all over the city that are clearly the work of Kramer – or is it a copycat? Despite mounting evidence that Kramer is still alive, the police, in the form of Detective Halloran (Rennie) and his partner, Detective Hunt (Bennett), as well as coroner Logan Nelson (Passmore) and his assistant, Eleanor Bonneville (Anderson) aren’t so convinced. After all, Kramer’s body underwent an autopsy – as seen in Saw IV (2007) – so it can’t be him. Soon, as the body count rises, and the finger of suspicion points toward Detective Halloran, Logan and Eleanor find themselves in a race against time to find the remaining “contestants” in Jigsaw’s latest game before they are forced to kill themselves or each other in order to survive and be set free.

By the time of Saw 3D (2010), the most recent in the series, the Saw franchise had become so convoluted that any attempt at following a logical narrative was almost as difficult as working out Pi to the thousandth degree. There were so many acolytes doing Kramer’s work, before, during and after his demise, that it was impossible to keep track of where they all fitted in to the overall narrative. And now we have an eighth movie that presents us with another acolyte doing Kramer’s work, and without spoiling anything for anyone, we have Kramer himself putting another unlucky group of sinners through the usual series of tests that will see them sliced, diced, maimed, tortured, and eventually killed. The how of it all is quite cleverly done, but this is the best thing about a seventh sequel that, like its immediate predecessors, seeks to play games with the series’ timeline, and cause its audience to spend much of the movie’s running time scratching their heads in confusion.

In tone, this is reminiscent of the first two movies, the ones that introduced and then expanded Kramer’s back story in such a way that you could still keep track of things before they got all gnarly and as tangled as the barbed wire in the Twisted Pictures logo. Newbies the Spierig Brothers have certainly got the look and feel of the series down pat, and while they recreate the grim and gloomy texture that infuses the series as a whole with due care and attention, in doing so, what they haven’t done (and neither has the script by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger) is to make this entry stand out from all the rest. The traps are all present and correct, and they are as fiendishly constructed as you’d expect, but somewhere along the way, the production has failed to make them as visually effective, or their outcomes as disturbing as in previous entries. In some ways, the traps in Jigsaw are the least gruesome in the series as a whole, and in that sense, the danger for the characters is lessened, making their ordeal less effective. It also doesn’t help that the confessions that Jigsaw/Kramer is looking for aren’t that effective either, with only one of them having any kind of impact.

If the intention was to kick start a new run of Saw movies, with new characters and new scenarios that could be sent off in a variety of new directions, then Jigsaw isn’t the movie to herald in that new run. Tied too much to the previous entries, and lacking in anything appreciably new that might energise proceedings, what we’re left with is a movie that feels more comfortable as a cinematic version of a Greatest Hits album (look out for one character’s “hobby room”, and the return of Billy the Puppet), and which harks back to the series’ early days almost in tribute of them. In the end, the movie feels tired and unnecessary, adding little to the canon and providing a bland experience for fans and newcomers alike. The performances are serviceable, though Bell is good value as always, and the twists and turns of the narrative aren’t as compelling or persuasive as they’ve been in the past. Kramer is fond of saying that “the truth will set you free”. Well here, the truth is that Lionsgate, who didn’t want to make another Saw movie until they heard a pitch they thought was worthwhile, should have waited a little bit longer.

Rating: 5/10 – lacking tension in its trap sequences, and with even fewer characters to connect with than usual, Jigsaw is a stunted attempt at rebuilding the Saw franchise; Bell’s presence helps, but it’s not enough to rescue a movie that trades on former glories while being too respectful of them, and which doesn’t try to establish its own identity.

The Big Sick (2017)

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D: Michael Showalter / 120m

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Vella Lovell, Myra Lucretia Taylor

Any budding romance can have its pitfalls and obstacles that need to be overcome, but the romance between Kumail Nanjiani, an aspiring stand-up comedian, and Emily V. Gordon, an aspiring therapist, is surely one that can’t be typical. How many other fledgling romances can lay claim to the fact that things were put in doubt by a combination of Kumail’s cultural background (being of Pakistani origin he’s expected to commit to an arranged marriage), and Emily’s falling ill and having to be put into a medically induced coma in order to save her life? If there’s another couple out there who have been through the same situation and come out the other side and still gotten married, and if they thought their experiences might be the stuff of a terrific small-scale movie, then they’re too late: Kumail and Emily have beaten them to it.

Based on the early days of their relationship, The Big Sick charts how Kumail (Nanjiani) and Emily (Kazan) first meet at one of his stand-up gigs. He’s still finding his feet on the comedy circuit in Chicago, while Emily is a post-grad student about to begin her own career. They take to each other immediately, but though they enjoy each other’s company, and Kumail in particular is smitten, Emily is more guarded. She doesn’t really see herself being in a relationship just yet, and when she finds a cigar box full of pictures of the women Kumail’s mother has tried to set him up with, it’s the excuse she needs to end things, especially as he reveals that he hasn’t told his parents about her. Later that same night, Kumail receives a call from one of Emily’s friends telling him that Emily has been admitted to hospital. When he gets there, he finds that she has a serious infection in her lungs and that she needs to be put into a coma in order that she can be properly treated. Kumail signs the consent form, and then contacts Emily’s parents, Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano)…

In telling the story of their romance, and the problems that nearly kept them apart forever, Nanjiani and Gordon – happily wed since 2007 – have constructed a screenplay that relates their story in a simple, heartfelt way that is both appealing and funny, but which also reflects the drama inherent in both Kumail’s family and cultural background, and Emily’s illness. Any movie that attempts to mix comedy, drama and romance and give each element its due, is a brave movie, but this is so successfully structured and played out that it almost looks easy (which it couldn’t have been; could it?). Part of the appeal of the movie is that it never tries to be anything more than a faithful reflection of the two main characters’ experiences and feelings at the time, while raising pertinent observations about relationships, Pakistani culture, the persistence of love in times of adversity, and finding our place in the world. And even if only ten per cent of what we see in the movie is what actually happened, it doesn’t matter: there’s an emotional truth here that trumps all other considerations.

It is instructive though just how confident Nanjiani and Gordon are in their material, with the comedy elements (Kumail’s relationship with his family, adversarial but still borne out of affection) and the dramatic elements (Emily’s life-threatening illness, and the obvious distance between her parents) blending effectively and with a surety that is constantly effective, with director Michael Showalter displaying a fine sense of timing and allowing the story and the characters the room to breathe. The movie is somewhat slow in places, but it’s a deliberate approach that allows the audience to get to know the characters and to become involved in what’s happening to them. This makes the main characters sympathetic and believable, from Kumail’s reluctance to tell his parents about Emily, to Beth’s passionate outbursts when she feels a wrong has been committed (as when Kumail is heckled by an audience member who tells him to “go back to ISIS”), and even to some of the supporting characters such as Chris (Braunohler), Kumail’s roommate and “the worst” of the stand-up comics that he hangs out with (their collective opinion).

In relation to the issues surrounding arranged marriages, the script makes some solid observations about the cultural need to maintain traditions when weighed against modern conceptions of love and marriage, and how these two opposing approaches can affect even the strongest of family relationships, but Nanjiani is clever in that he doesn’t make this the dramatic focus of the movie, even though he does address the issues cogently and with a great deal of sympathy for both sides. Humour is the order of the day, and the scene where he comes home to challenge his being kicked out of the family, and uses pre-written cards to do so, is a perfect example of the script knowing how to balance both comedy and drama. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and entirely serious in its intentions all at the same time. Likewise the scenes between Kumail and Beth and Terry at the hospital, largely dramatic in tone but with a wistful quality to them that helps anchor the emotional undercurrents. The scenes at the hospital show Beth and Terry reacting differently to each new development, and there’s not one false note about their reactions, so well written are they and so believable as individuals.

The performances are terrific, though Hunter does stand out as Beth, her portrayal not based on Emily’s real-life mother at all, and actually all the better for it, allowing Hunter to freewheel through certain scenes with a sincerity and a credibility that is hugely impressive. As himself, Nanjiani is much like his portrayals of characters in other movies, and you get the sense that the script is making it easier for him to play the role than if he were playing someone else. That said, he understands the material in ways that another actor wouldn’t have, and so his casting is a wise choice, even though he’s not really an actor. This and a couple of minor quibbles aside – why does Kumail keep the photos of the women his mother has tried to set him up with is never explained (making it seem like an awkward McGuffin), and Terry making a confession to Kumail never quite feels credible – the movie is a genuine pleasure to watch, and often has more going on than in two or three other movies altogether. You’ll be glad you decided to spend time with Kumail and Emily, and you’ll root for them while you do, so engaging are they, and so relatable as well.

Rating: 9/10 – beautifully written and beautifully realised, The Big Sick is the best romantic comedy drama of 2017, a delightful, insightful, and incisive movie that proves there’s still life in the old rom-com-dram yet; with knowing performances, astute direction, a pleasing visual sense courtesy of cinematographer Brian Burgoyne, and an impressive sense of its own simplicity, this is one of the most enjoyable movies in some time, and a worthy tribute to Nanjiani and Gordon’s love for each other.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

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D: Armando Iannucci / 106m

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Paddy Considine, Adrian McLoughlin

The Death of Stalin could have easily been subtitled Fear and Loathing in Moscow, such are the high levels of animosity and opposition that ensue following the death of Soviet leader, “Uncle Joe” Stalin (McLoughlin). As the various members of the Central Committee scramble to establish a way forward – and more importantly, decide which one of them will be the country’s new leader – loyalties are tested, schemes are hatched, alliances are forged, but political manoeuvring continues unabated (it’s just that some of the goals, and the goalposts themselves, are changed from moment to moment). Under the satirical gaze of writer/director Armando Iannucci, the events that took place in the wake of Stalin’s death provide the basis for a movie that combines very black humour with a surprisingly serious approach to the material that helps the movie operate effectively on two separate levels, both comedic and dramatic.

While not everything happened in the way that Iannucci portrays it, some things did, and it’s the way in which he emphasises the absurdity of these real events that adds greatly to the effectiveness of the screenplay which has been co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin, with additional material by Peter Fellows, and which itself is based on a screenplay by original source material writer Fabien Nury (The Death of Stalin has been adapted from the comic book of the same name). One such event occurs following the stroke Stalin suffered on 1 May 1953. When he’s found the next morning, it takes around twelve hours for a doctor to be called, as each member of the Central Committee refuses to make a decision by themselves in case Stalin recovers and takes them to task for their actions. It’s only when all the Committee members are in agreement that a doctor is needed that anything more is done. But then there’s another issue: thanks to the recent Doctors’ Plot, where prominent doctors were accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders, all the good, well regarded physicians in Moscow have been either imprisoned or executed. So, who to call? It’s moments like these, absurdist moments that challenge the perception of what’s real and what’s invented that makes the movie so enjoyable to watch.

But Iannucci isn’t solely interested in pointing out how ridiculous some of the events surrounding Stalin’s death were, but also how deadly serious that milieu was and how nothing could be taken for granted, be it a job, a reputation, or worse still, a life. Iannucci is quick to show the darker side of Soviet life in the Fifties, with Stalin’s Head of Security, Lavrentiy Beria (Beale), relishing his role as a combination accuser,  torturer, and executioner, whether he’s chasing down real enemies of the state or fabricating evidence to convict the innocent through political expediency. With Stalin’s full support while he’s alive, Beria has attained a position of power that he seeks to build on once his mentor is dead, and as he manipulates the Deputy Leader, the fragile minded Georgy Malenkov (Tambor), it’s left to Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) to put a stop to Beria’s ambitions.

One of the more absurdist notions of Iannucci’s movie is that it puts forth Nikita Khrushchev as its hero, but this was Khrushchev’s time, the moment where he took power in the wake of Stalin’s death and set about making long-lasting reforms. Here he’s a worried politician who wants to see an end to the tyranny of Stalin’s rule, and fears that Beria’s influence on Malenkov will see an unnecessary continuation of past horrors. Iannucci makes it clear that fear is the one overwhelming motivator in Soviet life, no matter what level you’re at. There’s fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of being seen with the wrong person, fear of ignorance and knowledge together, and fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie shows how stressful this must have been, and how easy it must have been to make a simple honest mistake that might mean the difference between life and death, and how either outcome could shift according to whim or will.

Such a dark period in Soviet history (one of many though, to be fair) might not be the best subject for a dark comedy, but The Death of Stalin is more than that, and as well as its exploration of a society living in fear, it also seeks to examine how power corrupts those who look for it above all else – Beria seals his fate by threatening each of the other Committee members with what he knows about them. These dramatic moments, where the political jockeying turns brittle and ugly, allows the humour to have even more of an impact; if you didn’t laugh, you’d have to acknowledge the tragedy and the terrible nature of what’s happening. But Iannucci knows when to raise a laugh and when to keep the drama humour-free. It’s a delicate tightrope that he traverses, but he does it with style and confidence, creating a restrained yet also panic-ridden atmosphere for his characters to operate in. He also finds time to highlight the self-serving hypocrisy of the Committee members, something that’s best expressed through the attitude of Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin), who denounced his wife for the good of the party – and his own position within it.

With Iannucci and his co-writers putting together such a good script, and Iannucci himself proving that he’s firmly in control of both the tone and the pace of the movie, things are made even more impressive by the cast that he’s assembled. Buscemi is terrific as Khrushchev, a bureaucrat holding the fate of a nation within his hands, while Tambor’s turn as Malenkov is a delight, even if you have to wonder how such a dimwit got onto the Committee in the first place. There are first-rate supporting turns from Isaacs as a very gruff, very Yorkshire-sounding Head of the Red Army, Georgy Zhukov; Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana; Considine as an under threat theatre manager who really needs to record a live concert; and Palin, who gives such a subtle reading of his character that it serves as a reminder that when he’s not travelling the world, he’s a very accomplished actor indeed. But if anyone stands out it’s Beale as the venal, grotesque Beria, a character who seems fully formed from the moment we first see him, flinging horrible caustic remarks about with no concern for the feelings of others, and telling the audience everything they need to know about him in one perfect line of dialogue: “Have a long sleep, old man. I’ll take it from here.” It’s a performance that’s unlikely to win any awards thanks to the nature of the movie, but if Beale did win an award, it would be entirely justified. It’s the perfect cap to a movie that operates effectively on so many levels, and which has a lot more going on below the surface both in terms of the narrative, and its recreation of a period when laughing at senior Soviet politicians would have meant a swift trip to a gulag…or worse.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie that treats its historical backdrop with a great deal of respect (even when it alters certain facts to suit the material), The Death of Stalin is a small, unassuming gem of a movie that is both horrifying and amusing at the same time, and without either element undermining the other; with its clutch of richly perceptive performances, cleverly constructed humour, and astute direction, it’s a movie that may not find the wider audience it deserves, but is nevertheless a must-see for anyone who likes their political satire barbed and ready to sting.

10 Reasons to Remember Walter Lassally (1926-2017)

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Walter Lassally (18 December 1926 – 23 October 2017)

Walter Lassally’s family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and came to England where his father made industrial and documentary movies. Following in his father’s footsteps, Lassally made his name as a cinematographer in the Fifties, working as part of the British Free Cinema movement, and alongside directors such as Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and Lindsay Anderson. These were short movies and documentaries that reflected the mood of Britain at the time, and Lassally’s involvement in them helped forge the partnership he made with Richardson in the early Sixties, and which led to a trilogy of movies about working class British lives (past and present) that brought both of them international acclaim. Following his collaboration with Richardson, Lassally reunited with Cypriot director Michael Cacoyannis, with whom he’d worked sporadically during the late Fifties, on perhaps his most famous work, Zorba the Greek (1964). Lassally won an Oscar for his work on the movie, and when he retired he donated it to a beach front taverna located near to where Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates famously danced together in the movie (alas, the statuette was lost in a fire there in 2012).

Lassally continued to work steadily after that, and was much in demand, but in 1972 he began another working relationship that would provide him with extra plaudits in the years ahead, with James Ivory. They worked together off and on over the next twenty years, and Lassally continued to provide the movies he worked on with a thoughtful and intelligent visual approach to the material, while also doing his best to come up with new innovative ways of presenting said material. And even though he officially “retired” in the early Nineties he continued working up until his last feature, Crescent Heart (2001). While not a household name in the same sense as some of his contemporaries, Lassally was nevertheless a signifier of quality if you saw his name in the credits of a movie. Thanks to his early background in shorts and documentaries, Lassally was always able to find the truth within an image, and provide a clarity of vision that always helped to elevate the material or the narrative he was working with. An unsung hero behind the lens then, but very capable of capturing sights that could provoke an emotional and an intellectual response in the viewer.

1 – A Girl in Black (1956)

2 – A Taste of Honey (1961)

3 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

4 – Tom Jones (1963)

5 – Zorba the Greek (1964)

6 – Oedipus the King (1968)

7 – Malachi’s Cove (1973)

8 – Heat and Dust (1983)

9 – The Bostonians (1984)

10 – The Deceivers (1988)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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D: Taika Waititi / 130m

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi, Rachel House, Clancy Brown

Ah, Thor, God of Thunder – where have ye been? And what have ye done? Is there anything we should know about? After seeing Thor: Ragnarok, you might be thinking, no, there isn’t, as Marvel’s latest attempt to spin an interesting solo movie out of the Son of Asgard throws punchline after one liner after humorous quip as it tries to draw the audience’s attention away from the fact that, once again, Marvel have very few ideas as to what to do with the character (or Loki, or Odin, or worse still, Bruce Banner/Hulk). By making this a de facto comedy, somewhere along the line they forgot to provide a compelling story. Sure, there’s drama in Hela, the Goddess of Death (Blanchett) coming to destroy Asgard, and yes, there’s further drama in Thor and Hulk both ending up on the same planet and needing to team up to save themselves and Asgard, but it’s all buried under a layer of humour that is often clumsy and intrusive.

