Top 10 Actors at the Box Office 2017

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Welcome to this year’s look at the great and good amongst movie actors, those stars who keep us coming back to the cinema time after time, and help put as many bums on seats as they possibly can. As with last year’s list, I was going to do this post nearer to Xmas to get a picture of the year as a whole, but with the summer period now over (bar the screams from those who’ve yet to see It), there has been enough movement to warrant returning it to its usual appearance in September. In the lower half there are some changes as we say goodbye to Michael Caine and Anthony Daniels, but the upper half still resembles a shoving match at a Russell Crowe impersonators’ convention. So whose turn is it in the top spot this year? Read on to find out.

NOTE: HGM stands for Highest Grossing Movie, and the figures represent the worldwide gross. And all figures are courtesy of boxofficemojo.com.

10 – Johnny Depp / HGM: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) – $1,066,179,725

Last year’s number nine drops one place and faces dropping even further, despite his appearance in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and a cameo in J.K. Rowling’s franchise starter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Depp hasn’t impressed since he played James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass (2015), and before then you have to go back to Public Enemies (2009). If he’s going to retain his place on the list then he’ll need to make some much better choices than he has done over the last ten years or so, but looking at the movies he has got lined up, his place on the list next year isn’t guaranteed.

9 – Ian McKellen / HGM: Beauty and the Beast (2017) – $1,262,852,042

The first of the two new entrants on the list, McKellen’s placement is due entirely to his playing a clock in a movie that was always going to do well at the box office even as it drained the magic out of its story with every scene. With this and his appearances as Gandalf in a certain sextet of movies, McKellen may hold on to a place in the Top 10 come this time next year, but with only a couple of voice roles and a reworking of Hamlet on the horizon, McKellen is just as vulnerable as Johnny Depp, and may make a swift return back to the outer fringes of the list.

8 – Tom Cruise / HGM: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) – $694,713,380

Last year, and despite his being at number seven on the list, Cruise was considered to be something of a good bet to be off the list this year, but here he is, down one to eight and hanging in there (no pun intended) despite a  relatively poor showing for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and a disastrous showing for The Mummy. Cruise has yet another impossible mission to go on next year (if he can remain uninjured for the rest of the shoot that is), but otherwise his slate is pretty clear. Whether that means anything though is yet to be seen…

7 – Stanley Tucci / HGM: Beauty and the Beast (2017) – $1,262,852,042

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other new entrant on the list is also there because he’s played an inanimate object given specious life, but Tucci’s appearances in the Hunger Games quartet have also helped boost him to the number seven spot. Tucci is keeping himself busy with a number of upcoming projects, but none of them scream huge box office winner, so his continued appearance here is just as hard to predict as his fellow thespians below him. Still, it’s good to see someone who’s generally regarded as a supporting actor make it onto the list, even if it does only turn out to be for this year.

6 – Eddie Murphy / HGM: Shrek 2 (2004) – $919,838,758

Murphy’s downward slide since this thread began comes to a halt, and he continues to provide proof that you don’t have to be appearing in every latest blockbuster under the sun in order to make the list, and that you don’t even have to be making that many anyway. Murphy is attached to just three projects at present, and only one of them, the long-proposed sequel to Twins (1988), is anywhere near being made, but it probably won’t make the slightest difference to his position on the list. And that’s completely and totally okay.

5 – Robert Downey Jr / HGM – The Avengers (2012) – $1,518,812,988

Another non-mover on the list, Downey Jr’s place is likely to be much higher next year once Avengers: Infinity War hits our screens, empties our wallets, and paves the way for Untitled Avengers Movie in 2019. He has a couple of equally high profile projects heading our way as well – the long-rumoured third Sherlock Holmes movie, and The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle – so Downey Jr could well be in contention for a top three spot come September next year.

4 – Morgan Freeman / HGM: The Dark Knight (2008) – $1,004,558,444

Another non-mover, Freeman’s presence on the list – like Murphy’s – is a potent reminder that sometimes it only takes a handful of successful movies to make the list. After that, you can make as many small, financially under-achieiving movies as you like and it won’t make a difference. Like Tucci he’s keeping himself busy over the next year – including, God help us, appearing in Angel Has Fallen – but whatever happens, his place on the list is assured for some time to come.

3 – Tom Hanks / HGM: Toy Story 3 (2010) – $1,066,969,703

Even though Hanks is still in third place for the second year running, and even though he’s made a few unsuccessful choices in the last few years – Sully aside, of course – he’s still made enough bona fide classics and box office successes to keep his place in the top five until the end of recorded time and beyond. There’s the small matter of a fourth Toy Story movie coming up, but that’s not until 2019, and in the meantime there aren’t that many projects with Hanks’ name attached to them. He may well be slowing down, or maybe he’s becoming more choosy. Either way, he’s not going anywhere except a place or two down the list; out of it altogether, though? Not a chance.

2 – Harrison Ford / HGM: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – $2,068,223,624

So Ford’s reign at the top lasts just a year, and though his dropping down to second place isn’t entirely surprising, whether or not he’ll drop another place next year may not be so surprising either. With only Blade Runner 2049 occupying his time between now and 2020’s Untitled Indiana Jones Project (they do know he’ll be seventy-eight by then, right?), Ford doesn’t have to work if he doesn’t want to, and if he doesn’t it won’t have too much of an effect on the list – he’ll still be on it somewhere – but having hit the top spot, it would be a shame to see him out of contention in the years to come.

1 – Samuel L. Jackson / HGM: The Avengers (2012) – $1,518,812,988

He’s back, he’s… ah, you get the gist. The sweariest actor this side of Joe Pesci in GoodFellas (1990) continues to dominate the list, aided by the success of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Kong: Skull Island. Jackson makes a lot of movies each year, some of which are big box office draws, others that don’t fare so well, and others that just make the viewer want to scream “motherf*cker!” at the screen they’re so bad (The Legend of Tarzan, anyone?). And even though Jackson as Nick Fury won’t be in Avengers: Infinity War, he’s got plenty of other movies in the pipeline that should bring huge box office returns. Still at the top next year? Don’t bet against it.

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

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D: Matthew Vaughn / 141m

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Edward Holcroft, Hanna Alström, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Poppy Delevingne, Sophie Cookson, Michael Gambon

When Kingsman: The Secret Service hit our screens back in 2014, its anarchic sense of fun and willingness to push the boundaries of good taste (exploding heads, anyone?) made it stand out from the crowd, and introduced us to Colin Firth the action hero. It was smart, it was savvy, it was funny, and its action sequences, especially that astounding sequence set in a Kentucky church, showed that well choreographed fight scenes could still impress and leave jaws dropped everywhere. A sequel may have been in some initial doubt – writer/director Vaughn wasn’t sure the first movie would be successful enough to warrant a second outing – but now it’s here, and it’s a very mixed bag indeed.

As a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle adheres to the formula for a follow-up to an unexpectedly successful movie in that it goes bigger, brings back its original stars and gives them less to do, references its predecessor in some ways that are good and some ways that aren’t, introduces a group of new characters that the audience aren’t allowed to connect with, and extends the running time unnecessarily. It’s as if Vaughn and returning co-screenwriter Jane Goldman have heard the phrase, “Give ’em what they want, and then give ’em more” and taken it to heart. But there are too many elements that clash with each other, and the movie never maintains a consistent tone. Also, that anarchic sense of fun that the first movie carried off so well, here feels awkward and somewhat laboured, and we have yet another villain with a goofy personality who’s just plain misunderstood (Moore’s over-achieving cartel boss wants to be recognised for her “business acumen”).

Of course, any sequel that seeks to revive a character who appeared to be killed in the first movie, has to tread carefully in how it brings them back; this may be a world far removed from our own reality, but even in fantasy land, death means dead and gone. Vaughn and Goldman have come up with an ingenious idea that makes sense within the confines of the world that Kingsman operates within, but the fact that in terms of the plot a year has passed and Harry (Firth) is still suffering from amnesia and the Kingsmen haven’t been told he’s alive, is just one of the larger plot holes that pepper the script and make you think that while Vaughn has been reported as saying that “writing this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done”, it soon becomes obvious that he needed to try a bit harder. Perhaps the biggest question that goes unanswered, is why villain of the piece Poppy Adams (Moore) takes out the Kingsmen in the first place. Without even a throwaway line to clear up the matter, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that it was important to the plot, and it is, but only as a way of introducing their American cousins, the Statesmen.

Cue a lot of cool new gadgets, the presence of franchise newbies Tatum, Berry, Pascal, and Bridges (seemingly the only people who work for Statesman – until the end, that is), a side trip to the Glastonbury Music Festival that actually includes a scene where Eggsy (Egerton) asks his girlfriend, Tilde (Alström), if she’s okay with him having sex with another woman (Delevingne), the sorry spectacle of Elton John having been persuaded to send up his image from the Seventies and encased in ever more ridiculous stage outfits (he’s been kidnapped by Poppy – of course), a physics defying stunt involving a cable car that at least has the benefit of a terrific one-liner as its pay-off, Harry being cured of his retrograde amnesia but still seeing butterflies (don’t ask), Poppy’s robot attack dogs Bennie and Jet (geddit?), and several plot threads that are left dangling like so much silly string.

There’s more, a lot more, but if there’s one area where the movie lets itself, and the audience, down, it’s with a disastrous sub-plot involving the US President (Greenwood) and his so-called “war on drugs”. Poppy’s plan is to infect the millions of addicts who use her drugs with a deadly chemical that will kill them. Unless the President agrees to her demand to make all drugs legal, then she’ll withhold the antidote. Publicly, the President appears to agree to her terms, but privately he has no intention of saving anyone, reasoning that if all the drug addicts in the world are dead, then illegal drugs will become a thing of the past because there’ll be no one around to take them. There is a twisted sense of logic there – barely – and it could have been made to sound semi-plausible, but the President’s flippant, couldn’t-care-less attitude seems more of a rebuke to the current real-life incumbent than any properly considered character design. And leading on from the President’s decision, the movie opts to provide audiences with the unsettling and seriously off-kilter sight of thousands of victims of Poppy’s plan being herded into cages and stacked on top of each other within the confines of a US football stadium (is there a message here?).

This time around the comedy is muted in favour of a more serious approach, but it’s as haphazardly sewn into the fabric of the movie as everything else. The action sequences, particularly an opening display of vehicular mayhem on the streets of London, and the final showdown at Poppyland, have been shot and edited with a view to making the fight choreography flow as quickly as possible within the frame, but as a result, details are lost and much of what can be seen seems to involve as much posing as it does fighting. Against all this, the performances are adequate, though Strong and Berry are on better form than the rest, while there are odd instances – a bar fight that echoes the original’s pub brawl, but with Harry coming off worst; Merlin singing Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver at a crucial moment – where the viewer can see glimpses of what might have been, but overall there aren’t enough to warrant a better appreciation of a movie that’s slackly directed, confuses sentiment for depth in its treatment of the relationship between Harry and Eggsy, and which doesn’t try hard enough to match the style and energy of its predecessor.

Rating: 5/10 – with the prospect of a third movie just over the horizon, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the point where the service should hang up its tailoring shingle and head off into early retirement; a disappointing sequel that shows a flare for inconsistency throughout, it offers shallow pleasures for those who want that sort of thing, but will prove a more difficult experience for those expecting a repeat of the giddy heights of the first movie.

The African Doctor (2016)

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Original title: Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont

D: Julien Rambaldi / 96m

Cast: Marc Zinga, Aïssa Maïga, Bayron Lebli, Médina Diarra, Rufus, Jonathan Lambert, Jean-Benoît Ugeux

The fish out of water movie is a such a staple of movie making that it’s hard to get it wrong, and The African Doctor, which is based on a true story, covers familiar narrative ground with ease, while providing a lightweight yet enjoyable experience for the casual viewer. Try as you might, to rail against this movie because of its simple premise and equally simple mise en scene is like railing against the air for being intangible: there’s just no point in doing so. Combining drama and comedy to good effect, it’s a movie that has no trouble in entertaining its audience, even though it tells a familiar story.

Based on the reminiscences of the comedian/singer Kamini when he was a child in the Seventies, the movie introduces us to his father, Seyolo Zantoko (Zinga), on the day that he graduates from medical school in Paris. Originally from Kinshasa in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Seyolo is unsure of where his future will take him, but having been offered the role of personal physician to Zairean president, Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, and turned it down, he finds himself being offered the role of physician in the small, rural village of Marly-Gomont. A position that’s offered to him by the mayor (Ugeux), Seyolo takes it because he doesn’t want to become corrupted by being so close to Mobutu, and to give his children a better life than they might have under Mobutu’s rule. His wife, Anne (Maïga), and two children, Kamini (Lebli) and Sivi (Diarra), travel from Zaire to be with him, and are less than impressed by their new surroundings.

Inevitably, Seyolo’s presence in the town is seen as unnecessary and unwanted, as the villagers hold fast to their entrenched beliefs and avoid going to him when they’re unwell. Seyolo ingratiates himself with some of the menfolk but to no avail; he still can’t attract any patients. In order to have money coming in he goes to work for a local farmer, Jean (Rufus), and it’s not until he delivers a baby that he’s accepted and the villagers begin coming to him with their medical issues. But political machinations – the role of mayor is up for election – see Seyolo barred from practicing medicine until certain immigration issues related to his seeking French citizenship are overcome. It’s not until the day of the election that Seyolo discovers just how highly regarded he is by the village, and what a difference a school play can make in determining his and his family’s future.

The key strength of The African Doctor – a clumsy title that doesn’t do the movie itself justice – is Rambaldi’s relaxed, almost carefree directorial style, a major plus for a movie that deals with its more dramatic moments in a quietly authoritative way, and which doesn’t descend into melodrama when it could so easily have done so on several occasions. Seyolo’s struggle to be accepted and to make a success of the clinic he’s been asked to run has its ups and downs (as expected), but it’s not the run-ins with the villagers that makes his struggle so difficult but the effect it has on him and his family. Seyolo faces a greater struggle in convincing Anne that he’s made the right decision for their family, and his bringing them to Marly-Gomont has been achieved under false pretences (they don’t know about the offer of being Mobutu’s personal physician). He also doesn’t learn from his mistakes: when Anne learns that they could have stayed in Kinshasa, it causes a rift in their relationship that is damaged further when he agrees to remain in the village at the mayor’s request and he doesn’t consult her about it.

The family dynamic is one that the script – by Rambaldi, Benoît Graffin, and Kamini himself – keeps returning to, and a subplot involving Sivi’s desire to play football (which she’s very good at) is allowed to take centre stage towards the end. It’s here that Seyolo realises his true worth to the community, and where his misguided attempts at making decisions for his family are left behind. It’s also at this point that Seyolo’s journey, one that began when he came to France to study medicine, reaches its true end stage, and his “arrival” in Marly-Gomont is complete. The subtle themes of acceptance and rejection that have been threaded throughout the narrative are given due acknowledgment, and the material as a whole, which has been buoyant even in its most dramatic moments, ends on a bittersweet note that is entirely fitting in relation to what’s gone before.

For many viewers, The African Doctor will feel derivative and/or predictable, and while much of what takes place isn’t exactly new, that’s not the point. Kamini, with the support of Rambaldi and an experienced cast, has made a tribute to his father that is both heartfelt and unafraid to show the man as less than perfect. His story may be one that we’ve seen before, but there’s a quiet dignity about Seyolo that stands out, and it’s given full expression via a captivating performance from Zinga, who captures the man’s sense of pride and determination to succeed, and the humility he experiences towards the end. Zinga is matched by a terrific performance by Maïga, who perfectly expresses the resentment and anger Anne feels towards her husband for treating her so poorly. Balanced against these portrayals however is an unnecessarily smarmy and wince-inducing turn from Lambert as the mayor’s chief political rival, an uninspired visual style, and an annoying, often grating score from Emmanuel Rambaldi (the director’s brother) that sounds as if it was composed for another, more whimsical movie altogether. These are problems that Rambaldi cannot solve (and could be said to have encouraged), but overall, it’s the quality of Seyolo’s story that wins out, and which makes this a movie to look out for.

Rating: 7/10 – an engaging movie about fitting in and finding a place in the world that suits both an individual’s needs and aspirations, The African Doctor is a small-scale, yet largely enjoyable love letter from a son to his father; though cultural and racial divisions abound, this isn’t about one man overcoming feckless hostility, but instead it’s about one man’s commitment to himself and his family, a universal theme that is played out with a great deal of charm and sincerity.

The Hippopotamus (2017)

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D: John Jencks / 89m

Cast: Roger Allam, Fiona Shaw, Matthew Modine, Tommy Knight, Tim McInnerny, Emily Berrington, Geraldine Somerville, John Standing, Lyne Renee, Emma Curtis, Dean Ridge

A washed-up alcoholic poet working as a (soon-to-be-fired) theatre critic may not be the best person to investigate a series of potential miracles at an English stately home in Norfolk, but that’s the situation Ted Wallace (Allam) finds himself in after being approached by his goddaughter, Jane (Berrington), to do the very same. Ted is naturally credulous when Jane reveals she has leukaemia, but that it’s now in remission after a recent visit to Swafford Hall, and she’s on the mend. She won’t reveal the exact nature of the miracle that she ascribes her better health to, but instead wants Ted to go there and discover it for himself (she believes a miracle might help him too). Ted agrees to go, but has reservations: Swafford Hall is owned by an old friend, Lord Logan (Modine), from their days in National Service, but their relationship has become strained due to Ted’s recent (mis-)behaviour.

Ted wangles an invitation on the pretence of seeing his godson, David (Knight), but once at the Hall he soon discovers that the source of Jane’s miracle – and possibly many others – may be David himself. Ted remains entirely credulous though as the Hall fills up with guests, all of whom have their own secret reasons for being there, reasons that relate to David and his “gift”. But while everyone else seems willing to believe in David as a miracle worker, Ted continues to have his doubts, even when David appears to cure a horse that is so ill it looks as if it will have to be put down. As his visit becomes more and more contentious – the other guests pour scorn on his increasing denial of David as a healer – the arrival of Jane’s mother, Rebecca (Somerville), and a revelatory telephone call casts a different light on proceedings, and Ted begins to piece together the true nature of David’s miraculous nature.

This being an adaptation of a novel by Stephen Fry, The Hippopotamus abounds with literary and poetic references, some of them well known and most of them more obscure unless you’re as well read as Fry is, but while Fry himself has hijacked a poem by T.S. Eliot for his title (and his central character), the screenplay – by Rebecca McIntyre and Tom Hodgson, with additional contributions from John Finnemore and Robin Hill – doesn’t use these quotes in order to be clever, but as a way of exploring the natures and the personalities of its characters. Ted, of course, is prone to making the odd telling quote when riled/pushed/in need of a witty reply to some careless utterance or display of ignorance, but it’s David who excels in his literary endeavours, captivated as he is by romantic poetry in particular. As he gives free vocal reign to his teenage desires through the medium of iambic pentameter, David retains a virginal intensity that (unexpectedly) supports the notion of his being a miracle worker.

The script works hard to make it difficult to decide if Ted is right or not about David’s “gift”, and while there is a very obvious clue tucked away in a scene about halfway through, Ted’s determined obduracy over the issue, and his refusal to play the game everyone else is playing, makes his task all the harder. But Ted is a stubborn man, and though he might not be the obvious choice for such a role, his stubbornness allows him to avoid being sidetracked by the glaring needs of the other guests, and the equally glaring need of his goddaughter, Jane. There’s a poem by Rudyard Kipling called If…, one that’s not used by Fry or the script, that observes, If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you. That’s Ted in a nutshell, the lone voice in the wilderness who won’t be swayed, even when it may be politic to do so. Allam, yet another character actor who can be relied on to give a good performance no matter what the role, plays Ted with a caustic, anti-social charm that is both endearing and objectionable at the same time. When Ted needs to be at his sarcastic, opinionated best, Allam resists the temptation to “go loud” and instead roots his contempt through the character’s disappointment at no longer being able to write any poetry. There’s a great deal of subtlety to Allam’s portrayal of Ted, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Allam’s performance is the lynchpin that holds the movie together, and it’s fortunate that he does, because without him the movie would be populated entirely by a group of puffed-up, graceless wonders who barely deserve the viewer’s attention. It’s a shame that so many characters should be so negative and unappealing, from McInnerny’s borderline offensive gay theatre director to Renee’s spiteful, wicked witch mother. The cast are hampered by the script’s determined efforts to avoid giving everyone bar Ted a sympathetic angle, with only David’s mother, Lady Anne (Shaw), coming anywhere close. That said, Shaw is wasted in the role, as is Modine as the kind of dyed-in-the-wool grouch who pontificates instead of having a normal conversation. As the potentially “divine” David, Knight is the only other actor given anything of any merit to do, and he tackles the role with an enthusiasm that is unfortunately tempered by Jencks’ direction, which seeks to pigeonhole David as merely a troubled teenager.

The plot has the potential to make a number of acidic comments on the landed gentry and their sycophantic followers, and it does so at times, but in such a scattershot fashion that it only allows for the odd pot-shot (courtesy of Ted). Jencks focuses on the mystery of Swafford Hall instead, but then forgets this is also a comedy of manners, and when he remembers that, he forgets that this is also a drama encompassing notions of faith and religious observance. This leads to many dramatic and comedic lulls as the movie takes pause, works out how it should move forward, and then proceeds in an orderly fashion until the next sticking point. Thankfully, the dialogue is there to save the day, and there is a certain one-liner that may well be one of the best heard all year. On the production side, Angus Hudson does a fine job of photographing the beautiful interiors of Swafford Hall (actually West Wycombe House in Buckinghamshire), and the equally splendid grounds. So the movie looks good, even if it feels a little hollow at times, and the required depth sneaks away on too many occasions for comfort. But in doing so, it always leaves the frame free for another of Ted’s acerbic rants – something that it does get right every time.

Rating: 7/10 – Allam’s skill as a performer, and Hudson’s skill as a cinematographer, allied to Fry’s knack for a wry quote makes all the difference in a movie that has too many superfluous characters and not enough going on to occupy them; an enjoyable, witty movie for the most part, The Hippopotamus is only partially successful in its aims, and lets itself down by appearing unable to work out just what kind of a movie it wants – or needs – to be.

A Girl Like Her (2015)

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D: Amy S. Weber / 91m

Cast: Hunter King, Lexi Ainsworth, Jimmy Bennett, Amy S. Weber, Stephanie Cotton, Mark Boyd, Christy Engle, Jon W. Martin, Madison Deadman, Anna Spaseski, Mariah Harrison, Emma Dwyer, Michael Maurice, Gino Borri, Sarah Kyrie Soraghan

If there’s a message to be found at the heart of A Girl Like Her, a tale of bullying and its consequences, it’s not that bullying is wrong per se (though of course it is), it’s that we all make mistakes, and especially when we’re young. In this particular movie, mistakes are made by children and adults alike, and some of them are compounded and inexcusable. And yet the movie seems to be saying, if, after the fact, you’re sorry, then that’s alright. That may be a very nice, and very politic way of looking at things, but unfortunately, by the time A Girl Like Her arrives at that conclusion, its argument has been undermined completely by its approach up until that point.

The movie quickly introduces us to Jessica Burns (Ainsworth), a student at South Brookdale High School who is anxious, depressed, and contemplating suicide. She has one friend, Brian (Bennett), who she spends a lot of time with, and she’s confided in him that she’s being bullied at school by her one-time best friend, Avery (King). Their friendship changed over a minor incident that could have been dealt with very easily, but Avery has used it as a launchpad for a series of incidents that have made Jessica’s life an absolute misery. Brian gives her a brooch that doubles as a spy camera, and he persuades her to wear it at school, to document the bullying and provide proof that it’s happening. Jessica wears it, but is too fearful of what Avery might do if she finds out about it that she refuses to do anything with the footage, and she makes Brian promise he won’t tell anyone about it either. Then, one day, while wearing the brooch, she takes an overdose and lapses into a coma.

At this stage of the movie, what we’ve seen so far has been a compilation of footage shot by Brian, and footage from the spy camera. Now, with Jessica in a coma, and with no certainty that she’ll fully recover, the task of providing the viewer with footage falls to a documentary movie crew who are at South Brookdale thanks to its recent, highly impressive ranking in the national school league tables. Sensing a bigger story than the school’s educational achievements, the documentary’s director, Amy Gallagher (Weber), decides to focus on Jessica and how the rest of the students and the faculty feel about what she’s done, and the possibility that it’s linked to bullying. But “the fun” really begins when Amy finds out about Avery and decides to incorporate her into the documentary. Given a camera to record a daily video diary, Avery soon uses it as a means to make the viewer feel sorry for her instead of Jessica, but when Brian breaks his promise and shows Amy the footage of Jessica being bullied by Avery, “the most popular girl in school” soon learns that her past behaviour hasn’t always been her best behaviour, and her popularity begins to wane.

By mixing found footage with documentary footage in order to tell both Jessica’s story and Avery’s story, Weber has created a movie that looks and feels like a basic documentary but which veers off into straight up drama territory too often to make the conceit a successful one. It’s an earnest movie that looks to explore the fallout from Jessica’s suicide attempt in a way that’s sincere and non-judgmental – and therein lies its biggest problem. An initial talking heads approach with Amy eliciting the thoughts and reactions from students and faculty offer the expected clichés (“She was in my class but I didn’t really know her”), but once the idea of Jessica’s suicide attempt being the result of bullying arises, there are thinly veiled criticisms of the school’s anti-bullying policy (mostly from the teachers), and the students react in an offhand, blasé kind of way. For them, bullying, though deplorable, is just another fact of high school life.

So far, so predictable. But then, with Jessica consigned to a coma, Weber turns her attention to Avery, and makes her the focus instead. At first, this seems like a good idea, but the movie becomes irrevocably heavy-handed from this point on, and all the nominally good work Weber has put in so far begins to fall away. An extended scene at Avery’s home during dinner time shows her mother (Engle) behaving inappropriately and showing a complete lack of understanding in regard to Avery’s feelings. From this, we are meant to accept that Avery’s home life and domineering mother are to blame for her bullying Jessica, and that she is just as much a victim of bullying as Jessica. This would be fine if it wasn’t all too pat, and if Avery didn’t show any remorse until she sees the footage from the spy camera showing her being unrelentingly abusive. Sympathy for Avery, the movie seems to be saying, is essential if the cycle of bullying is to be broken, but Avery’s behaviour is presented as self-aware and opportunistic; she’s enjoying being a bully. And in another scene that’s meant to be telling, she does all she can to ensure that her parents don’t see the spy camera footage.

The movie strives to be an emotional rollercoaster as well, with tears at every turn, melodramatic scenes at the hospital, and awkward moments where Avery’s friends attempt to distance themselves from their involvement in her attacks on Jessica. It also stumbles badly in a scene where the school principal (Maurice) holds a meeting with Avery and her parents to get her side of “the story” (Avery’s friends have written a letter blaming her for Jessica’s situation). Avery is allowed to get angry, swear at the principal and storm off without any repercussions whatsoever. It’s a scene that lacks credibility throughout, and later, when Amy attempts to offer Avery help in dealing with the fallout from a self-serving, self-pitying video she posted online, the perilously thin line between documenary movie maker and secondary character is crossed irrevocably, and the movie reveals it’s true raison d’être: to persuade the viewer that being a bully is a matter of emotional circumstance and any blame is ephemeral. All of which is likely to provoke a less than satisfied response in the average viewer, and particularly if said viewer has been the victim of bullying themselves.

Nevertheless, there are good performances from King and Ainsworth, with strong support from Cotton and Boyd as Jessica’s distraught parents, but they’re all in service to a script that too often preaches when it should be observing (as all good documentaries do). Weber doesn’t always move from one scene to the next as fluidly as might be expected, and Samuel Brownfield’s cinematography noticeably varies between handheld and static and often in the same scene, a decision that undermines any attempt at cinéma vérité that Weber might be aiming for. There’s the germ of a good idea here, but with too much going on that feels forced or laboured, the same can also be said of the movie’s message… and that it can be applied to the movie itself can be considered unfortunate and ironic at the same time.

Rating: 5/10 – overheated at times and often lacking in subtlety, A Girl Like Her strives to provide a meaningful discourse on bullying and its aftermath, but falls short in its aim thanks to poor plotting and some wayward characterisations; with its uncertain approach and mix of shooting styles, it’s a movie that’s searching for a fixed identity, one that it brushes up against from time to time, but which it has very little chance of connecting with.

10 Reasons to Remember Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017)

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Harry Dean Stanton (14 July 1926 – 15 September 2017)

For a long time he was just plain old Dean Stanton, appearing here and there in supporting roles in a gamut of movies and TV shows from 1954 (where for once he was Harry Stanton) through to 1971. During that time he was an Hysterical Patient in Psychiatric Ward in Voice in the Mirror (1958), Poetry-reciting Beatnik in The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963), and even Blind Dick in Ride in the Whirlwind (1966). He was the character actor who popped up seemingly everywhere, appeared in a few scenes, got himself noticed in an “oh it’s him” kind of way, and then vanished again only to repeat the same scenario in his next movie or TV episode. In the Fifties and Sixties there were lots of actors like Stanton making minor impressions on audiences, but Stanton stuck to it, and even if audiences weren’t always aware of who he was (aside from in an “oh it’s him” kind of way), the industry certainly did.

Stanton was a versatile actor whose career never really took off in the way that some of his contemporaries’ – such as Jack Nicholson – did. He never seemed to mind though and often took roles just because he liked them (he was a great advocate of the saying, there are no small parts, only small actors). But his career did take a huge leap forward in 1984 when he made two movies that sealed his fame as an actor forever. Alex Cox tapped him for the role of Bud in Repo Man, and Sam Shepard wrote the part of Travis Henderson for him in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. The role of Travis, a lost soul trying to reunite with his family after having vanished years before, required Stanton to be still and silent for long stretches of the movie, but he used his weather-worn features and skill and experience to ensure the character retained a whole host of recognisable emotions and feelings. It was a performance that perfectly encapsulated his abilities as an actor, and should have allowed him to take on more leading roles, but again, he was happy with his choices, and his career continued to keep him busy.

