The Green Butchers (2003)


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Original title: De grønne slagtere

D: Anders Thomas Jensen / 100m

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mads Mikkelsen, Line Kruse, Ole Thestrup, Bodil Jørgensen, Aksel Erhardtsen, Lily Weiding, Nicolas Bro, Camilla Bendix, Elsebeth Steentoft

Svend (Mikkelsen) and Bjarne (Kaas) are friends who work for their local butcher, Holger (Thestrup). Holger is a success thanks to the quality of his sausages, but he’s arrogant and treats the two friends as if they were idiots. But Svend has always wanted to open his own butcher’s shop in tandem with Bjarne, and when the opportunity presents itself, that’s exactly what he does. There’s a lot of work to do in getting the shop ready, including seeing to the electrics in the meat freezer. When the electrician carrying out the work is locked in the freezer overnight, Svend finds his body. But before he can do anything about it, Holger calls in with an order for a dinner party he’s having that evening. Svend obliges, but has to confess to Bjarne that he included fillets from the electrician’s leg in the order. The next day, the shop is besieged by customers, and though Svend promises the electrician is a one-off, the temptation to come up with other “donors” – and continue their success – proves too much for him to follow through on…

A low-key black comedy that adopts a largely matter-of-fact approach to its mildly anarchic narrative, The Green Butchers is an enjoyable romp that retains a subtlety of purpose at the same time as it throws a number of farcical elements into the mix as its story unfolds. Aside from the small matter of Svend & Co providing the kind of customer service Sweeney Todd would be proud of, there’s also the small matter of Bjarne’s twin brother, Eigil (Kaas), in a coma when we first meet him, and then running around and complicating matters. But just when Eigil’s vegetarianism and love of animals seems bound to reveal the truth about Svend & Co, the script pulls a fast one and his presence ends up jeopardising Bjarne’s budding romance with Astrid (Kruse), a local girl whose uncle just so happens to have eaten human flesh before (yes, really). While Bjarne tries to rebuild his life and move past a tragedy caused by his brother, Svend continues on a dark murderous spiral into insanity that shows no sign of halting. Thanks to their tortured pasts – Svend has never known love, even from his parents – both men become inured to what they’re doing.

That the movie never loses sight of their humanity and doesn’t make them look and feel like caricatures, is a testament to Jensen’s skill as a writer and director. Though the narrative does its best to wrong foot the viewer, much of it is foreseeable if not entirely predictable, and what few twists and turns there are, are handled with care and don’t overwhelm the storyline. As for Bjarne and Svend, they’re a likeable odd couple, with Bjarne’s laidback pothead demeanour a perfect foil for Svend’s arrogant, over-compensating nature. Svend is often unnecessarily spiteful, and Mikkelsen (with his severe hairstyle) makes him a wretch who’s almost incapable of good intentions, while Kaas gives full expression to the conflicting emotions Bjarne feels toward his brother. Both actors are on good form, and it’s a pleasure to watch them at work, while the dark humour and inherent absurdities of the plot are teased out with patience and skill by Jensen. It’s an amiable movie, content to avoid dwelling on the messier aspects of Svend & Co’s acquisition of its “chicken” products, and therefore lacking “bite”, but for a movie that concerns itself with murder and cannabalism, it’s also refreshing for its restraint and self-discipline.

Rating: 7/10 – there’s no shortage of laughs in The Green Butchers, but then its moral compass is more than a little off-kilter, and its two main characters delightfully adaptable to their predicament; perhaps a little too tame to make much of a dramatic impact, it’s nevertheless an enjoyable slice of Danish hokum, with winning performances and some knowing things to say about the pursuit of fame and success.


Spielberg (2017)


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D: Susan Lacy / 147m

With: Steven Spielberg, Leah Adler, Francis Ford Coppola, Daniel Day-Lewis, Brian De Palma, Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Dreyfuss, Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Michael Kahn, Janusz Kaminski, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Janet Maslin, Dennis Muren, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Anne Spielberg, Arnold Spielberg, Nancy Spielberg, Sue Spielberg, John Williams, Vilmos Zsigmond

Spielberg opens with a confession from the man himself: that when he saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for the first time, it made him realise he couldn’t be a director. The scope and the depth of David Lean’s extraordinary movie was so far beyond Spielberg’s own capabilities as a budding movie maker that it was overwhelming. But not even Lean’s masterpiece could deter him completely. The next week he saw it again, and again the week after that, and the week after that… Awake to the possibilities that cinema could offer and provide, Spielberg continued to make short movies of his own, including Amblin’ (1968). This brought him to the attention of Sid Sheinberg, then president of Universal, who took a chance on him. A short stint in television led to his first feature, Duel (1971), and just four years later, he changed the face of cinema forever by making the first summer blockbuster, Jaws (1975). The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Susan Lacy’s celebratory documentary focuses on the various highs of Spielberg’s career, while studiously ignoring the lows. This is to be expected perhaps, but while the likes of Jaws, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), and Lincoln (2012) are studied in some detail, once 1941 (1979) is dealt with (“Why couldn’t I make a comedy?”), the focus settles on establishing Spielberg as a predominantly serious movie maker, and not the populist movie maker who, at his best, can still inspire the kinds of awe and wonder that other directors can only dream of. Lacy looks to how Spielberg has grown as a director, and how he’s used each new experience behind the camera as a way of augmenting and perfecting his craft. Even now, after more than fifty years as a director, Spielberg comes across as someone who’s still learning, and is eager to do so. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an engaging and often self-deprecating interviewee, and throughout he makes references to growing up and being a child of divorce, something that has infused much of his work since.

His recollections and reminiscences are supported by a range of collaborators and interested parties, but none are as interesting as those supplied by his family, from his mother Leah, father Arnold, and sisters Anne, Nancy and Sue. Their memories of his childhood, coupled with his feelings about being Jewish, help broaden our understanding of Spielberg the person, and what has driven him in his work over the years. But while he’s open and honest about his parents’ divorce and the effect it had on him, and the importance of his own family now, the absence of Kate Capshaw is curious (and unexplained). That aside, and though the movie overall is a fascinating endorsement of his career and achievements, it’s perhaps a little too safe in its approach. Though a plethora of behind the scenes footage, and photographs from his childhood and early career is welcome, and Spielberg is a worthy subject, there’s a sense that his observations about those movies which weren’t so successful – Hook (1991), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), or The BFG (2016) – would have been equally welcome. Lacy correctly focuses on Spielberg’s strengths as a director and the high regard he has amongst his peers, but even that brings up another issue: with Spielberg having had a considerable influence on a range of movie makers over the last forty-plus years, why are their contributions as noticeably absent as Capshaw’s?

Rating: 7/10 – a documentary that isn’t as wide-ranging as it could have been (and despite its running time), Spielberg is still an entertaining journey through the director’s life and career that is informative and convivial; having Spielberg revisit many of his movies is illuminating, and there’s enough here that’s new or previously unrevealed to make this – for now – the place to go to find out how and why he makes the movies he does.

80,000 Suspects (1963)


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D: Val Guest / 109m

Cast: Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Yolande Donlan, Cyril Cusack, Michael Goodliffe, Mervyn Johns, Kay Walsh, Norman Bird, Basil Dignam, Arthur Christiansen

It’s New Year’s Eve and all is not well between Dr Steven Monks (Johnson) and his wife, Julie (Bloom). After nine years their marriage is faltering. He has had an affair with a long-time friend, Ruth Preston (Donlan), the wife of one of his colleagues, Clifford (Goodliffe), but Julie only has vague suspicions and half-formed ideas as to why their marriage is in trouble. The discovery that a patient at the hospital where Steven works has smallpox, at first puts their problems to one side, but as more and more sufferers are found and the threat of an epidemic hangs over everyone, their relationship – and how they overcome their issues – takes on a greater importance for both of them. Julie contracts the virus, while at the same time, Ruth may or may not have left her husband. With the authorities stretched to the limit in their efforts to contain the outbreak, personal animosities become heightened, Steven and Julie find themselves making irrevocable decisions about their marriage, and one carrier threatens the safety of everyone…

Adapted from the novel, The Pillars of Midnight by Elleston Trevor, 80,000 Suspects is three movies rolled into one. There’s the hospital-based drama that unfolds as more and more smallpox sufferers are discovered and the Ministry of Health is brought in to save the day, there’s the relationship drama built around the problems of Steven and Julie, and there’s a late addition in the form of a race against time to find the last carrier, which makes it a thriller. All these elements bump against each other as the movie unfolds, and though they don’t always do so in an organic or believable way, the strength of the material overall ensures any rough transitions are smoothed over as quickly as possible. As each element is explored, the script also ensures that they’re not explored for too long before moving on or away to the next development in the story. This keeps the narrative ticking over effectively, and allows the characters – even the minor ones such as Johns’ over-anxious Ministry of Health coordinator – to stand out as credibly as possible. Working from his own script, director Val Guest adroitly keeps the focus where it’s needed, and elicits good performances from all concerned (though you could argue Johnson is a little stiff at times).

Shot in and around the town of Bath during the winter of early 1963 (which was particularly bad), the movie benefits from its location work, and the involvement of local residents in the scenes involving mass vaccination (watch out too for a cameo from Thirties star Graham Moffatt as a man with a fear of needles). This level of verisimilitude adds greatly to the no-frills approach adopted by Guest, and helps to make the potential scale of the epidemic that much more frightening. And for once, there aren’t any hidden agendas or characters using the outbreak for personal gain, just a group of people trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. The inter-relationships between the Monks’ and the Prestons does lead to a couple of soap opera-style moments, but these are forgivable in a movie that, by and large, could be mistaken at times as being a reconstruction of past events. Guest oversees it all with his usual skill, and in tandem with DoP Arthur Grant, uses the CinemaScope format to impressive effect, even though he relies on medium shots for most of the movie. Often gripping, this is a minor British classic, and easily due a revival.

Rating: 8/10 – an intelligent, yet modest drama with thriller leanings, 80,000 Suspects invests heavily in its characters and uses its smallpox outbreak as a way of exploring their faults and foibles, and in some depth; Bloom is terrific as the conflicted Julie, but Guest is the movies’s MVP, and if for nothing else, than for showing the fear and paranoia about the outbreak spreading out of control coming not from the public, but from the authorities trying to combat it.

NOTE: At present, there isn’t a trailer for 80,000 Suspects.

Kuleana (2017)


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D: Brian Kohne / 95m

Cast: Moronai Kanekoa, Sonya Balmores, Kristina Anapau, Stefan C. Schaefer, Augie Tulba, Marlene Sai, Branscombe Richmond, Mel Cabang, Vene Chun, Kainoa Horcajo, Steven Dascoulias

Hawaii, 1971. Nohea (Kanekoa) has returned home from Vietnam minus his left leg from the knee down, and with an uncertain future. He’s under pressure to sell the land his family has lived on for generations, and his grandmother (Sai), the current family elder, isn’t well enough to stop him. Things become even more complicated when his Aunt Rose (Anapau) appears to have committed suicide. Rose was married to a property developer who came from the mainland, Victor Coyle (Schaefer). In 1959, their adopted daughter, Kimberly, and Nohea’s father (Horcajo), disappeared. Victor accused Nohea’s father of kidnapping Kimberly, but as no trace of them was ever found, both are now presumed dead. Rose’s death brings the past and the present into sharp focus as Nohea tries to make sense of what happened twelve years ago, while also trying to fit back into a life and a culture that he’s lost his connection to. With Coyle intent on buying up as much land as possible for his own financial gain, and Nohea being drawn into Rose’s death, Kimberly’s sudden reappearance brings even further problems.