The main problem is with Marvel’s decision to split the narrative in two. At the beginning we have the re-emergence of Hela and the threat to Asgard as we know it. Hela proves a formidable opponent to Thor and sends him spinning off through time and space where he ends up on the planet of Sakaar. This is where the movie becomes a little schizophrenic, hopping to and fro from Sakaar, where Thor finds himself prisoner of the Grandmaster (Goldblum), a futuristic Nero-in-waiting who organises gladiatorial games in the kind of overblown colosseum where the unlucky folks in the seats all the way at the top need to bring binoculars in order to see the duels properly, and Asgard, where Hela spends her time waiting for Thor to come back for the big showdown (sorry, that should read behaving nefariously and cruelly to the people of Asgard). Either of these stories could have made an effective single movie, but here they only serve to rub up against each other awkwardly, and as a result, neither are particularly effective.

While Hela misbehaves in Asgard, Thor discovers he’s not alone on Sakaar. Loki (Hiddleston) is also there, having suffered the same fate at the hands of Hela as his brother. Of course, Loki is just as conniving and deceitful as ever, but equally as ever he can still be persuaded to do the right thing when the need arises. Also on Sakaar is Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), still transformed into the Hulk from his last appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe towards the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Hulk is the Grandmaster’s champion gladiator, still indomitable, still fuelled by rage but also satisfied by not having returned to being his weaker alter ego. And then there’s a third “refugee”, Scrapper-142, otherwise known as Valkyrie (Thompson), an Asgardian whose presence (and age) aren’t fully explained in the script, but who has history with Hela. Together, Thor, Hulk, Loki and Valkyrie must team up to escape from Sakaar, head for Asgard, and defeat the waiting Hela (sorry, that should read defeat the nefarious and cruelly behaving Hela).

While all this takes place over a matter of days (presumably), it lacks for tension and suspense. We all know that Thor and his team of Revengers will escape from Sakaar, even if it is through the notorious Devil’s Anus (a spectacular wormhole that hovers conveniently over Sakaar), but half the problem is that it takes him so long to do so. And by the time everyone’s back in Asgard for the big showdown, it leaves the final battle feeling a little rushed. Along the way, Bruce relays his reluctance to return to being Hulk, Loki plays both sides to his own advantage, Valkyrie is convinced to help Thor, and the Grandmaster behaves in the kind of off-kilter, quirky, madcap kind of way that only Jeff Goldblum can manage. Meanwhile, Hela sits on the throne of Asgard, glowers a lot, dispenses with a horde of Asgardian warriors in quick fashion, makes an acolyte of Karl Urban’s opportunistic Skurge, and goes back to glowering and waiting for Thor to return (sorry, that should read glowering and plotting the end of Asgard – though you’d think that, having been banished for what seems a very long time, she would have a firm course of action in mind by now).

It’s all put together by Marvel newbie Waititi in bright, airy fashion and with huge dollops of the aforementioned humour to wash it all down with. Some of the humour does work – the already seen in the trailer, “he’s a friend from work”, a lovely mini-performance by Hopkins as Loki playing at being Odin, and Thor trying to break a window – but overall there are just too many moments where the humour is forced or feels like it’s there to carry the scene instead of being an integral part of it. It also comes perilously close to making Thor seem like an inveterate joker rather than the more serious God of Thunder. Even Hela gets a number of wry, pithy observations to put across, and while Blanchett is clearly having fun, having the main villain sounding like a bored straight man trying to get a laugh doesn’t help at all. Marvel seem to be experimenting with each new instalment in the MCU, and Thor: Ragnarok has all the hallmarks of a comedy script that’s been beefed up dramatically thanks to the inclusion of Hela.

That the movie is still a lot of fun despite all this is a tribute to the talent of Waititi and his directorial skills, and the Marvel brand itself, increasingly less homogeneous of late, but still sticking to a winning formula. But there’s very, very little here that adds to the twenty-two movie story arc that will culminate in Untitled Avengers Movie (2019), and if this movie didn’t exist it’s not entirely certain that anyone would be too concerned if Thor and Hulk didn’t show up on our screens until Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Thor himself does undergo some changes (and it’s not just the hair), but where they will ultimately take him if there are to be any further solo movies is open to debate. As for Bruce Banner and his jolly green alter ego, the greater problem of how to provide him with his own solo movie remains unsolved, as the movie keeps him in a supporting role and shows just how effective the character can be when he’s not the main focus. A pleasant diversion then before we delve into the world of Wakanda, but one that’s like a bowl of ice cream: memorable only while it’s being consumed.

Rating: 7/10 – despite the critical drubbing that Thor: The Dark World has taken since its release in 2013, and despite the infusion of a huge amount of comedy, Thor: Ragnarok is ultimately the least of the God of Thunder’s outings so far (though only just); with too many holes in the script, and too many occasions where the characters react and behave in service to the humour rather than the other way around, this is still entertaining stuff, just not as bold or as consistent as it could, or should, have been.

1922 (2017)

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D: Zak Hilditch / 102m

Cast: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Neal McDonough, Brian d’Arcy James

Hemingford Home, Nebraska, 1922. Wilfred James (Jane), a farmer, owns eighty acres of land. His wife, Arlette (Parker), owns an adjoining one hundred acres of land, an inheritance from her late father. They have a teenage son, Henry (Schmid). Arlette is frustrated by having to live outside of town and wants the three of them to sell their combined land and move to Omaha. Wilfred is against the idea, but Arlette is insistent, telling him that if he won’t agree to her wish then she’ll sell her hundred acres and move to Omaha anyway; and she’ll take Henry with her. Wilfred is against this idea even more, and decides that he needs to do something to stop his wife from going through with her plan.

Now this being an adaptation of a Stephen King novella, Wilfred’s solution is, of course, to murder Arlette and dispose of her body down a well that’s conveniently located on the property. But Wilfred can’t do this on his own, and so he inveigles Henry into helping him. He does this by convincing his son that Arlette leaving will be the ruin of the farm (which is actually true), and that it will mean Henry will no longer be able to see his girlfriend, Shannon (Bernard), the daughter of another local farmer, Harlan Cotterie (McDonough). Henry has reservations about his father’s plan, but as there’s no particular love lost between him and his mother, he agrees. Between them, they murder Arlette, and as planned, her body ends up at the bottom of the well. Realising that he’ll need a reason to fill in the well (or it will look suspicious), Wilfred has one of his cows fall in as well. Then he fills it with concrete. It’s not long before Arlette’s disappearance – Wilfred tells the sheriff (James) that she just upped and left – has its consequences. Wilfred and Henry have trouble dealing with their individual guilt, and they become estranged from each other. And then Henry reveals Shannon is pregnant…

Secrets, and the dead, rarely remain quiet, and this is very true in 1922, the latest feature from Australian movie maker Zak Hilditch, and the latest in what seems to be a neverending conveyor belt of Stephen King adaptations that have been released this year. Once Arlette has been killed, things go quickly from bad to worse to simply terrible for Wilfred, as his relationship with Henry disintegrates, and Arlette’s ghost – aided by the presence of rats that seem to be in league with her – begins to appear with increasing malevolence. Wilfred has no one to turn to, no one he can ask for help, and as he sinks into a morass of terror and despair, he finds that his one fear, that Arlette’s leaving would be the ruin of the farm, is going to happen anyway (though just how he and Henry by themselves were going to manage one hundred and eighty acres remains a mystery). Taunted by Arlette’s ghost, menaced by rats, and abandoned by Henry who runs off with Shannon, Wilfred’s fate is sealed.

Despite its obvious thriller and horror trappings, 1922 is a movie that’s more concerned with its traditional theme of pride going before a fall. Many of the characters exhibit this trait in one form or another, and while it does provide the backbone of the narrative, writer/director Hilditch is clever enough not to overdo it. He adopts a matter of fact approach to the material that serves it well, and especially when pride turns to guilt and then to unavoidable resignation. There’s grief here too, painful, overwhelming grief, and again, Hilditch makes it an organic part of the narrative, and not something to be trotted out to make one or two scenes work independently of all the rest. These emotions are pervasive and tied to the fates of all concerned. When Wilfred comes up with his plan, it’s not just Arlette that is doomed, it’s Henry, and Shannon (they become Bonnie and Clyde-style robbers nicknamed The Sweetheart Bandits), and Harlan too. These emotions also help anchor the movie when it moves into the realm of the supernatural, and they help to make Wilfred’s situation all the more credible in the face of Arlette’s ghostly return.

The supernatural elements do feel a little forced however, with Arlette appearing randomly at first, but always at moments when you’d expected her to. And despite Hilditch’s best efforts, she’s not really that frightening or scary, her presence more of an obligation to the story than something to really be afraid of. Of course, she appears in a post mortem state, with blood and all, but it’s only in the movie’s best sequence, where she relates Henry and Shannon’s fate to a cowering Wilfred, her lips in kissing distance to his face, and shot in close up, that Hilditch makes the most of Arlette’s oppressive presence. As Arlette, Parker has little to do except be a self-regarding shrew for around twenty minutes before being killed off, and quite explicitly at that. Schmid is good as the conflicted yet defiant Henry, rushing off into the world without a clue as to how to tackle it and paying the price for his feelings of guilt and anguish. The other secondary and minor performances range from adequate to perfunctory, but all in all this is Jane’s movie from start to finish. Jane’s now rugged features are a perfect match for Wilfred, and helped by a severe haircut he paints a terrific portrait of a man defined by his pride and his actions, and who does what he does out of loyalty to the land and to his son. That both are taken away from him when he would sacrifice his own life for both of them – something that Jane incorporates into his portrayal with ease – adds to the tragedy of it all. This is by far and away Jane’s best performance in quite some time, and one that maintains a subdued energy throughout.

The era is replicated quite nicely, though the movie does suffer from a surfeit of patently false looking backdrops and CGI surroundings, no doubt a budgetary constraint rather than an artistic decision, but these are noticeable, and they do hamper the sense of time and place that the movie is looking to represent. The movie also moves at a slow, deliberate pace that suits the material in the early stages, but which does it no favours when applied to events in the last forty minutes. The story itself is told in wraparound fashion by Wilfred as he writes everything down in an attempt at a confessional while in a hotel room (not 1408). Here, Hilditch eschews the ambiguity of King’s original ending in favour of one last fright, and while this does provide a frisson to see out the movie, its literal nature isn’t quite as effective in terms of the story as it could have been. But these are caveats in a movie that gets far more right than it does wrong, and which can be added to the list of better than average Stephen King adaptations.

Rating: 7/10 – Hilditch has adapted King’s novella with a great deal of care, and 1922 is one adaptation where the characters and their motivations and emotions are more important than providing just a succession of frights and jump scares; a slow burn build up helps also, as well as Jane’s compelling performance, making this a movie that, while it may not be to all tastes, is still worth seeking out on its own terms.

Literally, Right Before Aaron (2017)

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D: Ryan Eggold / 102m

Cast: Justin Long, Cobie Smulders, Ryan Hansen, John Cho, Kristen Schaal, Dana Delany, Peter Gallagher, Lea Thompson, Luis Guzmán, Malcolm Barrett, Briga Heelan, Charlyne Yi, Charlotte McKinney, Parvesh Cheena, Dov Tiefenbach, Manu Intiraymi

How you feel about Adam (Long), Literally, Right Before Aaron‘s main protagonist, may depend largely on your reaction to something that his ex-girlfriend, Allison (Smulders) says as he replays their first meeting: “I can’t tell if you’re charming, or just being an asshole”. It’s a salient point, as Adam is, by and large, an asshole, another of cinema’s eternal losers, the guy who not only loses the girl but also loses a big part of his identity as well. He behaves inappropriately at times, is ignored and/or put upon by others, and has at least one friend (Cho) who isn’t afraid to point out the obvious: that he’s an asshole and one of [life’s] eternal losers. He’s a hard character to like, and to spend time with, and despite several attempts by writer/director Eggold, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him. He’s the author of his own downfall on too many occasions, and seems intent on making the same mistakes over and over.

In terms of the movie, Adam’s first big mistake is to accept Allison’s invitation to her upcoming wedding to Aaron (Hansen), literally the next guy she dated after breaking up with Adam. Adam is naturally conflicted. It’s been eighteen months since he and Allison split up, and though he has a new girlfriend, Julie (Heelan), he still loves Allison and still wants to be with her. He accepts the invitation in the hope of getting her to change her mind and start over, but his own indecision and social awkwardness keeps him from making any kind of impassioned plea that might do the job. He gets to spend a little time with Allison, reminisces about all the fun times they had, and then does nothing. Heartsick, and doomed to witness Allison and Aaron get married, Adam does allow his friend to provide him with a plus one, dollmaker Talula (Schaal), but the wedding goes ahead as planned. It’s not until the reception and a combination of too much alcohol and being desperate that Adam decides to do anything at all…

Eggold is returning to the characters and milieu he first created through an award-winning short movie of the same name that was released in 2011. Like so many features expanded from an original short movie, Literally, Right Before Aaron suffers from a surfeit of extraneous scenes – Adam runs into an old college friend (Barrett) at the library and feigns knowledge of Allison and what’s she’s up to, and then does the same with his mother (Thompson), literally two scenes later – and loses some of the impact that a shorter running time requires. And instead of exploring the characters and their motivations in greater detail, Eggold the writer paints them in broad strokes and has them repeat the same actions or mistakes over and over. One question is likely to be at the forefront of viewers’ minds right from the start – why did Adam and Allison split up after eight years together? – but when it is finally addressed, the answer is conveniently interrupted. It’s important to know because it’s Allison’s wish that they remain friends; but why if they broke up, and as it appears from the opening scene, they haven’t seen each other since they split up.

Adam’s misplaced sense of relationship masochism sends him to the wedding, and while that’s understandable as an urge to try and restore things to happier times – Adam is often asked if he’s happy, and mostly because he doesn’t look it – once there Eggold has no choice but to make things even more difficult for Adam, and whether it’s a credulous hotel clerk (Cheena), or the all-encompassing charisma of Aaron himself, Adam is left trailing in everyone’s wake, invisible or simply not worth acknowledging. And strangely, Adam is made an accomplice to all this, his weak-natured sense of self respect leading him into awkward situations and a degree of emotional distress that he almost encourages by remaining silent. It’s not until the reception and several drinks that Adam takes courage from a piece of graffiti – Carpe diem – and finds the wherewithal to confront Allison over the cause of their break up. And though by then you might still be interested in hearing her answer, it really doesn’t matter because you’ll have decided, rightly, that it was because Adam was just “being an asshole”.

As the beleaguered Adam, Long copes well with the demands of a character who is inherently obtuse, and his innate likeability as an actor goes some way to offsetting Adam’s emotional stubbornness, but he’s unable to overcome Eggold’s insistence that the character remain churlish and insipid (a difficult combination to pull off at the best of times) right up until almost the very end. With Adam being the primary focus – he’s in nearly every scene – Allison is reduced to a secondary character, the deus ex machina that drives the story forward but Eggold doesn’t make her involvement or her situation as vital, even though her motivations should be more integral to the story. Smulders has only one scene in which to shine, but thanks to Eggold’s limitations as a writer, even then she’s given far too little to work with. The rest of the cast provide solid if unremarkable performances, with the likes of Delany, Thompson, and Guzmán making what amount to cameo appearances.

As well as wearing a director and a screenwriter’s hat, Eggold also co-produces and edits the movie, and contributes to the score alongside David Goldman, and though it’s admirable that he’s taken on all these roles, it’s tempting to feel that maybe he’s taken on more than he can adequately deal with. As a writer, he’s not as focused or as insightful as he could have been, though as a director he’s on much firmer ground, guiding the story in a simple, immediate fashion that doesn’t rely on directorial frills or fancy camera work to show off what he’s capable of. It’s an approach that suits the material as well. As an editor though, Eggold doesn’t always know when it’s right to cut from one character to another in a scene, and there are times – mostly during the reception sequences – where it’s hard to tell if an issue is due to the editing or the continuity. For the most part the movie is appealing to watch thanks to Seamus Tierney’s cinematography, and San Francisco is exploited to good effect, but overall this is a movie that, like it’s central character, is “a little rough around the edges”, but not enough to make it more successful.

Rating: 5/10 – a comedy that’s only sporadically funny, and a drama that’s only sporadically dramatic, Literally, Right Before Aaron is a mixed bag thanks to its having a main character who’s hard to engage with; there are flashes of what could have been, and some of the minor characters make it more enjoyable, but Eggold’s feature debut also consists of too much padding to be truly effective.

6 Days (2017)

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D: Toa Fraser / 94m

Cast: Jamie Bell, Mark Strong, Abbie Cornish, Martin Shaw, Ben Turner, Emun Elliott, Aymen Hamdouchi, Andrew Grainger, Colin Garlick, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Tim Pigott-Smith

Between 30 April and 5 May 1980, the Iranian Embassy in London came under siege from six armed men whose aim was to secure the release of ninety-one Arab prisoners being held in Iran. Taking twenty-six hostages, they also demanded safe passage out of the United Kingdom once their goal was achieved. Of course, the outcome was very much different from what they were hoping for. Following the killing of one of the hostages, the order was given to send in the SAS. On the evening of the sixth day of the siege, they stormed the building and in the ensuing seventeen minutes killed five of the six armed men, rescued all but one of the remaining hostages (five had been released over the previous days), and gave notice to the world that the UK would not tolerate terrorism on any level.

What 6 Days does is to cover that dramatic period from a variety of angles in an effort to provide the viewer with a comprehensive overview of what was going on at the time both inside the embassy and outside it. So we see the six members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA), led by Salim (Turner), as they try to control the situation from an ever decreasing state of authority, as well as the Metropolitan Police’s chief negotiator, Max Vernon (Strong), as he does his best to keep things from escalating out of control. We also see the SAS teams that would eventually end the siege gathering intelligence on how best to enter the building, BBC reporter Kate Adie (Cornish) establish her reputation as a serious news journalist, and the political manoeuvring that went on behind the scenes involving the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw (Pigott-Smith), and the various decision makers who would debate and interpret the government’s policy of non-compliance in terrorist matters.