Away from acting, Stanton was also an accomplished musician, appearing internationally as part of The Harry Dean Stanton Band, and garnering rave reviews for the band’s unique spin on mariachi music. He’s also one of the few actors to have an annual movie festival created to honour him; The Harry Dean Stanton Fest has been running since 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky (this year’s event runs 28-30 September). But perhaps the highest praise Stanton ever received was from critic Roger Ebert. Ebert stated that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And aside from Dream a Little Dream (1989), he was absolutely right.

1 – Straight Time (1978)

2 – Wise Blood (1979)

3 – Alien (1979)

4 – Escape from New York (1981)

5 – Repo Man (1984)

6 – Paris, Texas (1984)

7 – Wild at Heart (1990)

8 – The Mighty (1998)

9 – Sonny (2002)

10 – INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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D: Juan Carlos Medina / 109m

Cast: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, María Valverde, Eddie Marsan, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins

A music hall comedian and musical theatre actor. A Prussian-born philosopher. An English novelist. And an aspiring playwright. All four of them men, and all four suspected of being the infamous Limehouse Golem, a murderer whose latest outrage has claimed the lives of an entire family and their maid.  Which of these four men – Dan Leno (Booth), Karl Marx (Goodman), George Gissing (Watkins), and John Cree (Reid) – is the crazed, psychopathic killer, and why?

It’s a measure of the confidence that screenwriter Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem) has in the material that she keeps this central conceit ticking along for so long, because if you stopped to think about it for more than a cursory second, then said conceit would crumble to dust before your eyes. Ackroyd may have presented his story in better ways on the page, but Goldman is hampered by the requirements of a movie interpretation, and the scenes where the murders are re-enacted from the viewpoint of each suspect in turn leads to some very awkward moments indeed. The sight of Karl Marx – a bushy bearded Goodman – acting violently makes for one of the most inappropriately amusing murder scenes in recent cinema history. And the same can be said of Gissing’s turn behind the knife. Leno fares slightly better but that’s mostly thanks to Booth’s florid turn as the theatrical maestro, while Cree, this movie’s Most Likely does mentally unbalanced with too much glee to be even considered as the Golem. So with each of the suspects lacking that certain murderous je ne sais quoi, what’s a mystery thriller meant to do?

The answer is to focus instead on Cree’s wife, Lizzie (Cooke), a member of Leno’s troupe, and soon on trial for poisoning her husband. Cree’s death doesn’t immediately rule him out of being the Golem, but it does prompt Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) to attempt to kill two birds with one stone: to prove that Cree was the Golem, and in doing so, provide his wife with a motive for killing him that would make her a heroine and see her avoid the gallows. Aided by Constable George Flood (Mays), Kildare follows a clue left by the Golem at a murder scene to the British Library and a book by Thomas de Quincey that contains a diary written by the Golem within its pages. With only the four men mentioned above having had access to the book on the day of its last entry, Kildare sets about obtaining samples of the men’s handwriting in an effort to eliminate/incriminate them. Leno, Marx and Gissing are soon ruled out, but Cree’s death remains an obstacle to the truth: before he died he burnt all his personal papers.

With all this investigative work going on, and grisly accountings of the murders punctuating the narrative to boot, the movie recounts Lizzie’s life from sexually abused pre-teen to orphan to theatrical protegé to music hall star. It feels like a soap opera tale given a grim Victorian veneer, and takes up too much of the movie’s run time. For long stretches it’s Lizzie’s back story at the forefront of the material, and the search for the Golem is left feeling as if it’s been relegated to second place, a position that doesn’t feel right for the story or the overall structure. Allied with a number of scenes that see Kildare visiting Lizzie in prison and reassuring her all will be well, the mystery elements are forced to take a back seat as Kildare pursues his twin aims, all of which is likely to lead some viewers into construing that his visits are indicative of some burgeoning romance (Kildare is conscientious it’s true, but nothing fully explains his obsessive determination to save Lizzie from certain death). But wait, Kildare isn’t “interested” in women, he follows another persuasion, a detail the script brings up every now and then in a misguided attempt at adding depth to the character, and which only prompts Flood to reveal his own “interests” in a scene that is as awkwardly written as it is played out.

Lizzie’s theatrical experiences are used as a backdrop for the rise of the Golem, and there are plenty of clues dropped along the way as to the murderer’s identity (fans of this sort of thing will have no problem working out the whodunnit aspect of things). Along the way there are also several music hall interludes, and back stage confrontations, that help to throw suspicion on Leno and Cree respectively, but in an effort to stretch the material even further, there are minor sub-plots that add little to the larger storyline, and by the time the murderer’s identity is revealed, a certain amount of ennui has settled in as scenes are recycled or repeated without adding anything new or relevant to the proceedings. Even the murders themselves, touted as grisly and shocking, prove unambitious in their execution (excuse the pun), and a number of incidental deaths prove equally uninspired (and more than a little predictable).

That said, there are some good performances to be had, with Nighy putting aside all the tics and pauses that usually make up one of his portrayals (and subbing for a too ill to take part Alan Rickman), while Booth (who just keeps getting better and better) is on formidable form as Leno, imbuing the character with a melancholy nature off stage that is at odds with his more ebullient and public persona on stage. Marsan is good value as always as a senior member of Leno’s troupe, Reid plays the anger-driven Cree with a fierce passion, but Mays looks out of place, and Cooke does her best with a role that should be more sympathetic than it actually is, and which suffers from having too much attention focused on it. Medina organises everything in a frustratingly direct manner, with too many scenes and developments lacking the necessary impact, and though he has fine support from the likes of cinematographer Simon Dennis, production designer Grant Montgomery, and costume designer Claire Anderson, it’s not enough for the movie to look good when it doesn’t always feel right.

Rating: 6/10 – a mixed bag overall, The Limehouse Golem captures the squalid nature of the Victorian era with aplomb and sets up its central storyline well, but dials down on the melodrama and the lurid nature of the Golem’s activities; perfectly acceptable then in a “what to watch on a Sunday evening” kind of way, but not quite as formidable in its approach as it needed to be.

It (2017)

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D: Andy Muschietti / 135m

Cast: Jaeden Liberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert

Somebody somewhere knows just how many movie adaptations there are of novels, novellas and short stories (and random ideas) by Stephen King. But having that knowledge will also mean that if they’ve seen all those adaptations, then the ratio of good to bad is going to be firmly on the bad side. For every Carrie (1976) there’s a Graveyard Shift (1990), or an unwanted sequel such as The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996). Then there are the TV adaptations, but even there the ratio is still predominantly bad over good, with the likes of The Tommyknockers (1993) and Trucks (1997) proving less than successful. However, one TV adaptation that had a better reception was It (1990), and mostly because of Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. A big screen remake has been in the works since 2009, and after a couple of false starts it’s finally here.

The first thing to mention about It is that it’s a far better adaptation of King’s novel than we could have ever expected. The script – a rewrite by Gary Dauberman of one written by previously attached director Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer – gives us several avenues down which we can explore, from the camaraderie of the Losers Club (the group of six boys and one girl who take on Pennywise the Clown), to the troubled history of their hometown of Derry, Maine, and the reluctance of the adults in Derry to acknowledge the evil that lurks in their town. The movie is also a coming-of-age story, as the members of the Losers Club try to overcome their fears and take on an evil entity that identifies and plays on those fears in order to feed every twenty-seven years. Led by Bill Denbrough (Lieberher), who loses his little brother, Georgie (Scott), to the sewer-dwelling clown who calls himself Pennywise (Skarsgård), the Losers Club is a select band of friends who become aware of Pennywise’s presence in Derry, and decide to do something about it. There’s motormouth Richie (Wolfhard), hypochondriac  Eddie (Grazer), orphaned Mike (Jacobs), germaphobe Stanley (Oleff), new kid in town and local history buff Ben (Taylor), and in time, strong-willed Beverly (Lillis).

Their friendships are at the heart of the movie, adding a rich layer of emotional consequence that could so easily have been overlooked in favour of the next big scare. Instead, the hopes and dreams and fears of a group of young kids take centre stage, and thanks to the script and Muschietti’s adept direction it’s easy to feel anxious for them, whether they’re being bullied by older teen Henry Bowers (Hamilton) and his cronies, or facing up to the malicious intentions of Pennywise and his abductions of children. As each is drawn into a tighter and tighter circle of responsibility – they all realise that there aren’t any adults who could deal with what’s happening (or want to; there’s a pervading sense that the adults are complicit in Pennywise’s actions) – friendships old and new are tested like they’ve never been tested before, and they discover a heroism in themselves that proves to be their greatest achievement, both individually and as a group. They bicker, they argue, they prove their love for each other – even and especially Beverly – and they unite to defeat Pennywise… for the time being.

With the characters and the performances of the Losers Club locked in, Muschietti is free to concentrate on making It as scary and as terrifying as he possibly can, and he does so by making Pennywise a more vicious and intense incarnation of the Dancing Clown than was the case back in 1990. A little flirtatious, and tempting with it, the sewer-dwelling entity is an unnerving creation made all the more unsettling by the quality of Skarsgård’s portrayal. Using his gangly frame to excellent advantage, Skarsgård adds a serpent-like nuance to his performance, his physical presence (even when still) exuding menace at every turn. Aided by a terrific visual design, inspired in part by Lon Chaney’s portrayal of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Pennywise is the stuff of coulrophobics’ nightmares, and the movie exploits that fear in various clever and impressive ways; for once he’s just as scary out of the shadows as he is within them.

The movie is bolstered by a host of impressive performances from its young cast members, with Lieberher leading the charge as stuttering Bill Denbrough, evincing Bill’s grief at losing his little brother, and looking an unlikely hero in the grand scheme of things with complete conviction. Equally as good (if not slightly better) is Lillis as the tomboyish Beverly, plagued by the unsavoury attentions of her father and finding respite in the company of a group of boys whose own worries and concerns are easier for her to deal with. The unofficial mother and girlfriend of the group, Beverly dares and challenges them to be better than they are. There’s good support from Wolfhard and Taylor, though inevitably, and despite their best efforts, Jacobs, Oleff and Grazer are at the mercy of a script that can’t possibly focus on everyone equally, and so have less to do in terms of the overall narrative.

Structurally, the movie does suffer by having two confrontations between the Losers Club and Pennywise occupying the last hour, and there’s a sense that the longer the movie goes on, the less frightening Pennywise becomes, though this would be to overlook the notion that’s spelt out towards the end that the Losers Club are becoming less and less scared of It, and with their doing so, the entity itself becomes less intimidating. It’s another clever conceit in a movie that is dominated by a plethora of good ideas in terms of the adaptation carved out of King’s novel, and Muschietti’s assured direction is augmented and complemented by Claude Paré’s splendid production design and Chung-hoon Chung’s dread-fuelled cinematography. There are scares to be had throughout, some of them very effective indeed, and the movie maintains a morbid, chilling atmosphere from the first rain-soaked scene to the climactic battle below the streets of Derry. A definite winner as an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, if Muschietti and co are able to maintain this level of consistency in Chapter Two, then 2019 can’t come round quickly enough.

Rating: 8/10 – King’s sprawling tome is transferred to the big screen with a great deal of skill and enviable attention paid to the dynamics of the Losers Club and the vicious nature of its villain, making It a much better option than another more recent King adaptation; visually arresting at times, and a lot more uncompromising than a mainstream horror movie usually aims for (let alone achieves), this is an old-fashioned chiller that is both discomfiting and disturbing – and wants the viewer to know it.

Wind River (2017)

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D: Taylor Sheridan / 107m

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, James Jordan, Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, Martin Sensmeier

The Wind River Indian Reservation is situated in Wyoming’s Wind River Basin and occupies an area of nearly three and a half thousand square miles. It’s surrounded by the Wind River Mountain Range, the Owl Creek Mountains and the Absaroka Mountains, and temperatures can drop to a point where rapid breathing of the cold air can cause death by pulmonary haemorrhage. It’s also a place where the lives of its Native Americans are blighted by a persistent drug problem and sense of aimlessness amongst its youth. These points are all worth bearing in mind when considering the merits of Wind River, the latest movie written by Taylor Sheridan, and his first as a director. Sheridan is responsible for the screenplays for Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), two very impressive movies indeed thanks to his contributions, and this, his latest, is equally as impressive (if not more so).

This is a movie where the locations are just as important as the characters themselves and the tangled narrative that they inhabit. The backdrop for a tale of rape and murder that takes place on tribal lands, Sheridan takes the inhospitable nature of the reservation in winter and uses it as a way of examining the issues affecting the tribes people who live there, and to provide an unforgiving environment against which the plot unfolds. It begins with an eighteen year old called Natalie Hanson (Asbille) as she flees across the snow, panicked and bloody. Eventually she collapses and lies still, and remains there until she’s discovered the next day by US Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Renner). Lambert reports his discovery to Ben (Greene), the tribal chief of police, and he in turn alerts the FBI. Their response is to send rookie agent Jane Banner (Olsen), who arrives completely unprepared for the harsh winter weather, and who has no awareness of, or background in, Indian affairs.

Banner hopes that an autopsy will prove that Natalie’s death was murder but the cause of death, pulmonary haemorrhage, won’t support that contention. Unable to bring in a full FBI investigative team, Banner decides to enlist Lambert’s help in finding out what caused Natalie to be so far from the nearest shelter. They learn from her brother, Chip (Sensmeier), that Natalie had a new boyfriend, a security guard at a nearby oil drilling site. Lambert discovers the track of a snowmobile that leads up into the mountains. He and Banner follow the track and find the naked body of a male that’s been ravaged by the local wildlife. Eventually, Banner and Ben, along with a few local deputies and members of the tribal police visit the oil drilling site on the pretext of wanting to speak to Natalie’s boyfriend, who they now know is called Matt (Bernthal). But the security guards that greet them begin behaving suspiciously, and while Banner staves off an armed confrontation between them all, Lambert is up in the mountains where the male body was found, and where he also finds a snowmobile track that leads down to the oil drilling site…

Wind River is a tough, uncompromising thriller that doesn’t stint on the emotional lives of its characters, even allowing the viewer a glimpse of the life that Natalie could have enjoyed if she’d lived, and it’s this approach that helps to anchor the murder investigation that drives the movie forward. Lambert agrees to help Banner because his daughter also died of exposure in the snow three years before, and he wants to assuage his feelings of guilt at not being able to save her. Lambert uses his skills as a tracker to piece together the events that led to Natalie’s murder, and with step he takes, Renner’s thoughtful, subdued performance allows the viewer to see his sadness slip slowly from his shoulders until he’s in a position to offer advice to Martin (Birmingham), Natalie’s father, that is both affecting and heartfelt. Aside from his supporting role in Arrival (2016), Renner hasn’t exactly been best served by the roles he’s taken over the last few years, but his portayal of the taciturn Lambert is one of his best, and a reminder that when he’s given the right material he can be very good indeed.

Sheridan is also careful to make Banner not just a fish out of water, but someone doing their best in a situation that isn’t ideal for them, but which is pushing them beyond their comfort zone. From arriving unprepared for the harsh weather conditions to the point where she begins to understand both the environment and the social climate of the reservation, Banner visibly grows as a character, and Olsen also reminds viewers that she is one of the best actresses of her generation. Displaying a tough determination, and a commitment to finding the truth, Sheridan and Olsen use Banner’s inexperience as a way of bringing out the clues and the details of Natalie’s murder and making them as fresh for the audience as they are for her. Though Lambert is nominally the lead character, and discovers said clues and details, we still see the bulk of the investigation through Banner’s eyes, and we also see the effect that it has on her throughout.

But while Sheridan concentrates on the characters, even to giving us brief moments that tell their stories concisely and effectively, he doesn’t lose sight of the mystery he’s created and the narrative structure that allows it to unfold at a pace that doesn’t disappoint in terms of detail or leaves the viewer feeling as if they’re being led by the nose. Given the bleak (yet beautiful) nature of the environment, it’s unsurprising that there are some harsh, and somewhat brutal outbursts of violence, and the fate of one character has a pleasing, Old Testament eye-for-an-eye feel to it, but again it’s all in keeping with the milieu that Sheridan has created, and there’s an appropriate sense of nihilism that infuses the movie and keeps any sentimentality at bay, particularly in relation to the fractured outlook of its young Native Americans.

Behind the camera, Sheridan has enlisted the aid of a number of collaborators whose contributions add further lustre to the quality of the movie, and without whom this may not have been as successful. There’s Ben Richardson’s rich, detailed cinematography that also highlights the vastness of the Wind River Basin and its austere, wintry beauty, and a beautifully expressive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that is both unobtrusive and eerily soulful at the same time. These collaborators, along with production designer Neil Spisak and editor Gary Roach – and many more – all help make the movie a hugely rewarding and outstanding feature debut for its writer.

Rating: 9/10 – a near perfect combination of mystery thriller and cleverly mounted character-driven drama, Wind River succeeds on so many levels that it would be churlish to say otherwise; Sheridan just keeps on getting better and better, and he draws out terrific performances from his two leads, making this one of the more worthwhile movies out there, and deserving of far more awards than just Sheridan’s Un Certain Regard Director Award at Cannes this year.

Logan Lucky (2017)

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D: Steven Soderbergh / 118m

Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Farrah Mackenzie, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Macon Blair

And… he’s back! Four years after he announced his retirement from directing, Steven Soderbergh returns with a stripped-down version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and damn, is it good to have him back. Soderbergh’s refreshing indie sensibility has been missed in the interim, and while many of us took the news of his retirement with a pinch of salt, it’s still reassuring to know that he’s retained the same levels of enthusiasm that made his movies so highly anticipated. A project that Soderbergh was originally asked to find a director for, Logan Lucky proved too tempting for him to pass up, and so we have a high stakes caper movie that re-establishes him as one of today’s most accomplished movie makers, and reminds us all of just how much he’s been missed.

The plot is quite a simple one: after one setback too many – being laid off, learning his ex-wife and their daughter are moving away, he and his brother getting into a fight with a race car sponsor – Jimmy Logan (Tatum) decides there’s only one thing for it: to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To do this he enlists the aid of his brother, Clyde (Driver), an Iraq war veteran who has a prosthetic left hand, their sister, hairdresser Mellie (Keough), convicted safecracker Joe Bang (Craig), and his two brothers, Fish (Quaid) and Sam (Gleeson). Carrying out the robbery isn’t as simple, though. It requires Clyde getting arrested and sent to the same prison where Bang is currently “in-car-cer-a-ted” so they can break him out on the day of the robbery (and then get him back in before anyone realises he’s gone), disabling the credit card system so that all sales on the day are cash sales, using nearby construction tunnels to gain access to the pneumatic pipe system that transfers cash to a main vault, and using an industrial vacuum to make the biggest “withdrawal” in Charlotte Motor Speedway history.

Of course, while the plot may be simple, the execution of the robbery is anything but, and the script throws in enough twists and turns and unexpected obstacles to keep the audience guessing as to whether or not the Logans – operating against a family “curse” that always seems to keep their endeavours unsuccessful – will get away with it. At the same time, Jimmy’s plan does depend on a number of things going their way when he couldn’t have any idea that they would, such as the obtuse behaviour of a couple of security guards, and the all too convenient silence of a witness, but these minor gripes aside, the robbery and all its components are assembled with a sureness of touch and a witty, deadpan delivery that makes it all the more enjoyable. As Soderbergh flits confidently between the Speedway, the prison, and the pageant Jimmy’s daughter, Sadie (Mackenzie), is taking part in, the rhythm and pace of the movie improves on its somewhat slow start, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, from what happens to Clyde’s prosthetic hand, to the putting out of a very dangerous fire at the prison.

The heist itself is the movie’s centrepiece, expertly constructed and put together by Soderbergh (with help from editor Mary Ann Bernard – no, wait, that’s also Soderbergh), and embellished by a carefree, 70’s-infused score courtesy of David Holmes. But the wraparound sections don’t have quite the same lure or sense of involvement, so that some viewers could be forgiven for wondering if some of the early staging is necessary, or if the extended postscript (which explains much of what happened “behind the scenes” of the robbery and its planning) could be any more perfunctory in its nature. In essence, the movie is like a three-act play, except that it’s only the second act that makes an impact. Soderbergh directs the other two acts with his usual skill, but the way in which the script is structured, and the way that some scenes take longer to conclude than is necessary, hampers the movie as a whole, and though there are moments of beautifully observed comedy in each, this is akin to grunt work: it needs to be done so we can all appreciate the cleverness of the robbery itself, and then the cleverness of how Jimmy et al avoid the attentions of dogged FBI agent, Sarah Grayson (Swank).

Also along the way, some of the script’s other vagaries are allowed to unsettle the viewer and the flow of the narrative, such as MacFarlane’s grandstanding British race car backer, the awkwardly named Max Chilblain, and a minor subplot concerning an old flame of Jimmy’s, Sylvia (Waterston), who runs a mobile clinic that’s starved of funds. MacFarlane brings an odd British accent to the role – part Cockney, part something else entirely – but forgets to attach a character to it, while Waterston’s contribution is reduced to just three scenes. Tatum essays yet another quietly determined everyman who everyone underestimates, while Driver is taciturn and rarely shows any emotion. For the characters, these are good choices, and they’re matched by Keough’s confident, strong-willed turn as the third Logan, while Craig has a field day as the occasionally camp, but always expressive Joe Bang. Everyone in the cast looks as if they’re enjoying themselves, and it comes across in the free and easy way in which the characters interact with each other.

But this is still very much a Steven Soderbergh movie, made with his usual flair and utilising the same casual shooting style that he’s been employing for nearly three decades. A Steven Soderbergh movie always feels loose, even his more serious features such as Solaris (2002) have a sense that they were shot quickly and with a minimum of fuss and effort, and Logan Lucky is no different. This is a movie that entertains and holds the attention (for the most part) and which serves as a validation of Soderbergh’s inherent skill as a director, cinematographer and editor. As a return to movie making it may not be as strong a choice as other movies on his resumé, but it does serve as a reminder that he’s been sorely missed.

Rating: 7/10 – an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, and a clear return to form for its director, Logan Lucky doesn’t quite manage to impress all the way through, but this really shouldn’t put off anyone from seeing it; if you’re a fan, you’ll like it for what it is, and if you’re a newcomer then this is as a good an entry level movie as you could need.

Gun Shy (2017)

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Original title: Salty

D: Simon West / 91m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Olga Kurylenko, Mark Valley, Martin Dingle Wall, Aisling Loftus, Fernando Godoy, David Mitchell, Jesse Johnson, Ben Cura, Jeremy Swift, Anna Francolini, Emiliano Jofre

Based on the novel Salty by co-screenwriter Mark Haskell Smith, the retitled Gun Shy is officially the world’s first equity crowd funded Hollywood movie… which in effect means, you may have a script and you may have talent attached to the project, but it still doesn’t mean the movie should get made. This is definitely the case with Gun Shy, a movie that juggles drama, comedy, romance and action with all the skill of a blind man whose fingers have been glued together. It’s also another movie that makes the viewer question why it was made at all, other than to give the cast and crew the chance of visiting Chile, where most of the action takes place. Perhaps the clue is in the phrase “world’s first equity crowd funded Hollywood movie”. After all, if you can’t even get “real” Hollywood to finance your movie project, then just how good is it?

In this particular case, not very good at all. It’s meant to be a wacky comedy, with Antonio Banderas’ washed-up musician, Turk Henry, sulking in his Malibu home following his having been let go from the band he helped form, Metal Assassin, and which has since gone on to mega-stardom. Turk won’t leave the house, behaves like a spoilt, whiny child, and is married to his long-suffering wife, ex-supermodel Sheila (Kurylenko), whom he met when they were both in rehab. Determined to get Turk out of the house, Sheila blackmails him into making a trip to his home country of Chile (though Turk always tells people he’s English and from London, even though he has a strong Spanish accent). Once there, and at the hotel, Turk just wants to stay by the pool drinking beer, while Sheila is more interested in getting out and experiencing Chilean culture. When Turk discovers that Sheila has been kidnapped along with a couple of British tourists, and is being held for ransom by a group of would-be pirates, his attempt to secure her release by paying a million dollars is hampered by US embassy official Ben Harding (Valley).

Harding wants to use the kidnappings to win promotion by apprehending the so-called “terrorists” (his phrase). He forbids Turk from paying the ransom, and confiscates the money when Turk tries to go ahead with paying the kidnappers. Meanwhile, Sheila is using the time with her abductors, led by Juan Carlos (Cura), to examine more closely the relationship she has with Turk, and how satisfactory it is; naturally she’s not impressed with its current state. Turk though, hasn’t given up trying to get her back. He enlists the aid of one of his agent’s employees, Marybeth (Loftus), and through her, a specialist security agent called Clive Muggleton (Wall). With Harding still trying to win the day by himself and doing all he can to foil their efforts, Turk, Marybeth and Clive concoct a plan to pay the ransom. But will it work?

The more appropriate question might be, will anyone care? Turk and Sheila do deserve each other, but not in a grand romantic fashion, but rather in a no-one-else-would-put-up-with-their-selfish-attitudes kind of way. Turk wants Sheila back because he can’t live without her, but that’s because she organises his life and he can’t function without her. And yet, when she’s kidnapped he does exactly that, and does pretty well for himself in the bargain. He still behaves in a silly, empty-headed manner, but that’s due largely to the way that the script portrays him, and is less to do with Banderas’ performance, which is grating for the most part and dispiriting for the rest. Faced with a main character who is less than sympathetic, and with a situation where you could be forgiven for thinking that being kidnapped is an opportunity to live a better life (with the kidnappers, who at least know what they want: ships), the couple’s marriage would be better served dramatically if this was the beginning of the end. Unfortunately, this isn’t the approach the movie wants to take, so it makes Sheila’s navel-gazing over ther marriage purely something for Kurylenko to do while she waits for her character to be rescued.

With Turk and Sheila’s relationship lacking credibility, the movie struggles elsewhere as well, with the aims and goals of the kidnappers – literally, to have ships so that they can call themselves pirates – being portrayed in such a ridiculous way that the idea remains laughable whenever it’s brought up. They’re basically nice guys playing at being bad, and they aren’t very successful at it. This leaves Harding as the movie’s big bad, and he’s played by Valley in such a way that you can’t take him seriously no matter how hard Valley tries. There’s also a sub-plot involving Turk’s agent, John Hardigger (Mitchell), which doesn’t come into its own until the last ten minutes, and which feels like an after thought to the main narrative (although it does make better use of Mitchell during that time than it does Banderas for the whole movie).

Crowd-funded or not, Gun Shy is a movie that mistakes silliness for humour, and doesn’t attempt to take itself seriously. It wastes the time and efforts of its cast, plays fast and loose with its kidnapping plot, labours the point in respect to Harding’s ambitious personality, and seems to have been directed on auto pilot by West, who can’t even make the occasional action sequence anything more than laboured (a chase/taser attack by Harding on Muggleton is poorly staged and less than thrilling). The early scenes drag on unnecessarily, and the middle section is hampered by the need to stretch things out in terms of the drama (what there is of it). Amazingly though, the final half hour does see the movie pick up, and the pacing and material appear energised in comparison to the rest of the movie. Some of it is even funny at this stage, which makes you wonder why the movie as a whole wasn’t treated in the same way. With this and Security (2017), Banderas isn’t having the best of years, and the rest of the cast do what they can, but Smith’s script (co-written with Toby Davies) isn’t as well structured or funny as was perhaps originally intended. Even the Chilean locations don’t look their best, and if you can’t get that right, then something is very seriously wrong indeed.

Rating: 4/10 – though it should have been a slick comedy adventure movie, Gun Shy is undermined by lacklustre pacing, no one to root for, laughs that land with a thud, and leaden direction from West; only Wall and Loftus emerge with any credit from the cast, and only by dint of the effort they put in, but otherwise this is yet another movie that plays out in an exotic foreign location to very little effect except for providing everyone with a working holiday.

Mountain Men (2014)

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D: Cameron Labine / 89m

Cast: Chace Crawford, Tyler Labine, Ben Cotton, Britt Irvin, Christine Willes

Families – the movies love ’em. And the more dysfunctional they are, the more writers and directors want to tell their stories. Hundreds of family-based dramas and comedies (and dramedies) are made each year, and each of them follow a tried and tested and unstinting pattern: the family members are shown to be at odds with each other (often over a misunderstanding that no one fully remembers, or how it all started), rows and disagreements follow, characters remain at odds with each other for the majority of the movie, but by the end, everything has been resolved and everyone loves everyone else again. To quote Mrs Potts, it’s a tale as old as time, and you could be forgiven for thinking that every last wrinkle has been smoothed out in movie makers’ efforts to provide us with yet another example of the genre.

And though it does try to be different, both with its location and its main characters’ need to survive in the harsh environs of the Rockies, Mountain Men doesn’t quite have the wherewithal to stand out from the crowd. And it’s a shame, because while it just misses out on having the necessary substance or the required depth needed to make it more memorable, the movie does have a great deal of understated charm, and though he’s playing the kind of character he’s known for (again), Labine is the movie’s top draw, and it’s worth watching for his performance alone (that and some very impressive Rocky Mountain scenery, stunningly depicted by DoP Catherine Lutes).

It’s a tale of two brothers, Toph (Labine) and Cooper (Crawford). Toph is the eldest, still living in their small hometown, and kind of drifting through life, selling a little weed here and there, and when we first meet him, learning that his girlfriend, Leah (Irvin), is pregnant. Cooper has long fled the family nest. He has a well-paid, high-powered job, a girlfriend who’s a twelve, and apparently, not a care in the world. Back home because their mother is remarrying (everyone believes their father died somewhere in the surrounding mountains, but his body has never been found), Cooper is intent on staying for just a couple of days, but Toph has other ideas. Toph wants them to spend some quality time together, and suggests that they go up to their father’s cabin on the pretext of confronting someone who’s squatting there. At first Cooper declines to go, but when their mother (Willes) suggests he spends time getting to know his new stepfather, Cooper finds Toph’s proposition sounds like the better option.