Kuleana is the Hawaiian word for responsibility. It’s a word that hangs heavy over writer-director Brian Kohne’s second feature, a sincere, culturally sensitive drama that unfolds patiently and with quiet skill. It’s a movie that focuses on the characters first and the drama second, but which also ties them together so that as the twin stories unfold in both 1959 and 1971, the characters drive the events that happen much more than they react to them. Pitched against a backdrop of the continued homogenisation of Hawaiian culture by US influences – Coyle’s development plans inevitably make no room for maintaining any traditions or beliefs about the land – the movie shows how the erosion of cultural values was taking its toll. Nohea’s conflicted struggle to make sense of his own future is reflected in the attitudes of his uncle, Bossy (Chun), who supports Coyle’s plans, and The Moke (Richmond), an enforcer for a local mobster (Cabang) who finds it increasingly difficult to put aside his tribal roots. By showing the political and social divisions that were prevalent at the time, Kohne ensures the movie is more than about the mystery surrounding Rose’s death, or if Kimberly’s return will complicate matters.

Kohne gets his message across clearly and concisely, and makes the most of a limited budget. Dan Hersey’s cinematography highlights the natural beauty of the Maui locations without making them look like picture postcard versions of themselves, while Adi Ell-Ad’s fluid yet measured editing ensures the narrative plays out in confident style and at a good pace. The performances are good, with Kanekoa giving an understated yet compelling portrayal of a man trying not to be at odds with his heritage, while Balmores carries the weight of the wrongs done to Kimberly with a steely determination. As Coyle, Schaefer is stuck with the one character who doesn’t have an arc but who does have a bad wig, and Anapau, as Rose, doesn’t get the opportunity to do more with her pivotal role than is absolutely necessary. This is due to the demands of the main storyline, and is therefore unavoidable, but Rose is one character we could have spent more time with. Kohne adds some magical realism into the mix to good effect, but scores even higher with his choice of Willie K and Johnny Wilson for the score. Their efforts, combined with a soundtrack that includes a poignant use of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, add an emotional layer that complements and enhances the material from beginning to end.

Rating: 8/10 – despite some story elements that are either prosaic and/or predictable, Kuleana is an involving, credible drama that ensures its Hawaiian cultural backdrop is just as important as its central storyline; if this is an example of what can be achieved by Hawaiian movie makers working “at home”, then let’s hope that there will be many more opportunities for them to do so in the future.

Poster of the Week – Virtue (1932)


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Passion, torment, fear, distrust, regret – all these are present in the poster for Virtue, a pre-Code potboiler that uses an already well-worn theme to tell its sexploitation story. The wife with an embarrassing past was already a movie staple by 1932, and the poster for Virtue is a good example of the way in which the studios – here it’s Columbia – tried to be both exploitative and responsible in their promotion of a “racy” picture. (Which concept do you think they were more interested in?) What’s interesting about this poster is its combination of disparate and not immediately complementary elements – and to modern eyes – the rather dated and slightly humorous sexual overtones.

The top part of the poster is given over to what would have been regarded as a shocking tagline, one given extra emphasis by an exaggerated exclamation mark. Make no mistake, this tagline is saying, this is going to be strong stuff (and you won’t be disappointed). The euphemism is clear, but as usual it’s the kind of hyperbole that promises a lot, but which the movie itself won’t be able to provide. Then there’s the swirling blue background, something of a miasma designed to represent the turmoil the characters will find themselves battling. But as we travel down the poster, this murky miasma gives way to depictions of the two main characters, and the jarring use of orange and yellow hues to depict the passion that exists between them. A closer inspection, however, reveals something else, something revealed in their expressions. O’Brien’s character is looking at Lombard with apprehension, while Lombard returns his gaze with a concerned look of her own. It’s almost as if she’s asking herself, does he know? With this dynamic in place,it’s then that the poster decides it’s time to highlight the suggestive nature of the movie, and gives us Lombard’s exposed throat and the hint of a swelling breast.

Sometimes, when you see posters from the pre-Code era, it’s interesting to see just what was regarded as “racy” or “provocative”. Here we have the unflattering sight of Lombard (sadly not provided with the best of representations) in a pink chemise with a black shawl over one shoulder, her right hand behind her head in what was no doubt intended to be a sultry pose reflecting the kind of “past” O’Brien doesn’t know about. It’s the pose of someone with a disreputable character, but too awkwardly designed and executed to have quite the effect required. More startling is the spectral hand reaching out as if attempting to touch Lombard’s right breast, or perhaps to clutch at the more sultry embodiment further to the right. It’s a clumsy expression of the past life that’s about to catch up with her, and would be better off on the poster for a Forties’ horror movie. And then there’s the movie’s title, highlighted in blatant yellow, and a counterpoint to the rest of the imagery – as well as being something of a challenge. Virtue? you might ask? Really?

The rest of the poster, with its strong yet ugly shade of green used as a backdrop for the stars’ names and an unnecessary city landscape, is perfunctory if a little brutal. Judged as a whole, though, this is a poster that works surprisingly well, its contrasting colour scheme and pictorial stylings somehow coming together to make an effective piece of advertising. You could argue that it’s not pretty, and you could argue that it’s too inconsistent in its composition, but while all that may be true, what can be said with absolute authority is that this is a poster that captures the attention and has a lot to offer – and in spite of its diverse components.

All the Way (2016)


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D: Jay Roach / 132m

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Frank Langella, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root, Todd Weeks, Ray Wise, Ken Jenkins, Dohn Norwood, Mo McRae, Marque Richardson, Aisha Hinds, Joe Morton

In the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, newly sworn in (and ex-Vice) President Lyndon B. Johnson (Cranston) referred to himself as the “accidental President”. Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s sudden ascent to the highest position in US politics may have come as a shock, but Johnson was a firm believer in the ideals and policies of his predecessor in the White House. The Civil Rights Bill was one such ideal, and one of Johnson’s earliest statements to the Press confirmed his intention to have the Bill passed into law within the coming year. Inevitably, Johnson encountered opposition to his plan, but from within his own party, the Democrats. Political factions in the South tried to stop the Bill from being passed. Even Johnson’s mentor, Richard Russell Jr (Langella), worked against him, while Johnson sought support from Martin Luther King Jr (Mackie). Through a series of political manoeuvrings and confrontations, Johnson succeeded in getting the bill passed, even after removing a critical section that would have enabled blacks to have voting rights. But then there was the small matter of campaigning to be elected President…

Adapted by Robert Schenkkan from his original play of the same name, All the Way covers that fateful first year in the wake of Kennedy’s death. It’s an absorbing, deftly handled movie that packs in a lot of exposition while also finding time to explore the character and the personality of a President who, outside of the US at least, isn’t as well known as some of his predecessors and successors. Johnson was President at a pivotal time in American history, and by focusing on his first year in office, the movie shows just how dedicated he was to making huge social and political changes happen. And thanks to the combination of Schenkkan’s skill as a writer, and Cranston’s skill as an actor, the complexity of the man is brought vividly to life. Johnson the President is shown as tough, determined, and something of a bully. Johnson the man is shown as being wracked by doubt, and insecurity. Cranston gives possibly his finest performance as LBJ, inhabiting the role to such an extent that it’s easy to forget that it’s Cranston at all (though he is helped by a superb makeup job).

As well as depicting the various sides to Johnson, Schenkkan and director Jay Roach take care to flesh out the supporting characters, and ensure they’re not there just to give LBJ someone to square off with. As MLK, Mackie is patient and implacable, pushing LBJ to do what’s right, while Leo offers dignified and persuasive support as Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird. Langella is equally good as the experienced politician who finds himself outwitted by his protegé (and feels betrayed by him), and there’s further sterling support from Whitford (as future Vice President Hubert Humphrey), Root (as J. Edgar Hoover), and Weeks (as Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s top aide). Roach keeps things fairly simple, though there are moments where the political ramifications of certain decisions may confound viewers not up to speed on the issues of the time (and despite Schenkkan’s best efforts). However, this is compelling stuff that begins slowly and gradually builds up speed as it heads toward Election Night in November 1964. If there is one issue, though, that the movie itself never overcomes, it’s the flatness of Jim Denault’s cinematography. This may be a TV movie, but there are times when the image feels lifeless and looks unappealing. A little more sheen would have made this as impressive to watch as its content.

Rating: 8/10 – a history lesson that’s often as moving as it is educational, All the Way benefits from Roach’s assured direction, Schenkkan’s fascinating exploration of LBJ’s first year as President, and a standout turn by Cranston as the man himself; in shining a spotlight on a tumultuous period in 60’s American politics, it serves as a potent reminder of what can happen when a good man has his hand firmly on the wheel of change.

Batman (1943) – Chapter 1: The Electrical Brain


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D: Lambert Hillyer / 26m

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Robert Fiske, Gus Glassmire, I. Stanford Jolley,

In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Batman aka Bruce Wayne (Wilson), and Robin aka Dick Grayson (Croft), have become secret government agents. They still find the time to catch regular bad guys though, and are supported by Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Austin). When Bruce’s girlfriend, Linda Page (Patterson), asks him to accompany her to meet her uncle, Martin Warren (Glassmire), on his release from prison, his abduction by men working for Dr Daka (Naish), the Japanese leader of a spy ring operating in Gotham, provides Batman with his most dangerous adventure yet. Daka has kidnapped Warren for information about a store of radium kept at the Gotham City Foundation. By coincidence, it’s where Linda works, and where Bruce and Dick witness some of Daka’s men entering the building. Using a radium powered device with explosive properties, Daka’s men steal the stored radium only for Batman and Robin to intervene. While one of them gets away with the radium, the others take on the Dynamic Duo in a rooftop fight that sees Batman pushed over the ledge and falling to certain death…

The very first screen incarnation of the DC Comics’ character, Batman fits neatly into the serial formula already established by the likes of Flying G-Men (1939) and The Shadow (1940). By this time, Columbia Pictures were old hands at this sort of thing, and in adapting Batman from the comics, they continued to mold an existing heroic figure into the bash ’em, smash ’em and crash ’em milieu they had been so adept at creating. Fans of the early comics will spot encouraging details such as the presence of utility belts, costumes that reflect the original DC design, and the presence of Alfred (whose appearance would lead to a complete change regarding his character in the comics). Inevitably, there’s no Batmobile, just a Cadillac Series 61 convertible that operates as a kind of Batmobile when the top is up, and as Bruce Wayne’s ride about town when the top is down. The costumes, though, aren’t quite as good as they could be, and are very baggy. Wilson isn’t the most athletic of actors, and Croft is clearly too old to be playing Robin, while the budget – such as it is – is highlighted by the sparse nature of the sets and the backlot surroundings.

But what of the story itself? Well, as mentioned before, Columbia were old hands at this sort of thing by 1943, and they weren’t averse to recycling some of their earlier plots. The pursuit of radium is used in much the same way as in Mandrake the Magician (1939), the hero’s girlfriend has already been attacked once (and no doubt will be again – and again), and there’s the first of what will be numerous car chases, so there’s much that will be familiar to devotees. But there is room for some invention: the bat symbol affixed to criminals’ foreheads (see above), and the car chase that ends due to the villains’ car changing colour; both of these are clever and creative in equal fashion. But this having been made during World War II, this is as much a propaganda exercise as it is a thrilling serial, and it is unrepently racist toward the Japanese. We’re introduced to Daka’s hideout, which is located in a rundown neighbourhood identified as Little Tokyo, and a voice over intones, “Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street”. No doubt there will be more like this in future episodes, but for now the tone has been set, the main characters have been introduced, and not for the first time, Batman is close to death. How will he survive?