With such an intense, dramatic situation, and one whose violent conclusion was played out – deliberately – in front of a number of assembled news cameras, you might expect 6 Days to be as equally intense and dramatic, but sadly, whatever tension is achieved is arrived at accidentally. Glenn Standring’s screenplay, adapted from the awkwardly titled Go! Go! Go!: The SAS. The Iranian Embassy Siege. The True Story (2011) by Rusty Firmin and Will Pearson, alternates between each angle with an initial promise that soon falls away to offer routine exchanges between all concerned, a worrying number of occasions where we see the SAS fail in their preparations, Cornish’s role as Kate Adie built up so that her billing is made more credible, and negotiations between Vernon and Salim that consist of Vernon reassuring Salim that he wants to help, while Salim insists that he’ll kill a hostage if his demands aren’t met – over and over. (If there was ever any intention of exploring the psychological aspects of hostage negotiation, they certainly didn’t make it into the final script.)

There are other problems, some that relate to the movie’s pacing, and others that relate to director Toa Fraser’s handling of the material. Fraser made the enjoyably quirky Dean Spanley (2008), but here the confidence he showed with that movie appears to have deserted him. With an array of characters and situations to be exploited, Fraser leaves many scenes high and dry in terms of their potential effectiveness, opting for a flatness of tone that proves wearying the more it happens. As a result, he often leaves his talented cast looking as if they’ve been cast adrift from the narrative and are wondering where the lifeboats are. Bell, as the same Rusty Firmin whose book this is based on, can’t quite convince as a lance corporal in the SAS, and he’s too bland a character to make much of an impact. Cornish is kept on standby until the siege is broken, which is the point at which Adie came into her own and sealed her journalistic reputation by reporting events as they happened (though the movie has her standing heroically out in the open, whereas in reality Adie wisely hid behind a car door). Cornish also attempts a vocal interpretation of Adie that is off-putting to say the least.

But if you have to spare a thought for anyone in the movie it’s Mark Strong, a fine actor with an impressive range, but here reduced to staring continually in anguished sincerity while his character tries to keep things from going very wrong very quickly. In comparison with much of the rest of the movie, he’s one of the best things in it, but he’s hamstrung by the demands of the script and his director’s inability to make each scene anything more than flat and undemanding. This inattention leads to the movie having an equally flat and undemanding tone that negates any sense of urgency about the siege and the political machinations surrounding it. It’s not until the SAS storm the building that the movie wakes up and remembers it’s as much a thriller as a political drama, but even then there’s a great deal of confusion as to what’s happening where and, in the case of the SAS themselves, to whom.

Again, there are pacing issues as well, and too much repetition to make 6 Days anything other than a pedestrian representation of an event that made international headlines and kept a nation glued to their televisions and radios throughout its duration. There are flashes of humour that are largely muted (though a comment from an embassy staff member to Firmin is priceless by itself), the odd attempt at post-ironic commentary, contemporary footage that sits side by side with the movie’s recreations of the same images, and an eerily effective opening shot that sees the six terrorists passing by the Royal Albert Hall, but they’re not enough on their own to make the movie more engaging or gripping. There’s a great deal of earnestness and melodramatic sincerity on display, but it’s all in service to a script that feels as if it’s trying to tell its story at a remove from the actual events, and which compresses those fateful six days into an hour and a half and still finds the need to pad out the narrative with unnecessary detours and longueurs.

Rating: 4/10 – muddled and far from absorbing, 6 Days is an undemanding viewing experience that doesn’t try too hard to make its true story anything other than perfunctory and banal; by the time the SAS storm the embassy you’ll be thinking “at last” – not because the movie is finally going to be halfway exciting, but because it means the movie is close to being over.

Thelma (2017)

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D: Joachim Trier / 116m

Cast: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervåg, Vanessa Borgli

Selected as Norway’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars, Thelma is a curious mix of genres that starts off slowly but which quickly gathers momentum as it examines the life of its titular character (Harboe), and explores the mystery that surrounds a series of strange phenomena that occur around her. It’s an often beguiling movie, a drama that shifts its narrative focus from time to time in order to wrong foot the viewer, and to keep them guessing as to the true nature of said strange phenomena. As well as a drama it’s a psychological thriller, a romance, a muted horror, and these are all wrapped up in a mystery that draws them together to provide a slow burn experience that is increasingly effective even when it seems that it’s not going to offer much in the way of anything really new.

Thelma is a student who has moved to Oslo to complete her studies. She’s quiet, a little removed from the other students, but otherwise there’s nothing to distinguish her outwardly from anyone else. She’s studious, speaks to her parents (Rafaelsen, Petersen) regularly, and doesn’t drink or smoke because of her religious beliefs – which are really her parents’ beliefs. Her father is a doctor, and her mother is in a wheelchair following an accident that we don’t get to know about until near the end of the movie. Thelma allows herself to be instructed by them in how to behave socially, and if she deviates in any way from the pattern her life is fitting into, then they behave suspiciously about her motives and actions until she can reassure them. More important still, she has to take the medication her father has prescribed for her since she was a child.

Things begin to change when she notices Anja (Wilkins), a fellow student. A mutual attraction develops between them, and as their relationship becomes more intimate, Thelma begins to experience strange dreams and reveries that hark back to her childhood. Increasingly confused and concerned about these experiences, Thelma submits to various medical tests but they prove inconclusive while adding to the stress she’s increasingly feeling. Her fear and uncertainty also leads to her breaking many of her parents’ rules, but the consequence of this is that her relationship with Anja begins to suffer. Needing to find some answers to the visions she’s experiencing, Thelma finds that those answers are much closer to home than she could have ever expected. (The audience will already have garnered as much from the movie’s opening scene, where a young Thelma (Eltervåg) has a rifle pointed at her by her father while he decides whether or not to pull the trigger.)

Trier is a director who likes to introduce an uncomfortable tension into the most mundane of circumstances or moments, and Thelma is no different. Thelma’s quiet, modest demeanour is reflected in the way that Trier presents the world around her, an equally quiet, modest part of Oslo that acts as the perfect backdrop for a story that slowly reveals a darkness both inside its main character and lurking around her almost like a living thing. Thelma herself is a young woman who’s almost a blank slate when we first meet her, but as the movie progresses we begin to find that she’s also a young woman who has modest personal ambitions, and who wants to break away from the religious yoke that’s been imposed on her by her parents. But this religious yoke has a reason behind it, as does the medication she takes, and as the mystery of the strange phenomena that happen around her begins to take shape and Thelma is revealed to be much more of a danger to herself and others – particularly others – Trier increases the tension within the narrative, and keeps the viewer unwittingly on the edge of their seat. You might be able to work out what’s going on, and Trier isn’t too concerned if you do, but what he does so well is to draw in the viewer and make them eager to see where Thelma’s story is going to end.

It’s clear that the movie is heading toward a tragedy, but along the way, the movie adds further tragedy to the mix, making Thelma’s emotional awakening something to be feared rather than admired. There are echoes of Carrie (1976) here, as Thelma learns something startling and frightening about herself, and there are moments of dread that are powerful and disturbing. Trier orchestrates these moments with an efficient disregard for Hollywood or mainstream conventions, and mounts them with a clear-eyed focus on the emotional traumas that arise from them. These moments carry an impact that becomes more oppressive with each reverie or actual occurrence, and by the movie’s end, Trier has successfully reached a pitch that highlights the full nature of the tragedy hidden in Thelma’s childhood. But as bleak and as uncompromising as the movie gets toward the end, Trier is able to offer the viewer a measure of hope amidst all the misfortune that befalls Thelma and the people around her.

As Thelma, Harboe – making only her second feature in a leading role (take note, BFI staff) – gives a studied, sympathetic performance that bodes well for the actress’s future. Her open gaze and gauche approach to the character works well in the opening scenes, and as Thelma begins to find herself, Harboe gives full expression to the blossoming that the character undergoes and the mixture of happiness and disorientation that she experiences; it’s like watching a teenage girl slowly coming to terms with becoming an adult, and all that that entails. Wilkins is an ethereal presence at times, with a wistful look that is enticing, and in their scenes together, she and Harboe exhibit a natural chemistry that makes their characters’ relationship all the more credible. Visually, the movie is quite austere, though deliberately so, with Jakob Ihre’s cinematography perfectly matching the emotional astringence shown at the movie’s beginning, and then subtly changing to then match the more emotional and dramatic elements seen later on. There’s also a somewhat disconcerting but effective score courtesy of Ola Fløttum that provides a further layer of unease to Trier’s poignant love story and Thelma’s journey of self-discovery.

Rating: 8/10 – some of Trier’s inspirations for Thelma will be obvious, but he uses them in such unexpected and unforced ways that they always feel suitable to the material and not just for show; a movie that gathers an inexorable momentum as it goes, this is the kind of intelligent psychological romantic horror thriller that doesn’t come along too often, but which you’ll be glad to have seen now that it has.

The Cured (2017)

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D: David Freyne / 95m

Cast: Ellen Page, Sam Keeley, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Stuart Graham, Paula Malcomson, Oscar Nolan

In the near future, the Maze Virus has almost caused the end of civilisation as we know it. In Ireland it has affected three quarters of the population, with millions having been turned into slavering, flesh-hungry zombies. However, a cure has been found, and it’s been administered to all the sufferers, but only around seventy-five per cent of the affected have responded positively to the cure. Now, they’re back to something resembling normal: they no longer want to eat human flesh, they don’t have to worry about the virus reasserting itself, and they are being allowed to reintegrate back into the society that only a short while ago was hunting them down and exterminating them. But there’s a catch, an unforeseen side effect of the cure: they remember everything they did, everyone they killed and ate, while they were affected.

This proves particularly troublesome for Senan (Keeley), a young man who upon his release from a military quarantine, is allowed to move into the home of his widowed sister-in-law, Abbie (Page). Abbie’s husband (and Senan’s brother) has been missing since the outbreak, but Senan knows what happened to him, a secret he shares with fellow survivor Conor (Vaughan-Lawlor). As more and more of the recently cured attempt to pick up their lives where they left off, they find themselves encountering prejudice and discrimination at every turn, with only Abbie and a research scientist at the military quarantine, Dr Lyons (Malcomson) (who is looking for a cure that will work for all the affected) providing any support amongst the uninfected. With growing animosity towards them, the cured seek to secure their rights as human beings, but through the kind of insurgency that the country has historically had to deal with. With Conor taking the fight to the authorities, Senan’s loyalty to Conor is called to account as he tries to protect Abbie and her son, and his nephew, Cillian (Nolan). But Conor has a darker plan than just fighting for the rights of the cured…

A fresh twist on the zombie movie, The Cured does what all the best zombie movies do: it tells its story against a recognisable social and political backdrop, and adopts a measure of gloomy sincerity that grounds the material even as it makes it overly serious. There’s very little time or room for humour here, as David Freyne’s debut feature paints a terrifying portrait of a period where social order nearly collapsed and four years of bloodthirsty savagery has left deep, unimaginable scars on a nation’s psyche. The cured, it’s made clear, aren’t to be trusted. Worse still, they’re figures of fear, shunned by the majority of the uninfected who show little faith in the idea of an effective and non-reversible cure. With two previous reintegrations having failed, it’s no wonder the cured are required to report to the military each week, as if they were on probation. Freyne, working from his own script, shows the worry and the anxiety shown on both sides, as distrust builds between them and Conor seeks to exploit the concerns of the cured while focusing on his own agenda.

The political backdrop is perhaps inevitable given Ireland’s troubled history, and Freyne charts a clear allegorical course through the narrative that adds depth to the drama and a layer of inevitable tension in the movie’s latter stages. Some of it is simplistic in nature, but it’s carried off with a great deal of style which helps immensely as the style on show is somewhat grungy and dimly lit (which isn’t a bad thing, as Piers McGrail’s cinematography will attest). Page’s character is an American whose place in Ireland is neatly ascribed to a mix of the personal (her son) and the political (US restrictions on travellers from countries with infected populations). She’s also a journalist who can anticipate what’s going to happen, but in one of the movie’s few stumbles, is instructed to forget the potential for a new outbreak and attend the opening of a new McDonalds instead. It’s at moments like these that allegory mixes well with fatalism, and the future becomes increasingly bleaker and bleaker.

Away from the political and social upheaval, the relationship between Senan and Conor is given plenty of room to grow, and Freyne uses it to explore the nature of their connection before they were cured. This connection is one of the movie’s better ideas, and is used sparingly but effectively to show both how bad things were, and how much worse they will be if Conor gets his way. Senan is wracked by guilt at what he did while infected, but Conor is willing to re-embrace the monster he became. Senan is desperate to retain every last ounce of his humanity, and is wracked by nightmares. Conor allows himself to be subsumed by anger and a lust for personal power, discarding his own humanity out of a misguided sense of injustice. Freyne keeps their personal dynamic at the heart of the movie, and though it’s often at the expense of Abbie and her journey toward an unwanted revelation, it’s more than effective thanks to committed and sincere performances from Keeley and Vaughan-Lawlor.

Freyne also finds time and space to offer moments of genuine horror and pathos, and provides a well staged, and convincing breakdown of law and order in the movie’s final stretch that belies the movie’s low budget. And like an increasing number of movies these days, there are plenty of well placed and very loud sound effects to facilitate a number of (mostly) successful jump scares, but these aren’t really needed thanks to the morbid atmosphere that’s already been created at the beginning. With Freyne threading notions of loss and grief into the already gloomy narrative, there’s as much to think about in The Cured as there is to take in visually. This is an intelligent, and intelligently handled, zombie movie that stumbles only occasionally, but when it does it’s not enough to derail the momentum that it builds up quite skilfully and to such credible effect.

Rating: 8/10 – easily one of the better zombie movies released in recent years, The Cured is a thoughtful, well crafted movie that is confidently handled by its writer/director; with an emotional core that helps anchor the tragedy at the movie’s forefront, this is a horror movie that works on several levels and all with a great deal of aplomb.

NOTE: There’s no trailer for The Cured available at the moment. When there is it’ll be added here.

The Snowman (2017)

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D: Tomas Alfredson / 119m

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Chloë Sevigny, James D’Arcy, Jonas Karlsson, Adrian Dunbar, Ronan Vibert, Michael Yates

Another week, another literary adaptation, another disappointment… Sometimes it’s hard to understand just what happened when a movie based on a well regarded novel hits our screens with all the turgid urgency of dripping sludge. Who do you blame? The director? Maybe. They are in overall charge of how the movie looks and sounds and how thrilling or dramatic or funny or affecting it should be. Or maybe it’s the screenwriter(s). Maybe they didn’t “get” the novel or work out the best way of transferring it to the big screen. Maybe it’s the cast. Maybe they weren’t “feeling it” and couldn’t find their way to putting in good performances. Or perhaps it’s just something a little less tangible, the tone perhaps, or the pacing, or the emotion of the piece. Maybe – maybe – it’s a combination of all these.

That certainly seems to be the case with The Snowman, an adaptation of the novel by Jo Nesbø, and the first movie to feature his troubled detective, Harry Hole (played here by Michael Fassbender in a portrayal that seems based around Hole having only the one expression). Now, if you’ve read this paragraph up til now and you’ve been pronouncing Hole as in a hole in the ground, then you have the first problem that the movie can’t or won’t overcome: no one can even pronounce the lead character’s name correctly. Harry’s surname is pronounced Ho-ly as in holy scripture, or as with this movie, what the holy hell is happening? When the makers of a movie can’t even get the lead character’s name right, then what chance does the rest of the movie have? In short, hardly any chance at all.

A rushed production that finished shooting in April 2016, but which required reshoots in the spring of this year, the movie quickly gets bogged down by the requirements of a muddled script that wants to be regarded as another excellent example of the awkwardly named Scandi-noir. All the elements are there to be ticked off one by one: the dark, brooding lead detective, the dark, brooding atmosphere, the dark, brooding nature of the murders, the killer’s dark, brooding psychological profile, the dark, brooding visual backdrop – clearly if it wasn’t dark and brooding then it wasn’t allowed to remain in the screenplay. But just as having too much of a good thing can spoil that very same thing, having too little in the way of structure, common sense and thrills can also damage a movie’s chances, and The Snowman sabotages its own semi-focused ambitions at every turn.

For a thriller that should grip like a vice, there are just too many risible moments that offer unfortunate injections of humour, such as when James D’Arcy’s character reveals that he’s “infertile. I can’t have children”, just to make sure there’s no one in the audience who won’t understand what infertile means. Then there are the dreadful, logic-takes-a-beating moments such as when the killer uses a mobile phone they know the police will be monitoring to help them pin the blame on someone else, but who then forgets that they can be traced through the use of another mobile phone later on. Scenes come and go that don’t always follow on from each other (though it’s more disheartening to think there might be a longer Director’s Cut out there somewhere), and Harry’s maverick cop activities keep him in the front line no matter how often he acts independently of the rest of the Oslo police force, while Rebecca Ferguson’s impassioned rookie, Katrine, gets sidelined the first time she uses her own initiative. Some of this is in service of the plot, but mostly it just seems that in piecing together the key points of Nesbø’s novel, screenwriters Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, and Søren Sveistrup have decided to only include the events from every other chapter in the novel, and not adapt the novel as a whole.

Characterisations suffer too as a result of this approach, with Harry’s alcoholism only of any relevance in introducing him to the audience, and to provide a degree of drama surrounding his continual inability to spend time with the son (Yates) of his old flame, Rakel (Gainsbourg). Being an alcoholic isn’t allowed to get in the way of showing just how good a detective Harry really is, and so it becomes less and less effective as a character defect the longer the movie goes on. Likewise the relationship between Harry and Rakel is confusing because there’s no back story for the viewer to latch onto (it might have helped if the producers had decided to adapt the first book in the Harry Hole series, instead of the seventh). The killer’s motives remain vague and unconvincing throughout, and their need to build a snowman at the scene of each crime is as baffling at the end as it is at the beginning. It’s as if it’s use as a signature “flourish” by the killer is all that’s needed. (A reason for it? Ah, don’t worry about it; it’ll look cool.)

Alfredson has spoken about the challenges of making the movie within a short period of time, and without a completed script, leading to issues that were discovered in the editing suite. But while it does seem that there are huge gaps in the narrative, and the movie has to work extra hard to maintain any tension or sense of urgency, it’s the flatness of the drama and the lethargy in certain scenes that can’t be explained away just because of a shortened production period. In the end, Nesbø’s page-turner has become a movie that fails to match up to its energy and verve, and which remains a leaden, dreary experience for the viewer. The performances are adequate (though Kilmer, worryingly, looks as if he’s trying to impersonate present day Gary Busey), and Dion Beebe’s cinematography does at least capture the beautiful isolation of rural Norway in often stunning fashion. But otherwise, this is a routine, formulaic serial killer movie that does itself no favours from beginning to end.

