Freak Show (2017)

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D: Trudie Styler / 91m

Cast: Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Larry Pine, Bette Midler, Celia Weston, Willa Fitzgerald, Charlotte Ubben, Laverne Cox, Christopher Dylan White, Michael Park, Mickey Sumner, John McEnroe, Eddie Schweighardt

What if you didn’t fit in anywhere, and most days went out of your way not to fit in? And what if you were bullied by your fellow high schoolers, ignored by your father, missed your absentee mother terribly, and expressed your inner feelings by dressing up in outrageous yet clearly female outfits… and the source of all this was because you’re a boy? How would all that make you feel? And what would you do to combat the unwanted attention you’re getting from the other students? Well, in the feature debut of director Trudie Styler, the answer new kid Billy Bloom (Lawther) opts for is to be bolder and more outrageous, and to treat the majority of the other kids with disdain. But for all his outward self-confidence, Billy is still the outsider who wants to be accepted for who he is. The trouble is he’s flamboyant, shamelessly narcissistic, and completely uninterested in fitting in unless it’s on his own terms. But when he’s viciously beaten up by members of the school football team, things begin to edge his way, and a wider acceptance makes itself felt, an acceptance that is put to the test when Billy decides to run for Homecoming Queen…

Anyone coming to Freak Show might find themselves wondering if its origins lay between the pages of a Young Adult novel, and those assumptions would be right. Adapted from the novel of the same name by self-styled celebutante James St. James, Freak Show is a movie predicated to the idea of individuality above all else, and being true to yourself, even if you’re not sure just who you are yet. It’s an ode to persevering against the odds, but told in an uneven and often uncertain way thanks to a screenplay by Patrick J.Clifton and Beth Rigazio that can’t decide if Billy should fully integrate into high school life or remain a consenting outsider. Outside of school, Billy lives with his father (Pine) who doesn’t understand him, and he dreams of the day his mother (Midler) will come to rescue him from the terrible life he really doesn’t lead. Within school, Billy makes friends with Blah Blah Blah (Robb), who thinks he’s amazing, and football star Flip (Nelson) who has an artistic side he doesn’t feel he can express except when he’s around Billy.

The relationship that develops between Billy and Flip occupies a lot of the movie’s running time, and it spends a lot of that time not going where you might expect it to (but then it does). It’s not always handled well, and there’s a frankly embarrassing moment between Flip and Billy’s mother that has all the dramatic subtlety of a police baton strike to the lower right thigh (sorry, wrong movie). Billy’s decision to run for Homecoming Queen includes the movie’s heartfelt plea for tolerance, and though it’s beautifully expressed by Lawther, the movie tries to be ironic immediately after – and doesn’t even come close. With the screenplay also unable to pin down its approach to gender politics, it’s left to Lawther and the make up, costume and wardrobe departments to provide a series of outfits that best express Billy’s glamour obsessed personality, and in doing so to gloss over the movie’s various shortcomings, not the least of which is Breslin’s God-bothering rival for the Homecoming Queen tiara, Lynette. It is Lawther’s movie though, the young actor giving a relaxed, confident, and sincere performance that keeps Billy sympathetic throughout, even when it’s hard to feel entirely sorry for him.

Rating: 6/10 – bolstered by a terrific performance from Lawther, but hampered at the same time by so many high school movie clichés it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, Freak Show is at least funny when it’s trying to be, but tiresome when it’s trying to be serious; with its mixed messages centering around individuality and integration, the movie is only half as effective as it should be, and too often opts for warm and fuzzy when it should be direct and uncomfortable.

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A Brief Word About the BAFTA’s 2018 Director Award

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Can someone – anyone – please explain this to me? While it’s great to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri win five awards – Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Leading Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay – how does it compute that Martin McDonagh didn’t nab the Director award as well? With all due respect to Guillermo del Toro, how does he win the award when The Shape of Water is only recognised in two other categories (Original Music, Production Design)? If we accept the auteur theory – which certainly applies to both McDonagh and del Toro in these instances – then splitting their movie’s achievements seems ridiculous. But even if we don’t accept the auteur theory then it still doesn’t make sense. How can the director of the movie that’s acknowledged as the Best of an entire year lose out to the director of another movie that doesn’t receive that same accolade?

Perhaps it’s a bit like those Lifetime Achievement awards that the Oscars give out. You know the ones, where someone who’s never won an Oscar is given an honorary one as a soft apology for not being recognised sooner (or before they die). Perhaps it’s out of some random idea of fair play, a sense that it would be somehow awful if one movie swept the board so completely. Or perhaps – and maybe this is the worst of all – it’s all arbitrary, and instead of full consideration being given to each director’s individual merits in relation to the movie they’ve made, it’s purely the luck of the draw. (Yes, I know each category is voted for, but still, really…?)

If I were Martin McDonagh, and I was given the opportunity to reveal my true deep-down feelings about losing to Guillermo del Toro, then I would be saying, “What the f#@k happened? What the holy f#@k just happened?” I would be checking with my lawyer to see if I could sue BAFTA and anyone who had a hand in del Toro’s victory, and I would be erecting three billboards of my own outside 195 Piccadilly, London: 1) Snatched while watching, 2) And still no questions?, and then 3) How come, BAFTA?

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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D: Angela Robinson / 108m

Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, JJ Feild, Oliver Platt, Chris Conroy, Alexa Havins

The creation of Wonder Woman, or at least, the source of her creation, is the kind of story that should be filed under “so incredible it must be true”. And that’s exactly right. Wonder Woman was the lasso-twirling, tiara-wearing brainchild of ex-Harvard faculty member William Moulton Marston (Evans), a psychology professor who also invented the systolic blood pressure cuff used with lie detectors (though he forgot to patent it). Wonder Woman was born out of Marston’s belief that women could only truly be happy by “submitting to a loving authority”, i.e. a husband. As a result, the early Wonder Woman comic strips were full of scenes of bondage, domination and spanking, with the majority of the female characters passively accepting their situations. Some of this was due to the structure of Marston’s private life. He was married to Elizabeth (Hall), also a professor of psychology, and they in turn lived with a research assistant of Marston’s who became their joint lover, Olive Byrne (Heathcote). Both women had children by Marston, and for a number of years their living arrangements went unquestioned. This polyamorous relationship led to Marston’s creation of the Amazonian princess, but even though the Wonder Woman comic strip was enormously popular, its content ensured that it would fall under the spotlight of Josette Frank (Britton) and the Child Study Association of America, and find itself at risk of public censure…

In telling Marston’s story, and that of Elizabeth and Olive, Angela Robinson’s earnest biopic relates a story of a ménage à trois that succeeded on its own terms, and in flagrant defiance of the societal norms of the period. This is the movie’s focus: not the creation of Wonder Woman, but the creation of a three-way relationship that withstood both internal and external pressures, the addition of children (four in total), long periods where Marston was reliant on his writing to bring in money (Elizabeth was a better breadwinner), and which did so because of the trio’s commitment to each other (though inevitably, there’s a blip). Robinson’s screenplay is firmly on the side of Marston and his two Wonder Women, and the personal and sexual explorations they undertook in order to make their relationship work, and if there isn’t too much in the way of judgment or objective criticism about the nature of their private lives, then it doesn’t hurt the story overall. But there are moments where the narrative seems in need of a dramatic push, and Robinson obliges accordingly.

But this is a movie about feelings, and emotions, and the best way of expressing them. Refreshingly, and aside from a closing scene in a hospital room that seems to go on for far too long (see if you think someone should have come in at some point), the characters make their points succinctly and quickly before moving on the next, and despite some occasionally clunky expository dialogue, the cast all give strong, skillful performances. It’s good to see Evans taking on a more meatier role than of late, and he expertly navigates the twin poles of Marston’s personality, aiming for dominance in his public and working lives, while being submissive in private. Hall is terrific as Elizabeth, hiding her vulnerability and insecurities behind a fearsome exterior, and Heathcote is equally impressive as Olive, the young woman neither Marston nor his wife can live without. As a framing device, Marston’s meeting with Frank doesn’t always tie up with what amount to flashbacks of his life up until then, but it does give the viewer a better understanding of Marston’s views on relationships and submission and all areas in between. This is a movie that’s unafraid to explore issues surrounding marriage and polygamy and notions of what constitutes individual pleasure, and in doing so proves itself to be intelligent and thought-provoking, though a little too matter-of-fact in its approach.

Rating: 7/10 – purposeful and intense for the most part, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women plays it straight, and in doing so, does justice to its trio of lead characters and their unconventional lifestyles; Bryce Fortner’s cinematography adds a layer of nostalgia to things, and Robinson is to be congratulated for interpreting Marston’s life in such a way that the majority of the movie remains plausible if not always entirely convincing.

The Scent of Rain & Lightning (2017)

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D: Blake Robbins / 103m

Cast: Maika Monroe, Mark Webber, Will Patton, Maggie Grace, Justin Chatwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Aaron Poole, Brad Carter, Logan Miller, Kassia Conway, Sarah Noble Peck

A small town murder mystery with an arthouse feel, The Scent of Rain & Lightning opens with bad news for Jody Linder (Monroe): Billy Croyle (Carter), the man who was jailed for killing her parents, Laurie and Hugh (Grace, Chatwin), twelve years before has had his sentence commuted and is being released from prison. Understandably, Jody and the rest of her family – grandfather ‘Senior’ (Patton), grandmother Annabelle (Bedelia), uncles Chace (Webber) and Meryl (Poole) – aren’t too happy about this, but when Jody confronts Croyle and he accuses ‘Senior’ of getting the verdict he wanted, as well as denying he killed her parents, Jody begins to ask questions around town, questions that make her believe that not everything about her parents’ deaths is as cut and dried as she’s been led to believe. As the town – and her family – start to give up their secrets, Jody is forced to accept that the answers she’s looking for may lie closer to home. But then a senseless act of violence occurs, one that puts Jody in danger, and which threatens her family as well…

A slow burn thriller that looks and feels like an arthouse movie, The Scent of Rain & Lightning (adapted from the novel of the same name by Nancy Pickard) doesn’t offer anything new for viewers with a liking for small town murder mysteries, but it does provide a non-linear narrative that interweaves Jody’s somewhat random approach to investigating her parents’ deaths, with flashbacks to the events that led up to the murders, and finally, what actually happened. These flashbacks are necessary, as Jody proves to be the Rick Deckard of small town murder mysteries, and never learns anything of real value. Thankfully, while she’s looking for answers, the script by Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison (also two of the movie’s producers) keeps the viewer up to speed with what happened, why, how, and who was responsible. It makes for an uneven narrative, with neither strand complementing each other, or finding common moments where they might connect effectively, and as a result, it’s a movie that often feels like it’s been stitched together Frankenstein Monster-style, with no clear idea of which part goes with which. This also leaves some scenes feeling a little lost, or there just to pad out the running time.

Performance-wise, the movie is a bit of a mixed bag also. None of the characters are particularly well developed, and Jody’s expected character arc fizzles out around two thirds in. Monroe, a very talented young actress who’s still looking for that perfect follow up to her breakout role in It Follows (2014), hasn’t much to do beyond ask awkward questions and have those questions go unanswered. As the movie progresses, her role diminishes further and further, and the need to solve the mystery takes precedence. This brings Grace’s character to the fore, but Laurie and her secret prove to be very stereotypical, which leaves any emotional connection the viewer might be looking to make as unlikely as Kevin Spacey winning a Best Supporting Actor award at this year’s Oscars. Elsewhere, the likes of Patton, Bedelia and Poole flit in and out of the narrative, while Webber struggles to make his character ambivalent enough to be considered a viable suspect. Robbins, making his second feature (and appearing as the town sheriff), opts for a muted visual style that is at least atmospheric, but which doesn’t elevate the material, and there are too many occasions where the image is refracted through water as if it has an important psychological resonance.

Rating: 5/10 – with two narrative strands that work independently of each other, and a sense that no amount of screenplay jiggery-pokery could have brought them together, The Scent of Rain & Lightning lacks the impact needed to make its mystery elements work, and its small town milieu appropriately claustrophobic; disappointing then – though not unwatchable – it’s another indie thriller that tries hard to be different while forgetting that it’s using very basic materials to begin with.

Entanglement (2017)

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D: Jason James / 85m

Cast: Thomas Middleditch, Jess Weixler, Diana Bang, Randal Edwards, Marilyn Norry, Eric Keenleyside, Johannah Newmarch, Jena Skodje, Shauna Johannesen

When we first meet Ben Layten (Middleditch), he’s trying to kill himself. He’s recently divorced, increasingly depressed, and all alone. But death isn’t going to let him off so easily, and despite cutting his wrists, Ben survives. As he begins to get his life back on track, he learns he almost had a sister: his parents (Norry, Keenleyside), believing they wouldn’t have children of their own, had adopted a baby girl. But on the very day the baby was given to them, Ben’s mother discovered she was pregnant. The baby was returned for adoption, Ben was born nine months later, and now Ben has a mission: to find his near-sister and see how she’s turned out, and if he’s lucky, to establish a brother-sister relationship with her. His search leads him to Hanna Weathers (Weixler), a free-spirited young woman who slowly brings Ben out of his shell. In the process, Ben begins to find more and more reasons to continue living, and ways of putting the past behind him. But then he learns a truth about Hanna that challenges his perception of his new-found happiness…

Entanglement is the kind of indie movie that comes along several times a year, plays at various festivals, gets a good buzz behind it, and then goes out into the big wide world of cinema releases or VOD, and then promptly vanishes from people’s radar. It’s not the movie’s fault – after all, there are just sooooo many movies out there, all jostling for our attention – but it does make finding such a movie all the more rewarding. This is the case here, with the combination of Jason Filiatrault’s adroit, cleverly constructed screenplay, and Jason James’ easy-going yet focused direction. Between them they ensure that Ben’s attempts to make sense of his life and where it’s going aren’t just the actions of a pretentious, navel-gazing nebbish (which could have easily been the case), but a sincere and heartfelt look at how easy and difficult it can be to find the courage to move on after a traumatic experience. Deep down, Ben knows he can move on, but he doesn’t know how to; being with Hanna helps him find out – just not in a way he ever expected. (Some viewers may find themselves ahead of Ben for most of the movie, but rest assured, this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment to be had in waiting for him to catch up.)

The movie isn’t afraid to throw in some whimsical fantasy elements, such as the planets on a bowling alley wall that begin to rotate while Hanna speaks to Ben, or the puppet in the office of Ben’s therapist that takes him to task over his relationship with Hanna. These elements serve as psychological cues for Ben’s state of mind, and are introduced at various points in the narrative, but with a great deal of circumspection attached. Are these signs of progress, or backward steps? Filiatrault wisely leaves it up to the viewer to decide. By the time the truth about Hanna is revealed, the movie has become intriguing and absorbing, and thanks in no small part to the performances of Middleditch and Weixler. Middleditch is self-contained and vulnerable as Ben, giving a shy, diffident portrayal that is affecting and quietly impressive. Weixler, an actress who deserves to be better known, is more extrovert but in a way that is considered and entirely apt for her character. There’s good support too from Bang as Tabby, Ben’s neighbour and one true friend. The whole thing plays out at a good pace, there’s sterling work from DoP James Liston, and it’s all topped off by a terrific soundtrack.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie about connections, including the ones we can’t see but which have the most impact in our lives, Entanglement is a light-hearted, comic, yet earnest movie that achieves its modest ambitions with ease; quirky and intelligent, plausible and deftly handled, it’s another indie movie wih buckets of charm and a winning sensibility.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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D: Simon Curtis / 107m

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

After fighting in the First World War, the playwright A.A. Milne (Gleeson) has difficulty adjusting to post-War life in the same way that his contemporaries have. While they behave as if the war had never happened, Milne suffers from delayed shell shock and debilitating flashbacks of his time at the Somme. Unable to reconcile his recent past with the demands of the present, Milne struggles to resume his writing; even the arrival of his first child, Christopher, is unable to make a difference. With a nanny, Olive (Macdonald), to look after Christopher (but called Billy), Milne moves his family to a secluded house in the Sussex countryside. When circumstances collude to leave Milne and Billy (Tilston) by themselves, their time together leads to Milne writing a series of books based around Billy’s toys, books whose main character is Christopher/Billy himself. But their success comes at a price, and Milne and his wife, Daphne (Robbie), allow Billy to become a part of the media circus that springs up around them, a decision that will have unexpected consequences when World War II brings things full circle…

From the outset, Goodbye Christopher Robin has all the hallmarks of a classic British heritage picture. With its impeccable period production design (courtesy of David Roger), sharply detailed costumes, attention to the social and political mores of the time, beautifully composed and lit cinematography (from Ben Smithard), and a surfeit of stiff upper lips, the movie has nostalgia running through it like a plumb line. This is a movie that looks and feels as if you could step into it at any moment and join A.A. Milne and his young son on their walks throught the Hundred Acre Wood. Luckily though, the script – by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan – isn’t content with just recreating a bucolic time gone by. Instead it wants to paint a darker picture, one that encompasses PTSD, the expoitation of childhood innocence, remote parenting, the pitfalls of fame, and emotional disconnection. But while these issues serve to make the movie less superficial than it might be otherwise, even when they’re combined they don’t quite provide enough depth to stop the movie from feeling like a carefully selected box of confectionery. Make no mistake, it’s a lovely selection, but after a while you begin to realise that all the centres have the same flavour.

That’s not to say that the movie is a bad one, or that it fails somehow in its ambitions. Rather it’s a case of a movie doing exactly what is expected of it and very little more. There are the requisite number of moments where a loud noise sends Milne back to the trenches, the long-delayed moment when Olive tells her employers what she thinks of their parenting skills, and several more moments when Billy brings Milne out of his moody, self-imposed shell just by being a smiling young moppet. It’s attractively put together by director Simon Curtis, who shows more engagement with the subject matter than he did with his last feature, Woman in Gold (2015), and he coaxes a terrific performance from first-timer Tilston. Gleeson glowers in silence a lot but is effective as Milne, Macdonald shines in the kind of servant role she can do in her sleep now, Moore contributes a sensitive turn as Winnie the Pooh’s original illustrator, E.H. Shepard, but Robbie’s turn as Daphne is spoilt by the character’s unrelentingly mean-spirited and mercenary nature; the actress has nowhere to go with it. All in all though, the movie is an enjoyable one, with a strong emotional core to it, and a good sense of the childhood wonder that helped create such enduring and much-loved characters as Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and Piglet.

Rating: 7/10 – beautifully shot and edited, and with keenly expressed moments of insight into the creative process, Goodbye Christopher Robin nevertheless struggles to keep its dramatic elements meaningful or to the fore; thankfully it gets by on much else besides, including a magical vibe that’s maintained throughout, and the committed performances of its cast.

Phantom Thread (2017)

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D: Paul Thomas Anderson / 130m

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter, Julia Davis

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie, we’re introduced to the splendidly named Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a London-based couturier to those with money and prestige and power. Woodcock’s name is a byword for quality, and his meticulous designs and ability to match the outfit to the client has brought him his own versions of his clients’ money, prestige and power. He is fastidious, particular, uncompromising, and resolute. When he meets a waitress, Alma (Krieps), a relationship develops between them, and she moves into the home which also serves as his fashion house. Alma becomes Woodcock’s lover, and also his muse and assistant. But Woodcock proves to be a difficult partner to please. His daily routines are ingrained and not to be interfered with, and his idea of a relationship is that it comes second to the work he does. Alma rails against this, but it’s only when Woodcock falls ill and she nurses him back to health that their mutual need for each other becomes apparent and things improve between them. But Woodcock’s mercurial yet pedantic nature soon reasserts itself, and Alma’s importance in his life becomes even more precarious…

Coco Chanel once said, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” In the world of Reynolds Woodcock, he would no doubt amend Chanel’s statement to read “remember the designer.” Woodcock is a creative genius who basks in the reflected glory of the outfits he designs, his position within the upper echelons of 50’s London high society assured because of the work ethic he has devised, and because he doesn’t deviate from that work ethic. And he expects everyone around him to fit in with that work ethic also; for Woodcock, nothing is more important than the dress or the outfit he’s creating. The beauty of Anderson’s foray into The House of Woodcock is the challenge to his authority from Alma. Can she break through the barriers that Woodcock has erected over the years, and can she get him to focus on her rather than his designs? Anderson wants you to think she can, but at the same time he won’t make it easy for her, and his script is often a series of brutal rebuttals punctuated by moments of calm that offer both Alma and the viewer a sense of hope. Alma, though, is just as stubborn as Woodcock, and just as tenacious in what she wants. This is force majeure for lovers.

Anderson is on dazzling form here, his own considerable creative energies in service to a story that is formed of strong emotional undercurrents and perceptive examinations of the shifting balances of power within a relationship that is both mutually beneficial and destructive. It all plays out against a rarefied world that’s much like love itself: heightened and demanding, but also incredibly rewarding. Woodcock and Alma battle against each other for dominance, and their war brooks no attrition, and yet Anderson never allows the viewer to lose sight of the fact that they are in love with each other. It’s a compelling, sometimes devastating story, and each twist and turn is superbly orchestrated by Anderson, and delivered impeccably by Day-Lewis and Krieps, their performances drawing you in and making you understand fully the characters and their motivations. They’re ably supported by Manville as Woodcock’s no-nonsense yet sensitive sister Cyril, tremendous cinematography and production design (by an uncredited Anderson, and Mark Tildesley respectively), and yet another hugely impressive score by Jonny Greenwood. This is a beautiful, meticulously assembled movie that looks austere from the outside, but which has an energy and a passion seen all too rarely in modern cinema.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that explores a world few of us will have any direct knowledge of, but which guides us through it with so much assurance, Phantom Thread is like a love letter to a different age: enchanting, exhilarating, and exquisitely depicted; on this evidence, Anderson is possibly the finest writer/director working today, such is the confidence he shows here in detailing both the narrative and the characters.

The Black Panther (1977)

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D: Ian Merrick / 97m

Cast: Donald Sumpter, Debbie Farrington, Marjorie Yates, Sylvia O’Donnell, Andrew Burt, Alison Key, Ruth Dunning, David Swift

For a short time in the early Seventies, Donald Neilson (Sumpter) was the unheralded centre of public attention in the UK due to a number of sub-post office robberies he committed, some of which ended in murder. Neilson’s motive for these robberies was purely financial, but they rarely netted him much in the way of consistent reward for his efforts. Then he saw a newspaper article about a sixteen year old girl, Lesley Whittle (Farrington), who had recently inherited a fortune from her late father. Neilson planned to kidnap Lesley and hold her to ransom for £50,000. He located a drainage shaft where he could hide her, and on 14 January 1975, Neilson abducted Lesley from her bedroom, but his ransom plan foundered due to the involvement of the police. Worse was to follow: Lesley died while he was holding her captive, and he was forced to abandon his plan altogether. Her body was found two months later. Still, Neilson might have got away with even that, if it wasn’t for a completely unexpected turn of events that occurred in December of the same year.