Rating: 6/10 – as an opening chapter in a fifteen-part Forties serial goes, this isn’t so bad that it would put you off watching any more, but it is poor enough to make you wonder if sticking with it all the way to the end will be a profitable use of your time; this is history in the making, however, and as the first time the Caped Crusader appeared on screen, Batman has the advantage of being intriguing for how the character will develop across the remaining fourteen chapters.

Chloe & Theo (2015)


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D: Ezna Sands / 82m

Narrator: Michael Stiles

Cast: Theo Ikummaq, Dakota Johnson, Ashley Springer, André De Shields, Mira Sorvino, Eric Oram

When the Elders of his tribe approach him and tell him the story of a dream they’ve had that warns of the end of the world, Inuk Theo (Ikummaq) takes up the task of bringing the dream’s message to the Elders of the South. He travels to New York City, rents a room in a hotel, and wanders the streets looking for the Elders he needs to warn. It’s there that he meets Chloe (Johnson), a young homeless woman. She takes him under her wing, and in turn she introduces him to her friends, Tyler (Springer), Sancho (Oram), and Mr Sweet (De Shields). They each react in different ways to the story that Theo tells, but Chloe wants to help him get his warning out to as wide an audience as possible. But it’s slow-going until Mr Sweet tells Theo about the United Nations building, and suggests he take his message there. Theo finds himself detained, but once he’s released he finds an unexpected ally in Monica (Sorvino), a green campaigner who can help Theo’s message reach a wider audience.

There’s no avoiding it: Chloe & Theo is not the movie it should be. What should have been an endearing, humorous, heartfelt movie with a late but still timely ecological message, instead is a lumpen mess, a blundering attempt at bringing together all those elements into one satisfying whole. It’s hard to work out how it all could have gone so horribly wrong. It’s a fish-out-of-water story told in a very simple fashion, but with so many visual and narrative non sequiturs that it feels like a longer movie hacked down to its current running time entirely for commercial reasons (and not very good ones at that). Its environmental message is more simplistic than simple, and boils down to “rampant consumerism bad”, “listening to the planet good”. But that focus is dropped into the narrative at random times and for random reasons, with the characters – aside from some unnecessarily aggressive U.N. security officers – fully on Theo’s side but with no idea of how to help him. This means the first forty-five minutes, before the arrival of Monica, is replete with scenes where Theo’s naïvete is treated as a source of easy laughs, and the narrative moves forward with all the purpose of a stranded whale.

In the end, the movie doesn’t have an end, and what happens feels like a cop-out, designed to add some pathos to a movie that has only one truly emotional moment – and even that comes and goes without any context to support it. Also, the movie isn’t helped by the two main performances. Ikummaq is a non-professional so can be excused some very awkward line readings, and even though he exudes a quiet strength and dignity, he lacks the on-screen presence that would have allowed audiences to connect with him more effectively. Johnson, however, is a professional, but hers is a terrible performance, a succession of pouts and glowering expressions that highlight just how one-note her portrayal actually is. And giving her a few dirty smudges around her face and a mane of unkempt hair (while everyone else who’s homeless remains immaculately groomed) further hinders any credibility she might be trying to attain. There’s so much else that either doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t fit in, or feels forced, that the movie feels like yet another bad idea from the lab of Victor Frankenstein. Sadly, Sands, and despite very good intentions, lacks the wherewithal to tie everything together, and includes too much that is either far-fetched, problematical, dramatically redundant, or all three.

Rating: 3/10 – the Arctic scenery is stunning, an animated sequence is appropriately nightmarish, and there’s a great Indie soundtrack, but overall, Chloe & Theo is a disaster on a par with the one it warns about; lacking depth and a consistent tone (a homeless march on the U.N., anyone?), this won’t do anything for the green movement, or for viewers unlucky enough to give it a try.

Strange Weather (2016)


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D: Katherine Dieckmann / 91m

Cast: Holly Hunter, Carrie Coon, Kim Coates, Shane Jacobsen, Glenne Headly, Walker Babington, Craig Boe, Ransom Ashley, Susan Gallagher, Choppy Guillotte

Still grieving seven years after her son, Walker (Ashley), committed suicide at the age of twenty-four, Darcy Baylor (Hunter) learns that a friend of her son back then, Mark Wright (Jacobsen), appropriated a business plan that Walker had come up with, and has made a success of the idea. Wright has even used a childhood memory that Walker had that illustrated his original concept for a chain of hot dog restaurants. Darcy decides to head down to New Orleans – where Wright has opened a chain of Hot Dawg sites – to confront him and find out why he did what he did. She’s accompanied by her best friend, Byrd (Coon), and along the way they learn things about Walker’s last day, and particularly the last few hours before he died, that brings into question the perception that he killed himself. When Darcy reaches New Orleans she has far more questions than she started out with, but when she finally confronts Wright, she learns that the answers she’s seeking aren’t as cut and dried as she expected…

In assembling Strange Weather, writer/director Katherine Dieckmann has made a movie that combines an examination of personal grief, a mystery, and a road trip, and in such a way that the viewer never quite knows where each element is leading them, or if any of them will be resolved satisfactorily. In portraying the residual grief that Darcy feels, Dieckmann shows how hollow her life has been, and how difficult it’s been to move forward when so many unspoken questions have been holding her back. Dieckmann also shows how Darcy’s grief has kept her going at the same time, and how she’s used that grief as a form of emotional support. It all makes Darcy a flawed yet interesting character, and unpredictable as well, as evidenced by her taking the gun that Walker killed himself with, on her journey to New Orleans. Dieckmann also keeps the mystery surrounding Walker’s death ticking over in the background, ever present and fueling Darcy’s need for the truth, and Byrd’s reasons for going with her. As the road trip takes them inexorably to the Big Easy, it serves as a conduit for the truth, and as a reckoning for the grief that Darcy feels so intensely.

Darcy is played with impeccable artistry by Hunter, an actress who just keeps getting better and better, and who portrays the pain and sadness that Darcy feels so adroitly that you can’t help but be moved by the determination she shows in getting the answers she needs. Hunter shows both the character’s inner strength and her unacknowledged vulnerability, and gives a performance of such subtlety and range that Darcy’s actions, even those that are somewhat questionable, retain a credibility that makes her all the more sympathetic. The supporting performances are good too, but Hunter is in a league of her own, and Dieckmann wisely leaves her to it (when someone like Hunter is this good, it’s best just to step back and make sure the cameras are rolling). The movie is honest and sincere in its approach to the material, and while a couple of plot developments do feel a little forced (and lifted from a daytime soap opera), by continually returning to Darcy’s dogged quest for answers to questions she hasn’t formulated yet, the movie remains a fascinating, if low-key, journey into the world of a mother who just can’t find it within herself to close the door fully on the death of her son… and who is proved right in not doing so.

Rating: 8/10 – an impressive performance by Hunter is the bedrock of a movie that is effective in terms of its examination of the nature of overwhelming grief, and which offers unexpected insights at several points along the way; David Rush Morrison’s cinematography provides a rich colour palette for the characters to appear against, and there’s a terrific soundtrack courtesy of Sharon Van Etten that complements the material in a rewarding and unforeseen manner, making Strange Weather the kind of movie that deserves a wider audience.

Gringo (2018)


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D: Nash Edgerton / 110m

Cast: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Sharlto Copley, Harry Treadaway, Thandie Newton, Yul Vazquez, Carlos Corona, Diego Cataño, Rodrigo Corea, Hernán Mendoza, Alan Ruck, Kenneth Choi

Ah, the underdog. The plucky, conscientious, yet continually overlooked underdog. One of Life’s also-rans, he or she rarely gets ahead because everyone around them is too busy feathering their own nests to do anything other than take them for granted – except when it comes time to make them the fall guy in some nefarious scheme or other. How many times have we seen this scenario in a movie? (Don’t answer, that’s an entirely rhetorical question.) And how many times have we seen the underdog, after many trials and tribulations, find a way to come out on top? (Again, don’t answer.) But it doesn’t seem to matter how often this kind of scenario plays out in a movie, someone will always come along and attempt to provide another variation on such a time-worn theme. Which leads us to Gringo, the second feature from Nash Edgerton, and another example of the underdog story. Here, the underdog is Harold Soyinka (Oyelowo), a Nigerian-born executive at a US pharmaceutical company, Cannabax Technologies Inc, who finds himself in trouble with a Mexican drugs cartel.

It’s all the fault of his duplicitous bosses, Richard Rusk (Edgerton), and Elaine Markinson (Theron). The marijuana-based drug they’ve been developing for the mass market is ready to go, but in their haste to rake in as much profit as they can, Richard and Elaine have decided to sever ties with the drugs cartel they have been colluding with up until now. Harold doesn’t know any of this at first, but he soon gets wise, and he learns that Richard and Elaine are planning to sell the company, meaning he’ll lose his job. So on a trip to Cannabax’s Mexican factory, Harold decides to fake his own kidnapping. He hopes to force Richard and Elaine into paying the “ransom demand” and pocketing the money for himself. Inevitably, things don’t go the way Harold has planned them, and soon he’s being chased by the cartel, getting involved with the girlfriend (Seyfried) of a drug mule (Treadaway) (they’re all staying in the same hotel where he’s hiding out), and finding an unlikely saviour in an ex-mercenary (Copley) who isn’t all that he seems.

Gringo is the kind of black comedy thriller that always seems to attract a great cast, but which then spends a lot of time and effort in giving them hardly anything to do, or to work with. It’s a busy movie, but messy and dramatically uneven, and unsure of what tone to adopt in any given scene. As it plays out, the movie seems committed to providing as many stock characters in as many stock situations as it can, and to adding a thick layer of humour to proceedings in the hope that if the drama doesn’t work, then the audience will be distracted by the sight of Harold’s high-pitched yelping when given an injection (admittedly funny thanks to Oyelowo), or the cartel boss’s obsession with The Beatles (less so). When things turn violent, the movie becomes another beast altogether, and it tries for tragedy as well, something it can’t pull off because by then it’s way too late. The performances suffer as a result, with Oyelowo and Copley coming off best, but Theron is saddled with a thankless “corporate bitch” role that even she can’t enliven. There’s a half decent movie in there somewhere, but thanks to the vagaries of the script (by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone) and Edgerton’s inability to maintain a consistent tone throughout, it’s never going to see the light of day.

Rating: 5/10 – intermittently funny, but otherwise too predictable and/or derivative of other, similar movies, Gringo wants to be entertaining but lacks the wherewithal to know how; a movie that coasts along at times in its search for the next incident to move it forward, it’s amiable enough, but not very ambitious in its ideas, something that leaves it feeling rough and ready and under-developed.

Festival (2005)


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D: Annie Griffin / 101m

Cast: Richard Ayoade, Amelia Bullmore, Billy Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Jonah Lotan, Stephen Mangan, Lyndsey Marshal, Stuart Milligan, Daniela Nardini, Chris O’Dowd, Deirdre O’Kane, Lucy Punch, Clive Russell

Set against the backdrop of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (and shot there in 2004), Festival is a compendium of interlocking stories centred around various actors and comedians who are all trying to be noticed or win awards. Amongst the comedians there’s Tommy O’Dwyer (O’Dowd), returning for his ninth year of unqualified non-success; Conor Kelly (Carter), who works with puppets; and Nicky Romanowski (Punch), who tells comic stories based on her Jewish upbringing. Amongst the actors there’s Faith Myers (Marshal), a first-timer with a one-woman play about Dorothy Wordsworth; a Canadian trio that includes Rick (Lotan), who finds himself attracted to the owner of the house they’re renting, Micheline (Bullmore); and Father Mike (Russell), whose play about paedophile priests may not be entirely fictional. Orbiting these characters are the likes of über-famous comedian and Comedy Award judge Sean Sullivan (Mangan), and his put-upon PA Petra Loewenberg (Cassidy); radio presenter Joan Gerard (Nardini), who’s also a Comedy Award judge; and Arnold Weiss (Milligan), an American agent looking to represent Sean in the US.