Once there, though, Cooper makes it clear that he’s in a hurry to leave, and the very next morning. Toph is upset by this, but agrees to return home. However, Toph’s truck won’t start, and Cooper’s solution leads to not only the car going up in flames, but the cabin as well. With only basic winter clothing and minimal supplies, they decide to head for a nearby ranger station. Once there they settle in for the night, intending to leave at first light and reach the road that will lead them back to town. But in amongst the food rations that Toph has brought are some pot cookies, and Cooper eats a couple of them. Later, and while still under their influence, his gazing at the stars in wonder leads to his breaking his leg, and putting the brothers in a difficult, life-threatening situation: namely, how to get back home and how to survive the harsh weather conditions in the meantime…

Making only his second feature after the under-rated Control Alt Delete (2008), Cameron Labine clearly knows a thing or two about fraternal love (yes, he and Tyler are brothers), and it’s equally clear he knows just how fraternal animosities can impair a relationship as well. As is common in these types of comedy dramas, Toph and Cooper are opposites in character, personality and demeanour, with Toph the outwardly goofy, irresponsible brother who’s on the verge of having to “grow up”, while Cooper is the serious one, weighed down by the choices he’s made and the mistakes that have arisen from them (it’s no surprise that both his professional and personal lives have unravelled spectacularly). But Labine isn’t interested entirely in telling a commonplace tale of sibling misunderstanding or rivalry, and instead uses Cooper’s injury to remind the brothers of just how important their relationship is to both of them. He also makes Toph the dependable one, solving each problem that arises once Cooper is incapacitated, and helping his suffering brother in more ways than one.

And there’s much for Toph to deal with, as Labine garlands Cooper’s problems with hints of mental illness and self-loathing, and raises issues surrounding the death of their father that takes the material into much darker territory than expected. But even then, Labine holds back from exploring this idea more fully, almost as if he’s remembered the movie is also a comedy and he needs to strike a balance. It’s this that holds the movie back from achieving its full potential as a drama, and keeps it from being as effective as it could be. That said, the humour is fresh and appealing, and arises out of the characters and not just their situation (one jump cut is guaranteed to make viewers laugh by itself, though). Along the way, Labine also ensures that the brothers’ predicament remains credible, as well as the solutions that Toph comes up with, and this makes the movie more engaging than it might appear from its basic premise. The brothers’ journey, both physical and emotional, ends up being beneficial for both of them, and though this isn’t entirely surprising, Labine does more than enough to make tagging along with them a surprising and enjoyable experience.

Rating: 7/10 – modest in both scope and ambition, and hindered somewhat by being so, Mountain Men is nevertheless the kind of movie that sneaks up on the viewer and proves pleasantly entertaining; having Crawford and Labine on board is a plus, and so is the beauitiful scenery, but if anything truly resonates, it’s the way in which Labine deftly examines the mutual bond of love and affection that unites these brothers no matter how well or how badly either of them (think they) are doing.

Contratiempo (2016)

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aka The Invisible Guest

D: Oriol Paulo / 106m

Cast: Mario Casas, Ana Wagener, Jose Coronado, Bárbara Lennie, Francesc Orella, David Selvas, Iñigo Gastesi, San Yélamos

Early on in Contratiempo, murder suspect Adrián Doria (Casas) is caught out in a lie by the defence attorney, Virginia Goodman (Wagener), who has been hired to keep him out of prison. Having recounted the circumstances in which he came to be accused of the murder of his lover, Laura Vidal (Lennie), Doria is surprised to find that Virginia isn’t convinced that he’s told her the whole truth. It’s only when she shows him a newspaper article about a young man who is missing that the certainty of his story begins to waver, and the viewer begins to realise that they can’t trust anything that they’re being told. The basic premise – Doria and Laura are coerced into meeting up in a hotel room to hand over money to a blackmailer who knows about their affair, only for Laura to end up killed by an unknown assailant and all the evidence pointing to Doria – is soon expanded on to involve a car accident, a cover up, the aforementioned missing young man, grieving parents, a locked room mystery, and a race against time to get Doria’s story “straight” before he’s called before a judge in a matter of three hours.

The events that have led to Laura’s death are recounted in detail as Virginia goads and cajoles Doria into remembering the details of what happened, and tries to put together a defence that will see the charges against him dismissed. She’s taken his case as a favour to his lawyer, and has a one hundred per cent success rate in keeping her clients out of jail. As the story unfolds, and with revelations coming thick and fast, director Paulo’s script keeps the viewer guessing as to the truth of Doria’s recollections and also Virginia’s assertions when she believes he’s lying to her (often she already seems to know more about the case than Doria has revealed). Paulo has assembled a tale that continually keeps shifting, as each retelling of events adds further layers of uncertainty and mystery to proceedings, and Doria’s guilt – did he kill Laura or was she really the victim of someone who was able to escape from their locked hotel room? – becomes clearer and then more obscure and then clearer again as the truth changes from scene to scene.

Paulo is able to do all this thanks to his tightly constructed script, which packs in so many twists and turns and narrative sleights of hand that the viewer is in danger of missing the most important moments of all, the ones where Doria’s story trembles on the precipice of exposure, but pulls back just in time while also revealing elements of the wider truth that will ultimately be revealed in the final fifteen minutes. It’s an impressive juggling act, one that stumbles only occasionally as Paulo weaves tangled thread after tangled thread in his efforts to bamboozle the viewer and keep things up in the air. Along the way he maintains an enviable level of tension, but it’s not just through the convoluted script, but also thanks to the performances.

As the morally compromised Doria, Casas plays it deadly straight throughout, protesting Doria’s innocence of Laura’s murder with a great deal of conviction while also providing enough doubt for the viewer to be questioning both his motives and his innocence. Casas brings a much needed sincerity to the role, and proves more than capable of investing Doria with a degree of wounded pride in conjunction with a surprising vulnerability when the script requires it. He’s matched by a fierce, uncompromising performance by Wagener as the defence attorney whose zero tolerance for ambiguity or avoidance (“Your testimony has holes, and I need details”) drives the narrative forward as she pursues the truth no matter what it means for her client. Between them, the two actors play an exacting game of cat-and-mouse that sees them engage in the kind of verbal sparring that keeps audiences engrossed and the material flowing inexorably to its one-last-twist conclusion.

But even though Paulo has gone to a lot of trouble in littering his script with more red herrings than it seems possible to include, fans of this kind of mystery thriller will realise what’s going on pretty much right from the start. However, this awareness doesn’t detract from the consistently clever and successful attempts to wrongfoot the viewer in terms of why things happen as they do, and who is responsible for it all. Paulo examines much of what occurs from different perspectives and different angles, and in doing so, manages to add unexpected emotional layers to the story that help to anchor the characters’ motives and reinforce the credibility of certain scenes that might otherwise have fallen short in terms of their effectiveness.

By the time all is revealed, Contratiempo has proven to be a gripping, provocative thriller that never lets up in its efforts to keep the viewer guessing, and it does so with no small amount of skill and confidence on Paulo’s part. He’s aided greatly by Xavi Giménez’s chilly, atmospheric cinematography, and Balter Gallart’s austere production design (this is a movie that eschews bright colours in favour of muted browns and dulled pastels), and these elements all join to make the movie feel appropriately suspenseful in a dour but thankfully arresting fashion. Casas and Wagener are terrific adversaries, and there’s good support from Coronado and Lennie, both of whom provide sympathetic performances as the father of the missing young man and Doria’s unlucky mistress respectively. It’s all rounded off by an unobtrusive yet effective score by Fernando Velázquez, that adds to the overall ambience and sense of subdued menace that the movie promotes throughout.

Rating: 8/10 – a couple of forced narrative moments aside, Contratiempo is the kind of thriller that demands the viewer’s complete attention, and rewards that attention over and over; if there’s ever a Hollywood remake, rest assured it will not be as entertaining or as assured as this version is.

Let Us Prey (2014)

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D: Brian O’Malley / 95m

Cast: Liam Cunningham, Pollyanna McIntosh, Bryan Larkin, Hanna Stanbridge, Douglas Russell, Niall Greig Fulton, Jonathan Watson, Brian Vernel

At one point in Brian O’Malley’s debut feature, acerbic police sergeant Jim MacReady (Russell) states, “The world is full of evil. Police stations doubly so.” It’s a perfect summing up of the situation the movie is concerned with, as the small Scottish town of Inveree – population: seven, plus hundreds of crows – finds itself the focus of a night of retribution instigated by a mysterious bearded figure referred to only as Six (Cunningham) (for the cell he’s assigned to). Each person who finds themself in the town’s police station has their secrets, some more obvious than others, but you can bet that by the time the midnight hour arrives that there won’t be any secrets anymore – or perhaps anyone alive.

There’s the aforementioned Sgt MacReady, the officer in charge, a forty-something relic from a previous generation of policing whose caustic approach to people and police procedure hides a very dark personal secret indeed. Then there’s newbie Rachel McHeggie (McIntosh), a police constable working her very first shift at the station who is still dealing with the trauma of events from her childhood. Completing the police roster are PC Jack Warnock (Larkin) and PC Jennifer Mundie (Stanbridge), who share more than the one secret, their relationship one of mutual affinity and dependency. In the cells already is a teacher with a penchant for beating his wife, Ralph Beswick (Watson), and joining him after being arrested earlier by Heggie, is local hooligan Caesar (Vernel). Caesar’s arrest is for apparently hitting Six while driving at speed through the town, but while there’s blood on the headlights, there’s no sign of Six’s body. Later, Warnock and Mundie find Six and bring him to the station, where a head wound he has prompts them to call in a local doctor, Hume (Fulton). And yes, Hume has a terrible secret, just like everyone else.

With everyone in place and Six about to stir things up, Let Us Prey is poised to offer up a smorgasbord of tension, ultra-violence, psychological terror, and heightened realism. What it provides instead is a juiced-up series of extreme physical shocks interspersed with cod-religious truisms, rampant melodrama, and any number of plot developments that feel forced and/or contrived. Along the way, eagle-eyed (and -eared) viewers will spot John Carpenter’s heavy influence, from the movie’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)-style setting, to the electronic-based score by Steve Lynch with its thudding sub-Carpenter phrasing. Not a bad pedigree, by any means, but though imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, here it’s used to bludgeon the audience with a succession of moments where violence is meted out in either cartoonish or visceral fashion, and with no clear tone established from one moment to the next.

The movie does open well though, with atmospheric shots of Six emerging from the rocks of a broiling seashore, with spray and fume crashing together in great arcs, and crows littering the sky above. As Six makes his way inland, crossing hills and fields until he arrives at Inveree, the script – by Fiona Watson and David Cairns with additional input from O’Malley – looks as if it’s going to retain the atmosphere it’s already built up, and those opening, highly distinctive and impressive shots will serve as a template for the rest of the movie. Alas, this idea proves short-lived, and the law of budgetary constraints begins to make itself felt, with the police station divided into two main sets: the office space (there’s no front desk or area separating the public from the police), and the cells at the rear. Aiming for an increasingly claustrophobic vibe from the start, the movie settles instead for using these areas as drab backdrops to the main action, bursts of unsettling violence that don’t always fit organically into the overall narrative, and which serve, strangely enough, to take the viewer out of the flow of the story.

The idea of a stranger who knows everyone’s deepest, darkest secrets and who exploits those secrets for his or her own ends isn’t exactly a new concept (J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1954) is probably the best version yet made), and here the use of Six as an instigator for what appears to be divine retribution, albeit through a less than heavenly approach, is given better credence than expected thanks to Cunningham’s resolute performance, and scathing impatience with the denials of others. Cunningham is a character actor whose career hasn’t always allowed him to deliver the kind of performances that would have made him better known, but this is one where he fleshes out the mystery of his character with a seething, pitiless bearing that makes even more sense when his identity is revealed near the end. As the heroine of the movie, McIntosh is another in a long line of cinematic female warriors, taking her lumps but coming through against much greater odds. Her character’s back story (and related “secret”) is used to differentiate her from the other participants, and though the importance of it all is fumbled in terms of how it relates to her involvement now, it does help provide the movie with an ending that is both unexpected and somewhat baffling.

Though O’Malley directs with a great deal of verve, and an appreciation of the genre he’s working in, the movie is still let down by the vagaries of its script and the various directions it takes along the way, as well as some crushingly awful dialogue (sometimes it’s better if characters don’t explain their reasons for murdering/torturing people; the justifications screenwriters come up with always seem to defeat the best of actors). There’s some uneasy humour added here and there to the mix, but on the whole, the movie opts for a fierce, angry tone that it tries hard to escalate the longer events go on. This unfortunately leads to scenes where melodrama swiftly turns to unrepentant psychodrama, and the motives of the characters become less and less persuasive, and more in keeping with the way in which the script needs to tie things up. A good try, then, but like so many low budget horror thrillers, not quite managing to achieve the goals it’s given itself.

Rating: 5/10 – while there’s a fair amount to admire here, in the end Let Us Prey can’t maintain a consistent tone, or make the viewer care about any of the characters, plus it places too much emphasis on providing moments of extreme violence in place of ratcheting up the tension; solid enough to keep viewers watching until the end, and grisly enough to keep gorehounds happy, the movie wastes too many opportunities to provide a more satisfying experience.

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017)

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D: Brian Knappenberger / 95m

With: Nick Denton, A.J. Delaurio, David Folkenflik, John L. Smith, James Wright, Mike Hengel, Jennifer Robison, Floyd Abrams, Peter Thiel, Donald Trump

What price is fair to have freedom of the press? What would you sacrifice in order to have a body of men and women whose job it is to expose the venality and the lies of the great, the good, and the powerful if those people were less than honest in their dealings with you? How important would it be to have that kind of buffer between those who would deliberately harm you and ignore your rights as an individual in their efforts to impose their world view on you and the people around you? And how grateful would you be to those men and women if they exposed the great, the good, and the powerful, and showed them for the self-serving string-pullers that they really are? Would you fight for them when they themselves came under attack? Would you stand with them, and say, no more? Would you, deep down, have such a sense of disgust that you’d want to do something about it all, if the opportunity arose?

In our heads, yes, absolutely. In reality, though… Brian Knappenberger’s thought-provoking, and yes, one-sided documentary, asks those questions in a roundabout way by looking at two examples of occasions where the free press in America has been soundly bodyslammed by those who would see it reduced to a toothless adversary that can be easily dismissed in the courts. The first up is Bollea vs Gawker, where the wrestler known as Hulk Hogan (Terry Gene Bollea) sued Gawker Media, publisher of the Gawker website, for posting parts of a tape that showed Bollea having sex with the wife of one of his best friends, radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge (only in America…). Bollea made several attempts to have the clips removed from the Gawker website, until he finally got a Florida state court judge to grant an injunction which Gawker quickly ignored. The case went to trial, Bollea convinced a jury that the release of the images had caused him emotional distress, and even though he’d spoken about the tape in an offhand way as Hulk Hogan, this was just Bollea being in character and his, basically, playing a part. The jury sided with Hogan, awarded him an unprecedented $115 million in compensation, and a further $25 million in punitive damages. This effectively bankrupted Gawker, and its owner, Nick Denton.

While Bollea’s win sent shock waves through the press community – the courts have basically set a precedent whereby they can now determine what is newsworthy and what isn’t – people began to ask how Hogan had been able to afford to pursue the case through the courts in the first place (Bollea wasn’t in the best of financial situations). Step forward billionaire Peter Thiel, a man with a grudge against Gawker ever since they had outed him in an article in 2007. Thiel described his support for Bollea as “one of [the] greater philanthropic things that I’ve done”. Thiel’s deliberate targeting of Gawker has sent alarm bells ringing through the press community, and not least because he and newly elected US President Donald Trump share the same disparaging opinion of the press that could lead to the kind of restrictions on reporting that will serve only those who don’t want journalists prying into what they’re doing behind closed doors.

As if that outcome was bad enough, a stealthier and more disturbingly effective curtailment of the press occurred in Las Vegas in 2015, when casino magnate Sheldon Adelson secretly purchased the Las Vegas Review Journal. When he did so, he denied that he’d done so, and the management team kept this information from their staff. But journalists being journalists, they started digging, and it wasn’t long before the whole “secret” was exposed in an article published in the Review Journal. The outcome? All the staff involved in the article were forced to step down, with compliments from the new owner. Adelson and his family now control one of the biggest news outlets in Nevada; and for them that’s a good thing. For the journalists who worked there, such as John L. Smith and Mike Hengel, their decades of good work has been dismissed for no other reason than that they were (too) good at their jobs.

In examining these cases, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press acts best as a warning cry against the perceived threat from big business when it doesn’t like what it sees and reads. More worrying than the way in which the freedom of the American press appears to be being eroded, is the way in which these recent attacks appear to be precursors of worse times to come. Knappenberger makes it clear: this is only the beginning unless the US press is very, very careful, and especially now that the US has a President who regularly refers to them as “liars”, and who, during his Presidential campaign, blocked several news outlets from obtaining press credentials (it’s no surprise that these news outlets had been critical of Trump). There’s a palpable sense that big business in America feels that it shouldn’t have to justify itself to the people, and that if it’s challenged it will do everything it can to ensure that it’s never challenged again. And if it means deconstructing the First Amendment of the Constitution then that doesn’t appear to be a problem. (On that point, Knappenberger cannily includes footage of Trump’s inauguration, and his solemn promise to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”.)

Whatever your feelings about the press, either in the US or in your own country, what matters most is that journalism has an important place in our societies, and when it’s being treated as an inconvenience by those with too much money and influence, then it’s all the more important that we protect it. Knappenberger makes it clear: these are perilous times, and the warning signs are there, and in some respects there are too many. His documentary may not provide the likes of Thiel and Trump a direct chance to make their positions clear, but there’s no need: they’re on the record already. And how do we know what their positions are? Because the press has reported them, accurately and fairly. Is there bias in journalism? Yes, of course there is, but what gets lost in all the arguments going back and forth is something that this movie reminds us time and again: a fact is a fact, and no matter how much some people may not like it, we all have a right to be made aware of any facts that have the potential to affect us and our lives, and especially when someone wants us to remain in the dark.

Rating: 8/10 – a solid, but pessimistic look at the state of contemporary journalism in the US, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press is a cautionary tale that should have viewers wondering if taking the press for granted might not be the best way forward; with contributions from the likes of Gawker owner Denton, and Review Journal writer Smith, Knappenberger’s pensive examination of the hidden mistreatment of the press is salutary and unnerving, and deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to receive.

American Made (2017)

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D: Doug Liman / 115m

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Lola Kirke, William Mark McCullough, Alejandro Edda, Mauricio Mejía, Benito Martinez

Yet another true story where the emphasis is on reinventing the story, American Made arrives in the wake of possibly Tom Cruise’s worst movie ever, a movie so bad it may just have killed off an entire franchise before it’s even begun. In many respects, The Mummy (2017) was a little outside of Cruise’s comfort zone, and the movie’s attempts to shoehorn Cruise’s increasingly broad style of acting into its mix foundered after his first scene. But the true story of Barry Seal, however much it’s rewritten and reinvented, is a project that does give Cruise the chance to redeem himself for recent mistakes. So – does he?

Predictably, the answer is both yes and no. When given a script and a character that stretches him as an actor, Cruise always finds a way to meet the requirements of the role, but in the past decade the only movie that’s come anywhere near to pushing him as an actor has been Valkyrie (2008), where he played another real life person. Otherwise, Cruise has been content to, well, cruise his way through a number of high concept features that may have cemented his credentials as an action hero, but have also allowed people to forget that, once upon a time, he was an actor who took quite a few chances with his career. Now, he works to protect his action hero status, while taking the occasional time out to play the likes of airline pilot turned drugs smuggler Barry Seal. Here, Cruise gets to turn on his megawatt smile, have a lot of fun, and give his fans exactly what he thinks they want to see: a man in his mid-Fifties behaving as if he was twenty years younger (thank goodness there’s only Seal’s wife, Lucy (Wright) to worry about on the female side).

While Cruise is still able to play the fun-loving ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold and a winning smile, here it’s in service to a real-life person who wasn’t exactly the charming good ole boy which is Cruise’s – and the script’s – interpretation. But like a lot of movies “based on a true story”, the makers are only concerned with getting it right when they do so accidentally, and where the “spirit of the thing” is more important than telling a factual story (which would have been more interesting). Barry is outed early on by outwardly diffident CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Gleeson), when he’s a TWA pilot smuggling Cuban cigars into the country for peanuts. Faced with an offer he doesn’t want to refuse, Barry goes to work for the CIA using one of their planes to take reconnaissance photographs over South America. When the Medellin Cartel becomes aware of Barry’s activities, they persuade him to transport drugs back to the US. Thus the next few years of Barry’s life involve him trying to ensure that neither side finds out about what he’s doing, while he stashes away his ill-gotten gains by the trunkload.

Of course, things begin to get out of hand, whether it’s the cartel’s demands for more smuggled product, or the arrival of Lucy’s wastrel younger brother, JB (Jones), whose light fingers eventually cause Barry more problems than he’s worth. Soon, a whole raft of law enforcement departments descend on Barry and they all try to claim jurisdiction. But in a twist that nobody, let alone Barry, could have anticipated, certain jail time is replaced by community service, and the chance to juggle gun-running with drugs smuggling and money laundering proves too much of an opportunity for Barry to pass up, and though there’s the small matter of providing evidence against the cartel – one of whose members is the easily irritated Pablo Escobar (Mejía) – Barry goes along with whatever he’s asked.

The tone of American Made is one that says it’s okay to be a criminal if you’re having fun while you’re doing it, and as long as you’re providing for your family then that’s okay too. It’s hard to take a movie like this seriously when it won’t take the basis of its real-life story seriously either. It’s a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it… or in this case fly its drugs and snort them. It’s a cavalier approach that wants to attract audiences with its freewheeling approach and carefree attitude, and though there’s nothing wrong with a bit of harmless escapism from time to time, this is ultimately a movie that glamourises crime for the sake of it, and which encapsulates its approach to the material in the scene where a recently arrested Barry promises Cadillacs to a group of law enforcement officers before being allowed to go free. “Should have taken the Caddies,” he quips as he leaves, and in doing so, reveals for anyone who wasn’t sure, just how serious the movie is about celebrating its hero’s misdeeds and moral laxity.

But while Cruise is clearly having fun, the same can’t be said of the rest of the cast. Gleeson’s spook pops up every now and then to drive the plot forward and give Barry his next set of Government-sanctioned shenanigans, while Wright plays his long-suffering wife with some style, but remains as vapid at the end as she is at the start (and she adapts to her husband’s new “career path” with undue haste). Jones is the only other character to make an impact, and strangely, his pale, lank-haired appearance gives the narrative a much-needed boost whenever he’s on screen. In comparison with the rest of the cast, Jones is practically a major supporting character, and everyone else does a perfunctory job of playing to the script’s demands for a host of generic role players. Liman, reuniting with Cruise after Edge of Tomorrow (2014), keeps things moving, and tries to imbue Gary Spinelli’s script with an energy that he believes can only be achieved in fits and starts. And with so much of Barry’s story remaining at odds with official versions, it remains a frustrating movie to watch, and not just for the awkwardly structured narrative, but for the compelling notion that Barry Seal’s story would have been better served as a straight-up drama than as a low-key comedy.

Rating: 6/10 – another movie built around Cruise’s action comedy persona (but with the action dialled right down), American Made is a lightweight, easily forgettable look at a period in US law enforcement where deals were struck with almost anyone if it provided even the slightest benefit to the US; with too many scenes that pad out the already generous running time, the movie has a tendency to coast when it should be sprinting, and it never really puts its central character through the wringer – until the end, that is.

Little Evil (2017)

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D: Eli Craig / 95m

Cast: Adam Scott, Evangeline Lilly, Bridget Everett, Clancy Brown, Owen Atlas, Kyle Bornheimer, Chris D’Elia, Donald Faison, Tyler Labine, Sally Field, Brad Williams

Depending on the circumstances, the three scariest words in the world are either, “I love you”, or “starring Liam Hemsworth”. But now, there’s another contender, one that can also strike fear and panic into even the sturdiest of hearts, and that is: “a Netflix film”. They’re coming along thick and fast these days, but for every well received movie, there are three or four others that are cinematically dead in the water, snoozefests that should have been cancelled at the first idea stage. In this fashion, Netflix, by taking a scattershot, let’s-make-it-anyway approach, have foisted a number of dire movies on its members over the last few years, and they show absolutely no sign of stopping. Let’s face it: for every Okja (2017), there’s a Special Correspondents (2016) or a Sandy Wexler (2017).

And now there’s Little Evil, a comedy horror where the two are indistinguishable from each other, and its spoof elements land with huge resounding thuds. It’s a movie that strives to be a comedic spin on The Omen (1976) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but which succeeds only in reminding the viewer of just how iconic and original those movies truly are. You have to ask yourself, why did anybody – least of all writer-director Eli Craig – think this was a good idea? A spoof of two movies that between them are forty-one and forty-nine years old respectively, and have stood the test of time as classics of the horror genre? Who needs that now? And who in their right mind allowed this movie to go ahead? This isn’t a movie that’s going to be regarded with anything like the fondness or respect that The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby have accrued over the years; chances are it won’t be remembered at all a year from now – and that’s just by its stars.

The plot is straightforward: realtor Gary (Scott) has recently married single mom Samantha (Lilly). She has a son, Lucas (Atlas), who will soon be six, but he’s a little withdrawn, doesn’t speak much, and likes wearing clothes similar to those worn by Harvey Stephens in the 1976 classic. Strange events happen around Lucas quite often, but Samantha always brushes these things aside, while Gary starts to notice that maybe, just maybe what’s weird is Lucas himself. Footage from his and Samantha’s wedding shows the priest speaking backwards and charging Gary with protecting Lucas from hellfire and brimstone, while a subsequent outbreak of freak weather sees the child unaffected in the midst of it all. There are further clues: Samantha revealing that Lucas was conceived during a ceremony that took place at the cult she was a member of, and the coincidental arrival in town of biblical end of days preacher Reverend Gospel (Brown).

Gary gains help through some of the members of a stepfather support group he finds himself joining (don’t ask). But while he begins to get them to accept the idea that little Lucas is the Antichrist, Lucas takes the issue by his father’s horns and buries Gary in the backyard. Rescued by Samantha (who takes Lucas’s side and doesn’t believe her son has any issues at all; it’s Gary’s fault for not bonding with him!), Gary, who has done his research, tries one last time to connect with Lucas, and finds himself succeeding. But just as Gary is making headway in getting Lucas to believe he can be “anyone he wants to be”, the boy is kidnapped by Gospel’s followers, and so is Samantha. Cue a race against time to stop Lucas being sacrificed and Lucifer allowed to use his body to come into the world. Will Gary and his friends from the stepfather support group (Everett, D’Elia, Faison, Bornheimer) be in time to save the world from Satan? Will Gary get his new family back (minus the Satanic influences)? And will anyone really care if he doesn’t?

The answers to all those questions are as obvious as the cracks in Craig’s screenplay. But this isn’t a movie that’s interested in creating a believable milieu for its story to play out against, and nor is it a movie that’s been carefully thought through from beginning to end. Like many spoofs, it operates in a world that’s so far removed from the real one that any attempt at trying to get it to fit in is redundant – and so it proves. Samantha shows the kind of denial over Lucas’s actions that make no sense and can’t be rationalised, no matter how hard Craig or Lilly try, while Gary shrugs off being buried alive with all the resilience of a man who has to because the script says he does. But even with all this – and there’s much, much more – there’s no reason for things to be so disjointed and credibility-free. Craig cleverly created a world that operated within its own skewed logic when he made the wonderfully irreverent Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), but the knack has deserted him here, and the silly tone and generic narrative seriously undermine his efforts in telling an enjoyable story (though there is one great joke involving cornfields; inevitably, it’s in the trailer).

With so much of the movie playing out without any kind of regard for dramatic structure or comedic flow – this has all the hallmarks of a movie where the director was the last person to be consulted over any decisions that needed to be made – it’s left to Scott to keep us interested, and good though he is, the material defeats him time and again. Spare a thought for the likes of Brown and Field as well, used to little effect in a movie that’s going through the motions and which sometimes feels like it’s been designed that way. The humour wears thin pretty quickly, and the real horror is that there’s no horror to speak of (unless you count Atlas’ performance). In the end it all feels like a movie made by committee rather than a writer-director who should be able to make more of an impression than he does here, but maybe that’s what “a Netflix film” is: a movie made by Netflix and not by real movie makers.

Rating: 3/10 – a barebones parody of two of the finest horror movies ever made shows the paucity of the ideas involved within the first fifteen minutes, and then slides inexorably downhill from there, making Little Evil a fruitless experience that just keeps on disappointing its audience; when a movie’s idea of humour is to repeat a joke about a step-parent defecating into their son’s school bag then you know it’s in trouble.

The Dish (2000)

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D: Rob Sitch / 101m

Cast: Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Tom Long, Patrick Warburton, Roy Billing, Eliza Szonert, Tayler Kane, Genevieve Mooy, Lenka Kripac, Bille Brown, John McMartin

Hands up if you’ve seen The Dish? And keep those hands up if you enjoyed its mix of historical drama and parochial whimsy. Now ask yourself this question: why don’t more people know about this movie? And why isn’t this movie championed around the globe? Why isn’t this movie more highly regarded than it actually is? In short, why has this movie been allowed to amble into our lives with so little fanfare, and then amble away again so easily? It’s a mystery that may never be solved, along with who really shot JFK, who built Stonehenge, and how is it that Liam Hemsworth has a movie career? The Dish should be required viewing for anyone interested in movies as a whole, and Australian movies in general. It’s a nigh-on perfect slice of comedy-drama, and one of the most enjoyable movies of the new millennium.

