The Curse of Good Intentions – Halloween (2018)

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D: David Gordon Green / 106m

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Haluk Bilginer, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, Toby Huss, Virginia Gardner, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle

And it seemed like such a good idea at the time… ah well…

In the UK, on 10 October – and in advance of the release of Halloween (2018) – some cinemas screened the original Halloween (1978). Those screenings were prefaced by an interview/introduction with John Carpenter that was shot in 2015, and in which he gave an overview of the original’s production and the problems he faced in getting it made. Seeing the original on the big screen, and in the Panavision format that Carpenter had designed it to be seen in, was a potent reminder of just why it has become such a seminal movie in the ensuing decades. With a further nine movies having been foisted on audiences since then, it looked as if Rob Zombie’s disastrous Halloween II (2009) had killed off Michael Myers (aka The Shape) once and for all. But in Hollywood, you can’t keep a popular serial killer dead forever, and so we have the latest (eleventh) instalment in a franchise that you could be forgiven for thinking had exhausted all the avenues open to it in telling, and re-telling, Michael Myers’ story. And you know what? You’d be right…

Halloween seeks to earn brownie points with fans and newcomers alike by ignoring entries two through ten, and by taking up the story forty years after the events of the first movie. In this retconned version, Michael Myers was captured after being shot by Dr Sam Loomis, and has spent the intervening years in a state-run sanatarium. Meanwhile, the lone survivor of The Night He Came Home, Laurie Strode (Curtis), has had a daughter, Karen (Greer), who in turn has had her own daughter, Allyson (Matichak). Laurie and Karen are estranged because Laurie is beyond paranoid in her belief that Michael will return to Haddonfield one day, and come for her. Allyson is less censorious, and keeps trying to get her mother and grandmother to reconcile. Inevitably, Michael escapes during a bus transfer to another facility, and as predicted, heads for Haddonfield. Soon he’s butchering people left, right and through the throat in a wilful display of murderous impunity. And just as inevitably, he finds his way to Laurie’s home and the showdown she’s been waiting and planning for for forty years.

Comparisons with John Carpenter’s original movie are entirely relevant here, as writers  David Gordon Green, Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride have made clear their intention to honour the spirit of Carpenter’s movie, while continuing and expanding on the mythology set out in the first two entries. What this means in practice is a movie that constantly references iconic moments from the original while putting a “clever” spin on them, such as Laurie falling from a balcony and having disappeared the second time Michael looks down. It also means that this Halloween is a sequel-reboot that ignores the subtlety and atmosphere of the original in favour of gory kill sequences that happen only so that Michael has something to do (at one point, he’s literally going from door to door in his efforts to kill people), and pulls off a left-field “twist” involving a secondary character that might have been halfway effective if it wasn’t so dramatically laughable. What Green et al seem to have forgotten in their efforts to update the story and make it more “attractive” to modern audiences is the main reason why the original was so compelling: it was genuinely scary. This plays out as a thriller more than it does a horror movie, and a clumsily handled one at that. By attempting to go back to the franchise’s roots, the makers haven’t just retconned the original storyline, but they’ve gotten lost along the way as well. To paraphrase a well known saying, “It’s Halloween, John, but not as we know it.”

Rating: 4/10 – with its muddled, and misguided attempts at reinvigorating the series, Halloween can’t even get the title right (shouldn’t there be a II in there somewhere?); Curtis is the movie’s MVP, but that’s not saying much when the script develops her character at the expense of all the others, and where the notion of creating anything remotely resembling tension seems to have been abandoned right at the start of shooting.

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Funny Cow (2017)

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D: Adrian Shergold / 102m

Cast: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts, Alun Armstrong, Macy Shackleton, Stephen Graham, Kevin Eldon, Lindsey Coulson

Growing up in Yorkshire in relative poverty, ‘Funny Cow’ (Peake – we never learn the character’s real name) experiences physical abuse from her father (Graham), indifference from her mother, and suffers attempts at bullying from other children. Through it all she remains defiant, using humour to help her through the worst of occasions. As a young woman, she meets and marries Bob, but although he’s loving and attentive at first, soon he reveals a violent nature that resembles her father’s. A night out at a local working men’s club offers an unlikely escape route: a comedian (Armstrong) helps ‘Funny Cow’ realise that this is something she can do, and which could offer her some form of independence. Meanwhile, she meets a bookshop owner, Angus (Considine), and a relationship develops between them. But Angus wants more from her than she is able to give, and her first attempt at taking to the stage falters due to her nervousness. While she tries to pull her life together, and make something positive out of it, another chance to prove her skill as a comedienne unexpectedly presents itself…

Told through a stage performance by its main character when it appears she’s reached a period of success, Funny Cow recounts her life more as a form of therapy than as a part of an established routine (if you were in the audience you’d be wondering when the jokes are going to start). Starting with her childhood and moving through the various stages and relationships that have brought her to this point, ‘Funny Cow’s story is one that proffers a dispiriting look at the life of a woman struggling to find happiness, and a true sense of her place in the world. It’s a harsh movie about a harsh life, relentless in the way it portrays domestic abuse and the psychological effects it has on ‘Funny Cow’, and unforgiving of the Northern working class background that she comes from. Almost everyone is either violent, depressed, selfish, abusive, or a mix of all four. Only Angus is different, but it’s his difference from all the other men she’s known that makes him unacceptable; she just doesn’t trust that he can be so naturally kind. With happiness feeling like a dream that’s not just out of reach but completely unobtainable, co-star Tony Pitts’ screenplay keeps ‘Funny Cow’ firmly in her place, trapped by her past and fearful of the future.

Of course, she has a wilful streak that gets her into trouble, and during her first stand up performance, out of it as well. But even her humour is harsh and unrelenting. A heckler suffers for his efforts, ‘Funny Cow’ using him as catharsis for all the abuse she’s suffered in the past. But she’s suffered too much for this to be anything but a temporary release. She’s angry too, and by using her stand up routine to express her anger, ‘Funny Cow’ finds a part of her life where she finally has some measure of control. As the unnamed title character, Peake is on superb form, audacious, brash, haunting, and fearless in her exploration of someone whose past is inextricably entwined wth her present, and to deleterious effect. Whether ‘Funny Cow’ is being mournful of her relationship with Angus, or laughing manically after having her nose broken by Bob, Peake is nothing less than outstanding. Making only his second feature, director Shergold adds poignancy to proceedings by having the older ‘Funny Cow’ cross paths with younger versions of herself, and he ensures that the humour is often pitch black – but still as devastating as the violence that’s depicted.

Rating: 8/10 – though as far from being a feelgood movie as you’re likely to find, conversely there is much to enjoy in Funny Cow, from Peake’s stellar performance, to a truly scabrous stand up routine, and flashes of magical realism in amongst all the tragedy; challenging and compelling, it also takes a sharp look at sexist attitudes of the period (the Seventies), and offers audiences an unflinching look at one woman’s attempt to break free from the patriarchal society that has continually aimed to hold her back.

Birthmarked (2018)

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D: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais / 90m

Cast: Toni Collette, Matthew Goode, Andreas Apergis, Jordan Poole, Megan O’Kelly, Anton Gillis-Adelman, Michael Smiley, Fionnula Flanagan, Suzanne Clément

Ben (Goode) and Catherine (Collette) are two scientists who are interested in examining the whole Nature vs Nurture debate through an idea for an experiment they have. Newly married and with a baby on the way, their idea is to raise their own child and two adopted babies against their genetic predispositions. They’re lucky enough to find a backer for their experiment, Randolph Gertz (Smiley), and they raise the children in a remote cabin in the woods, home-schooling them as well and focusing their minds on becoming an artist (their own son, Luke), an intellectual (their adopted daughter, Maya), and a pacifist (their adopted son, Maurice). They’re aided by an ex-Olympic level Russian marksman called Samsonov (Apergis) who defected to the West in the Seventies. With twelve years of a thirteen year experiment having passed, Gertz’s assessment that the children aren’t extraordinary examples of Nurture over Nature prompts Ben and Catherine to try harder to get the results they need, but their efforts come at a cost to their marriage, their professional relationship, and the needs of the children…

Somewhere in the midst of Birthmarked there’s the germ of a good idea struggling to be noticed. Like the children that are the subject of Ben and Catherine’s slightly less than ethical experiment, the movie wants to be something it’s not allowed to be: sprightly, perceptive, and engaging. It is funny in places, though in a law of averages kind of fashion that only highlights how much of Marc Tulin’s screenplay doesn’t gel cohesively, and it has an appealing cast who are at least trying their best to put over the material, but thanks to some poor decisions along the way, the movie coasts on too many occasions, and never hits a consistent stride. A great deal of what hampers the movie from being more successful is its inability to focus on one storyline over the rest, with Ben and Catherine’s marriage drawing more and more attention during the latter half, while each individual child receives occasional turns in the spotlight, but not in such a way that we get to know them. Then there’s Gertz, the obvious bad guy of the piece, and his equally obvious machinations (revealed late on but easily guessed at long before). Add in Samsonov’s presence – friend or foe? – and you have too many characters who lack substance, and who only occasionally drive the movie forward.

All this has the misfortune of making the movie uneven and feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a patchwork quilt that has several panels missing. Hoss-Desmarais, making only his second feature, has no answers for any of this, and though some scenes work better than others, often this is due to the cast’s efforts instead of his. Goode plays Ben as a rather blinkered, the-experiment-is-all character who behaves badly for no other reason than that the script needs him to, while Collette goes from entirely reasonable to inexplicably depressed over the course of a couple of scenes in order to provide the last third with some unneeded secondary drama. The young cast are often the best thing about the movie, and that’s largely due to their playing their roles like ordinary children (which they are, despite the intention of the experiment), and there’s some beautifully austere winter photography by Josée Deshaies that at least provides the action with a backdrop that reflects the muted dramatics. In the same way that Ben and Catherine’s experiment lacks coherence in the way they deal with any problems that arise, the movie also struggles to offer a consistency of tone or content. Maybe the movie, like the experiment it’s exploring, needed a longer nurturing period before committing itself to audiences.

Rating: 5/10 – sporadically amusing, with a cast that play their roles as capably as possible, Birthmarked is moderately appealing for the most part, but is mainly frustrating thanks to the opportunities it wastes; too wayward then to work effectively, it’s a movie that should be watched under proviso, or maybe as an experiment in itself.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

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D: Peter Jackson / 99m

Four years ago, Peter Jackson was approached by the 14-18-Now organisation to make a thirty minute documentary on the First World War to mark its hundredth anniversary. The only proviso was that he use archival footage held at London’s Imperial War Museum. Jackson readily agreed but realised that the surviving footage would need to be restored in order to present the best possible version of the movie he was going to make. In the end this meant a long, painstaking process that involved cleaning up the material, correcting a variety of frame rates to today’s standard of twenty-four frames a second, and then both colourising it and converting it into 3D. With recordings of World War I veterans conducted by the BBC during the Sixties making up the soundtrack, They Shall Not Grow Old (a transposition of the quote by Laurence Binyan), is a stunningly immersive and emotive experience that brings the so-called “Great War” to life in a way that has never been seen before. The application of modern technology gives the documentary an immediacy that’s both powerful and, in places, quite profound. And thankfully, what was meant to be a thirty minute piece, has been expanded to nearly a hundred minutes; and Jackson doesn’t a single one of them.

The movie doesn’t begin with this new, remastered footage. Instead, we see old, damaged images of servicemen walking past a static camera, and it’s a little jerky, and either a little faded or too bright, but it’s what we’re used to seeing. But as the movie progresses, the images begin to improve. Black and white gives way to colour, the 3D becomes sharper and more pronounced (though without becoming distracting), and the footage itself takes on more and more detail. What emerges is a compelling visual exploration of a serviceman’s life on the battlefield, when fighting and at rest, and from the time war was declared and men – and especially teenagers – rushed to take up arms, to the Armistice and the problems they faced when they returned home. Jackson tells the story of the war from the perspective of the British (naturally), but also makes room for the Germans, and the similarities between the men who fought on both sides. There’s footage of British and German medics working side by side to save the injured and the dying, and examples of the lack of ill will shown to German captives. Jackson makes the point very succinctly: neither side knew why they were fighting, and were sympathetic towards, and respectful of, each other.

But while the visuals are the movie’s “main attraction” as it were (and rightly so), where Jackson truly excels is in the decision to use those recordings from the BBC. So much detail is present in these remembrances that almost every single one of them sheds light on the emotions and feelings and opinions of those who fought. These voices from the past vividly illustrate the hopes and fears that were felt at the time, and they remind us that initially, many thought the war would be an adventure. There’s humour too, a reminder that these men couldn’t allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the nature of their situation in the trenches. And then, as if these recollections aren’t enough, Jackson goes one step further: he gives voices to the men in the archival footage through the use of lip reading experts who examined the footage and worked out what was being said. Now this footage comes complete with an audio track that would never have been heard otherwise. It’s disorientating at first, but the effect is incredible: combined with the colour and the increased detail of the image, it’s as if we’re seeing contemporary footage, and not imagery that’s a hundred years old. Jackson has done something extraordinary: he’s made the past look and sound as real as the present.

Rating: 9/10 – for some, this may prove to be Peter Jackson’s finest work (yes, even better than The Lord of the Rings trilogy), and on many levels it is; a triumph of technology plus a philosophical approach to the material that focuses on the men who fought rather than the reasons for their fighting, this is hugely impressive, and a powerful reminder of the human ability to endure and/or overcome the worst of adversities.