Ensemble movies can be a tricky proposition. Give too much screen time to one character and their story and you risk making another character’s story slight and uninteresting. Reverse that idea and you don’t do justice to the other character and their story. With fifteen main characters to juggle with, Festival does a good job of getting the balance right, but of necessity it does focus on some characters more than others, though not to the extent that any one tale suffers accordingly. However, whether or not you care about any of the characters is another matter, because while Annie Griffin’s feature debut doesn’t short change any of them in terms of development, even the most sympathetic of characters – Petra, for example – fail to connect with the audience. You can perhaps understand the dilemma: whether to show the hypocrisy and rampant self-absorption of the performers at the Fringe, or to make them less objectionable – and the movie less credible as a result. But the consequence of opting to show the hypocrisy etc. means that the result is a movie where being immersed in the various storylines isn’t as rewarding as it could be.

Part of the problem is in the movie’s fluctuating tone. In trying to accommodate both comedy and drama, while also including flashes of bathos and heavy-handed irony, Griffin provides too many awkward transitions from one to the other (and sometimes in the same scene). It’s also a less than subtle movie, with one sex scene in particular guaranteed to have some viewers squirming with discomfort (though not as much as one of the characters involved in it), and Griffin making the point over and over that comedians are an unhappy bunch whose ability to be funny masks a myriad of personal and emotional problems. Thankfully, trite observations such as these are offset by the quality of the comedy elements, which are very funny indeed. The drama though, still retains an overcooked feel to it that stops it from being entirely credible, and it’s in these moments that you can see Griffin trying too hard. As for the performances, there isn’t one portrayal that stands out from all the rest – though Mangan’s obnoxious Sean Sullivan comes close – which makes this a truly ensemble experience. The hustle and bustle of the Edinburgh Festival is expressed through often guerrilla-style cinematography courtesy of DoP Danny Cohen, and allows for an authentic backdrop. It’s just a shame that not everything happening in the foreground matches the industry of the festival itself.

Rating: 6/10 – promoted as a “black comedy”, Festival is more of an unfulfilled dramedy, one that succeeds more in one area than it does in the other; it’s entertaining enough while you’re watching it, but the relevance and resonance it’s aiming for doesn’t come across, making this frustrating and satisfying in almost equal measure.

NOTE: Alas, there’s no available trailer for Festival.

Poster of the Week – Equalizer 2000 (1987)


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Wait a minute (you may be thinking). What’s this? A poster for a low-budget Eighties Mad Max rip off? Has Poster of the Week been hijacked by someone with a fetish for beefcake and outsized weaponry? (Not this week.) No, the truth is, sometimes a poster can be enjoyed – admired, even – for what it gets wrong, just as much as for what it gets right. The poster for Cirio H. Santiago’s Equalizer 2000 is one such example: on the face of it, absurdly generic for the time, but upon closer inspection revealing a variety of unexpected pleasures. It’s a poster that’s not just saying, “Watch this movie!”, it’s also a poster that’s saying, “My designer was bored when they got this job, and they decided to have some fun with it!” Of course, this last may not be true at all, but the alternative is even worse: this is the best the artist could do.

First up is the volcanic explosion erupting behind our hero and his significant other. It’s an enormous fireball, sending out smoke and flames and debris in every direction. But is this the work of the title weapon, or is this a case of visual hyperbole? Will there really be an explosion of this magnitude actually in the movie (and will everyone run away from it in the poorly composited foreground?). The obvious answer is, you have to ask? So, already the artist is making the movie seem bigger and more impressive than it actually is. But this is what he or she is meant to do. Should we be blaming them straight away for such blatant misrepresentation? Well, to be fair, no. It’s a big explosion used to fill a large part of the poster and to provide the hero and the girl he just met at the beach with an exciting backdrop against which to pose. But there are subtle things wrong with both of them, things that again make you wonder if the artist was having a bad day at the easel.

The woman’s face is worrying. It’s an odd mix of angles and curves, hinting that she was perhaps a forceps baby, but definitely looking as if the artist completed one side, went away for a few drinks, and then came back to finish off a little the worse for wear. And then there’s the blond-maned, chiselled hero, clutching the titular weapon like a model posing for the front cover of American Hunter. But hold on a minute. Doesn’t his right breast look a little feminine, a little too rounded to be – you know – his? The more you look at it, the more it looks like it’s not meant to be there. It’s as if the artist, unable to provide cleavage for the woman looking to enter a 21st century beauty pageant, decided there was going to be at least one exposed breast in this poster – and if it had to be on the man then so be it.

The best has been saved for last, though. Below the beginning of the title is a group of people caught in various poses. Some are pointing with rifles, some seem to be playing their rifles like guitars, and the figure on the far left could well be playing air drums. But if anything, they look like they’re anticipating Madonna’s plea from Vogue (released in 1990): “Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it/Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it”. They’re a post-apocalyptic dance group with a hint of camp (that cap) and a striking lack of co-ordination. They’re also the most obvious indication that the artist, whoever he or she may be, wasn’t approaching this particular assignment with all the dedication and skill that they (hopefully) possessed. And for that, Poster of the Week salutes them all the more.

Barakah Meets Barakah (2016)


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Original title: Barakah yoqabil Barakah

D: Mahmoud Sabbagh / 88m

Cast: Hisham Fageeh, Fatima AlBanawi, Sami Hifny, Khairia Nazmi, reem Habib, Abdulmajeed Al-Ruhaidi

Barakah (Fageeh) works for Riyadh’s Municipal Police, issuing fines for minor offences such as selling goods outside a store’s permitted area. He’s single, amiable, and despite the overbearing intentions of the local midwife (and his surrogate mother) Daya Sa’adiya (Nazmi), not in any hurry to find a wife. A report of a civil disturbance brings him into contact with Bibi (AlBanawi), a fashion model who uses carefully cropped images of herself on Instagram as a way of promoting her own political and social agendas (while staying within the law). Barakah is instantly smitten, and thanks to some unwitting help from his friend Maqbool (Al-Ruhaidi), he’s able to meet Bibi at an art exhibition. As their relationship develops, obstacles arise such as the controlling nature of Bibi’s mother – and head of the fashion chain Bibi is the face of – Madame Mayyada (Habib), Barakah’s own naïve approach to romance, and Saudi Arabia’s strict laws regarding public interaction. But it’s a misunderstanding over a push-up bra that may just prove to be the biggest obstacle of all…

When you think about the rom-coms churned out by Hollywood, there’s always something that keeps true love from conquering all (until the last five minutes, that is), but one of the most refreshing things about Barakah Meets Barakah is that the “something” in question is Saudi Arabian law. The very real threat of imprisonment that hangs over the heads of Barakah and Bibi gives the movie a depth and a resonance that you rarely see in an average rom-com. First-time writer-director Sabbagh rarely alludes to it head on, happy to let it hover in the background while his script concentrates on providing viewers with one of the sweetest, and most endearing romantic comedies of recent years. Barakah is simply one of the nicest protagonists you’re ever likely to encounter: good-natured, a pleasure to spend time with, and like a puppy that’s eager to please in his pursuit of Bibi. She’s more fiery, able and willing to challenge the accepted order of things, but in such a way that she builds support for her efforts through her careful manipulation of social media. As a way of expressing female empowerment, it’s a clever conceit, and Sabbagh is equally clever enough not to wield the idea like a big stick.

In many areas of the movie the key word is restraint, as Sabbagh tells his story with admirable economy of style, and a minimum of fuss. His talented cast ensure that each character appears fully formed from the moment we meet them, with Fageeh proving that gauche and awkward can be charming as well, and AlBanawi investing Bibi with a seductive vulnerability (like Barakah, you can’t help but be captivated by her). Sabbagh peppers his script with wry observations on contemporary Saudi culture, has Barakah co-opted into a local amateur production of Hamlet to play Ophelia, provides unnecessarily pixellated images as a barb to state censors, and gets overtly political by contrasting the more liberal Saudi Arabia of the 60’s and 70’s with the restrictions that have been in place since 1979. But none of this is to distract from the central romance that anchors the movie and makes it so appealing. The movie brings its chaste lovebirds together at the end, but not in the traditional “love has conquered all” way that Hollywood approves of. Instead, Sabbagh offers us a reunion that speaks of hope for the future, a message that is both simple and powerful, and as much about Barakah and Bibi, as it is about Saudi Arabia itself.

Rating: 8/10 – an example of what can be achieved when you don’t have to follow a clichéd narrative pattern or formula, Barakah Meets Barakah is beautifully shot by Victor Credi, and hugely entertaining; by keeping things natural and straightforward, Sabbagh has created a movie where you never feel like you’re being led by the hand, and where you’re more than happy to share in the journeys undertaken by the characters.

Oh! the Horror! – Victor Crowley (2017) and Another WolfCop (2017)


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Victor Crowley (2017) / D: Adam Green / 83m

Cast: Parry Shen, Kane Hodder, Laura Ortiz, Dave Sheridan, Krystal Joy Brown, Brian Quinn, Felissa Rose, Chase Williamson, Katie Booth, Tiffany Shepis

You just can’t keep a hulking, deformed mass murderer down… Ten years after the events that occuured in Hatchet III (2013), sole survivor of the last Honey Island Swamp massacre Andrew Yong (Shen) has written a book about his experiences, but he’s still viewed with suspicion as being the real culprit. His publicist (Rose) persuades him to return to Honey Island Swamp as part of the anniversary “celebrations”. Meanwhile, a trio of would-be movie makers, Chloe (Booth), her boyfriend Alex (Williamson), and Rose (Ortiz), head there in order to try and involve Andrew in a trailer they’re making to try and get funding for a movie about Crowley and the murders. Andrew’s flight crash lands in the swamp, while Chloe’s insistence on using the curse that made Crowley the way he is in the trailer, leads to his resurrection. Soon, Victor is back to his old tricks: hacking and tearing and rending his victims’ limbs from their bodies while they themselves fight to stay alive.

Does the world need another Hatchet movie? Do we really need another gore-splattered ode to Eighties horror? Thanks to the presence of series’ creator and overseer Adam Green, then the answer is… yes and no. Green is an old hand at this, and he knows what he’s doing, but this is easily the slightest entry in the series, and trades in comedy more than it does horror. The characters are forgettable, with even pantomime turns from Rose and Sheridan (as a swamp tour guide called Dillon) failing to engage the audience. With such a slight story, thanks be to almighty Victor that Green ladles on the ketchup with gleeful abandon, and makes as much of his victims-trapped-in-a-plane-waiting-to-die scenario as he can. The cast are clearly having fun, Green is clearly encouraging them to do so, Victor’s resurrection allows him a bit of a makeover from previous entries, and the truncated finale reminds everyone that this is a low budget horror movie when all’s said and dismembered.