It’s a simple idea: take an historical fact – that the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales was used by NASA to relay live television footage of Man’s first steps on the Moon in July 1969 – and use it as the backdrop for a gentle comedy of errors that puts that television footage in danger of never being seen. Add in the anxiety and civic pride of the local community, the operational paranoia of NASA and the apprehensive natures of visiting dignitaries, and you have a smartly scripted movie that scores highly in terms of its ability to charm and entertain audiences. The only people who seem less perturbed by the responsibility heaped on their shoulders is the small group of men charged with ensuring the television footage is seen as planned, and that the radio telescope that will facilitate this, doesn’t malfunction. There are four men in all, technicians Glenn Latham (Long) and Ross “Mitch” Mitchell (Harrington), visiting NASA official, Al Burnett (Warburton), and the observatory’s chief scientific advisor, Cliff Buxton (Neill).

All four are aware of the momentous nature of their roles in the Apollo 11 mission, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for animosity, as Burnett’s fastidious nature butts heads with Mitchell’s more “liberal” approach to their work. Defusing arguments and disagreements, Buxton is a calming influence on both men, but deep down he has his own apprehensions about the dish’s capabilities and whether or not they can pull off the “job of a lifetime”. There are ups and downs along the way, telemetry issues that NASA is unaware of, re-pointing the dish when it loses the signal’s lock, and a sudden gale that threatens to damage the dish and leave it unable to transmit those all important images of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon. Buxton is the senior operative whose calm demeanour under pressure smooths and soothes the problems that arise with the equipment, and within his team. Neill’s avuncular performance is the glue that holds the movie together, and whenever he’s on screen, Buxton is the character you can’t help but focus on.

While there’s plenty of tension and drama as the hour of Armstrong’s history-making walk approaches, there’s also plenty of humour to be had as well. This being an Australian movie, there’s a pleasing sense of self-deprecation that makes itself felt throughout, from the attitude of self-regarding town mayor Bob McIntyre (Billing), to the gossipy nature of the townswomen (led by McIntyre’s own wife), and the gloriously naïve nature of the townsfolk as a whole (cue that rendition of the American national anthem). Autralian movies exploit these kinds of cultural foibles with practiced ease, and the script – by director Sitch, along with Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy – applies these aspects in such a good-natured fashion that you can’t help but smile at them when they happen. Take Rudi Kellerman (Kane) (please take him). A young man desperate to be of use who assigns himself the role of the observatory’s security guard, Rudi is discovered with a gun by his sister, Janine (Szonert), she asks him if their mum knows. Only in a movie like The Dish could the reply be, “No. And don’t you go telling her, either! Or else she might come and take it off me.”

There are other, similarly inspired lines of dialogue, and much of it is used to point up the absurd behaviour and nature of the characters themselves – McIntyre’s political aspirations are a particular target, and brilliantly so – but it’s all done with a warmth and a liking for the characters that stops it all from being uncomfortable or malicious. Likewise, the antagonism between Mitchell and Burnett begins seriously enough but is soon transformed into mutual respect and the kind of gentle ribbing that is both friendly and innocuous, and more in keeping with the tone of the movie and its quiet sense of scientific and national euphoria when, inevitably, Armstrong walks on the moon and Parkes’s place in the history books is assured. But it’s not all pleasantries and affability. The movie touches on notions of a community’s pride, there’s the grief over the loss of his wife that keeps Buxton somewhat remote from everyone around him, and a point where the team “lose” Apollo 11 and don’t immediately know how to find it again.

For all this to work, director Rob Sitch has assembled a marvellous cast, with Neill on superb form, and sterling supporting performances from Warburton (terrific as always), Billing, Long and Harrington (the sheep are good too). But it’s the production design that often stands out, with the movie able to use the real locations from the time – including the observatory, and on the dish itself – and lots of original NASA equipment that was left behind as too costly to transport to the US. This helps to give the movie a pleasing sense of verisimilitude, even if the audience is unaware of it at the time of watching. It all adds up to a movie that came out of nowhere, stole many many hearts from contemporary viewers, and is still as charming and entertaining now as it was back in 2000. And how many other movies can you say that about?

Rating: 9/10 – a sparkling, witty, yet still decidedly subtle dramatic comedy set around a defining moment in human history, The Dish is as triumphant as those first images from the Moon must have been; an excellent movie that works on many more levels than is immediately apparent, this is easily one of the best Australian movies ever made – and for the most part, it all takes place in a sheep paddock.

Monthly Roundup – August 2017

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The Feathered Serpent (1948) / D: William Beaudine / 61m

Cast: Roland Winters, Keye Luke, Mantan Moreland, Victor Sen Yung, Carol Forman, Robert Livingston, Nils Asther, Beverly Jons, Martin Garralaga

Rating: 4/10 – while on vacation in Mexico, Charlie Chan finds himself drawn into a mystery involving murder and the search for an ancient Aztec temple; the penultimate Charlie Chan movie, The Feathered Serpent is as disappointing as the rest of the entries made by Monogram, but does at least see the return of Luke as Number One Son after eleven years, though even this can’t mitigate for the tired, recycled script (originally a Three Mesquiteers outing), and performances that aim for perfunctory – and almost achieve it.

The Black Camel (1931) / D: Hamilton MacFadden / 71m

Cast: Warner Oland, Sally Eilers, Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Revier, Victor Varconi, Murray Kinnell, William Post Jr, Robert Young, Violet Dunn, Otto Yamaoka, Dwight Frye

Rating: 6/10 – Charlie Chan investigates when an actress is found murdered, and discovers that her death relates to another murder that occurred three years previously; the second Charlie Chan movie proper, The Black Camel keeps the Oriental detective in Honolulu (where creator Earl Derr Biggers based him), and at the forefront of a murder mystery that has more twists and turns and suspects than usual, and which proves an enjoyable outing thanks to good supporting turns by Kinnell and Young (making his debut and irrepressible as ever), and a more relaxed performance by Lugosi than most people will be used to.

I Am Your Father (2015) / D: Toni Basterd, Marcos Cabotá / 82m

Narrator: Colm Meaney

With: David Prowse, Marcos Cabotá, Gary Kurtz, Robert Watts, Marcus Hearn, Jonathan Rigby, Robert Prowse, James Prowse

Rating: 7/10 – Spanish movie maker Marcos Cabotá hits on an idea to tell the story of the man behind the mask of Darth Vader, and to restage Vader’s death scene with Prowse finally acting the part as he’s always felt he should have done; a likeable documentary, I Am Your Father is a tribute to Prowse’s continued commitment to the role of Darth Vader, and along the way paints Lucasfilm in a very poor light for mistreating him during shooting of Episodes V and VI, and blackballing Prowse since 1983 (over his “revealing” Vader’s death in Return of the Jedi), but the movie is let down by a haphazard structure, and not being able to show the re-shot scene (no doubt thanks to Lucasfilm).

White Coffin (2016) / D: Daniel de la Vega / 71m

Original title: Ataúd Blanco: El Juego Diabólico

Cast: Julieta Cardinali, Eleonora Wexler, Rafael Ferro, Damián Dreizik, Fiorela Duranda, Verónica Intile

Rating: 5/10 – when a young girl (Duranda) is kidnapped by a mysterious cult, her mother (Cardinali) discovers that not even death is an obstacle to getting her back; five features in and Argentinian horror maestro de la Vega still can’t assemble a coherent script to accompany his homages to Seventies Euro horror, making White Coffin a frustrating viewing experience that offers too many moments of unrealised potential, and leaves its cast adrift in terms of meaningful or sympathetic characterisations.

Bad Santa 2 (2016) / D: Mark Waters / 92m

Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Tony Cox, Christina Hendricks, Brett Kelly, Ryan Hansen, Jenny Zigrino, Jeff Skowron, Mike Starr, Octavia Spencer

Rating: 6/10 – against his better judgment, alcoholic ex-criminal Willie (Thornton) teams up with his old friend Marcus (Cox) to steal two million dollars from a charity at Xmas time, which means donning a Santa suit once more; more defiantly scurrilous and offensive than the original, Bad Santa 2 benefits from Thornton’s ambivalent attitude as Willie, a plethora of cruel yet hilarious one-liners, and a great turn by Bates as Willie’s mother, but it also fails to pull together a decent plot, contains too many scenes that fall flat, and can’t quite replicate the energy of its predecessor.

Baires (2015) / D: Marcelo Páez Cubells / 82m

Cast: Germán Palacios, Benjamín Vicuña, Sabrina Garciarena, Juana Viale, Carlos Belloso

Rating: 4/10 – gullible Spanish tourist Mateo (Vicuña) parties with the wrong crowd in Buenos Aires and finds his girlfriend, Trini (Garciarena), threatened with a sticky end unless he transports drugs back to Spain; a thick-ear thriller Argentinian-style, Baires is mercifully short but dreary in its set up and cumbersome in its “thump a villain every five minutes” approach to tracking down the chief villain(s), all of which leaves little room for sympathetic characters, a credible narrative, or anything more than flat-pack direction from Cubells.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959) / D: Jean-Pierre Melville / 84m

Original title: Deux hommes dans Manhattan

Cast: Pierre Grasset, Jean-Pierre Melville, Christiane Eudes, Ginger Hall, Glenda Leigh, Colette Fleury, Monique Hennessy, Jean Darcante, Jerry Mengo, Jean Lara

Rating: 6/10 – when the French UN delegate disappears in New York, the job of tracking him down is given to a reporter (Melville), and a photographer (Grasset) who has his own agenda; practically dismissed by French critics on its first release, Melville’s ode to New York and film noir, Two Men in Manhattan is a nimble yet forgettable movie that prompted the writer/director to move away from the Nouvelle Vague movement he’d helped to create, leaving this as an enjoyable if predictable drama that could have done without Melville’s awkward presence in front of the cameras.

The BFG (2016)

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D: Steven Spielberg / 117m

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam Godley, Michael Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moniz de Sa

Steven Spielberg meets Roald Dahl against the backdrop of a billion computer generated pixels – less a case of “Who could ask for anything more”, and more a case of “Be careful what you wish for”. This is very much a movie where the child in Spielberg has been sat on and made to go without his dinner. While this is a movie that looks absolutely stunning – in Giant Country at least, London feels drabbed down in comparison – and there’s a richness to the colours and the detail that few other directors would have achieved for their movie, overall The BFG lacks something that has been a consistent part of Spielberg’s directorial skills over the last forty-plus years, and that’s honest, heartfelt emotion.

It’s an odd feeling to realise, but this is a movie where Spielberg has managed to avoid creating an emotional connection between the characters and the audience. Right from the start, and from our first encounter with tomboyish Sophie as she hides under a rug late one night at the orphanage (handily called the Orphanage) where she lives, what should be a tale that inspires various levels of child-friendly awe and wonder, does so in dribs and drabs, and rarely feels inspired or inspirational. Even the moment when Sophie spies a large, very large hand righting a fallen rubbish bin – which should provoke a degree of wonder all by itself – plays out plainly and matter-of-factly. The scene would have played out much the same if it the bin had been knocked over by a cat, and the cat had turned round and picked it up by itself. It’s the first of many moments that fail to achieve the necessary degree of childish delight that would allow viewers – and not just adults – to connect with the material.

Elsewhere, the relationship between Runt (the BFG in question) and Sophie soon develops into the kind of easy-going father-daughter dynamic that allows for few disagreements and full-on harmony. Both of them may be unlocking nurturing instincts in each other, but Melissa Mathison’s adaptation of Dahl’s hugely popular novel foregoes any depth and relates everything in a matter-of-fact manner that leaves their relationship feeling perfunctory instead of earned. While it’s expected that they hit it off and prove to be firm friends, there’s still little in the way of any grounding to their friendship, and it happens with barely a whisper of discord between them. Even when Runt tells Sophie she can’t go back to the orphanage, her reaction has all the impact of a child being told that they can’t have semolina for dessert. It’s another example of the way in which Spielberg’s direction can’t elevate the material and make the movie more interesting. Instead it ambles along, creating indifference for long stretches and relying heavily on Rylance’s performance as the BFG.

Rylance, who has become Spielberg’s first choice, go-to actor since they made Bridge of Spies (2015), is on terrific form, his motion capture performance perhaps the very best thing the movie has to offer. Whether he’s muttering and mumbling about snozzcumbers or frobscottle, or a myriad of other Giant-ish terms, Rylance’s simple, delicate portrayal is affecting and whimsical, an object lesson in how not to let a CGI conversion take anything away from the performance itself. But thanks to Spielberg’s puzzling detachment from the material, Rylance’s portrayal is operating in a vacuum, separated from the rest of the movie by an invisible wall that even he can’t penetrate. It’s like giving the world’s greatest footballer the chance to score from five yards out, and then removing the goal just before he shoots.

On the performance front, Rylance is surprisingly alone in terms of the quality of his portrayal. Elsewhere, there are problems galore, from Barnhill’s stilted line readings to Wilton’s wide-eyed and easily dismayed Queen of England, to Hall’s unexpected and underwhelming turn as the Queen’s maid (a role that could have been played by anyone, such is its importance to the story). And that’s without Clement’s turn as chief unfriendly giant, Fleshlumpeater, a performance that leaves him sounding like David Walliams with a bad nasal infection. Rylance aside, this is a movie where the cast aren’t given much to do, and the imbalance between the success of his efforts and theirs is telling. This is largely the fault of Mathison’s screenplay, which maintains its focus on the BFG at all times, and to the detriment of the other characters, who feel unsupported and under-developed at the same time.

This being a Roald Dahl story, there should be plenty of subtexts shoring up the main plot, and the notion of Runt and Sophie creating their own family as a way of confronting their sense of being alone should be one of them, but instead of informing their bond and its importance to both of them, it’s given an occasional and brief acknowledgment before the movie heads into another visually impressive but empty bout of physical comedy. Said comedy is a mix of pratfalls – cue those loveable cannibal giants! – incredible shrinking orphan moments, and CGI corgis, and these should find favour with viewers younger than ten. But adults, for whom Dahl wrote just as much as he did for children, will find themselves curiously locked out of the garden of delights that have been broadly assembled out of Mathison’s screenplay. A movie then that’s lacking in too many areas for it to be entirely or even moderately successful in its ambitions, a state of affairs that is all the more surprising given the quality of the source material and its director’s affinity for children’s fantasy.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie that’s easy to admire but very difficult to engage with, The BFG sees Spielberg operating at half throttle, and dialling back on the emotional elements of Dahl’s story; Rylance is the key player here, giving a captivating performance and anchoring the movie in a way that he shouldn’t have to given the quality and the experience of the rest of the cast, and the very talented crew.

Detroit (2017)

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D: Kathryn Bigelow / 143m

Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Kaitlyn Dever, Hannah Murray, Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, Malcolm David Kelley, Nathan Davis Jr, Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith, Austin Hébert, John Krasinski, Jeremy Strong

Like many extreme incidents of violence and aggression, the 12th Street riot began in somewhat innocuous fashion with a raid on an unlicensed underground club, a “blind pig” frequented by blacks. As everyone at the club was being loaded into police vans, a crowd gathered and began throwing rocks at the police, and when they had left the scene, the crowd – now more of an unruly mob – began destroying and looting any and all surrounding stores and properties. This was 23 July 1967. It was the beginning of one of the worst recorded outbreaks of civil disobedience in the entire history of the US. It lasted for five days, and during that time forty-three people died, 1,189 were injured, over 7,200 were arrested, and over 2,000 buildings were destroyed. Only the 1863 New York City draft riots, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots were worse.

By the third night, the situation had grown so bad that President Johnson authorised the use of federal troops in aiding the police in their attempts to quell the rioting. With the city of Detroit under a quasi-martial law, the looting and the destruction and the violence continued. Against this backdrop, director Kathryn Bigelow has chosen to tell the story of the Algiers Motel incident, a tragic event that saw three people die, and a trio of police officers arrested for murder. Working again with Mark Boal, the screenwriter of her previous two movies – The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Bigelow has fashioned an incredibly tense, incredibly gripping thriller that grabs the viewer’s attention from the start, and thrusts them into the midst of the violent upheaval that occurred that fateful summer.

Bigelow is a bravura movie director, and she makes Detroit a visceral experience, hard-hitting and uncompromising, blending contemporary footage with the movie’s recreation of the period to brilliant effect. It’s the closest anyone is likely to get to being in an urban war zone, and Bigelow knows just how to ramp up the tension and make the movie as gripping as possible. From the moment when a young man named Carl (Mitchell) decides to have fun with the National Guard and the police by firing a starter pistol out of a window at the Algiers Motel, and in their direction, the sense of impending doom is palpable. It’s just the excuse that two particular cops, Krauss (Poulter), and Flynn (O’Toole), need: to be the heroes who apprehend the “sniper” at the Algiers Motel. Along with a third officer, Demens (Reynor), they soon make their presence felt at the motel, and within moments, one black man is dead and everyone else the cops have discovered are being forced to stand face first against a wall and keep quiet so that Krauss and his fellow officers can track down the sniper. What follows is a powerful examination of implicit racism applied in a pressure cooker environment. Krauss won’t believe anyone who says they didn’t see a sniper, or who says they didn’t even see a gun. He has to be sure, and what better way to get at the truth than by intimidating, bullying, abusing and beating the truth out of them?

As the movie continues, Detroit‘s sympathies lie very obviously with the people at the motel, including two white girls, Karen (Dever) and Julie (Murray), and a handful of black men, including would-be singer Larry Reed (Smith). As the tension grows, Bigelow successfully avoids making these characters mere ciphers, and uses the situation to inculcate audiences with just how they behave or react, whether it’s defiantly, bravely, or by being just plain scared. As Krauss’s psychopathy keeps everyone praying to be spared, a game of intimidation spirals out of control and the barely thought out motivations of Krauss and his fellow cops is exposed for the superficially “clever” institutional racism that dictates their every move. It’s horrifying to watch, and is made all the more horrifying by the casual evil displayed by Poulter as the intentionally duplicitous Krauss (it’s worth noting that Poulter is still only twenty-four, and his performance, while atypical, is also astounding).

With the inherent tension in place and Bigelow tightening the screws at every turn, the wider cultural and social implications of the events that night are allowed to seep out around the narrative and add a further layer of discomfort to what the viewer is witnessing. Providing a counterpoint to Krauss’s predatory racism is the passive presence of store security guard Melvin Dismukes (Boyega). Drawn to the Algiers by the sound of the “gunfire”, Dismukes at first appears to be our eyes and ears on the inside, a witness to the horrors perpetrated by the police. But Dismukes’ presence proves disconcerting, as he soon adopts the role of quiescent observer, ever watchful but effectively complicit in what takes place. The initial bravery and diligence he shows when we first meet him is shorn away to reveal a man who shrinks before our eyes as the movie progresses. In contrast we see the unprompted heroism of the two young white girls, trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time and victims of violence, sexist rhetoric and inverse racism. Bigelow isn’t making any comments about “good whites and bad blacks”, or even “bad whites and good blacks”, instead she’s making the point that the decisions we make in extreme circumstances, such as the Algiers Motel incident, affect us all differently in the long run (though in Krauss’s case you’d have to argue that there’s no effect at all).

Valid notions of causality and pre-determinism aside, Detroit works best by not appearing to judge why the riots happened, or to provide a wider historical and cultural context for what did happen. That’s for another movie altogether, and Bigelow and Boal are right to keep their focus on events at the Algiers Motel, and for using them to explore the riots in microcosm, whether it’s through the yielding eyes of Dismukes, or the desperate, traumatised eyes of Larry Reed. Some viewers may find the aftermath of the riots more disturbing than the riots themselves, as Detroit picks itself up and dusts itself down and restores order in the best way it knows how: by refusing to acknowledge that “the establishment” did anything wrong. That’s an issue that is very much in the contemporary eye right now, and if Bigelow ever intended to make a political statement through her movie, that would be it.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that burns brightly in its attempts to provide immediacy with a contemplation of the events of 25 July 1967, Detroit is a fierce, intelligent, provocative, and often incendiary piece of movie making from an equally fierce, intelligent and provocative movie maker; with exemplary cinematography from Barry Ackroyd, and practically precision-tooled editing from William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, this is a movie that lingers in the mind and provides enough food for thought for three movies, let alone one.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

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D: Patrick Hughes / 118m

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung, Joachim de Almeida, Tine Joustra, Sam Hazeldine, Richard E. Grant

There are several moments during The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hollywood’s latest attempt at the mismatched buddy genre of action thrillers, when the movie’s humour seems to come on a little too strong, as if it’s fighting its way into the script and looking to be front and centre. More often than not it’s a moment of physical comedy, such as the extended scene where Ryan Reynolds’ triple-A rated protection agent, Michael Bryce, is sitting at an outdoor Amsterdam café complaining about the behaviour of Samuel L. Jackson’s veteran assassin, Darius Kincaid. While he vents, chaos erupts all around him, as everyone in the vicinity ducks for cover, and bullets fly indiscriminately. The barman cowers, Bryce keeps on complaining, and eventually a car plows through the tables behind him. On the surface, it’s a funny scene, with Reynolds’ deadpan expression the counterpoint for all the mayhem going on behind him. But watch it a second time and the humour isn’t there anymore. Now it’s a technically clever scene that relies entirely on Reynolds’ performance. Watch it a third time, and it’s a scene to be endured. Should a scene like that provoke such a response so quickly? If it’s really that funny, then the answer is No.

For much of the rest of the movie, the script’s attempts at levity only serve to highlight just how uneven the material truly is. The humour is largely forced, the action is perfunctory (a chase along the canals in Amsterdam should see Kincaid’s commandeered boat reduced to splinters, or the involvement of at least one Dutch police car), and the basic plot is ludicrous before it’s even begun: Gary Oldman’s brutal Belarussian dictator, Dukhovich, on trial at the Hague for being a brutal Belarussian dictator, can only be brought to justice by the testimony of Jackson’s veteran assassin. Cue a race against time from Manchester, England to said trial, with the usual hundreds of disposable bad guys trying to stop Bryce and Kincaid from getting there. Along the way, Bryce’s back story takes up more and more time but never becomes interesting enough to warrant it (he’s still sulking over the death of a client under his protection, though technically the circumstances mean It doesn’t count), while Kincaid is ratting on Dukhovich as a way of getting his wife, Sonia (Hayek), out of jail (yes, folks, he’s doing it for love, the old softie).

It all plays out predictably enough, with supporting characters straight out of Stock City, including Yung’s Interpol agent, Amelia Roussel, who just happens to be Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, and de Almeida’s shifty Interpol boss who may well be in cahoots with Dukhovich (what are the odds?). No matter how much Tom O’Connor’s script tries to instil proceedings with freshness and vitality, the banal nature of the material as a whole brings those attempts crashing down like Redwoods. In the director’s chair, Hughes, who made more out of The Expendables 3 (2014) than was required, has no option but to go with the flow and let his stars do the heavy lifting. As long as he can get them from A to B, Hughes’s work is done, and often before the end of a scene. Others, but particularly those that feature Hayek’s apoplectic performance as Sonia, don’t appear to have had Hughes’ involvement at all. (Sonia looks and sounds like a character brought in from another movie altogether.) By the time we reach the end and justice is done, it’s become possibly the most generic action movie of the year.

But what of the chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson? Surely that’s in the movie’s favour? Well, strangely enough, the pair work better when they’re apart. Reynolds’ lovelorn, soppy-headed protection agent is like a man-child dropped into a war zone, while Jackson – well, Jackson trots out the same hard-headed “motherfucker”-spouting character he’s been portraying ever since the word was invented. Cue angry stare, mad-as-hell stare, glary stare, and angry mad-as-hell glary stare, all of them trotted out at regular points in the movie, and almost as if they qualify as their own action beats. Jackson is seriously wasted here, and not in a good, been-to-Amsterdam-for-some-of-them-chocolate-brownies kind of way either. When they’re together, Reynolds and Jackson spar like an old married couple, an old tired married couple who can no longer stand each other. Oldman grabs his pay cheque with both hands and hams it up accordingly, while the rest of the cast do their best to get through all the absurdity and nonsense with their dignity intact.

All of this indolence and protracted inertia – Bryce and Kincaid have twenty-four hours to get to the Hague but it feels like they’re taking twice as long – allied to the kind of comedy that comes pre-marked as “strained” is all the more dispiriting when you realise that O’Connor’s script was another Black List screenplay, this time from 2011. But back then it didn’t have any comedy. Instead it was a straight drama. But a few weeks before filming began, a two-week rewrite meant less drama and more comedy. And now we have the end result: a poorly assembled collection of scenes that hint constantly at what might have been. Maybe one day the movie will be remade with its original format, but until then this is all we have. It’s just that overall, it’s not enough.

Rating: 4/10 – an idea that probably looked great on paper – Reynolds! Jackson! Comedy! Action! – The Hitman’s Bodyguard translates into something that never takes full advantage of its basic premise, and chugs along quite amiably without ever doing anything to reward the viewer for their patience; with a cast that should have known better, it’s a movie that quickly fades from the memory soon after it’s watched – so it gets something right at least.

Hotel Salvation (2016)

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Original title: Mukti Bhawan

D: Shubhashish Bhutiani / 99m

Cast: Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl, Geetanjali Kalkarni, Palomi Ghosh, Navnindra Behl, Anil K. Rastogi

What would you say if you had an elderly father and he announced one day that he thought that his time had come, that it would soon be time for him to die? And what if he also announced that he planned to spend his last days at a hotel that would allow him to prepare his soul for death? Outside of India, where there are three or four such hotels, the matter is unlikely to arise, but if it did, if your elderly father wanted to see out his life away from his family and friends, and with like-minded people, how supportive would you be? Would you remonstrate with him, try and get him to change his mind, emotionally blackmail him, perhaps, by impressing on him how upsetting this will be for his relatives (and yourself)? Or would you do everything in your power to make his final wishes come true? This is the dilemma faced by Rajiv (Hussain) in the feature debut of Shubhashish Bhutiani, an engaging, wistful look at death and its effect on the surviving family.

Daya (Lalit Behl) is the elderly father in question, a seventy-seven year old man who has a dream in which he pursues his boyhood self through the deserted village of his childhood. He takes it as a sign that he is being called to the afterlife, and tells his family – son Rajiv, daughter-in-law Lata (Kalkarni), and granddaughter Sunita (Ghosh) – that he plans to travel to Varanasi, on the banks of the River Ganges, to stay at a hotel where he hopes to attain salvation. Rajiv doesn’t know what to do about this, torn as he is between loyalty to his father, and his personal reluctance to entertain such an idea. It’s only when his father threatens to go by himself that Rajiv agrees to accompany him to Varanasi. Once there, Daya and Rajiv find the hotel to be a simple one, with basic amenities, and run by the sincere, yet business-like Mishraji (Rastogi). They settle in, with Daya having fifteen days to achieve salvation or face being asked to leave. Rajiv has a lot of trouble adjusting to the situation, and finds looking after his father more stressful than he could have imagined.

While Rajiv juggles caring for his father with the demands of his work, Daya embraces the atmosphere of the hotel, and gets to know some of the other guests. In particular, he becomes friendly with a widow, Vimla (N. Behl); they both find meaning in their being at the hotel and facing the certain futures they have decided for themselves. This gives them an increased sense of comfort, but it’s not enough for Rajiv to understand how clearly they see their salvation, or why they are so calm and practical about it all. Even the wise ministrations of Mishraji can’t put a dent in Rajiv’s unhappy presence. As the days pass, Daya’s peace of mind and acceptance of his fate leads to Rajiv having to make an equally fateful decision: whether to stay with his father until the end, or return home to his family and his work.

Death isn’t exactly the most cinema-friendly of subjects, and when it’s placed front and centre in a movie in the way that it is in Hotel Salvation, there’s always the chance that it will lead to a dour, dispiriting exercise in profound sorrow or morbid pessimism. But thanks to a knowing, sympathetic script by Bhutiani, this meditation on one of life’s greater certainties, is both affecting and sophisticated, using as it does the differences of opinion and belief in different generations, and by exploring the outer limits of faith and personal conviction. That said, faith and belief are only minor elements in a tale that more carefully examines the relationship between a father and a son that isn’t as clearly defined as it should be. There is a bond between the two, certainly, and it is borne out of familial love and affection, but it’s also become frayed at the edges, leaving both father and son unable to connect fully with each other. The trip to Varanasi, as well as giving Daya a chance at salvation, is also a last chance for the pair to make good on the strain in their relationship.

However, both men are too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice right away the opportunity that’s in front of them, and Bhutiani’s trenchant, observant script doesn’t let either character off the hook for their near-sighted behaviour. He’s aided by two standout performances by Hussain and Behl, both actors rising to the challenges of the script and giving well rounded portrayals that capture the idiosyncracies of both men, while also displaying the deep-rooted bond that they share as father and son. Hussain judges Rajiv’s flustered dismay at being away from his work and his family with a mix of baffled expressions and abject body language, his tactless references to trains home and the impolitic nature of his father’s last wishes, making the character credible from the start; if Rajiv doesn’t understand his father, then why has he accompanied him? Is it from guilt, feelings of familial responsibility, or a need to be “there” at the end? Bhutiani is clever enough to make all three viable, and Hussain’s layered portrayal allows for further interpretations to be made.

In many respects, Behl has the simpler role, but through his interactions with Vimla and the other guests, Bhutiani ensures that we get to know the man behind the decision, and how the surety of his purpose has liberated him as an individual. It’s a wonderfully expansive portrayal, with Behl striking the right note in every scene, and providing the viewer with clear insights into the workings of his (very much made up) mind. This interior work is finely balanced against a shooting style that errs on the side of wide shots for the most part, and a much broader, comedic canvas against which Bhutiani pokes genial fun at the idea of the hotel itself, while also detailing its more serious nature and the benefits available to its guests. But Bhutiani is just as interested in the effect on Daya’s family as he is on Daya himself, and the various reactions and emotions displayed by Rajiv, Lata, and Sunita offer clever insights into just how unsettling “co-operating” in someone’s death can be. In the end, it’s a movie about accepting death and celebrating life, two subjects that this movie addresses with ease.