Rating: 4/10 – muddled and convoluted aren’t words that any potential viewer wants to hear, but they describe The Snowman perfectly; uninspired and chock full of thriller clichés, the movie stumbles along trying to be clever and effective, but instead ends up putting a finish to any notion of an intended Harry Hole franchise.

The Summit (2017)

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Original title: La cordillera

D: Santiago Mitre / 114m

Cast: Ricardo Darín, Dolores Fonzi, Erica Rivas, Gerardo Romano, Héctor Díaz, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Alfredo Castro, Paulina García, Leonardo Franco, Elena Anaya, Christian Slater

At the beginning of The Summit, one thing is made abundantly clear: that as Argentina’s recently elected President Blanco (Darín) is on the verge of travelling to Chile to take part in a summit arranged to discuss the setting up of a South American version of OPEC, there’s trouble waiting in the wings in the form of his son-in-law. Blanco may have been involved in a misappropriation of state funds before he became president. His team of advisors are worried about the possible repercussions if this knowledge becomes public, but with the summit just a day away, they decide to play a waiting game. Blanco makes one decision, though: he arranges for his daughter, Marina (Fonzi), to be brought out to the remote Andean hotel all the delegates are staying at. Perhaps she can provide some insight into her husband’s motives, even though they’re separated.

And so, the first of four separate plot strands is woven into place. Soon there will be the political machinations that go hand in hand with a number of countries all vying to get a large piece of the pie from assembling a mult-national oil conglomerate. Marina will suffer a breakdown that will reveal one of two things: a dark family secret, or a darker personal tragedy. And to wrap things up, Blanco will be put in a position that will make or break him as a hero of his country (this plot strand arrives a little late but it’s there nonetheless). It’s an ambitious mix of storylines, but stitched together awkwardly and with each strand causing problems for the others. Will Blanco be able to find a way out of the dilemma posed by his son-in-law? Will Marina’s breakdown bring her father’s presidency crashing down around his ears? Will Brazil, the guiding force behind the oil summit, get its own way at the expense of a better option? And will Blanco, faced with making a momentous decision that could backfire on him just as easily as it could be the making of him, survive everything that’s being thrown at him?

To answer all those questions, would inevitably, negate any reasons to watch this movie in the first place. But the answers themselves aren’t as compelling as they could have been. Without giving too much away, one answer can be guessed easily, another is resolved by an unexpected event, one could go either way, and the last is – very strangely – a mix of all three. As to which of those coded answers matches which plot strand, that would be telling, but it’s enough to also say that director Mitre and his co-screenwriter, Mariano Llinás, have attempted to tell a political drama that continually stops to explore the private lives of two of its main characters, and often forgets for long stretches that there’s even a summit going on (for the most part it seems as if the summit takes place for only an hour or so each day, such is the amount of time that Blanco has to deal with all the other issues that crop up).

Where it might have been a good idea to devote equal time and emphasis to all the various strands, and make them part of a slowly evolving (and involving) narrative, Mitre decides instead to concentrate on each one as if they were unconnected to each other. This leads to abrupt transitions of both tone and pacing, as when the summit is forgotten about in order for Marina’s breakdown to be explored in ever greater detail (and long enough for an Argentinian doctor (Castro) to be flown in to treat her). Likewise the arrival of Slater’s US government representative, which requires a hush-hush meeting with Blanco that again calls for him to be away from the summit for a length of time that in any other political thriller, would have the other delegates looking at him with dark suspicion. It’s at moments like these that Mitre seems unable to decide what’s more important: the basic set up of the summit, or the other stories he and Llinás have concocted in order to pad out the running time.

With its inelegant narrative that flits back and forth and never really lets the viewer get comfortable with what’s happening, The Summit has too many longueurs that bring it up sharply and require something of a kick start to get things moving again. Mitre also wants us to invest heavily in the relationship between Blanco and Marina, but thanks to the decision to take a side-step into psychological thriller territory, the issues each has with the other are allowed to be subsumed in a game of guess-the-truth, a game that could have been intriguing and more absorbing if it wasn’t dropped as soon as the movie needed too get back to the summit and wrap things up in a nice neat bow. Like a lot of the movie’s attempts at providing a probing, incisive narrative to draw in its audience, the end result provides instead a feeling that’s more akin to frustration than satisfaction.

Against all this, the cast struggle gamely with roles that often prove perfunctory, with even the usually dependable Darín unable to make much headway with a script that paints Blanco as a politician somewhat out of his depth on the world stage, and never really changes or challenges that assessment. As the daughter with a range of issues that every politican’s daughter seems to have, Fonzi does stary-eyed before emotion, and always seems half a beat behind where her character needs to be in any given scene. Rivas is good as the president’s loyal personal secretary, Cacho makes an impression as a Machiavellian Mexican president, and Anaya has a small role as a journalist who pops up here and there to ask “difficult” questions of the countries’ leaders. But the acting is often left to fend for itself at the expense of the material, and only Javier Julia’s crisp cinematography is allowed to furnish any respite from the dull stetches that hamper the movie’s ability to keep its audience from being truly engaged with it.

Rating: 6/10 – ponderous when it should be exciting, clumsy when it should be gripping, The Summit is an unfortunate title for a movie that never hits any creative heights, and which remains stranded at ground level throughout; somewhere in its screenplay are the makings of two, better, thrillers, but it’s unlikely now that we’ll ever see them, something that is more affecting by itself than the movie as a whole.

NOTE: The following trailer doesn’t have any English language subtitles, but it does give a good sense of the movie itself.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

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D: Lynne Ramsay / 95m

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Alessandro Nivola

A funny thing happened on the way from the Cannes Film Festival…

At Cannes this year, Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature, an adaptation of the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, won a joint best screenplay award (tying with The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and the best actor award for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joe, an ex-Marine working “undercover of the law” rescuing young girls from the sex trade. The movie was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, received a seven-minute standing ovation from its premiere audience, and was believed to be a strong contender for the Palme d’Or (though it lost out to Ruben Östlund’s The Square). Since then it has appeared at four further festivals before arriving at the BFI London Film Festival where it was shown three times.

At the second of its screenings in London, Ramsay was in attendance to introduce the movie. Within moments of coming out on stage she advised the audience not to hang around for the Q&A afterwards as she hated them. When pressed to answer a couple of questions there and then, Ramsay demurred to the point where the member of the BFI team who was on stage with her, realised that Ramsay wasn’t going to “play ball”, and somewhat embarrassingly, they left the stage and the movie began. Ninety-five minutes later the movie ended, and many in the audience waited for the Q&A to begin. It didn’t. Ramsay never came back out, and no one from the BFI clarified the situation. Having seen the movie, quite a few people in the audience felt they knew why Ramsay didn’t want to discuss her new movie.

First and foremost, You Were Never Really Here is a movie that invites a lot of scrutiny. It deals with themes surrounding the nature of violence, has a stripped back approach to the narrative, paints an austere portrait of a man who battles with his own demons to little avail, is uncompromising in its depiction of the aftermath of extreme violence (though it’s very fuzzy on the actual violence itself), operates within a noir-ish version of New York City, and features exemplary cinematography from Thomas Townend. It’s a movie that looks and feels important, a movie that wants to be taken seriously, and that appears to have something to say about the darkness within us and how, through the character of Joe, we can both explore and deny that darkness. In short, it’s a movie that looks to carry weight and meaning.

But here’s the odd thing: along with Phoenix’s tortured, semi-burnt out portrayal, and another impressive score from Jonny Greenwood, the movie has a lot of very good things going for it. And yet, as a whole, it doesn’t work. So many of the elements that go to make up the movie – Joe Bini’s editing, Tim Grimes’ production design, for example – are so good, so well executed, that it would seem that the movie can’t be anything other than hugely successful on its own terms. How could it not be? And yet, it’s not Ramsay’s best movie, not by a very wide margin. That honour belongs to Ratcatcher (1999). In the end, and despite all the effort put in by all concerned, You Were Never Really Here doesn’t match the potential all those disparate elements should do when they’re all combined. It’s a movie that isn’t the sum of all its parts.

Ultimately, the movie is one to admire for the way it tells its story rather than the response it provokes in its audience (which is muted to say the least). Technically well made, and with fine performances from all concerned (except for Nivola, whose appearance amounts to a cameo), Ramsay’s adaptation is hard to get involved with. There’s no sense of danger about what Joe does because he seems indestructible. At the beginning he’s attacked from behind by a man with a length of pipe. But Joe shrugs off the blow, head-butts his assailant who falls to the ground, and then he walks off as if it’s all part of his daily routine. But while it tells us that Joe is inured to the violent world he lives in, it makes the viewer inured as well. If it doesn’t mean anything to Joe, then why should it mean anything to us? It’s also no surprise that Joe has an elderly mother (Roberts) whom he looks after, but even their relationship doesn’t resonate in the way Ramsay might want it to. And then there’s Joe’s childhood, a period we see glimpses of, and which should invite the audience’s sympathy, but which remain violent additions to an already violent story, and as such, don’t have the power they’re meant to.

The movie’s basic storyline is also one that feels undercooked, with its political corruption and sex trade background something that we’ve seen countless times before. Ramsay works hard to make this section of the movie thrilling, and helped by Bini’s considerable editing skills she almost pulls it off, but the decision to obscure the violent acts taking place and to disallow any cathartic expression in either Joe or the viewer makes these violent outbursts triumphs of style instead of emotion. You can admire the way they’ve been shot and assembled, but they don’t evoke any feelings the viewer can experience for themselves. Ramsay keeps everyone, even her characters, at a remove, and closes out the movie with a moment of such extreme nihilism that it literally feels shoehorned in to provoke a response when none is actually needed. And that response? Just one of bafflement, which is not a response any movie maker should be looking for.

Rating: 7/10 – having surrounded herself with a cast and crew all working flat out to make the best movie they can, director Lynne Ramsay fails to put their efforts to practical good use, and leaves You Were Never Really Here feeling like an abandoned first cut; a movie that is likely to provoke serious debate over its merits for quite some time to come, it’s perhaps best described as an experiment that needed more time to be completed before any results could be unveiled.

The Florida Project (2017)

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D: Sean Baker / 115m

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Mela Murder, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane

Every now and then, a movie comes along that shines a light on a way of life that is so far removed from our own lives, that it is like seeing a whole new world for the first time. Sean Baker’s follow up to Tangerine (2015) is such a movie. A powerful piece of cinema verite, The Florida Project explores the world of the hidden homeless, people who live in motels along the Florida highways, and who often find it difficult to make ends meet. This is a section of society that hardly anyone knows about, or if they do, even acknowledges. They are a social underclass, with few prospects and fewer ambitions. And what makes their situation so ironic is that they’re living in the shadow of the original Florida project, Disney World, a wonderland that provides the complete opposite of their own day-to-day struggles.

The focus of Baker’s movie is single mother Halley (Vinaite), and her six year old daughter, Moonee (Prince). They live in Room 323 at the Magic Castle, a motel situated close to Disney World, which is run by long-suffering manager Bobby (Dafoe). Halley doesn’t have a job and seems content to get by on state handouts and the generosity of her friend Ashley (Murder), who provides them with free food from the diner where she works. Moonee is friends with Ashley’s son, Scooty (Rivera), and together they roam the motel and the surrounding area getting into mischief and generally doing whatever they want. They get to know another girl around their age called Jancey (Cotto), who lives at another, nearby motel. While they play and get into minor trouble, Bobby does his best to help Halley out and keep her and Moonee from being evicted. But it’s not always so easy…

To reveal more about the various things that happen in The Florida Project would be to ruin the tremendous surprises that are in store for the viewer and which sit comfortably alongside the more predictable dramatic elements. This is a movie to watch without knowing too much about it. It’s a movie that instead, works better by letting it draw you in slowly and surely, and with all the confidence that it will all be worthwhile, and the viewer’s initial patience as Baker sets up the characters and the milieu they inhabit, will be rewarded over and over. And so it proves, as Baker and co-scripter Chris Bergoch paint a portrait of hard luck and bad luck combined and the ways in which seemingly constant levels of adversity and misfortune can serve to keep people – unfortunate people – stranded in one place, and with little hope of improving their situation.

It’s also a movie that’s largely seen through the eyes of its child characters (the camera is often positioned level with their line of sight), but without neglecting the very real involvement of the adults around them. Moonee is a “handful”, often disrespectful of adults, and unafraid of challenging them in a confrontational, “don’t care” manner that is both annoying (for the adult characters) and amusing (for the audience). She’s akin to a wild child, allowed to grow up with very little consistent parental input from Halley, and with the natural assurance of a little girl who does what she wants, and when she does get into trouble, is unable to take it seriously. Of the three children, she is the biggest instigator, and the biggest rebel. Even when she is rebuked by her mother, it’s only for show, to give the impression that Halley is a fit mother – though the evidence points in entirely the opposite direction.

It’s not until the three friends do something really serious that the dynamic and the narrative begins to shift, and the seemingly aimless and responsibility-free nature of their existence becomes undermined. But while Halley and Bobby deal with the “serious stuff”, Moonee and Jancey (in particular) forge a bond that sees them continue to view their world at a remove from the harsh realities of motel living. It all has to come to a head though, and Baker provides several clues as to where Halley and Moonee’s story is likely to end up, but along the way he’s careful to show that there can be positives to living in a motel and having the kind of semi-transient lifestyle that goes with it. There are lovely moments such as Bobby’s early morning encounter with a trio of cranes, or Moonee and Jancey’s chatter about finding gold at the end of a rainbow (while one arches over the motel). Prince and Catto both give wonderfully natural performances – a lot of their dialogue sounds improvised even if it wasn’t – while Vinaite portrays Halley as fiercely aggressive when challenged on any level (watch what she does when Bobby orders her out of the motel reception area). And then there’s Dafoe, giving one of his best ever performances as a man who, in his own way, is just as stuck as Halley, but who goes about his work with a tremendous sense of pride.

What makes The Florida Project so effective overall though, isn’t just the performances, but the setting, a real motel that allowed Baker and his cast and crew to shoot while the motel was open, and which gave Baker the chance to include some of the residents in small bit parts during the filming. This all adds to the sense of verisimilitude that Baker has created, and there are plenty of scenes that have a documentary feel to them, as if Baker has managed to capture real slice-of-life footage. The movie weaves its social commentary in and out of the narrative, making poignant observations about the locations where it was shot and the people that inhabit those locations through necessity, and while it’s largely a sympathetic portrait, Baker isn’t remiss in showing the harsh realities that are part and parcel of such an existence. But through it all there’s an immense amount of hope on display, a reflection of the determination that keeps the likes of Halley and Bobby going from day to day, despite the obstacles that Life keeps putting in their way. What Baker has done so well, is to show the humanity of the characters in such a way that we can all empathise with them, and at the same time, be thankful we (hopefully) have very different lives from them.

Rating: 9/10 – a bona fide modern classic, The Florida Project is bold, assured movie making from a director whose control and intuitive approach to the material makes for one of the most impressive features so far released in 2017; with superb cinematography from Alexis Zabe that helps infuse the motel and its surroundings with a degree of magical realism when required, this is a movie that lingers long in the memory, and which works – with ease – on an remarkable number of levels.

A Brief Word About the BFI London Film Festival 2017

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Each year in October, the London Film Festival takes place, and each year I endeavour to see as many movies as I can within – usually – a five day period. And with each passing year it proves more and more difficult to decide what to see. Quite simply, there’s too much choice, so much so that it’s impossible to see every movie that is shown. This year, however, and thanks to a new job, my visit to the Festival has been reduced to the final two days, the 14th and 15th. Here is my itinerary for the next two days:

Saturday 14 October:

The Florida Project (2017) – Sean Baker’s follow up to Tangerine (2015) about a family living in the shadow of Disney World and struggling to make ends meet.

The Prince of Adventurers (1927) – a French production charting the life of Casanova with the Italian lover played by Russian émigré Ivan Mosjoukine.

The Cured (2017) – an Irish horror movie where a zombie outbreak has seen a cure found, but distrust of the once infected leads to social injustice and eventual martial interference.

Wrath of Silence (2017) – more international intrigue in this Chinese movie set in a small town where corruption is rife and a mute miner takes a violent stand against it.

Sunday 15 October:

You Were Never Really Here (2017) – Lynne Ramsay’s latest is a taut psychological thriller that promises a terrific performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

Thelma (2017) – a Norwegian thriller that’s also a mystery and a romantic drama, and the latest mainstream art movie from Joachim Trier.

The Endless (2017) – this is a dark, cult-like movie about a cult and two ex-members who begin to wonder/suspect that maybe there’s more to the cult’s beliefs than they ever considered.

The Summit (2017) – an Argentinian political thriller that places that country’s (fictional) President in a personal bind that could have far-reaching effects on his personal and professional lives.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing all of these movies – and reviewing them over the coming week. Being at the Festival and seeing a range of movies that are unlikely to be released in UK cinemas (and sometimes no matter how well received they are) is a massive bonus each year, and the BFI always manages to pull together an impressive programme of movies for everyone to enjoy. Away from the special gala showings and red carpet screenings, it’s often the less well known movies that have the most to offer, and not one of the movies that I’m planning to see lacks the ability to stand out from the crowd. I just can’t wait to get started!

A Ghost Story (2017)

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D: David Lowery / 92m

Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Liz Cardenas Franke, Sonia Acevedo, Will Oldham

There’s a saying that death comes to us all, and for some of us it means the end of life altogether, while for others it means the beginning of a new journey into an afterlife that may or may not prove to be better than the life we’ve lived. David Lowery’s latest movie takes that idea, but then adds a twist to it, and asks the question, what if there is an afterlife, but we were delayed in taking that journey onward? What if we found ourselves trapped between our old life and the next one? What would that be like? How would it feel? And how would someone cope in such a situation? Could someone cope in that situation? These are all intriguing ideas, and Lowery does his best to answer all of those questions, including what could sustain us through such an experience, and how much would it change us?