For fans of true crimes stories, The Black Panther is something of a must-see, and something of a cause célèbre in itself. The movie has a measured, documentary feel to it that is reinforced by Joseph Mangine’s cinema verité-style cinematography, and Merrick’s matter-of-fact approach to the material. It’s a studious, unshowy movie that highlights the meticulous planning that Neilson put into his robberies and Lesley’s kidnapping, and then contrasts that planning with the various ways in which his plans managed to fall apart once they were carried out. If truth be told, Neilson was an average thief, and Michael Armstrong’s astute, carefully constructed screenplay shows Neilson to be a classic under-achiever, always looking to make it big but having too narrow an outlook or ambition to ever achieve any lasting success. Sumpter pitches Neilson as a man desperate to be in control, but lacking the wherewithal to maintain or build on what little control he does have, and which largely involves verbally abusing his wife, Irene (Yates), and daughter, Kathryn (O”Donnell). In marked contrast, Neilson treats Lesley with compassion and concern for her welfare, and treats her in a far better way than his own daughter. Again, the script carefully illustrates the various ways in which Neilson’s own moral code – however warped – was important to his own sense of who he was (at one point he sneers at the idea of being called the Black Panther).

While the psychological aspects of Neilson’s character are examined to a degree, and Sumpter’s performance supports a psychological approach to the character, where this would be acceptable by modern standards (and some might say it doesn’t explore Neilson’s habits and personality enough), back in 1977 the movie came under attack for daring to even portray Neilson and his criminal activities in the first place. In a case of “perhaps too soon”, the movie was deemed as exploitative (and it does have that vibe in places, particularly when Lesley is abducted from her bedroom), and was withdrawn from UK cinemas. But this is a movie that has a quiet power to it, and which is disturbing not for its violence but because Donald Neilson could be our neighbour next door, or a family member. It’s the otherwise mundane existence he leads that is unsettling, and the milieu he’s a part of. Merrick’s first outing as a director is now regarded – rightly – as a classic of UK true crime, and even now, over forty years on, it still has the ability to fascinate and appal at the same time.

Rating: 8/10 – a grim depiction of Donald Neilson’s exploits, The Black Panther uses its minimal production values to superb effect, and in doing so, emerges as a movie that is challenging to watch but necessarily so also; Sumpter’s performance, all pent up fury and phlegmatic stares, suits the movie to a tee, and Merrick’s confident direction proves to be exactly the right approach for the material, leaving the movie as a whole to get under the viewer’s skin and lodge there like an unwelcome guest.

HHhH (2017)

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aka Killing Heydrich; The Man With the Iron Heart

D: Cédric Jimenez / 120m

Cast: Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack O’Connell, Jack Reynor, Mia Wasikowska, Stephen Graham, Thomas M. Wright, Noah Jupe, Geoff Bell, Enzo Cilenti, Volker Bruch, David Rintoul, David Horovitch, Abigail Lawrie, Adam Nagaitis

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: HHhH is an odd movie. In fact, it’s very odd. Not because of the title, which is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich, a quip you wouldn’t dare repeat back then), and not because you have to wade through a long list of actors before you find someone whose first language is actually German or Czechoslovakian. No, what makes the movie so odd is that, for a drama based around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (Clarke), keen violinist and one of the main architects of the Final Solution, it lacks ambition and drive, and often moves from scene to scene as if seeking the right direction in which to move forward. It also lacks focus, telling us much about Heydrich’s early life in its first twenty minutes (including his love of fencing, and his dishonourable discharge from the German Navy), but then failing to link it all to anything that happens once he’s fully committed to being a Nazi.

Like a lot of members of the Nazi Party, Heydrich went from being something of a nobody to somebody wielding quite a lot of power in a very short space of time, and the movie recognises this. However, thanks to the vagaries of the script, and Clarke’s gloomy demeanour throughout, Heydrich remains a sadistic bully boy in adult’s clothing – and just that. No one is looking for the movie to redeem Heydrich in some way (though that would make it more interesting), but for all its attempts at trying to shine a spotlight on his pre-Nazi activities, they’re all left abandoned as the movie progresses. Instead we see Heydrich’s rise to prominence through the patronage of, first, his wife, Lina von Osten (Pike playing Lady Macbeth as if her career depends upon it), and then, second, Heinrich Himmler (Graham playing Hitler’s right hand man as the uncle you do visit). He does some expectedly nasty things, behaves unconscionably whenever possible, and then his story, with over an hour of the movie to go, takes a back seat to Operation Anthropoid.

By changing its focus nearly halfway through, Jimenez’s movie only narrowly avoids feeling schizophrenic. As we’re introduced to Jan Kubiš (O’Connell) and Jozef Gabčík (Reynor), the two men chosen to head up the assassination attempt, we also get to meet a whole roster of new characters that we don’t have time to get to know or care about. And once Heydrich is out of the way, the terrible reprisals carried out by the Nazis are represented by the razing of Lidice (which actually happened), but in such a brusque way that it makes it obvious that HHhH wants to move on quickly to address the fate of Kubiš and Gabčík and their compatriots – which goes on for far too long and features the kind of gung-ho heroics that only a movie would feel was appropriate. Add the fact that the script – by Jiminez, Audrey Diwan and David Farr from Laurent Binet’s novel – is represented by some of the blandest, most depressing cinematography seen in recent years, and you have a movie that is tonally awkward, flatly directed, and which flirts in earnest with having nothing meaningful to say.

Rating: 5/10 – clunky and dour, and only sporadically engaging, HHhH tells its story as if it was being forced to – and the whole process is painful; a missed opportunity would be putting it mildly, but the movie’s very oddness allows for a certain fascination to develop as the movie unfolds, making it watchable if you don’t expect too much from it.

I, Tonya (2017)

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D: Craig Gillespie / 120m

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Mckenna Grace, Anthony Reynolds, Ricky Russert

When a movie is said to be based on a true story, then chances are it won’t bear any resemblance to what actually happened. The movie becomes an approximation, an interpretation of events that took place, of conversations that people had, and their outcomes. Many movies use this idea to tell their own version of what they think happened and why, but often it’s in disservice to the original – and correct – story. If you want the truth, purists might argue, go see a documentary (like they don’t have their own biases). With so many movies released each year that are based on true stories, it’s often difficult to determine which ones are more accurate than others. But the makers of I, Tonya address this issue right from the start, with a caption that states: Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly. It’s a clever, and very effective tactic. By the movie’s end, and with no two individuals agreeing completely on the events that led to Tonya Harding’s fall from grace, the viewer is left to make up their own mind about what really happened. It’s akin to doing cinematic jury service.

Harding’s story (again if true) is another one that’s concerned with achieving the American dream, but it’s also a story that highlights the unspoken class divide that exists in the US and is still prevalent today. Born on the wrong side of the tracks and with a fearsome, domineering mother, LaVona (Janney), Harding (Robbie) was always going to find it difficult to adapt to and fit in with the somewhat rarefied surroundings of US professional figure skating, but even her ability to carry off a triple axel jump (she was the first American female figure skater to do so in competitions) couldn’t offset the disdain that her behaviour both on and off the ice prompted in both judges and followers of the sport. What didn’t help was her relationship with her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Stan). Harding was often the victim of domestic violence – something the movie goes to some uncomfortable lengths to illustrate – and the battles she waged at home were reflected in her demeanour during competitions. The movie doesn’t shy away from any of this, and Harding’s struggles to maintain an acceptable balance on the ice (no pun intended), point toward the reason why she was never entirely accepted by the figure skating cognoscenti.

Steven Rogers’ extremely fascinating and absorbing screenplay tells a mostly linear story but isn’t afraid to take detours that allow the characters to express themselves more fully during recorded interviews. There are other moments where the fourth wall is broken, but these again allow the characters to provide their own opinions on what’s happening, and it’s largely this approach to the material that keeps the movie from feeling routine or a best available reconstruction of recent history. The performances are uniformly superb, with Robbie and Stan giving career-best turns, while Janney almost steals the movie from everyone (everyone that is apart from Hauser, who plays Harding’s bodyguard, and self-professed “spy”, with such unorthodox charm that the character’s innate stupidity remains likeable throughout). Gillespie, bouncing back after the less than stellar The Finest Hours (2016), gives the movie a pace and a vibrancy that is upheld by Nicolas Karakatsanis’s stylish cinematography, and Tatiana S. Riegel’s flawless editing, while the soundtrack is peppered with songs that relate both to the period the movie covers and to the emotional peaks and troughs threaded throughout the screenplay. If Tonya Harding’s story is one that you’re unfamiliar with, then this is a great place to start if you want to find out how someone goes from being arguably the best female figure skater in the world, to someone who ends up being banned from the sport for life.

Rating: 9/10 – a dazzling concoction that mixes high drama with low comedy, and which also has time to be poignant, mournful, ecstatic, sad, joyous, profane, and reproachful, I, Tonya is a whirlwind of a movie that impresses at every turn; based on a true story, and open and honest about its various source materials, this gives everyone involved a voice and treats them all with respect, even when they do things that are irretrievably dumb – and that happens a lot.

Handsome Devil (2016)

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D: John Butler / 95m

Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Michael McElhatton, Moe Dunford, Ruairi O’Connor, Jay Duffy, Ardal O’Hanlon, Amy Huberman, Stephen Hogan

Ned (O”Shea) is returning to boarding school for another year of being the outsider, the one pupil in the entire school for whom rugby – which the school is obsessed by – doesn’t mean anything. Ned prefers reading and music, but this has earned him the enmity of some of the other pupils, including Weasel (O”Connor), who is on the current team. However, there is good news: this year he has a room to himself. But this good fortune doesn’t last long. A new pupil called Connor (Galitzine), is assigned to Ned’s room. First impressions don’t help and the pair initially don’t get along. An incident in their English class allows for the barriers they’ve erected (literally and figuratively) to be broken down, and soon they share a genuine friendship. A joint love of music sees them cajoled by their English teacher, Mr Sherry (Scott), into taking part in a local talent show. But Connor has also made the school rugby team and is proving to be their star player. But Connor has a secret, one that Ned discovers by accident, and one that leads to their friendship becoming strained, as well as forcing Connor to make a difficult choice if he wants to remain at the school.

Told in the form of an extended flashback as Ned recounts the events of the previous months, Handsome Devil is another very likeable, very enjoyable movie that serves as a reminder that when it comes to coming-of-age tales, Ireland has assembled a pretty good track record in recent years. Irish movie makers seem to know instinctively how to balance comedy and drama in their movies, and John Butler’s follow up to The Stag (2013) is no exception. And more importantly, one isn’t allowed to overshadow the other. It’s sometimes a precarious balancing act, but here the dramatics surrounding Connor’s secret (an obvious one but treated with sympathy and understanding by Butler’s screenplay) are played out with a credibility lacking in many other movies, and thanks to a deftly handled performance by Galitzine. Connor’s friendship with Ned is another aspect that’s handled well, growing organically out of their shared appreciation for music. Butler gives both characters the chance to grow as the movie progresses, and they both emerge from their self-imposed shells more confident and more determined not to return to them.

There’s plenty of humour to be had as well, and the movie makes several salient points about the highs and lows to be experienced in a boarding school environment. There’s also a devil and angel scenario whereby Connor’s “soul” is the concern of both Mr Sherry and his rugby coach, Mr O’Keeffe (Dunmore). This leads to a few awkward scenes that don’t feel as well developed as in other areas, and despite good performances from both actors, these scenes always feel a little leaden in comparison. In truth, the main storyline isn’t anything new, but it’s the way in which Butler handles it that makes it so enjoyable. There’s an impish yet sincere quality to the material that is engaging, and within the world he’s created, much is recognisable in terms of the characters and their troubles. Butler is utilising universal elements to tell his story, and it’s this universality that makes it look and sound so good, even if sometimes, his message is a little too simplistic (the movie ends on a moment of fantasy wish fulfillment that will either make you groan or cheer).Your world won’t be changed – probably – by seeing this movie, but you will enjoy spending time with it.

Rating: 8/10 – bright and entertaining, and with a welcome degree of poignancy, Handsome Devil is a delightful movie full of terrific performances topped off by Butler’s assured direction, and a number of first-rate song choices on the soundtrack; definitely a feelgood movie, then, and one that doesn’t strain to be something it’s not or strive to make more of its story than is completely necessary.

Dan Dream (2017)

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D: Jesper Rofelt / 98m

Cast: Casper Christensen, Frank Hvam, Marcus Millang, Niclas Vessel Kølpin, Louisa Yaa Aisin, Stine Schrøder Jensen, Lars Hjortshøj, Jelina Moumou Meyer, Peter Gantzler, Mia Lyhne, Jacob Lohmann

Outside of Denmark it’s unlikely that anyone has heard of Whisper Electronic Car A/S, but back in the early Eighties, this company attempted to design and manufacture a Danish electric car intended for mass consumption. They even got so far as to introduce the first version, called the Hope Whisper, at a premiere event in front of then Danish Prime Minister, Poul Schlüter. The fact that the Hope Whisper isn’t a household name the world over (or even in Denmark) should give you an idea of just how successful it was, but in Dan Dream, whether or not it succeeds or fails is beside the point. Tired of being patronised or ignored by his bosses, sales executive Thorkil Bonnesen (Christensen) quits his job and following a chance encounter with engineer Jens Knagstrup (Hvam) and his electric bicycle, decides to give Denmark their first electric car. Using Jens’ battery design, Thorkil enlists the aid of a one-armed mechanic, Vonsil (Millang), and ex-colleague Henrik (Kølpin), and together they move to the quiet country town of Bjerringsund to set up shop and build their (Dan) dream car.

There’s some local opposition at first, even though the town’s mayor, Kai Ove (Hjortshøj), is behind them a hundred per cent. But Thorkil charms them enough to win them over to his side, and the car’s production proceeds smoothly until the fateful day of the premiere. Along the way, director Rofelt and co-writers (and co-stars) Christensen and Hvam provide us with a hugely entertaining movie that wears its heart on its sleeve from the beginning, and which proves to be one of the unsung “heroes” of 2017. There’s drama to be had from the setbacks that have to be overcome, but this is less about the creation and launch of a revolutionary mode of transport, but a look at how it affects the lives of those involved (well, some of them; Vonsil and Henrik remain much the same throughout). It’s interesting to note that of the three male characters most affected – Thorkil, Jens and Kai – each has issues relating to their wives. One is a bully in need of a comeuppance, one learns his wife has had an affair since arriving in Bjerringsund, while the last treats his wife badly in a moment of weakness. Some of this allows for trenchant comments about the racist and sexist atttudes of the time, and the script isn’t afraid to have Thorkil et al look stupid or unwittingly insensitive.

But first and foremost, Dan Dream is a comedy whose easy-going material revolves around the notion that “everything is impossible until it’s been done”, a bright, positive statement that reflects well on the team’s efforts, even in the face of subsequent disaster. The humour is light and unforced, and reliant on its cast’s abilities to play bemused, baffled, and flustered in equal measure while also retaining a naīvete that allows for sympathy and the viewer’s support in their efforts. Making his feature debut, Rofelt directs with a flair for capturing the minor details in a scene, details that add credibility to the often whimsical nature of the script, and he deftly handles the underlying seriousness of much of the material. He’s supported by a cast who all play their roles with a terrific awareness of when too much is enough, and who are clearly having a great deal of fun in the process. This transfers itself to the viewer, and the movie remains amusing and involving throughout. It’s amiable and far from overly dramatic, but it is a gently unfolding piece that is confidently handled, wonderfully consistent, and a very pleasant way to spend ninety-eight minutes.

Rating: 8/10 – smart, amusing, and providing a wry commentary on the times (in Denmark at least), Dan Dream is a movie that offers a number of simple pleasures throughout its run time, all of which make it immensely enjoyable; one of those movies that absolutely should be given a chance when you come across it, it proves that some movies don’t have to be profound to make an impact, or have a message to justify their existence.

NOTE: There’s no trailer with English subtitles available at present.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

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D: Julius Onah / 102m

Cast: Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, Aksel Hennie, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Ziyi Zhang, Roger Davies, Clover Nee

Originally titled God Particle and delayed twice before Netflix picked it up, The Cloverfield Paradox is the third in the series that began with Cloverfield (2008 – is it really that long ago?), and continued with 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). A prequel to both movies in that it provides a partial explanation for the existence of the Cloverfield monster, this latest instalment has neither the strong visual aesthetic of the first movie, nor the strong storyline and characters of the second. It does have a great cast, but this time round the story isn’t there, and the muddled narrative that unfolds is chock-full of dramatic clichés, characters you’re never close to caring about (even Mbatha-Raw’s nominal heroine, Ava), and the kind of cod-science that sounds good unless you listen to what’s being said too closely. In essence, it’s a big let-down, both as a sci-fi movie, and as another entry in the Cloverfield franchise. And that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Oren Uziel’s screenplay was originally a spec script that was picked up by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company back in 2012, and which had nothing to do with the Cloverfield universe. Until production began in 2016…

The story is a rote one that contains elements of Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), and any other sci-fi movie set on a space ship or station where the crew has to fight off an unseen and/or murderous presence. It also splits the narrative between scenes on the space station that see the plucky crew trying to reverse the effects of an infinite energy experiment that has flung them into an alternate reality, and scenes involving Ava’s doctor husband (Davies) back on Earth as the Cloverfield monster makes its presence felt. Each provides a respite from the other but only for a short while, and by the halfway mark, a complete respite from the whole silly set up is required. As the script inevitably picks off its space station characters one by one, the manner in which they’re dispatched ranges from the banal to the overly thought out set piece and back again. The cause of most of these deaths is concerning as Uziel’s script seems unable to explain exactly what is going on, and how, and why. A lot happens just because the characters are in a weird situation, and it seems fitting to throw weird stuff at them – a severed arm, a crew member trapped in a wall space, a condensation issue becoming a flood – but none of it makes any coherent sense.

As a result, the very talented cast have to work very, very hard to make the most of the script’s weaknesses and Onah’s by-the-numbers direction. Mbatha-Raw fares better than most, but then she’s playing the one character who has anything like a story arc. Ava has a tragic past, and the alternate reality she finds herself in gives her a chance to change things and alleviate her guilt. Against this, O’Dowd brings some necessary humour to the mix, while everyone else offers tepid support, from Oyelowo’s nondescript mission commander to Brühl’s German (and possibly villainous) scientist – #HollywoodStillSoRacist anyone? The movie also betrays its modest production values, with several scenes, especially those involving corridors on the space station, looking decidedly cheap. All in all, it’s a movie that offers nothing new to the franchise, or to viewers who might be intrigued enough to take a chance on watching it without having seen its predecessors. With the good possibility that a fourth movie in the Cloverfield universe will be with us in the next eighteen months, let’s hope that it’s not another spec script given a Cloverfield once-over, and instead an original story that fits more neatly into the world Bad Robot created ten years ago.

Rating: 4/10 – stock characters, stock situations, a garbled political crisis on Earth, and much more besides that doesn’t work, The Cloverfield Paradox is let down by its confusing screenplay, and by Onah’s inability to make much of it interesting; a jarring experience given the quality of its predecessors, the real paradox here isn’t why it was made, but how anyone could have thought it was any good.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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D: Dan Gilroy / 122m

Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Washington) is the smarter half of a two-partner legal firm, the backroom brains of the outfit, and gladly so because he’s not comfortable in the courtroom. He’s something of a savant, and follows the rule of Law to the letter, even if everyone else around him doesn’t. When his partner suffers a heart attack, Roman is thrust into the spotlight, but his court appearances don’t go so well. It’s something of a mixed blessing then, when his firm is wound down and he has to find a new job. But Roman doesn’t have the social skills to keep himself from upsetting or annoying others, and it’s only when one of his partner’s ex-students (and very successful lawyer heading up his own firm) George Pierce (Farrell) gives him a job that Roman begins to find another place in the world for himself. Given cases to oversee, Roman does his best, but when he ruins a potentially good deal for one of his clients – one that could have prevented a tragedy – a combination of Roman’s guilt and his loathing for the system he works within, leads him to make a decision that will have far-reaching consequences.

A movie that feels like its central character was written with Washington in mind, Roman J. Israel, Esq. does feature yet another notable performance from the man himself, but anyone rushing to see this should be forewarned: while Washington is as impressive as ever, and commands the screen whenever he’s in a scene (which is pretty much all of them), the story that flits around him looking to settle into a comfortable groove, never quite achieves its aims and ambitions, leaving the movie looking and sounding important but upon closer inspection, lacking the shrewdness to make it work overall. Gilroy is a talented writer, but he juggles too many ideas and too many storylines with too little attention to detail. Whether Israel is battling against his own sense of justice, finding possible romance with NACP volunteer Maya (Ejogo), or antagonising the other lawyers in Pierce’s firm, Gilroy never quite succeeds in making it all gel. The various storylines weave in and around each other without ever really connecting, and though Washington is a great choice to unite them all, in the end he’s unable to lift the material out of its self-imposed doldrums.

There’s a lot of talk about justice for all and changing the US judicial system for the better, but it’s a hard sell when Gilroy has Israel abandon his principles because something he does leads to something horrible happening. It’s less a loss of faith and more a chance to inject some much needed drama into a movie that up until then has ambled along quite smoothly but without much purpose. It also lends credence to the idea that Gilroy doesn’t entirely know what to do with Roman, and his character arc suffers accordingly, with his loss of faith setting up a volte face that feels awkward and unconvincing. The same can be said for Pierce, a character who is hugely understanding and supportive of Roman one minute, and then hugely critical and despairing of him the next. Farrell plays him with a lot of charm and surprising sincerity, but has no way of anchoring the character or fleshing it out. Spare a thought for Ejogo, though, saddled with perhaps the worst of all female roles, that of the woman whose sole job it is to tell the lead male character how wonderful and inspiring he is at almost every turn. #HollywoodStillSoSexist anyone?

Rating: 5/10 – dull in stretches, and lacking dramatic focus, it’s unsurprising to learn that Roman J. Israel, Esq. was trimmed by twelve minutes following its Toronto International Film Festival premiere; Washington is the movie’s MVP, but without him it would be a long, slow trudge to the end, and a largely unrewarding one at that.

The Space Between Us (2017)

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D: Peter Chelsom / 121m

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino, Britt Robertson, BD Wong, Janet Montgomery, Gil Birmingham, Colin Egglesfield

In a strange version of the future that appears to be happening today, space exploration bigwig Nathaniel Shepherd (Oldman) announces the latest mission to Mars, and the crew that are going there to continue the Red Planet’s colonisation. But in one of those “What if?” scenarios that jump start way too many movies, the lone female astronaut, Sarah Elliot (Montgomery), proves to be pregnant. She gives birth to a son on Mars, and promptly dies from eclampsia. And from that moment on, The Space Between Us throws all sense and logic out of the window, and gallops headlong towards absurdity with all the gusto of a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s unsurprising to learn that the movie has been in development in one form or another since 1999, when it was titled Mainland and its central protagonist was a boy born on the Moon. Put in turnaround until it was picked up again in 2014, the basic idea has remained the same – boy born in space wants to visit Earth – but the idea that his physiology would be compromised, perhaps fatally, has also remained. Tough break for the kid, huh? Just don’t think it about it too much, though – no, really, don’t.