Rating: 6/10 – Green is the key player here, his affection for the tropes and themes of Eighties horror movies serving him well, even if this latest outing lacks the franchise integrity of the previous entries; unrepentently gory, and made for fans of the series before anyone else, Victor Crowley at least retains the crude energy of its predecessors, but spends too much time trying to make us care about characters who are merely cannon fodder for Green’s cursed protagonist.

Another WolfCop (2017) / D: Lowell Dean / 79m

Cast: Leo Fafard, Yannick Bisson, Amy Matysio, Jonathan Cherry, Serena Miller, Devery Jacobs, Kris Blackwell, Kevin Smith

In the small, run down Canadian town of Woodhaven, things are looking up: self-made billionaire drinks manufacturer Swallows (Bisson) is opening a factory to make and distribute his new beer, Chicken Milk Stout (no, really). Swallows has an ulterior motive though: his beer contains a formula that allows hideous, malformed creatures to gestate in people’s abdomens (though why he’s doing this is never explained; naturally). The local police, led by new Chief Tina Walsh (Matysio), know that something isn’t right in their town, but can’t quite connect the dots. Even Lou Garou (Fafard), the force’s own WolfCop, is at a loss. But with the help of former enemy Willie Higgins (Cherry), and Willie’s sister, Kat (Miller), Lou and Tina begin to put two and two together and realise what Swallows is up to. This leads to a bloody confrontation between Garou as WolfCop and Swallows’ minions, as the fight to save the town from being overrun by Swallows’ hideous creatures can only have one outcome.

Does the world need another WolfCop movie? Do we really need another comedy horror that’s content to amble through its poorly conceived set up with all the aplomb of a drunk trying to pass a sobriety test? Thanks to the presence of creator and overseer Lowell Dean then the answer is… yes and no. This is yet another horror sequel where the makers’ intentions are hampered by the practicalities of making the movie itself. There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with low budget horror movies, but Another WolfCop shows that with fewer production values, there are often fewer moments where the movie works. Here, there are too many occasions where the script comes up with a fairly good idea only to abandon it minutes later, or it thinks of something cool to include, but then it doesn’t look as cool in its execution (a sex scene between Lou in his human form and Kat in her shapeshifting form fits the bill entirely). The first WolfCop showed invention and a degree of wit that suited the material, but on returning to the well, Dean has failed to produce the same kind of magic that made the first one work so well. At the end, the movie promises that WolfCop will return. If he does, then let’s hope Dean comes up with better material than he has here.

Rating: 4/10 – a massive drop in quality from the first movie shows that Another WolfCop should have been kept on the back burner until more money or a better script – or both – were available; the cast don’t seem able to muster the necessary enthusiasm to make things more palatable, the waywardness of the script derails both the drama and the comedy, and even the presence of Kevin Smith (as Mayor Bubba no less) can’t stop this from looking and sounding like a bad idea from the start.

The Watchman’s Canoe (2017)


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D: Barri Chase / 101m

Cast: Kiri Goodson, Roger Willie, Adam Beach, Stephanie Wallace, Ian Stevenson, Matthew Johnson, John Thomas, Dez Tillman, Jennifer Oswald

Jett (Goodson) is a young girl of mixed Native American and caucasian parentage who goes to live on the reservation of her mother’s people following the death of her father. Due to her dual heritage, she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the children her age, but her older brother, Tommy (Stevenson) – who happens to look more indigenous than Jett – fits in easily with some of the older boys. Jett is drawn to the surrounding trees and meadows, and has a deep affinity with nature. This affinity is recognised by her Uncle Ralph (Willie), who tells the tribal medicine man (Thomas) that Jett is a watchman, someone who can hear the voices of the wind, trees, plants, animals and water. The medicine man rejects this idea because Jett is a girl (though there is a precedent for it). But Jett becomes aware of the tribal myths and legends, and those surrounding nearby Witch’s Island, a place she becomes determined to visit. However, when she takes a canoe and travels to the island with her cousin Peedie (Johnson), the experience proves to be more of a test than she could ever have imagined.

From the outset it’s clear that first-time feature writer/director Barri Chase wants to make a lyrical, poetic movie about the ethereal nature of Native American mythology. To this end, there are plenty of shots of Jett communing with nature, walking in the woods and along the shoreline, and talking to the spirits that guide her. These are moments that are beautifully set up and shot by DoP AJ Young, and in terms of the journey of self-discovery that Jett embarks upon, eloquently reflect the spiritual nature of the world around her. But somewhere along the way, Chase has forgotten to make Jett’s journey as compelling as it should be. There are too many longueurs that ensure the movie’s sedate yet methodical rhythm grinds to a halt, and many of them involve Willie staring off into the distance – with meaning (though whatever meaning these longueurs have is never fully established). Chase has a terrific visual sense (unsurprising in someone with a background in fine art photography), but her narrative is like Jett’s canoe: it’s not long before it’s taking on water.

As a coming-of-age tale, the movie fares moderately well, but Chase lacks the experience to tie all the elements of her story together in a way that makes everything feel organic. There are several strands on show, and one that relates to the Fort Gang boys (the group Tommy falls in with) takes up too much time and peters out in terms of its importance to the overall story. Likewise, the problems Jett’s mother, Onie (Wallace), is facing trying to hold down a job: ultimately it’s one sub-plot too many. As for the performances, Willie is reticent and aloof (even from Jett at times), while Beach, as an historian who lives on Witch’s Island, is required to be enigmatic, but it’s an approach that is hampered by Chase not really knowing what to do with the character once he’s introduced. Goodson, initially, seems a perfect choice for the role of Jett, but she often looks uncomfortable, and there are times when the appropriate emotion, or response, in a scene escapes her. Chase doesn’t have a solution to this, or to several other issues, and so the movie stutters from scene to scene trying to build up a momentum that it can’t achieve. In the end, it remains enigmatic about tribal myths and customs, and never becomes as compelling as it should be.

Rating: 4/10 – sometimes, the format of a movie stops it from being all it can be, and this is the case with The Watchman’s Canoe, a movie that would have been more effective as a short; though beautiful to watch, the material isn’t strong enough to support anything but the most basic of ideas, and even then it does so falteringly and inconsistently – which is a shame, as Chase’s basic concept is a sound one.

I Am Nasrine (2012)


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D: Tina Gharavi / 88m

Cast: Micsha Sadeghi, Shiraz Haq, Steven Hooper, Christian Coulson, Nichole Hall

Nasrine (Sadeghi) lives in Iran with her mother and father, and her older brother, Ali (Haq). One day she finds herself being detained by the police. What happens to her is both violent and distressing. Fearing for her continued safety, her father decides that she and Ali must travel to the UK and seek asylum there. They enter the country illegally and find themselves in another difficult situation: while their application is processed, Nasrine has to attend school, while Ali is forbidden to work. They are given a flat in which to live, but in order for them both to get by, Ali finds work in a car wash and, later, a kebab shop as well. At school, Nasrine finds it hard to fit in, but makes a friend in Nicole (Hall), who is part of the local travellers community. Meanwhile, Ali struggles to fit in socially, his serious demeanour keeping others at bay (his concerns about his sexuality don’t help either). Nasrine also has relationship issues, having attracted the attention of Nicole’s older brother, Leigh (Hooper). But with the events of 9/11, both Nasrine and Ali discover that being refugees in a foreign country has unexpected consequences…

The debut feature of Iranian-born Gharavi, I Am Nasrine is a coming-of-age tale that explores issues surrounding the refugee experience, politics and sexuality, and finding one’s place in the world. But though it addresses these issues in various ways, and to varying degrees, it’s a movie that is about connections, how difficult they are to make, how difficult they are to maintain, and how difficult they are to break when they’ve run their course. In Iran, Nasrine’s actions cause the end of her middle-class lifestyle. In the UK she has to start again. The same applies to Ali, charged with being Nasrine’s protector, but equally unnerved by the changes that have led them to a dingy flat in London, and an uncertain future. Whether they are better off proves more and more debatable as the movie progresses, but it’s the siblings’ attempts at fitting in that provide the necessary dramatic focus. Whether it’s Nasrine’s growing friendship with Nicole and then Leigh, or Ali’s attempts to deal with his feelings for other men, including kebab shop customer Tommy (Coulson), it’s the way that writer/director Gharavi takes these basic desires and shows their universality that makes it all work so well. Refugees or not, Nasrine and Ali deserve the same respect we ourselves feel entitled to.

Gharavi’s approach is often straighforward and/or blunt, but this isn’t a bad thing as it precludes the possibility of any unnecessary sentiment, and allows what happens to Nasrine and Ali to remain unforced throughout. There’s a degree of unexpected and poetic beauty in the movie’s imagery as well, from the shot of Nasrine looking back from the motorbike she’s riding on in Tehran (see above), to the moment when she and Leigh experience their first kiss. Gharavi is also confident enough to minimise the impact of 9/11, safe in the knowledge that it will resonate quietly as the narrative unfolds, an unspoken component of the racial distrust and hatred that follows. She’s aided by a terrific performance from first-timer Sadeghi who instills Nasrine with a naïve yet determined quality that won’t be swayed, and unobtrusive production design courtesy of Chryssanthy Kofidou that anchors the narrative in a recognisable and credible setting. Gharavi occasionally makes some obvious dramatic choices that border on being predictable and rote, but the sincerity and the integrity of the story she’s telling more than make up for these choices, making the movie an absorbing exercise in what it is to try and belong anywhere where belonging comes at a price.

Rating: 8/10 – an engaging, thought-provoking movie that paints a candid and guileless picture of the need for acceptance, whatever someone’s personal circumstances, I Am Nasrine is severe and heartelt at the same time, and entirely up front about its plea for inclusivity; Gharavi’s passion for telling Nasrine’s story is evident throughout, and the story itself is rendered with compassion and honesty, making this a movie that is far more effective, and affecting, than it might seem at the outset.

NOTE: The quote by Ben Kingsley on the poster translates as: “An important and much needed film.”

Too Late (2015)


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D: Dennis Hauck / 107m

Cast: John Hawkes, Vail Bloom, Joanna Cassidy, Jeff Fahey, Robert Forster, Brett Jacobsen, Dichen Lachman, Dash Mihok, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Crystal Reed, Rider Strong, Natalie Zea

A modern day noir that sports a grim measure of inevitability, the central character in Too Late is not John Hawkes’ determined private investigator, Samson, but Dorothy (Reed), the stripper he befriends then loses touch with for three years. When she asks to meet him, she’s already in trouble, and by the time he arrives for their rendezvous, she’s already dead. So what’s a newly embittered P.I. to do? Why, go after the people responsible of course. Dorothy’s murder gives Samson a purpose he’s been missing, and he’s as dogged and persistent as gumshoes in the movies usually are, but writer-director Dennis Hauck isn’t interested solely in presenting Samson’s woes, he’s equally (if not more) interested in revealing Dorothy’s hopes and dreams. Too often in noir thrillers, the murder victim serves as a modus operandi for the hero’s actions. Here, Dorothy is more than that: she’s someone the viewer gets to know, and in some detail, and that’s because once she’s dead, she’s not really dead.

How is this possible, you might ask? Well, Hauck has a trick up his sleeve. Once the first scene is over and we’ve met Dorothy and gotten to know a lot about her and she’s wound up dead, Hauck brings her back in the third scene, one where we get to see her meet Samson for the first time. The movie consists of five scenes in total, but they’re assembled in a non-linear fashion. This isn’t as confusing as it might sound – though some viewers may feel aggrieved when they realise that scene five is actually a precursor to scene four – and what it does is to allow Dorothy’s character to be present throughout the whole movie, and to leave an indelible impression. That way, Samson’s determination to track down and punish the people responsible for her death becomes understandable in a way that doesn’t often occur in noir thrillers. And Hauck is clever enough through his screenplay to make Samson’s “mission” a personal one that really comes across as personal, instead of something perfunctory in order to get the movie started. There is an air of personal redemption going on with Samson, and his persistence hints at deeper feelings for Dorothy than he might admit.