The ghost of the title is at first just a man, a musician called C (Affleck) who is married to M (Mara). They live in a small tract house, and seem to get along okay, but there are shifts and challenges in their relationship that show themselves from time to time. But their time together is coming to an end. C is killed in a car crash outside their home. M is asked to identify his body at a hospital mortuary. He lies on a table covered by a large white sheet, and after she has seen him and left, he sits up. He walks slowly through the hospital, unseen by staff, patients and visitors, until he comes to a wall. The wall opens to reveal a portal full of swirling light. The invitation is clear, but C doesn’t take it. Instead he makes his way back to his home, where a grieving M has no idea of his presence. He watches her as she begins to rebuild her life, and then one day he sees her write something down on a slip of paper, and then put the slip of paper in a small gap in the wall. She paints over the gap, sealing it. C decides to retrieve the slip of paper but the sheet makes it awkward to remove the paint. As he picks away at the paint, time appears to race on and he finds an Hispanic single mother (Acevedo) and her two children have moved into the house.

Having established a secondary reason for C’s remaining at the property, Lowery soon shows how this affects C and increases the sense of separation that he’s experiencing. As with everyone else, this new family go about their days oblivious to his presence, just as M did, but now it’s more pronounced. This family is living in his home, and M isn’t among them; she isn’t coming back and now he’s stranded there, amongst strangers. He learns how to move things, how to have a corporeal effect despite being a non-corporeal form. Eventually they leave, frightened by the violent behaviour he’s able to display. But it proves to be a transient victory. Soon he’s surrounded by people, as the next owners of the house throw a party. And then time passes more quickly, folding over and into itself, forging ahead in great leaps, and leaving the house behind as a distant memory, much as C has become a distant memory in the minds of those who knew him.

It’s at this point in the movie that Lowery effectively makes C’s existence the stuff of existential horror. As if things haven’t been bad enough, events transpire that keep C even more isolated and becalmed by his death. He’s forced to bear witness to changes and developments that he couldn’t have foreseen and Time becomes an implacable foe, thoughtless and cruel. He becomes even more stranded despite his never moving from the site of his home, and soon he’s nothing more than a shell, just existing in a vague approximation of Life. Lowery and Affleck find the sadness and the intense loneliness in this, and C becomes an even more tragic figure, the black eye holes of the sheet expressing longing, regret, anguish, melancholy, and the overwhelming grief that C is feeling. Affleck uses slow, measured movements to show just how C’s emotions are ebbing and flowing, and despite the sheet (or maybe because of it), there’s not one moment in the movie where C’s sensitivity to his situation isn’t easy to grasp. It’s a performance that is so detailed and so subtle that it makes the movie much more emotional and affecting than it looks.

Of course, what’s really clever and exceptional about A Ghost Story, is that Lowery has taken such an iconic image – perhaps the most simple ghost “costume” – and used it as a metaphor for the pain that grief can cause us, and its potentially unyielding nature. The enormity of C’s situation is horrifying, to remain trapped in a place that offers less and less reason to be there, and which only serves to highlight and increase the amount of pain C is experiencing as each and every day passes by. How crushing must that be? That Lowery is able to get this message across so effectively – and so chillingly – is a tribute to the clarity of his artistic vision, and the work of Affleck and Mara, and a very talented crew. Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, and production designers Jade Healy and Tom Walker, Lowery has put together a movie whose distinct visual look includes a high number of static shots where the camera remains resolutely fixed in position, to careful framing of C as he watches and waits in the same location even as it changes all around him. This is as much about the space that he exists in, as it is his own existence within it.

What all this gives us is a movie that is by turns poetic, sad, poignant, humorous (yes), engrossing, and endlessly thought-provoking. It seeks to address and confront aspects of our existence that we don’t give regular consideration to, such as what it is to be truly alone, and our very reason for being, both physically and spiritually. But it’s not a “heavy” movie, and nor is it one to avoid because of the challenging ideas it explores. Rather it’s a movie that celebrates life and many of the complexities that make it worth living, and which we might continue to explore after death (if an afterlife is what awaits us). C has the opportunity to “move on” but he chooses to remain, to be with his wife and in his home, because – and as corny as it sounds – he loves them both and doesn’t want to lose them. What better reason could there be for spending an eternity covered in a sheet?

Rating: 9/10 – not for all tastes, but nevertheless one of the most audacious and moving movies of recent years, A Ghost Story is a powerful meditation on the forces of grief and love, and what they can make us do – and endure; a superb, necessarily understated performance by Affleck provides much of the movie’s emotional depth, but this is also intelligent and shrewd in its approach to what could have been a much weightier, and less focused story.

Old-Time Crime: Grand Central Murder (1942) and The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942)

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Grand Central Murder (1942) / D: S. Sylvan Simon / 73m

Cast: Van Heflin, Patricia Dane, Cecilia Parker, Virginia Grey, Samuel S. Hinds, Sam Levene, Connie Gilchrist, Mark Daniels, Stephen McNally, Tom Conway, Betty Wells, George Lynn, Roman Bohnen

Back in the Thirties and Forties, many a low budget murder mystery was adapted from a literary source, and Grand Central Murder is no exception. Based on Sue McVeigh’s 1939 novel of the same name, the movie is a sprightly, fun-packed whodunnit that zips along at a steady clip as it builds up a strong case for each suspect in the murder of actress Mida King (Dane). Of course, there’s one suspect who seems more likely to have committed the deed than all the rest, and here it’s convicted killer Turk (McNally). On his way to a retrial, Turk escapes from his police escort while at Grand Central station, and instead of finding somewhere to hide out, he calls Mida and threatens to kill her. Later, Mida is found dead in the private railroad car she has on a siding at Grand Central. Could Turk really be the killer, or could it someone else with a grudge against her?

With Mida murdered, the stage is set for an investigation launched by Inspector Gunther (Levene), but one that will be hampered and helped by private investigator “Rocky” Custer (Heflin), who Turk has hired to prove his innocence. Custer persuades Turk to give himself up, while Gunther assembles several of Mida’s friends and colleagues – and other interested parties – in an effort to find out what happened between Mida getting the call from Turk, and being found dead in her sidecar. Among the suspects are her supposedly psychic stepfather Ramon (Bohnen), her maid, Pearl (Gilchrist), her producer, Frankie (Conway), and her rich fiancé, David (Daniels). As th investigation covers more and more ground, even Custer and his wife and business partner Sue (Grey) have the finger of suspicion pointed at them.

Part of the fun here is the way that the story is told via flashbacks, as each new suspect in Gunther’s firing line explains their previous interaction with Mida, and defends any suggestion that they had a motive for killing her (even though pretty much everyone does). There are plenty of red herrings fed to the audience along the way, and though some of them might seem obvious to modern day audiences, there’s no doubting the enthusiasm with which the cast set them up and then let them loose. What may prove more contentious is the idea that a stage actress has a private railroad car at her disposal, but this is a variation on the old “locked room” mystery, with the cause of Mida’s death baffling both Gunther and the coroner.

Of course, it’s Custer who does the real sleuthing (never let it be said that a cop in a Forties mystery thriller was ever brighter than the amateur detective who eventually solves the case). Heflin invests Custer with a wry amusement at everything going on around him, while his counterpart/nemesis, Gunther (expertly played by Levene, who was the original Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls on Broadway), stumbles on with grim determination even as he gets it wrong at every turn. Dane is good as the victim with a chequered past, while there’s equally solid support from Gilchrist and Conway. Simon, a somewhat journeyman director for most of his career, is on better form than usual, and the movie integrates its flashbacks into the narrative in a way that doesn’t make them confusing or lets them slow things down. The solution when it arrives is quite clever, though eagle-eyed viewers will have worked out the killer’s identity long before then, if not how they (almost) got away with it.

Rating: 7/10 – well-paced and with an underlying sense of humour that helps keep an otherwise dry storyline from becoming banal, Grand Central Murder is pleasant, diverting stuff that keeps the audience guessing, but which doesn’t try to be too tricky; in some ways, a minor classic that doesn’t try too hard to make it completely convincing, it’s a movie that is smart, occasionally irreverent, and very entertaining.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942) / D: Herbert I. Leeds / 65m

Cast: Lloyd Nolan, Marjorie Weaver, Helene Reynolds, Henry Wilcoxon, Richard Derr, Paul Harvey, Billy Bevan, Olin Howland, Robert Emmett Keane

Three weeks before MGM released Grand Central Murder, 20th Century Fox released this, the fifth in an eventual series of seven Michael Shayne movies starring Lloyd Nolan as a wisecracking private eye. It too was based on a novel, this time No Coffin for the Corpse by Clayton Rawson, but Rawson’s tale wasn’t a Michael Shayne adventure, rather it was one concerning a sleuth (and yes, he’s an amateur) called The Great Merlini. Merlini is reduced to a minor role here, while Brett Halliday’s creation takes centre stage in helping old flame Catherine Wolff (Weaver) solve a mystery involving a vanished corpse, murder, and strange experiments at her father’s home. To this end, Shayne (Nolan) pretends to be Roger Blake, the man Catherine has recently married, and together they investigate shootings in the middle of the night, and much more besides.

The Michael Shayne movies all contained a good leavening of humour, and The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is no exception, with Nolan racking up wisecracks and genuine laughs in such a dry, subversive manner that you don’t want him to stop (or have the script run out of steam). Circumstances allow him to play funny with a skeleton, and poke fun at the rest of the characters, and Nolan displays a deft approach towards the material that allows him to make the most of each scene he’s in, whether it’s comedic or dramatic. As is usually the case, the cast are all experienced hands at this sort of palaver, and it’s great to see ex-silent comedian Bevan as the mildly indignant butler, Phillips.

The mystery elements aren’t handled quite as well as they should be, mainly because the script opts to make them unnecessarily complicated, with a sub-plot involving basement-set experiments that have a distinctive sci-fi/horror vibe to them a case in point. These help pad out the modest running time, but don’t elevate the material in any way, leaving the narrative feeling a little stretched beyond its credibility. But however you look at it, this is a fun movie that plays fast and loose with its characters’ motivations, throws in a couple of fright moments to spice things up, and relies heavily on its cast’s charm and commitment in order to make its convoluted narrative more enjoyable. Nolan is an appealing screen presence, as is Weaver as this movie’s version of a dumb blonde, while there’s fine support from the likes of Harvey (bluff and cranky as ever as Catherine’s father), and Howland as the bumbling Chief of Police Jonathan Meek.

This is at heart an old dark house mystery, with much of the action taking place at night and in shadowy patches of the screen that prove atmospheric and somewhat creepy. The identity of the vanished corpse is not one you’d be able to predict – mostly because of its relation to one of the main characters, which isn’t obvious – while the identity of that main character (and secondary villain) is slightly easier to work out. In the director’s chair, Leeds shows off an occasional visual flourish and maintains an easy pace throughout, without taking it at all seriously. Leeds seems to be having as much fun as Nolan is, and the whole thing often teeters on the point of complete absurdity before dragging itself back at the last moment. But nevertheless, it’s a movie that sets out to entertain first and foremost, and thanks to Nolan’s previous experience in the role, does so regularly and comfortably.

Rating: 6/10 – some flaws in the script aside, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is a prime example of a franchise entry that doesn’t show signs of the series’ running out of steam any time soon; solid and reliable in terms of its narrative, and quip heavy, it’s another example of a B-movie that has more to offer than it seems at first glance.

Devil’s Knot (2013)

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D: Atom Egoyan / 114m

Cast: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Amy Ryan, Robert Baker, Rex Linn, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Kevin Durand, Stephen Moyer, Elias Koteas

There are times when the very existence of a movie proves puzzling, puzzling because the content of the movie has already been covered in greater depth, and with far more fidelity, elsewhere. Such is the case with Devil’s Knot, an exploration of the Robin Hood Hills Murders that took place in West Memphis, Arkansas on 5 May 1993. On that fateful day, three eight year old friends – Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore – disappeared. Their bodies were found in a muddy creek the following day. It didn’t take long for the police and the local community to ascribe the murders to a Satanic cult believed to be operating in the area. It wasn’t long either before the police had three suspects firmly in their sights: teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley Jr. After Misskelley Jr was interrogated for twelve straight hours, he confessed that all three were involved in the deaths of the children, and all three were subsequently arrested. At their trials, Misskelley Jr and Baldwin were sentenced to life imprisonment, while Echols was sentenced to be executed.

The problem with Devil’s Knot is not just that it’s another movie “based on a true story” and with all the limitations that usually apply, but that the story of the Robin Hood Hills murders and the West Memphis Three (the accused) have been so well documented elsewhere. There are currently four documentaries available that cover the case, and which do so in more depth, and with greater clarity of purpose. They are Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), its sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), a further sequel, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011), and a separate entry which covers the whole story, West of Memphis (2012). With all these excellent documentaries on offer (particularly the first one, which is nothing short of exceptional for the access the makers had), it remains surprising that Devil’s Knot was actually greenlit in the first place, let alone made.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Mara Leveritt, Devil’s Knot benefits greatly from having Atom Egoyan perched, however precariously, in the director’s chair. He’s a very talented movie maker, but he’s never seemed as comfortable as when he’s working from a script he’s written himself, and this proves to be the case here. Making the most of a script that doesn’t really tell us anything new and which can be found dramatically twiddling its thumbs from time to time, Egoyan shows occasional flashes of the erudite and ambitious director who has given us such modern classics as Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997). But these are few and far between, and there are long periods where Egoyan feels like a jobbing director who hasn’t been able to connect with the material – and doesn’t know how to. And yet, conversely, there are moments where he does, and these contain a quiet power that is indisputably effective (and affecting).

Somewhat inevitably, the script tries to pull in various different directions, and by doing so, tries to cover too much ground all at once. This leads to scenes feeling unnecessarily truncated, and others feeling like filler. In its efforts to tell as much of the story as possible, the movie proves disjointed in its approach to the victims’ families – only Witherspoon’s grief-stricken mother, Pamela Hobbs gets a look in, and then only because she begins to believe Echols and co aren’t guilty – while the holes in the police investigation (and there are dozens of them) are allowed to go by remarked upon but under-emphasised. The trial scenes take up most of the second half of the movie but serve only to show that justice is not only blind in some US courts but sometimes half asleep as well, a situation that we’re already way too familiar with for these scenes to carry any appreciable weight. Egoyan gamely makes his way through them, throwing in an occasionally interesting shot, but relaying events in a style that resembles a TV Movie of the Week instead of a fully-fledged feature.

With the screenplay trying to fit so much in (there’s a reason the documentaries all run longer), it’s inevitable as well that some characters come to feel like observers rather than participants. Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad, flits in and out of the narrative and remains elusive until the movie’s end when we learn something unexpected that relates to him. By the time this happens though it’s too late to have much of an impact as we haven’t got to know him well enough. Likewise for Durand’s scary-stary John Mark Byers, a potential alternative suspect whose day in court is remarkable for the way in which he’s let off the hook by all concerned (even the defence lawyers). Egoyan regular Koteas pops up as an expert on Satanic cults, Linn is the police official who knows his case is full of holes but pushes on regardless, and then there’s DeHaan as another potential suspect, Chris Morgan, who confesses then recants and is allowed to do so while Misskelley Jr does the same and ends up in prison for life. All these roles feel incidental to the overall aim of the movie, which in itself isn’t clear. As an undeniable miscarriage of justice, the movie does more than enough to get that across through some of the evidence that’s presented, but elements such as the local community’s willingness to accept the presence of Satanic cults despite there being no concrete evidence to support this, lands with a thud every time it’s mentioned.

More curious still is the decision to focus much of the movie on an outsider, Firth’s crusading legal investigator, Ron Lax. We see him challenging everyone around him to do their jobs properly, and he behaves like a man with a Messiah complex at times, but if the idea is that he’s the viewer’s guide through the maze of “evidence” and supposition that sees the West Memphis Three convicted, then it’s unfortunate but we don’t need him. There’s an awkward scene in the Robin Hood Hills woods between Lax and Pam Hobbs that is pure Hollywood speculation and has no place in a movie that’s striving to be taken seriously as a re-enactment of true events. It’s moments like these, where the script is trying to manipulate its audience, that it undermines its overall effectiveness and leaves the viewer wondering if the movie will ever settle for a consistent tone it can work with. The answer is a resounding No, and like so many other moments or issues this movie has, it’s in too much of a hurry to squeeze in the major plot points, however indifferently at times, and without giving them room to breathe.

Rating: 5/10 – as the movie equivalent of an unnecessary footnote, Devil’s Knot is only sporadically engaging, and on a severely reduced par with the likes of its documentary brethren; perfunctory in a way that shouldn’t be the case when you consider the story it’s trying to tell, this remains an ill-advised project that could have been a lot worse if it weren’t for the occasionally mindful ministrations of its director.

Marjorie Prime (2017)

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D: Michael Almereyda / 99m

Cast: Jon Hamm, Lois Smith, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, Stephanie Andujar, Hannah Gross

How much do you trust your memories? Or rather, how much can you trust your memories? And where do they come from? Are they exclusively made up of your own recollections, or are they a combination of what you can remember and the recollections of others? And can they ever be really regarded as true memories, an accurate representation of something that happened in the past? These are just some of the questions that Marjorie Prime asks as it ponders the nature of memory, its provenance, and its importance in our lives.

Michael Almereyda’s latest movie is a challenging examination of how we remember things, and why. The why is perhaps more important than the how, but it’s how our memories shape our character and our personalities, and help us connect our past and present lives that seems to be more important. But if memory can be elusive, if it can be confusing, or contrary, or unreliable, then how can we know if a memory carries the weight that it should do? How can it retain the meaning it relies on to be an accurate memory? Almereyda’s answer – adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison – is that, ultimately, we can’t be sure of anything related to memory because there are just too many variables. And many of those variables are the memories of other people.