The Space Between Us is a movie that wants to tell its cute romantic story against a backdrop of new-fangled technological advancement and old school moral dilemmas. It’s a movie that bounces from scene to scene with no clear through line, and which lets its lovers on the run scenario get sillier and sillier as Gardner and his only friend on Earth, Tulsa (Robertson), avoid capture by stealing cars at every turn staying one step ahead of a pursuing Shepherd and astronaut-nominally-playing-stepmother-to-Gardner Kendra (Gugino) (with all the technology at Shepherd’s disposal you wonder how he’s so bad at catching up to them). Gardner’s mission on Earth is to find his father, something that should be easy enough as he has a photo of the man with his mother, but the script throws huge curve balls in the way of this, including a detour to a shaman (Birmingham), and a sidetrip to an ER where Gardner’s bone implants (don’t ask) barely register as a concern. And along the way, Gardner gets a crash course in human relationships including how not to sound weird, and losing your virginity (not to be funny, but does anyone remember that Eighties movie, Earth Girls Are Easy?).

There are far too many moments and scenes where the average viewer will be asking themselves, Really? Most of them involve Oldman, whose performance can best be described as desperately seeking relevance. Stuck with some of the movie’s worst dialogue, the more than capable Oldman has no redress against the inanities of both the script and his character. It’s a similar situation for Butterfield, playing a role that requires him to be a science whizz on the one hand but one who’s learned absolutely zero social skills while growing up on Mars (yes, he’s smart and dumb at the same time). Gugino and Robertson have interchangeable roles once you take out the sex, and everyone else has no option but to go along with it all and hope for the best. In the director’s chair, Chelsom keeps things moving in the haphazard way the script (by Allan Loeb) dictates, but he appears to lose interest early on, while Barry Peterson’s sharp and detailed cinematography proves to be one of the movie’s few blessings. At several points, Gardner asks people, What’s your favourite thing about Earth? One answer seems obvious: being able to avoid seeing this inane, stupid movie.

Rating: 3/10 – with its tortured science (just think about the environment Gardner has been living in since birth and ask yourself, would he really suffer on Earth?), and equally tortured YA theatrics, The Space Between Us is a movie that trips over itself continually in its efforts to tell a coherent, relatable story; a waste of everybody’s time and effort, the hint should have been taken back in 1999 when rewrites on the original Mainland script proved unworkable.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

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D: S. Craig Zahler / 132m

Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Marc Blucas, Dion Mucciacito, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Geno Segers, Victor Almanzar, Willie C. Carpenter, Tom Guiry, Clark Johnson, Pooja Kumar, Fred Melamed

In Craig S. Zahler’s follow up to Bone Tomahawk (2015), Vince Vaughn is Bradley (never Brad) Thomas, a man who turns to being a drug runner when he gets laid off from his job at an auto-repair shop. Eighteen months later, he and his wife, Lauren (Carpenter), are expecting a baby (their second after they lost the first), and living a pretty luxurious lifestyle; crime has been good to them. Bradley works for an old friend, Gil (Blucas), but when Gil goes into partnership with a Mexican drug boss called Eleazar (Mucciacito), their first pick up ends in a shootout with the police and Bradley causing the death of one of Eleazar’s men and incapacitating another. Despite this, he’s sentenced to seven years in a medium security prison. But Eleazar wants revenge. He has Lauren kidnapped, and through an emissary (Kier), lets Bradley know that unless he kills an inmate at a maximum security hellhole called Redleaf, his unborn baby will be “operated on”. Getting transferred to Redleaf is the easy part however, while surviving it, and the regime set up by Warden Tuggs (Johnson), is a whole other matter…

In recent years, Vince Vaughn’s career has been about relinquishing his comic persona in favour of more dramatic roles, from his appearance in Season Two of True Detective (2015) to his role in the Oscar-winning Hacksaw Ridge (2016). Now he gives his best dramatic performance yet as a drug runner with principles, the stoic Bradley Thomas, a man you can hit with a billy club and he’ll barely flinch. It’s a role that keeps him quiet for much of the picture, but with Vaughn it’s all in the eyes and the way they can convey a range of emotions with clarity and precision. You know when Bradley is angry, you know when he’s trying to keep that anger in check, and you know when he’s about to unleash that anger. This all makes Bradley something of a coiled spring, and Vaughn is a commanding physical presence in the role, expertly channelling Bradley’s propensity for extreme violence while maintaining the character’s deep-rooted humanity. Vaughn is never less than convincing, and he brings an intensity to the part that is mesmerising.

He’s ably supported by Carpenter, Kier and Johnson, but while the performances are good, the movie does suffer from a storyline that, once it picks up momentum and Bradley starts hurting people in ever more violent ways, reveals itself to be more than a little on the slight side. There’s a prologue that proves superfluous, while the stretch that leads up to Bradley’s incarceration is long-winded and could have benefited from some judicious cutting (when will movie makers learn that scenes where characters drive from place to place looking thoughtful don’t add anything to a movie?). But even when Bradley does start showing us what he’s really good at, and the movie’s pace increases, what we’re left with is a succession of increasingly violent (and cartoonish) altercations that are well choreographed and executed, but which also appear to be the movie’s sole raison d’être. With this in mind, and despite the visceral and very effective quality of the fight scenes, the movie reveals a hollow centre that stops it from being as rewarding a viewing experience as intended. Zahler is certainly a director of talent, and the movie’s visual aesthetic becomes more and more squalid as Bradley’s descent into prison hell continues. But this is that difficult second feature that doesn’t quite match the promise raised by its predecessor.

Rating: 6/10 – Vaughn’s imposing performance is the main attraction here, and while it helps elevate the material above its grindhouse ambitions, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is still a movie that doesn’t work as well as it should; overlong, and with Bradley impervious to any blows that come his way, there’s too little in the way of actual jeopardy for the character to find himself in, making this a movie where tension is ignored, and nihilism is the primary order of the day.

The Clapper (2017)

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D: Dito Montiel / 90m

Cast: Ed Helms, Amanda Seyfried, Tracy Morgan, Adam Levine, Russell Peters, P.J. Byrne, Brenda Vaccaro, Leah Remini

Eddie Krumble (Helms) is a professional clapper, a paid audience member of informercials who sometimes gets paid extra for asking a question, or standing out from the crowd in some other way. It’s not the best paid job in the world, but Eddie is kept busy, and along with his best (and only) friend, Chris (Morgan), he makes a good enough living to suit his needs. He’s also struck up an unlikely friendship with a young woman, Judy (Seyfried), who works at a gas station. But just as they begin dating, a late night TV show shines a spotlight on Eddie’s clapper activities, and asks the question, Who is the Clapper? This unwanted attention causes problems for Eddie as he doesn’t want the exposure, and it leads to Judy being fired from her job at the gas station. Not knowing how to contact her, and with the TV show still trying to track him down, Eddie hits on an idea that he thinks will keep everyone happy: he’ll appear on the show and ask people to help him find Judy. But Eddie’s efforts backfire, and soon it looks as if he and Judy are destined never to be reunited.

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In adapting his own novel, writer/director Dito Montiel has crafted an uneven yet enjoyable movie that tries to take a number of heavy-handed potshots at lowest common denominator television, while also featuring a sweetly nuanced romance, and a deft exploration of the lasting effects of overwhelming grief. In targeting the exploitative nature of some US TV shows, Montiel’s approach feels a little old and past its time, and it lacks the satirical bite that’s needed for his barbs to hit home with the required effect. The burgeoning romance between Eddie and Judy is handled with a lightness of touch that is magnified by the just-this-side of overbearingly cute performances by Helms and Seyfried. In their capable hands, what could have been sickly and off-putting is instead winning and delightful, a meeting of unsure hearts and minds with each needing to protect themselves as much as possible while also trying to find the courage to make a commitment. Their romance is touching and sincere, and the awkwardness each feels is tenderly expressed on both sides, with Eddie’s nervous ramblings a perfect foil for Judy’s equally nervous uncertainty.

But where the movie really works is in its depiction of the emotional troubles affecting Eddie, and his consternation at being singled out. Helms is terrific as Eddie, a man just trying to get along without being noticed, and trying to put a devastating trauma behind him. There’s a frailty and an anger and a desperation in Eddie, and they all threaten to leak out and overwhelm him, and Helms is at his best when showing us how his character is trying to keep all these feelings in check. There are moments when it seems as though Montiel has let Helms run with a scene, and if this is true, then it was a wise decision; this is one of Helms’s finest performances. However, it’s a performance that can’t make up for some of the other decisions Montiel has made, such as the late inclusion of Vaccaro as Eddie’s mother (there just to push Eddie into a necessary narrative corner), and the length of time that Eddie remains anonymous (when she wants to, Judy finds his agent/manager with ease; yet the TV show struggles for weeks to do the same thing). The tone of the piece changes too often as well, with the disparate storylines not always fitting well together. Nevertheless, this is diverting enough to warrant maybe a repeat watch, just for the pleasure of seeing Helms at his best.

Rating: 7/10 – that man Helms rescues The Clapper from a lower score purely by the strength and subtlety of his performance, and Montiel’s inspired decision to cast him; Morgan too is on good form, and so is Seyfried (even if she’s given less and less to do as the movie progresses), but narrative inconsistencies, and a sense that Montiel hasn’t fully locked in the script, undermine the good work on show elsewhere, leaving the movie feeling likeable yet also incomplete.

Monthly Roundup – January 2018

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Awakening the Zodiac (2017) / D: Jonathan Wright / 100m

Cast: Shane West, Leslie Bibb, Matt Craven, Nicholas Campbell, Kenneth Welsh, Stephen McHattie

Rating: 4/10 – no one knew it at the time but the notorious (and uncaptured) Zodiac killer filmed the murders he committed, something cash-strapped couple Mick and Zoe Branson (West, Bibb) discover when they come into possession of one of the reels, and then find themselves and those around them targeted by the Zodiac killer himself; there’s the germ of a good idea lurking somewhere in Awakening the Zodiac, but thanks to a sloppy script, wayward direction, and an indifferent approach to the Zodiac killer himself (by the end he’s just a generic movie-made serial killer), this never gets out of first gear, and settles for trundling along and signposting each narrative development with all the skill and style of a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.

Home Again (2017) / D: Hallie Meyers-Shyer / 97m

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Pico Alexander, Jon Rudnitzky, Nat Wolff, Lake Bell

Rating: 7/10 – when middle-aged fledgling interior designer Alice (Witherspoon) splits from her unreliable husband (Sheen), the last thing she expects to do is allow three young men trying to break into the movie business to move into her guest house – and then become romantically involved with one of them (Alexander); it’s hard to criticise Home Again because despite it being almost drama-free and the very definition of innocuous, it also just wants to give audiences a good time, and on that very basic level it succeeds, but it’s still possibly the most lightweight romantic comedy of 2017.

Downsizing (2017) / D: Alexander Payne / 135m

Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård, Udo Kier, Søren Pilmark, Jason Sudeikis

Rating: 5/10 – the answer to the world’s population crisis is revealed to be shrinking people to the point where they’re five inches tall, something that sad-sack occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Damon) agrees to with alacrity, but being small proves to be no different from being normal-sized, and soon Paul is having to re-think everything he’s ever thought or believed; a closer examination of Downsizing (under a microscope perhaps) reveals a movie that contains too many scenes that pass by without contributing anything to the overall storyline, and a satirical approach to the idea itself that lacks purpose, and sadly for Payne fans, his trademark wit, making it all a dreary, leaden experience that goes on for waaaaaay too long.

Family Fever (2014) / D: Nico Sommer / 71m

Original title: Familien fieber

Cast: Kathrin Waligura, Peter Trabner, Deborah Kaufmann, Jörg Witte, Jan Amazigh Sid, Anais Urban

Rating: 7/10 – when two sets of parents get together for the weekend at the request of their respective children (who are a couple), none of them are able to deal with the fallout that comes with the revelation of a secret that threatens the security of both marriages; a German comedy/drama that doesn’t always go where the viewer might expect it to, Family Fever revels in the awkwardness and frustration felt by its quartet of main characters, and though it sadly runs out of steam in the last fifteen minutes, by then it’s done more than enough to provide plenty of wicked laughs and affecting drama.

Coco (2017) / D: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina / 105m

Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau

Rating: 8/10 – Miguel (Gonzalez) is a young boy whose family has rejected any kind of music in order to focus on selling shoes, which leads him into all sorts of trouble in the Underworld on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, trouble that could also mean his never returning to the land of the living; right now you’re never quite sure how a Pixar movie is going to work out, but Coco is a treat, its mix of clever character design, beautifully rendered animation (naturally), heartfelt storylines, and memorable songs making it one to savour time and again… though, be warned, you will be in tears towards the end.

Darkest Hour (2017) / D: Joe Wright / 125m

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West

Rating: 8/10 – it’s 1940 and Great Britain is faced with a challenge: who is to lead them against the fast-approaching menace of the Nazis, and if it has to be Winston Churchill (Oldman), then what can be done to undermine him and his authority?; the answer is quite a bit – for the most part – but history is firm on Churchill’s success, and so Darkest Hour, while featuring a superb performance from Oldman, has no choice but to succumb to retelling events that have already been retold numerous times before, and in doing so doesn’t offer the viewer anything new except for a number of very good performances and assured, and surprisingly sinewy direction from Wright.

Message from the King (2016) / D: Fabrice du Welz / 102m

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Luke Evans, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Martinez, Arthur Darbinyan, Lucan Melkonian, Diego Josef, Tom Felton, Chris Mulkey, Jake Weary

Rating: 5/10 – when his younger sister dies in suspicious circumstances in Los Angeles, South African cab driver Jacob King (Boseman) travels there to find out who caused her death and why – and exact revenge; a throwback to the kind of blaxploitation movies made in the Seventies, Message from the King at least refers to King as an angry brother in the traditional sense, but the movie’s plot is hollow, and the likes of Evans and Molina are wasted in roles that might have seemed fresh (again) in the Seventies, but here feel like caricatures for the movie to focus on in between bouts of King exacting his violent revenge.

The Commuter (2018) / D: Jaume Collet-Serra / 105m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Andy Nyman, Clara Lago, Roland Møller, Florence Pugh

Rating: 4/10 – ex-cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is approached by a mysterious woman (Farmiga) on his train home and tasked with finding a complete stranger who’s also on the train – what could possibly go wrong?; everything as it turns out, with The Commuter going off the rails soon after, and never getting back on track, something confirmed (if there was any doubt before then) when the script throws in an “I’m Spartacus/I’m Brian” moment (take your pick), as well as reminding everyone that Neeson really is too old for this kind of thing.

The Post (2017) / D: Steven Spielberg / 116m

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy

Rating: 9/10 – the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the level of deceit the US government had perpetrated on its citizens about its involvement in Vietnam, is explored through the days leading up to the Washington Times‘ courageous decision to publish despite the threat of imprisonment for treason that the White House was prepared to enforce; Streep is publisher Kay Graham, Hanks is legendary editor Ben Bradlee, and Spielberg is on excellent form, giving The Post a sense of immediacy and potency that other historical dramas can only dream of (and the relevance to today’s US political scene doesn’t even need to be made obvious).

The Open House (2018) / D: Matt Angel, Suzanne Coote / 94m

Cast: Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins, Aaron Abrams, Edward Olson, Katie Walder

Rating: 3/10 – a recent widow (Dalton) and her mopey son (Minnette) get away from their grief and their problems at a house that’s up for sale – and find strange things going on there right from the start; an awful thriller that just refuses to make any sense or make either of its two main characters sympathetic, The Open House does everything it can to make you look away… and not in a good way.

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)

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Original title: Se ying diu sau

D: Yuen Woo-Ping / 98m

Cast: Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu Tin, Hwang Jang Lee, Dean Shek, Roy Horan, Fung Hark-On, Chen Yao Lin, Chen Tien Lung, Chiu Chi Ling, Gam Yam, Hsu Hsia

The movie that really kickstarted Jackie Chan’s career, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is a compendium of established martial arts stylings with added humour that remains as fresh today as it was forty years ago. Which, on the face of it, seems unlikely, as the story is so conventional that the average viewer could work out what’s going to happen even if they’ve never seen a Hong Kong martial arts movie before. There are two rival clans, one that uses the Eagle Claw style of fighting, and one that uses the Snake style. The leader of the Eagle Claw clan, Lord Sheng Kuan (Hwang), has sworn to kill each and every member of the Snake clan, and is on the trail of one of the last surviving masters of said clan, Pai Cheng-Tien (Yuen). Fleeing Kuan, Pai ends up in a small town where he befriends Chien Fu (Chan), a janitor at a kung fu school who is mistreated by his masters. Pai teaches Chien how to defend himself using the Snake style of fighting, and Chien proves a fast learner… which proves to be a huge benefit when Kuan makes his presence known in the town.

The master and the pupil is a popular storyline in martial arts movies, and here it’s the source of much of the humour, as Pai uses a variety of (often) humiliating techniques to help Chien learn faster. The rival clans, necessarily good and bad, are another staple, and proud fighters squaring off against each other with determined faces is yet another, but though the movie provides enough familiarity to keep audiences reassured that they’ll have a good time, what it does so much more effectively is in depicting each individual fight scene in a way that makes each one seem fresh and unforced. With so many fight scenes crammed in to what is a relatively short running time, there’s the likelihood that they’ll all merge into one by the end, but the choreography is so expertly done, and so focused on showing the technique involved as well as the speed and the precision, that much of what is shown is breathtaking in both its simplicity and its impact (and it’s the only movie where you’ll see Jackie Chan kill someone with a groin strike). The only disappointment comes with the final showdown between Chien and Kuan, a sequence that suffers from some very choppy editing, and which lacks the flow of earlier encounters.

Away from the action there’s mileage to be had from Shek’s turn as the abusive Teacher Li, a character so rotten you wish for a better comeuppance than he receives (though he is part of a marvellous piece of physical slapstick with Chan that is one of the movie’s several highlights), and an equally enjoyable turn by Yuen (the director’s father) as the impish and badly be-wigged Grandmaster Pai. Hwang proves to be a smooth and likeable villain (for a change), even though his obsession with killing the Snake clan is a little genocidal, and the presence of Horan as a sword-wielding Russian masquerading as a priest adds an extra dimension to the fighting styles on show. But this is Chan’s breakthrough role, and the movie trains its focus on him at every turn, capturing every knowing smile and perplexed expression. You can argue that in his early movies Chan wasn’t really required to “act” because his physical presence and abilities were more important, but it’s clear that he’s aware of his limitations. This helps him give an enjoyable, spirited performance, and one that remains as entertaining now as it was then.

Rating: 8/10 – the debut feature of Yuen Woo-Ping, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is a martial arts movie that overcomes its prosaic storyline and simple plotting to provide a hugely satisfying experience; with intricate, complex fight choreography and very basic (and amusing) sound effects to accompany every blow, this is Cat’s Claws above the majority of Hong Kong martial arts movies made at the time, and a bona fide classic of the genre.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

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D: Mark Hartley / 106m

With: Sam Firstenberg, Boaz Davidson, Mark Helfrich, John Thompson, Mark Rosenthal, Christopher Pearce, David Engelbach, Pieter Jan Brugge, Lance Hool, Frank Yablans, Rusty Lemorande, Avi Lerner, Stephen Tolkin

There’s a saying that if you remember the Sixties then you weren’t really there. In a similar fashion, if you remember the Eighties but never saw a Cannon movie then you’re not really a movie buff (though in reality you probably did but just didn’t realise it). Cannon, run by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, were the ne plus ultra of awful, low budget movies, often taking the most basic of ideas and using as little money as possible in order to get the finished product out there. Did they worry about the quality of the movies they produced? Most of the time, no. But they did know what they were doing, and between 1979 and 1994, Cannon Films released a succession of movies that played poorly in cinemas, were slammed by critics, but which were perfect for the home video market. Titles such as Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980), The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1983), and The Naked Cage (1986) were all movies you’d normally cross the street to avoid, but thanks to Cannon’s continuous and unerring ability to make the worst movies possible, their output became the cinematic equivalent of a car wreck: you just had to see how bad they could be.

In Mark Hartley’s latest documentary to explore the wider reaches of low budget movie making – after Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) – the story of the Cannon Group and their feckless approach to movie making is given a thorough deconstruction thanks to the people who were there: the production executives, the screenwriters, the directors, and the stars. The very existence of Cannon Films, and the fact that it survived as long as it did as a producing entity is a testament to the stubbornness of Golan and the financial smarts of Globus. Their business model was simple: sell the distribution rights for one movie and use that money to make another. Occasionally they worked with some very well-known stars (Richard Chamberlain, Charles Bronson, even Katharine Hepburn), and gave some directors the chance to make movies they couldn’t make elsewhere (John Cassavetes, Jean-Luc Godard, Franco Zeffirelli). They were as much an enigma to themselves perhaps as they were to everyone else. For Golan and Globus it was all about being successful, and being seen to be successful. The movies? In the end, merely the tools to achieve that success.

Electric Boogaloo presents a fair and balanced overview of the life of Cannon, and the wider impact such a company had on Hollywood during the Eighties when their movies were being distributed by MGM. It also allows those who were involved with Cannon to air their views and opinions in a way that appears consistently derogatory (there are only so many ways you can say a Cannon movie is bad), but which also as the documentary progresses, reveals a common fondness for the so-called Go-Go Boys and the movies they made. There are plenty of humorous anecdotes to be had, and some stories would be hard to believe if they were about another studio or production company, but with Golan and Globus often unsure themselves as to what constituted a Cannon movie – they were both unaware that Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) was intended as a comedy – the stark reality of just how little they knew about what they were doing comes across as plainly as the awful special effects in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) (they wanted to match the quality of the first three movies, but on a fraction of the budget needed). Like many of the interviewees, you’ll be shaking your head at some of the revelations, and at the same time telling yourself, “it could only be them.”

Rating: 8/10 – plenty of clips and archival footage as well as a plethora of talking heads means Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films covers a lot of bases and does so with a great deal of affection and an earned respect; Golan and Globus may have given us some of the worst movies ever made, but there were times when their luck and their movie making acumen paid off in spades, though you have to admit that after ruining Superman on the big screen, thank [insert preferred deity here] they never got the chance to ruin Spider-Man as well.