Operation Finale (2018)

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D: Chris Weitz / 123m

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwyn, Michael Aronov, Greta Scacchi, Pêpê Rapazote, Peter Strauss, Simon Russell Beale

In Buenos Aires in 1960, a young woman called Sylvia Hermann (Richardson) begins dating a young man, Klaus (Alwyn), who tells her he lives with his uncle, who has been looking after him since his father died in World War II. The kindly uncle actually is his father, Adolf Eichmann (Kingsley), long wanted for war crimes, and now the focus of an Israeli attempt to kidnap him and bring him to trial. Mossad assembles a team that includes Peter Malkin (Isaac), a brash, opportunistic agent who was involved in a previous attempt to capture Eichmann that ended tragically; Rafi Eitan (Kroll), an intelligence specialist; and Hanna Elian (Laurent), a doctor and former agent. The team travels to Buenos Aires where they organise a safe house, and plot Eichmann’s abduction. Once captured, though, they find themselves with a problem: the only way they can get Eichmann out of the country is on an El Al plane that’s scheduled to leave in ten days’ time. But first, El Al wants a signed affidavit from Eichmann that he is willing to travel to Israel to stand trial…

The capture and subsequent “extradition” of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina to Israel in May 1960 has all the hallmarks of an exciting adventure story, with the Mossad team working in secrecy, and under the very real threat of being captured by the Argentinian police and finding themselves put on trial for espionage. And that’s without the substantial number of Nazis and Nazi sympathisers living in Buenos Aires at the time, who would most likely have had them killed on the spot. Eichmann’s capture was a huge coup for the Israelis, and though Operation Finale conflates much of the background detail – e.g. Sylvia Hermann began dating Klaus Eichmann in 1956 – it remains true to the spirit and the general sequence of events that saw one of the principle architects of the Final Solution finally brought to justice. However, Matthew Orton’s screenplay only provides an occasional sense of the danger Malkin and his colleagues were facing, and director Chris Weitz doesn’t seem able to make the movie as tense and exciting as it should be. Instead, we’re treated to a number of scenes where the team debate whether or not to kill Eichmann there and then (even though that’s not the mission), and several repetitive scenes where they endeavour to get him to sign El Al’s affidavit, but to no avail.

It’s a shame, as though this is a distinct improvement on The Man Who Captured Eichmann (1996), it never really gels as the historical thriller that was so clearly intended. The performances are uniformly good, with Kingsley subdued yet calculating as Eichmann, and Aronov matching him for intensity as chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni, but they’re in service to material that is often dry and unimaginative. Dramatic flourishes such as flashbacks to the death of Malkin’s sister (which put Eichmann unconvincingly at the scene), and a party where the entire gathering shouts “Sieg Heil!” and gives the Nazi salute over and over, stand out because they are more emotive, but elsewhere the movie treads an even keel and rarely strays from feeling perfunctory and ever so slightly mannered. Even the last minute race against time to get to the airport with the police on the team’s tail is less than exciting, just another cog in the story’s wheel that the makers feel obliged to turn for the audience’s sake. It’s another moment of restrained pretence in a movie that lacks the kind of emotional impact such a dramatic story truly deserves.

Rating: 5/10 – despite the good use of Argentinian locations, and David Brisbin’s detailed production design, Operation Finale feels more like the cinematic equivalent of a first draft than a finished product; with a handful of soap opera elements that further dilute the drama, the movie is too broad and too uneven in its approach to be anywhere near successful, but on its own terms it will suffice until the next interpretation comes along.

Support the Girls (2018)

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D: Andrew Bujalski / 90m

Cast: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, James Le Gros, AJ Michalka, Dylan Gelula, Shayna McHayle, Lea DeLaria, Jana Kramer, Brooklyn Decker, John Elvis, Lawrence Varnado

It’s another day of problems at Double Whammies, a Hooters-style sports bar-cum-restaurant (or ‘breastaurant’) managed by the ever-reliable and ever-resourceful Lisa (Hall). What with having to carry out interviews before the bar opens, dealing with a man stuck in one of the air vents, organising a car wash with the proceeds going to a staff member who’s in financial difficulties, solving the issue of the TV screens having lost their signal, and the unwanted management advice of bar owner Cubby (Le Gros), as well as the prospect of a similar, rival company opening a restaurant nearby, Lisa has her work cut out for her – and that’s without providing support and practical advice to the staff, who have their own issues. Lisa is more of a den mother than a manager, but her expertise lies in treating everyone like family, and for this she gets back a lot of respect and loyalty. As she sidesteps further potential problems that arise as the day progresses, it’s not until an encounter with Cubby that she begins to question whether or not it’s time to move on…

Although the setting for Support the Girls is a tacky, less than appealing restaurant that promotes “family values” and which has a zero tolerance policy on customers who are disrespectful to the waitstaff, this isn’t about the restaurant itself, but about those waitstaff, and their manager, and the sisterhood that they promote amongst themselves. It’s this sense of solidarity, and everyone pulling together, that gives the movie much of its heart and soul, as writer/director Bujalski paints a portrait of ordinary women working in a low paid, low reward job but finding a purpose in supporting each other that makes up for the problems that said job throws at them on a daily basis, whether it be unruly patrons, unfair rules and prohibitions (Cubby won’t allow two black women to work the same shift), or their own unrealised needs and/or ambitions. Lisa does her best to juggle all these things and to keep Double Whammies running as smoothly as possible, but she’s like the classic image of a swan: on the surface she seems able to deal with anything, but below the surface she’s paddling like mad to maintain that semblance of being in control.

Adding depth to proceedings are themes surrounding perpetuated sexist attitudes, the socio-economic climate that keeps workers such as these from doing any better for themselves, and how senior management or owners are divorced from the day-to-day realities of managing such a business. These issues are given their due without the need for strident politicising or deftly written monologues bemoaning the current state of employment matters in the US, and this is because Bujalski is focused on how female solidarity allows the staff to feel and be more fulfilled than perhaps they would be otherwise. It’s a positive message given in the unlikeliest of locations, but it’s also the reason why it works so well. These are women who are working in an environment where it’s not just their gender that can come under attack but their sexuality, their physical appearance, their class, their race, and that’s without any challenges to their ability to do the job. That the movie balances all this without being too blunt or obvious, is a testament to the skill of Bujalski’s screenplay, and his confidence in handling the material. It’s also due to the talents of a terrific cast, with Hall giving her best performance yet as a woman doing her best to keep everything going, and by being that rare thing in the movies: consistently nice.

Rating: 8/10 – a comedy that avoids clumsy attempts at satire by being sincere in its approach to its characters’ environment, and their hopes and dreams, Support the Girls does just that, and in an affecting, heartwarming manner; as a snapshot of what it’s like to be a woman in 2018 America, it could be construed as dispiriting, but what it shows instead is that female solidarity is alive and well and ready for anything – and on its own terms.

Eighth Grade (2018)

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D: Bo Burnham / 94m

Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, Catherine Oliviere

For Kayla Day (Fisher), coming to the end of eighth grade and leaving middle school should be a cause for celebration. But Kayla has a bunch of personal issues to contend with: she posts self-help videos on YouTube that hardly anyone watches, she’s naïve about boys but wants a boyfriend, her classmates give her a “Most Quiet” award, her dad (Hamilton) doesn’t understand how important social media is to her, and despite her best efforts, she’s never been able to fit in with the “regular” crowd let alone those girls thought of as most popular. A surprise invitation to the birthday party of one of those popular girls leads Kayla to attempt taking some of her own video advice and be more confident and take more chances. But even though she does so, things don’t automatically change, and it’s not until she attends a high school shadow day and meets twelfth grader Olivia (Robinson), that her efforts begin to pay off. Another invitation, this time to spend the evening with Olivia and some of her friends, leads to a moment of self-awareness that causes Kayla to reassess everything about her life, and what’s truly important to her…

Movies about the perils of being a high school student in the US are practically ten a penny, with every variation on the theme pretty well exhausted by now, but there are few that examine the perils of middle school. And of the few that are out there – e.g. the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Jessica Darling’s It List (2016) – none are as astutely handled or feel as authentic as Eighth Grade. First-time writer/director Bo Burnham has obviously done his homework, as he doesn’t strike one false note throughout the entire movie, from the dialogue to the exploration of Kayla’s anxiety, to the pervasive nature of social media, and the way in which peer pressure can lead to young people making ill-informed decisions in order to “fit in”. Burnham also presents Kayla’s relationship with her dad (a single parent doing his best since his wife left them both) as a convincing mix of adversity and co-dependency, their exhanges never working out the way either one of them wants them to. But the bulk of the movie examines Kayla’s efforts to establish herself as someone worth knowing, even as she strays far away from who she truly is.

One of the successes of Eighth Grade is that if you’re the age the movie depicts, the chances are that you’ll identify with the characters and the situations they find themelves in. Male or female, Kayla’s anxiety and insecurities are very relatable, from being seen at the party in an unflattering lime green swimsuit, to admitting to the boy she has a crush on that she has “dirty” pictures of herself on her phone in the hope that he’ll be interested in her. Kayla’s naïvety and inexperience lead her into some unpleasant situations, none more so than a backseat game of Truth or Dare that is as uncomfortable to watch as it is awkward and manipulative. Burnham is often uncompromisingly honest in his depictions of the lives of middle schoolers, and he doesn’t sugar coat the real life consequences that some ill-advised choices can have. This approach is aided by a terrific, nuanced performance from Fisher, who incorporates some of her own tics and behaviours into playing Kayla, and in doing so, is able to make the character entirely credible and sympathetic. She’s the movie’s ace in the hole, and interprets Burnham’s script as if she were Kayla herself – and who’s to say in some ways she isn’t?

Rating: 9/10 – an unexpectedly genuine examination of teen life that is able to resonate with people of all ages, Eighth Grade is a triumph: funny, knowing, sincere, poignant, affecting, and bracingly honest; with a standout performance from Fisher, and a script that’s unwilling to provide any obvious or disingenuous answers – but which does offer hope for Kayla instead – this is something to recommend to anyone who’s about to turn thirteen.

22 July (2018)

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D: Paul Greengrass / 144m

Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Algen, Ola G. Furuseth

On 22 July 2011, a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik (Lie) carried out two acts of domestic terrorism in Norway. In the first, he set off a bomb outside the executive government quarter in Oslo. Less than two hours later, at a summer camp on Utøya Island, he shot and killed dozens of the people there, most of whom were teenagers. With the two attacks, Breivik killed a total of seventy-seven people and injured over three hundred others. Breivik surrendered to police on Utøya, and was soon charged with carrying out both attacks. His lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Øigarden), suggested that Breivik opt for a defense based on insanity, and Breivik was assessed by psychiatrists who diagnosed him as being a “paranoid schizophrenic”. But at trial, and even though the prosecution had to accept the diagnosis (which would potentially have seen Breivik committed to an institution rather than prison), Breivik realised this would blunt the message he wanted to make. Insisting that he wasn’t insane, Breivik made it clear he was fully cognisant of his actions, and that he carried out the attacks out of a sense of necessity…

Any retelling of a tragedy of the scale of the 2011 Norway attacks needs a sensitive approach, and it’s no suprise that when the movie was first announced, a campaign to stop its production was raised, and 20,000 signatures were generated. But those who didn’t want to see the movie made needn’t have worried, because 22 July is as restrained and as unsensational as you could possibly get. Thanks to an intelligent, well-constructed script (by Paul Greengrass), and equally intelligent, perceptive direction, this adaptation of Åsne Seierstad’s book, One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway – and Its Aftermath, is less about the terrorist attacks and more about what happened in their wake, from the trial of Breivik and its conclusion, to the physical, mental and emotional rehabilitation of a (fictional) survivor of the Utøya shootings, Viljar Hanssen (Gravli), to the ways in which Norway as a country dealt with the horror of such events happening on its native soil. Successfully mixing the broader details of this last with the personal details of Viljar’s struggle to regain his sense of self, and Breivik’s self-aggrandising polemical references, Greengrass avoids any potential accusations of unnecessary melodrama, and opts instead for a quiet sincerity that permeates the whole movie.

What this gives us is a movie that approaches the material in a patient matter-of-fact way that eschews the need for tension or more traditional thriller elements, but which does pack several emotional punches into its structure. Like much of the movie, these moments are quietly devastating, often coming out of the characters’ need to understand what happened and, more importantly, why it happened to them. To his credit, Greengrass doesn’t offer very many answers, and it’s this sense of confusion that carries much of the movie’s middle section, as conversely, it becomes clear that whatever larger motivations Breivik may have had, notoriety seems to be the one that he’s most comfortable with (there’s a horrible moment where he complains casually about a cut to his finger caused by a “skull fragment” from one of his victims). Lie is excellent in the role: smug, condescending, without an ounce of remorse, and chillingly banal; Breivik might not be a paranoid schizophrenic, but in Lie’s interpretation, he’s definitely got some kind of dissociative disorder. Gravli is equally compelling as the good-natured teen forced into some very dark corners through being a survivor, and Øigarden displays Lippestad’s patient forbearance of his client with great skill and diplomacy. In fact, this is that rare cast where everyone is on top form, and as they’re all Norwegian, that’s something that couldn’t have been better.

Rating: 8/10 – with only a tendency to drag during a middle section that repeats a number of encounters and narrative discursions to be held against it, 22 July is further proof that Paul Greengrass is one of the best writer/directors currently making movies; insightful and incisive, he’s crafted a movie that does full justice to the terrible events of that fateful day, and he does so with great skill and an abundance of straightforward honesty, something that should placate all those who didn’t want the movie made in the first place.