The movie begins with Marjorie (Smith) having a conversation with a younger facsimile of her late husband, Walter (Hamm) (Walter is a computer programme, an example of artificial intelligence used as memory therapy). Together they probe various memories and attitudes towards memory that are largely to do with Marjorie’s attempts at building a coherent narrative out of her past. Walter is a computer-driven replica of Marjorie’s husband at the time of their engagement. He already knows a lot about Marjorie and the man he represents, but his knowledge is far from complete. In order to further his knowledge, and his usefulness to Marjorie – whose own memory is under threat from the early onset of Alzheimer’s – he discusses their shared past and allows her to correct him whenever he gets something wrong. Walter at first believes that they were watching My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) when he proposed to her, but Marjorie is eqaully sure that it was Casablanca (1942), or at least that Michael Curtiz’s perennial classic seems more likely. Marjorie’s memory of that event is eluding her, so she creates a memory that sounds like it could be true, and once it’s accepted by the programme acting as Walter, then it passes into memory, and into truth.

And then there’s the input from Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Davis), and her husband, Jon (Robbins). Both talk to Walter and both express their own feelings and views on events that happened to Marjorie during her life, and they don’t confine themselves to moments that they have direct knowledge or recollection of. Walter accepts what they tell him without verification or any kind of fact-checking being carried out. And when he relays their recollections to Marjorie – like him – she accepts these as having really happened. But how can such memories truly be “real” when they’re an amalgam of various sources?  With the frailty of the human mind being explored in this way, Almereyda shows us how unreliable our memories really are, and how our need to provide context for them can often mean we overlook any contentious issues that may arise from remembering them. The more we remember, Almereyda seems to be saying, the more we actually forget.

By showing the pitfalls of allowing future technology to “guide” us through the labyrinth of our reminiscences, Marjorie Prime highlights just how memory and truth can be ephemeral and an unreliable witness to our own experiences. Tess refers to the way in which we remember the emotion of an experience rather than the fact of it, and how this informs the details of that experience. From this we can understand that feelings and emotions are often more important than the facts, and can help us to derive a better appreciation or understanding of what we’re trying to remember. But these impressions can be just as subjective or erroneous as the memory itself, and as the movie progresses, and focuses more and more on Tess and Jon’s relationship and their own recollections, Almereyda uses the shift in perspective to show how relative memory really is. And there are further narrative shifts that provide even more examples of how memory can collude with us in providing the kind of recollections that help us make sense of our world and the world around us (and especially, other people). Layer upon layer upon layer, and soon the source can no longer be recognised. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Sensibly, Almereyda doesn’t provide the viewer with any conclusions, merely more and more questions, some of which can be answered within the narrative itself, and others that remain a mystery, fleeting notions of recognition that may or may not be reliable. The movie regards these questions as components in a kind of mental jigsaw puzzle, and in trying to piece them together, the characters all behave as though their own memories are more credible than others. Even Marjorie, whose moments of lucid behaviour grow fewer and further apart, believes what she remembers, and when she discusses with Walter their shared history, there are moments where she is creating rather than looking back. The same can be said for Tess and Jon, who want to help Marjorie retain her memory for as long as possible, but who also create incidents and details out of a misguided sense of being supportive. As in so many areas of life, lies become truth, and the boundaries between the two become irrevocably blurred, no matter how good the original intention.

Marjorie Prime is a small movie about big ideas, but important ones nevertheless, and the dialogue is smart, funny and precise in its statements and observations. The cast all give measured, thoughtful performances, with Smith (reprising her role in the original stage production) offering a particularly sprightly portrayal of Marjorie that is both sympathetic and endearing. Against this, Hamm has the more challenging role as Walter, a synthetic approximation of a person who has no life experience except that which is given to him by others. As the sometimes feuding Tess and Jon, Davis and Robbins give expression to the rituals that they go through in order to provide certainty for their own memories, and then Marjorie’s as well, but without seeing the problems inherent in doing this. All four actors are mesmerising, especially Davis, who plays a character who’s increasingly conflicted over the benefits of (re-)constructed memories, and who is stricken by memories of her own that are unwanted.

Viewers may find the opening exchange between Marjorie and Walter a little slow going, and the introduction of several minor characters later on may make the movie feel a little fragmented, but otherwise this is intelligent, thought-provoking stuff that isn’t afraid to tackle big ideas head on. It has a wintry, melancholy feel to it, highlighted by the starkly beautiful cinematography of Sean Price Williams, and a deftly supportive, and unobtrusive score by Mica Levi that provides an effective counterpoint to the emotional turmoil experienced by the characters. But it’s Almereyda’s confident, assured direction that remains the movie’s most impressive element, and proof – if it were needed – that he is one of the most distinctive and talented voices working in movies today.

Rating: 9/10 – an award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, few movies made at the moment have the rigorousness or the attention to detail that infuses Marjorie Prime and which make it a movie to admire and to lose oneself in; if you’re a fan of cinema as a reflection of real life and all its flaws and imperfections, then this is a movie that will reward you over and over again.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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D: Denis Villeneuve / 163m

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Hiam Abbass, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Bautista, Edward James Olmos

Perhaps the most anticipated sequel of 2017, Blade Runner 2049 is finally with us, having been in development – in one form or another – since 1999. It’s a fascinating movie to watch, built as it is on the legacy of its predecessor, and it’s received a lot of praise from critics and fans alike. But it’s not entirely successful in the goals it’s set itself, and despite some terrific performances, Villeneuve’s inspired direction, and sterling efforts from all concerned with the movie’s look and design, the movie struggles at times to maintain proper focus and to make more of its story elements than it actually does. The style is tremendous, then, but the story it supports isn’t as well worked out as it initially looks. Partly this is to do with decisions made at the pre-production stages, and partly to do with a script – by returning scribe Hampton Fancher, and Michael Green – that rarely tries to flesh out its themes or tease out the inherent subtleties within them. This is being touted as intelligent sci-fi and a worthy successor to its predecessor (and on the whole, it is), but in reality it’s a movie that looks amazing, but can’t make its mind up about the story it wants to tell.

It seems straightforward enough. Modern replicants are now being used as blade runners, and are tasked with tracking down and eliminating any remaining Nexus-8 models that are still out there. K (Gosling) is one such replicant, and he’s generally regarded as good at his job. But then what should be a simple “retirement” throws up an unexpected development in the form of buried human remains. But the truth is stranger still: the bones are those of a female replicant who has given birth, something that was, and is still, regarded as impossible, due to it not being a part of their bio-engineering. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Wright), fearing such information would be catastrophic if it were made public, orders K to destroy all evidence relating to the case, and locate and kill the child. K visits replicant manufacturer Nyander Wallace (Leto), who identifies the remains as those of Rachael, a replicant who thirty years before, had an affair with a blade runner called Deckard (Ford). Wallace, who can’t manufacture replicants fast enough to match the demand for them both on Earth and on the Off-Worlds, instructs his enforcer, Luv (Hoeks), to follow K and locate the child before it can be “retired”.

And so the stage is set for a race against time in the search for the child (now clearly an adult but referred to as a child throughout). Except Fancher and Green’s script isn’t too concerned about this, and despite the amount of time it’s taken to set it all up. Instead we’re treated to extended passages concerning K’s relationship with a hologram called Joi (de Armas), evidence that K might be the child everyone (including himself) is seeking, meditations on the nature of memory and its veracity, an encounter with what could charitably called the Popular Replicant’s Front of Judea, and further oblique references to Joshi’s insistence that social upheaval will be the result of the child’s existence being made public. Some of this is interesting on a superficial, let’s-not-think-about-this-too-closely level, but that’s also why it remains at a superficial level. The idea that there’ll be a breakdown in the way that replicants are treated comes only from Lieutenant Joshi, but as there doesn’t seem to be anyone that she reports to (she and K could be the only two people in the blade runner department; we never see anyone else), this can only be looked on as her assumption, or her prejudice. But as neither idea is addressed or delved into, the viewer is left with the understanding that if she hadn’t raised it conveniently as an issue, then the movie would struggle to provide audiences with a strong plot.

Out of this, there’s still the confusing issue of whether or not replicants having children is a good or a bad thing. With nothing to suggest that it’s a bad thing – even though the viewer is asked to go along with this idea on faith alone – the fact that Wallace wants to crack this particular genetic anomaly in order to beef up his workforce in the off-world colonies (which would be a benefit for everyone), doesn’t seem such a bad idea at all. But the script insists that he has to behave badly in order to solve this issue  and move forward (actually Luv behaves badly, and deliberately so, while Wallace is confined to the sidelines for much of the movie). As a result, tension and discord amongst the characters is encouraged instead of any détente, and once K finds Deckard hiding out amid the ruins of Las Vegas, the movie remembers it’s also a thriller as well as a romantic drama (K and Joi), and it ramps up the action accordingly.

From this it could be assumed that Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at it closely – and this is true. Fancher and Green’s script doesn’t always delve as deeply as it could do, particularly as replicants are still being treated as slave labour, a situation that should resonate but which is soundly ignored. But fortunately, the movie has Villeneuve as its director, and if he’s not able to smooth overt the cracks in the plot successfully, what he is able to do is make this sequel one of the most visually impressive movies of the last five/ten/fifteen (delete as applicable) years. Along with DoP Roger Deakins, Villeneuve has created a world that has devolved even further in the last thirty years, and which is alternately breathtaking and disconcerting. Dennis Gassner’s production design should be singled out for praise as well, as he makes every last aspect of 2049 life feel immediate and yet compromised, as if everyone is living in a world that’s becoming more and more withdrawn from their day-to-day reality. Large areas surrounding Los Angeles are now wastelands to varying degrees, and there’s still that perpetual rain to remind you of how bad things have remained, and the movie widens its horizons appropriately as it tells its bigger, broader story.

There are good performances throughout, with Gosling proving a good choice as K, his initially blank features slowly giving way to pained resignation mixed with profound hope as to his possibly being “the child”. It’s another outsider-looking-in portrayal, the kind of role that Gosling is so good at playing, and here he doesn’t disappoint. Ford is terrific as well, reconnecting with a role that he hasn’t played in thirty-five years but which he infuses with a grizzled intensity, and a great deal of sympathy. It’s good to see him embracing a part in a way that, Han Solo aside, he hasn’t done for quite some time. There’s great support from the likes of de Armas (in a role that is intended to make K’s replicant nature more human, but which remains surplus to requirements, no matter how hard the screenplay tries), and Hoeks as the movie’s resident replicant psycho. Leto wears odd contact lenses that contribute to his character’s blindness, and aims for urbane but still bizarro villain and largely succeeds thanks to his decision to underplay the role, while Wright, ultimately, is given too little to do other than repeat dire warnings about the child etc. etc.

A sequel to Blade Runner (1982) may have been on a lot of people’s wish lists over the years, but now that it’s here, there’s something of a temptation to praise it for what it does do – look astounding on too many occasions to count, have a score that complements Vangelis’ original score while being its own thing, create several worlds in one – instead of admitting that what it doesn’t do harms it too often (and on a couple of occasions, irreparably). Yes, it’s an incredible movie visually, and the makers should be congratulated, and awarded, for their efforts, but the script isn’t as convincing as it could have been. Still a movie to watch on the biggest screen possible (though not in 3D, which doesn’t add anything to the experience), and one to discuss for some time to come, this is one sequel that could have been bolder in its approach, and more complex in its ruminations.

Rating: 7/10 – though hugely effective for long stretches, Blade Runner 2049 does get bogged down in too many needless secondary plot lines during its middle section, but rallies to provide an exciting action sequence that rounds things off satisfactorily (even if it’s a long time coming); with many scenes that could have been trimmed or excised altogether, this is still a triumph for Villeneuve and his two male leads, and serves as another example of a movie that strives to be different from the rest of its multiplex brethren, even if it’s not fully successful.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

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D: William Oldroyd / 89m

Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer

Rural England, 1865. A harsh time and place to live if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a young woman entering into a marriage with a man you don’t know, and all because you were part and parcel of a land sale. That’s the fate of Katherine (Pugh), a farmer’s daughter who finds herself the wife of local landowner, Alexander Lester (Hilton), and living in his father’s house. Forbidden to go outside the house and expected to maintain a strict schedule in relation to running the house, Katherine is less than happy with the way her life is playing out. Her husband won’t even fulfill his duties in the marital bed, content instead to make Katherine strip naked and face the wall while he pleasures himself. And as if his indifference wasn’t enough, it’s compounded by her father-in-law’s ironic disapproval at her not being able to provide a son and heir. All the company she has is that of one of the servants, Anna (Ackie), who is the epitomy of subjection.

It’s only when both men leave on separate business trips that Katherine is able to explore the surrounding countryside and take back some aspects of the life she used to enjoy. She also encounters Sebastian (Jarvis), one of her husband’s workers. She’s attracted to him immediately, and he notices this. Soon after he comes to the house to see her, and though she rebuffs his advances at first, she succumbs readily and the pair embark on an affair. When her father-in-law (Fairbank) returns, he is aware of the unseemly relationship between Katherine and Sebastian, and he quickly berates her for it. Treating her even more harshly than he did before, and giving Sebastian a beating, Katherine determines to ensure that her affair can continue. To this end, the old man meets an untimely end, and Katherine installs Sebastian as the de facto man of the house. Some time passes, and then Alexander does return home, and though he knows about his wife’s duplicity, his plan to deal with her doesn’t go as expected…

Alexander’s return is the culmination of the movie’s second act, and it comes at a time when Katherine’s natural character has become somewhat exposed through her actions and her baser emotions. The viewer is beginning to understand that beneath the lustful, all-encompassing passion she feels for Sebastian, there lurks something that’s a little more sinister, and a little more discomfiting. Flashes of this have been seen up until now, but if this transposed Lady Macbeth of the wild English countryside (the movie was shot in Northumberland, and is an adaptation of the novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov) has anything to say about its central character then it’s simply this: beware of how you treat her, for she isn’t one to forgive. Now whether this is due to madness brought on by an aversion to solitude, or is part of her natural temperament and she will do anything to protect herself, that’s down to the viewer to decide. But what the viewer can be certain of is that Katherine will go to whatever lengths she deems necessary to maintain the life she wants. And this we discover at the end of the second act, and well into the third, where her sense of self-preservation becomes entirely twisted and goads her into doing something truly horrible.

All this passion and reckless abandonment of the accepted social norms and proprieties of the period is underlined by the stark severity of life in the Lester household, a place of cold, airy rooms – well-lit, but encouraging little warmth – and the even chillier nature of its male inhabitants, whose sense of puritan endeavour involves mocking and restraining the lives of others. It’s into this unforgiving patrician, and God-fearing environment that Katherine finds herself thrust without the benefit of any say in the matter. It’s this unfairness of place and position that allows Katherine to gain the viewer’s sympathy, and when she embarks on her affair with Sebastian, it’s good to see her find true affection – and love – even though it’s obvious there’s not going to be a “happy ever after”. And so it proves, with the patriarchal society she struggles against continuously, circling round her like hawks, ready to swoop down and punish her for her perceived impudence and “whorish” behaviour.

With the milieu firmly and unforgivingly established – there’s no better evocation of the social shackles Katherine is forced to endure than the sight of her sitting on a divan waiting for her husband to come home – director William Oldroyd is free to encourage and draw out a mesmerising performance from the twenty-one year old Pugh that is one of the most poised and impressive of 2016. She lets the audience know exactly what Katherine is thinking and feeling throughout, and reveals a maturity of approach to building the character that is even more extraordinary when you consider that after The Falling (2014), this is only her second feature (it also makes her next appearance in The Commuter (2018) seem like something of a backward step). So good is she that sometimes, and no matter what else is going on in a scene, the viewer is drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Passionate or icy-cold in her dealings with the other characters, Pugh ensures that Katherine remains endlessly fascinating, and a character you can love or hate or sympathise with or fear with equal intensity.

Pugh is ably supported by Jarvis as the easily manipulated (at first) Sebastian, his initial devil-may-care attitude more and more eroded the deeper he becomes embroiled in Katherine’s refusal to give up on their affair. There’s an element of Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover about the characterisation, but as the story progresses that too fades away, and it’s not long before, like him, you can see that it’s not going to work out well for him. Ackie is on equally good form as Anna, the maid who retreats into silence when it all gets too much for her to deal with, while Hilton and Fairbank, though good in their roles, are a little too one-note – unrelentingly nasty, that is – in their portrayals (though this is down to the script than any intention of their own). Still, Oldroyd holds it all together by tightening the increasing suspense of just how far Katherine will go, and with cinematographer Ari Wegner ensures that the wild, sprawling moorland serves as a fine backdrop to the emotional upheavals occurring within the Lester household.

Rating: 8/10 – a gripping, emotionally charged tale of lust, madness and murder, Lady Macbeth is anchored by a superb performance from Pugh, and a chilly atmosphere that soon becomes as claustrophobic for the viewer as it is for the characters; a violent tragedy of emotions, it’s a movie that carries a rigorous beauty about it, and which remains absorbing from start to finish.

American Assassin (2017)

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D: Michael Cuesta / 112m

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Scott Adkins, Joseph Long, Mohammad Bakri, Navid Negahban, Khalid Laith, Vladimir Friedman, Charlotte Vega

It doesn’t take long – or much – to work out that American Assassin wants to be the first in a new spy/action series. After all, it’s an origin story, and the main character, Mitch Rapp (O’Brien), is in his early twenties at this point, so the potential is there for several more movies to be adapted from the novels by Vince Flynn, and made into the kind of slick, glossily produced, but largely pedestrian movie that’s been put together here. Depending on your patience or your level of appreciation for Rapp and his personal mission to rid the world of terrorists – particuarly Muslim ones – this will either have you urging him on, or wondering what makes him so special. However, what is certain, is that Mitch’s origin story leaves a lot to be desired.

What sets Mitch off on his pesonal mission happens on a beach in Ibiza. Having just proposed to his girlfriend, Katrina (Vega), Mitch is getting them drinks to celebrate when, from out of nowhere and with no warning at all, the beach is overrun by terrorists who start shooting randomly at everyone, including Mitch himself, who gets wounded, and (of course) Katrina, who is killed right in front of him. Fast forward eighteen months, and Mitch is now on the trail of the terrorist responsible for the beach attack. He’s managed to persuade said terrorist that they share the same aims and gotten himself a personal invitation to meet up in person. But just as he’s face to face with his arch-nemesis, a team of US Special Forces ops take out the terrorist and his men, and leave taking Mitch with them. He’s taken to a CIA safe house where he spends thirty days being debriefed, and impressing CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Lathan). She wants him for a black ops team called Orion, because “he tests off the chart” for what they need.