Unexpected (2015)

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D: Kris Swanberg / 85m

Cast: Cobie Smulders, Anders Holm, Gail Bean, Elizabeth McGovern, Aaron J. Nelson, Tyla Abercrumbie, Audrey Morgan

A teacher at a Chicago inner city high school, Samantha Abbott (Smulders) has a dilemma: what to do when the high school closes in a few months’ time. She thinks she’s found the ideal job to apply for, but then another dilemma presents itself: she finds out she’s pregnant. Terrified by the implications that come with being pregnant, as well as the future responsibilities of being a parent, Samantha doesn’t know what to do. Luckily, her partner, John (Holm), knows exactly what she should do: marry him, and when the baby is born, spend a couple of years as a stay-at-home mother before working again. So, they get married, and Samantha continues to teach. This leads to the discovery that one of her brightest pupils, Jasmine (Bean), is also pregnant. So what is a scared, confused thirty year old teacher to do in such circumstances? The answer is to support Jasmine as much as possible with her college applications, and her pregnancy, while at the same time coping poorly with her own upcoming “blessed event”. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

At first glance, Unexpected appears to be about – yes, you’ve guessed it – being pregnant. However, a closer look reveals that it’s as much about the friendship that develops between Samantha and Jasmine as it is about anything else. Sure, they have pregnancy in common, but it’s how they share their thoughts and feelings about it, and their experiences of being pregnant, that carries the most weight. We see Samantha poring over books on pregnancy, trying desperately to work out if she’s doing it right, seeking approbation, and finding it through her support for Jasmine. Of the two, Jasmine is the more confident mother-to-be, her background and personal situation making her more able to cope with any issues or problems that arise. In many respects, Samantha behaves in a less mature manner than Jasmine does, so much so that when John rebuffs her complaints about not getting the job she wants by telling her to “get over it”, you have to agree with him (though that may not be the response director Kris Swanberg and co-screenwriter Megan Mercier are looking for).

Though the movie does address a number of pregnancy-related issues – finding a college place with a baby in tow, what to do if the father isn’t involved – it does so in a lightweight, easy-going manner that doesn’t allow for much in the way of real drama. Even when Samantha and Jasmine have an inevitable falling out, it’s all done in such a restrained, matter-of-fact way that the entire moment lacks conviction and power. What Swanberg and Mercier have done is to construct a story that plays out in what feels like a very normal fashion, and with mistakes being made by both expectant mothers. It’s a simple approach, one that’s enhanced by two terrific performances from Smulders and Bean, who both display a notable sincerity in their roles, and a thorough understanding of their characters’ emotional make-up (Smulders was actually pregnant during shooting, definitely a happy coincidence). As a slice of life drama it weaves its story with ease, and the comic elements add spice to the mix, making the movie enjoyable if not particularly invigorating. With little or no relevance to the wider world it takes place in, this exercise in female bonding solves its characters’ problems too easily to be wholly effective, but as if to make up for it, is unremittingly charming throughout.

Rating: 7/10 – low-key and thoughtful are two words that spring to mind when thinking about Unexpected, but these are strengths in a movie that avoids any real calamity in case it breaks the mood; inviting popularity with every scene, it’s a movie equivalent of a work-out that doesn’t make you sweat, but which still leaves you feeling good when you’ve finished.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

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D: Matt Cimber / 87m

Cast: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown, Peggy Feury, Jean Pierre Camps, Mark Livingston, Rick Jason, Stafford Morgan, Richard Kennedy, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Roberta Collins

As a child, Molly (Perkins) was sexually abused by her father. As an adult, Molly works in a bar called the Boathouse, and is in a relationship with the owner, Long John (Chapman). She has a sister, Cathy (Brown), and two young nephews she adores, Tadd (Camps) and Triploi (Livingston). She regales her nephews with tales of their grandfather and what a kind, loving man he was, a captain of a ship who was lost at sea when she was much younger. The two boys believe her stories completely, but these fantasies are indicative of the struggle that Molly is having in dealing with the psychological trauma of her childhood. She experiences a fever dream in which she kills two famous football players, but when the two men are found dead, Molly faces an even greater struggle to stop herself from falling victim to the murderous rages that come over her whenever she’s around men who remind her of her father, or who project a certain masculine image through television adverts.

A movie that was once regarded in the UK as a “video nasty”, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an under-rated psychological thriller (with horror overtones) that charts one woman’s descent into madness in a way that is both haunting and disturbing. The movie is directed with great skill by Cimber, and there’s a terrific central performance from Perkins, but the key player here is sceenwriter Robert Thom. During the Seventies, Thom wrote the screenplays for Bloody Mama (1970), Death Race 2000 (1975), this, and several others. All were low budget movies that like this one, thrived on Thom’s ability to exceed audience expectations thanks to his unerring ability to ground even the most extreme incidents, and his sharp ear for dialogue. Thom started out writing for the theatre, and there are moments where the movie feels like it’s a play that has been adapted for the screen. This gives the movie a greater sense of depth, and a greater sense of tragedy as events unfold. As Molly drifts between reality and fantasy, and becomes increasingly unable to differentiate between the two, Thom’s layered screenplay, Perkins’ bold portrayal, and Cimber’s restrained yet visceral direction, combine to create a movie that is hard to look away from – but in a good way.

For an actress who has never been entirely comfortable with the trappings of being an actress, Perkins gives a formdiable performance, investing Molly with a forlorn, anxious appearance that affords glimpses of self-awareness in amongst her mostly irrational behaviour. She’s also able to make Molly’s dialogue sound at times like an interior monologue, an effect that further illustrates the emotional and psychological dysfunction she’s experiencing. Perkins is provided with fine support from the likes of Chapman, Brown and Feury (as another Boathouse waitress who provides Molly with “pharmaceutical assistance”), and Cimber ensures that even the smallest of roles fits in neatly with the overall scenario. The visual look of the movie is quite subdued, with mostly grey and brown tones used throughout, but the cinematography – by Ken Gibb and Dean Cundey – is a good match for the dark emotional undercurrents that pepper the screenplay. Also effective is the decision to distort the audio during those sequences when Molly can’t tell if she’s fantasising about killing someone, or is actually doing it. It’s all done very cleverly, and takes the movie far from the exploitation trappings that viewers might be expecting.

Rating: 8/10 – far better than it perhaps has any right to be on paper, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a first-rate psychological thriller that is unsettling, and oppressive, for much of its running time; Perkins gives an exceptional performance, and the whole tortured narrative feels disarmingly organic, with any missteps serving only to highlight just how good this movie is, and how well it’s been put together.

Foreign Moon (1996)

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D: Zeming Zhang / 87m

Cast: Chen Hsiao-hsuan, Harrison Liu, Chen Daming, David Tse, Hong Xiang, Jian Rui Chao, Tanya Broome, Vanessa Earl

Arriving in London from Mainland China, Lan Lan (Chen Hsiao-hsuan) is a music student finding herself stranded at Waterloo Station when her sponsor doesn’t show up to collect her. She approaches a Chinese man, Su Tong (Liu), who helps her find her sponsor’s home, but when she learns her sponsorship comes with a major string attached – marriage to her sponsor’s son, Charles (Tse) – she soon leaves. With nowhere else to go she turns again to Su Tong who finds her somewhere to live and helps her navigate the confusing requirements of college scholarships and living in London. In time, Su Tong persuades her to live with both him and his younger friend, Deng Lin (Chen Daming), and help them with their new Chinese takeaway/delivery business. Despite Su Tong having a wife and a young son back in China, Lan Lan begins to develop feelings for him, feelings that he appears to have for her in return. With both of them too afraid to reveal their feelings for each other, it takes a violent intervention to highlight the strength of the emotional bond they’ve developed, but also why they shouldn’t act on it…

What first appears to be an examination of the experiences of a Chinese student coming to London for the first time, Foreign Moon soon morphs from a promising (if lightweight) fish out of water tale into something quite different. Unconcerned with making Lan Lan’s story one that sees her hampered by bureaucracy – which would have been a more predictable path to take – writer/director Zeming instead develops it into a delicate romantic drama, one that retains a healthy respect for Chinese norms of behaviour, while also recognising that China and its influences are a long way off.

The trio of central characters all act and behave in ways that are understandable given the close quarters that all three live and work in, and Zeming ensures that the drama that unfolds as strains are placed on all of them – Lan Lan tries to hide her feelings for Su Tong, he has to deal with the disappointment of his wife and child having to remain in China, Deng Lin allows his hedonistic lifestyle to get him into trouble – isn’t allowed to become melodramatic, but remains realistic instead. Zeming achieves this through close attention to the characters’ emotional states, and dialogue that remains naturalistic throughout.

It’s a shame then that the performances aren’t always able to match the quality of Zeming’s script. Chen Hsiao-hsuan makes her feature debut here, and though she’s a beguiling and appealing presence, there are moments where her inexperience catches her out, and the demands of the role remain unfulfilled. Similarly, Daming Chen, though exuding confidence in his role as a young Chinese man with only three things on his mind: sex, money, and a passport, is allowed to overdo the angry young man that Deng Lin is required to be at times. Liu however, is a strong focal point, his grasp of the emotional and cultural responsibilities facing Su Tong adding gravitas to a role that could have been far less complex, and easily so. On the plus side, Zeming doesn’t make London another character in the drama, but uses it as an ordinary backdrop (though Piccadilly Circus does get more than the one look-in). The interiors are equally well handled, stage sets that don’t feel like stage sets, and they’re explored more throughly than expected thanks to Lik Lu’s probing camerawork, creating a verité feel that grounds the action effectively and with a fine attention to detail.

Rating: 8/10 – with its story of two not-quite lovers wanting to connect with each other but afraid to do so, Foreign Moon isn’t an original piece by any means, but it has a sincerity and a humanity that singles it out from other, similar movies; Zeming directs with a directness that doesn’t allow for ambiguity or misunderstanding – which in some ways is refreshing – while his cast, despite the drawbacks mentioned already, help make this a perceptive and engaging viewing experience.

NOTE: Sadly, there’s no trailer available for Foreign Moon.

Final Portrait (2017)

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D: Stanley Tucci / 90m

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shalhoub, Sylvie Testud

In 1964, the writer James Lord (Hammer) is in Paris on a short trip when his friend, the artist Alberto Giacometti (Rush), asks him to sit for a portrait. Giacometti initially says it will take a few hours – one afternoon – but his own eccentricities and his own self-doubts mean that one afternoon becomes several weeks, and Lord is faced with postponing his return to the US until the portrait is finished. Giacometti works in fits and starts, and his personal life often interferes with his progress with the painting. There are long-standing animosities between Giacometti and his wife, Annette (Testud), that are exacerbated by his relationship with Caroline (Poésy), whose portrait he’s also painting. As the time passes, Lord becomes an observer of Giacometti’s life and work, and his insecurities and obsessions.

Based on the biography written by Lord a year later, A Giacometti Portrait, Stanley Tucci’s fourth feature as a writer/director is a meditative exploration of the creative process, and the notion that no work of art can ever truly be regarded as finished. It’s an interesting idea for a movie to examine, as by its very nature, Final Portrait is exactly that: a finished product (unless Tucci decides to release revised versions of the movie in future years). But it’s an idea that Giacometti adheres to, and Tucci has him continually looking at the sculptures in his studio, examining them, assessing them, and sometimes changing them slightly, albeit in very minor ways, as if by doing so, he can improve the work in such a way that it becomes more relevant, and worth the effort he’s put into it. The same applies to Lord’s portrait, an endeavour that Giacometti says will never be truly completed, even if Lord were to be available to sit for the rest of his life; even then, more can always be done to improve the work, and then more again.

Tucci isn’t one for histrionics or exaggerated performances, and his cast comply with the needs of a script that requires a delicacy of touch and a sympathetic approach to both Giacometti and his erratic genius. Rush is a terrific choice as the artist who thinks nothing of throwing an envelope with two million francs in it under a bed and forgetting about it. Chain-smoking his way through the movie, Rush portrays Giacometti as a restless man who is always searching for that one moment of clarity in his work but never quite finding it. As the trapped, slightly bewildered, and increasingly frustrated Lord, Hammer is effectively the straight man to Rush’s manic devilry, but he carries the role well, and is a charming foil for Giacometti’s maddening behaviour. In support, Poésy and Testud offer polar opposites as the women in Giacometti’s life (neither of whom are as well treated as they would like), and there’s the quiet, reflective presence of Shalhoub as Giacometti’s brother, Diego. The movie is beautifully constructed, with the artist’s studio a wonderfully designed and assembled cave of wonders courtesy of production designer James Merifield, art director David Hindle, and set decorator Sarah Wan. The camera takes in all the elements that are on display and a wonderfully evocative world is entered into as a result. It’s all overlaid with a tremendous sense of fun, along with a dash of rueful humour here and there, and remains a captivating and entertaining experience throughout.

Rating: 8/10 – an affectionate tribute to the difficulties inherent in the artistic process, Final Portrait is a thoughtful, sincere, modest, and clever movie that offers a beguiling yet intuitive examination of the artist Alberto Giacometti and his work; Rush and Hammer give wonderful performances, Tucci directs with verve and confidence in his own script, and it all proves as invigorating as the pursuit of artistic “truth” should be.

10 Facts About the Oscars

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The Oscar nominations for 2018 have been revealed – thanks Andy Serkis, thanks Tiffany Kaddish – and with a few exceptions (Rachel Morrison for Mudbound, Denzel Washington for Roman Israel Esq) there really aren’t that many surprises in any of the categories (what’s that? Where’s The Disaster Artist? You mean, you have to ask?) So, it’s business as usual for the world’s biggest and grandest backslapping event. With yet another four-hour show set to initially dazzle and then benumb us, it’s getting harder to remember a time when an Oscars ceremony was actually something to remember. (And no, last year’s embarrassing faux pas with the Best Film announcement doesn’t count – that wasn’t planned.)

In this it’s 90th year, there’ll be the usual pontificating about who’s going to win which award, and who’s been snubbed unfairly (what’s that? Where’s The Disaster Artist? You mean, you’re still asking?), and inevitably, what will the female attendees be wearing as they wander down the red carpet – #OscarsStillTooShallow anyone? Jimmy Kimmel is returning as the host (please, no more Matt Damon rivalry), and at some point, somebody we all thought was dead will be wheeled out (possibly literally) to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Call all this progress if you will, but the Oscars weren’t always this bland and overtly commercialised. Here are ten facts about the Oscars that should serve as reminders that they haven’t always been about extravagant gift bags, excruciating acceptance speeches, and how annoyed Denzel Washington can look when he doesn’t win an award.

1 – Between 1935 and 1961, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Science (AMPAS) awarded a Juvenile Oscar to twelve young stars who were under eighteen. The first winner was Shirley Temple, for her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during 1934, and the last recipient was Hayley Mills for Pollyanna (1960).

2 – The Oscar statuette is actually called the Academy Award of Merit.

3 – The first Oscars ceremony was held on 16 May 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Fifteen statuettes were awarded and the ceremony itself lasted just fifteen minutes.

4 – The Oscars ceremony was televised for the first time in 1953.

5 – The Best Foreign Language Film category wasn’t introduced until 1957, and the first winner was La Strada (1954).

6 – The Oscars ceremony has been postponed twice, first in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and again in 1981 after the shooting of Ronald Reagan.

7 – Three winners have refused to accept their Oscars: screenwriter Dudley Nichols in 1936, George C. Scott in 1971, and Marlon Brando in 1973.

8 – Since 1950, the Oscar statuettes have been accompanied by a requirement that they are not to be sold by winners or their heirs unless they have first been offered to AMPAS for the sum of $1.

9 – In 1993, the In Memoriam segment was introduced, but came under fire due to the audience’s often partisan applause for some of the deceased and not everyone. Now any applause is muted during the telecast.

10 – In the previous eighty-nine awards ceremonies, 3,048 Oscars have been awarded.

Bad Day for the Cut (2017)

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D: Chris Baugh / 99m

Cast: Nigel O’Neill, Susan Lynch, Józef Pawlowski, Stuart Graham, David Pearse, Anna Próchniak, Stella McCusker, Ian McElhinney

Donal (O”Neill) and his mother, Florence (McCusker), live on a farm on the outskirts of a small town in Northern Ireland. The pair keep themselves to themselves, and seem to be contented with their lot. But when Donal does go out one evening, he returns to find a stranger leaving the farmhouse and his mother dead inside. Some time later, Donal is surprised by two hooded intruders who attempt to kill him as well. He turns the tables on them, and coerces one of them, a young Polish man named Bartosz (Pawlowski), to help him track down the man who killed his mother. The trail leads to a prostitution ring run by a woman called Charlie (Lynch). Soon, Donal and Bartosz are both hunters and hunted as Charlie targets them, and a game of cat and mouse ensues, one that reveals an unexpected connection between Florence, Donal, and Charlie, and events that took place around thirty years before, events that have a major bearing on Florence’s murder and Donal’s current predicament.

A tough and gritty Western transposed to the wilds of Northern Ireland, Bad Day for the Cut is a modest amalgam of revenge motifs that makes the most of its equally modest production values and its sparsely populated locations, and which benefits further from good performances and Baugh’s measured direction. Along with co-screenwriter Brendan Mullins, Baugh (making his feature debut) has constructed a movie that harkens back to so many other, similar movies from the past, but which still maintains an identity all its own. Donal is a familiar figure, the man rendered alone through the death of his family and consumed with anger. It makes him determined and uncompromising, but Baugh is careful to avoid making him a murderous automaton. When Bartosz reveals that his sister, Kaja (Próchniak), is one of the girls in Charlie’s stable, Donal allows himself to be sidetracked in his mission to make Charlie pay for his mother’s murder. Despite his need for revenge, Donal retains an innate honesty and sense of morality that he fights hard not to compromise. As the beleaguered Donal, O’Neill is a quiet force of nature, taciturn for the most part but capable of moments of irredeemable violence; you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a camper van with Donal and a hot saucepan.

Like all good thrillers, Donal’s quest for revenge doesn’t go as planned (partly because he doesn’t really have a plan), and partly because there are things he doesn’t know, things that he only becomes aware of as the movie progresses. These things stop the movie from being too simplistic, and they also allow the character of Frankie (played with unrestrained vitriol by Lynch) to become more than just a matriarchal monster figure. Baugh plays up the rural isolation that Donal leaves behind in his search for vengeance, but thanks to some well chosen locations, keeps him acting in isolation (even while being helped by Bartosz, who has his own agenda), and adrift from any semblance of a normal life. There’s a real sense that even if he does succeed in getting his revenge, it won’t mean that his grief will be assuaged. Against this, the movie does have a wry sense of humour, and is often funny in a “you-shouldn’t-laugh” kind of way that offsets those moments where the violence is busy being harsh and inflexible. Tough and unyielding then at times, Baugh has managed to put together an agreeable thriller that overcomes several narrative stumbles (which ultimately don’t hurt it as much as they should), and in doing so, he emerges as a director to watch out for in the future.

Rating: 7/10 – with wonderful cinematography by DoP Ryan Kernaghan, and a straightforward approach to the material that works wonders, Bad Day for the Cut is an enjoyable Irish Western that pays due respect to its genre inspirations; anchored by a terrific performance from O’Neill, it’s also a movie whose narrative doesn’t feel forced (except once), and which never tries to be smarter than it already is.

The Corpse of Anna Fritz (2015)

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Original title: El Cadáver de Anna Fritz

D: Hèctor Hernández Vicens / 74m

Cast: Alba Ribas, Cristian Valencia, Albert Carbó, Bernat Saumell

You have a friend, Pau (Carbó), who works evenings at the local hospital mortuary. When a famous actress, Anna Fritz (Ribas), dies and her body is kept overnight at the mortuary before an autopsy can be performed, you’d expect him to send you a photo of the dead actress, wouldn’t you? And you’d expect him to let you come to the hospital and have a look for yourselves, right? After all, how often do you get a chance to see a famous, and beautiful, actress live (so to speak) and in the flesh? And better still, naked? That’s the situation Iván (Valencia) and Javi (Saumell) hope to find themselves in when Pau sends exactly the kind of photograph that piques their interest and has them rushing to the hospital with unseemly haste. But seeing Anna Fritz naked isn’t enough, not for Iván at least. He wants to have sex with her; it doesn’t matter to him if she’s dead. So he does, and he cajoles Pau into doing the same. But when Pau takes his turn, something unexpected happens, something that will change everything, even to whether or not the three men will leave the hospital alive…

For some people, just hearing there’s necrophilia involved, and depicted, in The Corpse of Anna Fritz will have them reaching for the off button, or deciding not to watch the movie at all. But the movie has a lot more to offer the viewer than extremely inappropriate sexual behaviour, and once that section is dispensed with, it becomes a claustrophobic mix of horror movie and suspense thriller, with a handful of twists and turns that, while not exactly original, are still put together with enough skill and confidence by Vicens (here making his feature debut) that much of what follows is suitably tense and appropriately visceral. Iván, Javi and Pau find themselves trapped in the basement of the hospital as much by their own actions as any relating to the famous Miss Fritz, and as their predicament worsens, their alliance is threatened, broken apart, and irredeemably ruined. Vicens tracks all this with a predatory eye for the politics of survival, and the breakdown of societal norms. Having sex with a dead woman? That deserves more than just as slap on the wrist, and Vicens ensures the three men suffer for their crime.

Throughout its compact running time, the movie goes to great lengths to make one of its male characters someone the viewer can sympathise with, or even root for, but if there’s one issue that Vicens and co-writer Isaac P. Creus can’t solve, it’s that the characters exist in a vacuum, with no development occurring as the movie progresses. Any sympathy therefore is stymied in order for them to suffer instead. Thus the movie is more of an exercise in what will happen to them, when, and how. This mechanism works for the most part, and there are some clever riffs on one of the “punishments”, but as it builds to a climax, some of the tension is sacrificed at the altar of narrative expediency, though the movie does retain an urgency of purpose that could have been allowed to dissipate much earlier on. At least the main location explains the lack of other hospital staff in the vicinity, and the photography by Ricard Canyellas highlights M. Carmen Sanfrancisco’s spare yet effective production design. It’s all assembled with a view to providing the movie with an oppressive air, and though this approach isn’t always successful, there’s more than enough here to warrant a look-see.

Rating: 6/10 – a modest achievement that is only occasionally as challenging to watch as its makers may have wanted, The Corpse of Anna Fritz is nevertheless bolstered by its choice of location for the material, and the drama inherent in Miss Fritz’s situation; a bit of a mixed bag over all, but a bag that contains at least a couple of surprises, and one that shows that Vicens – with the right material – could well make a stone cold classic one of these days.

Early Man (2018)

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D: Nick Park / 89m

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, Kayvan Novak, Johnny Vegas, Gina Yashere, Nick Park

In Nick Park’s debut feature as a solo director (and somehow that doesn’t feel right), we’re asked to take a lot on faith: that football was created by an isolated tribe in the Stone Age, that said tribe have remained isolated until the arrival of the Bronze Age, that they’ve lost the ability to play football during that period, and that they’ve somehow survived all this time purely through hunting rabbits (and though they all wear the skins of much larger animals – whom we never see). All perfectly plausible, right? Right. And especially so in the uniquely weird and wonderful world of Aardman animation. After all, what could be so unlikely about a challenge match between a Stone Age team of under-achievers and a Bronze Age team overseen by a villainous nobleman called Lord Nooth (Hiddleston)? There’s nothing unlikely in that at all. The only thing about it that’s unlikely is that audiences might not be charmed and amused by the exploits of Dug (Redmayne), his pet wild boar Hognob (Park), his tribe, and their bronze coin loving adversary. It’s Aardman; what’s not to like?