Nasty Baby (2015)

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D: Sebastián Silva / 101m

Cast: Sebastián Silva, Kristen Wiig, Tunde Adebimpe, Reg E. Cathey, Mark Margolis, Agustín Silva, Alia Shawkat, Lillias White, Neal Huff

Performance artist Freddy (Sebastián Silva) has two current ambitions: to complete a short movie that sees him explore what it is to be a baby (and with himself portraying one), and to have a baby with his best friend, Polly (Wiig). But Freddy’s sperm count is too low, which rules him out as a donor. This leaves Freddy’s partner, Mo (Adebimpe), as a potential substitute. At first, Mo is supportive and willing to take over from Freddy, but when it comes to making his first “contribution”, he finds he can’t do it. Meanwhile, Freddy decides to expand the content of his movie to include other people, including Mo, Polly, and his assistant, Wendy (Shawkat). Having secured a possible spot at a local art gallery, Freddy is keen to complete the project as quickly as he can, but as well as the issue of Polly’s pregnancy – which Mo eventually has a change of heart about – one of his neighbours, a mentally disturbed man who calls himself The Bishop (Cathey), is the source of anti-social behaviour that has a greater and greater effect on Freddy, and Polly as well…

Sometimes, when discussing a movie, it’s hard to do so when that movie trundles along quite happily in one direction – and for most of the running time – and then suddenly it changes tack, and heads off into the unknown or the unexpected. This is the case with Nasty Baby, writer/director Sebastián Silva’s ode to creativity and creation, and a movie that is for the most part quite amiable (if a little under-nourished in the drama department), but which becomes a different movie entirely in its last twenty minutes. Nasty Baby was (somewhat famously) meant to premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, but the festival organisers didn’t like the ending and suggested Silva change it. Silva stuck to his guns, but so too did the organisers, and it wasn’t until the 2015 Sundance Film Festival that the movie was first shown to audiences. Watching the movie now, you can understand Toronto’s reluctance, and also Silva’s determination. The ending of the movie is so tonally and dramatically separated from what’s gone before that it’s hard to work out if Silva intended it all along, or it was designed to provide an ending where there wasn’t one before. (Hmmmm…)

On the other hand, the ending is much more dramatic than anything else that’s gone before. The rest of the movie is engaging enough, even though not much happens, and it features good performances from Wiig and Adebimpe, but there’s a tremendous sense of waiting – waiting for Silva to pick up the pace, and waiting for Silva to plot a through line that doesn’t feel forced or lacking in focus. The surrogacy issue is left largely unexplored, as well as Polly’s need for a baby, and Freddy’s performance art work lacks a reason for being also, making this a movie where things are set up for no discernible reason, and it jumps from scene to scene without many of them having an impact. Even Cathey’s mentally disturbed neighbour, who provides the movie’s only real source of conflict, soon becomes tiresome due to the repetitive nature of his harrassment. A trip to visit Mo’s family further underlines the waywardness of Silva’s screenplay, with an awkward dinner table conversation about the suitability of a black gay man being the sperm donor for a straight white woman, and how this would affect the child. It’s awkward not because the subject matter is obviously contentious, but because, like so many other aspects of the movie, Silva hasn’t quite worked out what he’s trying to say.

Rating: 6/10 – though on the face of it, Nasty Baby has the look and feel of an accomplished indie movie, the truth is that it stumbles way too often for comfort, and keeps its characters at a distance from the viewer; the aforementioned performances go a long way toward making up for the movie’s shortfalls, and Silva does at least make good use of his Fort Greene, Brooklyn locations, but overall this is a movie that lacks the cohesiveness needed to make it work effectively.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

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D: Boots Riley / 111m

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover, Robert Longstreet, Patton Oswalt, David Cross

For Cassius Green (Stanfield), life in an alternative-present Oakland is something of a struggle. When he lands a job at RegalView, a telemarketing company, things look like they might be about to improve. But despite his eagerness to succeed, he finds it hard to get anywhere with the sales leads he’s given. It’s not until a colleague, Langston (Glover), advises him to use his “white voice” that Cassius sees his fortunes improve. Soon he’s RegalView’s top salesman, but at the same time that the workforce are being prompted to strike for better pay and conditions by union organiser Squeeze (Yeun). Promoted to the position of Power Caller, Cassius opts for more money and prestige over helping his friends and colleagues, including his girlfriend, Detroit (Thompson). But entry to the upper echelons of RegalView reveal a side to the company that sits uncomfortably with Cassius’s political and social beliefs, beliefs that are challenged even further when he discovers a connection to WorryFree, an organisation that promotes a life of free food and lodging, plus no bills, but on condition that people accept a lifetime’s working contract…

For much of the its first hour, Sorry to Bother You is a sharply detailed, refreshingly adept satire that pokes fun at working-class aspirations and the various ways that the lower middle-class stops those aspirations from being successful. The sales floor at RegalView is used as a metaphor for those aspirations that remain stifled at every turn, while the management provide their workers with mixed messages and false assurances that success is only a few calls – or a positive attitude – away. Cassius’ eventual rise to the level of Power Caller serves as a further satirical swipe at the establishment’s exploitation and integration of talented individuals for its own nefarious purposes. It’s a little bit obvious, and borders on being a little trite in its execution, as are the problems it causes for Cassius with Detroit and his friends at work, but first-time writer/director Boots Riley gives the material a fresh enough reworking to offset any real concerns, and once the viewer has settled into the movie’s comfortable narrative groove, he introduces Cassius to WorryFree’s head honcho, Steve Lift (Hammer). And from there, the movie goes in a completely unexpected direction.

As the poster has it, this is “something you need to see to believe”. What Riley has up his sleeve will either grab you and keep you watching thanks to the sheer lunatic audacity of it all, or it will make you say to yourself, “nope, that’s it, I’m out of here”. But it does put an entirely different spin on things, and is a completely original take on the lengths that corporations will go to to maximise profits while exploiting their workforce. It’s a brave approach by Riley, but also one that makes Sorry to Bother You an unforgettable experience that really takes huge, confident strides forward in its second half, both in terms of the narrative, and in terms of the characters’ involvement. Cassius is torn between securing a good life for himself and the extent of the growing social responsibility he feels once he discovers what WorryFree is up to. Stanfield, whose potential as an actor has been obvious for a while now, grabs the role with both hands and gives a terrific performance that’s far more difficult than it seems because for most of the movie Cassius is more passive than aggressive. There’s terrific support too from Thompson as Detroit (whose choice of earrings is something to keep track of), and Hammer as Lift, the entrepreneur without a soul or a social conscience.

Rating: 8/10 – with an arresting visual style, and no shortage of humour, Sorry to Bother You is an audacious, bold, and confidently handled exposé of the perils of unchecked elitism and its association with new capitalism; it may get “weird” but by (mostly) playing it straight, the movie still makes a considerable impact, and is definitely not a movie that you’ll forget in a hurry – and that is very much a good thing.

Happy End (2017)

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D: Michael Haneke / 107m

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones

For the Laurent family, life is full of challenges. Patriarch Georges (Trintignant) is in his mid-Eighties and suffering from dementia. He has two children, Anne (Huppert), who runs the family construction business, and Thomas (Kassovitz), who is a well respected surgeon. Anne is divorced, but has a grown son, Pierre (Rogowski), who is in line to take over the family business, but he has a drink problem and is prone to angry outbursts. Thomas is married to Anaïs (Verlinden), who is his second wife; they have an infant child. He also has a twelve year old daughter from his first marriage, Eva (Harduin). Eva comes to live with her extended family when her mother falls ill from an overdose of tablets and is admitted to hospital. As she navigates both a bigger family and a bigger house (in Calais), Eva soon learns that everyone has their secrets, from Georges’ determination to commit suicide while he still has the mental and physical will, to her own father’s extra-marital activities, and Anne’s unwillingness to let Pierre assume control of the family business. In different ways, each supposedly well kept secret is revealed over the course of a short space of time, and the Laurents are exposed as the dysfunctional people they truly are…

If you’re a fan of the work of Michael Haneke, then you’ll no doubt appreciate the irony of his latest movie being called Happy End. Here, happiness is in very short supply, and when it is “allowed out” (as it were), it isn’t for long. With themes such as suicide, depression, alcoholism and immorality highlighted within the narrative, it’s no wonder that this is at times heavy going, with no light at the end of the tunnel for either the characters or the audience. Sombre movies such as this one don’t necessarily have to be a chore, or “difficult to watch”, and Haneke is a master at teasing out the most obscure of motivations for his characters’ behaviour, and making them telling, but here the knack seems to have abandoned him. This is a dour soap opera populated by people who are stuck in the routine melodramas of their daily lives and have no idea of how to change anything – except to make themselves even more unhappy. The odd one out is Anne, whose relationship with British lawyer Lawrence (Jones), provides the only expression of hope in the whole movie.

With terrible events happening in isolation or viewed from a distance – a collapsed retainer wall at a Laurent construction site early on is a great example – Haneke ensures that the audience is kept at a distance from both the events themselves and the characters who experience them. This has the effect of dulling the emotional pull of such scenes and denying the audience any connection with what’s happening and to whom. When Pierre visits the family of a construction worker injured during the collapse of the retainer wall, Haneke opts for a long shot from beside Pierre’s car. When Pierre is assaulted, the camera remains fixed, even when he staggers back to the car. This distancing has the effect of negating any sympathy we might have for the character, or any sense of shock or outrage. Only the concern of a passerby registers as an emotional response, but again, Haneke’s approach appears unconcerned with such details. Inevitably, it’s hard to work out just what Haneke is trying to say, or even if he has a message for us in the first place. The situations and conversations Georges et al experience are interesting on a basic level but rarely resonate, and when they do, it’s in a superficial, stylistically clever yet empty fashion that makes you wonder why anyone would want to spend time with such a bunch of self-absorbed ingrates.

Rating: 6/10 – with impressive cinematography by DoP Christian Berger that enhances Olivier Radot’s equally impressive production design, it’s a shame that Happy End emerges as a cold, uninvolving melodrama that tries too hard to make you care about its characters; still, the performances are good – Huppert is superb in what at times feels like a supporting role – but as they’re in service to a script that isn’t quite as well thought out as it needed to be, this remains, at best and worst, the movie version of a curate’s egg.

10×10 (2018)

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D: Suzi Ewing / 87m

Cast: Luke Evans, Kelly Reilly, Norma Dixit, Skye Lucia Degruttola, Olivia Chenery, Jason Maza, Stacy Hall

Cathy Noland (Reilly) owns a florist shop in a small town, and seems happy being on her own. What she doesn’t know is that Lewis (Evans) has been watching her for months, learning everything he can about her, and tracking her daily routines. When she leaves a yoga class at the end of the day, Lewis grabs her in the parking lot and quickly ties her up and gags her before putting her in the boot of his car. He takes her to his home where he puts her in a soundproofed, hidden room. It soon becomes clear that Lewis has some questions for Cathy, and they may have something to do with a medical malpractice trial that he’s following on television. Cathy tries to escape, but isn’t successful, and as time passes, Lewis presses her to tell the truth about herself (starting with her name) and how it all relates to his wife, Alana (Chenery), and how she recently died. When Lewis finally learns the truth, it isn’t what he’s expecting, and he’s caught off guard when Cathy makes her next attempt at escaping…

The kind of mystery thrller that comes and goes without anyone really noticing it, 10×10 starts off well, but then stumbles repeatedly on its way to a violent showdown between Evans’ angry kidnapper and Reilly’s resourceful captive. Again, as with a lot of mystery thrillers, there’s the germ of a good idea here, but Noel Clarke’s screenplay (he also produces, and cameos as a waiter in a diner) is unable to connect the narrative dots in such a way that the movie forms into a cohesive whole. The script also tries to subvert audience expectations by throwing in a couple of “unexpected” twists along the way, and though these attempts are laudable in and of themselves, they don’t carry any weight or have any dramatic impact. Instead of being surprised, or even shocked, the average viewer’s reaction is likely to be a shrug of indifference. Part of the problem is the movie’s unfortunate habit of presenting scenes that act independently from the ones that precede and follow them, or which fail to increase the tension. One such scene involves Lewis driving to a favourite spot he and Alana went to. A squad car pulls up, and for a moment it looks as if Lewis is going to be in trouble. Only for a moment, though…

With scenes such as these being resolved too quickly, all that remains is for the cat and mouse game between Lewis and Cathy to hold the attention and provide all the thrills (the violent assaults that pepper the narrative soon become derivative and perfunctory in the way they’re staged and play out). Alas, once Cathy is kidnapped, any tension soon dissipates as the script’s awkward machinations are further undermined by first-time director Ewing’s unoriginal handling. Between the house’s open plan living area and the hidden room is a corridor; the number of times Lewis and Cathy run down it in either direction is about the only scary thing the viewer can rely on. In the end, and despite Evans’ and Reilly’s best efforts, the movie loses its way completely and becomes yet another generic thriller that is so generic it even includes a scene where the villain of the piece is supposedly dead – only to be miraculously resurrected the very next minute. When a movie resorts to such crude tactics in order to raise some excitement, then you know it’s been in trouble for some time already.

Rating: 3/10 – a woeful movie that is almost wholly free of subtext or metaphor, 10×10‘s main achievement is that it was made in the first place and induced both Evans and Reilly to take part; almost an object lesson in how not to create a tense, exciting thriller, this is one to avoid in favour of almost anything else.

Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town (2017)

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D: Christian Papierniak / 87m

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Carrie Coon, Alex Russell, Alia Shawkat, Haley Joel Osment, Lakeith Stanfield, Annie Potts, Rob Huebel, Brandon T. Jackson, Sarah Goldberg, Meghan Lennox, Dolly Wells

Izzy (Davis) wakes one morning to find herself in the bed of a stranger (Stanfield). As she navigates leaving without waking him, she learns that her ex-boyfriend, Roger (Russell), is getting engaged to her best friend, Whitney (Goldberg), and there’s a party to celebrate that evening. Determined to get to the party and stop Roger from going through with it – she’s convinced he still loves her – Izzy sets off with plenty of time to get there. But obstacles soon present themselves. Her car isn’t ready at the garage, she can’t get enough money for cab fare, she takes a tumble on the bike she borrows and it’s too damaged to keep using, and the one person (Shawkat) who does give her a lift leaves her stranded in a neighbourhood she doesn’t know after going just a short distance. It’s only thanks to the help of another stranger (Potts) that Izzy is able to finally get to the engagement party. But when she does, things don’t exactly go as well as she’d planned…

There’s much to like in Christian Papierniak’s feature debut, not the least of which is Davis’s bullish, spiky performance, but Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town is a movie whose episodic structure hampers both its flow and its effectiveness. It’s to be expected that Izzy will encounter setbacks in her journey to her ex’s engagement party, but it’s whether or not those setbacks are interesting or reflect on Izzy’s own emotional state that is the key. And that’s where Papierniak’s screenplay lacks consistency. Too preoccupied with trying to make eloquent statements about the nature of fate, or the validity of personal expectations and needs in relationships, the script often stops the action to contemplate these matters, and in doing so, negates the urgency of Izzy’s journey. What should be a more and more desperate race against time as the movie progresses, becomes instead a kind of semi-serious, semi-humorous series of bunny hops across Los Angeles as Izzy deals with one uninterested potential Samaritan after another (until Potts’s sympathetic romantic idealist comes along). Izzy herself is someone it’s well worth spending time with, and Papierniak is on firmer ground when she’s the focus of a scene, but the other characters don’t have anywhere near the same impact.