Each scene has been shot in one single, continuous twenty-two minute take, so there’s a lot of Steadicam work, plus a lot of swinging the camera from one character to another, which can be really distracting (there’s also an impressive zoom in the first scene that is technically superb for the distance it covers). On occasion the need to maintain the integrity of the take makes for some uncomfortable transitions, but overall Hauck and DoP Bill Fernandez have done an impressive job of immersing the viewer in what’s happening, and populating the frame with details that support the emotion of each scene as it unfolds. The performances are very good indeed, with Hawkes, Lachman and Reed all at the top of their game, while the likes of Bloom – re-enacting Julianne Moore’s famous nude scene from Short Cuts (1993) – Zea and Jacobsen all make an impact in minor roles. This being a modern noir thriller, there’s plenty of violence, but it’s always in service to the demands of the narrative, rather than the other way round. As a tale of flawed human beings trying their best to get by in the world with what little they have that’s theirs, Too Late is an intriguing, thought-provoking revenge drama that has no intention of telling its heartfelt story in any other way than with honesty, sincerity and an unfailing commitment to its characters.

Rating: 8/10 – the commitment to continuous twenty-two minute scenes does lead to some pacing issues, and some moments do feel like filler (e.g. the point where Samson picks up a guitar and performs an admittedly lovely song), but Too Late is far too good everywhere else; a meditative, earnest thriller that impresses every time it surprises, this also serves as an example of how character can – and always should – drive the narrative of a movie forward, and how it should be allowed to maintain that ambition right to the very end.

Poster of the Week – Bird of Paradise (1932)


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Created for its release in France (n’est-ce pas), this poster for Bird of Paradise features the kind of design that US poster designers of the time wouldn’t have attempted, even if a gun was put to their heads. If you’re not sure why, then here are two words for you: green and pink. The two colours aren’t always complementary, but in the hands of the poster’s creator, Bernard Lancy, they become an arresting combination that draws the eye and maintains a connection with the viewer. The featured cape and head-dress are boldly displayed, statements in themselves, and again a challenge to the conventions of the period. The softness of the head-dress with its sprouting, curving, and questing fronds is in contrast to the hard lines and shark’s teeth pattern of the cape. Together they act as a costume for the character played by Dolores Del Rio, and they also represent the volcano that she is to be sacrificed to. It’s not often that you see such dual representation, but Lancy has carried it off with a great deal of skill, and without making it blatantly obvious.

Del Rio’s character, Luana, is the poster’s main focus, and as the movie is set on a Polynesian island and this is a pre-Hays Code feature, the poster accurately depicts Del Rio’s modesty being protected by a couple of garlands. For once this isn’t an attempt at titillation, or a sexploitative approach by Lancy, but though it could be viewed that way, Lancy’s depiction isn’t evocative at all, and entirely because he doesn’t draw attention to her state of semi-nudity in the way that some designers would have done (and besides, the movie does that job pretty well all by itself). However, he’s not so careful with the handmaiden to Luana’s left; it may be a sideways representation but she isn’t afforded the same modesty (and is featureless to boot). It’s interesting to see this kind of “double standard” in a poster: it’s not always deliberate, but it does make you wonder if the designer was trying to sneak in something that couldn’t be depicted openly (a bare breasted Del Rio wouldn’t have been allowed under any circumstances).

The ground is a swirl of leaf patterns and what look like cactus leaves, while the tree trunks are solid and thrusting (and yes there is an unspoken meaning in that), but there’s also a swathe of blue representing the sea. These colours – green, brown and blue – work well together, stanching the effect of the pink and creating a visual counterpoint. They’re also reflective of the island setting, and its status as a place where paradise can be found. The grey sails of the schooner that brings Joel McCrea’s character to the island is a neat touch, emphasising the way in which change has come to the island and by extension, what history has taught us about such arrivals in the past.

It’s a shame then, that with such a complex and wonderful image, the French distributors chose to highlight their involvement with a banner strapline at the top of the image. Jacques Haïk may have been proud to be the movie’s distributor, but the place for that information is at the bottom of the poster, and outside of the central image. After all, it’s where the title, the director and principal cast credits are located; if it’s good enough for them…? The Haïk/RKO logo in the top right hand corner is also intrusive and unnecessary, but Lancy wouldn’t have had a say in the matter, and the shortsightedness is annoying. Spare a thought for McCrea, though. Only in France was his surname misspelt. At least that wasn’t Lancy’s fault, something that serves as a reminder that Lancy and his fellow designers were hired chiefly for their skills as artists, and that the final decisions about overall content were made by somebody else. Would that it had been different.

Monthly Roundup – February 2018


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‘C’-Man (1949) / D: Joseph Lerner / 77m

Cast: Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Lottie Elwen, Rene Paul, Harry Landers, Walter Vaughn, Adelaide Klein, Edith Atwater

Rating: 5/10 – a US Customs agent (Jagger) finds himself looking for the killer of his best friend (and fellow Customs agent), and the person responsible for the theft of a rare jewel – could they be the same man?; an odd noir crime thriller that betrays its low budget production values, ‘C’-Man is short on character but long on action, and is fitfully entertaining, though the performances vary wildly and the script contains some very po-faced dialogue, making it a movie you can’t really take your eyes from – and not in a good way.

When We First Met (2018) / D: Ari Sandel / 97m

Cast: Adam Devine, Alexandra Daddario, Shelley Hennig, Andrew Bachelor, Robbie Amell

Rating: 3/10 – Noah (Devine) falls for Avery (Daddario) and winds up in the friend zone, but thanks to a magic photo booth, he gets the chance to go back and change their relationship into a romantic one; a dire romantic comedy that struggles to be both romantic and funny, When We First Met can’t even make anything meaningful out of its time travel scenario, and is let down by a banal script and below-par performances.

The Phantom (1931) / D: Alan James / 62m

Cast: Guinn Williams. Allene Ray, Niles Welch, Tom O’Brien, Sheldon Lewis, Wilfred Lucas, Violet Knights, William Gould, Bobby Dunn, William Jackie

Rating: 3/10 – a reporter (Williams) tries to track down the titular criminal mastermind when he targets the father of his girlfriend (Ray), but finds it’s not as simple a prospect as he’d thought; an early talkie that shows a lack of imagination and purpose, The Phantom struggles from the outset to be anything but a disappointment, what with its unconvincing mix of comedy and drama, its old dark house scenario, and a clutch of amateur performances that drain the very life out of it at every turn.

Black Panther (2018) / D: Ryan Coogler / 134m

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani

Rating: 7/10 – the king of outwardly poor but inwardly technologically advanced Wakanda, T’Challa (Boseman), faces a coup from an unexpected source (Jordan), while trying to work out whether or not his country’s scientific advances should be shared with the wider world; though Black Panther does feature a predominantly black cast, and speaks to black issues, this is still a Marvel movie at the end of the day and one that adheres to the template Marvel have created for their releases, making this an admittedly funny and exciting thrill ride, but one that’s also another formulaic entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Atomic Blonde (2017) / D: David Leitch / 115m

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger

Rating: 6/10 – in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a spy (Theron) must find a list of double agents that are being smuggled into the West, a task complicated by the involvement of the Americans, the Russians and a number of other interested parties; an attempt to provide audiences with a female John Wick, Atomic Blonde does have tremendous fight scenes, and a great central performance by Theron, but it’s let down by a muddled script, an even more muddled sense of the period it’s set in, and by trying to be fun when a straighter approach would have worked better.

Beauty and the Beast (2017) / D: Bill Condon / 129m

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Nathan Mack, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Rating: 5/10 – the classic fairy tale, and previously a classic animated movie, is given the live action treatment by Disney; if the latest installment of a certain space opera hadn’t been released in 2017, Beauty and the Beast would have been the number one movie at the international box office, but though the House of Mouse might point to this as a measure of quality, the reality is that Watson was miscast, the songs lack the emotional heft they had in the animated version, and the whole thing has a perfunctory air that no amount of superficial gloss and shine can overcome.

The Case of the Black Parrot (1941) / D: Noel M. Smith / 61m

Cast: William Lundigan, Maris Wrixon, Eddie Foy Jr, Paul Cavanagh, Luli Deste, Charles Waldron, Joseph Crehan, Emory Parnell, Phyllis Barry, Cyril Thornton

Rating: 6/10 – a newspaper reporter (Lundigan) gets involved in a case involving a master forger (the Black Parrot), an antique cabinet, and a couple of mysterious deaths; an enjoyable piece of hokum, The Case of the Black Parrot gets by on a great deal of understated charm, a whodunnit plot that doesn’t overplay its hand, and by having its cast treat the whole absurd undertaking with a sincerity that is an achievement all by itself.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) / D: Kenneth Branagh / 114m

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Derek Jacobi, Marwan Kenzari, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sergei Polunin, Daisy Ridley

Rating: 5/10 – the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is faced with a complex mystery: which one of a dozen passengers killed an infamous kidnapper, and more importantly, why?; yet another version of the Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express strands its capable cast thanks to both an avalanche and a tepid script, leaving its director/star to orchestrate matters less effectively than expected, particularly when unravelling the mystery means having the suspects seated together in a way that clumsily replicates the Last Supper.

The Boss Baby (2017) / D: Tom McGrath / 97m

Cast: Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Tobey Maguire, Miles Bakshi, James McGrath, Conrad Vernon, ViviAnn Yee, Eric Bell Jr, David Soren

Rating: 6/10 – when seven year old Tim (Bakshi) finds he has a new baby brother, Theodore (Baldwin) – and one dressed in a business suit at that – he also finds that Theodore is there to stop babies from being usurped in people’s affections by puppies; a brightly animated kids’ movie that takes several predictable swipes at corporate America, The Boss Baby wants to be heartwarming and caustic at the same time, but can’t quite manage both (it settles for heartwarming), and though Baldwin may seem like the perfect choice for the title character, he’s the weakest link in a voice cast that otherwise sells the performances with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Game Night (2018) / D: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein / 100m

Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Michael C. Hall

Rating: 5/10 – when a group of friends led by Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) are invited to a game night at the home of Max’s brother, Brooks (Chandler), the evening descends into murder and mayhem, and sees the group trying to get to the bottom of a real-life mystery; like an Eighties high concept comedy released thirty years too late, Game Night has a great cast but little direction and waaaay too much exposition clogging up its run time, all of which makes a couple of very funny, very inspired visual gags the only reward for the viewer who sticks with this to the end.

10 Reasons to Remember Lewis Gilbert (1920-2018)


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Lewis Gilbert (6 March 1920 – 23 February 2018)

With his family’s music hall background (Gilbert first appeared on stage with them aged five), and a handful of movie roles as a child in the Thirties (mostly uncredited), it would have seemed appropriate for Lewis Gilbert to seek a career in front of the camera, but though Alexander Korda offered to send him to RADA, Gilbert elected to study direction instead. The first movie he worked on as an assistant? Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939). Not a bad start, but with the onset of World War II, Gilbert joined the Royal Air Force’s film unit and worked on several wartime documentaries. Further experience came when he was seconded to the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces, where he was allowed to shoot much of the work assigned to American director William Keighley.