Rating: 9/10 – a thoughtful, considerate, and witty examination of what it is to prepare for death, and the best way to go about it, Hotel Salvation is that rarity: a movie that draws you in and makes you forget you’re watching a movie; beautifully shot by DoPs Mike McSweeney and David Huwiler, Bhutiani’s feature debut already marks him out as a movie maker to watch, and takes the viewer on a journey of self-discovery that isn’t all about Daya, or Rajiv, but about the hopes and fears surrounding death for all of us.

10 Reasons to Remember Tobe Hooper (1943-2017)

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Tobe Hooper (25 January 1943 – 26 August 2017)

Like many of his horror movie contemporaries, Tobe Hooper began his career with a bang, but then saw fewer and fewer of his movies gain a similar kind of recognition. And like so many of his contemporaries, he retreated to television, where he worked steadily for around fifteen years. His career was one he might not have been able to predict, though, as during the Sixties he worked as a college professor and documentary cameraman. It wasn’t until he assembled a small cast of college students and teachers and made a small, yet hugely influential feature based upon the infamous Ed Gein, that Hooper stepped into the limelight as a movie maker. The movie, the uncompromisingly titled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), broke new ground in the horror genre, and is still as uncomfortable to watch today as it was over forty years ago. It also introduced audiences to a new horror icon in the form of Leatherface.

The movie was such a success that Hooper’s future career seemed assured, but projects didn’t always come his way, and some that he took on, such as The Dark (1979) and Venom (1981), led to his being fired once filming had begun. Around this time, Hooper redeemed himself enough to land the job directing a script written by Steven Spielberg, called Poltergeist (1982). To this day, Hooper’s credit as the movie’s director has been continually challenged, with members of the production crew adamant that Spielberg directed the movie and not Hooper. Hooper himself always said that Spielberg did some second unit work “to help out”, but whichever way the truth lies, the movie bolstered Hooper’s reputation but still not enough for him to be working regularly. It wasn’t until he signed a three-picture deal with Cannon Films that it appeared he was fully back on track, but those pictures were heavily cut by Cannon during post-production, and Hooper’s intentions for all three movies were dealt a series of savage blows that helped critics afford Hooper some of the worst reviews of his career so far.

Following his terrible experiences with Goram and Globus, Hooper turned to television where his credits included work on series such as Freddy’s Nightmares, Tales from the Crypt, and Masters of Horror. He made the occasional movie during this period, but a couple of better than average shockers aside, he made the kind of horror movies that made audiences question how the same director could have made something as visceral and uncompromising as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However he felt about the way his career had turned out, Hooper never complained about his seeming lack of good fortune over the last thirty years, and appeared content to be regarded as the creator of a genuinely disturbing horror movie, and a handful of cult classics.

There was always more to Hooper than most people gave him credit for, and he was always aware that his career could have been so much better in terms of the quality of his movies. But he always persevered and did the best he could with often very limited resources (as he did back in 1974), but there were too many occasions where his skill as a director was at odds with the needs of his producers, and Hooper’s work was bowdlerised in the process. Nevertheless, he continued to work exclusively in horror and science fiction, and unlike, say, George A. Romero or Wes Craven, he never tried to work outside those two genres. Hooper knew where his talents lay; it was just a shame that few producers – including Spielberg – were ever prepared to let Hooper have free rein. If they had, perhaps there would be more classic movies on his resumé than just the one that launched his career.

1 – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

2 – Death Trap (1976)

3 – Salem’s Lot (1979)

4 – The Funhouse (1981)

5 – Poltergeist (1982)

6 – Lifeforce (1985)

7 – Invaders from Mars (1986)

8 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

9 – Crocodile (2000)

10 – Toolbox Murders (2004)

Rings (2017)

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D: F. Javier Gutiérrez / 102m

Cast: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan

Inevitability. In the world of franchise horror, the word is a touchstone for movie makers everywhere. Where there is one horror movie that’s been successful (even moderately so), chances are that someone will come along and make another. And another. And another, until the law of diminishing returns – financial, not artistic – brings an end to the whole terrible enterprise. For a while.

The latest franchise entry to be foisted on us without any kind of encouragement from fans, interested third parties, previous investors, or the terminally bewildered, Rings is a redundant exercise in supernatural nonsense that outstays its welcome right from the very start. Set on a plane, the opening scene plays out like a game of tag as first one passenger then another, and then another, reveals that they’ve all watched the dreaded videotape featuring Samara. It’s seven days on for all of them – just what are the odds? – and there’s nowhere for them to go: the plane’s in the air and the video screens are all working. And sure enough, heeeeeere’s Samara! Inevitably (there’s that word again), the plane crashes, killing everyone aboard. But has the cycle been broken?

Fast forward two years and the answer is an obvious, of course not. A college professor called Gabriel (Galecki) buys a battered old VCR at a garage sale and inevitably it contains a copy of the cursed videotape (just how many copies of this videotape were made?). Inevitably, Gabriel watches it. We’re then side-tracked into the lives of generic teen lovebirds, Julia (Lutz) and Holt (Roe) just as Holt is about to go off to college (guess who’s a professor there?). When Holt stops returning her calls and texts, and she receives a mysterious call from a girl called Skye (Teegarden) asking after Holt’s whereabouts, Julia drops everything and heads to Holt’s college. Soon, she’s met Skye and Gabriel, been introduced to “The Sevens”, a group of students involved in an experiment of Gabriel’s devising that involves Samara’s videotape, and been a passive witness to Skye’s demise. She learns that Holt has watched the tape and has twelve hours left before Samara kills him. Julia watches it too, but when she gets the call to tell her she has “seven days”, the phone burns a mark into her palm, and she has a vision of a door.

All this sets up a road trip to the town of Sacrament Valley, and an investigation into the whereabouts of Samara’s remains (Julia and Holt believe that by cremating her remains, Samara’s curse will be lifted). Soon they’re breaking into tombs, visiting a blind man named Burke (D’Onofrio) who knows some of Samara’s history in the town, and discovering hidden rooms below the church. There’s danger, more danger, continued supernatural threat, death, injury, more death, and a sequel-baiting ending that wants to have its Samara-shaped cake and eat it as well. Does it make any sense? On a convoluted, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-simpler level, no, it doesn’t, and mainly because Samara’s influence is allowed to have an effect beyond the videotape and her murderous follow-up courtesy call seven days later. This allows for the deaths of two characters that are at odds with the basic set up, and an ending that makes no sense because it undermines the admittedly skewed logic created from the start, and the greater mythology of the franchise as a whole – as anyone who remembers the end of The Ring Two (2005) should be able to attest.

So what we have here is a belated series’ revival that should be filed under “cash-in”, or “uninspired knock-off”. It tries to reinvent the wheel in terms of Samara’s origins in an attempt to provide viewers with something different from previous outings, but in doing so, becomes laboured and unaccountably dull. Much of the time spent in Sacrament Valley plods along at a pace that defies audience involvement, and with each new plot “development” the sounds of heads being scratched and confused sighs being released act as a measure of just how stale the script has become. Said script has been cobbled together by David Loucka, Jacob Estes, and Akiva Goldsman (what with this and The Dark Tower, Goldsman isn’t exactly having a banner year – and that’s without his story credit for Transformers: The Last Knight). With its bland central duo, reflexive storyline and make-it-up-as-you-go-along plotting, Rings is a horror movie that aims to be as creepy as its forebears, but then forgets that the old trick of having Samara emerging from a TV has lost much of its original impact. The troubled teen spirit is old hat now, a horror icon who no longer possesses the power to frighten audiences, except in relation to how living in a well isn’t too good for the complexion.

At the helm of all this is Gutiérrez, a director whose last stint behind the camera was in 2008. There are certain moments and scenes where it’s clear he’s opted for a generic approach to the material, but what’s unclear is whether this was due to budgetary constraints or creative decision-making. But what it does is to make the movie drag for much of its latter half, which in conjunction with the script’s grinding to a dramatic halt, leaves the viewer stranded waiting for the movie to become interesting again. But neither the script nor Gutiérrez can overcome the lack of original ideas being put forward, and much as he might try, Gutiérrez lacks the wherewithal to inject a much needed spark into proceedings. The performances are perfunctory and lack depth (which is perhaps inevitable given the material), and the cinematography relies too heavily on scenes being lit as if exploring the wider edges of the frame wasn’t required, or important. Even the movie’s few jump scares are tired approximations of previous jump scares. With so much that’s ineffective and mundane, the only thing the viewer can hope for is that, despite its success at the box office, this is one sequel-cum-reboot that puts off anyone revisiting the curse of Samara anytime soon.

Rating: 4/10 – stereotypical even by horror franchise standards, and lacking a perceptible style all its own, Rings adds nothing of value to the series, instead settling for telling the kind of melodramatic detective story that has been done to death dozens of times before; a movie then that serves only to reinforce just how the franchise has deteriorated since the heady days of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 original.

Appropriate Behavior (2014)

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D: Desiree Akhavan / 86m

Cast: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Ryan Fitzsimmons, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed, Justine Cotsonas, Scott Adsit, Maryann Urbano, Aimee Mullins, Rosalie Lowe, James C. Bristow

The basic premise of Appropriate Behavior, the feature debut of director, producer, screenwriter and actress Desiree Akhavan, is one that many of us will be familiar with: the break-up of that all-important first, serious relationship. This being an indie romantic comedy-drama, though, there’s an inevitable twist, but one that Akhavan handles with a great deal of skill: her central character, Shirin (Akhavan), is a bisexual woman of Iranian heritage struggling to make sense of her relationships –  familial, social, emotional – while attempting to deal with the fallout from a relationship that she thought was going well. So with all the usual relationship issues to deal with, Shirin also has to find a way of dealing with the way her sexuality impacts on her life (and the lives of those around her), and the entrenched beliefs of her family. (There’s nothing like stacking the odds against a character for a bit of extra added dramatic effect.)

At the start of the movie, Shirin’s relationship with Maxine (Henderson) has ended after a bitter falling out over Shirin’s inability to come out to her parents, and other issues surrounding Maxine’s expectations of their relationship. Shirin finds herself homeless, unemployed, newly single, and still maintaining a façade with her morally strict, culturally retentive parents (Duong, Majd). Thanks to her friend, Crystal (Feiffer), Shirin finds a place to live, renting a room in an apartment owned by a couple of avant-garde performance artists. In time, she also finds a job (of sorts) teaching movie making to five year olds (only in New York…). But working her way through the minefield of her emotions proves to be far more complex and demanding a proposition than she could have ever imagined. First there are her residual feelings for Maxine, which prompt Shirin to try and win her back. Second, there’s the expectations of her family, muted yet still supportive on her parents’ side, more acerbic on her brother’s side (Shirin’s mother: “She was the only freshman in high school who could swim in the varsity team. And she didn’t even take lessons.” Shirin’s brother: “Wow! That’s a real resumé builder right there”). And then there’s the further burden of trying to date and possibly build a new relationship from scratch.

Shirin really doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going, and it’s this confusion that drives the movie forward, as Akhavan puts her heroine through the wringer in one embarrassing scene/encounter after another. Shirin is the kind of rootless, semi-aimless twenty-something who should be annoying because of her general lack of self-awareness, and passive-resistant personality. But Akhavan is clever enough to balance Shirin’s less attractive qualities with a genuine likeability borne out of the character’s underlying vulnerability; she’s someone you can imagine spending time with and enjoying the experience. The same might not be true for Shirin, though, as she’s always looking for that deeper, more permanent connection that will help her make sense of her place in the world. If only she can make that connection, she reasons, then everything else will fall into place.

Of course, nothing is that easy, and Shirin finds that making the kind of progress in her life that she needs to, is hampered by the whims and foibles and personal idiosyncrasies of the people around her. Maxine is more self-contained and outwardly confident, but has an ambition that may or may not be her life’s goal; if it is then it’s going to make her relationship with Shirin that much more complicated (Akhavan deftly avoids dealing with this issue in just the way people would do in real life). Her friend, Crystal, is very supportive but doesn’t have any answers, while her parents occupy a protective bubble of their own making, equally as supportive as Crystal but equally as lacking in answers. Shirin attempts to connect with new people, such as party pick-up Henry (Bristow), and sexually adventurous couple Brendan (Fitzsimmons) and Jackie (Urbano), but she’s so unaware of what she really wants that her discomfort really shows through (the threesome scene is perhaps the most awkward, uncomfortable ménage à trois ever portrayed in a movie). Throughout it all, Akhavan keeps Shirin moving forward, even if she has no real sense of direction and is just doing her best to connect with whomever comes along.

One of the best things about Appropriate Behavior is the way in which Shirin’s bisexuality isn’t an issue but a statement of fact that needs no further examination. It may explain her pan-sexual approach to relationships (casual or otherwise), but it’s not an “issue” as it might have been in the hands of less intuitive movie makers (Akhavan has based much of her movie on her own experiences but Shirin’s story isn’t autobiographical). With this acceptance set up from the beginning, the movie is free to explore the issues and crises and dynamics of modern day relationships. If there is a message Akhavan is trying to get across it’s that contemporary relationships rise and fall in often spectacular fashion because individual selfishness always gets in the way. Shirin may be looking for love, but like Maxine (with whom she has much more in common than she realises), it has to be on her own terms and to meet her needs before her partner’s. With the inevitable clashes that will always arise from this kind of emotional dynamic, it’s no wonder that Shirin feels stranded and unfulfilled.

Akhavan proves equally adept at comedy as she does with drama, and peppers her script with some terrific one-liners and biting exchanges (see above). She also makes some witty observations about the contemporary New York social scene, and the upmarket pretensions of Brooklyn’s Park Slope community with its moviemaking classes for ten year olds (“We are doing a shot for shot remake of a scene from The Birds”). Elsewhere, the perils of dating are addressed with acuity and appropriate amounts of dissemblance, while Akhavan draws together Shirin’s cultural background, family history and lack of adherence to both to good effect through her performance and those of Duong and Majd. As the star and the writer and the director, Akhavan shows good instincts in her choice of material, and its structure, but it’s her knowing critique of Shirin’s environment and lifestyle that scores most highly. Reconnecting with Shirin in ten years’ time may not be on Akhavan’s agenda, but on this basis, it would definitely be intriguing to see where Life has taken her.

Rating: 8/10 – an enjoyable piece of indie navel-gazing, Appropriate Behavior is smart, funny, occasionally waspish, but always entertaining; Akhavan is a talent to look out for, and based on this evidence alone, could well be a movie maker whose future sees her going from strength to strength.

The Circle (2017)

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D: James Ponsoldt / 110m

Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton

Imagine a device that could accurately record and predict your every emotion before you experienced it. Would you find that a boon or a hindrance to your everyday life? Now hold that thought, because there’s a better question: would you find such a device a boon or a hindrance while watching The Circle? (Actually it would be both: If you feel it would be a boon then you’re advocating knowing you’re going to be bored for an hour and fifty minutes, and you can deal with that appropriately, like watching something else; and if you feel it would be a hindrance then you’re advocating knowing you’re going to be bored, and you can also deal with that appropriately, like watching something else.)

The Circle is a high-tech company that’s looking to integrate every possible form of social interaction, be it personal, professional, legal, financial, medical, morally proscribed or otherwise, into a catch-all application that’s designed to promote and provide transparency in all aspects of daily life. In essence, The Circle is attempting to create a world where there are no secrets or lies, and all to make everyone’s lives easier and better and more fruitful. What could possibly be wrong with that? (Actually, quite a bit, but for the movie itself, that’s another issue.) It’s left to newbie Mae Holland (Watson) to discover the truth behind The Circle’s motives, but not before she becomes the face of The Circle, and accrues the kind of worldwide popularity afforded to rock stars, footballers and self-promoting celebrity wannabes… and all because of a midnight kayak trip that goes wrong.

It’s at this point in The Circle that director James Ponsoldt, along with co-writer and creator of the original novel, Dave Eggers, throw in the towel and quietly resign the audience to a series of even more ineffectual scenes than have gone before. Mae gets her job at The Circle with the usual ease of someone in the movies who can field a barrage of probing questions by umming and ahhing and giving uninspired answers. Once ensconced in Customer Experience she quickly blends in with all the other vanilla members of staff, and makes no impact whatsoever. She meets but doesn’t recognise disillusioned programmer Ty Lafitte (Boyega), whose True You application is now being misused by the company, and believes everything that co-founder Eamon Bailey (Hanks) says at his regular company-wide meetings (which are no more than mini-Expo’s for the company’s latest innovations). All around her, the clues are there as to The Circle’s true motives, and though she’s not exactly drinking the company Kool-Aid, she is allowing herself to be drawn further and further into its “evil machinations”.

But then comes that fateful midnight kayak trip and everything changes. Mae, who is to civil disobedience what Stephen Hawking is to breakdancing, steals a kayak, ventures out into a shipping lane surrounded by fog, and ends up being rescued by the Coast Guard. Without this out of character moment (which is never satisfactorily explained), the movie would have stalled altogether and even more viewers would have lapsed into comas. Mae thinks the publicity – the whole thing was captured on dozens of the company’s SeeChange cameras – will mean the end of her career. But Bailey has other ideas and enlists Mae to promote the company’s latest idea, that of a life led through total transparency. Mae wears a tiny video camera, allows the feed to be shared online, and only gradually begins to understand that The Circle is as dastardly in its aims as everyone else has guessed from the beginning. It’s not until the use of a new app leads to a tragedy that affects Mae directly that she decides to turn the tables on Bailey and… well… let’s just say it’s meant to be ironic and a case of just desserts being served, but it’s so underwhelming you might not believe she’s actually done it.

As dystopian thrillers go, The Circle operates on a level that, much like the Circlers who work for the company, requires the viewer to go along with whatever the movie comes up with, and not to raise any objections. However, Ponsoldt and Eggers have crafted a script that defies the viewer to make any connection with Mae, or Bailey, or her parents (an underused Headly and Paxton), or anyone else for that matter, and which is dramatically inert for much of its running time. It’s a movie in which very little happens, and when it does, it doesn’t have the impact required to lift the movie out of its self-imposed doldrums. It’s a thriller where the director appears to have forgotten to include any thrills, and a message movie where the message is spelt out in big bold letters for anyone watching who might be hard of understanding. It’s a spectacularly misjudged movie, baffling in its intentions, and uncomfortably, unalterably dull.

As well as being unable to elevate the material above the merely mundane, Ponsoldt is also unable to draw out even the hint of a good performance from anyone. Watson gives yet another performance that makes it seem as if she’s still astonished at how she’s been able to sustain a career beyond Harry Potter, while Hanks adopts a friendly uncle persona that is the whole of his portrayal (after this and A Hologram for the King (2016), perhaps he should stay away from any more adaptations of Eggers’ work). Boyega is wasted as the “mysterious” Lafitte (Bailey doesn’t know where he is, even with all his SeeChange cameras; which is a shame as he can be spotted at The Circle’s HQ wandering around quite openly), and several subplots waste the involvement of the likes of Oswalt, Gillan and Coltrane. While the movie clunks along in neutral, with occasional detours into first gear, it also manages to undermine the not inconsiderable talents of its composer, Danny Elfman, its DoP, Matthew Libatique, and its production designer, Gerald Sullivan. And when that’s the best achievement that a movie can make, then it’s definitely time to move on and watch something else.

Rating: 4/10 – boring, dull, uninspired, leaden, bland – take your pick as all of those could (and do) apply to The Circle, the latest in a long line of thrillers that have chosen high tech businesses as their preferred boogeyman; just when you think it’s going to get interesting, it doesn’t, and just when you think Mae will wake up and smell the bullshit, she doesn’t, leaving the movie to promise much, but deliver very, very little in the way of viewing satisfaction.

The Dark Tower (2017)

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D: Nikolaj Arcel / 95m

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Jackie Earle Haley, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick

Problems, problems, problems…

It’s taken eleven years for an adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower, to reach our screens, and now that it’s here, it’s not even an adaptation of King’s work. Instead it’s an approximation of King’s tale, a clumsy reshaping of a story that had the potential to be one of the most impressive fantasy series ever made. You could argue that King has been spectacularly hard done by over the years when it comes to adaptations of his novels, what with the likes of Dreamcatcher (2003), Cell (2016), and über-awful The Mangler (1995) proving that King’s fertile imagination doesn’t always translate well to the screen. What’s also noticeable is that over the years the quality of adaptations has dwindled to the point where a movie or TV version of a King novel or short story evokes dispassion and/or protracted bouts of ennui rather than enthusiasm. Take for example 11.22.63 (2016), a TV mini-series based on one of King’s more well received recent novels. Who remembers it now?

The Dark Tower, though, should have been another matter altogether. It should have raised the bar for big screen fantasy movies. But instead of a movie to herald in a series replete with narrative complexity, flawed yet fascinating characters, high stakes adventure, a carefully constructed yet organic mythology, and pursuing elements of fate and predestination, we have a hodgepodge of ideas and a crude collage of scenes from the books as a whole, all stitched together with little or no concern as to how it all looks as a final product. Stories of post-production problems have been rife, with an early cut of the movie being greeted with the kind of dismay that leads to producers considering replacing their director. And that’s without reshoots designed to provide more backstory about the rivalry between Idris Elba’s vengeful gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and Matthew McConaughey’s evil predator in black, Walter Padick. It doesn’t take much to wonder why such a backstory wasn’t thought out and shot originally, but it does point to the terrible ineptitude that appears to have been prevalent throughout.

Problems, problems, problems…

Watching the movie itself, there is one immediate flaw that shows that director Arcel, his co-writers Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and the producers weren’t paying attention to the structure or the set up of King’s novels at all. That flaw is the decision to make Roland a supporting character. When the main character who drives an eight-volume saga is reduced to playing second fiddle to a pre-teen, then you know that something is terribly, dreadfully wrong. Whether or not this was an attempt to broaden the movie’s chances at the box office is hard to decipher, but when a movie gets something this fundamentally wrong, then there’s little hope for the rest of it. The quest for the Dark Tower is Roland’s quest, and to play down this really quite important aspect of King’s novels is to show no understanding of the story at all. And then there’s the ending…

Perhaps it was too much to ask that The Dark Tower would turn out to be all that it could be. After all, if movie makers of the calibre of JJ Abrams and Ron Howard couldn’t make it work, whether as a series of movies, or a mix of movies and TV series, then what confidence could anyone have in this particular incarnation? With its budget of $60 million, and a running time of ninety-five minutes, how do you build another world that exists alongside our own? The answer, as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, is easy: you don’t. Aside from some impressive desert vistas, and a couple of sequences set in Mid-World, the movie remains firmly rooted in New York, keeping its characters there for long periods and managing the expectations of fans by ignoring them altogether.

Problems, problems, problems…

With the makers unsure of just what exactly they want to do with the material at their disposal, the movie itself struggles to make any sense or provide any depth. This is a dreadfully flat, unnecessarily dry “adaptation” that skips over any attempts at character development, keeps exposition to a minimum, and favours action scenes that seem content to showcase the various ways that Roland can reload his guns instead of making them exciting to watch. As Roland, Elba has no choice but to ramp up the sincerity and make the gunslinger as taciturn as possible. That he gives a good performance is more of a tribute to his skill as an actor than any skill possessed by the writers, and even though he’s burdened by the kind of trite, clichéd dialogue that most actors would fail to overcome, Elba makes the best of moments such as when he’s called upon to recite the most long-winded, and excruciating, mantra in movie history (it begins with, “I do not shoot with my hand”). Opposite him is McConaughey, an actor who has surpassed everybody’s expectations (except possibly his own) in recent years, but here all he does is remind us that when he’s not working with a strong-minded director who’ll keep him in line, his performance will suffer. Here he gives us a caricature of a villain, and a pantomime one at that.

Taylor as Jake lacks presence, and the likes of Haley, Kim and Haysbert are given too little to do to make an impact. There’s too much jumping through portals, too many moments where the script trips itself up (bullets are supposed to be scarce in Mid-World but Roland never runs out), and too many references to characters and places in other King novels (prizes though for spotting a shop called Barlow and Straker’s). As it’s unlikely that The Dark Tower will be successful enough to warrant any further adventures that aren’t based on King’s original novels, all these references feel like gratuitous easter eggs rather than attempts to (subtly) build on the notion that there are worlds next to worlds, and there are more connections than even Roland or Jake are aware of. It’s another example of Arcel and co. lacking the insight into the material to make it work more effectively, making the movie a shoddy, ill-lit, tension-free exercise in damage limitation.

Rating: 4/10 – professionally made at least, but lacking energy and conviction, The Dark Tower is a dramatically sprawling yet visually restrained fantasy action movie that won’t interest fans of the novels, or win over viewers who have no connection to them at all; Arcel exerts very little control over the material, and what few glimpses there are of what could have been, only add to the disappointment and the horror of what’s been done with the source material – literally nothing.

10 Reasons to Remember Jerry Lewis (1926-2017)

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Jerry Lewis (16 March 1926 – 20 August 2017)

For many movie lovers, the quintessential Jerry Lewis performance involved a plethora of facial contortions, a unique range of vocal gymnastics, and a willingness to appear very, very, very silly. As a performer, Lewis was irrepressible, a mercurial performer who could delight and enthuse audiences in a way that nobody else could match or improve upon. In short, he was the very definition of unique.

He began his career at an early age, performing alongside his parents at venues in the Catskill Mountains in New York state. After World War II, Lewis met a singer named Dean Martin, and together they formed a double act that lasted until 1956. Their act began in night clubs, with Lewis’s clumsy busboy interrupting Martin’s singing. It was successful, and paved the way for radio shows, TV guest spots, and of course, movies. Lewis and Martin made sixteen pictures together, but as time went on, Lewis’s star waxed higher than Martin’s, and the movies began to focus more on Lewis’s comedy antics than they did on the pair as a team.

The duo’s break up worked for both of them, but for Lewis it brought him to a whole new level of stardom. He became a successful recording artist, appeared by himself on several TV shows, and began a second movie career as a leading actor, appearing in a variety of comedies that he often wrote or co-wrote himself, and which established even further his credentials as one of the best comic performers of the Fifties and Sixties. But his own particular brand of humour began to lose favour with audiences during the mid-Sixties, and the projects he initiated failed to reach the level of success he’d achieved over the previous twenty years. In the late Sixties, he taught movie directing at the University of Southern California; two of his pupils were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. During the Seventies, Lewis was more active on the stage, and he didn’t return to making movies until the early Eighties.

His acting career over the last thirty-five years was sporadic, yet full of interesting choices, and he gained a further reputation as a dramatic supporting actor. One area in which he maintained a distinctive consistency was in his role as a humanitarian. Lewis hosted a series of fund-raising telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association during the Fifties, and again between 1966 and 2010. They were incredibly successful shows, and over the course of fifty years, Lewis helped raise over $2.6 billion in donations. And in France – still – he is regarded as a comic genius. Lewis was a versatile performer who did things his own way, and was frequently right for doing so. And besides, anyone who encouraged Christopher Walken to pursue a career in show business can’t be that bad.

1 – The Stooge (1951)

2 – Living It Up (1954)

3 – The Geisha Boy (1958)

4 – The Bellboy (1960)

5 – The Nutty Professor (1963)

6 – Who’s Minding the Store? (1963)

7 – The King of Comedy (1982)

8 – Arizona Dream (1993)

9 – Funny Bones (1995)

10 – Max Rose (2013)

A Brief Word About Re-releases

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Each year, we the movie-loving public look forward to seeing the latest blockbusters and focusing on what’s ahead in the coming year. We analyse trailers to the nth degree, guessing this and surmising that. Millions upon millions of words are used in an effort to promote, discuss and anticipate the latest high-profile releases, and come the end of the year, we do the same for those movies everyone feels will be awards contenders. But each year, there are other releases that are also worthy of our attention, movies that have already withstood the kind of extreme navel-gazing that the Internet thrives on. These are the re-releases, older movies that are maybe celebrating an anniversary, or have undergone a restoration. Whatever the reason, these re-releases are a chance for some audiences to revisit a movie on the big screen, or for others to see them on the big screen for the very first time. And either way, it’s definitely a good thing.

Here in the UK, we average around thirty to forty re-releases each year (most of which are sponsored and promoted by the British Film Institute). So far this year, we’ve been lucky enough to be able to see the following movies:

Trainspotting (1997), GoodFellas (1990), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Taxi Driver (1976), Multiple Maniacs (1971), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Mulholland Dr. (2001), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Manhattan (1979), La Strada (1954), The Graduate (1967), Victim (1961), Howards End (1992), Le doulos (1962), and Titanic (1997).

And we still have these great movies to look forward to:

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) (in 3D), Belle de Jour (1967), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Young Frankenstein (1974), Blood Simple (1984), Hellraiser (1987), Sorcerer (1977), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Predator (1987), and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992).

So, spare a thought for the sometimes unheralded and humble re-release, a movie that no one has to quibble about, and a movie that has earned its reputation already. Let’s keep them coming!

Everything, Everything (2017)

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D: Stella Meghie / 96m

Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube Hermosillo, Sage Brocklebank

The latest romantic drama to involve teenagers, Everything, Everything is a movie that wants to tug at the heartstrings (and this may work with teenage girls, or those with a very low tolerance for this sort of thing), and put across the obvious message that true love is both everything (as the title suggests) and able to overcome any and all obstacles. There’s a definite market for this type of movie, and the bigger the obstacle, the more likely it is that teenage audiences will flock to see just how said obstacle is dealt with on the road to true, everlasting love. Often bearing little relation to the real world, these movies play out in a fantasy land that we can all recognise, but which remains just that: a fantasy land, with clearly observed roles and dilemmas and backdrops. And Everything, Everything subscribes to that idea and that fantasy world very closely.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon, the movie introduces us to Madeleine ‘Maddy’ Whittier (Stenberg), a seventeen year old who lives with her mother, Pauline (Rose), in their hermetically sealed home. Maddy can’t leave the house because she has Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a condition that means she has a compromised immune system that makes her extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases; any contact could potentially be fatal. Maddy seems to have adapted to being at home all the time, but she’s not totally alone. She has a nurse, Carla (de la Reguera), who visits every day, and Carla’s daughter, Rosa (Hermosillo), is allowed to come over as well. Otherwise, Maddy is on her own. Things change, however, with the arrival of new neighbours next door, including teenage son Olly (Robinson). It isn’t long before Olly takes an interest in Maddy, and she takes an interest in him. They text, they e-mail, he plays amusing games with a bundt cake. Soon, Maddy wants him to come over, and convinces Carla to allow it.