Again, this is largely due to the uneven nature of the script, and Papierniak not fully realising his thematic and subtextual ambitions. But it’s also due to a remarkable performance by Davis, who dominates the movie in a way that makes everyone else seem like they weren’t paying attention when Papierniak gave out notes. As Izzy, Davis is mercurial, fiery, amusing, good-natured at heart, abrasive when pushed, and altogether a person rather than an indie caricature (the drawback of both Shawkat and Osment’s characters). Only Coon as Izzy’s estranged sister, Virginia – they were a musical duo once before Virginia split them up – is as compelling, contrasting Davis’s messed up free spirit with a steely-eyed turn as a woman whose sense of responsibility is just as skewed as Izzy’s but in a way that has deadened her emotionally (there’s a hint that this could be Izzy’s ultimate fate but it isn’t developed any further). When it’s not trying to be serious about life and love, the movie is on much better footing, with a sly sense of humour that elevates the material, and there’s a bittersweet ending that feels antithetical to what’s gone before, but actually proves to be a bold move by Papierniak, and one that rounds off the movie much more effectively than if – well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Rating: 6/10 – although Davis steals the limelight and gives an indelible, finely-tuned performance, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town is let down by an uneven script and less than interesting secondary characters; that said, Papierniak isn’t afraid to throw in some odd stylistic choices that at least show he’s trying to do something different, and there’s a terrific moment that involves a bathroom, a change of lighting, and the exposure of past regrets.

Oh! the Horror! – The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

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The Giant Gila Monster (1959) / D: Ray Kellogg / 75m

Cast: Don Sullivan, Fred Graham, Lisa Simone, Shug Fisher, Bob Thompson, Janice Stone, Ken Knox, Gay McLendon

In rural Texas, the disappearance of a teenage couple prompts the local sheriff (Graham) to enlist the help of the couple’s friends in determining if something has happened to them, or they’ve maybe eloped. Over the next few days, there are further disappearances, and increasing evidence that something strange is happening out near one particular ravine. When the couple’s car is finally found, there’s no sign of them. By now though, the sheriff and local car mechanic/hot rod enthusiast, Chase Winstead (Sullivan), have come to the conclusion that the cause of all the strange incidents might be some kind of abnormally large animal. The truth is revealed when the town drunk (Fisher) sees a giant gila monster, and it causes a train wreck. Before the sheriff can arrange for the state troopers to help kill the creature, it attacks a platter party being held a barn, an attack that prompts Chase to come up with a way of dispatching the monster once and for all…

Okay, so it’s not a gila monster, it’s a Mexican beaded lizard, and yes, the special effects involving it are shoddy and unconvincing (the trainwreck is not a highlight), but The Giant Gila Monster is definitely a cult classic. With its authentic Texan locations, mutually beneficial cooperation between its teenagers and the sheriff, unexpected rendition of The Mushroom Song by Sullivan (and twice, no less), and more hot rod inspired slang than you can shake a nerf bar at, the movie has a rudimentary charm that more than makes up for its deficiencies elsewhere. The performances are perfectly acceptable, Kellogg’s direction is simple yet effective, and the script by Jay Simms ensures that the characters (mostly) aren’t too one-dmensional. Like so many Fifties sci-fi/horrors it’s let down by the quality of its monster and the model work that surrounds it, and although this is the source of much amusement, there are sufficient good ideas present that if there had been a bigger budget, it would have meant a much more polished movie. It’s also that rare Fifties sci-fi/horror that can be watched more than once, and which remains way more superior than Gila!, the made-for-TV remake that escaped in 2012.

Rating: 6/10 – if you can ignore the low budget trappings, and the lack of any real threat from the titular creature, then The Giant Gila Monster is something of a pleasant surprise; almost gratuitously good-natured in its approach, this really isn’t a sci-fi or a horror movie, but it is more interesting to watch than the majority of its ilk.

 

The Trollenberg Terror (1958) / D: Quentin Lawrence / 81m

aka The Crawling Eye; Trollenberg Horror

Cast: Forrest Tucker, Laurence Payne, Jennifer Jayne, Janet Munro, Warren Mitchell, Frederick Schiller, Andrew Faulds, Stuart Saunders, Colin Douglas

Following several unexplained climbing deaths on the Swiss mountain of Trollenberg, UN investigator Alan Brooks (Tucker) travels to the observatory there in order to unravel the mystery of both the deaths and the presence of a radioactive cloud that doesn’t appear to move. On his journey he meets sisters Anne and Sarah Pilgrim (Munro, Jayne). Anne is telepathic and finds herself drawn to the mountain, cutting short their planned trip to Geneva. While at the local hotel, the trio encounter an Englishman called Philip Truscott (Payne), as well as a geologist called Dewhurst (Saunders) who is planning a trip up the mountain with a guide called Brett (Faulds). When their trip goes awry and Dewhurst is killed, Brett returns after having been lost overnight. But at the first opportunity he attempts to kill Anne, and when he’s stopped, Brooks and the rest, now assisted by observatory director Dr Crevett (Mitchell), learn that whatever is in the radioactive cloud is targeting anyone who goes onto the Trollenberg – and shows no sign of stopping…

Adapted from the 1956 UK TV series of the same name, The Trollenberg Terror is a sci-fi/horror movie that does its best on a limited budget, and though some of the model effects are particularly shoddy, its alien creature is one of the most effectively designed and realised of its time (those tentacles, though!). It’s played incredibly straight throughout, with its cast seemingly banned from raising a smile unless it’s absolutely necessary (and even then, only with written permission), and the serious nature of the aliens’ threat is emphasised at every turn. However, this doesn’t stop the movie from being enjoyable to watch – in a daft, you couldn’t make it up kind of way – and the performances, though a little po-faced at times, go a long way to selling the absurdity of it all. Lawrence, whose first feature this was, shows a knack for staging the horror elements to ensure maximum impact – the opening scene is grisly without being explicit – and though this is clearly set in Switzerland by way of a studio in Middlesex, there’s a keen sense of time and place.

Rating: 7/10 – let down by a final ten minutes that cruelly exposes its limited budget, The Trollenberg Terror is still a better than most example of late Fifties sci-fi/horror; apparently a partial inspiration for John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), it’s a movie with some clever ideas, and one that isn’t afraid to throw a number of wild ones in there as well (zombies, anyone?).

The Fury of a Patient Man (2016)

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Original title: Tarde para la ira

D: Raúl Arévalo / 92m

Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Luis Callejo, Ruth Díaz, Raúl Jiménez, Manolo Solo, Font García, Pilar Gómez

After taking part in a robbery (as the getaway driver) that goes wrong and leaves one person dead and another in a coma, Curro (Callejo) is sentenced to eight years in jail. His girlfriend, Ana (Díaz), stands by him and they have a son together. In the weeks before Curro is due to be released, a stranger, José (de la Torre), begins to frequent the bar where Ana works – and which is owned by her brother, Juanjo (Jiménez). José is quiet, but soon becomes friends with Juanjo, and an attraction develops between him and Ana. Days before Curro is released, the pair sleep together, and José shows an unexpected interest in the details of the robbery, and Curro’s compatriots. When Curro is released, his angry nature drives a wedge between him and Ana, and José is able to persuade her and her son to come away with him to his family home in the countryside. When José returns alone, and tells Curro he wants to see him, he can have no idea of the journey that he and José are about to embark upon…

The winner in the Best Film category at the 31st Goya Awards – previous winners include All About My Mother (1999) and Blancanieves (2012) – The Fury of a Patient Man is a slow-burn thriller that doesn’t take too long in revealing its central character’s intentions (the clue is in the title after all), but which does leave the viewer guessing as to just how far José will go in his desire for revenge. Up until Arévalo reveals the answer in the movie’s most memorable scene, things unfold at a steady yet involving pace, with great care taken to establish the characters and the interplay between them. This allows Ana to be more than just a pawn in Jose’s game, and Curro to be more than just an angry thug, decisions that help the narrative immensely, and which also leaves the viewer with characters other than José to consider when wondering what will happen to them. Curro may not be entirely sympathetic but it’s soon obvious he’s in way over his head, while Ana could be accused of using José just as much as he’s using her, but it’s this kind of ambiguity that ensures the movie isn’t rote or predictable.

Once José and Curro meet, and they begin a road trip that will change both of them (albeit in very different ways), Arévalo and co-screenwriter David Pulido quicken both the pace and the tone of the movie, and throw in a couple of violent set-pieces that are unflinchingly brutal but still in keeping with the needs of the material. There’s also an uncomfortable moment when a minor character, only minutes after being introduced, is revealed to be pregnant. The camera switches to José whose passive features betray nothing of what he’s thinking. It’s another, potent example of the ambiguity that runs like a thread through the narrative, and the way in which Arévalo is able to tighten the screws at will. de la Torre is terrific as José, effortlessly diffident at the start and slowly but surely revealing the rage he’s nursed for eight years. As José cuts a bloody swathe through Curro’s compatriots, de la Torre’s portrayal becomes even more insular, with the character’s violent outbursts proving expectedly cathartic, and yet leaving him emotionally detached. Callejo and Díaz provide good support, and there’s exemplary camerawork from DoP Arnau Valls Colomer, especially in the opening scene, which is shot entirely from the back seat of Curro’s getaway car – crash and all.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie that builds tension through the motivations of its characters, and is often unflinchingly violent because of those motivations, The Fury of a Patient Man is both subtle and judicious in its character building, and blunt and uncompromising once it steps up a gear; an English language remake is in the pipeline, but it already has its work cut out for it if it’s going to be as good as this version.

CinemAbility (2012)

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D: Jenni Gold / 98m

With: Jane Seymour, Ben Affleck, Beau Bridges, Geena Davis, Richard Donner, Peter Farrelly, Rick Finkelstein, Jamie Foxx, Taylor Hackford, Robert David Hall, Gale Anne Hurd, William H. Macy, Camryn Manheim, Garry Marshall, Marlee Matlin, RJ Mitte, Martin F. Norden, Graeme Sinclair, Gary Sinise, James Troesh, Danny Woodburn

Hands up anyone who can remember what Hiccup’s disability is in the How to Train Your Dragon movies. No? Well, he lost his left leg, and needed a prosthesis. Now, don’t be sorry or feel you have to apologise for not remembering that, because for once, Hiccup’s disability didn’t define his character, or stop him continuing to take to the skies with Toothless. It’s an almost perfect representation of a disability as portrayed in a movie. It gets a scene, and an acknowledgment, and then the character carries on as before. But as Jenni Gold’s perceptive and illuminating documentary shows us, it’s not always been this way. Beginning with a look back at the very early days of cinema, and the first portrayal of a disability in the movies, in The Fake Beggar (1898), Gold shows how Hollywood (in particular) and disabled characters have had an uneasy relationship. The standard approach was accepted but patronising: if you’re disabled and good, you’ll be rewarded; if you’re disabled and bad, you’ll be punished.

Stereotypical approaches such as these lasted for a long time, and though ex-Army veteran Harold Russell came along in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and impressed both critics and audiences alike (and bagged two Oscars for his role in the process, a feat never repeated since), disabled people were still cruelly under-represented in movies and television until the Sixties, when attitudes began to change and disabilities began to be portrayed in a much more responsible, and more inclusive, fashion. From TV’s Ironside (1967-1975), to the Oscar-winning Coming Home (1978), disabilities started to become more and more accepted in the mainstream, but as CinemAbility points out, it was a slow process. Momentum continued to be gained through the Eighties and Nineties, but it’s only really in the last fifteen years or so that portrayals of disability have become more prevalent and/or accepted. There’s still the old argument about whether a non-disabled actor should play a disabled character, and some movies, such as Million Dollar Baby (2004) still come under fire for being ostensibly negative, but by and large the industry is getting to grips with the idea that disabled characters are a part of society and shouldn’t be excluded.

For many of us, disability is something that we’re aware of, but don’t always see. Perhaps the most telling moment in the movie is when William H. Macy, who has been a spokesperson for United Cerebral Palsy since 2002, admits that the script he’s currently writing doesn’t include a disabled character – because he never thought of it. And if anything – and aside from all the expected quotes about how disabled people shouldn’t be treated differently, and how they can do anything that “normal” people can do – Macy’s admission is the key to the whole issue: if even those with a good understanding of disabilities aren’t on the “right wavelength”, how can progress be consistent? Or be counted as progress? It’s a weighty message in a movie that strikes a fine balance between the seriousness of its subject matter and the humour that’s never too far away from the whole issue (witness the clips from Jim Troesh’s The Hollywood Quad (2008) and make your mind up if laughter and disability can’t go hand in prosthetic). Gold has assembled a good selection of disabled and non-disabled interviewees, all of whom offer views and opinions that are relevant, and the historical perspective allows for glimpses of political and social advances through the years, and the impact they’ve had on the disabled community. It’s a thought-provoking documentary, honest and sincere, and very, very entertaining.