Now if that all sounds like a set up designed to reveal that the movie isn’t very good, then rest assured it is good, and very much so. But Early Man is an Aardman movie that requires audiences to approach it with a certain amount of caution. First of all, it’s very funny, and in the whimsical, very British way that only Aardman can manufacture. Park (who came up with the original story idea) and co-writers Mark Burton and James Higginson have created a world full of inspired sight gags, inspired dialogue, inspired character-based comedy, and a ton of in-jokes. The animation, as expected, is on a par with previous Aardman movies and shorts – meaning it’s excellent – and there is a limited use of CG that, for once, is in support of the Claymation process and doesn’t overwhelm it. Park’s direction is fluid, with an economy of style that matches the material, and there’s terrific voice work from the entire cast, though if you had to highlight anyone’s performance, it would be Brydon as the messenger bird (think Zazu from The Lion King (1994) but with increased attitude). Like all Aardman productions there is a surfeit of riches, and it’s immensely enjoyable.

The caution, though, is to do with the storyline. It’s slight, very slight. So slight in fact that there are periods where the movie stalls in its own version of a half-time break. This is where Park and his co-contributors provide more exposition than is actually needed, where the rhythm of the movie slows noticeably and the pace struggles to be regained, and the need to make the movie play out to around the ninety minute mark becomes all too obvious. All these things stop Early Man from being on a par with Chicken Run (2000) or Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). Here – and despite all the plusses to be found elsewhere – by the time the match starts it’s with some semblance of relief. At this point, the script and the movie both knuckle down and provide a satisfying climax and they earn enough overall merit points to make it all feel as if it’s been time well spent… which it has. It’s an unusual feeling, to be watching something that’s so enjoyable, while at the same time, feeling that there’s something lacking, but that’s the vibe that Early Man gives off. But it’s still a must-see movie, if only to witness once again the absolute pleasure that can be achieved with, and by, lumps of clay.

Rating: 7/10 – like Pixar, Aardman work to very high standards, so when a movie doesn’t quite hit the heights that they or their fans are expecting, it’s always a bit of a disappointment, but though Early Man isn’t as impressive story-wise as it could have been, it’s still a great movie with much to offer; Hognob is like a Stone Age Gromit (no bad thing), there are more football puns than you can shake a woolly mammoth at, and look out for dinosaurs Ray and Harry – a lovely tribute to stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen.

 

Postscript: Early Man was given a preview screening at London’s BFI Southbank on 20 January 2018. Following the screening there was a Q&A with Nick Park. Questions were taken from the audience, and one little girl asked, “What was the name of the rabbit?” (a rabbit, a likely ancestor of Hutch from Curse of the Were-Rabbit, is the main target of Dug’s tribe). Park admitted that the rabbit was never given a name, and then he asked the little girl what she thought the rabbit should be called. There was a pause, and then the little girl replied (and with perfect timing), “Rabbit.”

The Shape of Water (2017)

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D: Guillermo del Toro / 123m

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Lauren Lee Smith

A romantic fairy tale set during the Cold War era of the Sixties, Guillermo del Toro’s latest feature is set in a secret government laboratory in Baltimore. Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a cleaner who works the night shift. She’s also mute from birth. One night the laboratory receives a new “asset”, an amphibious creature (Jones) captured in the Amazon river by military man Richard Strickland (Shannon). The creature proves to be humanoid, and though it’s ostensibly dangerous, Elisa develops a bond with it, and even uses sign language to communicate with it on a basic level. With the creature able to breathe in and out of water, the intricacies of its anatomy lead to the decision to have it vivisected. Elisa is horrified by this, and with the aid of her fellow cleaner, Zelda (Spencer), and her neighbour, elderly artist Giles (Jenkins), she determines to free the creature and return it to the sea. As she puts her plan into action, she finds unexpected assistance from one of the scientists at the laboratory, Dr Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg), and unwanted attention from Strickland.

Fully and firmly back on track after the disappointment that was Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo del Toro has made perhaps his best movie yet. The Shape of Water is a veritable treasure trove of delights. By turns funny, dramatic, sad, tender, exciting, joyous, imaginative, bold, romantic, uplifting, and poignant, it’s a movie that crams so much into its two hour running time that it should feel heavy-handed. Instead it feels like the lightest of confections, even with the overtly darker undertones that are threaded throughout the narrative and which help the movie add a credible and palpable sense of menace to the overall tone. del Toro has long wanted to make a movie inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), but it’s unlikely even he could have predicted just how good the end result would be. From Paul D. Austerberry’s masterful period production design, to the efforts of the set dressers (so much detail), this is a movie that is constantly inviting the viewer to come nearer and peer closely at all the objects that fill each frame. And then there are the small yet seemingly effortless moments that pepper the movie, moments such as Elisa and Giles’ seated dance routine, or the man at the bus stop with the partially eaten cake. It all adds up to a richness of texture that is nigh-on faultless.

But the movie isn’t just beautiful to look at, it’s also an old-fashioned love story (an inter-species love story, to be fair, but hey, so what? As Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot (1959), “Nobody’s perfect”). It would have been so easy to misjudge the tone and the mood in presenting this romance, but del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor handle it perfectly, combining elements of magical realism and the aforementioned fairy tale aspect to wonderful effect. Hawkins – for whom the role of Elisa was written – gives a mesmerising performance, passionate and vulnerable, determined and caring, and capable of expressing any of Elisa’s emotions through the delicate shading of her features. As the principal villain, Shannon gets to add unexpected psychological layers to the role of Strickland, something that keeps the part from being that of a stereotypical bad guy, while Jenkins provides the majority of the laughs (and a great deal of pathos) as Giles, an elderly gay man still hoping to find love himself. Everything is rounded off by the music, as del Toro harks back to the golden era of Hollywood musicals. And just when you think he can’t squeeze in anything else, he gives us a black and white dance number featuring Elisa and the creature which is a tribute to Follow the Fleet (1936). This all leaves just one option: this much confidence must be applauded.

Rating: 9/10 – made with an intense amount of love and affection for its central characters, and with an elegance that shines throughout, The Shape of Water is a triumph of both style and substance; look closely, though, and you’ll find del Toro being quietly and unobtrusively subversive: ask yourself – which other movie are you likely to see where the heroes are in turn disabled, gay, black, and a Communist?

The Foreigner (2017)

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D: Martin Campbell / 113m

Cast: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Orla Brady, Dermot Crowley, Rory Fleck Byrne, Charlie Murphy, Niall McNamee, Rufus Jones, Ray Fearon, Lia Williams, Michael McElhatton

At the beginning of The Foreigner we see Jackie Chan playing a role that we’ve not seen him play before: that of a concerned father. Already it’s a refreshing change, and though you might think he’s being a little over-protective of his teenage daughter, even he can’t foresee that when he drops her off a boutique clothes shop that she’s going to be the victim of a terrorist bom blast just moments later. But if Chan’s character, a Chinese Nuang chef called Ngoc Minh Quan, is stone-faced before, then he’s positively chiselled granite afterwards, as the London Metropolitan police investigation stalls quickly in its efforts to discover which dissident faction of the IRA carried out the bombing (they call themselves the “Authentic IRA”, as if the real IRA were somehow a bunch of phoneys). Quan learns enough from the police to enable him to go after Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), an ex-member of the original IRA brought into the Establishment but who still has ties to his once and fellow comrades. Is Hennessy the link that Quan needs to find the bombers? Will Quan be able to stay one step ahead of the police as he wages his own one-man war against Hennessy and his associates? And will anyone be able to answer the question, just how does one lone sixty-one year old Asian man that everyone’s on the lookout for, travel backwards and forwards between London and Ireland without racking up some serious air miles (oh yes, and being spotted)?

Adapted from Stephen Leather’s novel of the same name, The Foreigner is an action thriller that requires the usual suspension of disbelief at almost every turn, but which still manages, for the most part, to be entertaining. Chan is excellent value as the grieving yet violently focused Quan, a role he slips into with very little effort. It’s sometimes easy to write off stars such as Chan as not being “real” actors, but as Arnold Schwarzenegger showed in Maggie (2015), there will always be roles they can play that will surprise us. Chan’s melancholy, devastated presence is one that adds a layer of sympathy to the character that isn’t always considered a necessity in this kind of movie, but it’s a more than welcome change, and again, Chan is more than up to the task. So too is Brosnan, clearly relishing the chance to play an Irishman for a change and ramping up the character’s ambiguity; is he a good guy, or a bad guy, or just caught in the middle? Further down the cast list there are fine supporting turns from the likes of Crowley and Murphy (though her role is a little too similar to Polly Walker’s in Patriot Games (1992), and from the ever reliable McElhatton.

But while the performances are above average for a thick-ear thriller such as this, and director Martin Campbell does his best to keep things moving quickly enough so that the viewer won’t notice some of the more patent absurdities on display (again, just who is Quan’s remarkable travel agent?), the script by David Marconi either relies on too much exposition, or jumps from scene to scene disjointedly, making it difficult to keep track of what’s happening exactly, and why. That said, Campbell does know how to put together an effective action sequence, and though Chan isn’t as fast as he used to be, he still doesn’t have to rely on carefully chosen camera angles or rapid-fire editing to make himself look good. All in all, the movie is good in places, long-winded in others, but still well assembled enough to provide a couple of hours of harmless enjoyment – and sometimes that’s all you need.

Rating: 7/10 – Chan and Brosnan make for great adversaries, and Campbell is on solid form in the director’s chair, making The Foreigner an above average thriller with better ambitions than most; a bit of a throwback to thrillers from the Seventies (but with extra added millennial-style violence), this gives Chan his best role in years, and is an entertaining if occasionally cheesy action movie that doesn’t worry in the slightest about the things it gets irretrievably wrong.

Sand Storm (2016)

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Original title: Sufat Chol

D: Elite Zexer / 88m

Cast: Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal-Asfour, Haitham Omari, Khadija Alakel, Jalal Masarwa, Elham Arraf, Shaden Kanboura, May Azliah, Diamond Zaccak

The first feature by Israeli movie maker Elite Zexer, Sand Storm focuses on a Bedouin family whose patriarch, Suliman (Omari), has just married his second wife. His first wife, Jalila (Blal-Asfour), is none too happy about it, but as it’s part of the Bedouin culture and it’s a male-dominated society, she has no choice in the matter. Jalila has given Suliman four daughters, including teenager Layla (Ammar), who is in college. Layla and her father have a somewhat easy-going relationship, while her mother is stricter and less inclined to indulge her daughter’s wayward and more modern behaviour. Suliman’s marriage, combined with Layla’s recent exam results being less than satisfactory, focuses his mind on what he should do about his eldest daughter, and her future. His answer is to marry her to a man she doesn’t know, and whom she has never spoken to. Despite their differences, Jalila defends her daughter’s wish not to marry this man, but as tensions rise and threaten to boil over, it isn’t clear which side will win out: centuries old traditions or modern day aspirations.

Throughout Sand Storm, there’s the palpable sense of a tragedy unfolding, one that will prove life-changing for all concerned. As modern sensibilities clash with established social norms, the struggle that comes with understanding both sides of the argument is highlighted in the character of Suliman. He loves his first daughter, but he is bound by what is expected of him as a father; he may want Layla to be free to live her own life with the man of her choice, but he has no more say in what happens than she does. This element of Bedouin culture, so apparently cruel in its disregard for the feelings of an individual, adds tension and a dark, emotional undercurrent to the material, and as the movie progresses, it proves more gripping than expected. By the time Layla makes the decision to pack her bags and leave for good, Zexer’s tightly constructed and intelligent screenplay ensures that there’s no guarantee that she’ll be successful in her escape. And what the consequences will be of her actions carries an equally palpable sense of dread. Here, love is irrelevant. Here, love is a distant second to the marriage contract. Here, love is likely to be punished.

The tone throughout is one of simmering antipathy allowed an occasional outburst when things prove too much. This applies to all three main characters, with Jalila angry at her husband’s callous choice of husband for Layla (“Did you ever look at your daughter?”), Layla herself challenging her mother and father over their perceived intransigence, and Suliman when his authority is questioned repeatedly. Zexer neatly explores the ties that bind ever more tightly in these circumstances and sidesteps any potential sentimentality by showing that – sadly – there’s no place for it in any of the characters’ lives. The cast are uniformly impressive, their performances rich in detail and hugely affecting, with Blal-Asfour’s portrayal of the downtrodden yet still resilient Jalila commanding the viewer’s attention from the start. Zexer has a good eye for the rhythms of daily family life, and she’s careful to portray traditional Bedouin culture without any overt criticism, making this a respectful piece but one that’s also hopeful of change, even if takes a few more generations to achieve.

Rating: 8/10 – winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Sand Storm has an emotional heft that belies the simplicity of its appearance and its plot; it’s a standard tale to be sure, and seen many times before, but this is a movie that is both humane and surprisingly tender despite its dramatic, and often devastating, exploration of the limits of female empowerment when brought up against the rigid cultural expectations of Bedouin society.

Short Movies Volume 5

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The short movie is an oft-neglected aspect of movie viewing these days, with fewer outlets available to the makers of short movies, and certainly little chance of their efforts being seen in our local multiplexes (the exceptions to these are the animated shorts made to accompany the likes of Pixar’s movies, the occasional cash-in from Disney such as Frozen Fever (2015), and Blue Sky’s Scrat movies). Otherwise it’s an internet platform such as Vimeo, YouTube (a particularly good place to find short movies, including the ones in this post), or brief exposure at a film festival. Even on DVD or Blu-ray, there’s a dearth of short movies on offer. In an attempt to bring some of the gems that are out there to a wider audience, here’s another in an ongoing series of posts. Who knows? You might find one that becomes a firm favourite – if you do, please let me know.

Don’t Look Away (2017) / D: Christopher Cox / 8m

Cast: Sabrina Twyla, Danny Roy, Jim Marshall, Charlie McCarthy

Rating: 6/10 – Siblings Savannah (Twyla) and Jim (Roy) are squabbling as usual while they wait for their parents to arrive home. When Savannah looks out of her bedroom window she sees a strange man standing in the garden looking at her. The man is wearing a tattered black suit, and has a bag over his head that is wrapped in chains. When her father (Marshall) calls to say he’ll be late home, Savannah mentions the man. He immediately tells her not to look away, and to get her brother to lock all the doors. But not knowing all the rules puts Savannah in danger… A brisk, relatively effective horror short, Don’t Look Away starts well, but soon tapers off once Savannah inevitably looks away, and writer/director Cox finds himself attempting to explain the animus behind the strange man in the garden (referred to as The Creature in the credits). There’s the germ of a good idea here, and though it’s not anywhere near as scary as it should be, if Cox ever manages to expand on his basic premise, he has the potential to get another horror franchise icon off the ground.

Andy (2017) / D: Michael J. Murphy / 16m

Cast: Brendan Meyer, McKaley Miller, Madison Iseman, Tannaz Shastiri, Beejan Land, Seth Clarke, Tom Draper, Landon Merrell

Rating: 7/10 – After being harrassed and bullied throughout his high school years, Andy (Meyer) discovers that social media is the ideal way to get even. Not so much a cautionary tale – Andy uses his tormentors’ own forms of harrassment against them – but a revenge tale pure and simple, this is a well mounted and well constructed short that doesn’t play out as simply as expected. The basic set up has been seen a thousand times before, but Murphy’s third short plays a trump card in its depiction of high school queen Lia (Iseman). She and Andy used to be childhood friends but they’ve grown apart and now she’s popular and he’s not. There’s a point in the movie where she has a choice to make – and she doesn’t make the right choice. However, Murphy and co-screenwriter Emily Mattoon make it clear that it’s not a choice she wants to make. This makes Andy’s subsequent revenge just as terrible as the harrassment he’s suffered. Subtly done, this raises the material, and makes the ending far more ironic than expected.

Prego (2015) / D: Usher Morgan / 13m

Cast: Katie Vincent, Taso Mikroulis

Rating: 8/10 – A woman (Vincent) meets a man (Mikroulis) in a cafe and tells him that she’s pregnant with his child. His response isn’t what she wants to hear. A well written and very funny comedy short, Prego works as well as it does by taking an established (and somewhat stereotypical) situation and making the woman’s exasperation as amusing as the man’s witless comments and questions. The dialogue is sharp and to the point, and the performances are terrific, with Vincent convincing as the straight (wo)man to Mikroulis’ credulous man-child. Morgan shoots much of their exchange in close-up, placing strong emphasis on Vincent’s impressively blue eyes and Mikroulis’ ability to stare blankly but still to good purpose. The ending may be just a tad predictable, but otherwise this is winning stuff, unfussy, well put together, and backed by an apt and appealing soundtrack.

Hedonist (2012) / D: Miquel Vilar / 9m

Original title: Hedonista

Cast: Anna Casas, Frank Capdet, Jordi Pérez

Rating: 7/10 – A couple (Casas, Pérez) visit a man (Capdet) in his apartment in order for the wife to experience the kind of pleasure that she hasn’t had since she was a child, pleasure that the man cultivates in an unusual and, for the husband, disgusting way. A beguiling and intriguing exploration of an obscure form of sexual gratification, Hedonist is as much about the pursuit of that gratification as it is the power shifts in the relationship between the married couple. The husband is unhappy about being there and accuses his wife of not wanting to sleep with him. She dismisses his concerns as if they were trifles. The man offers advice and warnings, but the wife isn’t interested. Both men have only limited influence; the woman has taken charge. Vilar keeps the audience guessing until the end as to what exactly are the “specimens” the woman has come to “collect”, and in doing so he gives the impression this will develop into a horror short. And when the nature of the “specimens” is revealed, there are likely to be some viewers who will be in complete agreement that it has.

West of Memphis (2012)

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D: Amy Berg / 149m

With: Pam Hobbs, Terry Hobbs, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis, Jessie Misskelley Jr, Jason Baldwin, John Mark Byers, David Burnett, Peter Jackson, David Jacoby, Holly Ballard

The case of the West Memphis Three – Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley Jr – is one that has attracted a lot of media attention in the years since they were convicted of the murders of three young boys in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis. Their convictions occurred in 1994. Misskelley Jr was tried separately from his friends and sentenced to life plus forty years in prison. Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison, while Echols, regarded as the ringleader, was sentenced to death. Throughout the police investigation and the trials, there was no physical evidence linking the three teenagers to the murders, other potential suspects were ignored, and so-called “experts” on Satanic cults gave evidence that ascribed all three defendants’ behaviours and interests as consistent with involvement in Satanism and ritual sacrifice. The three young men were convicted on a combination of local hearsay, prejudice, police incompetence, and judicial lethargy. The phrase, “miscarriage of justice”, couldn’t be more apt.

There have been three previous documentaries that have followed the case from beginning to near end, and while these are impressive in their own right for being of the moment and for the access to the various people involved – the families of the victims, the police, the lawyers on both sides, interested parties etc. – none of them are able to do what West of Memphis can do, and that’s tell the whole story in one fell swoop. It also has contributions from the likes of Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins, and one of this movie’s producers, Peter Jackson, as they explain their involvement in trying to get the trio’s convictions overturned. Part of this documentary’s allure is the sense of outrage that it maintains, as each twist and turn in the story prompts an ever-increasing disbelief that the police and the legal system could have knowingly conspired to send three young men to jail on the flimsiest of evidence – and feel justified in doing so. And then continue to see them remain incarcerated even as more and more evidence is discovered that should exonerate them. By the movie’s end, and the details of their eventual release after eighteen years, your faith in the US legal system should be in tatters, so tarnished is its reputation.

Fortunately, in assembling this movie, director Amy Berg has also gained the trust and cooperation of two very important people in this story: Pam Hobbs, mother of Stevie Branch, one of the victims, and Lorri Davis, a young woman who befriended Damien Echols while he was in prison, and who eventually married him. Watching Pam come to terms with her grief and her growing belief in the trio’s innocence, while also trying to come to terms with the mounting evidence that her husband, Terry, may have killed the children, is often heartbreaking to watch. Lorri, meanwhile, is a tireless advocate for Echols, and as she shares her feelings about him, she also reveals an inner strength that is reflected in Pam’s need to know the truth about her son’s death. Both are admirable women, and in their different ways, have managed not to be subsumed by the events of 5 May 1993, when the children were murdered. Berg addresses all the theories about those murders, including other potential killers that the police failed to follow up on, and she keeps a strict focus on the inability of the law and jurisprudence to behave in any other way than appallingly. The West Memphis Three may have their freedom, but as this sincere and gripping documentary points out, the cost to them and everyone associated with that terrible event twenty-five years ago, will remain, and despite an outwardly “happy” ending, the movie also makes it clear that moving on may not be entirely possible for anyone.

Rating: 9/10 – the human element is kept to the fore in Berg’s excellent documentary about a murder case that, despite three convictions, remains unsolved, and which remains endlessly fascinating; with new evidence, new sources, and a fresh take on the whole godawful mess, West of Memphis is the kind of documentary you don’t want to take your eyes from in case you miss something important, and which will have you praying you’re never charged with murder in the state of Arkansas.

Mustang Island (2017)

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D: Craig Elrod / 86m

Cast: Macon Blair, Lee Eddy, John Merriman, Molly Karrasch, Jason Newman, Byron Brown, Haley Alea Erickson

In Mustang Island, the second feature from writer/director Craig Elrod, Bill (Blair) and his girlfriend Molly (Karrasch) break up on New Year’s Eve. Reduced to uncontrollable tears by this event, Bill crashes his car into a boat, breaks his arm and flees the scene before he’s arrested by the police. Later, he learns that Molly may have gone to her family’s place on Mustang Island. Rounding up his brother, John (Merriman), and John’s friend and co-worker Travis (Newman), the trio set off for the island with Bill intending to make things right with Molly. When they get there, the house is empty and there’s no sign that Molly has even been there. Bill decides to stay a while in the hope that Molly shows up, and John and Travis stay with him. At a local diner, John spies a waitress, Lee (Eddy), that he’s attracted to. But John is painfully shy and despite Bill’s attempts to bring them together, it soon becomes clear that Lee likes Bill instead of John. Bill finds that he has feelings for Lee as well, but as ever with Bill, there are problems to overcome…

Set on the real Mustang Island (which is located on the Gulf Coast of Texas), Elrod’s follow up to The Man from Orlando (2012) is a quirky, understated tale that relies heavily on nuance and tone in order to tell its simple yet engrossing story. Elrod’s script calls for dozens of moments where the camera lingers on a character’s face and the viewer is given the time to realise and understand what that character is feeling or thinking. It’s these quiet moments that are of the greatest importance, as the characters are not as articulate as they would like to be, and expressing their emotions is uncomfortable and scary for them. By focusing on their features and the range of expressions that play across them, Elrod and his talented cast ensure that the viewer is in no doubt as to what anyone is thinking or feeling. This allows for moments of sadness, heartbreak, vulnerability, and poignancy as the characters strive to make sense of their own feelings while trying not to hurt anyone else’s. It’s a subdued, reflective movie that offers hope amidst the setbacks experienced by its characters, and is shot through with a winning sense of humour, particularly in a diner scene where Bill thinks everyone is looking at him.