Olly’s visits give the now eighteen year old Maddy such a boost that she begins to consider what it might be like if she went outside. Before then, her mother finds out about Olly’s visits and puts more draconian measures in place to keep Maddy ‘safe’. But Maddy won’t be put off, and she devises a plan whereby she and Olly will go on a short break to Hawaii. Once there, their relationship develops from a fraternal one to a physical one, but there’s a consequence: Maddy falls ill and is hospitalised. Back home, her mother tells Maddy that there’s no future in her relationship with Olly, as he is bound to meet someone else who isn’t as restricted in her movements as she is. Seeing the logic in this, Maddy doesn’t encourage Olly any further and doesn’t respond to his entreaties to contact him. And then Maddy receives a call that changes everything…

In assembling Everything, Everything, writer J. Mills Goodloe and director Stella Meghie have retained as many of the novel’s fairy tale elements as they can, and in doing so have made a movie that operates at a remove from our own world and in a place that constantly makes the viewer question what they’re seeing. Maddy is the beleaguered princess, locked up like Rapunzel in a glass prison (we see her looking out of windows for most of the movie’s first half). Olly is the dashing prince, come to rescue the princess out of true love (though in a pick-up truck and not on a white charger). SCID translates as the curse that keeps the princess imprisoned, while there are no prizes for guessing which role Maddy’s mother occupies. The parallels are there for everyone to see, and the movie makes no real effort to hide them, but as a result, the movie becomes an easy one to anticipate as it progresses steadily along its time-worn path.

Watching as events unfold, the viewer will likely find themselves asking lots of awkward and annoying questions (annoying because of the frequency with which they’ll pop up). Questions such as, if she never leaves the house, why does Maddy have shoes? Or why does she have a hundred white tops? Or, just how much credit would an eighteen year old be given on her first credit card? And would it be enough to pay for flights to Hawaii, or an obviously 5-star hotel room, or cover their expenses while they’re there? More importantly, if Maddy’s condition makes her susceptible to any and all infectious diseases, how can she or her mother or Carla (or anyone for that matter) be sure they don’t have an infectious disease each time they arrive at the house (going through some kind of airlock at the front of the house just doesn’t seem to cover it). But over and above all these issues, one question will soon be paramount in the minds of viewers everywhere: why don’t Maddy and Olly ever just talk to each other on their phones instead of texting all the time?

Despite all these distractions, Everything, Everything is likeable enough, with a couple of minor fantasy sequences where Maddy and Olly’s text conversations are acted out in Maddy’s head using the backdrops of architectural models that she’s created as part of her home learning. The movie as a whole is brightly lensed by DoP Igor Jadue-Lillo, with the Hawaii sequences (actually shot in Mexico) displaying a crisp, immersive quality, and Meghie, while not called upon to do anything too spectacular, does draw out appealing performances from Stenberg and Robinson. The romantic aspects range from sappy to heartfelt, but manage to avoid any unnecessary gooey sentimentality, and the outcome is never in doubt. All in all, it’s a movie that knows what it’s doing, does it competently enough, and will attract fans who don’t need their movies to be any more complicated than girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-regains-boy.

Rating: 6/10 – another teen romance that brings very little that’s new to the table, Everything, Everything is still watchable, albeit in an undemanding, none too stressful way; sufferers with SCID will scoff at the way it’s portrayed, and the ease with which Maddy and Olly get to Hawaii should raise more than a few eyebrows, but again this is a romantic fantasy drama, and on that level, it’s effective enough for the receptive viewer.

Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017)

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D: Anthony C. Ferrante / 90m

Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassandra Scerbo, Billy Barratt, Yanet Garcia, Porsha Williams, too many minor celebrities to mention…

The Sharknado series has long been a bastion of awfulness, a treasury of trash, and a castle keep of constant calamity. It’s fast becoming the movie franchise that cannot, will not, die, with a new instalment being released each year with alarming regularity of purpose and design. And so we have the latest farrago in a series of movies that just keeps on coming and coming and coming. Rest assured (if that’s the right word), Sharknado 5: Global Warming won’t be the last in the series (and you’ll know why if you manage to make it to the end), and though Jaws 19 directed by Max Spielberg won’t ever happen, it’s more than likely now that in 2032 we’ll be having Sharknado 19: The NeverEnding Story streamed directly onto the back of our eyeballs.

This far in there’s very little point in offering up a proper review, or trying to differentiate between this instalment and any of the others. They’re all genuinely bad movies, and the producers seem to have decided that they need to be made that way deliberately. Fans of the series will get as much or as little out of Sharknado 5 as they have all the rest, detractors will have their views confirmed yet again, and the casual viewer will probably wonder how on earth a movie this bad has managed to get made in the first place. In the beginning, it could have been argued that the first Sharknado was a modern-day variation/update on the kind of monster horrors from the Fifties and Sixties, but without the radiation fallout to start things off. Now though, it’s a cultural anomaly that just keeps on giving and giving, even though the majority of us don’t want it to.

Rating: 3/10 – with only its celebrity cameos giving it a lift, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming is the franchise’s nadir, an appalling waste of everyone’s time and money; with the producers seeming to think that the series needs to get sillier and more deliberately stupid with each entry, it’s a poor reflection on their latest instalment when the cleverest thing about it is its tagline: Make America Bait Again.

It Comes at Night (2017)

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D: Trey Edward Shults / 91m

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner

In recent years, low budget horror thrillers have had something of a resurgence, what with It Follows (2014), The Witch (2015), Split (2016), and Get Out (2017) all making an impact with audiences and critics alike. While there are still too many similar movies out there that lack the attention to detail or the originality of these particular examples, it’s heartening to see that some movie makers aren’t just content to rehash familiar stories and plots, and are willing to bringing something different to the table. In addition to the makers of the movies listed above, we now have to add the name of Trey Edward Shults. Making only his second feature, Shults has made a movie that is by turns eerie, unnerving and undeniably tense. It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller that slowly tightens the screws on its characters from the start, and makes no promises of a happy ending for any of them.

We discover things are bad right at the beginning, with Paul (Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Ejogo), and their teenage son, Travis (Harrison Jr), transporting an old man in a wheelbarrow to a clearing in the woods. The old man – who is Sarah’s father – is visibly ill. Paul shoots him, and he and Travis put the body in a shallow grave; they then burn it. The message is clear: anyone found to be contaminated by the disease that has ravaged the rest of the world, will be despatched in a similar fashion. They return to their home deep in the woods, where they barricade themselves inside. This is their life now, and Paul is determined to keep them from harm. That determination is put to the test the next night when they capture an intruder trying to break in. The man’s name is Will (Abbott), and he manages to convince Paul that he was only looking for food and water for himself and his wife, Kim (Keough), and young son Andrew (Faulkner). Satisfied that Will doesn’t have the disease, Paul agrees to travel with him to collect his wife and son.

With Will’s family in the house as well, Paul impresses on the newcomers the rules that have kept him and his family safe, in particular ensuring the only entrance door is kept secure at night. The two families begin to learn to trust each other, but there are odd moments where Travis wonders if the stories Will and Kim tell are entirely true. On an excursion into the woods, Travis’s dog, Stanley, runs off and doesn’t come back. That night, Travis wakes from a nightmare, and in turn, discovers that the entrance door is ajar. Having wakened his father and Will, they discover a badly wounded Stanley just inside the door. Tensions mount when Sarah suggests that a sleepwalking Andrew might have opened the door, while Will and Kim accuse Travis. Tensions mount even further when Travis learns that Andrew may be infected, and Paul decides to finds out for himself…

For much of It Comes at Night, the audience is only given enough to appreciate the immediate situation, and what it means for the two families concerned. There’s no extended scene where someone describes the outbreak of the disease and how it happened, or how quickly it spread, or how easily society fell apart in the wake of the spread. Instead, it’s enough to know that the world has become an entirely dangerous place, and that trust may have become the most precious commodity on the planet. It’s easy to see that Paul is doing his best to protect his family, and it’s clear that he’s given their situation a lot of thought, but it’s also obvious that he’s had to make other, more personal sacrifices along the way, and though much of the story’s focus is on Travis and how he perceives events happening around him, Edgerton’s quiet, brooding performance is the movie’s touchstone. He’s a man who’s dispensed with the idea of social niceties, and if killing means survival, then that’s what he’ll do. Edgerton brings all this to the character, and though he’s sometimes on the periphery of a scene, his presence is as accurate a monitor of the movie’s overall mood as you’d need.

And that mood is pretty intense for most of the movie as the audience waits for the inevitable disintegration of the uneasy combination of two families with differing agendas co-existing in the same claustrophobic property. A veritable maze of a place, the house is a distorting labyrinth that allows for various spy holes and hiding places, and which allows Travis to be the conduit through which the viewer gains a broader understanding of the dynamics of both families, as well as his own growing understanding of the fault lines developing between them. Travis has recurring nightmares relating to the disease, and it’s his fear that gives the audience a way into a scenario that could otherwise have been just a mood piece. There’s a grim inevitability to the way in which this new, insular “society” breaks down, and Shults makes good use of the dread that comes along with it. Will Paul be able to protect his family or will events determine otherwise? And are Travis’s nightmares a foretaste of what’s to come?

For most of the movie’s well-judged running time, Shults handles the character dynamics with confidence and a consistent use of sparse, realistic dialogue. He also ensures that the mottled colour scheme of the property and the surrounding woods adds a melancholy layer to proceedings that is both dispiriting and oppressive. This isn’t a movie that provides much in the way of humour, and though smiles are appropriate on a couple of occasions, what Shults does is to use these moments as a way of leavening the pervading sense of anxiety that he’s building, and to help soften some of the blows to come. Inevitably though, there are a couple of issues that hinder the movie from becoming a complete success. There’s an awkward moment involving Travis and Kim that could best be described as a “seduction scene”, but which isn’t developed any further, and the issue of who opened the entrance door is left unsolved, which feels like a clumsy misstep from a writer/director who for the most part, is in firm control of everything else. It’s a frustrating lapse, as well, because it leaves the viewer waiting to find out who did open it, and for some, it’s likely to occupy their thoughts for the last twenty-five minutes. Those issues aside, though, It Comes at Night is a movie that continues that recent run of effective horror thrillers with more than a dash of style.

Rating: 8/10 – a slowburn thriller with horror overtones, It Comes at Night is also a sombre, doleful survivalist drama that is well-paced, confidently handled by its writer/director, and features a terrific performance from Edgerton; with a palpable sense of impending doom to weigh the characters down, it’s a movie with nihilist leanings and very little intention of sending the viewer away in a happy mood, but in terms of what it wants to achieve, it has to be considered a definite success.

Overdrive (2017)

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D: Antonio Negret / 93m

Cast: Scott Eastwood, Freddie Thorp, Ana de Armas, Gaia Weiss, Simon Abkarian, Clemens Schick, Abraham Belaga, Kaaris

Every now and then – in the UK at least – a movie appears in cinemas that doesn’t seem to belong there. It will have the look and feel of a movie that should have gone direct to video, and it will have a number of second- or third-tier stars heading up the cast. It will be a generic, virtually simplistic genre piece whether it’s a horror movie, an action movie, or a comedy. And it will not attract glowing reviews or prove to be a box office success. In short, it will be the movie you go and see when you get to the cinema and the movie you really want to see has either already started, or sold out. Welcome to the world of the B-movie, the A-movie’s little brother (or second cousin if you want to be a little more dismissive). And on this occasion, welcome to the French Riviera, and a movie called Overdrive, a semi-glamorous action thriller with moments of humour that are often unintentional.

It’s a movie that borrows liberally and without embarrassment from a variety of other action movies, but in the main, viewers will spot references to the Transporter movies (which share this movie’s location), and The Fast and the Furious franchise. Is it as good as those other movies that it appropriates its DNA from? Well, that depends on the entry. Suffice it to say, it never looks in danger of overtaking even the worst of those movies (they know who they are), or giving audiences enough invention or “wow” moments to make it stand out from the crowd. A French/US co-production, the movie coasts along on a small wave of goodwill, and tells its simple tale in as convoluted a fashion as possible. One of the few things that is actually impressive about the movie? That it contains so many red herrings, false trails, and confusing twists and turns, and doesn’t trip itself up all of the time trying to keep them all up in the air.

It involves two half-brothers, Andrew and Garrett Foster (Eastwood, Thorp), who have travelled to the South of France in an effort to steal expensive, one of a kind cars and sell them on to big money collectors. They steal one such car, a 1937 Bugatti, only to learn that it’s owned by criminal bigwig Jacomo Morier (Abkarian). Facing certain death, the brothers manage to persuade Morier to make it up to him by their stealing another car, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, from a “business” rival of Morier’s called Otto Klemp (Schick). Morier gives them a week to get him the car, a timescale that requires them to hire a crew of like-minded car thieves. Andrew’s girlfriend, Stephanie (de Armas), invites herself along for the ride, and just to ensure that Garrett isn’t left out, enlists the aid of her friend, Devin (Weiss), as well.

And so begins a less than complex game of bluff and double bluff that involves the step-brothers, their girlfriends, a group of anonymous drivers, two rival criminals and their gun-toting henchmen, a dozen or so classic cars, two Interpol agents on the Fosters’ trail, and Morier’s cousin, Laurent (Belaga), who may or may not be playing both sides (though it doesn’t really matter). It’s a standard heist movie, playing with misdirection as a recurring plot point, and making sure that everyone except Laurent looks well groomed and well dressed. In many ways, the look of the movie is its most important element, with Laurent Barès’ bright, sunshine-infused cinematography keeping things shiny and attractive, whether it’s the sheen glinting off the classic cars on display – they really are objects of mechanical beauty – or the sun-kissed hills and environs surrounding Marseille (where the movie takes place). Add a handful of car chases that zip and swing and gambol amid said surroundings and you have a pretty, if vacuous, movie that doesn’t have any huge ambitions, and just wants to be entertaining.

And despite all the silly plot twists and exaggerated storyline and depth-free characters and inane dialogue and desperate humour and join-the-dots direction, Overdrive is an enjoyable way to spend ninety-some minutes, partly because it really doesn’t try hard at all, and partly because it’s actually quite charming in a way that’s both undemanding and innocuous. This is the perfect movie to watch on a Saturday night with beer and pizza (if you’re a man), or Prosecco and pizza (if you’re a woman). It doesn’t require the viewer to think too much, it wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of the slightly underwhelming car chases (which are too concerned with ensuring no damage comes to the cars, especially the classic ones), and the soppy romantic interludes it foists on the characters and the audience at regular intervals. You could view it as a guilty pleasure, except that it’s not quite that bad. It’s not great, but it’s not entirely bad either.

As the step-brothers out of different mothers, Eastwood is the serious one looking to make a commitment to Stephanie and stop being a car thief, while Thorp is the happy-go-lucky thrill seeker who doesn’t need a plan (mostly). The pair have an easy-going chemistry that works well, which is more than can be said for their characters’ romantic entanglements. Eastwood and de Armas look like a couple who are still trying to work out if they like each other, while Thorp and Weiss behave like a couple who, weirdly, have never met. Abkarian and Schick are acceptable as rival villains, while Belaga is appropriately slimy as Laurent. Colombian-born Negret oversees things with the flair of someone who was included in a list of Latino Directors to Watch in 2007, and who has worked solidly in television ever since, while writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, who penned 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), rehash old glories and invite viewers to play Spot the Homage nearly every eight-ten minutes. With the viewer distracted in such a way, it gives the movie a chance to make more of an impression than it has any right to.

Rating: 5/10 – already it seems we’re getting throwbacks to movies made in the late Nineties/early Noughties, and Overdrive is a prime example of a genre crying out for new ideas and then settling for the same old same old; breezy and forgettable, the movie roars through a series of minor skirmishes before settling into a predictable rhythm that culminates in a scene of vehicular slaughter that deserves a medal.

The Ghoul (2016)

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D: Gareth Tunley / 82m

Cast: Tom Meeten, Dan Renton Skinner, Rufus Jones, Alice Lowe, Niamh Cusack, Geoffrey McGivern, James Eyres, Paul Kaye

It’s very, very difficult to keep one step ahead of audiences today, what with narrative twists and turns coming at us thick and fast in what feels like every other movie (so much so that we’re looking out for them all the time), and with the Internet being a boundless source of spoilers and inappropriate info. Any movie that tries to hoodwink its audience, or lead them down the path marked ‘astray’, will inevitably stand or fall by the quality of its deception, and the way in which viewers are misled. Show them one thing and then show them something else that brings the first thing into question and you have a mystery. Show them one thing and then another and then another and keep everything vague and unknowable – until the end – and you have a head scratcher.

A head scratcher is what The Ghoul presents us with early on. Chris (Meeten), a police detective, arrives at a quiet suburban house that has become a crime scene. His partner, Jim (Skinner), tells a disturbing, impossible story: a burglar, surprised by the owners, shoots both of them… and neither of them dies, not until he flees the scene. Chris is a taciturn individual, wrapped up in himself and his thoughts, thoughts that make him look in the direction of the lettings agent, Michael Coulson (Jones), who has been helpful in the early stages of their investigation. When they try to talk to him, they find that on one wall of his flat is a collage of notes and pictures that indicate he’s seeing a psychotherapist, Dr Fisher (Cusack). Chris decides to go undercover and try and find out about Coulson through his seeing Fisher. A friend of his, a forensics officer, Kathleen (Lowe), helps with his fictional pathology, and soon Chris is seeing Dr Fisher as well. And through his visits, he meets Coulson, and the two strike up an initially uneasy friendship. Soon they are both seeing another therapist, Dr Morland (McGivern), and Coulson starts behaving strangely, accusing Morland of having an alternative and sinister reason for treating them both. And soon, Coulson’s paranoia begins to show itself in Chris’s behaviour as well…

Up to a point, fans of psychological thrillers and intriguing mysteries will be kept enthralled by Gareth Tunley’s debut feature as writer/director. There’s not much precedent in British detective fiction or movies for a detective to go undercover as a patient needing psychotherapy in order to find out if a potential witness is also complicit in a crime. But it’s not until much later that Tunley reveals the reason why Chris does this and why the few people around him – Jim, Kathleen – don’t have any objections to the idea, or think it’s a strange way of tracking down a man who can help them with their enquiries. The average viewer may well find this approach to be dramatically unsound, but Tunley is more interested in making the viewer question Chris’s state of mind rather than his investigative methods (though both are linked). But then there’s that point mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, and once the movie reaches that moment, it takes a turn that encourages bafflement and bewilderment, and quite deliberately.

At a session with Dr Fisher, Chris reveals that he sometimes daydreams about being a detective. In his head he’s created characters from people he knows, such as Kathleen, who in reality (or so it seems) is a teacher and not a forensics officer. It’s at this point that the movie mutates from being a dour, unconventional police procedural into an unsettling excursion into the mind of a man who may not be a police detective at all, and who may just be someone in need of help in dealing with manic depression or hallucinatory episodes or an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Chris also says he knows his daydreams aren’t real – but are they? That’s the question the movie wants the viewer to be asking themselves, and as it moves further and further into a world that offers few concrete answers, the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of an ominous horror movie.

Thanks to a non-linear narrative, and Tunley’s decision to include several moments where time and memory become disjointed, Chris’s investigation begins to unravel and fall apart. And so does Chris. He becomes more and more insular, saying less and less and bowing his head as if trying to hide. Soon the viewer will have to decide which narrative strand is the real one: Chris as a police officer, or Chris as an ordinary man suffering from depression (who thinks he’s a police officer). There are clues as to which strand is the correct one, and the inclusion of visual motifs such as a Klein bottle, and an ouroboros, provide strong evidence for what’s happening over all, but Tunley does his best to keep everything blurred and out of focus, both for Chris and the viewer. That he doesn’t succeed entirely is due to the number of aforementioned clues, several of which spell things out quite clearly, and a need to shoehorn Chris into the events of the last ten minutes where his fate is revealed and the tension is amped up considerably.

Tunley invokes a stylish mix of visuals, with avant-garde imagery jostling side by side with gothic expressionism and a dash of magical realism. It’s a heady concoction, prone to lapsing into the kind of fractured, portentous imagery that wouldn’t look out of place in a found-footage movie (where the camera is in the hands of someone who’s running with it). There’s also a subdued Twilight Zone kind of vibe to the material, with Chris heading for the kind of uncomfortable denouement that will see him revealed as a pawn in a much larger game. The character is played in a brooding, melancholic, and abstract manner by Meeten, a performance that is largely internalised, but which still allows Chris’s pain to reveal itself. Meeten is like a forlorn, lonely ghost, one that seeks the company of the living but then doesn’t know how to connect with them. Meeten’s performance is a massive plus for the movie, and Tunley exploits his star’s morbidly depressed approach to Chris in a way that reveals often contradictory mannerisms that help support both notions surrounding the truth of his situation. He’s ably supported by the likes of Lowe and McGivern, and there’s a bitter poignancy to Chris’s scenes with Kathleen that works extremely well in grounding the character’s otherwise wayward emotions and feelings.

Rating: 8/10 – though not a movie for everyone, and one that could be accused of creating an artificial mood throughout, The Ghoul is nevertheless an intriguing if overly bleak treatise on the nature of mental illness as a doorway to a different reality; Tunley directs with a confidence that allows the narrative to play out in its own way and time (much like Chris’s fate), and to keep the viewer from becoming too comfortable – much like Chris himself, who thanks to Meeten, remains an unlikely, yet memorable movie creation.

Una (2016)

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D: Benedict Andrews / 90m

Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha Little, Tobias Menzies

Very occasionally a movie comes along that makes you question why it was made, or maybe what message it was trying to get across. Such a movie makes the viewer question the validity or the purpose of its existence. Sometimes it’s because the movie is lacking in several important areas, such as acting, or being competently directed. At other times it could be down to the script, or the way the movie has been shot; it could even be all four reasons at once. If it’s an adaptation of an existing novel or play or television series, or something similar, then sometimes it’s all about whether or not the movie is faithful to the original, or whether the adaptation works on its own merits.  And sometimes it’s purely because the movie itself is just plain bad, on every level.

Una isn’t bad on every level, but it is a movie that makes the viewer question why they’re watching it, while they’re watching it. Adapted from the stage play, Blackbird by David Harrower, Una is about the titular character (Mara) and her ex-neighbour, Ray (Mendelsohn), who seduced her when she was thirteen. It’s about the consequences and the ramifications of that illicit, and illegal, relationship, and the ways that it has affected both characters in the fifteen years since. Una has remained single, and still lives in her childhood home with her mother (Fitzgerald). We learn little about her except that she has sex with men she doesn’t know in night clubs, and that her relationship with her mother is fragile, partly because her mother isn’t well, and partly because of what happened fifteen years ago. One day she skips work and heads to a large warehouse where she asks to see Ray. Ray, it turns out, is now called Pete, and is a manager at the warehouse. He steers Una into a break room, and clearly unnerved by her arrival, asks her what she wants.

What Una wants, we discover, is very simple: she wants to know why he left her all those years ago, when they were on the verge of eloping to Europe. The answer proves not to be as clear-cut as we, or Una, might expect, but before we learn what that answer is, Ray’s attendance at a meeting leads to uproar amongst the workforce, and Ray having to hide from everyone. He and Una stay one step ahead of everyone else, including Scott (Ahmed), one of Ray’s co-workers, and senior management honcho, Mark (Menzies). As Ray waits for everyone to leave, he and Una talk about their relationship, what it meant for both of them at the time, and what it means for them now. Ray served four years in jail, and has since gotten married, and found a stable way of living his life. Una has no such stability, only the same house she’s lived in her whole life, and in a neighbourhood where everyone knows her and knows what happened to her.

What follows should be absorbing and fascinating at the same time, as both Una and Ray reflect on events from their past, and the feelings they each had at the time. Inevitably, it takes their combined memories to provide the truth of what happened at the end for both of them; whether this will be enough for Una is a different matter. Suffice it to say, it isn’t, and the movie insists on making the same points in slightly different ways, until it heads off into the night with no clearer idea of where it’s going than Una has of what she’s going to do next. What she does do next depends entirely on the kindness of Scott, and leads to a contrived ending that takes the movie out of the realm of psychological drama and into the realm of unvarnished melodrama. But while the last third of the movie is unsatisfying and unrewarding, and relies on the good will of Harrower’s screenplay to move its characters from Point A to Point B, the cracks in said screenplay start appearing much earlier on.

Whatever the merits of the stage production (and it did win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2007), this new screen adaptation somehow manages to highlight a number of faults with the overall scenario that perhaps aren’t as noticeable under the proscenium arch. The reason for Una being at the warehouse, ostensibly to ask Ray why he left her, lacks conviction precisely because of the period of time that has elapsed. Harrower’s script never seeks to answer the question why this is still so important to her. Does she want to pick up where they left off? Does she still love Ray? Is her visit less about slaying the demons from her past, and more about breathing new life into them? These questions remain unexplored as the movie clatters along spewing out platitudes and clichés on both sides, with Ray bemoaning his time in prison, and Una blaming her father’s death on Ray’s predatory sexual behaviour. It also tries to show Una as being complicit in their affair, as if this is some kind of mitigating circumstance for what happened. The aim here may have been to make the issue more complex, but a paedophile is a paedophile, and what happened remains inexcusable.

Alas, very little of what is brought up is relatable or convincing, and with Una’s motives remaining obscure and possibly ill-considered throughout, the movie struggles to make us care what happened to her (which is concerning in itself). Mara gives a very good performance as the emotionally disturbed Una, but remains a figure we can’t relate to very well. Mendelsohn, however, is better served by the script, and makes Ray an untrustworthy character from the start. He lies to everyone, and probably about everything, and he’s good at it. Mendelsohn makes Ray self-serving and arrogant, and he rarely says anything important without thinking about it first. Ray may now be called Pete, and he may have a new life, but he’s still Ray, and with all that that entails. In bringing Una to the screen, theatre director Andrews makes his feature debut, but rarely seems comfortable in exploring the medium effectively. Within the warehouse, its crisp, clean lines and polished surfaces act as a stringent counterpoint to the raw emotions being mauled over in the break room (and a store cupboard and the ladies’ – of course), while the ending, which seems designed to leave the audience feeling appalled and shocked, plays out awkwardly and with scant regard for its backdrop.

Rating: 6/10 – a psychological drama that’s been given an arthouse makeover by its director, Una looks and feels austere, and lacks the passion to be truly effective as a movie about the lingering effects of child abuse; Mara and Mendelsohn make a good pairing but are unable to compensate for the wayward structure imposed on the material, and the script’s attempts at complexity inhibit the material even further, making it feel sterile rather than impassioned.

Operator (2016)

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D: Logan Kibens / 91m

Cast: Martin Starr, Mae Whitman, Nat Faxon, Cameron Esposito, Christine Lahti, Kris D. Lofton, Kate Cobb, Retta

One of modern society’s worst innovations is the automated answering service. You know the drill: you call a company or an organisation and you have to listen to a list of seemingly endless options before being connected to a real live human being. Or worse still, there isn’t a live human being at the end of it at all, as the automated system seeks to wrangle you into fitting your square problem into their round solution. And all the while reminding you that your call is important to the company or organisation that doesn’t want to speak to you in the first place. This technological misstep is at the heart of first-time writer/director/editor Logan Kibens’ Operator, but instead of challenging the system as it exists currently, Kibens is more interested in exploring the idea that an artificial creation can replace a human being on a relationship level.

The movie’s central protagonist is a computer programmer called Joe Larsen (Starr). The company Joe works for is in the doghouse over an automated answering service they’ve created for Welltrix, a medical health organisation. Feedback from customers points to the service, and in particular the choice of phrasing used by the “operator”, as being too clinical and lacking in warmth and sympathy. Charged with finding a voice that is more empathetic (and given a week to do so), Joe hits on the idea of using his wife’s. For Joe, his wife Emily (Whitman), is the perfect candidate: she works as a concierge at a hotel and has a calm, likeable manner that even the most annoyed or angry customer is assuaged by. Emily agrees to help out and she provides Joe and his colleagues with valuable insights into the sorts of things that people like to hear in difficult or challenging circumstances. But when the client likes what they hear and gives the go ahead for Joe’s company to roll out a full programme, Emily’s voice work and successful audition with an experimental theatre group, the Neo-Futurists, causes Joe to grow anxious about the future of their relationship.

His anxiety is exacerbated by his mother, Beth (Lahti), being diagnosed with Addison’s disease, and Emily’s success with the Neo-Futurists. Their individual workloads sees them spending less and less time together, and Joe’s reliance on Emily to ease his panic attacks and feelings of helplessness sees him connecting more and more with the answering system version of Emily than with Emily herself. Able to listen to soothing phrases such as “I’m with you” whenever he needs to, Joe begins to distance himself from Emily, and she in turn becomes unhappy with his growing need to speak and listen to a recorded version of her that, as she puts it, “isn’t her”. But Joe refuses to listen to his real wife and continues to fixate on what he reasons is the ideal version of her. And when Emily vents some of her frustration at the situation through her theatre work – even though she’d promised Joe she’d never use their life together as part of the show – Joe’s inability to understand her feelings and forgive her leads to their splitting up, and Joe becoming more and more fixated on her “replacement”.