Without wishing to use this site’s favourite I-word, what follows could be predicted by just about anyone, even someone who’s never seen this kind of movie before (or any kind of revenge flick). Mitch is revealed to have authority issues, and he clashes with his trainer/handler Stan Hurley (Keaton), while also getting on the nerves of the rest of his team, and in particular, those of Victor (Adkins), his main rival for the position of Alpha Male. But Irene keeps on vouching for him, even when Mitch makes it clear he’s not a team player, and even when Stan correctly deduces that he’s driven by revenge and not by any patriotic duty (which is apparently preferable, as revenge is regarded as something that gets in the way of being a fully competent operative). Sent on the trail of some missing weapons grade plutonium that may or may not be about to fall into the hands of a trio of Iranian hardliners, Mitch disobeys orders on a mission in Istanbul, but is fortunate enough to retrieve vital information in the process.

This sets the pattern for the rest of the movie, as Stan tries to focus Mitch’s energies in the right direction, while Mitch continues acting impulsively and without the slightest idea of what he’s going to do next until he makes it up on the spot. He’s kind of an anti-hero, using the resources of the CIA to wage his own war on terror, while being told that his approach and attitude isn’t the best. This leads to a fair bit of confusion on the script’s part, as Irene and Stan (mostly Stan) keep telling him that his motives are wrong. But without them, Mitch wouldn’t have the skill set that he has, and he wouldn’t “test off the chart”. Apparently, he’s a natural, the kind of operative that the CIA prays comes along every so often, but at the same time they want to reign him in and make him fit their approach and attitude. And they wonder why it doesn’t work…

In the end, the movie can’t help but try and have its cake and eat it, as Mitch swings into action single-handedly at every turn, ignoring Stan’s orders and advice, and getting by on sheer exuberance and luck. O’Brien gives an intense performance as Mitch, but aside from a growing respect for Stan that fits the standard template for this kind of movie, there’s no character arc as such because he goes from delighted fiancé to revenge-fuelled assassin in the space of those eighteen months we never get to see. What we’re left with is a dour, singularly remote character that the viewer can’t connect with, and whose only emotional trait is anger. Other than that, Mitch is pretty much a stiff with a variety of weapons. As his mentor, Keaton continues a run of performances that prove he’s an actor who can make more out of a character than is on the page, and whose work ethic is almost second to none. Whenever he’s on screen, the movie picks up, and his energy helps carry the movie forward when at times it’s in danger of stalling.

Elsewhere, Lathan’s CIA Deputy Director remains a bland interpretation of an even blander role, while Negar grabs some of the limelight as an Iranian agent who’s part of the team when they get to Rome. The main villain is a renegade Orion operative called Ghost (Kitsch) who has his own revenge issues, but like a lot of self-absorbed bad guys he’s prone to too much monologuing and being lenient when it’s absolutely not in his best interest. The script’s nuclear bomb McGuffin feels old hat, and it all leads to an unfortunate bout of ruinous CGI involving the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet that requires such a major suspension of disbelief that only unintentional laughter can be regarded as the correct response to it. Trying to keep all this feeling fresh and exciting, but being undermined by the tired scenarios on display, Cuesta – whose pedigree includes stints on TV’s Six Feet Under, Dexter and Homeland – does what he can, and there are flashes of what he could have achieved, but they’re not enough to lift the material out of its self-imposed doldrums. By the end of the movie, you’ll either be optimistically looking forward to another outing for Mitch and his authority issues, or you might be agreeing with Tina Turner and saying, “We don’t need another hero”.

Rating: 5/10 – a broad spectrum action thriller that’s at least professionally made, American Assassin is the result of the work of four screenwriters (including Edward Zwick when he was attached to direct as well) who, between them, couldn’t make the material memorable enough; formulaic and predictable at every turn, it’s not a bad movie per se, just one that doesn’t have the necessary impact to help it rise above the bar set by the likes of James Bond or Jason Bourne.

The Hero (2017)

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D: Brett Haley / 93m

Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katharine Ross, Max Gail

Ah, mortality. It gets us all in the end, sometimes without warning, and sometimes it gives us plenty of time to get used to the idea (or not). For Lee Hayden (Elliott), an aging actor best known for his appearances in Westerns during the Seventies and Eighties, work is a little on the slow side. Movie offers have dried up, and his agent can only get him voice over work on radio ads. Lee spends most of his time mooching around his home in the hills outside Los Angeles, or smoking pot with his friend, Jeremy (Offerman), who co-starred with him in a TV series called Cattle Drive. Lee is divorced, and has a daughter, Lucy (Ritter). He doesn’t see either of them very much as he was a poor husband and father. One day he receives good news and bad news. The good news is that a Western Appreciation Guild want to honour him with a Lifetime Achievement award. The bad news is that he has pancreatic cancer.

The news that he has a terminal condition sends Lee into a bit of a tailspin. He makes an attempt at telling his ex-wife, Valarie (Ross – Elliott’s real life wife), but can’t bring himself to say the words. He makes a further attempt to reconnect with Lucy, and she agrees to have dinner with him the following week. Meanwhile he meets a woman, Charlotte (Prepon), at Jeremy’s house, and later they bump into each other. They begin a relationship, one that’s more tentative on his part than hers, and she agrees to go with him to the guild ceremony. There, his acceptance speech – which isn’t what people were expecting – goes viral, and suddenly, movie offers are coming in, with one in particular looking as if it will thrust him back into the spotlight. However, while his career appears to be getting back on track, his personal life remains a mess. He misses his dinner with Lucy, takes exception to Charlotte using their relationship as part of her stand-up routine, and keeps putting off making a decision about his oncology treatment.

Some roles are written with specific actors or actresses in mind, and Lee Hayden seems like he was written with Sam Elliott at the top of the list of actors to be considered. It’s on these occasions that wondering how the movie would have turned out if someone else had taken the role, proves to be an impossible task, as the actor who is in the role is so good you can’t even begin to replace them with someone else. Such is the case here. While there are a small handful of actors who could have played Lee Hayden, it’s unlikely that any of them could have done as good a job as Sam Elliott. It’s a performance that perfectly gauges the doubts and insecurities and fears of a man in his early seventies who no longer trusts good things will happen to him, and who is hesitant about accepting them when they do. Elliott captures the character’s sense of having been alone for so long that even the idea of engaging emotionally with his family is painful to him, or with someone new like Charlotte. Lee also hopes that if he doesn’t talk about his condition, then he won’t have to deal with it (at one point Lee researches a procedure that could extend his life expectancy by five years, but is put off by pictures of how he would look after the surgery).

Elliott’s laconic, gravel-voiced delivery is also perfect for the role, as is his tall, rangy physique. If you’re going to employ someone to play an aging Western actor, then Elliott has got to be top of the list after Clint Eastwood, but here there’s a level of introspection and vulnerability that Eastwood probably wouldn’t have been able to make convincing. Elliott also embodies the role of Lee in such a way that there’s not one false note to be seen or heard, and if anyone has any doubts as to his ability as an actor, then two scenes should be enough to dissuade them: Lee’s acceptance speech at the guild ceremony, and Lee’s reading of lines from Galactic, the YA sci-fi epic that could be his ticket back to the big time. In both scenes, Elliott wrings out every last drop of nuance and emotion, and his delivery is impeccable. And then there’s Lee’s qualms about his relationship with Charlotte, and why she’s with him. It all adds up to a performance that is completely awards worthy (and yet, it will likely go unrewarded come the awards season in a few months’ time).

Elliott’s performance aside, there is much else to savour, with the script by director Haley and co-writer Marc Basch, confident in its handling of the other characters, and with a series of dreams Lee has that reflect on his glory days in the only movie he’s ever been proud of (The Hero), and his hope that he’ll be able to make one last movie that’s on a par with it. These dream sequences are vivid and affecting, and speak to Lee’s state of mind throughout, just as a handful of scenes set at the ocean’s edge see him contemplating just walking into the waves and foregoing any further pain. The movie isn’t just a bittersweet drama, however, but also an understated comedy, with moments of inspired humour such as Lee and Charlotte being stoned at the guild ceremony, and Lee being asked to “do one more” line reading for a barbeque sauce ad (when he’s just done “one more”).

Though the movie as a whole is engaging and holds the viewer’s interest and attention with ease, it has to be noted that there’s not a lot that’s new or hasn’t been tried before in The Hero. Fast approaching mortality isn’t exactly an unexplored theme in the movies, and neither is the idea of a relationship with an extended age gap, but Haley and Basch have done more than enough to offset any familiarity by investing heavily in the characters, and by concentrating on providing them with believable dialogue. Ultimately, it’s a movie about legacies and second chances and coming to terms with just how much actual control anyone has over these aspects of our lives, and on that level, it’s very successful indeed.

Rating: 8/10 – Elliott is The Hero‘s MVP, and he dominates the movie in a way that raises the material and makes it more impressive than its basic premise would suggest; backed by good performances from Prepon and Offerman, a very poignant use of the Edna St Vincent Millay poem Dirge Without Music, and vibrant cinematography courtesy of Rob Givens, this is a movie that is quietly potent and well worth finding the time for.

Cult of Chucky (2017)

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D: Don Mancini / 91m

Cast: Fiona Dourif, Brad Dourif, Michael Therriault, Alex Vincent, Adam Hurtig, Elisabeth Rosen, Grace Lynn Kung, Zak Santiago, Ali Tataryn, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Jennifer Tilly

Number seven in a franchise that’s proving as hard to keep down as the titular character itself, Cult of Chucky is the latest instalment in a series that at least has tried to do something different with each entry. However, while this has its moments, it’s not as good as Child’s Play (1988), or its predecessor, Curse of Chucky (2013), but instead, occupies the largely stagnant middle ground of the rest of the series. Fans will no doubt love it, while non-fans will spend much of their time trying to work out who all the returning characters are. It’s very much a movie that’s been made to satisfy the fans, but if so, then it has to be argued that said fans are pretty undemanding.

It’s a movie that throws the viewer in at the deep end right from the start, and assumes that they’ll know exactly what’s going on, why, and who it’s happening to. It’s a continuation of the story that began in Curse of Chucky, but here the story is presented in a much more straightforward way that doesn’t try to connect itself with the events and characters of earlier entries as Curse did. But what it does do, as so many of the other entries have done, is to cut narrative corners whenever it’s convenient to do so. This means the movie is disjointed, takes liberties with its own continuity, and poses questions it has no intention of answering. For fans of horror franchises, a lot of this will be familiar territory, but as this is another entry written and directed by series’ keeper of the flame, Don Mancini, it’s all the more disappointing.

Set largely in a medium security mental institution, the movie focuses on Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif), who was framed by Chucky (Brad Dourif) for the murders of her family in the last movie. Four years have passed, and her therapist, Dr Foley (Therriault), has managed to persuade Nica that she murdered her family, and that attributing their murders to Chucky has been a way of dealing with the guilt of what she “did”. But it’s not long before Chucky’s presence begins to make itself felt, first by one of the other patients, Angela (Kerr), telling Nica she’s spoken to Chucky and he’s coming for her, and then by Dr Foley bringing a talking Chucky doll into a group therapy session. A vsit by Tiffany Valentine (Tilly) sees Nica given another talking Chucky doll as a gift, and so, the stage is set for Chucky to go on yet another murderous rampage.

Having toned down the humour that marred Bride of Chucky (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004), and reconnected with the strengths of the first movie, Mancini seems to be bogged down by what looks and feels like a transition movie, or that difficult second movie in a trilogy. It certainly leaves several plot strands dangling, and then right at the death (so to speak) it springs a surprise that has to be addressed/followed up in the next instalment (it’s one of those moments that will have fans punching the air in delight, while baffling the average viewer). Despite Mancini’s best efforts, the movie plays out with a grim determination to provide just enough death and franchise maintenance to keep people interested until next time, when perhaps, there’ll be a better payoff. And at least this time, the makers have foregone the low budget CGI employed on the last couple of entries, and returned to the animatronic and puppetry effects that have been used so well in the past. Chucky still moves like he’s got rickets, or is in need of a hip replacement, but it’s in keeping with how a plastic doll without functioning knees or ankles would move if it really was alive.

Fortunately though, and amidst all the pedestrian plotting and characterisations, Mancini manages to pull off a number of masterful moments that elevate the material, if only briefly. There are several establishing shots of the interior of the mental institution that show off its sharp lines and white open spaces, and there’s a character reveal that is both unexpected and effective purely because there’s no previous set up for it. There’s the puzzle of why one Chucky doll has a brutal fringe, and best of all, a death scene involving a skylight that Mancini shoots first with an eye for its initial static beauty, and then with an eye for its devastating, bloody outcome. These help the movie haul itself out of the doldrums it finds itself in at times, and gives some hope that if Mancini has already got number eight mapped out in his head, that it will contain moments as good as these, and perhaps a lot more besides.

Another bonus is the presence of the Dourifs, with Brad providing more solid voice work as Chucky, and daughter Fiona back in the fray as Nica. Fiona isn’t always best served by the script, but she has a similar intensity to her father that keeps the character more credible than most. As the movie progresses – and this may have been deliberate on Mancini’s part – Fiona looks more and more like her father, so much so that in a scene where she’s being hypnotised by Dr Foley and a light flashes in front of her, her features alternate between her own and what could have been her father’s super-imposed on hers, though that’s clearly not the case. It’s an odd, somewhat disturbing moment, and the feeling persists from that moment on. If it is deliberate, then it’s a clever trick considering where the movie ends up. Along the way though, Mancini plays to genre conventions for the most part, and keeps the movie from looking or feeling too fresh (the setting is yet another hospital where only the same three members of staff are on duty at any one time; otherwise it’s deserted). Held back perhaps by budgetary restrictions, the movie is nevertheless one that tries to bring something new to the series, but doesn’t quite manage it. Maybe next time…

Rating: 5/10 – lacking the consistency and attention to detail of its predecessor, Cult of Chucky gets by on a handful of bravura moments, but lets itself down by abandoning any attempt at maintaining its own internal logic very early on; the need to set up another sequel means the ending is something of a letdown, but if you’re a fan then this is something you’re probably going to derive a lot of pleasure from.

The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

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D: Jim Strouse / 84m

Cast: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield, Noël Wells, Taliyah Whitaker

Despite having their name plastered all over the advertising, potential viewers of The Incredible Jessica James can rest easy – this is not a Netflix original. Instead it’s a movie that Netflix picked up for distribution after it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With that near miss taken care of, it’s unsurprising to learn that the latest from the writer/director of People Places Things (2015) is on a par with that movie, and head and shoulders above many other so-called romantic comedies released this year. Shot through with Strouse’s gift for natural-sounding dialogue, the movie brings together two characters who are trying hard to deal with the fallout from relationships that have recently ended. How good are they at doing this? Does the phrase “cyber stalking” give you a clue?

The title character, Jessica James (Williams), has split up from her boyfriend, Damon (Stanfield). She’s not sure how it happened, but she is sure she still has feelings for him. Well, confused feelings, as she arranges dates with guys on Tinder and meets them in places where she knows she’s likely to bump into Damon, just so she can tell him how well she’s doing without him (she also continues to follow him on social media). Three and a half months have passed since their relationship ended, and while it seems Damon has moved on, Jessica is so critical of anyone else she meets that she might as well not bother. Then her friend, Tasha (Wells), suggests Jessica go on a blind date with someone she knows called Boone (O’Dowd). Boone is eight months divorced, and is prone to following his ex’s Instagram account, as well as hanging around outside the apartment she shares with her new partner. Their date doesn’t go too well at first, but once they agree to talk honestly about their previous relationships, the pair find themselves hitting it off. So well, in fact, that they end up spending the night together.

The rest is almost entirely predictable, and follows such a standard arc that the average viewer could probably describe it in their sleep. But in amongst the familiar tropes and romantic ups and downs, Strouse weaves a charming tale of burgeoning love that is anything but formulaic, and which owes a lot of its success to Strouse’s gifts as a writer, and the easy way in which he translates his screenplay into well structured yet seemingly carefree incidents. We follow Jessica as she navigates this new friendship with Boone, as well as teaching at a children’s theatre workshop, and trying to get her work as a playwright recognised by a theatre company. She’s smart, she’s intelligent, she’s sexy, she’s trying hard not to be a slave to her emotions, and she’s taking it all one step at a time. Two things stop her from moving forward with confidence or the appropriate speed: her mixed feelings for Damon, and Boone’s mixed feelings for his ex, Mandy Moore (not the singer/actress).

Boone is plagued by similar doubts, but of the two of them he seems to be the more prepared to commit to Jessica and forge a new relationship. Inevitably there’s a stumbling block, a situation that pulls them apart before they’re reunited at the end, but it’s all done with an honesty and a simplicity that is in many ways, quite refreshing to witness. Strouse uses dialogue as a way of exploring the characters’ emotional needs, and to draw out small but effective contributions to the way in which both of them deal with disappointment and pain, and being hurt. They’re both vulnerable people, determined to be honest with each other as a relationship “best policy” and to protect themselves, and Strouse is on fine form when it’s just the two of them, happily tiptoe-ing through the minefield of a new romance and largely unafraid of losing a metaphorical limb.

Strouse is helped immensely by relaxed, detailed performances by Williams and O’Dowd, a romantic “odd couple” you probably wouldn’t have put together in a million years. And yet, there’s a definite chemistry there (if not a completely convincing physical one; when they kiss it’s like watching two people trying it out for the first time and getting the basic idea from a manual). Williams has a very likeable screen presence, and she uses her expressive features and comic timing to very good effect. Those viewers who only know her from US TV’s The Daily Show (where she’s played roles as varied as Abraham Lincoln and Lorena Bobbitt), may well be surprised by the way in which she handles the more serious elements of Strouse’s script, but when she is called upon to jettison the comedy and hit up the drama, you can see just what an all-rounder she really is. She’s in good company with O’Dowd, who, no matter what movie he appears in, is pretty much the definition of relaxed and easy-going. He’s proven his range on many occasions, and though Boone is something of a supporting character, O’Dowd plays him as if he’s integral to the whole movie, and makes him both inherently credible and hugely sympathetic; you want Boone to find happiness with Jessica (and vice versa).