After the war, Gilbert continued to make documentaries, but it was in the Fifties that he began to make his mark as a director of features. Working for low-budget outfits such as Nettlefold Films, Gilbert honed his craft, and made a number of well received movies that brought him greater attention and the chance to work on a succession of true stories from the recent war. For a while, Gilbert was the go-to director for these kinds of movies, and between 1953 and 1962 he made half a dozen war-related movies, all of which increased his standing within the movie community, and allowed him to make a range of other movies during the same period that highlighted his versatility. But it was Alfie (1966) that really put him on the map, earning him his sole Academy Award nomination, and proving once and for all that his strongest suit was in relationship dramas.

Anyone following his career up until this point, would have been surprised when his next movie proved to be the fifth Bond movie, You Only Live Twice (1967). But Gilbert proved himself to be at home amidst all the over-sized sets and the absurdity of a Bond movie, and returned twice more to make The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 – terrific) and Moonraker (1979 – uh-oh). In between his first and second Bonds, Gilbert made a number of movies that didn’t fare so well with critics or audiences, and with some, like The Adventurers (1970), Gilbert would later claim that they shouldn’t have been made. But after his Roger Moore one-two at the end of the Seventies, the Eighties saw Gilbert make two bona fide British classics in Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). He made his last movie, the enjoyable but slight Before You Go in 2002, but at eighty-two, retirement wasn’t exactly a surprise.

If he had one regret, it was always that he was unable to direct Oliver! (1968), a movie he had developed with its composer, Lionel Bart, but which he was unable to make due to contractual obligations. Gilbert was a director who, Bond movies aside, always looked to the characters first, and it was this focus that allowed him to make so many wonderful movies over more than fifty years. He was honest about his work, and some of his collaborators, but always tried to do the best he could do with the material provided. He wasn’t an auteur in the accepted sense, but his ability to draw out excellent performances from his casts, and to move easily between comedy and drama – often in the same scene in a movie – was a constant throughout his career. And he was a realist. Of Alfie, he had this to say: “Paramount backed Alfie because it was going to be made for $500,000, normally the sort of money spent on executives’ cigar bills.”

1 – Time, Gentlemen, Please! (1952)

2 – Reach for the Sky (1956)

3 – The Admirable Crichton (1957)

4 – Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

5 – Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

6 – Alfie (1966)

7 – You Only Live Twice (1967)

8 – The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

9 – Educating Rita (1983)

10 – Shirley Valentine (1989)

Brakes (2016)


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D: Mercedes Grower / 85m

Cast: Julian Barratt, Kelly Campbell, Seb Cardinal, Juliet Cowan, Julia Davis, Noel Fielding, Jess-Luisa Flynn, Kerry Fox, Roland Gift, Salena Godden, Mercedes Grower, Martin Hancock, Kate Hardie, Siobhan Hewlett, Oliver Maltman, Paul McGann, John Milroy, Steve Oram, Daniel Roch, Morgan Thomas, Peter Wight

In Mercedes Grower’s debut feature, we’re introduced to a number of couples whose relationships are on the verge of breaking up, or which have actually reached the point of no return (or further investment by one or both parties). There’s Elliot (Barratt) and Raymond (Maltman), whose unexpected fling in Spain has been misinterpreted as something more permanent by Elliot. There’s Rhys (Gift) and Brinie (Fox), a couple who can’t spend time together without trading veiled insults or outright criticism, and there’s Livy (Davis) and Alan (Wight), a would-be actress and her theatrical producer partner who are finding themselves at odds over the types of roles that Livy can play. And then there’s Daniel (Fielding) and Layla (Grower), a couple expecting a child but being forced apart by his apathy and intransigence. These and several other stories show the various ways in which relationships can come to an end, and how differently people allow themselves to be affected.

All of this makes up Part II of Brakes, and is shown first. We see the characters often at their worst, and Grower shows just how selfish and uncaring we can be when we want to extricate ourselves from a relationship we no longer want to be a part of. On the flip side, we see the pain and the hurt that this approach can cause, and Grower wades through a variety of emotions and responses, from anger to disbelief, to sadness and resignation, and denial and regret. Inevitably, some stories fare better than others, with Daniel and Layla’s break up in a public toilet coming across as too absurd to be credible, and hampered by the decision to have Daniel behave like a six year old. Conversely, the austere yet stinging conversation between Rhys and Brinie is so tense and uncomfortable that it’s a relief when he goes out for beers (it also helps that Fox’s performance is particularly impressive). Most of the other scenarios fall somewhere in between, but the necessity of keeping things short (for the most part), means that if one story disappoints there’ll be another one along quite soon.

Once Part II is out of the way, then Grower presents us with Part I, in which we see how these relationships began originally. It’s a neat idea, and having seen the outcomes of each one already, the viewer can judge for themselves if any might or should have turned out differently, and it does allow the movie to end on a positive note, but the knowledge that none of these promising, hopeful unions is going to end well also leaves a bitter after-taste. With the script proving to be a hit or miss affair in terms of the stories, the performances fall into the same category. Alongside Fox, there are fine portrayals from Davis, Wight, and Barratt, while some of the cast – e.g. McGann, Milroy, Hewlett, and Oram – are hamstrung by clichéd dialogue and unconvincing set ups. Grower does show promise, and she’s able to inject some much needed humour when it’s required, but she needs an idea that she can focus on exclusively instead of a number of different ones all at the same time. That said, the movie does feature some appropriately gloomy cinematography by Denzil Armour-Brown and Gabi Norland in Part II, and a brighter, more upbeat tone in Part I, something that gives rise to the notion that if more time had been available, then this could have been so much better.

Rating: 6/10 – with a sixty per cent success rate in regard to the stories themselves, Brakes is often a frustrating movie to watch, but it does have singular moments where the breadth of Grower’s ambition is met and exceeded upon; in the end, though, it’s a movie that makes a number of telling points about our inability to communicate with each other when it matters, but which doesn’t always find the right context to express itself fully.

The Breadwinner (2017)


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D: Nora Twomey / 94m

Cast: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus, Laara Sadiq, Ali Badshah, Shaista Latif, Kanza Feris, Kawa Ada

In Taliban controlled Kabul, Afghanistan, eleven year old Parvana (Chaudry) and her family – father Nurullah (Badshah), mother Soraya (Latif), older sister Fattema (Sadiq), and younger brother Zaki – get by through selling personal items on the street. Business isn’t always good, though, and when a run in with a member of the local militia, Idrees (Gulamgaus), leads to Nurullah being arrested and imprisoned without charge, things become even more difficult. With money and food running out, and women unable to move about freely unless accompanied by a man, Parvana hits on the idea to look and dress like a boy. She cuts her hair short, wears clothes worn by her deceased older brother, and along with Shauzia (Chhaya), a girl she knew when she went to school and who is also disguised as a boy, she begins to earn enough money to keep her family from becoming destitute. Parvana has a bigger aim, though: she wants to see her father, and maybe get him out of prison. Shauzia helps her get enough money together to bribe the guards, but Parvana’s plan doesn’t work. But as life in Kabul becomes more and more dangerous, the kindness of a stranger, Razaq (Ada), may prove to mean all the difference in Pavarna’s family being reunited…

Adapted from the literary award-winning novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is the kind of animated movie we don’t often see enough of. Dealing with serious topics such as female persecution and religious intolerance in an honest and direct manner, the movie allows us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t even imagine. But like the best animation, the world it presents to us is just as real and just as affecting as if it were a documentary. The importance of the family unit, and the daily struggle to keep it intact, is highlighted by the little sacrifices that Parvana’s mother and sister make in the wake of Nurullah’s imprisonment. For Parvana, her experiences in the wider world – in a male-dominated world – bring both freedom of movement and unexpected restrictions due to her increased responsibility. It’s a dangerous path Parvana is taking, and the anguish it causes her family if she’s late home, is explored with impressive sincerity and pitched at just the right level of paranoia. Likewise, the risk of Parvana being found out, and the knowledge that if she is, everyone in her family will suffer, adds to the tension.

As a result, the movie draws in the viewer and provides them with a sincere, heartfelt story that is peppered with moments of philosophical reflection on the nature of modern Afghanistan, as well as showing that it’s still possible, even in a country ruled by the Taliban, to have hopes and dreams. Parvana hopes to be reunited with her father, Shauzia wants to see the ocean. Neither is unobtainable, but the script by Anita Doron makes it clear that achieving these things won’t be easy. The script also makes it clear that despite the hostility and the religious fundamentalism that the Taliban use to enforce their beliefs, there is also room for personal respect and understanding amongst the “people”. There are other messages to be found (relating to issues such as integrity, the abuse of power, and recurring injustice), but this is a movie about the power of hope and the power of family (a narrative strand that is best exemplified by the story within a story that Pavarna tells when there is a lull in her endeavours, and which features a brave villager taking on a terrible Elephant King). Twomey’s direction is confident, intelligent and humane, while the animation, with its clean lines and vibrant colours, is simple, yet tremendously effective.

Rating: 9/10 – nominated at this year’s Academy Awards in the Best Animated Feature Film category, The Breadwinner is an outstanding movie that features a great voice cast, superb animation, and a story that is compelling, thought-provoking, and ultimately, uplifting; not afraid to pull any narrative punches, the movie offers insights into life under the Taliban, but paints a picture of hope amidst all the suffering, and the refusal of the human spirit to be crushed completely.

Siembamba (2017)


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aka The Lullaby

D: Darrell Roodt / 86m

Cast: Reine Swart, Thandi Puren, Brandon Auret, Deànré Reiners, Dorothy Ann Gould

Touted as the first horror movie from South Africa, Siembamba is as much a psychological thriller as it is a straight-out chiller, and it juggles both interpretations with a degree of confidence as it tells the story of nineteen year old Chloe van Heerden (Swart), returning to her home in Eden Rock with a newborn baby, Liam, in tow. Chloe ran away after a row with her mother, Ruby (Puren). What happened to her, and why she fell pregnant, Chloe won’t – or can’t – explain, but she is resigned to being back home and being a young mother. Soon, strange things begin happening around the house, and Chloe becomes convinced that there is a strange presence there, and it wants Liam. She sees and hears things, including a nightmarish vision of a woman, a midwife, wearing a black bonnet. Ruby shares her own concerns with Dr Reed (Auret), who wonders if Chloe is merely suffering from post-partum depression. But Chloe’s visions become more and more violent, and she even begins to doubt her mother’s role in everything, her paranoia and distrust building with each new frightening experience. And then, on Dr Reed’s advice, Chloe is left by herself for the evening…

If you’re a country that’s never made an out and out horror movie before, but you don’t want to make just another slasher movie, then what better way to start off than by adapting a poem by South African poet Louis Leipoldt that, with some slight re-wording, goes as follows: Siembamba, mother’s little baby / Siembamba, mother’s little child / Wring his neck, throw him in the ditch / Step on his head, make sure he is dead. And the movie sets out its stall right from the beginning with a baby having its neck broken within the first five minutes; as a statement of intent it’s up there with Georgie Denbrough getting his arm torn off by Pennywise in It (2017). This is strong, mature stuff (albeit shot in a distressed, found-footage style that grates more than it should), and as the movie delves into Chloe’s tortured present and past, Tarryn-Tanille Prinsloo’s script finds ever more horrible and unsettling ways to put little Liam in harm’s way, including a nerve-wracking moment where Chloe is trimming his fingernails – or is she cutting off his fingers? The movie is at its best in moments like these, when the viewer can’t be sure if it’s all in Chloe’s mind or if there really is a supernatural presence in the house.