Headed by Blair, the main cast members offer impressive, detailed performances that are sincere and refreshingly unspoiled by notions of “acting”. Blair and Eddy are married in real life, and this adds a sensitivity to their portrayals that makes them all the more convincing. Merriman is one of the movie’s best assets, though, his solid, restrained performance a sheer pleasure to watch whenever he’s on screen, and his expressions of happiness and delight are to be treasured thanks to the childlike innocence they convey. The movie’s real trump card, however, is the decision to shoot in black and white. This adds another level of detail to Elrod’s already meticulously assembled screenplay, and the use of light and shade to complement the characters’ moods, emotions and desires, adds depth to all those aspects. And the movie is simply beautiful to look at, with as many striking compositions encompassing the island surroundings as there are devastating close-ups (especially the final one). It’s all rounded off by a well chosen soundtrack, and a warm and thoughtful score by first-timer Benjamin Prosser.

Rating: 8/10 – assembled with care and intelligence and a surfeit of confidence, Mustang Island is a beautifully observed romantic comedy drama that does justice to all those elements, and which has so much to offer viewers, it’s a stone’s throw from being embarrassing; Elrod and everyone else involved are to be congratulated for making a movie that is genuinely, unashamedly heartfelt in places, and unswervingly affectionate toward its delightful cast of characters.

NOTE: Surprisingly, there is no trailer available for Mustang Island.

Marshall (2017)

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D: Reginald Hudlin / 118m

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Roger Guenveur Smith, Derrick Baskin, Barrett Doss, Marina Squerciati, John Magaro, Ahna O’Reilly, Jeffrey DeMunn

Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) was a lawyer who worked across the US for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) during the Thirties and Forties. During his time with the NAACP he tried cases in front of the US Supreme Court, and won twenty-nine out of thirty-two of them. His most famous case was Brown v Board of Education, Topeka in 1954, in which the the educational segregation of whites and blacks was deemed unconstitutional. It was a landmark case, and a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement. But instead of telling that story, the makers of Marshall have opted to tell the story of The State of Connecticut v Joseph Spell, a lurid rape case that occurred in 1940. The movie, capably directed by Reginald Hudlin from a screenplay by father and son team Michael and Jakob Koskoff, also makes the decision to change things around so that Marshall himself is the focus and not the original trial lawyer, Sam Friedman (Gad). Does this really matter in a movie that’s based on a true story? Let’s answer that with another question: what’s wrong with the true story by itself?

The differences between what actually happened and what occurs in the movie are many (as you might expect), but one aspect that leaves a bitter after taste is the treatment of Sam Friedman. Here he’s Marshall’s flunky, criticised repeatedly, and treated in such a poor way for so long that bullying becomes the only word for it. In a role reversal that would be outrageous if it weren’t so credulous, Marshall treats Friedman as if their racial positions were reversed: Marshall is the master and Friedman is the slave. Friedman was a more than capable lawyer who in 1940 had more trial experience than Marshall, and who was hired by the NAACP to defend Joseph Spell (Brown). Marshall was sent as a consultant, and the legal liberties the movie takes to reduce his presence in court while at the same time making him look like a puppet master pulling Friedman’s strings, is objectionable. While it’s good to see an educated, strong, confident, and positive example of a black man on our screens, did it really have to be at the expense of the white man who actually did all the heavy lifting?

Things aren’t helped by the predictable plotting, and the stereotypical characters, from Stevens’ arrogant prosecution lawyer to Cromwell’s obstructionist, authoritarian judge. The trial scenes have a certain amount of energy to them, as do the flashbacks to the night of the rape (Spell was a chauffeur who was accused by his employer’s wife, Eleanor Strubing (Hudson), of rape and attempted murder), but away from the courtroom, much of the movie is perfunctory, and the visuals are quite drab. It’s also a movie that recounts the more tawdry aspects of the alleged rape with a degree of detachment, and what should be shocking sounds more as if it were unrelated to anyone who’s actually involved in it all. As Marshall, Boseman adds another real-life person to his resumé, and invests the character with a lot of passion and vigour, but as the movie finally gets round to giving Friedman his due, Marshall becomes a secondary character and his impact diminishes. Gad handles the enforced comic aspects of his character with his usual amiable skill, but doesn’t always look comfortable doing so. Hudson brings a degree of ambiguity to her role as Eleanor, and Brown is a solid, dependable presence throughout. In dramatic terms, the verdict is a given, and it’s a mark of the movie’s lacklustre approach, that when that verdict is announced, the response from the viewer is likely to be “Okay” instead of Oh my God!”

Rating: 6/10 – patchy and hesitant in parts, Marshall beefs up its main character’s involvement in a rape trial and spends much of its time reminding the viewer that Thurgood Marshall was a better man than anyone else depicted in the movie; a hagiography then – though not the first – and one that, by adopting such an approach, reinforces that old newspaper saying, “If you can’t print the truth, print the legend”.

10 Reasons to Remember Terence Marsh (1931-2018)

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Terence Marsh (14 November 1931 – 9 January 2018)

It’s easy to forget when watching a movie that what you’re actually looking at, the physical environment that the cast is working within, has either been designed or adapted to look how it does by the production designer, or art director as they’re otherwise known. A production designer works closely with a movie’s director to ensure that the visual look and style of a movie suits the material and communicates, where necessary, a mood or tone. It’s a challenging job, and Terence Marsh was one of the best in his particular corner of the movie industry.

Marsh began his career as a draughtsman at Pinewood Studios, where he worked uncredited on a number of movies including A Town Like Alice (1956) and The League of Gentlemen (1960). In the early Sixties he began to work as an assistant art director, and he gained his first on-screen credit for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Three years later he had become a fully-fledged art director and won the first of two Academy Awards for his work on Doctor Zhivago (1965) (Marsh must have really impressed David Lean with his work). His second Academy Award came three years later with Oliver! (1968). For this, he oversaw the building of a London street that was carried out by around three hundred and fifty men and which included the laying of around ten thousand cobblestone slabs.

Marsh worked continuously from the Sixties onwards, and in a variety of genres, bringing his attention to detail and visual acuity to a number of movies that were improved just by his work on them. During his career he collaborated with the likes of Richard Attenborough, Sydney Pollack, Frank Darabont, Carol Reed, Gene Wilder, John McTiernan, Paul Verhoeven and Mel Brooks, and always did his best to match his vision of a movie to theirs. He remained at the top of his game even in the Nineties, whether it was through riding out in a Trident-class nuclear submarine for The Hunt for Red October (1990), or designing “Old Sparky” the electric chair for The Green Mile (1999). For his expertise and his apparently infallible skill in picking the right environment to suit the tone or the mood of a movie, or even just an individual scene, Marsh will be sorely missed.

1 – Doctor Zhivago (1965)

2 – Oliver! (1968)

3 – Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

4 – A Touch of Class (1973)

5 – The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

6 – To Be or Not to Be (1983)

7 – The Hunt for Red October (1990)

8 – Basic Instinct (1992)

9 – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

10 – The Green Mile (1999)

Floating! (2015)

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Original title: Das Floß!

D: Julia C. Kaiser / 86m

Cast: Julia Becker, Jakob Renger, Anna König, Till Butterbach, Rhon Diels, Christian Natter, Nina Bernards, Sina Bianca Hentschel

German movies haven’t really been too conspicuous in recent years. In the new millennium, and though the German movie industry has climbed out of the doldrums brought about by the rise in home viewing in the 1990’s, on the international stage, German movies have rarely made an impact. The arrival of Toni Erdmann (2016) was a much needed fillip for the industry, but for the movie buff who is prepared to do a little digging, there are other movies out there that are worth a look and a mention. One such movie is Floating!, the first feature of writer/director Julia C. Kaiser. The set up is a simple one: Katha (Becker) and Jana (König) have decided to get married and to have a child via artificial insemination. They’ve even chosen a sperm donor, called Momo (Renger). One weekend, both have their bachelor/bachelorette parties. Katha heads off to the countryside to meet her brother Tobi (Natter), her oldest friend Charly (Butterbach), and friend and work colleague, Ken (Diels), for a trip on a motorised raft. Jana meanwhile, stays at their flat and has several of her friends over. But unexpected guests at both parties – Momo at the raft, Jana’s ex-partner Susan (Bernards) at the flat – threaten to cause both women to question their relationship.

Floating! is exactly the kind of feature that’s needed to remind people that German movie makers can produce the same astute, enjoyable, and carefully crafted movies that their European counterparts can make. Focusing on the pre-marital doubts that could affect any couple, straight or gay, Kaiser’s gently probing script gives the us time to get to know the characters and understand enough of their back stories so that we can sympathise with the emotional issues that they find themselves facing. Katha, surrounded by males who all view her differently, finds herself wondering if there’s any merit in being straight (or at least finding out what it might be like). She’s comfortable with their bloke-ish camaraderie and easy-going behaviour. She even comes to appreciate Momo’s presence, even though she makes it clear he won’t have a role in the baby’s life. With copious amounts of alcohol to help confuse matters further, Katha becomes unsure of herself and her commitment to Jana. Meanwhile, Jana is shocked by the presence of Susan at her party, and though she does all the right things in trying to avoid her/get rid of her, when Susan explains why she’s there, Jana – who walked out of their relationship – begins to doubt the wisdom of her past actions. And she too finds herself torn between what she has and what she could have.

This being a romantic drama with suitable helpings of comedy to make it more agreeable, Floating! remains a consistently plausible and thoughtful examination of the natural doubts any couple might have before making that final commitment to each other. There’s a lightness of touch and emphasis in Kaiser’s direction that allows us to feel like we’ve known the characters all their lives, and the cast respond accordingly, giving natural, appealing performances that further enhance the sense that these are all people you could meet at any time, and anywhere. The dialogue is entirely natural sounding too, and very little feels forced or contrived. It’s all shot by DoP Dominik Berg using an autumnal colour palette that emphasises the possibility of change within the characters as well as the season, and Nicole Weber’s editing ensures that the pace of the movie is reflected in the bustle of Jana’s party and the laconic ease of the raft party.

Rating: 8/10 – a wry, sympathetic, and engaging look at love found and nearly lost, Floating! is a delightful movie anchored by finely balanced, intuitive performances, and Kaiser’s confident direction; one not only for fans of German cinema, but for anyone who wants to see a movie that tells its tale with an understated grace and in a very simple, yet very effective fashion.

NOTE: The trailer below doesn’t have English subtitles.

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

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D: Stephen Frears / 111m

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Simon Callow

There’s a saying that “history repeats itself”, and it’s an apt concept when discussing the latest slice of heritage cinema concerning Queen Victoria and the post-Albert years that saw her decline in health if not in will. In Victoria & Abdul, the Queen (Dench) has been a widow for twenty-six years. It’s also 1887 and the British Empire is celebrating fifty years of Victoria’s reign. As part of the celebrations, two Muslims are sent from India to present a mohur, a special gold coin, to the Queen. One is a prison clerk, Abdul Karim (Fazal). Bored with the fawning antics of her inner circle and courtiers, Victoria develops an interest in Abdul and makes him her “munshi”, a native language teacher. Soon, Abdul is teaching her Urdu and instructing her in the Quran. Of course, this horrifies the Queen’s household, as well as her son, Bertie (Izzard), and efforts are made to discredit Abdul or reduce the increasing influence he has on Victoria through their friendship. But the Queen refuses to listen, and Abdul remains at her side for the remainder of her reign…

Much of that previous sentence could be rewritten to reflect the turbulent friendship that Victoria experienced with John Brown, her Scottish manservant. That relationship occurred post-Albert and pre-Abdul, but there are remarkable similarities between the two men that would make watching this and Mrs. Brown (1997) something of an exercise in deliberately instilled déjà vu. Suffice it to say, the similarities don’t end there. The active racism of the period is front and centre, as is the general xenophobia of the Queen’s household, but the distaste with which Abdul’s presence is regarded is pushed to the fore on too many occasions for it to remain effective. It’s a given that there’s going to be a resistance from the Establishment over Abdul’s perceived influence, but in the end this is the main focus of the movie and the source of much of the drama, whether it’s Eddie Izzard’s churlish Bertie looking miffed behind his beard, or Tim Pigott-Smith’s equerry, Sir Henry Ponsonby, being rebuffed at every turn in his efforts to undermine Abdul’s position. Efforts are made or attempted to have Abdul removed, Victoria stands firm against these impositions, and then – repeat. This does allow the movie to maintain a certain rhythm, but the repetitive nature of the screenplay (plus the story’s inevitable ending) leaves the movie feeling more and more dramatically redundant as it progresses.

But while the material may feel a little fusty, there’s no denying the energy of Stephen Frears’ direction, or the merits of the performances. Frears is too experienced to let the predictable nature of the material get in the way of stopping him from making an entertaining and enjoyable movie, and this is the case with Victoria & Abdul. Frears has the confidence to alter the mood of a scene on the turn of a sentence or the change of a look, and he does so on several occasions, and often through observing the characters in repose or in thought. Judi Dench gives another exemplary portrayal of Victoria, and it’s one that reveals several hidden layers to the character, all of which highlight the often lonely and fragile nature of the Queen at that time, while also reinforcing her reputation for being obstinate and direct. As Abdul, Fazal has much less to do, but still makes a good impression in a portrayal that, despite being that of a title character, is effectively a supporting role. The rest of the cast, all seasoned professionals who could carry off this sort of thing in their collective sleep, encourage the familiarity of the period and the material, and it’s all beautifully rendered by DoP Danny Cohen, who is something of an unsung hero in the world of cinematography.

Rating: 7/10 – though put together with enough due care and attention to ensure that watching it is a gratifying experience for the most part, Victoria & Abdul remains a standard piece of history-telling that won’t surprise viewers in any way at all; the cinematic equivalent then of a pair of comfy slippers, this avoids being bland and unremarkable thanks to the talent involved, and because everyone still enjoys seeing the Establishment being thwarted at every turn in its machinations.

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (2015)

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Original title: Bang Gang (une histoire d’amour moderne)

D: Eva Husson / 94m

Cast: Finnegan Oldfield, Marilyn Lima, Lorenzo Lefèbvre, Daisy Broom, Fred Hotier, Manuel Husson, Olivia Lancelot, Raphaël Porcheron, Tatiana Werner, Olivier Lefebvre

Eva Husson’s debut feature, set in the world of Biarritz high-schoolers, could be described as a French reworking of Fight Club (1999), but with sexual activity instead of fighting. What’s the first rule of Sex Club? Answer: nobody talks about Sex Club! This may sound like a trite way of approaching the movie but it’s hard not to draw parallels with a number of other movies that focus on teens and the troubles they have in negotiating that dread period of time between being a teenager and becoming an adult. Here, the teens are predictably bored, listless and lacking in ambition (except for Gabriel (Lefèbvre), who creates his own music). Alex (Oldfield) has his mother’s house all to himself and has decided that conspicuous hedonism is the way forward; he’s aided by his friend, Niki (Hotier), who’s a little dorky but not as arrogant as Alex. Best friends George (Lima) and Laetitia (Broom) have little experience of the opposite sex, though both are curious to learn in their separate ways. Gabriel, meanwhile, is Laetitia’s neighbour, something of a loner, and attracted to George.

Thus the movie is ripe for exploring the tangled relationships that only horny and confused teenagers can endure, and the inevitable fallout when things start to go irretrievably wrong (as it does here, when their school is forced to implement a particularly embarrasing round of health screenings). But the movie doesn’t quite manage to make any of the characters’ predicaments anything more than perfunctory. The sex parties (which begin innocuously enough with games of spin the bottle) include drug taking as well, and participants are allowed to take photos or record videos of what goes on, but only for future sharing within the group. Of course, this lasts about as long as it takes for George and Laetitia’s friendship to crumble when they both sleep with Alex, and soon the widespread knowledge of the group’s activities causes further problems, but for the most part, these teenagers are still as bored, listless, and lacking in ambition as they were at the beginning. Does anyone learn anything? It’s hard to tell, not even if the lesson is simply to avoid getting involved with sex parties, and Husson’s script strives for meaning far too often and without providing any answers.

That said, the performances are engaging and acceptably fearless, with Lima a stand out as the emotionally compromised George, a character whose injured self-esteem leads her into wanton behaviour that undermines her self-esteem even more. But Husson doesn’t seem able to make anyone truly sympathetic enough for the viewer to identify with, and the whole sorry mess that the sex parties engender is best summed up by Gabriel’s father (Husson) as, “…so profoundly mediocre.” This extends to the parties themselves, which provide tame examples of the kind of “action” that would be taking place, and which for all the “freedom” that is on display, is content to show females kissing and getting together, but not males doing the same (are there no gay teens in Biarritz?). It’s a movie that also feels lightweight in terms of any social or sexual subtexts, and there are frequent allusions to train wrecks on the local news that offer clumsy counterpoints to the derailment of normal teenage behaviour taking place at Alex’s house. All in all, the movie struggles for relevance, and tells its story in too mundane a fashion for it to strike any chords – even amongst teenagers.

Rating: 5/10 – not as controversial as may have been intended, and not as fascinating as the scenario could have been, Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) offers a glimpse at a world that seeks to flout traditional rules of propriety, and without any long-term consequences; all wrapped up too neatly, Husson’s feature debut reveals a director with a certain visual flair but who needs to be aware that narrative loopholes – of which there are several – can hinder the success of any project.

Molly’s Game (2017)

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D: Aaron Sorkin / 140m

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, J.C. MacKenzie, Brian d’Arcy James, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Jon Bass

With the issue of women trying to get ahead in a “man’s world” receiving so much attention right now, the arrival of Aaron Sorkin’s debut as a director seems like very good timing indeed. Based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Chastain), a potential Olympic-class skier forced to retire through injury, and how she came to run one of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games – twice, Sorkin’s debut is a dazzling whirl through the twilight world of underground gambling where fortunes are won and lost at the turn of a card. Molly begins her second career while working for Dean Keith (Strong), a struggling businessman who hosts his own underground game, and who tells her to oversee the game each week. When her relationship with Keith becomes irretrievably strained, she starts up her own game, steals away one of his main players, an actor referred to as Player X (Cera), and begins to make a name for herself. Avoiding taking a cut of the money being wagered, Molly isn’t doing anything illegal, but she falls foul of Player X’s ego and the game is taken away from her. She moves to New York where she starts another game but this time she begins to take a cut. She bows out after a couple of years, but two years later, finds herself being arrested and charged with, amongst other things, money laundering. Enter the man who will represent her in court, Charlie Jaffey (Elba)…

Like many biopics, Molly’s Game doesn’t tell Bloom’s real story, but instead uses its bare bones to explore a world where gambling is its own addictive drug of choice, and the players wage obscene amounts of money for the thrill of it. It’s a world that Sorkin portrays with a great deal of fidelity, but while it’s an interesting and compelling world to spend time in – and the movie spends as much time there as it can – it does mean that Molly herself is placed firmly in the background. There are too many times where she’s the observer, watching the players while offering a pointed commentary on their habits and foibles. The movie is on firmer ground when it’s showing the process by which Molly and Jaffey spar their way to a workable defence strategy, with her refusal to implicate others or break her own self-imposed ethical code, proving at odds with Jaffey’s efforts to keep her out of jail. The scenes between Chastain and Elba crackle with an urgency and an intensity that isn’t always there when Molly’s past is being recounted, and while Sorkin the director in conjunction with editors Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer, keeps things moving at quite a lick (the running time doesn’t feel like it’s anywhere near two hours and twenty minutes), the movie’s non-linear approach does undercut any potential or hard-earned momentum.

But if there’s one area of the screenplay that no one should worry about, it’s the dialogue. This is a movie where the dialogue is so well structured and so well held together through the various vocal rhythms associated with the characters, that not one word feels false or sounds awkward when it’s spoken. Sorkin’s good ear works its magic as usual, and there are times when it’s easy to believe that Molly et al spoke these actual words during the real-life situations being depicted. Even a scene late on between Molly and her uncompromising father (Costner), a scene that screams plot contrivance at the top of its lungs, is so deftly written that you can almost forgive the hackneyed nature of it. Sorkin is also well served by his cast, with Chastain and Elba both giving terrific performances, and they in turn are given equally terrific support from the likes of Costner, Cera, and O’Dowd. This is a confident debut feature from Sorkin, and even though some of it feels a little stretched in terms of “did it really happen that way?” there’s no denying the energy and the appeal of seeing one woman carving out her own niche in a man’s world and sticking to her own principles while she does it.

Rating: 8/10 – top-notch performances from Chastain and Elba added to another script full of riches from Sorkin (and his surprisingly flexible direction) make Molly’s Game a hugely enjoyable movie even when it steers perilously close to Movie Biopic Clichés 101; if you’re not into poker some of this will go way over your head, and there are a few silly missteps along the way, but otherwise this is a fast-paced, freewheeling, and above all fun experience that doesn’t rely on depth or subtexts at all in telling Bloom’s story.

A Bad Idea Gone Wrong (2017)

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D: Jason Headley / 81m

Cast: Matt Jones, Eleanore Pienta, Will Rogers, Jonny Mars, Jennymarie Jemison, Sam Eidson

In Jason Headley’s very amusing feature debut, he introduces us to Marlon (Jones) and Leo (Rogers) as they sit in a diner and discuss the various places they can rob. Right away we know that they aren’t the brightest of potential thieves as they’re sitting in a diner discussing their plans where anyone can hear them. They bat ideas back and forth before Leo announces that he’s found somewhere, a house where the owners will be away for a while, and that he knows how to get into. Marlon is surprised but willing to go along with Leo’s suggestion. That night, they put Leo’s plan into action. But the first of several obstacles they’ll face presents itself when Leo reveals that the house is part of a gated community. Still proving that their I.Q.’s are probably lower than their shoe sizes, the pair persuade a pizza delivery driver to let them hide in the trunk of his car and get onto the estate that way. That obstacle overcome, Leo uses the key he knows will be hidden outside to gain entry. But Marlon decides to play with the house alarm, and ends up arming it, leaving them trapped inside. Deciding to go ahead with the robbery and work out a solution to the alarm later, two things soon become very apparent indeed: one, Leo knows way too much about the house and its owners than he should, and two, they’re not alone…

A Bad Idea Gone Wrong is a comedy of errors that finds inventive yet credible ways in which to make things more and more difficult for its two protagonists, and the unexpected housesitter, Darcy (Pienta), they find upstairs in one of the bedrooms. Some of these problems are worse than others and some are more casually signposted by Headley, but they all conspire to make the movie an enjoyable romp and spin on the humble home invasion movie. By making Marlon and Leo less than brilliant in the planning and executing stakes, many of the obstacles they face are the result of their own incompetence, or more particularly, Leo holding back some hugely relevant information about the house they’re attempting to rob. Add in the complication of Darcy’s presence and the uneasy truce that they arrive at in attempting to solve all their issues – Darcy isn’t completely honest with Marlon and Leo; not at first, anyway – and you have a quirky, sometimes surreal comedy that is brisk, clever, and which features three very good performances from Jones, Pienta and Rogers.