Rating: 8/10 – with a plethora of anecdotes and reminiscences that illustrate the continuing struggle that disabled actors and movie makers have in being accepted on the same level as everyone else, CinemAbility is a timely reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done in achieving full inclusivity; touching on key milestones such as The Miracle Worker (1962) and My Left Foot (1989), there’s a wealth of overlooked detail here that also serves as a potent reminder of what has been achieved so far.

A Message from Mars (1913)

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D: Wallett Waller / 60m

Cast: Crissie Bell, Kate Tyndall, E. Holman Clark, Charles Hawtrey, Hubert Willis, Frank Hector, R. Crompton

On Mars, Ramiel (Clark), an acolyte of the Martian King (Crompton), is found to have committed a grave misdemeanour. His punishment is to remain in exile on Earth until he can redeem someone. That someone is Horace Parker (Hawtrey), a wealthy businessman whose selfish, and self-serving manner has attracted the Martian King’s attention. Horace is engaged to Minnie (Bell), but when he refuses to attend a dance with her, and ignores her entreaties, Minnie realises there’s no future for them as a couple and she returns her engagement ring. Horace isn’t too upset by this, but he is by the sudden appearance of Ramiel who quickly reveals his identity and his purpose on Earth. Forced by Ramiel’s powers to acquiesce, Horace still does his best to get out of being selfless, but the Martian is too strong for him, and too determined to get back to Mars. A second encounter with a tramp (Willis) who came to him for help earlier, leads to Horace finally understanding what it means to be unselfish and thoughtful of others, all of which has a profound effect, not just on Horace, but those around him…

Though it’s widely regarded as the UK’s first science fiction movie, A Message from Mars isn’t strictly speaking a science fiction movie. Yes, the framing story is set on Mars, and once on Earth Ramiel does show an aptitude for spontaneous teleportation, but the bulk of the movie is a sub-Dickensian drama with romantic overtones that will remind viewers much more of A Christmas Carol than anything else. Horace equates to Scrooge, and Ramiel is a thinly veiled conflation of Jacob Marley and the three ghosts (you could stretch this idea even further and have the tramp standing in for Tiny Tim). This familiarity – which to be fair might not have been so obvious to audiences of the time – makes the movie hugely enjoyable as each development in Horace’s transformation from miserly misanthrope to fine upstanding philanthropist plays out with the kind of rote predictability that only a hundred years and more of similar movies and plays and television programmes can engender. This may not be the first version of Richard Ganthony’s stage play – a one-reel version was released in New Zealand in 1903 – but it has a freshness about it, and a vigour, that’s aided by the play’s opening out to include contemporary London street scenes, and some rudimentary but effective special effects.

For the time, the acting is more than acceptable too. Though Clark overdoes the whole declamatory style of acting – watch what he does when he returns to Mars in triumph – the rest of the cast acquit themselves more naturally, with Hawtrey giving a spirited, sharply observed performance that never once strays into caricature or artifice. That the movie holds up so well is a tribute to its overall quality, including a well judged screenplay by original writer Ganthony and uncredited director Waller, convincing production design that belies the source material’s theatrical origins, and Waller’s canny, unfussy direction. All comparisons to Dickens aside, A Message from Mars is a hugely enjoyable gem from the silent era that, fortunately, has been lovingly restored by the British Film Institute, and features the original tinting and toning. As such it’s a movie that probably looks even better than it did on its original release; there’s only an occasional missing frame, and it doesn’t have the jerky, speeded-up quality that poorly projected prints of silent movies are often subjected to. So, if you’re a fan of silent cinema, this is one to check out as soon as possible.

Rating: 8/10 – with its science fiction trappings serving as an extra dramatic layer for the main storyline, A Message from Mars is classy silent fare that works on several different narrative levels, and doesn’t even appear to be trying too hard; the Martians may look and behave like over-dressed members of Ancient Rome, but they do bring with them a range of science fiction staples such as mind control and interplanetary space travel, and it’s embellishments like these that add further lustre to a movie that still sparkles over a hundred years after it was released.

NOTE: Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a trailer for A Message from Mars.

The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017)

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D: Nancy Buirski / 91m

With: Robert Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Crystal Feimster, Esther Cooper Jackson, James Johnson II, Danielle L. McGuire, Chris Money, Larry Smith, Recy Taylor

On the night of 3 September 1944, twenty-four year old Recy Taylor and two of her friends were walking home from church when a car containing seven young men pulled up alongside them. With one of them brandishing a gun, Recy was forced into the car and she was driven to a nearby stretch of woods. There, she was made to strip naked and lie down on the ground. Six of the young men then took it in turns to rape her, and when they were done they blindfolded her and left her at the side of the road. Her kidnapping had already been reported to the police, and when the local sheriff spoke to Recy, she identified the driver of the car as Hugo Wilson. Wilson named the other six young men, but despite this, no arrests were made, and when the case came to trial the following month, the jury dismissed it after only five minutes of deliberation. But the case had come to the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and they decided to send their best investigator, Rosa Parks, to look into the matter…

She spoke up, indeed. At one point in Nancy Buirski’s exemplary documentary, Recy Taylor recounts her ordeal in voice over, and even though it’s filtered through the passage of time, the horrible nature of what happened to her remains undimmed. At this point in The Rape of Recy Taylor, her testimony arrives independently of the statements given later by her assailants. But there’s no doubt that Recy is a credible victim (just as another woman currently in the news is), and there’s no doubt that the young men – all revealed to be teenagers – believe they’ve done no wrong. And though we should all be used to the idea that racism was endemic in the South (and to a degree, still is), it remains unnerving to hear just how quickly the white establishment closed ranks and turned their backs on Recy’s suffering and ignored any calls for justice. Through interviews with her brother and sister (Corbitt, Daniels), the events that followed are given a grim immediacy, including the Taylor home being firebombed some time after, and Recy’s father keeping watch at night in a tree with a shotgun in case the men came back.

Looking back on that horrendous event and those invidious times, it’s hard to believe that anything good could have come out of it all, but the involvement of the NAACP did much to advance the cause of civil rights, and it was the first time that they had been able to marshal support across the country. A full ten years before the Montgomery bus boycott, Recy’s case gave activists the idea that they could truly make a difference when institutional racism reared its ugly head. In placing Recy’s ordeal within an historical and cultural context, Buirski paints a wider, broader picture of systemic miscegenation that is illustrated by the potent use of clips from “race films”, and a shifting, layered visual style that is both haunting and illuminating. Corbitt and Daniels provide details that highlight the effect Recy’s assault had on both their family and the black community in Abbeville, Alabama (where it all took place), and the quiet sense of outrage that they still feel even now. With contributions from various interested parties, and an examination of Parks’ role in the NAACP’s initial investigation, Buirski keeps the spotlight on Recy’s courage and determination not to be silenced, and in doing so, honours the memories of those whose stories have never been heard.

Rating: 8/10 – a powerful and insightful deconstruction of a sexual assault and the victim’s bravery in speaking out, The Rape of Recy Taylor is compelling and horrifying in equal measure, and necessarily so; let down only by some wayward pacing, this is sadly relevant even today, and a salutary lesson for anyone who believes that the civil rights movement in the US no longer needs to fight quite so hard to ensure racial equality.

Monthly Roundup – September 2018

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Christopher Robin (2018) / D: Marc Forster / 104m

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Oliver Ford Davies, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Toby Jones

Rating: 7/10 – having left behind his childhood friends at the Hundred Acre Wood, an adult Christopher Robin (McGregor), now married and weighed down by the demands of his work, is reunited with them just at the moment that they all most need each other; a live action/CGI variation on A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, Christopher Robin is an enjoyable if lightweight confection from Disney that features good performances from McGregor and Cummings (as both Pooh and Tigger), but which also takes a very straightforward approach to its story, and allows Gatiss to overdo it as the smug villain of the piece.

Melvin Goes to Dinner (2003) / D: Bob Odenkirk / 83m

Cast: Michael Blieden, Stephanie Courtney, Matt Price, Annabelle Gurwitch, Maura Tierney, David Cross, Melora Walters, Jack Black

Rating: 7/10 – two friends agree to meet for dinner but two other people end up joining them, leading to an evening of surprising connections and revelations that causes each to rethink their own opinions and feelings about each other; adapted from the stage play Phyro-Giants! (and written by Blieden), Odenkirk’s debut as a director is an amusing examination of what we tell ourselves to be true while being closely examined by others who may (or may not) know better, making Melvin Goes to Dinner a waspish if somewhat diffident look at social mores that feels a little forced in places, but is well acted by its cast.

BlacKkKlansman (2018) / D: Spike Lee / 135m

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pããkkönen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Houser, Ashlie Atkinson, Michael Buscemi, Robert John Burke, Frederick Weller, Corey Hawkins, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin

Rating: 9/10 – the true story of how, in the early Seventies, the Colorado Springs Police Department’s first black officer, Ron Stallworth (Washington), infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with the aid of a fellow, Jewish officer, Flip Zimmerman (Driver); a return to form for Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman is entertaining and frightening in equal measure for the way it deals with contentious issues surrounding politics and racism that are as entrenched today as they were back in the Seventies, and for the deft way in which Lee allows the humour to filter through without negating the seriousness of the issues he’s examining.

Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary (2017) / D: John Campopiano, Justin White / 97m

With: Mary Lambert, Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist, Peter Stein, Elliot Goldenthal, Miko Hughes, Susan Blommaert, Heather Langenkamp

Rating: 6/10 – a look at the making of Pet Sematary (1989), with interviews and recollections from the cast and crew, and an assessment of the movie’s impact and legacy in the years that have followed; coming across very much like a labour of love for its directors, Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary features a wealth of details about the making of the movie, some of which is fascinating, and some of which is less so, making this a mixed bag in terms of content, but if you’re a fan of Pet Sematary, this will be a must-see, and should offer up behind-the-scenes information that hasn’t been seen or heard before.

Lake Placid: Legacy (2018) / D: Darrell Roodt / 93m

Cast: Katherine Barrell, Tim Rozon, Sai Bennett, Luke Newton, Craig Stein, Joe Pantoliano, Alisha Bailey

Rating: 3/10 – a group of eco-warriors discover a remote island that’s not on any maps, and find a genetically altered apex predator that soon begins whittling down their numbers; the sixth entry in the franchise, Lake Placid: Legacy ignores the previous four movies and acts – without explanation – as a direct sequel to the original, though that doesn’t make it any less abysmal, and it’s easily the worst in the series, something it achieves thanks to a dreadful script, Roodt’s absentee direction, the less than stellar efforts of the cast, and just by being greenlit in the first place.

Killing Gunther (2017) / D: Taran Killam / 93m

Cast: Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Hannah Simone, Cobie Smulders, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Allison Tolman, Paul Brittain, Aaron Yoo, Ryan Gaul, Amir Talai, Peter Kelamis

Rating: 4/10 – an assassin, Blake (Killam), hires a team of other assassins to help him track down and eliminate Gunther (Schwarzenegger), the world’s most feared, and successful, hitman; ostensibly a comedy, Killing Gunther is yet another ill-advised movie where the script – and the cast – try way too hard to make absurdist behaviour funny all by itself, and where the tone is as wayward as the narrative, something that makes the movie an uneven watch and less than successful in its attempts to entertain – and the less said about Schwarzenegger’s performance the better.

Overboard (2018) / D: Rob Greenberg / 112m

Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Anna Faris, Eva Longoria, John Hannah, Swoosie Kurtz, Mel Rodriguez, Josh Segarra, Hannah Nordberg, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Payton Lapinski, Fernando Luján, Cecilia Suárez, Mariana Treviño

Rating: 6/10 – when a rich, arrogant, multi-millionaire playboy (Derbez) falls overboard from his yacht and loses his memory, a struggling single mother (Faris) that he’s treated badly sees an opportunity to exploit his misfortune for her own personal gain; a gender-swap remake of the 1987 original, Overboard is pleasant enough, with well judged performances from Derbez and Faris, but it plays out in expected fashion, with only occasional moments that stand out, and never really tries to do anything that might make viewers think of it as anything more than an acceptable remake doing its best to keep audiences just interested enough to stay until the end.

El club de los buenos infieles (2017) / D: Lluís Segura / 84m

Cast: Raúl Fernández de Pablo, Fele Martínez, Juanma Cifuentes, Hovik Keuchkerian, Albert Ribalta, Jordi Vilches, Adrián Lastra

Rating: 7/10 – four friends, all married but experiencing a loss of desire for their wives, decide to start a club for men with similar problems, and in the hope that by “seeing” other women, it will rekindle their desire; based on a true story, El club de los buenos infieles starts off strongly as the men explain their feelings, but soon the ridiculous nature of their solution leads to all sorts of uncomfortable moments and situations that stretch the credibility of the material, leaving the principal cast’s performances to keep things engaging, along with Segura’s confident direction (which helps overcome much of the script’s deficiencies), and a couple of very funny set-pieces that are worth a look all by themselves.

Destination Wedding (2018) / D: Victor Lewin / 87m

Cast: Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves

Rating: 5/10 – two misanthropes (Ryder, Reeves) invited to the same wedding (he’s the groom’s brother, she’s the groom’s ex), find they have much more in common than expected, including an attraction to each other; the kind of movie that has its characters spout pseudo-intellectual nonsense at every opportunity in an effort to make them sound wise and/or studiously profound, Destination Wedding could have been much funnier than it thinks it is, and wastes the talents of both Ryder and Reeves (yes, even Reeves) as it leaves no turn unstoned in its efforts to be a romantic comedy that isn’t in the least bit romantic, or comic.