But while the movie goes to great pains to keep the audience guessing, it does so with little regard to pacing or the overall tone. Like many horror movies it makes the mistake of having strange events happen as soon as Chloe gets home after giving birth. There’s no appreciable build-up, and the adversarial nature of Chloe and Ruby’s relationship is exacerbated by the script’s refusal to have them actually talk to each other unless it involves recriminations on each side. Likewise, when Chloe sees Dr Reed, a scene that could have provided audiences with a deeper understanding of the folklore the movie is based on, instead remains a missed opportunity. But these issues are to be expected in a modern horror movie, whereas the pacing is seriously off, with scenes lacking energy and purpose at times, making the movie as a whole a somewhat frustrating experience. Roodt is an experienced director, and in many ways a good choice for South Africa’s first horror movie, but the fractured imagery and off-kilter visual style he’s adopted along with editor Leon Gerber hampers the movie instead of helping it. There are a couple of good scares to be had along the way, but much of what frights there are involve the midwife, a character that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Insidious franchise. As things progress, the movie relies on her presence more and more, though without her, the psychological aspects could have been used to make things even more unsettling. For a first attempt, Siembamba overcomes some hurdles with ease, but it also manages to knock down too many others in its efforts to stand out from the crowd.

Rating: 6/10 – good performances from Swart and Puren keep Siembamba from dissembling under the weight of its (modest) ambitions, and though there is much that doesn’t work as well as it should, genre enthusiasts should seek this one out because of its provenance; neither great nor terrible, it’s to be hoped that South Africa doesn’t stop here in its attempts to make horror movies, because even though a lot of the movie is derivative of other work, there’s enough here to be hopeful for better things to come.

Wonder Wheel (2017)


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D: Woody Allen / 101m

Cast: James Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet, Max Casella, Jack Gore, David Krumholtz

At one point in Wonder Wheel, Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard at Coney Island (and the movie’s narrator), gives Ginny (Winslet), the married woman he’s having an affair with, a book of plays by Eugene O’Neill for her birthday. Once upon a time, Ginny was an aspiring actress, until she met and married a drummer. That relationship ended when she had an affair, and now she’s in the process of cheating on her second husband, ‘Humpty’ (Belushi), a carousel operator. Ginny works as a waitress in a restaurant on the boardwalk; she’s already unhappy in her marriage, and has a young son from her first marriage, Richie (Gore), who likes to set fires. She’s struggling to hold onto her hopes and dreams, and Mickey’s attentions are a way for her to do that. Fast approaching forty, and trapped in a marriage of convenience, Ginny is desperately looking for happiness. But a book of O’Neill’s plays? How much more of a clue as to whether or not Ginny will find the happiness she seeks does an audience need?

Woody Allen’s latest is one of his serious movies, a drama that starts off by showing the surface glamour of Coney Island in the 1950’s, before quickly going behind the scenes and revealing the hardships and the despair that exist just a short distance from the lights and the attractions. ‘Humpty’ has a daughter, Carolina (Temple), who left home five years before to marry a gangster. Now she’s back, having left him but also having been “marked”; she’s hoping her established estrangement from her father will mean no one will look for her there. But when Carolina meets Mickey, Ginny sees her chance for happiness coming under threat. Ginny’s desperation increases, and her behaviour becomes more erratic than usual. Unable to help herself, Ginny begins to alienate everyone around her, and when the opportunity arises to do the right thing, the decision she makes has profound, and irreversible, consequences. It’s a simple premise, confidently set up and handled by Allen, but also one that feels more like an abandoned stage play than an original screenplay. This also means the movie has the look of a theatrical production at times, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography stutters back and forth between interior and exterior scenes with all the dexterity of an artist who can’t decide on natural or artificial light.

But production issues aside, this is Winslet’s movie through and through. Ginny is an emotional trainwreck, only taking responsibility for her actions when it will bring her sympathy, and defending herself by attacking others. She’s an ersatz Blanche DuBois, hurting instead of loving, and Winslet gives a driving, intense performance that is in many ways out of place within the movie because it overhadows everything else that Allen comes up with. And Winslet is on such tremendous form that her co-stars have no choice but to run to keep up. Belushi and Temple are good in roles that aren’t quite as well developed as Winslet’s, but Timberlake is the odd man out as Mickey. He never looks comfortable in the role, and in his scenes with Winslet, the gulf between them is highlighted every time. In the end, Allen elects to leave many of the sub-plots and storylines unresolved, especially the one involving Richie, which goes nowhere and seems included just to pad out the running time. Otherwise, the movie’s open-endedness proves unexpectedly satisfying, and though this may not be a prime example of Allen’s more recent output, thanks to Winslet’s superb performance, it’s a movie that deserves a look, if for no other reason than that.

Rating: 7/10 – featuring Winslet on incredible form, Wonder Wheel tells its story as if it had been written in the 1950’s but has been given a modern day makeover; the milieu has been lovingly recreated by production designer Santo Loquasto, Allen remains a dependable if unexciting visual artist, and for once the romance doesn’t have such a pronounced age gap.

Acts of Vengeance (2017)


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D: Isaac Florentine / 86m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Karl Urban, Paz Vega, Clint Dyer, Johnathon Schaech, Cristina Serafini, Lillian Blankenship, Atanas Srebrev, Mark Rhino Smith, Raycho Vasilev, Stacey Clickner, Robert Forster

Acts of Vengeance (or, the latest episode in the on-going series, Whatever Happened to Antonio Banderas) is, on the face of it, not a great movie. It’s another low-budget action thriller with Bulgaria standing in for America (and poorly at that; you know that a movie’s in trouble when the sign outside a book store says exactly that: Bookstore). It has a trio of internationally known stars who clearly had a fortnight’s break in their schedule, and nothing better to do, plus a cameo (from Forster) that lasts all of two minutes. The movie is a curious mix of the standard and the bizarre – which at least helps it stand out somewhat from the crowd – and it has a clutch of fight scenes that are well choreographed and shot. It keeps Banderas mute for much of the running time, has a plot that’s so worn out it’s practically invisible, telegraphs its villain with all the subtlety of a stampeding rhino, and features one laughably absurd scene after another. In short, it’s two steps away from being a complete disaster. But the movie has an ace up its sleeve, an ace in the form of its director, Isaac Florentine.

If you’re not familiar with Florentine’s career, and if you’re a fan of DTV movies, then where the hell have you been since 1992? Although he’s never made a mainstream movie, Florentine is more than adept at turning some of the least promising material into something that works in ways that it really shouldn’t do. And the man knows how to put together a fight scene. This is just as true here, with Banderas doing the majority of his own stunt work, and Florentine ensuring that Yaron Scharf’s cinematography provides the best coverage possible. So we have Banderas’ avenging lawyer, Frank Valera – he’s looking for the killer or killers of his wife and daughter (Serafini, Blankenship) – learning a range of fighting techniques, and getting into a number of scraps where his newfound skills are shown off to very good effect. These fight scenes, and Banderas’ involvement in them, are what raise the movie out of the various narrative doldrums that leave the story waiting around to be kickstarted again after stalling. These scenes are also the movie’s modus operandi; if they’re not any good, then what’s the point of watching it in the first place?

There are the aforementioned bizarre elements to help it along, though, such as the story being structured in such a way that quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations can be used as chapter headings (“To expect bad men not to do wrong is madness”), and the recurring presence of Russian mobsters for Frank to beat up on – and without any reprisals. Factor in Vega’s handy nurse in a medical crisis, Urban’s illegal cage fighting cop (don’t ask), Frank’s hearing becoming pin sharp within days of his deciding to remain mute until he’s avenged his family (which has him acting like a sighted DareDevil), and the villain conveniently leaving his house key in a planter right outside his front door, and you have a movie that’s only on nodding terms with reality. But even with all that, Florentine has a clean, unfussy visual style that suits the material down to the ground, and he instills the movie with a rhythm that moves things along with a surprising amount of energy. While it’s true that the limitations of Matt Venne’s screenplay are evident in almost every scene, Acts of Vengeance has enough to recommend it as a one-off, just-for-the-fun-of-it viewing.

Rating: 4/10 – yes, it’s bad, and yes, it’s another nail in the career of its star, but thanks to Florentine’s involvement, Acts of Vengeance can be regarded as something of a guilty pleasure; with a handful of well choreographed fight scenes that belie the dire nature of the rest of the material, this is a movie that at least doesn’t outstay its welcome, and wraps things up neatly and concisely.

Poster of the Week – Blonde Bait (1956)


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Blonde Bait was the US title given to a re-edited version of Women Without Men, a Hammer production about three women who escape from prison, each for their own reason. While the movie itself isn’t particularly memorable, the US poster is anything but, and for a number of reasons. It’s another terrific design from the Fifties that’s doing its best to promote its female cast and characters as having an earthy sensuality, and the kind of loose morals that come about from lounging decoratively on soft furnishings. It’s also another poster that’s packed with incident, from the central image of star Beverly Michaels reclining awkwardly on a chaise longue and trying not to burn a hole in it, to the shocked countenance of Avril Angers staring out from behind bars.

It’s a busy poster, and one that’s making a lot of different statements all at the same time. Aside from Michaels’ attempt at looking sultry while fluffing her hair, behind her head there’s the smaller image of Joan Rice looking defiant as she clutches what looks like the remains of a dress – remains that still allow her to show off a shapely leg. She may be in some kind of trouble, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to look fabulous while she deals with it all. A girl’s gotta do… and all that. Then there’s the image perched above Michaels’ hip, a one-sided clinch that looks as if the #MeToo movement should get involved. Michaels is trying to get away from her would-be Lothario (actually Jim Davis), but has the look of someone who’s trying to remember if they left the stove on, or if they locked the front door on their way out.

To their immediate right is a classic image, that of a woman pressed against something that helps emphasise the curvature and fullness of her breasts. Here it’s the bar of a cage, an appropriate choice given the movie’s opening backdrop, but in its own way it’s the least subtle image within the whole poster. Moving further to the right, and we have the poster’s most awkward component, with Michaels being doubly threatened by her near-namesake Ralph Michael. With his left hand he’s attempting to strangle her, but what’s going on with his right hand? Is he grabbing her lapel or trying to punch her? (Make up your mind, man.)

The title is represented in clunky chunky yellow lettering that makes for an eye-catching alternative to the other primary colours on display, but it’s not so bold that it distracts from the various images it has to contend with. Its positioning is also effective in terms of the overall composition, but the same can’t be said for the horrendous tagline that begins at Michaels’ left breast and spreads across to the top of her leg. And to make matters worse, the font makes it look like a last-minute addition, and the wording itself doesn’t make any sense. “The kind of mistake a man can make only once”? Really? How about, “The kind of mistake movie posters should never make” instead? At least the poster’s other tagline, “I don’t need a gun to catch a man!’ is a little more in keeping with the movie’s subject matter.

The poster is rounded off with the usual round of credits, expressed in a nice Roman-style font, and reflecting the inclusion of three stars who didn’t appear in the original British version (Davis, Travis and Cavanagh). The inclusion of Associated Film Releasing Corp in the credits helps explain the logo towards the bottom left hand corner, and further reinforces the notion that this is an exciting, passion-filled American movie (and not some stuffy British crime drama – Heaven forbid). Though there’s a fair degree of misrepresentation going on in this particular poster, it’s hard to complain about it too much as pretty much everyone was doing the same in the mid- to late Fifties. As always, sex is the selling point, though for once there’s no image of some exaggerated, gravity defying cleavage. Now, that’s where the designer went wrong…

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.

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.


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.