Headley makes sure that all three characters are gifted with some very witty dialogue, and though we only get to know a few things about them – Marlon is obsessed with landing a big payday, Leo has ex-girlfriend issues, Darcy is shadier than she appears – within the confines of the house and the scenario, Headley is right not to give the audience too much in the way of back stories. The plot plays out smoothly, with each twist and turn feeling like a logical extension of the one that’s gone before, and by the time a community security guard (Mars) arrives on the scene, the movie has successfully and somewhat easily become such an enjoyable experience that a late injection of sentimentality – unnecessary but not surprising given the connections made between the trio – is unable to derail things. Headley mixes daft humour with broad farce to good effect and there’s a warmth towards the characters that allows for a great deal of sympathy for them and their predicament. It’s a lightweight concoction at times, but in a good way, and one that will have you smiling throughout and laughing out loud on more occasions than you’d expect.

Rating: 8/10 – a low budget indie comedy with smarts, A Bad Idea Gone Wrong has its own offbeat sensibility, and offers a reminder that more mainstream comedies can only dream that they could be this well put together; touching in places, absurdist in others, yet consistently amusing and appealing, it’s another of the many “unsung heroes” of 2017.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

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D: Miguel Arteta / 82m

Cast: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny, David Warshofsky, John Early

The dinner party has long been used as an excuse for movies to explore the differences between people, or to expose secrets, or to raise questions of a social, sexual, psychological, philosophical, or moral nature. Beatriz at Dinner seeks to cover each of these angles in its relatively short running time, but is it as successful as it may have wanted to be? The answer lies in the way in which it establishes its main character, the titular Beatriz (Hayek). When we first meet her, Beatriz is in a rowboat in a mangrove swamp. It’s a beautiful location, peaceful and calming, and on a bright sunny day. It’s idyllic. But then Beatriz spies a white goat stranded on the shore line. The camera moves in closer – and then Beatriz wakes up; it’s all been a dream. However, it’s a dream that has a basis in reality, because Beatriz has a goat in a pen in her bedroom. It tells us a lot about her, about her principles, and what type of person she is. How will she fare then, when placed in a room with a group of people whose experiences of life, and whose attitudes, are so different from hers?

That’s the question at the heart of Mike White’s screenplay, one of four that were made into movies during 2017 – the others were The Emoji Movie, Brad’s Status, and Pitch Perfect 3. White is a multi-hyphenate who has built up a solid reputation for himself as a screenwriter, and since his first script for Dead Man on Campus (1998), he’s plied his trade in both mainstream and indie circles. Beatriz at Dinner is definitely one of his indie projects, and it reunites him with Arteta, who directed another of White’s scripts, Chuck & Buck (2000). But where White is usually sharper and more astute with his indie scripts, this time around there’s a sense that not all the movie’s ambitions have been met. It’s puzzling, yet perhaps shouldn’t be, because it all hinges on Beatriz, and Beatriz isn’t exactly the kind of heroine that we were probably expecting. She’s a legal migrant from Mexico, she works as a therapist at a cancer treatment centre, and she does private massages for a variety of clients. She doesn’t wear any make-up, drives an old beat up car, has a goat and two dogs, doesn’t appear to be in a relationship, and believes in an holistic approach to life.

One of her clients is Kathy (Britton). Kathy lives with her husband, Grant (Warshofsky), in a gated community outside of Los Angeles. Their house has a view of the ocean and practically yells new money. Beatriz arrives one afternoon to give Kathy a massage, but her car won’t start when she tries to leave. Kathy insists that Beatriz stay for dinner, even though it’s a dinner party for two of Grant’s business colleagues and their wives, and Beatriz is only waiting on a friend to come and get her car started. The first guests, Alex (Duplass) and Shannon (Sevigny) arrive, followed by the other couple, Doug (Lithgow) and Jeana (Landecker). The three couples are celebrating a business deal that Alex has closed, and which stands to make them even richer than they already are. Beatriz begins to suspect that she knows Doug from some time in her past, perhaps in Mexico. As the evening progresses, Beatriz has a little too much to drink, but not enough to stop her voicing her disgust when Doug brags about his having hunted big game in Africa. But her outburst causes a rift between her and Kathy, and when she learns more about Doug and challenges him on some of his sharp practices as a businessman, that rift grows even wider…

Beatriz at Dinner has been widely regarded as a comedy as well as a drama. This is a little misleading, as while there are certainly humorous moments, and other moments where a darkly satirical tone is adopted, this is a drama through and through, serious in its intentions, and direct in its approach to the material. White is looking to skewer the pompous, affected nature of these entitled men and their equally entitled wives, and he does so by providing them with dialogue that makes them sound crass, insensitive, patronising, and lacking in self-awareness. It even extends to the “help”, when John Early’s eerily proficient Evan interrupts Beatriz when she’s talking, to advise on the starters that are available. Beatriz is talking about the hardships she’s experienced in her life; he wants to make sure the guests know what sauces go with the beef and the halibut. Just by that alone you know the evening isn’t going to go well.

Tension arises through the character of Doug, whose company has been involved in several controversial incidents, some of which have occurred in Mexico. The scene is set for a showdown between Beatriz and Doug, but White makes Doug look like he’s made out of Teflon; no matter how angry or aggrieved Beatriz becomes, Doug just shrugs it off as if it’s of so little importance than he can’t even be bothered to acknowledge it. By adopting this approach to the character, White has made him incapable of being affected, and so he remains a largely anodyne villain, in place to stir up emotions and provide conflict, but too remote in attitude to care about being attacked in the first place. Lithgow is good as Doug, expressing right-wing opinions on a variety of topics, and forever wondering why anyone should care if what he does is harmful or even immoral. Doug is a character we want to see bested and taught a valuable lesson about responsibility, but White has other ideas, and so in those terms the movie ends unsatisfactorily, and worse still, elliptically.

Aside from Beatriz, Doug and Kathy, the characters are bland, interchangeable versions of each other, though Grant does show a huge propensity for ass-kissing (see how many times he agrees with something Doug says). As a result there’s little in the way of scene-stealing, and Sevigny and Duplass are on the periphery of the action for the most part, their roles more mundane than necessary. Britton is good as the outwardly empathetic but inwardly image conscious Kathy, while Hayek connects well with Beatriz’s sense of herself as a healer, expressing the character’s spiritual and environmental passions with an understated yet still fervent sincerity. Arteta has trouble mustering enough energy in some scenes, leaving the movie feeling flat and prosaic, and there are times when it seems as if something momentous is about to occur – but it doesn’t (though when something momentous actually does occur, even then it’s undermined by narrative decision making). All this makes for occasionally intriguing viewing, but in the end, the movie leaves too much unaddressed to make it work consistently or completely.

Rating: 6/10 – a movie that often lacks substance thanks to the stereotypical nature of most of its characters, Beatriz at Dinner is neither acerbic enough nor penetrating enough in its efforts to expose the moral and ethical lassitude of America’s nouveau riche; Hayek gives an impassioned portrayal, but it isn’t matched elsewhere, and though the script strives for political relevance, it doesn’t offer the kind of insights that would have an audience nodding their heads in weary recognition.

Rush: Time Stand Still (2016)

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D: Dale Heslip / 97m

Narrator: Paul Rudd

With: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart, Ray Danniels, Jillian Maryonovich, Liam Birt, Howard Ungerleider, Brian Hiatt, Arthur “Mac” Mclear, Ray Wawrzyniak, Michael Moore

What does it say about a band that, after over forty years the same three members are still together, still passionate about the music they’ve created, and more importantly, still the best of friends? That’s the case with Rush, the Canadian rock band whose members Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart, have weathered the storms of poor early album sales, record label pressure to “conform”, following their own musical path, personal tragedy (twice), and the debilitating effects of psoriatic arthritis and chronic tendinitis. Alongside all these downs though, there have been some incredible positives: increased critical acclaim, increased album sales, pop cultural relevance, the vocal appreciation of their peers, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But most important of all, they’ve had the benefit of one of the most loyal fanbases ever.

This is the aspect of Rush’s forty year-plus history that Rush: Time Stand Still explores most effectively, while it also follows the band on what – so far – has proved to be their farewell tour. The tour has come about for a variety of reasons. Peart relates wanting to retire from touring but being persuaded/emotionally blackmailed by Lifeson’s need to go out on the road one last time while he still can, while Lee wants to keep going and going and going… Listening to three friends voice differing opinions about what’s best for each of them, and still managing to find a common accord without any lasting or lingering resentment is a testament to the strength of their friendship, and on a broader basis, the importance of the band itself in their lives. It’s clearly a tough decision that they’ve made though, and all three provide honest perspectives on the end of something that has been a huge part of their lives for such a long time.

The movie covers Rush’s R40 tour from its early stages as the format is decided on, and all the way through to the final show. Along the way there are generous helpings of Rush doing what they do best, and from various stages of their career (and with all the worrying stage outfits they’ve worn over the years). These sequences aren’t just there to illustrate the band’s prowess on stage – though this soon becomes obvious – but the pleasure that the band still derive from performing after so many thousands of shows in so many thousands of venues. Back in the Seventies it seemed as if Rush were only away from the road when they were in the studio recording an album, and though they’ve slowed down as the years have gone by, their enthusiasm and passion for playing live has been retained. It’s the one thing, even beyond the likes of albums such as 2112 (1976), Moving Pictures (1981), and Test for Echo (1996), that has brought Rush their success. The movie reflects this through the thoughts of the band members themselves, and more pertinently, through the thoughts of their fans.

It’s this aspect of Dale Heslip’s documentary that elevates it and makes it more than yet another movie that covers a band on tour, even if it is their last (probably). Correctly recognising that without the fans who have come to their shows over and over Rush’s success might not have been as far-reaching as it has been, Heslip casts a spotlight on the likes of Jillian Maryonovich, who for a time was a White House staffer under Barack Obama by day and the creative director of Rushcon, the band’s fan club, by night, and Ray Wawrzyniak, an obsessive collector of all things Rush including Indonesian cassette releases and his sister’s 8-track copy of 2112 (which he promises he’ll return one day). It’s fans such as these and their passion for the band that gives the movie a sense that there’s a symbiosis going on, that without the fans Rush wouldn’t be having a second documentary made about them – after Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010) – or that without the band, their fans wouldn’t have anything quite so joyous in their lives. It’s the power of collective reliance: each needs the other  albeit for different reasons.

The sheer enthusiasm for the band that the fans display is best expressed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The master of ceremonies, Jann Wenner, announces each inductee and there’s a healthy amount of applause for each one, but when it comes to Rush, the whole place erupts. As Geddy Lee says, “It was impressive. These guys put us in the Hall of Fame. And they were celebrating their moment. And I still get choked up when I think about it.” That acknowledgment is perhaps the most illuminating moment in the whole movie, and gives credence to the idea that Rush aren’t just a band that have a loyal following – instead they have fans who care over and above in terms of the usual relationship fans have with a band. Whether or not this is actually a good thing, the movie doesn’t take the time to pursue. Instead it highlights the fans’ passion for the band, and the band’s reciprocal feelings for their fans. Criticism is useless because nothing will change.

Although the overwhelming love for Rush on display does border on the pathologically obsessive, and some fans may want to get out of their parents’ basements a bit more often, the movie also relies heavily on the thoughts and feelings of the band themselves. All three are eloquent, thoughtful interviewees whose experiences as a touring band for over forty years has provided them with insights into the rock and roll life that are sometimes sobering, sometimes surprising, but always interesting, and the differing emotions that each has about retiring from the road are given honestly and with a great deal of thought towards the feelings of each other. The band have clearly enjoyed their journey to the last tour, and though the movie is a celebration of the end of that journey, there’s a bittersweet undertone that is present and which adds poignancy to the aftermath of the last show. But that poignancy is soon replaced by something more touching. The fans we see look bereft; what on earth are they going to do now that their heroes, in terms of live shows, have retired both themselves and their fans?

Rating: 8/10 – a documentary that benefits from the commitment and openness of both Rush and their fans, Rush: Time Stand Still is a fascinating look at a band who became successful the hard way and made both their lives and the lives of their fans something to cherish; die-hard fans will lap up every minute, while those new to Rush may find themselves perplexed by the depth of the fans’ devotion, but either way this is a movie that captures the spirit and the heart of a relationship that, after forty-plus years, has never wavered on either side.

A Brief Word About the Writers Guild Awards 2018

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Here at thedullwoodexperiment the most important part of any movie – even more important than its director, or its primary star, or if it’s part of a mega-franchise (especially if it’s part of a mega-franchise) – is the story. Without a good story, and one that continues to make sense as the movie progresses, then it doesn’t matter how good the performances are, how well the director assembles all the elements, how lustrous the photography is, or how wondrous the visuals are (and yes, we’re talking about you Blade Runner 2049). If the screenplay doesn’t work then the movie won’t work; it’s that simple.

The Writers Guild of America has announced its nominations for 2018, and in both the Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, the Guild has come up with an impressive array of nominees to honour at the Awards Ceremony that will take place on 11 February. Reading the list of nominees, it’s heartening to see the range of genres that are represented and the mix of established screenwriters and newcomers (it’s also good to see that it’s unlikely there’ll be any accusations of gender or racial bias – phew!).

The Writers Guild Awards are celebrating their seventieth anniversary this year, and revious winners in the Best Original Screenplay category include: The Crying Game (1992), American Beauty (1999), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Inception (2010). And in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, previous winners include: Prizzi’s Honor (1985), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Traffic (2000), and The Descendants (2011). Amazing scripts all, and ones that place this year’s nominees in very good company indeed. Without checking the odds it seems that there are no clear favourites in either category, which makes it all the more interesting and no doubt exciting come 11 February. And those nominations are:

Best Original Screenplay

The Big Sick – Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani

Get Out – Jordan Peele

I, Tonya – Steven Rogers

Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

Best Adapted Screenplay

Call Me by Your Name – James Ivory

The Disaster Artist – Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber

Logan – James Mangold and Michael Green

Molly’s Game – Aaron Sorkin

Mudbound – Dee Rees and Virgil Williams

Which movies do you think will win? Let me know by sending a comment.

Old-Time Crime: The Whistler (1944) and The Mark of the Whistler (1944)

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The Whistler (1944) / D: William Castle / 60m

Cast: Richard Dix, Gloria Stuart, J. Carrol Naish, Alan Dinehart, Joan Woodbury, Don Costello, George Lloyd, William ‘Billy’ Benedict, Byron Foulger, Robert Homans, Otto Forrest

The first in a series of eight movies released by Columbia between 1944 and 1948, The Whistler is based on the radio drama of the same name. Each movie begins with the same voice over: “I am the Whistler, and I know many things…”, and each movie features a different story “narrated” by the Whistler (Forrest). In this first outing, Richard Dix plays Earl C. Conrad, an industrialist who decides to have a contract taken out on himself. Guilt-ridden over the loss of his wife at sea, Conrad wants to end it all, and arranges with a career criminal called Lefty Vigran (Costello) to have someone kill him within the next few days. But then news reaches him that his wife is still alive, and of course he tries to call off the hit. But Vigran is unable to call a halt to things, and Conrad must spend the next few days trying to find out who’s been hired, and if he finds him, persuade the killer (Naish) not to go through with it.

As ever with this kind of story, the killer is determined to see out his contract as a matter of personal pride, and to uphold his reputation. This leaves Conrad in a tight spot, and the second half of the movie sees him trying to avoid being killed, while the killer tries – at first – to scare him to death, having read a book about the very same thing. It’s little quirks like these that make The Whistler more enjoyable than you might expect, and Naish’s performance as the killer is an equally enjoyable combination of tortured soul and pedantic assassin. Like many movies he appeared in, Naish is fun to watch, and he throws himself into the role with obvious enthusiasm, and he brings an unexpected level of sincerity to the part. It’s easy to forget, but Naish was nominated twice for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, first for Sahara (1943), and again for A Medal for Benny (1945).

As these kind of things go however, it’s only occasionally effective, and only occasionally gripping. It does have a slightness of tone in the scenes between Dix’s anguished industrialist and his super-supportive secretary, Alice Walker (Stuart) (who’s clearly in love with him), but otherwise it opts for a sub-noir approach full of menacing shadows and drawn-out sequences where Conrad is stalked by the killer. Making only his third feature, future schlockmeister William Castle contributes little in the way of anything substantial, but he does ensure that Dix gets to show viewers his entire repertoire of worried expressions. As with Naish it’s easy to forget that Dix was also an Oscar nominated actor – for Cimarron (1931) – but he’s a long way from that movie, and he looks tired throughout, a reflection on the personal problems he had at the time.

Overall it’s not the most rewarding of franchise openers, but it did establish a template that would see Dix return as different characters in a further six movies, while the last in the series saw the main character played by Michael Duane. Castle would return for the next movie, and direct two more later entries, and he would develop a better approach in regard to pacing and performances. As for the Whistler himself, he would remain in the shadows offering specious comments about the wicked nature of Man, and reminding everyone that he knows “many things”. As a framing device for the stories that are told it’s not entirely successful, and to be fair, these tales could have been made as stand-alone movies without the Whistler’s presence to connect them all, but as the series unfolded, lessons were learned, and the quality – thankfully – improved.

Rating: 5/10 – not the most auspicious of debuts, The Whistler squanders much of its running time by having Naish stalk Dix with little or no consequence or outcome, and by reducing the supporting characters to little more than walk-ons; straightforward direction from Castle doesn’t help, and there’s too much of an air of “contractual obligation” for much of this to work, and without Naish’s involvement, this would be even less interesting than it is already.

The Mark of the Whistler (1944) / D: William Castle / 61m

aka The Marked Man

Cast: Richard Dix, Janis Carter, Porter Hall, Paul Guilfoyle, John Calvert, Matt Willis, Willie Best, Otto Forrest

By contrast to the tired machinations of The Whistler, its sequel (released a little over six months later) has much more verve and energy, and the reason is simple: it’s based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich was a novelist and crime author who during the Forties wrote some of the best noir thrillers of the period, and so prolific was he that more film noir screenplays have been adapted from his works than any other crime novelist. Here, his short story, Dormant Account, is used as the basis for another “narrated” tale by the Whistler. In it, a returning Richard Dix is a bum called Lee Selfridge Nugent. One day, Nugent sees a notice in a newspaper. A bank is looking for a Lee Nugent to come forward and claim the money in – surprise! – a dormant account. With the aid of a tailor (Hall) who provides him with a new suit, and by dint of doing his research into the other Nugent’s background, Lee “inherits” $29,000. But when his picture ends up in the local paper, he becomes the target of two brothers (Calvert, Willis) who are looking for the real Nugent. Suffice it to say, their intentions aren’t exactly good…

Woolrich’s stories and novels are the very definition of page-turners: fast-paced, always intriguing, and practically forcing you to see what happens next. He also understood how to turn the screws on his characters and leave them at the hands of a whimsical fate. This is best expressed when Lee is waiting in the bank while a clerk goes to get some paperwork. Lee can’t help but become nervous, and he begins to overthink things: what if he’s been rumbled, what if the police are being called right then, why is the bank guard always looking over at him, etc. etc. It’s a terrific distillation of the tension that Woolrich could invoke in his writing, and the two occasions when Lee has to visit the bank provide the movie with two very tense and formidable scenes indeed. Dix doesn’t look quite as bad as he did in the first movie, and the actor seems more engaged with the material. He’s even able to have a little fun in his scenes with Hall, whose parsimonious tailor is the movie’s comic relief (something the first movie could have done with).

With the money claimed, the movie changes gear and becomes an out-and-out thriller, with Calvert and Willis tracking down Lee and threatening to put holes in him unless he hands over the money. This all happens while Lee is focused on wining and dining newspaper reporter Patricia Henley (Carter). For the second time, it’s refreshing to see the lead female character kept away from harm, and not interfering in a way that will see her put in harm’s way, but the character is one of the few areas where the script by George Bricker doesn’t know how to proceed. As a result, Patricia is reduced to background traffic while Dix fights off the brothers with the aid of Guilfoyle’s down on his luck pencil salesman, ‘Limpy’ Smith. It’s another example of the institutionalised sexism of the times, and not exactly unheard of, but it still rankles as unnecessary.

With a much better script to get to grips with, Castle’s return to the director’s chair shows a marked improvement on the first movie, and he orchestrates matters with much more vigour than before, and even manages to elicit a better portrayal from Dix than previously. The hour-long running time is free of the filler that hampered the first movie, and the increased production values mean the movie doesn’t look like it’s been shot through a foggy lens or on a cheaply rented soundstage. A sequel then that’s been shown more care and attention than these kind of ‘B’ movies usually received, and very much worth seeking out.

Rating: 7/10 – an agreeable and entertaining entry in the series, The Mark of the Whistler proves that with the right source material, even the lowest budget crime thriller can be successful; tightly plotted and appropriately tense in places, this is that rare beast: a sequel (kind of) that’s better than the original.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017)

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aka The Secret Man

D: Peter Landesman / 103m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Ike Barinholtz, Josh Lucas, Wendi McLendon Covey, Kate Walsh, Brian d’Arcy James, Maika Monroe, Michael C. Hall, Tom Sizemore, Bruce Greenwood, Eddie Marsan, Noah Wyle

To have lived in America during the late Sixties and early Seventies was to have lived in troubled times. The country was experiencing seismic shifts in practically all areas: sexually, racially, politically, socially. But if there was one constant, one small part of the US that could be counted on to remain the same, no matter what was occurring anywhere in the country, it was the FBI. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover remained apart from political bias or influence, an autonomous body that answered to no one, but which involved itself – if needed – in the lives of everyone. If you ever wanted to know just how much Hoover was feared, you only have to watch the first scene in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. In it, the FBI’s Deputy Associate Director Mark Felt (Neeson) is called to the White House for a meeting with John Dean (Hall) and two of his colleagues in the Nixon administration, John Mitchell and John Ehrlichmann. When they infer that Hoover should step down as Director of the FBI, it’s Felt who chillingly reminds them about Hoover’s secret files, the ones that contain everybody’s dirty laundry. What would happen, Felt counter infers, if those files were made public. The idea of Hoover retiring is quickly dropped.