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (2016) / D: Dallas Jenkins / 92m

Cast: Brett Dalton, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Neil Flynn, D.B. Sweeney, Shawn Michaels, Patrick Gagnon, Tim Frank, Tara Rios

Rating: 6/10 – a former teen TV star whose adult acting career isn’t going as well as he’d hoped, finds himself doing community service at his hometown church, and discovering that having a lack of religious faith is the least of his problems; a bright and breezy romantic comedy, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone wears its Christian beliefs on its sleeve, while doing absolutely nothing that you wouldn’t expect it to, thanks to likable performances from Dalton and Johnson-Reyes, a solid if predictable script, and workmanlike direction that never lets the material stray from its formulaic constraints, though if truth be told, on this occasion that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Predator (2018) / D: Shane Black / 107m

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Sterling K. Brown, Olivia Munn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Strahovski

Rating: 5/10 – a rag-tag band of PTSD sufferers and an army sniper (Holbrook) find themselves taking on a couple of Predators while a secret arm of the US government atempts to exploit their presence on Earth; a movie that could and should have been so much better (soooo much better), The Predator is unnecessarily convoluted and stupid at the same time, and despite Black’s best efforts, remains the kind of sequel that everyone has high hopes for, only to see them drain away with every dumb moment that the script can squeeze in, and every tortuous twist of logic that can be forced onto the narrative, all of which leaves everyone hoping and praying that this is the end of the line.

The Astounding She-Monster (1957) / D: Ronald V. Ashcroft / 62m

aka Mysterious Invader

Cast: Robert Clarke, Kenne Duncan, Marilyn Harvey, Jeanne Tatum, Shirley Kilpatrick, Ewing Miles Brown

Rating: 3/10 – kidnappers take their hostage up into the mountains, unaware that a space ship has crash landed nearby, and the sole occupant (Kilpatrick) is more than capable of defending itself; not a cult classic, and not a movie to look back fondly on for any low-budget virtues it may have (it doesn’t), The Astounding She-Monster is a creature feature without a creature, a crime drama with an annoying voice over, a sci-fi horror with minimal elements of both, and a movie with far too many scenes where the cast run through the same stretch of woods trying to get away from an alien whose only speed is ultra-ultra-slow.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

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D: Paul McGuigan / 105m

Cast: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber, Leanne Best

In London in 1979, aspiring young actor Peter Turner (Bell) met Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Bening). Although theirs was an unlikely friendship (at first), the pair soon found themselves in a romantic relationship, one that saw Grahame being introduced to Turner’s family – mum Bella (Walters), dad Joe (Cranham), and brother Joe Jr (Graham) – and in turn, Turner travelling to the US and meeting Grahame’s mother, Jean (Redgrave), and her sister, Joy (Barber). But it wasn’t long before their relationship foundered, and Turner returned home to continue his acting career. Two years later, while appearing in a production of The Glass Menagerie in the UK, Grahame was taken ill, but instead of staying in hospital, she contacted Turner and asked to stay at his family’s home in Liverpool. Despite her assertions that her illness was nothing serious, Grahame was actually suffering from cancer, but she didn’t want anyone to know, and made Turner swear not to tell anyone, not even her family. In the days that followed, Grahame’s health worsened, and Turner found it increasingly difficult to look after her, and in the end, the secrecy she wanted couldn’t be maintained…

Based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a tragic tale given muted relevance by the nature of its origins and its refusal to show just why Grahame was, during the early Fifties at least, such a big deal. Thanks to Matt Greenhalgh’s script, which focuses more on Turner than it does Grahame, the movie makes pointed comments about Grahame the woman – her four marriages (one of them to her stepson from her second marriage), her fading career, her frightened refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of having cancer – while giving audiences little in the way of examples as to why she became a star (a short clip from Naked Alibi (1954) doesn’t really cut it). Bening is superb in the role, and captures Grahame’s carefree nature and nagging insecurities with impressive precision, but there’s also a sense that she’s working extra hard to create such a telling portrayal, almost as if she’s filling in the blanks in the script. As the movie’s deus ex machina, she’s an essential component, but this is about Turner’s relationship with Grahame, not the other way round, and how her illness affects him.

The problem with this is that Turner isn’t that well-developed a character either. What’s missing is the spark that brought them together in the first place, because personable though he is, Turner remains something of a cipher, a young man swept up by the glamour surrounding Grahame and her fame, and a little too easily for comfort. Motives are missing on both sides, and again Greenhalgh’s script isn’t interested in exploring these issues, and McGuigan seems content to follow the dictates of the script. Thankfully, Bell is just as good as Bening in overcoming the drawbacks inherent in the script, and gives a nuanced, detailed performance that impresses as much as his co-star’s. Elsewhere, the movie is an odd combination of visual styles, with the scenes set in London and Liverpool having a naturalistic, somewhat dour look to them, while the scenes set in California and New York are bright, over-saturated, and almost rose-tinted in their representation. Maybe this is intended to reflect Turner’s memories of those visits, but the US scenes are jarring and feel like they should belong in another movie (or at least a different cut of this one). In the end, and no matter how much the two storylines are intriguingly intertwined, this is one tragic romance that doesn’t have the impact it should have.

Rating: 6/10 – despite two magnificent central performances, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool isn’t as persuasive or emotionally devastating as it wants to be; there’s a distance here that stops the viewer from becoming too involved, and though it’s handsomely mounted and shot, it never seems to be aiming for anything other than perfectly acceptable.

Other People (2016)

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D: Chris Kelly / 97m

Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, John Early, Zach Woods, Paul Dooley, June Squibb

Twenty-nine year old David Mulcahey (Plemons) is an aspiring comedy writer living in New York who decides to return home to Sacramento when his mother, Joanne (Shannon), is diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a form of cancer involving malignant tumours. Adopting the role of her primary carer at home, David tries to support his mother while dealing with a variety of issues in his own life, from the disappointment of a pilot TV show he’s written not being optioned, to the break up of his relationship of five years with Paul (Woods), to the continuing homophobia displayed by his otherwise loving father, Norman (Whitford), and his own doubts as to whether or not he’ll be able to cope “when the time comes”. Over the course of a year, David sees at first hand the struggle his mother has to maintain a semblance of normal life, and the efforts she makes to remain a caring mother to David and his two sisters, Alexandra (Apatow) and Rebeccah (Beaty), while negotiating the trials of funeral planning, quitting chemotherapy, and preparing for the inevitable…

Loosely based on writer/director Kelly’s own experiences with his mother’s death from cancer, Other People is a sobering yet darkly humorous movie that treats the subject of cancer with unflinching honesty while also showing that it doesn’t have to mean that life can’t continue, especially for those who are ill. It also avoids the clichés that come with this particular territory in movies, showing the various stages that Joanne experiences as she comes to terms with her cancer, but in a way that isn’t patronising or condescending. Several times we see David and Joanne taking a walk in their local park, and each occasion acts as a barometer for Joanne’s current state of health, Kelly using this cinematic shorthand to avoid big speeches or teary confessions. It’s one of many ways that the script makes subtle declarations about Joanne’s health, and about cancer in general. As a result, when it is referred to directly, it’s something of a surprise, though a welcome one at that; there shouldn’t be any avoidance of the topic at hand. And no one is shown to be particuarly brave. Instead, Kelly has everyone  finding it difficult to adjust to the idea of a loved one dying, something that rings true throughout, as well as David’s reticence to talk about his own problems, and everyone else’s dismay and confusion.

In amongst the main narrative thread of Joanne’s illness, issues concerning the rest of her family crop up quite often, from David’s inability to recognise that his sisters need his support as well, to the sad acceptance of Joanne’s parents (Dooley, Squibb) that they’re going to lose their only child. Kelly sidesteps any potential melodrama by keeping things simple, and by ensuring that any histrionics are kept to a minimum, saving it all for a scene in a supermarket where David can’t find the laxatives that are on a shelf right in front of him. Plemons, who gives the kind of break out performance he’s always been capable of, perfectly captures the despair, anger and panic that being on the verge of losing his mother is causing him. Kelly is also on firm ground when dealing with David’s homosexuality, planting the seeds for Norman’s discomfort in the family’s conservative religious background, but without being explicit about it. Much is left unacknowledged – verbally at least – but the script makes it clear how each character is feeling, and the family dynamic is well thought out and developed. And to cap it all off, Shannon is simply tremendous as Joanne: funny, angry, sad, but interestingly, never hopeful for herself, another thing that Kelly gets absolutely, completely right.

Rating: 8/10 – the subject matter may sound off-putting, but even though Other People pulls no punches, there’s a streak of black comedy that runs throughout the movie and helps the leaven the drama; Plemons and Shannon give career best performances, and Kelly (making his feature debut) shows the kind of promise that means his next project should receive plenty of deserving attention.

Jeune femme (2017)

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aka Montparnasse Bienvenüe

D: Léonor Serraille / 98m

Cast: Laetitia Dosch, Grégoire Monsaingeon, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Léonie Simaga, Erika Sainte, Lilas-Rose Gilberti-Poisot, Audrey Bonnet, Nathalie Richard

After ten years living in Mexico with her boyfriend, professor and renowned photographer Joachim Deloche (Monsaingeon), Paula Simonian (Dosch) finds herself back in Paris (where they used to live), and chasing Joachim in an attempt to win him back. When her intital attempt fails – and leaves her with a nasty cut on her forehead – she takes his cat and decides to make a go of things by herself. However, that’s not as easy as it might seem. Paula has no friends, no job, no money, and a personality that could be charitably called inconstant. Moving from couch to couch, it’s not until she’s mistaken for someone else and befriends Yuki (Simaga) that things begin to improve. She finds work as a live-in nanny, finds a second job working in a knicker bar in a large shopping centre, and attempts to reconnect with her estranged mother (Richard). There’s a tentative romance on the horizon with security guard Ousmane (Ndiaye), even more tentative contact from Joachim, and surprising news that helps Paula make a number of important decisions…

Winner of the Caméra d’Or (for its director) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Jeune femme opens with Paula headbutting Joachim’s front door and sustaining that nasty cut. In hospital, she launches into a free-form diatribe that seeks to challenge the nurse tending to her, and the wider world around her. It’s a direct confrontation, fuelled by what appears to be long-held anger, and a clear indication from writer/director Serraille that Paula is definitely not a shrinking violet. But Serraille isn’t going to let her volatility be the only aspect of Paula’s personality to define her. As the movie progresses, we find that she can be coy and approachable (as with Ousmane), enthusiastic and open (as during the interview for the knicker bar), sad and yet determined (when confronting her mother), silly and childish (in her role as a nanny), and expressive and flirtatious (with Yuki). With all this it would be easy to view Paula as a mass of contradictions, but Serraille’s take on the character is much more subtle than that. Paula is a chameleon, adapting to the people she’s with, and her surroundings. She even looks different at every turn, her features transforming themselves noticeably but to good advantage given the needs of the situation.

What this all provides is a portrait of an enigmatic, rootless woman who knows what she should be doing to fit in, but who finds it easier to compartmentalise her life and behave accordingly. All her relationships are transitory, and end despite Paula’s best efforts to maintain them. No matter how hard she tries, and no matter how good her intentions, it’s inevitable that Paula will need to start again. And keep trying – because what else can she do? Dosch gives a terrific performance as Paula, vulnerable and tough, self-assured and resilient, but still adrift from everyone around her. It’s an unsparing portrayal, highlighting the character’s flaws and strengths in equal measure, and doing more than enough to make her more and more sympathetic as events unfold. By the end you’re rooting for her, but Serraille remains true to Paula’s knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The final shot is a triumph of sorts for Paula, but in a bittersweet way that adds poignancy to the moment. It’s confident, persuasive elements such as this that help elevate the material from being another worthy yet predictable examination of how hard it is to be a woman in today’s society – and having its lead character be the architect of most of her troubles makes it resonate so much more.

Rating: 8/10 – with an awards-worthy performance from Dosch allied to a perceptive script and assured direction, Jeune femme is an intelligent, deftly handled movie with an eminently relatable heroine, and a sly streak of humour beneath all the drama; regarded by some as the French Frances Ha, this is far more involving and far more interesting, and is effortlessly sincere to boot.

King of Thieves (2018)

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D: James Marsh / 108m

Cast: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone, Charlie Cox, Paul Whitehouse, Michael Gambon, Francesca Annis

Following the death of his wife, retired thief Brian Reader (Caine) is approached by a young man named Basil (Cox) with the idea of robbing the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit. Tempted by the opportunity of one last, and hugely impressive, score, Brian enlists the help of some of his fellow thieves: Terry Perkins (Broadbent), Danny Jones (Winstone), Kenny Collins (Courtenay), and Carl Wood (Whitehouse). The robbery is planned for the Easter weekend of 2015; with the vault closed for four days they’ll have more than enough time to break into the vault and raid all the deposit boxes. Brian instructs Basil to look out for any diamonds that are marked FL for flawless, as these will net them the most money. On the second night, Basil (who has procured keys to the building) is late in arriving, and Carl panics and walks away. With Brian also having removed himself from the plan, it’s left to Terry, Danny and Basil to break into the vault and steal whatever they can find, and Kenny to be the lookout. But once they’ve made their getaway, dividing the spoils between them proves to be even more difficult than stealing it all in the first place…

As well as being the largest ever “burglary in English legal history”, the Hatton Garden Job as it became known, was notorious for being carried out by four old men in their sixties and seventies. It’s this aspect of the robbery that King of Thieves focuses on, and often in great, if repetitive, detail. It’s a movie that’s as much about the actual event as it is the men behind it and their reasons for doing it. Brian is a recent widower who finds himself without a purpose in life, living in a big house and unprepared for the silence that comes with being alone. He’s a sad, tragic figure, using the robbery to regain some semblance of his youthful virility, but who is also wise enough to recognise his limitations. It’s only when his partners’ duplicity threatens his permanent retirement, that he resumes the mantle of king of thieves, and attempts to settle matters. Caine shows us both the pride and the frailty in the man, and how being infamous when you’re in your prime means less and less as you get older.