Our interaction with others, whether personal, professional, occasional, or unexpected, is a fundamental part of our social awareness, and the way in which we communicate says a lot about our personalities and our view of the world. However, it’s unlikely that many people would obsess about an ersatz person in the way that Joe does, so what Kibens has to do in her script, and which is unfortunate in the way it is presented and in how it develops, is to give Joe a mental health issue right from the start. Joe doesn’t just have crippling anxiety attacks, he’s unable to connect with people in the same way that the original version of the answering service was. He lacks empathy, and talks about regular hopes and fears about relationships – and particularly as expressed by his boss, Gregg (Faxon) – in terms that a research psychologist would understand, but dismissively as well, as if the “data” he’s presenting is obvious. With this in place it’s hard to understand just how Joe and Emily got together in the first place, let alone got married.

By making Joe such an aloof figure – and as the movie progresses he becomes increasingly and disturbingly more insular and emotionally distant – the movie also finds itself struggling to keep him on the right side of sympathetic. That it doesn’t is due to the corner it paints itself into thanks to his obsession, which seems cruel and unnecessarily vindictive. Viewers won’t be surprised by how the movie resolves the breakdown of Joe and Emily’s marriage, as the manner of its resolution is signposted in great big neon letters quite early on, and when it happens it happens just as awkwardly as many other scenes play out. As Joe, Starr tries to play him as both a wide-eyed innocent and an inconsiderate, self-absorbed asshole, but never manages to connect the two successfully, although Joe’s dead-eye stare is impressive by itself. Like Whitman, he’s hampered by the vagaries of Kibens’ screenplay and its lack of dramatic focus, as when Joe’s obsession with the fake Emily is transposed into an addiction that sees him staggering along the street begging strangers to use their mobile phones.

There’s the germ of a good idea here, but Kibens’ lack of experience shows through all too often, and she’s unable to smooth over the cracks that pepper her screenplay. Starr and Whitman make for a nice couple, and their early scenes together have a lightness of touch that’s appropriate for what looks set to be a romantic comedy, but when things become darker, Kibens’ direction becomes less convincing. At this stage, the change in tone may put off some viewers, but with Kibens trying and failing to make clever statements about technology and our dependency on it, and its invasive nature, it becomes a moot point altogether. Add a tired storyline that centres around Gregg’s getting fit to impress an ex-girlfriend who’s now a lesbian, and the inclusion of Joe’s mother falling ill (which leads nowhere other than to explain why Joe is the way he is), and you have a movie that appears to have a lot going on, but which on closer inspection, doesn’t really amount to much.

Rating: 5/10 – a tighter and more focused script would have allowed Operator to make more cogent points about our dependency on modern technology, but Kibens doesn’t have as sure a handle on things as she needs; more confident in its humour than its drama, the movie is bolstered by a charming score by Sage Lewis, and Esposito’s turn as a Neo-Futurist with a severe haircut and bags of attitude, but even with these positives to help it along, it’s a movie that stutters too much in its execution to prove as rewarding as it should.

The Beguiled (2017)

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D: Sofia Coppola / 94m

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard

Remakes are ten-a-penny these days, with movie makers deciding that familiarity will attract more moviegoers than not, and if the original movie is one that is fairly well known and/or regarded (and even better, financially successful), then it makes it easier to justify revisiting said original. But it’s unlikely that anyone was clamouring for a remake of Don Siegel’s minor classic The Beguiled (1971), a movie that bombed on its initial release but which has gained a sterling reputation since then. However, on the advice of production designer Anne Rose, writer/director Sofia Coppola watched Siegel’s version and began thinking of ways in which she could update the movie for modern audiences. The result is a movie that is atmospheric, sophisticated, beautifully shot, and yet curiously distant in its evocation of female desires.

As with the 1971 version, Coppola has adapted the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. In it a Union Army corporal named John McBurney (Farrell) suffers a serious leg wound during battle and manages to get away from the fighting. He makes it to some nearby woods where he is discovered by a young girl, Amy (Laurence). She helps him up and takes him to the girls school where she resides along with the school’s owner (and teacher), Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), another teacher, Miss Edwina Morrow (Dunst), a teenage girl called Alicia (Fanning), and three other young girls, Jane (Rice), Emily (Howard), and Marie (Riecke). McBurney’s arrival causes consternation and divided opinions amongst the staff and the pupils, with some of them insisting he be turned over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner of war, and others insisting that he be allowed to stay and at least recover from his wound. In the end, Miss Farnsworth decides that he can stay until his leg has healed.

McBurney’s presence gives rise to his being the recipient of overly attentive behaviour from the women and the children alike. Miss Farnsworth tends to his leg, while Miss Morrow hovers around offering assistance at every opportunity. Alicia too is in close attendance, and the rest of the girls all take an exaggerated interest in McBurney’s well-being. As his leg improves he begins to move around the school, and shows an interest in the garden, which he helps to maintain. He begins to spend more time with Miss Morrow, and eventually professes his love for her. They arrange to meet in her room late one night after everyone has gone to bed, but when McBurney fails to turn up, Miss Morrow goes to his room and finds it empty. And then she hears noises coming from another room…

Where the 1971 version traded on a more fervid atmosphere in order to tell its tale, this version remains an austere and measured accomplishment, with Coppola giving limited expression to any desires held by the female characters. While it’s a given that Miss Farnsworth and Miss Morrow would strive to remain aloof in relation to the presence of a wounded yet otherwise virile soldier, and for the perceived sake of the children in their care, thanks to the precise nature of Coppola’s screenplay, their being aloof hampers the effectiveness of the emotional outbursts that occur as the movie progresses. These outbursts are generally well handled by the cast, but in dramatic terms they don’t have the impact needed to make the viewer sympathise with the characters involved, and even though McBurney suffers more than an injured leg, what should be a moment of horror – both for McBurney’s discovery of what’s happened to him, and the ease with which his suffering is agreed upon and carried out – is let down by the restrained melodrama that precedes it.

This distancing between the viewer and the characters has a strange effect on the story and how it plays out. In many respects, and by making the directorial decisions that she’s made, Coppola has taken Cullinan’s novel and decided to explore it from a female perspective. And usually, this would be all well and good. But Coppola, rather than hold to the idea that repressed sexual tension should be the catalyst for the events that follow McBurney’s arrival at the school, instead makes it all to do with a failing of manners and etiquette on the soldier’s part. This may not be the most obvious reading of the story, and it may not have been Coppola’s main intention in telling the story, but nevertheless, what comes across is a tale of one man’s refusal to accept implicitly the hospitality he has been given, and the consequences of taking that refusal to “behave” too far. When McBurney is seeking to fit in, and to reward his convalescence by helping in the garden, he’s a favoured “guest”. Once his true motives are revealed, his benefactors become his gaolers and his transgressions must be paid for. It’s Old Testament retribution wrapped up in New Testament flummery, but determined by an arch, emotional rigidity of manner that suits Coppola’s arthouse style of movie making but which does a cruel disservice to the material.

The issue of passion in Coppola’s remains unaddressed by the director herself, and though she elicits good performances from all concerned, the somewhat stuffy dialogue and repressive mood often defeats the cast’s attempts to break free of their acting “chains”. Farrell gets a chance to rage out, but against the restrained nature of the residents of Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies it’s like witnessing a sudden downpour on any otherwise brilliantly sunny day. The movie does, however, look wondrous, with exquisitely composed exterior shots (moss has rarely looked this beautiful) and tastefully lit interiors that hint of secrets hidden just out of frame. Against the backdrop of the US Civil War, there’s a pleasing sense of deliberate isolationism that may or may not be a reflection on modern US politics, and Coppola wisely exploits the notion of being careful of what you wish for, and on both sides of the gender divide. But all in all, there’s less here than meets the eye, and for that, one shouldn’t be too surprised.

Rating: 7/10 – though Coppola has deliberately dialled down the “hothouse” nature of Don Siegel’s original, The Beguiled lacks for enough passion to make the young ladies of the seminary, and their teachers’ emotional dilemmas, entirely believable; as a thriller it has its moments, and as a drama it’s riveting enough to get by, but technical achievements aside, it’s another movie where Coppola somehow manages to disengage herself from the material too often to provide viewers with a movie that retains an emotional through line.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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D: Matt Reeves / 140m

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer

With so many franchise trilogies out there at the moment, and with so many of them failing to maintain a consistent level of quality across all three movies, what are the odds that a series based on a previous five-movie saga – which went from genre classic to tired afterthought – would prove to be the trilogy that bucked the trend and have the most impact? For such is the case thanks to War for the Planet of the Apes, the final entry in a trilogy that has been consistently impressive from start to finish, and which has raised the bar significantly in terms of motion capture performances.

The success of the series can be attributed to the seriousness, and the sense of purpose with which each entry has been approached. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) introduced us to a world where the potential of apes superseding humans was a tantalising prospect. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) took us deeper into that world and showed how intolerance and distrust on both sides could be exploited by personal agendas. And in War for the Planet of the Apes we see the inevitable consequences that arise from attempting to avoid a future that has been predestined ever since Will Rodman created ALZ 112. The whole trilogy has been a triumph of storytelling and characterisation, and thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, has ended on such a high note that if Chernin Entertainment and 20th Century Fox do decide to continue the saga (as seems to be the plan) then they will have a massive job on their hands to equal or improve upon what’s gone before.

Since the events of Dawn… Caesar (Serkis) and his tribe have retreated further into California’s Muir Woods, but their hope for a peaceful, undisturbed existence is short-lived. A paramilitary group called Alpha-Omega has tracked them down. The group launches an attack on the apes’ home, but are repelled. Caesar spares the lives of four men, and tells them to report back to their leader, Colonel McCullough (Harrelson), that he hasn’t started this war, and he just wants his tribe to be left alone. Later, the soldiers return at night, and this time the apes suffer greater casualties than before. Caesar, determined to put an end to these endless skirmishes once and for all, decides to find the colonel and kill him. He intends to go alone, but his chief advisor, orang-utan Maurice (Konoval), gorilla Luca (Adamthwaite), and chimpanzee Rocket (Notary), all follow after him. Caesar allows them to accompany him, and while the rest of the tribe journey in search of a new home, the quartet travel to the “border” where the colonel has his base. Along the way, they encounter the daughter of a soldier, Nova (Miller), who cannot speak; Maurice insists that she continue on with them. Further on they meet Bad Ape (Zahn), a chimpanzee who helps them locate McCullough’s compound.

By this stage of the movie, many viewers may feel that they know what will happen next, and how, but one of the strengths of Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves’ script is its willingness to take the material into much darker territory than anyone might expect. To this end, Caesar undergoes both a crisis of faith and an apotheosis, and the moral certainties and imperatives that govern the actions and motives of both Caesar and McCullough are thrown into sharp relief by the similarities they exhibit. Although nominally the movie’s villain, and despite his resemblance to Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979), McCullough isn’t the cut-and-dried bad guy that he first appears to be. Driven by the same fears of species annihilation that occupy Caesar, McCullough has glimpsed humanity’s future and the sight has scared him badly. Operating out of fear and a desperate sense of protectionism, the colonel behaves in ways that are both understandable and reprehensible, and it’s this dichotomy that makes the character such a good adversary for Caesar.

For his part, Caesar is still trying to deal with the ramifications of his killing Koba (Kebbell), and what that might imply in terms of his ability to lead his tribe. This element of self-doubt, itself riffing off the precept that “ape shall not kill ape”, adds further depth to a character who has always challenged the assumption that the apes’ fate is pre-determined. As time has gone by and his goal of peaceful assimilation has been repeatedly derailed by human intransigence, Caesar has become all too aware that mutual annihilation may be the eventual outcome of the apes’ struggle with their human counterparts. He knows that killing McCullough is necessary but finds that it’s not as simple as he thought it would be, partly because of the nature of the colonel’s compound (where apes are used as slave labour), and partly because he can’t fully excuse some of his own behaviour (which he sees reflected in McCullough’s actions).

The movie also deals with issues of social exclusion, both ape and human, and has a political edge that adds further realism to what is essentially a fantasy-based parable of human folly on a grand scale. There are succinct parallels to modern-day events happening in the real world that make it seem as if Bomback and Reeves have a prophetic ability that the movie can capitalise on, while for those who want to explore the idea, there’s the possibility that the apes represent another tribe searching for a place to settle in peace. All this aside, War… is further strengthened by a tremendous central performance by Serkis as Caesar. It’s been mentioned elsewhere, but Serkis’s performance is so powerful and so emotionally layered that if he’s not nominated for any acting trophies come awards season, then maybe a boycott is in order. Without Serkis, there’s little doubt that the trilogy would not have been as impressive and as compelling as it is. We’ve watched the character evolve over the course of three increasingly remarkable movies, and Serkis’s equally remarkable achievement deserves appropriate recognition.

Rating: 9/10 – a superb example of how to end a trilogy by not deviating from the path originally set out in the first movie, and by not sanitising it in any way, War for the Planet of the Apes is intelligent, emotive and complex movie making that wears its confidence on its sleeve as a badge of merit; featuring breathtaking cinematography by Michael Seresin (who was for a long time the go-to DoP for Alan Parker), expertly choreographed action sequences, clever references to the original Planet of the Apes movies, and by turns, a charged, stirring and poignant score courtesy of Michael Giacchino, this is easily one of the best movies of 2017 – paws down.

The House (2017)

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D: Andrew Jay Cohen / 88m

Cast: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Rob Huebel, Cedric Yarbrough, Michaela Watkins, Jeremy Renner

Okay, let’s get this out of the way at the start: The House is not a great movie, and this isn’t going to be a review that attempts to rehabilitate it in the eyes of audiences who have been less than won over by its occasional charms. This is also not a review that will attempt to fly in the face of critical opinion. To repeat, The House is not a great movie. But it is a movie that does what a lot of other modern comedies do, and that is that it operates in a kind of alternative reality where the accepted rules are cast aside, and things happen randomly without any pause for credibility or even clarity. It’s an alternative reality that allows movie makers to ignore certain precepts and create scenarios that would have no credence in the real world, but which are ideal for the manufactured world they’re creating. In short, it’s an alternative reality that creates its own rules (and sometimes, as it goes along).

The clues are there right from the start. This is a movie about a married couple, Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell, Poehler), who have somehow managed to produce a child, Alex (Simpkins), who is brighter, smarter, and more aware of the world than they will ever be. Scott is another patented Ferrell man-child, someone who manages to hold down a company job while also being a complete idiot. Poehler is the eternally confused wife for whom everything is too complex, and who struggles to keep track of everything going on in her life. (How they ever managed to conceive a child, let alone raise her to be so independent and intelligent is a question the movie never asks, but it’s in keeping with the nature of the world they inhabit.) They live in the kind of nice, well appointed house that all middle-class American citizens inhabit (in the movies at least), and have a fairly good standing in their local neighbourhood. They’re nice, averagely average, and without a speck of original thinking between them.

When Alex’s college place is threatened by the loss of an expected scholarship, her parents descend immediately into meltdown territory. They can’t afford to pay for it themselves, so they do what every sensible, right-thinking couple would do: on the advice of their gambling addict friend, Frank (Mantzoukas), they open an underground casino in Frank’s house. It’s all entirely illegal, they have no clue what they’re doing, but the money comes rolling in from friends and neighbours who all seem completely okay with gambling and losing their hard-earned money in such a cavalier manner (there’s obviously a lot of money in suburbia – who knew? – as the same people turn up every night). As always happens in these kinds of scenarios, the casino is a huge success, and soon Frank has expanded the operation to include a pool, a massage room, and a strip club (hey, it’s a big house).

All this activity starts to attract the attention of dastardly councilman, Bob Schaeffer (Kroll), who recruits the only policeman in town, Officer Chandler (Huebel), to find out where everyone is going at night when they should be at town council meetings. Meanwhile, Scott and Kate have taken to acting cool and looking ridiculous as they confuse looking like casino owners with looking like pimps from the Eighties. And when Frank catches someone cheating at one of the tables, it leads to Scott chopping off one of the guy’s fingers, which allows the movie to invalidate the laws of blood loss by having Scott covered in enough plasma for two people while the unlucky gambler remains as rosy-cheeked as before. Cue the police? Cue Ferrell in orange prison attire? No, wait, he’s done that before, in Get Hard (2015). No, this being an alternative reality, the unlucky gambler is allowed to leave but not before promising reprisals from his criminal boss.

At this point, the movie is primed to put Scott and Kate through the wringer, and sure enough, Schaeffer confiscates the money they’ve made so far (none of which has gone to pay for Alex’s scholarship), and the unlucky gambler’s boss (Renner) turns up to kidnap Alex for ransom. There’s more, and it’s just as absurd and ridiculous as Scott being known as the Butcher for chopping a guy’s finger off (hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity). But by now it’s all completely and utterly irrelevant. The script is prepared to lurch in any direction it sees fit in its efforts to wring laughs out of its low-concept premise, and just when you think the world all this takes place in can’t possibly take one more hit of absurdity without collapsing in on itself, it rallies round and adds yet more nonsensical moments to the mix. If you take a step back and look at it all objectively, you can’t help but admire the effort that’s been put into making a movie that has such an obvious disregard for plausibility, and which is saying, loudly, this is what it is, so either deal with it or go home.

With all that in mind, a movie can be as crazy and subversive and wacky and as deliberately dumb-ass as it wants to be, but if it’s a comedy then it has to be funny. No amount of alternative reality building can compensate for a comedy that doesn’t raise the requisite number of laughs, and though it has its moments, The House is just not that funny. Partly because Ferrell and Poehler are rehashing the same schtick we’ve seen them do too many times elsewhere, and partly because Cohen (making his debut as a director), doesn’t have the skill to make the most of those scenes where laughter should be automatic and not haplessly manufactured. The fantasy world that Cohen and co-writer Brendan O’Brien have created should have given them enough ideas to pepper the script with enough one-liners, comical confrontations and physical gags to make this a laugh riot. Alas, there are too many dead spots, the performances are middling to bland (except for Mantzoukas and Huebel, who rescue the scenes they’re in by sheer dint of effort), and any attempts at consistent characterisation are, predictably, undermined by the demands of the script (which change every few scenes).

Rating: 4/10 – for viewers prepared to go along with its absurdist reality, The House is still a doubtful prospect in terms of getting a good return on your investment; brash and loud and with a clumsy approach to its basic premise, it’s a movie that squanders a lot of opportunities to be better than it is, and which shows that even in an alternative reality, it’s structure that’s really the key ingredient.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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D: Luc Besson / 137m

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki, Rutger Hauer

There’s a phrase, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, that needs an update. It should now read, “Beware of French movie directors making vanity projects”. A project that’s been on his mind to make since The Fifth Element (1997), Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets arrives trailing a cosmos-worth of hype and anticipation, but somehow manages to land with a massive, resounding thud. This is a movie that looks continuously busy, but at the same time it feels like it’s leaden and ponderous. It’s another loud barrage of a sci-fi movie driven by mounds of uninteresting exposition, and supported by empty visuals that look amazing but offer as much refreshment as an empty bottle of water. It’s a mess, and one that never lets up in its efforts to impress you with its meticulously detailed sets and costumes, and its tired characterisations. There’s a love story too, between two charismatic military operatives, Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), that offers occasional and all too brief periods of respite from the CGI onslaught, and which feels as organic as the pixelated backgrounds it plays in front of. And there’s a villain, one so obvious that they might as well stomp around yelling, “I’m the bad guy!” (in case the viewer isn’t sure).

There’s more, lots more, lots and lots and lots of it, with Besson aiming to include a veritable kitchen sink’s worth of alien species, high-tech weaponry, dazzling backdrops, vibrant colours, impressive make up designs, and specious action scenes. There’s a story in there too – somewhere – but it’s overwhelmed by the movie’s need to keep moving from one breakneck-paced scene to another. There are long stretches where the viewer might find themselves wondering if they’ve transitioned into watching the video game version of Valerian… and other stretches where they might also be wondering if Besson actually knows what’s supposed to happen next. Too often, things happen for no better reason than that Besson wants them to, and the pacing seems relentless, as the writer/director flings his lead characters into danger after danger, but without once actually putting them in danger.

The cast suffer almost as often and as much as the viewer. As the titular hero, DeHaan tackles the role with enthusiasm and a fair degree of commitment, but is hampered by Besson’s decision to make Valerian look and sound like a high school kid on his first day at an entry-level job. DeHaan is a talented actor but fantasy sci-fi is not his forte, and he rarely seems comfortable with all the running and leaping about and firing guns. Delevingne, meanwhile, appears to be far more in tune with Besson’s ambitions for the movie, and her knowing, unimpressed demeanour works well for the character, and acts as a subtle commentary on the movie as a whole. But too often, Laureline has to play second fiddle to Valerian, an unhappy circumstance that gives rise to the idea that in the 28th century, sexism still hasn’t been consigned to the dustbin of history.

There’s a great supporting cast, too, used to occasional good effect, but too often required to stand around waiting for the next clunking shift in the storyline to get them moving again. Owen’s character is an angry clown in a self-consciously big hat, Rihanna is a shapeshifting cabaret artist whose admittedly enjoyable stage routine still stops the movie dead in its tracks, Hawke (as Jolly the Pimp no less!) seems to be acting in another movie altogether, while Hauer gets off lightly with a Presidential address at the start of the movie that has all the hallmarks of being a favour to the director. Only Spruell as an harassed general seems to have grasped Besson’s intentions for his character, and as a result, his appearances are a godsend.

In case you’re wondering if there’s anything remotely good about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, then rest assured there is, but unfortunately it’s all packed into the first fifteen to twenty minutes. Here we see the International Space Station grow in size as several countries from Earth send representatives in space vehicles that attach themselves to the station. As time goes by, alien life-forms also visit the station, and the same welcoming rituals are observed: a handshake, a bemused smile/grimace from the human in charge, and a succession of impressively realised aliens who seemed equally bemused by the idea of said handshake. As more and more ships arrive and attach themselves, the space station becomes – ta-da! – Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. It’s a terrific idea, well executed, and bodes well for the rest of the movie. Things look even better when the narrative shifts to the planet Mül, and we’re introduced to the race that live there, a peaceful, pearl-cultivating civilisation that becomes central to the plot later on (as expected), and which is apparently wiped out by events happening nearby in space. But with that prologue out of the way, we’re thrust thirty years on and forced to put up with the romantic aspirations of Valerian, and the machinations of a plot that serves as a second cousin retread of Besson’s earlier work on The Fifth Element (watch that movie now and you’ll see how inter-connected they are).

When a director announces that they’re finally going to make a long-cherished project, and one that they’ve delayed making due to the limitations of existing technology, it should be a cause for celebration. After all, it wouldn’t be wrong to believe that as they have such a passion for the project, that they’d make every effort to ensure the finished product was a vast cut above their other movies, the pinnacle of their career perhaps. But somewhere along the way, Besson has settled for making a movie that is plodding and uninspired. Scenes and characters come and go without making the slightest impact, and Besson makes the same basic error that so many other fantasy/sci-fi directors make: they mistake a distinct visual style for substance. This leaves Valerian… feeling like it’s only half the movie Besson envisaged, and with a generic genre score by the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat to add to the misery, this is a strong contender for Most Disappointing Movie of 2017.

Rating: 4/10 – technical wizardry aside, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an unabashed dud, content to make as little effort as possible, and trading on its writer/director’s past glories; with its €197 million budget making it the most expensive European and independent movie ever made, it’s a shame that all that money has been used to such undemanding and underwhelming effect.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

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D: Jon Watts / 133m

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Michael Chernus, Logan Marshall-Green, Tyne Daly, Hannibal Buress, Jennifer Connelly

What must it have been like back at the tail end of 2014 and the start of 2015 if you were “in the know” at Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios, and were aware of what was about to happen to everyone’s favourite neighbourhood web-slinger? How exciting must that have been? If you were a fan of Spider-Man, just the anticipation that he might be coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was enough to send you into a giddy spell of mega proportions. And then to find out that not only was there going to be a new Spider-Man movie designed to bring him into the MCU, but that he was also going to make his first appearance in another movie within that Universe – well, it was like having Xmas every day (if you were a fan). And then to have that early appearance, in Captain America: Civil War (2016) no less, and for him to steal the movie – well, that was like having the best ice cream in the whole wide world, and with sprinkles on (but again, if you were a fan).

But what if you’re not a fan? What if the very idea of another Spider-Man reboot (the third in fifteen years) has all the attraction of a Liam Hemsworth movie? What if the idea of all that ice cream, with sprinkles on, holds no attraction at all? Well, if that’s the case then be assured: this is a Spider-Man movie that even non-fans can enjoy. And why? That’s the clever part. This is the first Spider-Man movie where the whole notion of “with great power comes great responsibility” is sidelined in favour of seeing Peter Parker struggle with the basics, and not some overwhelming sense of guilt over the death of his uncle, or his parents, or Mary Jane Watson (or even Norman Osborn). This is the first Spider-Man movie where the makers have done away with the more traditional origin story, and instead have got things started by accepting that we all know the story by now; so why bother? Why not just get on with it?

Which is exactly what happens, but cannily, not before a trip back to 2012 and the aftermath of the Battle of New York. There’s Chitauri technology all over the place, and salvage contractor Adrian Toombes (Keaton) has spotted a way of exploiting it in order to make a lot of money. But no sooner has he thought of it than he’s shut down by the US Department of Damage Control and forced to continue his plan to make weapons in secret. And before long, that plan is coming to fruition. Fast forward five years and high school student Peter Parker (Holland) still can’t believe he was involved in the airport scrap that took place in Berlin between Team Captain America and Team Iron Man. Still buzzing, Peter believes his involvement in that fight means he’s a member of the Avengers team, but Tony Stark (Downey Jr) has other ideas, and does his best to mentor Peter from a distance. But Peter is irrepressible (and naïve), and his determination to show Stark what he’s capable of inevitably backfires. When he inadvertently takes on some of the men that work for Toombes, it brings him to the attention of Toombes’ alter ego, The Vulture.

Peter decides it’s his mission to stop The Vulture from building and selling any more Chitauri-based weaponry, and one (future) classic scene where Peter and Toombes realise each other’s secret identities aside, the movie follows a predictable pattern before the inevitable superhero v supervillain showdown. But what makes the movie so charming and so enjoyable is both its backdrop and its setting: Peter’s first year in high school and all the trials and tribulations that follow in the wake of that teenage milestone. Already described as a superhero movie by way of John Hughes, Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the MCU paints a much more believable portrait of Peter Parker than we’ve seen in the previous five movies. By keeping Peter at the age he was when he developed his powers in the comics, Marvel have actually managed to breathe new life into the character and make him seem fresh and relevant, rather than  an angst-ridden science nerd with literally no friends. Here, Tom Holland’s incarnation is bright, overly enthusiastic, and immensely likeable (just like the movie). Holland perfectly captures the giddy sense of euphoria that comes from doing something so cool you want to shout from the rooftops about it – but know that you can’t. This is a Spider-Man who knows how to have fun (at last).

By focusing more on Peter’s attempts at fitting in, both in high school and in the wider world of superheroes, the script allows the audience to have a lot of fun at Peter’s expense. But then he is only fifteen, and he’s bound to make mistakes, whether from plain old exuberance or because he hasn’t built up his street smarts yet. Seeing him fail is more refreshing than expected, and a pivotal scene involving Stark and the loss of his Stark-created outfit highlights the true dilemma of being able to shoot webs and swing between tall buildings but not be able to talk to a girl. But again, it’s a happy dilemma because this is what the movie is all about: providing audiences with a surfeit of fun. Marvel know how to incorporate humour into their movies, but this may well be the first MCU movie that knows how to sustain that humour throughout, and round things off with the best end credits sting since Nick Fury first tried to recruit Tony Stark to some team he was trying to put together. This is a movie that is enjoyable and joyous at the same time, and proof that Marvel really do understand their characters better than anyone else (sorry Sony).

And for the first time since Loki we have a villain who has a credible motive for being the bad guy, and thanks to Keaton’s performance, he’s one we can have a degree of sympathy for. Toombes is about providing for and protecting his family, but though that’s an honourable sentiment, Keaton shows how that has become inexorably warped over the years, until his motives aren’t quite as clear-cut as when he began putting on the flying suit. Together, Holland and Keaton are terrific adversaries, and easily outshine the rest of the cast, who, to be fair, don’t stand out quite as well (though Batalon as Peter’s best friend, Ned, comes close). There’s the possibility of a romance for Peter with debate team captain, Liz (Harrier), that takes an unexpected turn, a series of action scenes that vary between broadly exciting and acceptable, competent direction from Watts that fares better away from said action scenes, a little too much moralising from Tony Stark, and a “get-to-know-your-suit” sequence which is possibly the movie’s true highlight. Smartly written – and by a team of six writers at that – this is the Spider-Man movie fans have been waiting for. Now, how about all you non-fans?

Rating: 8/10 – a giddy fun ride of a movie that can’t contain its own excitement about existing, Spider-Man: Homecoming adds another superhero to the MCU roster and does so with exuberance and no small amount of wit; you know Marvel have got a firm grip on things when the opening music cues reference the original Sixties animated series theme tune, and web-swinging in the suburbs brings its own measures of difficulty and danger.

The Wall (2017)

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D: Doug Liman / 89m

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli

We’re back in Black List territory again with The Wall, another screenplay that has gained a reputation of quality thanks to its inclusion on said list. A first-time script by playwright Dwain Worrell, the story has two US Army soldiers – Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (Cena), who is a sniper, and his spotter, Sergeant Allen Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) – on overwatch at a stretch of pipeline deep in the Iraqi desert in 2007. The team of contractors working on the pipeline have all been killed. Isaac thinks it’s the work of a highly skilled sniper, while Matthews isn’t so convinced. After twenty-two hours of waiting and watching, Matthews decides that it’s safe to come out of hiding and take a closer look. Closer inspection of the bodies reveals Isaac is right, but the knowledge comes too late; Matthews is shot and wounded. Isaac rushes to help him, but in the process he too is wounded, and he’s forced to take cover behind a flimsy wall built of bricks and mortar.