Strouse, who’s work as a writer/director seems to get better and better with every movie, handles a number of subplots with aplomb as well, gaining extra mileage from the situations his romantic duo find themselves in when they’re not together. Jessica tries to persuade the mother of one of her pupils of the importance of the class itself, while Boone is confronted by his ex-wife’s new partner and only barely survives the encounter without sounding like a complete ass. Strouse isn’t afraid as well to make Jessica initially unsympathetic, with her treatment of potential suitors brought into question by her abrupt manners and rude dissemination of why she doesn’t want to be there. But as she begins to find love with Boone, Jessica mellows and allows herself to trust a lot more, and the character blossoms as a result. Again, it’s all held together by the quality of Strouse’s writing, and the quality of Williams’ and O’Dowd’s portrayals, and in the end, the movie ends up being a more than pleasant way of spending eighty-four minutes, and one that makes you wonder just what kind of a life the pair will have long after the credits roll.

Rating: 8/10 – somewhat of a surprise (though it shouldn’t be given Strouse’s involvement), The Incredible Jessica James is a sure-fire winner that doesn’t have a lot to shout about on the surface (in terms of originality), but which is deceptively graceful below it; a low-key experience that rewards dramatically and comedically, this is a movie that works to its strengths throughout, and in doing so, stakes a claim to being one of the most intelligent and pleasurable romantic comedies of the year.

Aquarius (2016)

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D: Kleber Mendonça Filho / 146m

Cast: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão, Zoraide Coleto, Carla Ribas, Fernando Teixiera, Buda Lira, Paula de Renor, Barbara Colen, Pedro Queiroz

When we meet Clara for the first time, it’s in 1980 and she’s introducing her brother, his girlfriend, and one of their other friends to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust. Later, at a party to celebrate the seventieth birthday of one of her aunts, we learn that Clara (Colen) has recently beaten breast cancer. Her husband makes a speech in which he praises her strength, and his gratitude that they will be able to spend the rest of their lives together. Fast forward to the present day, and Clara (Braga) is a retired music writer, and a widow of seventeen years. She lives alone in the Aquarius apartment building in Recife, surrounded by hundreds of vinyl records, and a lifetime of memories. Mostly content with her lot, she is well liked and known in the local community, lives near enough to the beach to go for a swim in the sea if she feels like it – and despite how much it worries lifeguard Roberval (Santos) – and is charitable enough to fend off inane questions when interviewed by local journalists. She has family and friends around her, but aside from the daily presence of her housekeeper, Ladjane (Coleto), appears to be comfortable living by herself.

The peace she has attained is soon threatened however, when her apartment building is targeted by a construction company, Bonfim, for redevelopment. While everyone else accepts Bonfim’s offer, and moves out, Clara refuses to budge; she doesn’t even look at their proposal. Her family, particularly her daughter, Ana Paula (Jinkings), believe she should accept the offer, but Clara is resolute, even when some of Bonfim’s workmen install mattresses in the apartment above hers and have a noisy party one night. Further instances such as finding human faeces on the stairwell, and being patronised by Diego (Carrão), the grandson of Bonfim’s owner, and the architect behind the proposed redevelopment, serve only to make Clara even more determined to stay put. Eventually, she decides to take the fight to Bonfim, and with the aid of a friend with political connections, she learns of documents that would be incredibly damaging to Bonfim if they were made public. But while she and her lawyer, Cleide (Ribas), take steps to locate these documents, two of the construction company’s ex-workers provide Clara with disturbing information that, if true, will prove even more damning than the documents…

On the surface, Aquarius is a movie looking to tell its David v Goliath story through the eyes and ears of its savvy heroine, but thanks to a wonderfully diverse, and yet also focused script by its director, the movie is much more than that. It’s a terrifically constructed character piece, with Clara the centre of attention throughout, and made all the more impressive by a complex, intuitive performance by Braga. The key to Clara’s dogged determination to stay where she is, is the fact that she’s a survivor. She has already endured a terrible period in her life, and come out the other side a stronger person. This makes it easy for her to withstand the pleas her family make, and the brickbats that follow when their pleas aren’t acted on. Clara has such a sense of being right, of being right for her and her alone, that she can brush off these attacks with ease. She finds courage in being so resolute, and in turn, this courage helps to maintain her resolute stance. And if Bonfim’s efforts to disturb her peace and solitude were ever likely to succeed in their desired aim, then they clearly had no idea who they were up against. Who else would react to discovering an orgy taking place in the apartment above theirs by calling a friend’s toyboy lover and inviting him over for a session of their own?

It’s moments like these, where Clara doesn’t react or behave in the way that you might expect her to, that make Filho’s script so effective. Clara is simply not a victim, and she has no intention of ever being one, even if it would make everyone else’s lives more convenient or stress-free. For the most part she ignores Bonfim’s clumsy attempts to dislodge her, and goes about her daily life as if their attentions were of no importance at all (which, to a certain degree, they aren’t). She goes to the beach, goes dancing at a club with her friends and picks up a handsome stranger, babysits her grandson, and spends time with her nephew, Tomás (Queiroz), and his girlfriend. She deals with Bonfim if and when she has to, and always with a patient resignation. It’s only when matters escalate that she shows just how angry she is, and there’s a confrontation with Diego that sees Clara let rip in formidable fashion. Over the course of the movie we see Clara as widow, lover, mother, friend, intellectual, implacable foe, and above all, a fully recognisable woman.

It’s rare for any movie to present such a fully rounded portrait of its lead character, male or female, and it’s to Filho’s credit that Clara is so vividly written. It doesn’t hurt that Clara is played by Braga in a career best performance that contains not one false note or mis-step to betray either the character or her director’s faith in her. Braga’s range is hugely impressive, from the melancholy emotions she expresses when Clara remembers her husband, to the tolerant understanding Clara shows to her children when they challenge her obduracy, and the fiery sense of righteousness Clara exudes in the movie’s final twenty minutes. It’s also a defiantly physical portrayal, with Braga seemingly in motion even when Clara is seen at rest, as if the character has pent-up levels of energy that can barely be contained. Braga is an hypnotic presence from the first moment we see her, and she holds the viewer’s attention in every scene, the focus for everything we need to know or understand.

Overall, the movie is a subtle creation, with a temperate, knowledgeable script that examines notions of survival, respect (everyone evinces respect for everyone else but it’s obvious that it’s a façade adopted by everyone, even Clara on occasion), the importance of family, the closeness of friends, political expediency, and nepotism – to name but a few – and Filho combines them all with a skill and a sureness of touch that is just as impressive as Braga’s performance. There are social and political connotations too that are relevant to the present day situation in Brazil, and while most of these connotations will be lost on international audiences, they’re reflected in the machinations of Bonfim and their ultimate disregard for Clara and her feelings. The movie also features fluid, well framed camerawork by Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu, and it’s all held together by Eduardo Serrano’s skillful, perceptive editing. A word of praise also for the absence of a score, a decision that proves invaluable when the lead character has such an eclectic, and terrific record collection in the first place.

Rating: 9/10 – marred only by an abrupt ending that isn’t quite the crowd pleaser that audiences may be expecting, Aquarius is nevertheless an intelligent, quietly provocative movie that is superbly assembled and which draws in the viewer effortlessly; anchored by a glorious performance from Braga, this has a clarity of purpose and a maturity of style that few other movies can match.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

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D: Mike Flanagan / 103m

Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken

And so we have another Stephen King adaptation, the third within two months after The Dark Tower and It, and a movie that falls somewhere in between the two in terms of quality. Gerald’s Game may not be as bad as The Dark Tower, but it’s certainly nowhere near as good as It. But what it is, is a huge disappointment, one that forgets the cardinal rule when adapting one of King’s novels: that all the interior stuff that King does so well, doesn’t translate well to the screen. Unfortunately, that’s what takes up most of King’s novel, as unhappy wife Jessie Burlingame (Gugino) finds herself handcuffed to a bed while her previously equally unhappy husband, Gerald (Greenwood), lies dead on the floor from a heart attack. The one major problem? They’re at a deserted lake house, and no one’s likely to happen by any time soon. In fact, it might be a week or more before anyone shows up. And by then? Well, if Jessie doesn’t find a way out of her predicament, then whoever does show up is likely to find two dead bodies for the price of one.

And there you have it: the plot in a nutshell. It’s a slight plot, very simple in its nature, and if you were to make a movie based purely on that plotline and nothing else, you’d have a very short movie (and King would most likely have written a short story). But King wrote a novel, and he gave Jessie an abusive childhood (one more example of his parents as monsters motif) that enabled the basic plot to be expanded upon and Jessie’s plight made all the more resonant for highlighting how trapped she’s been throughout her life, first as a protector to her sister, and then as a trophy wife. More importantly, King is very good indeed at exploring the interior lives of his characters. But again, how King writes, and the detail he provides, doesn’t translate well to the (on this occasion small) screen. But director Mike Flanagan – who gave us the better than average Oculus (2013) and the entertaining if flawed Before I Wake (2016) – along with his fellow screenwriter, Jeff Howard, opts to include Jessie’s back story, but ends up having far more trouble connecting it to her present situation than perhaps should be the case. What the viewer is left with, is a movie that plays connect the psychological dots, but which manages to leave out some of those very same dots.

The basic set up is one we’ve seen many times before, both in novels and the movies, with a couple whose marriage isn’t working as well as it used to (if it did at all), trying to “spice things up in the bedroom” as way of improving things. But it’s obvious from the start that Jessie isn’t as confident about this as Gerald is, and when things become uncomfortable for her she calls a halt. But she’s already handcuffed to the bed, and after a short marital spat where a number of home truths are laid out on both sides, Gerald has a heart attack and dies (let that be a lesson to hypertensives who take Viagra). Cue Jessie having conversations in her head that are shown as hallucinations. Gerald keeps returning to tell her just how bad her situation is, and how unlikely it is that she’ll survive, while she also conjures up a version of herself who is more supportive and willing to do a bit of problem solving in order to keep Jessie alive. Both “characters” function as a part of Jessie’s psyche, which is fractured enough (and very quickly thanks to the demands of the script), but the repetitive nature of their dialogue soon becomes tiring, and any impact they initially have from “being there” disappears just as quickly as they show up.

From this we head off into Jessie’s childhood and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, Tom (Thomas). But Flanagan and Howard don’t quite know how to equate the abuse she suffered with the way in which Jessie behaves as an adult; the two don’t connect in a way that would make Jessie’s current predicament that much more affecting. In the end, the movie seems to be more about laying to rest the ghosts of Jessie’s childhood. And once that’s done, then it can get back to the small matter of Jessie being handcuffed to the bed. With that having been decided on, it’s left to Gugino to look increasingly awful thanks to dehydration, and to use an incident from her childhood to spark an idea as to how she can free herself. (Those familiar with the novel may be pleased/repulsed to know that King’s solution has been retained – and it’s not for the squeamish.)

Along the way there’s the added danger of a hungry stray dog who takes a liking to Gerald’s body and who might want to have a taste of “fresher meat”, and a mysterious presence, the Moonlight Man (Struycken), who may or may not be real. The problem with these elements, and many more besides, is that they are all signposted long before they become unveiled, and any suspense is squashed before it has a chance to make itself felt. Consequently, there is very little tension in the movie, and the pacing is erratic, with whole scenes feeling flat and pedestrian in nature. When the movie does pick up the pace, it’s only fleeting, but it still feels as if Flanagan hasn’t got as firm a grip on the material as he should have. He’s not helped by the performances of Gugino and Greenwood, which are serviceable at best, and often hampered by some unappealing dialogue (kudos to Greenwood though: he looks great for sixty-one).

Somewhat predictably, the script can’t help but throw in some referential dialogue to other works by King – the dog is referred to as “Cujo”, Gerald tells Jessie “all things serve the beam” – and there are moments when the promise inherent in the material threatens to break out, particularly with the Moonlight Man, but the wordplay is allowed to dominate, making this a movie that stops on several occasions to allow for lengthy speeches and broad declarations of how bad Jessie and Gerald’s marriage had become, or Jessie’s feelings about her childhood. Flanagan manages the odd flourish here and there, and visually it’s quite robust despite its mostly single set restrictions. There’s also a simple, yet evocative score by the Newton Brothers that does its best to amplify the emotional and psychological components of the script without making them too heavy handed. Good as these things are, though, they’re not enough to prevent Gerald’s Game from being a bit of a letdown.

Rating: 5/10 – yet another King adaptation that could have been a whole lot better, Gerald’s Game is a movie that only occasionally delivers any suspense or tension, and which concentrates more on its central character’s mental health than on tightening the structure of the main plot; earnest and a little bland (and despite the basic premise), this should be a tour-de-force of acting and directing, but instead it falls down way too often to provide the impact it needs.

Voice from the Stone (2017)

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D: Eric Dennis Howell / 90m

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Marton Csokas, Caterina Murino, Remo Girone, Lisa Gastoni, Edward George Dring

There’s a whole other sub-section of the movies where English or American actors and actresses take roles that are shot in foreign locations with a foreign crew, and often their presence is there to ensure a decent enough showing in the international market. A lot of these movies, however, don’t always get the exposure they need, and head straight for DVD or VOD. Some manage to get into cinemas but they rarely make much of an impact, and often see out a week’s residency without too much fuss and bother. One such movie is Voice from the Stone, which since its world premiere at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Film Festival on 20 April this year, has made it onto the big screen in only five countries so far (six if you include its appearance at this year’s UK FrightFest). So how does this movie fare against all the others?

Without deliberately invoking this blog’s favourite i-word, Voice from the Stone proves largely disappointing, and for a number of reasons. The basic premise is ideal for setting up a semi-Gothic mystery thriller, but somewhere along the way, Howell’s interpretation of Andrew Shaw’s screenplay (itself an adaptation of Silvio Raffo’s novel La Voce Della Pietra), jettisons the idea of playing the obvious mystery elements – is grief-stricken son Jakob (Dring) really hearing the voice of his dead mother, Malvina (Murino), in the walls of his Tuscan villa home? – in order to focus on the nature of grief and the (not too) dark places it can lead us to. There’s Jakob’s grief, the grief his father, Klaus (Csokas), is dealing with, and then to a lesser extent, there’s the grief that Verena (Clarke) is feeling. Verena is a nurse who tends to sick children in their homes, and each time her work is done, it becomes harder and harder to leave, such is the emotional connections she makes as part of her approach to caring for the children in her charge.

Jakob was with his mother when she died, and had stayed by her bedside almost all throughout her illness. Since then he hasn’t said a word, whether through choice (as an expression, excuse the pun, of his grief), or something more sinister. The fact that he listens to the walls, and seems to be hearing his dead mother’s voice, is excused by his father as the boy’s way of dealing with his sadness. But Verena sees it as much more dangerous to Jakob’s emotional health, and in an initially oblique way, begins to challenge his behaviour. She’s encouraged in this by Lilia (Gastoni), Malvina’s mother, who is confident that Verena can get Jakob to talk. But although Verena slowly begins to make headway in bringing Jakob out of his grief, the dynamic within the villa starts to shift around her, and she finds she can no longer trust all that she believed when she first arrived…

Annoyingly, Voice from the Stone sets itself up as a slow-paced, methodical thriller that’s big on atmosphere and rich in emotional detail. However, while it never promises startling revelations along the way, what it does do is morph ever so slowly into a static drama that can’t make much of the few dramatic incidents that the script sets up. A visit to the family mausoleum should be disquieting but avoids making an impact by having its heroine behave as if she’s seeing ghosts that aren’t there, and a potentially frightening dream sequence is undermined by the way in which it’s staged. And despite Clarke’s best efforts, the character of Verena doesn’t convey the necessary depth that would allow the viewer to care about her predicament. The same is true of Csokas’ one-minute-guarded, the next-minute-approachable reading of Klaus, a grieving husband whose personality and demeanour lacks consistency, and who occupies a kind of there-when-the-script-needs-him-to-be middle ground that keeps the character from engaging with the viewer.

Shaw’s screenplay becomes increasingly erratic the longer the movie goes on, and there are a couple of jarring shifts in the narrative, along with a dramatic development involving a piece of sculpture that Klaus is working on, that nudges the story along but so unconvincingly you might be wondering if there’s a reel missing. There’s also a “surprise” that some viewers will have spotted a mile off, and which, when it’s revealed, has all the impact of being slapped with a damp tissue. As for the mystery of the voice in the walls, the script settles for being ambiguous when it needs to be more definitive (otherwise it’s a mystery with no payoff, and how much fun are they?). And the ending, when it comes, proves just as underwhelming as what’s gone before, though it does at least avoid throwing in a cheap twist to round things off or to try and set up a potential sequel.

With Shaw’s screenplay suffering from a number of fatal flaws, matters aren’t helped by Howell’s turn in the director’s chair. Only his second feature since From Heaven to Hell in 2002 (check out its cast), Voice from the Stone soon proves itself to be a challenge that Howell, a former stuntman, isn’t able to overcome. There are too many scenes that are flat and drearily composed, and the flow of the movie is stalled time and time again by decisions made in the editing suite, decisions that stop the movie from gaining any traction when it needs to, and stop it from being anything other than a chore to sit through for much of its running time. Clarke tries her best to get a good grip on the character of Verena but is unable to because her character makes too many random, unsupported choices, while Csokas is left to fashion a performance from too few clues and too few insights. And Dring, as the silent Jakob, can only frown a lot or remain passive, something he does well, but it’s not necessarily a recommendation of his performance, rather a drawback he can’t defeat. The movie is also unattractive to watch for the most part, too often dimly lit (even the exteriors) and attempting to provide itself with some atmosphere by doing so.

Rating: 4/10 – undercooked and underwhelming, Voice from the Stone is a movie that offers little in the way of satisfactory viewing, and only occasionally rises above the mundane handling of the material; a thriller that doesn’t thrill and with a mystery that’s never solved one way or the other, this is one for Emilia Clarke completists only, or viewers willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – though it would be hard to understand why.