The scene serves two purposes: one, to show just why the FBI was so autonomous, and two, to make it clear to the viewer that even if Hoover wasn’t around, Felt would be, and he was just as much a keeper of the secrets as Hoover was. It’s a necessary distinction to make, as what follows in the wake of Hoover’s death on 2 May 1972, is a watershed in US history, and Felt’s involvement in that watershed is crucial to the events that led to President Nixon’s resignation from office. Make no mistake: without Felt’s involvement, and without the decision he ultimately took in becoming “Deep Throat”, the US political landscape would have continued to change irrevocably for the worse. It’s a theme that runs throughout the movie, and which has modern day parallels. After Hoover’s death, and the discovery of the Watergate break-in, the White House did its best to influence the FBI and stop it from carrying out a thorough investigation (sound familiar?). And the White House’s efforts would have succeeded – if it hadn’t been for Mark Felt.

And so we have Felt portrayed by Liam Neeson in a political drama that goes behind the scenes at the FBI during the two years between Hoover’s death and Nixon’s resignation. Based largely on A G-Man’s Life (2006), a memoir Felt wrote with John O’Connor, Peter Landesman’s latest movie is ultimately a strange beast, neither compelling enough to grab its audience and guide it safely through the political upheaval of the time, or clear enough on the details of just how Nixon was caught in a web of his own deception. Instead, Landesman’s script focuses on the need to keep Acting Director L. Patrick Gray (Csokas) in the dark about the investigation, the search for the mole in the FBI who’s leaking information to Time and The Washington Post, and on a personal front, Felt’s search for his runaway daughter, Joan (Monroe). These three strands lead to a lot of repetition as Felt repeatedly goes behind Gray’s back, accusations of someone being “Deep Throat” fly thick and fast through the FBI offices with almost everyone being accused at one point or another, and Felt reassuring his wife, Audrey (Lane), that Joan will be found safe and well.

It’s all done in a watchable, unpretentious way, with Landesman apparently content to play out the story as if he were doing it by the numbers. There’s energy here in the way that people around Felt seem to be rushing around but to no obvious purpose (Felt gives out lots of instructions but rarely receives any related feedback), and the pace of the movie is quick enough that boredom is never likely to set in, but it all seems like a missed opportunity. It’s another movie where we all know the outcome in advance (or at least should do), and so it’s also a movie where the script’s ability to create tension and maintain it is undermined from the word go. Even when Felt falls under suspicion of being “Deep Throat” and Gray implies that Felt is being bugged because of this, all it leads to is a few minutes of Felt searching his office and his home for hidden microphones, and then it’s all forgotten. In his efforts to include as much as possible that occurred during that tumultuous two-year period, Landesman has forgotten to ensure that what is included is both relevant and advances the narrative. As a result, there are too many occasions where said narrative stalls and needs to be kickstarted again.

In the title role, Neeson is square-jawed, determined, strikingly gray-haired, and a bit of a dull date. Spending time with Felt eventually becomes something of a chore. He’s not the most expressive of men – though when he becomes angry about something, his outbursts are like the tantrums of a six year old, or someone trying out being angry for the first time – and his stolid, rigid demeanour doesn’t exactly warm you to him, but where Neeson does succeed with the character is in showing his commitment to the FBI and the depth of his affiliation with it. The script hints at Felt becoming a whistleblower because of what was happening to the FBI rather than any disgust at Nixon’s criminal behaviour, but it falls short of exploring this idea fully, and instead paints Felt as a kind of Gary Cooper figure who has to do the right thing, no matter what. Neeson is also lumbered with some gloriously tedious dialogue, though the moment where he gets to say, “No one can stop the driving force of an FBI investigation, not even the FBI”, is one to cherish.

There’s good support from the likes of Lucas and Monroe, but Csokas comes across as too heavy handed as the out of his depth Gray. Lane, meanwhile, apparently gave such a great performance as Felt’s troubled wife that most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as Lane provides easily the movie’s best performance in spite of this. Visually the movie is quite restrained, with a dark, limiting colour palette that is probably meant to represent the gloominess of the times, but which in reality makes the movie look unnecessarily dreary. In the end it’s a competently made movie but not one that stands out from the crowd despite its subject matter.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie that has all the potential to be a riveting political thriller is instead a rather uninspired trek through a period of US history that was anything but humdrum; Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House lacks drive and ambition in its attempts to tell Felt’s story, and settles early on for playing it safe and pedestrian in terms of its willingness to amble instead of soaring.

Palace of Fun (2016)

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D: Eadward Stocks / 82m

Cast: Andrew Mullan, Phoebe Naughton, George Stocks

In this ultra-low budget British thriller set in Brighton, Lily (Naughton) and Finn (Mullan) meet in a nightclub. There’s an immediate attraction between them, and Lily takes Finn back to her parents’ home. The next morning, Finn meets Lily’s brother, Jamie (Stocks), and the three of them go on a yachting trip together. However, a disagreement between Lily and Jamie hints at an instability in Jamie’s character, and when he takes the opportunity to look through Finn’s satchel, what he discovers there leads all three down a very dark path indeed. With Finn and Jamie both doing their best to manipulate matters between the trio – though for very different reasons – Lily soon finds herself caught in the middle, until Finn decides to reveal the secret that Jamie has already discovered. When Jamie sees that his sister and Finn are still together, things become even darker, and his attempts to derail their relationship has unfortunate consequences…

First-time features often go one of two ways: they’re either first-out-of-the-gate original, both in terms of the story or the visual design, or they’re derivative yet respectful of pre-existing material. Palace of Fun adopts a third option, that of being a combination of the two, and it does so with a degree of style and confidence that helps it during some of the less successfully rendered moments or scenes. The narrative will be familiar to most viewers, but it’s cuckoo-in-the-nest storyline, coupled with its Patricia Highsmith-inspired tone, is offset by George and Eadward Stocks’ measured, and understated screenplay which threatens to drift into melodrama on more than one occasion but which also manages to avoid the same pitfall thanks to Stocks the director’s firm grip on the material. It’s a presure cooker environment that the first-timer maintains comfortably throughout, and without giving too many clues as to whether or not said pressure cooker does boil over, there’s a grim inevitability about the movie’s outcome that suits it perfectly.

The screenplay is keen to explore the dynamics of the relationship between Jamie and Lily, but it does so without qualifying why Finn is effectively taken in by Lily, and why Jamie takes against him so quickly. By pushing the narrative on in this way (and in deference to the running time), the story becomes more involving and less trite in its exploration of the characters and the twists and turns that drive the material, but it does also make Finn more of a cipher than is necessary for any sympathy or collusion on the part of the viewer to be established. Finn is the deus ex machina of the story, and while we don’t get to know too much about him, what little information we are given about him is too generic to work properly. That said, Mullan gives a very good performance as the mysterious Finn, and he works hard to ensure that the character retains a sense of vulnerability beneath his outwardly confident demeanour.

Similarly, the relationship between Jamie and Finn is one that leads to a couple of scenes where the lines are blurred as to just which one of them is the manipulator and which one is the manipulated. What seems like a frivolous game of cat and mouse soon gives way to a more (apparently) calculated game of psychological oneupmanship. Jamie appears to be in control, and he seems more able than Finn to manoeuvre things to his advantage, but as the movie progresses it’s Jamie whose grip on matters starts to falter. This leads to him taking increasingly more desperate measures in an attempt to split up Finn and Lily for good. Although not explicitly revealed, there’s more than a hint of sexual jealousy at play here, and while Jamie is certainly a devious and easily maligned character – he could be best described as someone who “doesn’t play well with others” – the script makes it clear that he’s operating out of a need for approbation that a) his actions don’t always deserve, and b) he’s not always able to control.

In the middle of all this is Lily, somewhat carefree but left on the sidelines for long stretches, her presence almost incidental to the main storyline even though the character is an integral (and very necessary) part of the drama that unfolds. At one point she has to make an important decision regarding her relationship with Finn, and though it’s a decision that the script can’t avoid Lily making in order for things to progress, it would look and feel more clumsy than it is thanks to Naughton’s honest approach to the character, and her rendition of the emotional bewilderment Lily feels at the time. It’s a role that requires Naughton to be reactive for much of the movie, but thanks to her portrayal, Lily remains the most honest of the three, and the only one without an ulterior motive for her behaviour.

The performances are a little rough around the edges at times, but this can be attributed to the minimal experience each has accrued so far in their careers (this is actually Naughton’s first acting gig). However, each contributes greatly to the overall effectiveness of the movie, and they’re matched by the efforts made behind the camera. Stocks the director displays an over-fondness for slightly off-centre framing, but it helps keep the viewer off balance in terms of what’s really happening, while Brighton itself is shot by DoP Murren Tullett with a view to providing a bright and sunny counterpoint to the increasing darkness of the material. As well, there’s an often ominous soundtrack that heightens the drama of certain scenes, and which acts as a warning that something bad might be about to happen. It’s all put together in a way that makes the movie compelling to watch for the most part, but which also labours the point quite heavily at times as well. Still, the Stocks brothers have proven themselves as movie makers to watch out for, and their debut feature is, for the most part, a triumph of ultra-low budget movie making.

Rating: 8/10 – a deliberately uneasy blend of slow-build menace and pitch-black humour that smooths out some of the narrative bumps in the road (e.g. Finn suddenly gains a mobile phone that he shouldn’t be able to afford), Palace of Fun is an ironic title for a movie that treads in very deep waters; acerbic and violent at times, and touching and warm-hearted at others, it’s a movie that has very specific aims and ambitions, ones that it achieves without too much fuss, and a simpicity of effort.

2017 – A Review

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For a lot of people, 2017 was a marked improvement over 2016, but in many ways it was business as usual, with Hollywood preferring to churn out sequels, remakes and reboots instead of providing us with original material, or taking risks. The first half of the year was particularly disappointing. After an early burst of award-worthy movies such as Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea (all 2016 movies most of us didn’t see until this year), there was hope for 2017 in the form of Logan, but that was an early high point, and from then on the big mainstream movies that we’d all been looking forward to let us down time after time, with only the likes of Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes compensating for the overall dreariness of the movies competing for our attention. Soon, 2017 was inter-changeable with 2016, and as the year wore on, it seemed as if there would be no turn around, even though It and the flawed Blade Runner 2049 did their best to provide audiences with something different to appreciate.

In the end, the year saw itself out in time honoured tradition with a handful of award-worthy movies being released that will have more impact in the early part of 2018. Looking back, there were gems to be found and cherished, disappointments on an almost weekly basis, and enough rotten apples to make going to the cinema something of a risky business. It was a year that saw Netflix and Amazon release more original movie content, though a lot of those releases showed the problems inherent in streaming services believing they can just jump in and swim with the “big boys”. Both companies only succeeded in showing that it’s very early days for both of them, and that there’s a long way to go before their business models will provide them with critical and commercial success.

At the international box office, Disney once again ruled the roost, with six movies in the Top 10. Superhero movies also dominated, and Marvel continued their remarkable run of movies with all three of their 2017 releases placing within $32,000,000 of each other. But if there’s any hope that superhero movies aren’t the be-all and end-all of modern day movie making, then it’s in the fact that the top four spots have been taken by non-superhero outings. And the entry at number six is a Chinese movie that has quietly made its presence known by virtue of its being a major success in its home country. But if one statistic is more worrying than anything else, it’s that there are eight sequels in the Top 10, which can only mean that perhaps the mainstream studios are right after all, and all we want is more of the same, year after year. Now that’s depressing.

Top 10 Movies at the International Box Office

10 – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – $794,861,794

9 – Wonder Woman – $821,847,012

8 – Thor: Ragnarok – $848,013,810

7 – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – $863,732,512

6 – Wolf Warrior 2 – $870,325,439

5 – Spider-Man: Homecoming – $880,166,924

4 – Despicable Me 3 – $1,033,508,147

3 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi – $1,040,444,228

2 – The Fate of the Furious – $1,235,761,498

1 – Beauty and the Beast – $1,263,521,126

2017 was also a year when the hype surrounding certain movies proved to be just that: hype. If you were keenly anticipating the long-awaited first adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, then the pain you must have felt at seeing what was eventually released to a largely unsuspecting public must still be causing you some level of discomfort. Likewise if you were looking forward to Universal’s Dark Universe getting properly off the ground with The Mummy. Both movies showed that their makers had absolutely no idea what they were doing, and both franchises are officially dead in the water. This can only be a good thing as the possibility of there being any further outings in either world is just too terrible to bear.

Incredibly, though The Dark Tower and The Mummy were two of the worst movies released in 2017, there were others that equalled them for their poor quality and inability to tell a story coherently. Whether it’s a Top 10 or a Worst 10, putting said movies in the right order is always a challenge. The number one movie is usually an easy pick, which was definitely the case in 2017 with the 10 Worst Movies, with a certain TV adaptation proving that having a recognisable concept and worldwide fan base, along with big name stars, isn’t any guarantee of quality or success. Further down the list it becomes trickier, as the various degrees of awfulness have to be weighed and assessed. To be honest, this year’s list from number three to number ten could have been put together in a variety of ways and each would have looked right.

10 Worst Movies of 2017

10 – The Hunter’s Prayer

9 – Pottersville

8 – Hangman

7 – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

6 – I.T.

5 – Attack of the Killer Donuts

4 – Sharknado 5: Global Swarming

3 – The Layover

2 – Death Race 2050

1 – Baywatch

But thankfully, where there are bad movies, equally there are good ones, but as mentioned above, the flurry of 2016 movies that reached the UK at the beginning of the year meant that this year’s Top 10 Movies list would be over-run by “older” titles. So a decision was made to only include movies actually released or first shown in 2017. However, this has led to the list becoming over-run in a different way. The opportunity to see some of this year’s award-worthy movies in recent weeks has meant that a few movies that were previously shoo-ins for the Top 10 have been demoted, and their places taken by these award-worthy movies. That’s not a complaint however, because now those movies will get the recognition they deserve in the year that they deserve it.

Top 10 Movies of 2017

10 – Detroit

9 – The Villainess

8 – The Big Sick

7 – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

6 – Wind River

5 – Marjorie Prime

4 – Call Me by Your Name

3 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

2 – Lady Bird

1 – The Florida Project

Whatever full-scale delights or unwanted horrors 2018 holds for us all remains to be seen, but as ever, hopefulness should be the year’s watchword. Although it could be argued that nobody sets out to make a bad movie, experience does teach us that people do complete bad movies and release them to the public. As already mentioned on this site (here), mega-budget, mega-hyped movies will have less of a public face on thedullwoodexperiment in 2018, and the focus will be on finding good movies overall, ones to recommend that might not have had the exposure of their big-budget cousins. That’s a pretty good challenge and one to look forward to.

In closing, I’d like to offer a big Thank You to everyone who visited thedullwoodexperiment in 2017 and read a review or some other post, or who became a follower (not sure that term feels right), or left a comment. Your interaction with the site makes it all worthwhile. I would also like to wish everyone a very Happy New Year and many happy viewing experiences in the year ahead. And let’s hope we can all meet back here in a year’s time and still be buzzing about the movies we’ve seen and loved (or seen and hated), and that we still have that passion for movies that keeps us going and going and going. It’s been a pleasure sharing another year with you all.

Lady Bird (2017)

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D: Greta Gerwig / 93m

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott

Warm and inviting, actress Greta Gerwig’s debut as a writer/director is a coming of age tale that involves Christine McPherson (Ronan), a seventeen year old high schooler who lives in Sacramento with her parents, Marion (Metcalf) and Larry (Letts), her adopted older brother Miguel (Rodrigues) and his girlfriend, Shelly (Scott), and who prefers to be known by her given name (as in given to her by herself) of Lady Bird. Lady Bird is a senior student who is looking to swap what she views as the culturally barren West Coast for the more eclectic and intellectual East Coast when she graduates and heads off to college. Currently attending a Catholic high school, she feels and acts like an outsider, and aside from having one friend, Julie (Feldstein), doesn’t do much to combat this. When she and Julie decide to audition for the upcoming school musical though, she meets Danny (Hedges), and they begin dating.

But while she navigates the uncharted waters of her first romantic relationship, Lady Bird has other problems to deal with. Her father is in danger of losing his job, and increasing financial difficulties have left the family living – literally – on the wrong side of the tracks. Also, Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is an adversarial one, with the two of them constantly arguing and battling against each other. Marion is painfully honest about her belief in Lady Bird’s ability to get into a good college, and rarely ever compliments her. Her father is more supportive, and between them, he and Lady Bird endeavour to get her on to a college Wait List. While she waits for a response, Lady Bird’s relationship with Danny stalls due to an unexpected development, and she drops Julie in favour of Jenna (Rush), a more popular girl in school. At the same time she meets Kyle (Chalamet), who’s a musician in a band. But Lady Bird soon finds that dropping one small set of friends for another doesn’t solve any of her self-perceived problems, and her fractious home life doesn’t improve either. In fact, events lead to it being quite the opposite…

The idea of actors or actresses deciding to step behind the camera is far from unusual, but writing and directing as a first choice, and on the first occasion, is a little rarer. It’s a tribute to Greta Gerwig’s efforts that Lady Bird is not only an accomplished first feature, but a movie that will bear up under repeated viewings. Coming of age movies are ten a penny these days, and the highs and lows of being a teenager have been the subject of so many movies that you could be forgiven for wondering if there is anything new to be said. And while this does remain the case, what Gerwig does that makes her movie so effective, and so good, is write convincing dialogue. There’s not one line that feels false or contrived or sounds clichéd, and with this so ably taken care of, the cast have no problem in sounding like real people, and the various interactions their characters have all have an air of authenticity, as if Gerwig has eavesdropped on actual conversations and recorded them verbatim. This also gives the movie a rhythm and a flow that allows the viewer to be drawn along in the characters’ wake, something that adds immeasurably to the enjoyment the movie provides. And with that enjoyment comes a hopefulness that everything will eventually work out well for everyone concerned.

Lady Bird herself is a terrific character, challenging and challenged at almost every turn, and behaving in contradictory fashion throughout, just as a regular teenager would be who was trying to work out their place in the world. She wants to be her own individual, independent and assured despite having only limited experience of relationships and the wider world – everything happening with her father comes as a surprise to her – and trying to do her best as long as she benefits most. Gerwig focuses on Lady Bird’s selfish behaviour with a precision that if it isn’t autobiographical then it means that she’s very, very observant. There are moments where sympathy for the character is deliberately withdrawn by Gerwig, but there are also moments that follow on where Lady Bird shows more self-awareness than before, and sympathy is restored accordingly. It’s all played out with great skill and directorial acumen, and Gerwig accurately captures the confusion and longing that goes with being seventeen and wanting to be loved by family, friends, and/or the opposite sex.

She’s aided by a tremendously assured performance from Ronan, an actress who seems to be getting better and better with every role. Ronan brings a versatility and an understanding of the character that is impressive for the consistency that she achieves in maintaining Lady Bird’s obdurate character. It’s an appealing, generous performance and has a sincerity about it that allows the viewer to overlook much of Lady Bird’s poor behaviour. As Lady Bird’s mother, Metcalf is also on tremendous form, channelling the pain and frustration Marion feels at where Life has brought her, and the additional pain that comes of finding herself unable to do anything about the emotional discord between herself and her daughter (though the reason why is perfectly encapsulated in a single line of dialogue). In support, Letts is tender and more approachable, Hedges is a flawed Prince Charming, Chalamet is the pretentious rebound boyfriend, and Feldstein shines as the best friend who’s kicked to the kerb out of social expediency.

For the most part, Lady Bird is a keenly observed drama, but Gerwig is able to infuse her tale with an abundance of humour that acts as a necessary counterpoint to the emotional trials and tribulations that her heroine faces. The humour is varied from scene to scene, but like the majority of Gerwig’s script is only included when it suits or supports the material; there are no easy laughs here. Gerwig also shows that she has a keen sense of the spaces that her characters inhabit. Lady Bird and Marion are often shot in close proximity to each other so as to highlight the closeness of their relationship, while her other relationships – the ones that aren’t so emotionally acute – are allowed greater room in which to play out. DoP Sam Levy does a terrific job in allowing Sacramento (with which Lady Bird has a love-hate relationship) to become a secondary character all its own, while Nick Huoy’s editing is perfectly in sync with the tempo of Gerwig’s screenplay and directing style. As first features go, Gerwig has made a formidable debut. If she has any other ideas for a movie, then let’s hope we get to see them real soon, because on this evidence, her career as an actress doesn’t have to be her only one.

Rating: 9/10 – modest in scope and presentation, but perfectly realised for all that, Lady Bird is a movie with a big heart, grander ambitions than expected, and the courage to attain them all; in making this movie so completely irresistible, Gerwig has put her indie colleagues on notice: there’s a new movie maker in town and worst of all, she knows exactly what she’s doing.

A(nother) Brief Word About thedullwoodexperiment

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Back on 12 December, I wrote a post that talked about my lack of enthusiasm for new movies. The post made it sound like I didn’t care for all new movies, when in fact I was voicing my dislike for the constant diet of mainstream, Hollywood produced movies we’re fed each year, and their repetitive nature. In recent weeks I’ve watched and reviewed the likes of Daddy’s Home Two and Flatliners, movies that reinforce the notion that their makers didn’t really care what they were doing, or even how their movies would be received as long as they made enough money at the box office. Call me cynical, but as I’ve said before on thedullwoodexperiment, the people that make these movies are all highly regarded and all highly talented, but they make the same mediocre/rubbish/moronic (I’m talking about you, Baywatch) movies over and over. And we all rush to see them. Now I’m not saying that movies should be boycotted per se, but if certain movies didn’t do well at the box office then perhaps the studios would take the hint and start making better movies (unlikely, I know, but hey, I have enough optimism for ten people some times).

Anyhoo, what this all means for thedullwoodexperiment is that from 1 January 2018, this blog will no longer provide full-length reviews of the majority of mainstream movies, those tentpole movies that seem able to disappoint us year after year, and which are still likely to do so in the next twelve months. I’ll still be watching them – I’m still a movie addict when all’s said and done – but any reviews will be relegated to each month’s Monthly Roundup. Part of my “issue” with these movies is that they are the ones that everybody will be talking about, and everyone will be posting reviews on them, and the big, unwieldy machine that keeps churning them out will continue to be fed no matter what my opinion is. And I’ve strayed a little from my original intention in setting up this blog, which was to bring non-mainstream movies to people’s attention. I do still do that, but not as often as I should be.

So, what does this mean for thedullwoodexperiment going forward? In terms of the reviews, not a lot. They’ll continue in the same format, but there will be more reviews of foreign movies, and older movies, and there’ll be a British Classics series. For One Week Only will return in the guise of weeks that focus on a particular genre, or star, or director, and in February Poster of the Week will take up permanent residence on a Tuesday. Following on from Mandrake the Magician (1939), there will be a new serial beginning in March, more Brief Words about various subjects as they crop up throughout the year, and more Catch Up movies too. There’s a lot more to come, but you’ll have to wait until later in the year to find out just what “a lot more” amounts to. Hopefully, those of you who are regular followers, or even those of you who just dip in and out of the site as it suits you, will enjoy the changes coming up, and continue on this incredible journey with me. With so many movies out there, it seems to me that broadening our horizons isn’t such a bad thing at all. So here’s to 2018, and discovering more wonderful movies together.