It’s a harsh lesson (and message) for Brian to learn, and as the oldest of the group, the pack mentality that develops after the robbery, with Terry, Danny and Kenny trying to outmanoeuvre each other to keep a bigger slice of the pie, means Brian’s ousting becomes almost inevitable. Old age and its demerits are reflected in the characters’ speech and conversations, which always return to their various ailments, from Carl’s Crohns disease to Kenny’s hearing difficulties, and so on. In adopting this approach to the material, director James Marsh and screenwriter Joe Penhall offer an examination of feeling young while being old that is more melancholy than affirmative, but the seasoned cast, who, Broadbent aside, are all playing to type, aren’t given too much to work with. While the movie has some trenchant things to say about its characters, they’re often let down by the dialogue which becomes increasingly profane (and without adding anything of value to proceedings), and a sense that it’s all a little bit too perfunctory in the way they and events are being presented. Marsh makes the robbery itself a minor miracle of rapid editing, but elsewhere the movie lacks some much needed pace and energy.

Rating: 6/10 – the cast is the main draw here, alongside an acknowledgment that being old doesn’t mean being obsolete, but King of Thieves treats its subject matter with a lack of verve and vitality that ultimately detracts from its effectiveness; a bland visual approach doesn’t help either, and there are too many occasions where repetition is the order of the day, making this another “true story” that fails to fully impress.

Trailer – 55 Steps (2017)

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You can’t help but watch the trailer for 55 Steps and think: shameless Oscar-bait. And then hard on the heels of that thought is: and it was released last year?

In truth, the movie received its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival on 7 September. But since then, Bille August’s latest feature has made an appearance at the Moscow International Film Festival on 20 April 2018, had a limited release in Germany on 3 May (where it’s known as Eleanor & Colette), and a further appearance at Belgium’s Filmfestival Oostende on 8 September. The question arises: if it’s been seen at a handful of festivals (and you’d think festival programmers would be a bit more savvy than most movie watchers), then why such a delayed release?

Well, the trailer does give it away. Although “based on a true story”, and featuring Helena Bonham Carter and Hilary Swank in the lead roles, this has all the hallmarks of an old-fashioned David vs Goliath story, with Swank as the ambitious and out of her depth lawyer taking on the medical establishment, and Carter as the client who behaves oddly but endearingly, and who, despite having mental health problems that would have most people in real life crossing the street to avoid her, is presented here as someone who’s actually really lovely when you get to know her. It’s depressingly predictable, and potentially patronising, and though there’s a serious issue buried deep in the trailer – the risk of prescribed medication causing more problems than the illness or condition it’s meant to treat – you know that the movie’s real focus is going to be on the two women’s friendship, and the positive impact they have on each other’s lives. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. But if you do, then you’re not seeing how formulaic and depressingly banal this movie already looks, and in a format that’s supposed to promote it and persuade people to pay money to see it.

And one final word: when a trailer adds a quote that calls a performance “transformative”, it’s something of an insult to the make up, hair and costume departments who in this case clearly helped Helena Bonham Carter create her character’s look. Instead of praising the actor or actress, how about acknowledging the work of the production team instead?

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

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D: Frank Pavich / 90m

With: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, Jean-Paul Gibon, Brontis Jodorowsky, Nicolas Winding Refn, Richard Stanley, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Gary Kurtz, Amanda Lear

Following the success of The Holy Mountain (1973), Chilean-French movie maker Alejandro Jodorowsky was given carte blanche by his producing partner, Michel Seydoux, to make another movie. Jodorowsky chose to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune, a sci-fi novel that was deemed unfilmable. Ploughing forward irregardless, Jodorowsky set about assembling the people he needed to help him realise his dream of making the finest sci-fi movie ever. Setting up a pre-production unit in Paris, he enlisted the talents of artists and designers Chris Foss, Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), and H.R. Giger, brought on board Dan O’Bannon to handle the special effects, and approached both Pink Floyd and French progressive rock band Magma to provide the score. His ambition produced a script complete with extensive storyboards and concept art that was sent to all the major studios, and which, as Herbert himself put it, was “the size of a phone book”, and would have meant a movie lasting around fourteen hours. In the end, none of the studios was willing to finance Jodorowsky’s epic vision, and the unrealised movie is one of cinema’s great What if’s…

Forty years after its production was prematurely halted, the idea of a version of Dune directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a tantalising prospect. The size and scope of Jodorowsky’s ambition is evidenced by his determination to have only the best working on the project (though O’Bannon was recruited after Douglas Trumbull proved less “spiritual” than Jodorowsky would have liked). This extended to his casting of Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, David Carradine as Duke Leto Atreides, and bizarrely, Salvador Dali as Emperor Shaddam IV (Dali negotiated his way to being paid $100,000 a minute for his role, little realising he would only be in the movie for a maximum of five minutes). Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm for the project is reflected in the passion he evinces even now, looking back on a period that saw him at the height of his creativity, and which, if it had been made, would have been a sci-fi epic like none before it. Some of the storyboard sequences have been animated for this documentary, and while they’re necessarily rough, they give more than enough of an idea of what Jodorowsky was aiming for. Whatever else the movie may have been, it would definitely have been as visually arresting as his previous works.

In the end, and while Jodorowsky may well have been the best director to adapt Herbert’s weighty novel, the irony is that the studios didn’t trust him, and each one baulked at his insistence on filming his script as written. Ever the uncompromising auteur, Jodorowsky was the unwitting author of his downfall, and it’s this that gives Pavich’s astutely handled documentary a touch of unexpected pathos. (It also leads to the movie’s funniest moment when Jodorowsky recounts seeing David Lynch’s 1984 version and finding himself relieved to learn that it was terrible; his unaffected glee is terrific.) Pavich assembles as many eye witnesses as he can to flesh out Jodorowsky’s remembrances, and there’s a wealth of detail in there, as well as heartfelt appreciations from the likes of fellow directors Refn and Stanley. And for a movie that was never made, the documentary shows just how influential it’s been, just as Pavich et al make the case for Jodorowsky’s unfinished Dune as being a lost or missing masterpiece. What seems clear is that, whatever form it might ultimately have taken, it would have changed the face of sci-fi forever – and we might be living in a world where Star Wars (1977) is known more as an imitator than a trailblazer.

Rating: 8/10 – though there are times when you wonder just how Jodorowsky was going to pull it all off, Jodorowsky’s Dune remains an absorbing examination of one man’s impassioned creative ambition and what could have been; Jodorowsky is an engaging, mercurial presence, and this is a compelling, if at times bittersweet, tribute to a man who, like Frank Herbert, has the ability to create new worlds from his own imagination.

Manhunt (2017)

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Original title: Zhui bu

D: John Woo / 109m

Cast: Zhang Hanyu, Masaharu Fukuyama, Qi Wei, Ji-won Ha, Jun Kunimura, Angeles Woo, Nanami Sakuraba, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Tao Okamoto, Kuniharu Tokunaga

Du Qiu (Zhang) is a Chinese lawyer whose work for Tenjin Pharmaceuticals in Osaka has made him successful and widely admired. At a party to celebrate Tenjin’s intention to launch a new drug on the market, Du is approached by a young woman, Mayumi (Qi), who wants to discuss a trial he won on Tenjin’s behalf three years before. They spend some time together before Du goes home. When he wakes the next morning, it’s to find the dead body of a woman in bed beside him. He calls the police, and Inspector Asano (Tokunaga) arrives. With evidence pointing to Du being the killer, Asano arrests him, but as they leave his apartment building, Asano makes it look as if Du has killed another officer while escaping. On the run, Du tries to stay one step ahead of the police, while trying to find out who’s framed him. Another detective, Inspector Yamura (Fukuyama), is also assigned to the case, and the more he investigates, the more he too begins to believe that Du was framed…

Made as a tribute to the late Ken Takakura, who starred in the 1976 original version, Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare (itself adapted from the novel by Juko Nishimura), Manhunt sees action auteur John Woo return to the style of movie making that made him famous back in the late Eighties and early Nineties. With its typically kinetic action sequences, and blistering bursts of gunfire, the movie acts like a compendium of Woo’s greatest hits as a director, with nods to Hard Boiled (1992), A Better Tomorrow (1986), and The Killer (1989) – which Woo will be remaking soon in an English language version. There’s plenty of slo-mo gunfire, explosions, guns being fired while people spin in mid-air, glass shattering at every turn, extended bouts of chaos, vehicular destruction (on land, on water, and in houses), and bone crunching fight scenes. There’s also the usual themes around identity, trust, honour, and respect; romantic elements that grow as the movie progresses; several moments of otherwise silly and unnecessary humour; and, of course, doves. For fans of the director who has given us at least five bona fide action classics, but whose more recent output hasn’t brought him the attention he deserves (though Red Cliff (2008-09) is superb), this is like welcoming back an old friend who’s been away too long.

That said, the storyline isn’t exactly original, and some of the newer material struggles for relevance (Tenjin doesn’t exist in the original version, and its making a weaponised designer drug strains credulity at every turn). It does all tie together, though the presence of Ha and Woo as assassins, and orphaned sisters to boot, feels like one sub-plot too many, while the ease with which Du gets around suggests a background as a spy rather than a lawyer. It’s all very melodramatic and giddily over the top, but with Woo the movie is also in safe hands. No matter how absurd it gets, Woo is there to bolster things with another expertly choreographed and executed action sequence, with more blood squibs going off than you can count in any one scene. Away from Woo’s trademark balletic violence, the movie is breathtakingly shot by DoP Takuta Ishizaka, and Yohei Taneda’s impressive production design provides the perfect backdrop for all the mayhem. If there’s one area where the movie feels like it’s been let down, it’s in the performances, but this isn’t because the cast are uniformly bad – they’re not – it’s simply because their characters aren’t given enough room to develop.

Rating: 7/10 – with its turgid narrative and unremarkable characters, Manhunt is disappointing on a basic movie making level, but with Woo in the director’s chair, it’s a also a movie that often transcends those issues and makes you forget about them; not, overall, one of Woo’s absolute best, but successful enough to remind audiences that he still knows what he’s doing when it comes to action.

The Little Stranger (2018)

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D: Lenny Abrahamson / 111m

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling, Liv Hill, Anna Madeley, Richard McCabe

In the wake of World War II, Dr Faraday (Gleeson), a recently appointed country doctor, is called to Hundreds Hall, a sprawling estate that he once visited as a child. There he meets the owners, the Ayres – the mother (Rampling), and her two children, Roderick (Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). The main house is gloomy and in a state of decay that speaks of prolonged financial difficulties for the family. Roderick is in charge, but he also has to contend with severe injuries he received as a pilot in the war. When Faraday offers to provide some palliative care for Roderick, it’s also so that he can see Caroline, but as he begins to spend more and more time at the Hall, so he becomes aware that all is not well there. The Ayres’ believe there is a supernatural presence in the house, one that is targeting them one by one. Faraday refuses to believe this, but events seem to prove otherwise. As he and Caroline become closer, he’s forced to consider that she really is in danger, and that perhaps there really is a presence in the house…

An adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel, The Little Stranger is a ghost story without a ghost – perhaps – and a mystery that remains a mystery once the movie has ended. Whether or not this is a good thing will be down to the individual, as Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay deals in ambiguity and narrative sleight-of-hand at several key moments, but what it does mean is that the mystery of what is happening at Hundreds Hall plays out like a riddle that no one is meant to unravel. There are clues to be had, and some of what is shown can be taken at face value, but the script, in conjunction with Abrahamson’s measured, calculating direction, is more concerned with atmosphere and mood than with providing answers. This makes for a somewhat disconcerting viewing experience as scenes that build tension dissipate quickly once they’re established, and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s precision-tooled cinematography – always looking, always probing into the house’s darkest nooks and crannies, and its past – invites observation rather than immersion. There’s a detachment here that stops the viewer from becoming too involved with the Ayres family and their fears, and this despite very good performances from Wilson, Poulter and Rampling as the beleaguered trio.

The reason for all this is the movie’s main theme, that of the rise of post-war socialism and the weakening of the power and influence once wielded by the landed gentry, here represented by the Ayres’ financial downfall, and Faraday’s barely concealed contempt for them. His pursuit of Caroline is less about love than about the need for possession, to have, finally, what he’s wanted ever since he was a child and saw Hundreds Hall in all its former glory. He’s the classic outsider: envious, ambitious, and determined to be on the inside. As played by a never better Gleeson, Faraday is supercilious and self-contained, yet brimming with indignation at the way in which the Ayres’ have let the Hall decline. Coxon and Abrahamson recognise the co-dependency that exists between Faraday and the Ayres’, and it’s this approach, and the way that it develops, that is ultimately more intriguing and compelling than if the movie was merely another haunted house tale. Abrahamson maintains a keen sense of unease in terms of Faraday’s motives, and as the threats to the Ayres’ become more tangible, a more human cause comes to the fore. But again, there’s that overwhelming ambiguity to keep the viewer on their toes, and wondering if what they’re seeing and hearing can be trusted.

Rating: 7/10 – some viewers may find The Little Stranger hard going as Abrahamson adopts an often glacial pace to the material while providing deft psychological insights into the characters and their social positions; with a pervasive sense of time and place, and an air of impending tragedy, it’s a movie that doesn’t trade in the accepted tropes of the genre, but instead, warps them to its own advantage.