With Matthews lying prone out in the open, Isaac tries to radio for help but his antenna is busted. Soon, he receives a message over the duo’s comms system. At first it seems that the pair will be rescued, but Isaac is horrified to learn that the messenger is in fact an Iraqi sniper called Juba (Nakli), and the man responsible for the deaths of the pipeline workers, and his and Matthews’ injuries. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as Isaac tries to work out where exactly Juba is hidden, and how he can get himself and Matthews out of there alive. While he does, Juba engages him in conversation and tries to get inside Isaac’s head using information he’s gleaned from listening in on the duo’s chatter while they were on overwatch. In time, Isaac works out Juba’s location, but there are two problems: one, he needs a sniper rifle of his own to try and eliminate the Iraqi, and the only one available to him is out in the open alongside Matthews; and two, he needs to do so before the arrival of a rescue team Juba has tricked into coming…

Like any thriller that attempts to present audiences with a tough, uncompromising villain, The Wall stands or falls on just how tough and uncompromising said villain truly is. And at first it seems that Juba will fit the bill quite nicely. Shooting Matthews in the gut, and Isaac in the knee (deliberately), displays a sadistic quality that bodes well for any tension going forward, but it’s not long before the needs of the script ensure that this aspect is either played down, forgotten, or ignored in favour of the less than scintillating exchanges between Juba and Isaac that pepper around an hour of the movie’s running time. These exchanges range from being intriguing (why does Juba want to know about the scope that Isaac uses?) to existential (why is Isaac still in country?) to crushingly banal (who is the real terrorist?). The answer to all these questions are forthcoming but as these conversations continue, you begin to realise that by setting up the wait for the rescue team, Worrell hasn’t worked out just how to keep the interim period compelling enough to keep audiences interested in each step of the cat-and-mouse game that’s playing out.

Inevitably there’s a terrible secret that Isaac has been hiding, but by the time we get to it, it doesn’t have the impact that Worrell and Liman are hoping for, partly because it’s yet another occasion where someone in a stressful situation has something terrible to reveal about themselves – and how many times have we witnessed that particular scenario? – and partly because by the time it is revealed we don’t really care because it’s an attempt to add depth to a character that didn’t need it in the first place. It’s enough for Isaac to be in peril from a hidden sniper; we don’t need to know if he’s suffering from guilt or PTSD or any lingering childhood traumas that might stop him from surviving this encounter. All we need to know is: is he going to be clever enough to find a way out of his predicament and take out Juba? For the most part the answer is yes, but there’s too much unnecessary banter getting in the way. Sometimes, movie makers can’t see that a simple set up such as this one doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is. What we want to see bravery and ingenuity and determination under pressure. What we don’t want to see is our lead character going through a crisis of confidence every ten minutes.

Messrs Liman and Worrell would probably claim that they’re just adding to the tension, but in reality they’re allowing it to ebb and flow (mostly ebb), whereas if they just concentrated on ratcheting up the tension continuously and making the situation as unbearable as possible for viewers to watch, then their movie would be improved tremendously. This is definitely not the case here, with long stretches where Isaac propels himself backwards and forwards along the wall to little effect, and moments where the screen goes dark while he takes a nap. And Liman and Worrell don’t seem to have realised the obvious flaw in their presentation of Juba’s skill as a sniper. When he ambushes Isaac he fires three shots; all three have specific targets: Isaac’s radio antenna, his water bottle, and his right knee. And yet, there are numerous point of view shots through Juba’s scope that shows he couldn’t possibly have achieved those hits thanks to how blurry the image is. And later, when Isaac is finally pushed into making his move, Juba’s accuracy deserts him. Tough? Maybe. Uncompromising? Sometimes. As deadly as his reputation would have it? Hmmm…

Despite huge problems with the narrative, The Wall does have its good points. Liman is a great visual stylist and he makes the most of the desert location. He also moves the camera around to good effect, and in conjunction with editor Julia Bloch, ensures the movie has a rhythm that offsets some of the slower sections and keeps everything flowing. He elicits a good performance from Taylor-Johnson who anchors the movie without quite making the viewer entirely sympathetic toward him (you never feel the urge to shout “Go on, get the sonofabitch!” or anything similar during his time behind the wall), and who at least makes Isaac’s unhappy emotional and physical state more credible than it may look. Cena doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s becoming an actor for whom the perceived stigma of being a WWE Superstar no longer holds as much sway, and his is a solid portrayal. And Nakli uses his voice as a character all by itself and manages to display a convincing range of emotions without ever being seen. The movie as a whole is watchable despite its faults, but what it doesn’t do is draw you in completely and then leave you drained and breathless at the end.

Rating: 5/10 – lacking the consistency of tension that would have made it a more compelling and absorbing experience, The Wall never quite makes the most of its single setting and its minimal cast of characters; Liman manages to inject a degree of verve into proceedings, and the desert visuals are bleakly beautiful, but be warned, this is also a movie where the ending may leave you thinking, what the hell was the point of it all?

A Date for Mad Mary (2016)

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D: Darren Thornton / 79m

Cast: Seána Kerslake, Tara Lee, Charleigh Bailey, Denise McCormack, Siobhán Shanahan, Barbara Brennan

In recent years, Ireland has produced a slew of movies that have wowed audiences at film festivals around the world, won numerous awards, garnered heaps of critical praise, and shown that the country is capable of making smart, well-made, impressive movies on relatively small budgets but with bags of talent and ingenuity. In 2016 alone, Ireland brought us Sing Street, Love & Friendship, The Young Offenders, and South. And it also gave us A Date for Mad Mary, a movie about friendship, first love, and false assumptions. It’s a movie that takes a well established dramatic template – what happens when best friends stop being best friends – and fashions a winning narrative (itself based on the play 10 Dates with Mad Mary by Yasmine Akram), that proves to be a hugely enjoyable experience.

The Mad Mary of the title is Mary McArdle (Kerslake), recently released from a six month spell in prison. Her best friend is Charlene (Bailey), and all Mary can think about is seeing her as soon as she’s back in their home town of Drogheda. But Charlene is busy with her impending wedding (for which Mary is the maid of honour), and they don’t meet up until the next day. Charlene is a little reserved but blames it all on the preparations for the wedding. She asks Mary to make some of the arrangements, and then adds that she’s given away Mary’s plus one to someone else. Mary protests and Charlene relents, but this leaves Mary in a quandary: she doesn’t have a boyfriend, and doesn’t particularly want one, but as Charlene has inferred she won’t be able to find one, Mary is determined to find a man to go with her. While she sets about going on blind date after blind date, Mary meets Jess (Lee), an aspiring singer who also does wedding videos.

A chance encounter with Charlene leads to Mary telling her she has a man in her life, called John Carter. But he doesn’t exist, and Mary does her best to make him seem real, to the point of persuading a blind date to act as him when Charlene sees them together. Her plan backfires though, and Mary is back to square one. Meanwhile, she becomes friends with Jess, and starts spending time with her when Charlene keeps putting her off. Mary accompanies Jess on a weekend away at a wedding Jess is videoing, and the two become closer. Back in Drogheda, Mary’s behaviour begins to alienate both Jess and Charlene as she struggles to come to terms with her feelings for her old friend and her new one. Things go from bad to worse, and on the night before the wedding she and Charlene have a row that leads to Mary’s best friend telling her a few home truths, home truths that will either aid Mary in moving forward, or leave her powerless to overcome the behaviour that is holding her back.

A Date for Mad Mary is one of those movies that comes along and shows audiences just how easy it is to juggle comedy and drama at the same time, and with an apparent minimum of effort. Director Darren Thornton, along with his co-screenwriter and brother Colin, has done a marvellous job in adapting Akram’s one-woman play (which he also directed), and has opened it up with a keen eye that keeps the focus on Mary and her emotional journey. At the beginning Mary is akin to a tomboy, dressing in a way that de-emphasises her femininity, and wanting to go to clubs and drink a lot. She has a quick temper, and is even quicker to take offence. She can’t understand why Charlene doesn’t want to spend time with her, and can’t see that while she’s been in prison that Charlene no longer wants to indulge in drunken antics and foolish conduct. Mary believes that everything can and should continue as it did before she went to prison, but is missing what seems obvious: that Mary’s prison spell has been a wake-up call for Charlene.

Throughout these early sequences, with Mary being rebuffed by Charlene at every turn and only being included in the wedding preparations if it’s absolutely necessary (Charlene even writes Mary’s maid of honour speech for her), Mary begins to behave more and more like a jilted suitor, acting petulantly and showing her jealousy of Leona (Shanahan), Charlene’s bridesmaid (who does get to spend time with her). Switching her attention to Jess, Mary ends up on a journey of self-discovery, and in doing so, begins to understand that she has to make the same kind of changes that Charlene has. Again, this is a pretty standard template that Thornton has decided on, but it’s tackled with such understated verve that you can’t help but go along with it. Mary is someone we can all identify with, even if we’re nothing like her, because all she wants to do is belong, and being Charlene’s best friend is the only way she knows of achieving this. When Charlene rejects her, she has no way of dealing with the emotional fallout that overwhelms her. But Jess proves to be a welcome distraction…

It’s a measure of Thornton’s confidence in the material that the emerging relationship between Mary and Jess isn’t allowed to dominate the movie’s second half. Instead it plays out in much the way you’d expect but with a bittersweet poignancy that reflects both women’s sense of being alone (though for very different reasons). Mary’s friendship with Charlene remains front and centre, and thanks to both the material and some exemplary work from Kerslake and Bailey, their beleaguered relationship never feels forced or contrived. Kerslake is terrific as Mary, balancing a deep-rooted vulnerability behind a solidly defensive exterior and taking no prisoners when she feels the need to. It’s a role that requires Kerslake to soften gradually and open up more and more, and she achieves this with such acuity and precision that it seems like the most natural progression in the world, and better still, one that you’re not even aware of until it’s happened.

Rating: 8/10 – a comedy drama that is successful in both departments (and then some), A Date for Mad Mary makes a virtue of its familiar set up and provides viewers with enough genuine laughs (particularly one involving Mary’s mother and a sniper) and moments of pathos to keep anyone satisfied; assembled with obvious love, care and attention by Thornton and his very talented cast and crew, it’s a movie that sneaks up on you and makes you oh so thankful that you’ve seen it.

Dunkirk (2017)

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D: Christopher Nolan / 106m

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, James D’Arcy

NOTE: This review is based on an IMAX screening of the movie.

At one point during Christopher Nolan’s visually and sonically impressive ode to British heroism, Mark Rylance’s stoic Mr Dawson says, “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?” It’s a rare moment of unexpected criticism (of the war) in a movie that celebrates the British determination to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat on the beaches at Dunquerke (through Operation Dynamo), and which does so in spectacular style. It’s one of a number of awkward moments where Nolan the writer appears to realise that he needs to be a commentator as well as an observer of events, and that he needs to add some much needed depth to proceedings. It’s also a moment that’s indicative of a greater problem with the movie as a whole: it doesn’t engage with the audience as much as it should do.

Nolan has gone on record to say that his idea for Dunkirk wasn’t to make a war movie but to make a suspense thriller, to take the three strands of land, sea and air and amalgamate them by the end of the movie into one combined incident. It’s typical of Nolan’s fondness for non-linear narratives, and he orchestrates the three different time frames – land: one week, sea: one day, air: one hour – with great skill and ingenuity, but amidst all the technical wizardry, the human element is left just as stranded as the Allied troops were back in 1940. Considering the scale of the evacuation, it’s hard to understand why Nolan decided to leave out such a crucial aspect. Thanks to the narrative decisions he’s made, the characters we do meet rarely make an impact, with patronym Tommy (Whitehead) suffering the most. Right from the start, where we see him fleeing from a barrage of gunfire and his comrades dropping like flies around him, and through all the travails he endures along the way, he’s a character we never fully identify or sympathise with. He’s a cypher in uniform, and Nolan never really introduces us to him.

The same goes for Hardy as RAF pilot Farrier. Once more hidden behind a mask that obscures his lower face, Hardy’s expression barely changes from scene to scene; he either looks determined or very determined. Alas, this isn’t enough to provide audiences with a character to identify with or relate to, and it’s only his heroic manner (which is shared by all but one other character) that allows us to appreciate him. Of all the characters we meet, only Rylance as the quietly resolute Mr Dawson and Branagh as Commander Bolton, overseer of the evacuation at Dunquerke itself, make much of an impact but that’s entirely due to their skill and experience as actors. It’s a shame that Nolan couldn’t have fleshed out his characters more; what’s the point of employing actors of the calibre of Murphy and Hardy when you’re not going to give them much to do?

For a movie maker of Nolan’s stature, this is an unfortunate approach, and it leaves the movie in danger of becoming just an empty spectacle. Nolan has put a lot of time and effort into ensuring his take on the evacuation is as realistically mounted as possible, with a minimal use of CGI and the majority of practical effects being done in camera, and shooting on the very same beaches at Dunquerke. Thankfully this verisimilitude pays off handsomely, with Nolan’s standing as one of the most technically and visually gifted directors of his generation confirmed for all to see. There’s no room for doubt: Dunkirk is a stunning visual experience. Nolan wanted to give audiences the most immersive movie experience possible (albeit in the IMAX format) and he’s succeeded magnificently. Whether it’s on the beach, on the water, or in the air, Nolan, along with DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema, ensures that the viewer is thrust into the thick of things, whether it’s amongst a group of soldiers hemmed in on a jetty while German Stukas strafe them, or Tommy and some of his fellow soldiers stuck below decks in a torpedoed ship, or the cockpit of Farrier’s Spitfire, all these scenes and many more have an immediacy and a visceral intensity that is breathtaking to watch. On these occasions, the movie truly is an immersive experience, and Nolan’s ambition is fully realised.

But if Dunkirk looks visually astonishing, then it’s surpassed by its sound design. Every rifle shot and bullet hit, every creak and warp of timber on the boats, every burst and spin of the fighter planes is delivered with such clarity and impact that it adds an extra layer to the immersive nature of the material, and in IMAX 6-track format it’s even more impressive. There are details in the mix that are remarkably subtle as well, such as the different engine sounds of the small ships as they approach Dunquerke, or the trudge of footsteps across the beach. This is attention to detail taken to an almost obsessive degree, and the movie is all the better for it, creating a soundscape that highlights and dominates events shown, and which in terms of fidelity, sets a new benchmark.

Ultimately though (and a little unfortunately), what Nolan has devised and created is a movie that offers an unparalleled viewing and listening experience but which has moments where it seems to be saying, “look at this, isn’t that spectacular?” You can almost imagine a reporter turning to a newsreel cameraman and asking, a la Die Hard (1988), “Tell me you got that.” Nolan can perhaps be forgiven for a little grandstanding, or a little showing off from time to time, but when these moments occur they have the effect of taking the viewer out of the movie and reminding them that what they’re watching isn’t always as immersive as planned. What’s also distracting at times is Hans Zimmer’s score for the movie, which uses Nolan’s own pocket watch as a musical template for much of the tension that’s generated, though it’s a motif that’s over-used. It’s a divisive score, hugely effective on some occasions, an unfortunate pall over proceedings at others, but at least Zimmer stops short of making it all too triumphant and imperialistic – and that adds to the overall effect tremendously.

Rating: 7/10 – aside from some questionable narrative decisions, and restrictions around getting to know the characters, Dunkirk is the year’s most ambitious, and most mature, summer blockbuster; an incredible technical achievement by Nolan, the movie is a visual and aural tour-de-force, a feat of movie making that’s unlikely to be equalled or bettered any time in the near future, and which may well be Nolan’s best movie so far… oh, hang on, no, that’s still The Dark Knight (2008).

10 Reasons to Remember Jeanne Moreau (1928-2017)

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Jeanne Moreau (23 January 1928 – 31 July 2017)

What to say about Jeanne Moreau? Quite simply, she was the most exquisitely gifted actress of her generation, another in a long line of French actresses for whom giving a bad performance seems an impossibility. She began her career in 1947 at the Comédie-Française, and worked steadily both in the theatre and in small roles on the big screen, making a name for herself and building a reputation for excellent work that she maintained all the way through to her final movie appearance in 2015 (and despite those early movie roles failing to bring her much success). It was the first of four collaborations with Louis Malle, Lift to the Scaffold (1958), that brought her to the attention of a wider, international audience. It proved to be the spark that lit the fuse on a tremendous run of movies throughout the Sixties, a period where her status as a forceful screen presence was cemented. She could be mysterious, sexy, aloof, fearless, carefree, and unassailably pragmatic – all these things and more. But above all she could always find the emotional core, and the honesty of a character, and use these to give a flawless, mesmerising performance.

She was in demand constantly throughout her career, and worked with some of the most accomplished directors the world over, including François Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, François Ozon, Manoel de Oliveira, and Orson Welles, who considered her “the greatest actress in the world”. Throughout her career it was always the case that directors sought her out rather than the other way round. She was a fervent collaborator, giving of her best when encouraged and supported by directors such as Luis Buñuel, who she regarded as the father she never had (she also married William Friedkin in 1977, though their marriage only lasted for two years). Away from acting she was also a singer, and released several albums over the years. But her true love was acting, and at that she was simply inspirational, which makes the fact that she was never nominated for an Oscar all the more inexplicable. A true original, she leaves behind a body of work that will continue to reward viewers for decades more to come.

1 – Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

2 – The Lovers (1958)

3 – Seven Days… Seven Nights (1960)

4 – Jules et Jim (1962)

5 – Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

6 – Viva Maria! (1965)

7 – The Bride Wore Black (1968)

8 – Querelle (1982)

9 – The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (1991)

10 – Time to Leave (2005)

Person to Person (2017)

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D: Dustin Guy Defa / 84m

Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Bene Coopersmith, George Sample III, Philip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Mchaela Watkins, Olivia Luccardi, Ben Rosenfield, Buddy Duress

Ensemble movies have to play things very carefully. There are so many boxes to tick – quirky but relatable characters, humorous/dramatic scenarios as required, switching between them if necessary, maybe connecting each in an organic way, creating an interesting environment – all these things and more have to be taken into consideration before the cameras even start rolling. Pity the poor writer/director who takes on such a project and isn’t fully prepared from the word Go. And pity the poor viewer who settles down to watch such a project with a great deal of anticipation. Because not only do ensemble movies have to play things very carefully, they also have to be credible.

Person to Person is an ensemble movie where several of the tick boxes mentioned above remain resolutely unticked from start to finish. Partly because whatever writer/director Dustin Guy Defa’s message is, it’s obscured by the bland characters on display, the lack of any real humour or drama (even though a potential murder occupies the attention of two of the characters), and certain scenes that are so leadenly paced that ennui is likely to seep in before they come to an end. This is a movie to watch with one eye open, while the other takes a well-earned rest. It’s sluggish, gives us dramatic scenarios that don’t ring true, and introduces us to a slew of self-absorbed malcontents and socially awkward worriers.

First up is Bene (Coopersmith), a middle-aged jazz fan and collector who has his sights set on buying a rare red vinyl LP by Charlie Parker. At the same time, Bene’s best friend, Ray (Sample III), is staying with him after breaking up with his girlfriend, Janet, but he just sits on the sofa doing nothing. Bene encourages him to get up and go out, even if it’s just around the block. Meanwhile, there’s Wendy (Gevinson), a waif-like teen with a waspish, anti-everything stance that hides a desperate need to be liked, and more importantly, loved (but of course she doesn’t know how to commit to anyone or trust them). She spends time with her best friend, Melanie (Luccardi), but Melanie is more interested in talking about her boyfriend than listening to Wendy’s tirades about life, love and relationships. And then there’s newbie journalist Claire (Jacobson), working her first day and teamed up with her editor, Phil (Cera), to report on a potential murder. She’s nervous and unsure if this is the right job for her, while he’s doing his best to impress her into sleeping with him. The police investigation leads them to a watch repairer called Jimmy (Hall), and the victim’s wife (Watkins). And while all this is happening, Ray leaves Bene’s apartment and attempts to make things right between himself and Janet, but soon finds that he’s being tracked down by her brother, Buster (Whitlock Jr), who wants to break both his legs (in a particularly misguided moment, Ray uploaded naked pictures of Janet onto the Internet).

These are the stories that Defa has assembled for Person to Person, and though they all prove superficially engaging, by the time the movie struggles over the finishing line by having Phil thump his desk in self-pity and frustration, Bene attend a party with his girlfriend, Claire go home to her cat, Wendy standing alone on a sidewalk, Ray breaking down in front of Janet, and everyone else left in limbo, the only true resolution the movie offers is connected to the possible murder. It’s a narrative decision that feels awkward when you think about it, and feels even more awkward when you see it. Defa wants to show his audience the various problems that disparate people can face every day in New York (another character that isn’t best served by Defa’s screenplay). But the problem with that lies in the stories he wants to tell. Claire is ostensibly the most sympathetic character, but she’s also the most wishy-washy, apologetic character you’re ever likely to meet in an indie dramedy. Bene, at first, appears quite switched on and self-aware but then he frets about a new shirt he’s bought, and he does it all day long and to anyone who’ll listen.

These quirks (and others) are meant to endear the viewer to the characters, but therein lies another problem: the characters aren’t that likeable or too sympathetic. Watching them go through their day so totally wrapped up in themselves isn’t all that interesting, and Defa has trouble convincing us that we should care about them. They may all be misfits to one degree or another, but that doesn’t auomatically give them a free pass to our understanding and appreciation. Even the cast, which is very talented indeed, can’t elevate the material to any level where the viewer might become more involved or more intrigued or more interested. Only Hall, who’s been around too long to let a character get away from him, makes anything of his role, and he’s appropriately subdued. Elsewhere, the likes of Gevinson and Coopersmith are stuck portraying characters you’d cross the street to avoid, and Cera brings his usual schtick to a role that requires less schlep and more chutzpah (though the sight of Cera pretending to be a metalhead is funny all by itself).

Thankfully, the one good decision Defa has made is to keep it brief. At eighty-four minutes the movie is not a minute too long, but even then there are times when it feels longer, as when Claire has to attempt an interview with just about anyone. These are meant to be comic moments, but they lack the kind of humorous resonance that would instill laughter in an audience, and instead just look painfully awkward, both for the character and the actor or actress. That said, Defa has been fortunate in obtaining the services of DoP Ashley Connor, who gives the movie a polished look that makes it feel bright and airy, while also using close ups to good effect. But all in all, this is a movie that doesn’t even manage to get even halfway to being as good as it could be.

Rating: 4/10 – with too much room for improvement, Person to Person fails to engage and fails to impress, leaving the viewer with little to do but sit back and hope things improve (which they don’t); there’s the germ of a good idea buried somewhere deep inside Defa’s screenplay, but the execution does the material no favours, and the end result is entirely disappointing.

Monthly Roundup – July 2017

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The Hatton Garden Job (2017) / D: Ronnie Thompson / 93m

Cast: Matthew Goode, Phil Daniels, Larry Lamb, Clive Russell, David Calder, Joely Richardson, Stephen Moyer, Mark Harris, Jack Doolan

Rating: 6/10 – a group of aging ex-cons decide to rob an underground safe deposit facility in London’s Hatton Garden, but find that too many interested parties want in on the job, and the proceeds; based on the actual robbery that occurred in April 2015, The Hatton Garden Job is a light-hearted, and often lightweight version of actual events, but gets by thanks to some winning performances, a sense that it’s all too, too implausible, and a broad sense of humour that suits the material well enough despite its low budget origins.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) / D: Niki Caro / 126m

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Timothy Radford, Val Maloku, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas

Rating: 4/10 – at the outbreak of World War II, the Warsaw Zoo, run by Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Chastain, Heldenbergh), is commandeered by the Nazis, but it becomes a hiding place for Jews, and an even more dangerous place without its animals; a true story undone by telling it across the whole course of the war, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a turgid, painfully dull movie that is only sporadically interesting and which wastes the talents of its cast by making their characters’ plight seem like its been lifted from an unsuccessful soap opera.

Day of the Mummy (2014) / D: Johnny Tabor / 77m

Cast: Danny Glover, William McNamara, Andrea Monier, Eric Young, Philip Marlatt, Michael Cortez, Brandon deSpain

Rating: 4/10 – an archaeological trip into the Egyptian desert in search of a lost tomb sees its members at the mercy of a mummy, while they try and find a sacred stone said to be worth millions; a found-footage movie that like most doesn’t know how to make the most of the format, Day of the Mummy stretches its audience’s patience at every turn, and literally reduces Glover’s role to the bottom left hand corner of the screen, something that could be construed as “video-phoning” in his performance.

Security (2017) / D: Alain Desrochers / 92m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Ben Kingsley, Liam McIntyre, Gabriella Wright, Chad Lindberg, Cung Le, Katharine de la Rocha, Jiro Wang

Rating: 5/10 – ex-Army veteran Eddie (Banderas) takes a night security job at a mall, and on his first night, finds himself fighting off a band of mercenaries hired to kill the teenage girl who’s taken refuge there; another Die Hard rip-off (when will they stop coming?), Security does have committed performances from Banderas and Kingsley as hero and villain respectively, but lacks sufficient invention to make this anything other than a pale echo of similar and better movies.

Quincannon, Frontier Scout (1956) / D: Lesley Selander / 84m

aka Frontier Scout

Cast: Tony Martin, Peggie Castle, John Bromfield, John Smith, Ron Randell, John Doucette, Morris Ankrum, Peter Mamakos, Edmund Hashim

Rating: 6/10 – when the Army discovers someone is selling rifles to the Indians, it’s down to experienced scout Quincannon (Martin) to get to the bottom of it all; while there’s nothing new here, thanks to Selander’s astute direction, Quincannon, Frontier Scout zips along at a decent pace and delivers on its basic premise, but not even Selander can mitigate for a pretty awful performance from Martin, a singer who really should have ignored his agent on this one.

Cars 3 (2017) / D: Brian Fee / 102m

Cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt

Rating: 6/10 – Lightning McQueen’s days on the race track are numbered, but only he doesn’t get it, until racing for a new team begins to show him that there’s more to life than being Number One; Pixar redeem themselves somewhat after the complete and utter disaster that was Cars 2, but this is still tepid stuff that struggles to make the impact it needs, leaving Cars 3 looking nostalgic for the first movie, and trading on that movie’s glories to make itself look good.

Girls Trip (2017) / D: Malcolm D. Lee / 122m

Cast: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Mike Colter, Kate Walsh, Larenz Tate, Deborah Ayorinde

Rating: 6/10 – self-help guru Ryan (Hall) decides it’s time that she and her three best friends (Latifah, Smith, Haddish) should reconnect while in New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, but having a good time proves more difficult than she, or they, could have ever imagined; yet another female-centric variation of The Hangover, Girls Trip wants to be raunchy and out there (the urination scene), but ends up instead as a warm and fuzzy ode to sisterhood that conforms to expectations, but is rescued by the committed performances of the “girls” themselves.

47 Meters Down (2017) / Johannes Roberts / 89m

Cast: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine, Chris Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago Segura

Rating: 6/10 – two sisters (Moore, Holt) on vacation in Mexico find themselves stranded in a shark cage at the titular depth, and they only have an hour to save themselves before their oxygen runs out; better than it sounds thanks to Roberts’ hand on the tiller, 47 Meters Down isn’t beyond making some silly mistakes (let’s have Modine’s captain recite the perils of nitrogen narcosis – twice), being too repetitive once on the sea bed, and building up tension only to allow it to dissipate to no great effect.

July Was Catch Up Month

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Another month, another batch of movies, and all ticked off my movie bucket list. I aimed for thirty-one and achieved twenty-nine, and found time for a bunch of others. As the Queen song asks, Was It All Worth It. And the answer is… yes, but with reservations. Catching up on movies that you’ve put off watching – sometimes for years – is all very well in terms of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, but when the majority prove that not watching them in the first place was a good decision, then maybe it’s not as good an idea as it seems. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the experience, and I now have a few more favourites going forward that I didn’t have before – step forward Enough Said, Porco Rosso, and Murder on a Sunday Morning – but the urge to get back to more recent movies has grown almost overwhelming.

That said, I did go to the cinema quite regularly in July and saw most of the new releases (reviews to follow), but as usual some were bad, some were okay, and some were good/very good. But it’s still the less multiplex-friendly movies that attract my attention, and I can’t wait to get back to watching movies that may not be seen by the majority of people, but which can often offer greater rewards than you might think. And every now and then I’ll still sneak in an older movie (maybe even a few bucket list movies) into the mix. With so many movies out there, why restrict ourselves to ones released just in the last twelve months?

10 Reasons to Remember Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

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Sam Shepard (5 November 1943 – 27 July 2017)

If Sam Shepard had never gone into acting, he still would have left a lasting legacy in so many other areas. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, an author, a screenwriter, an occasional drummer during the late Sixties with The Holy Modal Rounders, and a two-time movie director. And he co-wrote the Bob Dylan song, Brownsville Girl. Shepard was a true virtuoso, comfortable in a variety of disciplines and able to excel in pretty much all of them.

He made a name for himself in the Sixties, writing a series of plays that won him award after award and a degree of brand-name recognition. He had a way of depicting the emotional and psychological lives of “normal” people in a way that was sincere and affecting, and several of his plays were adapted into movies, often to critical acclaim. He continued to write plays and work in the theatre even though he could have settled into acting as a single career, but Shepard always seemed to be a restless man who was always looking to be creative. As an actor, Shepard was often a calm, purposeful presence in his movies, portraying men of honour and sincerity, and his quiet, stoic demeanour was always a plus. He appeared in supporting roles for the most part, but showed when he was given a leading role that he could carry a movie and often with an ease that some of his more experienced peers couldn’t match. But even though he had tremendous skill as an actor, an innate quality that was unique to him, he didn’t quite see it that way. Let’s leave the last word to Shepard (he’d probably have appreciated it): “I didn’t go out of my way to get into this movie stuff. I think of myself as a writer.”

1 – Days of Heaven (1978)

2 – Resurrection (1980)

3 – The Right Stuff (1983)

4 – Fool for Love (1985)

5 – Crimes of the Heart (1986)

6 – Thunderheart (1992)

7 – Don’t Come Knocking (2005)

8 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

9 – Brothers (2009)

10 – Blackthorn (2011)