The Middle of X (2018)

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D: Peter Odiorne / 82m

Cast: Bre Blair, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Josh Cooke, Colin Egglesfield, Jeremy Gabriel, Jason Gray-Stanford, Sammi Hanratty, Benjamin King, Chrisdine King, Tina Parker, Elizabeth Stillwell, Nicky Whelan

Having graduated from high school, Mack Prescott finds himself at odds with his future, or at least, what it may bring. Twenty-five years later, and on the eve of a high school reunion that he’s hosting at the home that used to belong to the parents of his wife (and high school sweetheart) Emily (Whelan), Mack (Egglesfield) is still ambivalent about his life and where it’s taking him. As many of his teenage friends, some of whom he hasn’t seen in years, begin to arrive, Mack discovers that he’s not the only one with problems. His best friend, Carter (King), drinks too much and has an unhappy marriage; Dick (Gray-Stanford) and his wife, Lydia (King), are struggling financially; and teenage sweethearts Casey (Cooke) and Sam (Blair) are hopeful of rekindling their old romance. Only Marty (Blevins), who suffered a terrible personal tragedy the night everyone was last together, appears to be happy, and then through sobriety. As the evening unfolds, Mack begins to realise what it is to be happy, and why Life has a knack for leading people to where they need to be…

Upon reading that synopsis, you could be forgiven for thinking, Uh-oh, not another movie about angsty middle-aged, middle class people wondering where it all went wrong from the safety of their palatial homes. And you would be right; this is exactly that kind of movie. Thankfully, writer/director Odiorne offers just enough of a spin on this well-worn set up to make The Middle of X an entertaining if resolutely lightweight examination of middle-aged ennui. The drama unfolds in fits and starts, and some of the various sub-plots surrounding Mack and Emily’s fractured marriage – he cheated on her so she did the same – don’t play out as well as others. There’s a sense that the running time has been dictated not so much by the length of the script but by a limited budget, and as a result, those same sub-plots feel truncated. A case in point is Marty, who is given a terrific introduction, and who is set up to be a major character. But once he arrives at the house, his story doesn’t go anywhere, and he’s used as a way of undermining another, minor character who’s quickly disposed of. It’s as if Odiorne had loads of great ideas but didn’t know what to do with them all.

He – and the movie – are much more successful with the comedic elements. There’s a sardonic streak of humour that runs throughout the material, from Carter’s commitment to continual boozing, to Dick’s desperate attempts at nabbing new clients to keep his job afloat. By pricking at the aspirational natures of his characters, Odiorne makes their unhappiness and perceived failures a source of mirth. It’s cruel in places, but much sharper than if we were witnessing their unhappiness as straight drama. This also allows for a clutch of enjoyable performances, with Benjamin King and Whelan on particularly impressive form, while the likes of Cooke, Blair and Blevins are good but don’t have the opportunity to flesh out their roles to better advantage. By the movie’s end, a major wrong has been remedied (if a little too easily), problems have been solved (if only for a while – or until the next reunion), and there’s a moment of shameless manipulation that could have been horribly mawkish but which succeeds thanks to the efforts of the actress involved. It’s moments such as these, though few and far between, that show what Odiorne could do with a bigger budget and a sharper script.

Rating: 6/10 – the material could have made more effort to skewer the pretensions of its self-absorbed characters, and a longer running time could have allowed for more satisfying resolutions to many of the sub-plots, but for a first-time outing as a writer/director, Odiorne acquits himself well enough; The Middle of X may not attract many viewers because of its generic sounding nature, but for those prepared to give it a try, there are enough rewards to make it worth their while.

Mile 22 (2018)

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D: Peter Berg / 94m

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, John Malkovich, Ronda Rousey, Carlo Alban, Terry Kinney, Emily Skeggs

If you’re thinking of going to see Mile 22 at your local cinema, please bear in mind the following:

Option 1: Seeing the movie (not recommended).

Option 2: Seeing something else.

Option 3: Staying at home and seeing something else.

Listing the ways in which Mile 22 is bad is waaaay too easy, so here’s a challenge: if you do go and see it, see how many ways you can come up with – you’ll run out of fingers and toes long before the end.

Rating: 3/10 – an appalling waste of time and money and effort, Mile 22 is so shallow and conceited it actually thinks it’s making a statement, though if you can work out what that statement is, you’re better than Berg and screenwriter Lea Carpenter, who clearly don’t have a clue between them; Wahlberg’s performance is excruciating (and probably his worst yet), while once again, the action/fight scenes have been so badly stitched together in the editing suite as to make no visual sense whatsoever, and the whole thing is as convincing as the brush strip stuck to Malkovich’s head.

Summer of 84 (2018)

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D: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell / 105m

Cast: Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer, Jason Gray-Stanford, Shauna Johannesen

For fifteen year old Davey Armstrong (Verchere), life is full of mysteries, conspiracies and unexplained phenomena. Living in the small town of Cape May, not much really happens until the police announce that a serial killer has made his presence known in the area by (anonymously) admitting to being responsible for a number of children having gone missing over the past decade. When Davey sees a teenage boy in the home of his neighbour, police officer Wayne Mackey (Sommer), and that same boy is later reported as missing, Davey enlists the help of his best friends – Eats (Lewis), Woody (Emery), and Curtis (Gruter-Andrew) – in proving that Mackey is the so-called Cape May Slayer. They set about gathering evidence, but most of it is circumstantial, until Davey finds the missing boy’s bloodstained sweater in Mackey’s garden shed. He presents his “evidence” to his parents who are horrified by the boys’ behaviour, and make the four apologise to Mackey for what they believe is unwarranted harrassment. Mackey is understanding of what they’ve done, and even though a suspect is arrested soon after, Davey still can’t shake the idea that Mackey is really the Cape May Slayer…

A mystery thriller where the main mystery is why it was set in 1984 in the first place, Summer of 84 takes a generic, well established storyline and makes it very obvious whether or not Mackey is the killer – and it does so very early on. With the material played out slowly, if not entirely assuredly, the movie takes a while to get into its stride, but it’s aided by good performances from its young cast – even if they’re playing established stereotypes – and a deliberately creepy turn from Sommer as Mackey. What hinders the movie most is the sense of familiarity that it engenders, from that first sighting by Davey of a boy in Mackey’s house, to the policeman’s highly suspicious purchasing of digging tools and hundreds of pounds of dirt. These are tried and tested (and trusted) story developments, seen dozens if not hundreds of times before, and it’s this stretch of the movie that takes too long to play out. We already know if Mackey is the killer or not, so having to go through said story developments seems redundant, even though it’s expected.

Thankfully, Leslie and Smith have a surprise up their combined sleeves, and it comes in the form of the movie’s final twenty minutes, where the material takes a sharp left (or wrong) turn into full-on horror territory, and where the fate of Davey and his friends is thrown into real doubt. This is the point where the movie drops out of generic storytelling mode, and into something completely unexpected. It’s a shame that the rest of the movie couldn’t have been as bold in its approach, but it does mean that the movie ends in a way that compensates for much of what’s gone before. Making their second feature together, the trio of Simard and the Whissell siblings display a fondness for the period, but aside from a handful of clumsy and/or forced references, and the generic nature of the material, this could have been presented as modern day and it wouldn’t have made any difference. There’s an unlikely sub-plot involving Davey and an older ex-babysitter, Nikki (Skovbye), that aims to provide depth but lacks credibility, while some of the motivations of Davey and his friends rely more on the needs of the script than any believable tendencies. There’s a decent enough story in here somewhere, and it’s entertaining for the most part, but that final twenty minutes aside, it won’t linger in the memory.

Rating: 6/10 – good performances, and a Tangerine Dream-style soundtrack by Le Matos, help prop up a less than compelling storyline, leaving Summer of 84 feeling hard done by by its own creators; watchable, certainly, but one to approach with reservations, or with an eye to holding out for better things towards the end.

5 Movies That Made Over $500 Million at the International Box Office

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Currently, there are a hundred and ninety-three movies that have made more than $500 million dollars at the international box office (thirty-six of those movies have made over a billion dollars, and four have made more than $2 billion dollars). But some of the movies that have made it past the half billion dollar mark might come as something of a surprise. Here are five such movies – not bad ones, necessarily, but ones you might not have thought would have been popular enough to rake in so much money.

American Sniper (2014) – $547,426,372

The success of Clint Eastwood’s earnest biopic of Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in US military history (with two hundred and fifty-five confirmed kills), probably took everyone by surprise, including Eastwood himself, but the financial facts speak for themselves: the movie was the highest-grossing movie of 2014 in America, it passed Saving Private Ryan (1998) as the highest-grossing war movie of all time (so far), and it became Eastwood’s highest-grossing movie as well. Its success was probably due to good timing, and its having caught a wave of patriotism that bolstered its box office returns, but whatever the reasons it did so well, watching American Sniper now does make you wonder how such a tale of ultimate tragedy struck such a very loud chord with viewers across the globe.

Life of Pi (2012) – $609,016,565

Ang Lee’s adaptation of the novel by Yann Martel was always going to be something of a tough sell, telling as it does the allegorical story of a young boy trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But Lee did an amazing job with the visuals, and was better still at teasing out a variety of emotions and narrative highs and lows that made the movie an exceptional piece of work – by any standards. A movie that did so much better outside of the US (where its takings fell just shy of $125 million), Life of Pi could be seen as an indictment of US audiences’ inability to see things beyond face value, as opposed to their international cousins. Whatever the reason for its lacklustre performance on its home turf, there’s no denying that, further abroad, audiences had the right idea.

Hancock (2008) – $624, 386,746

Will Smith as an amnesiac superhero with anger issues? That sounds like a great idea for a movie, right? Critics weren’t so sure, and some reviewers were less than subtle in their dislike of the movie, but against the odds – or perhaps because of them; who knows? – Hancock did very well for itself at the box office, but like Life of Pi, it did so mostly outside of its home country, where it earned nearly $400 million dollars of its final tally. It’s an uneven movie, to be sure, and appears to have been made up as the production went along, but Smith and co-star Charlize Theron make for an attractive couple, and the humour – while bordering on desperate at times – does help salvage a movie that could have done with a fair bit of fine-tuning before being released on an unsuspecting public.

Maleficent (2014) – $758,539,785

Disney have had an amazing track record over the years, and this early example of a live action version of a classic animated movie – albeit with a bit of a twist – is a prime example of a feature performing way above expectations. With Angelina Jolie wavering between being bad and being good, it’s another entry on the list that wasn’t as warmly received as its box office success might indicate, and to be truthful it’s not the most successful reinterpretation of a classic children’s tale, but Jolie is good value as the conflicted sorceress, and it’s visually arresting at times. But in the end it’s a kids’ movie, and it’s the children from foreign territories that made it a success, with over half a billion dollars in box office revenue coming from outside the US. It used to be that US audiences ensured a cash cow for a movie. That’s definitely not the case now, and definitely when you consider the next movie on the this list…

Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) – $870,325,439

If you expected Wolf Warrior 2 to be on this list somewhere, then give yourself a great big pat on the back. If you haven’t even heard of it until now – well, we’ll just let that one pass. This is a movie where the statistics speak for themselves: the highest grossing Chinese movie of all time; the fastest movie to break the US$500 million barrier; in purely domestic terms, more financially successful than Avatar (2009) and Black Panther (2018); and it’s currently number sixty-one on the list of all-time worldwide box office grosses at Box Office Mojo. It’s a major phenomenon, an unexpected success story that nobody predicted (especially as its predecessor only made US$89.11 million), and though some critics weren’t as enraptured as Chinese audiences were, this has more than enough to recommend it to action movie fans or even those interested in what China considers to be a mainstream feature these days. What appears certain is that it will hold on to all those statistical accolades for some time to come.

Breaking and Exiting (2018)

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D: Peter Facinelli / 78m

Cast: Milo Gibson, Jordan Hinson, Adam Huber, James Kyson, Lily Anne Harrison, Justine Wachsberger, Joaquim de Almeida

Harry (Gibson) is a career criminal, a burglar who targets homes when the owners are away on holiday, and who aren’t gun owners. Along with his cousin, Chris (Huber), he makes enough money to ensure he doesn’t have to get a proper job. One day, Chris announces that their next burglary will be his last: he has a temp job lined up, and he doesn’t want to wind up in jail. Harry is dismissive of Chris’s ambition, but their last burglary goes badly wrong and they’re lucky to avoid being caught. Harry still doesn’t Chris is being serious, but finds himself carrying out their next job on his own. While he goes from room to room gathering valuables and electronics, he discovers a woman (Hinson) in the bath who is trying to kill herself. Harry’s inherent lack of empathy causes him to point her in the direction of tablets that will help her achieve her aim, and then he leaves. But he doesn’t get far before he suffers a rare attack of conscience, and rushes back to try and save the woman, an unselfish act that sees him behaving in a way that’s completely new to him…

A romantic comedy (whose humour is largely on the dark, uncomfortable side), Breaking and Exiting does something unexpected from the start: it brings the viewer in  at a point where Harry is making the decision to return and save the woman – who is called Daisy – from killing herself. So, from the beginning we know that Harry isn’t as bad as the screenplay will subsequently paint him as it rewinds the action back a few days. As a result we can bear Harry’s selfish, egoistic behaviour and attitude towards Chris, and his girlfriend, Lana (Wachsberger), partly because it’s inappropriately funny, and partly because we know he’s going to change. Hinson, who wrote the script and also produces as well as starring, wisely allows the viewer to have some vicarious fun through Harry’s unalloyed narcissism before showing us the good heart he has buried deep, deep inside him. But he’s also curious, just like the viewer, to find out why Daisy wants to kill herself. There’s a boyfriend she’s angry with, but it always seems as though that’s merely a small part of it all, and just as she teases out Harry’s deeply-rooted compassion, so we slowly learn what’s at the root of her unhappiness.

Along the way, Harry and Daisy get to know each other, and although there are a handful of generic rom-com moments, the script does its best to steer clear of anything too obvious as the story develops. Harry is open and honest about his criminal activities, while Daisy behaves wildly and erratically in line with her current mental state. It’s not until Harry challenges Daisy to let him cook her a final meal that mixed emotions on both sides begin to coalesce into something more stable for both of them. Hinson is a winning presence, likeable and endearing even when talking about suicide with determination, while Gibson (looking and sounding very much like his father), has an easy-going charm about him that is appealing and sincere. Together, the pair add a surprising amount of texture and depth to their characters, and when things turn more serious, they make the necessary switch in tone that much more believable. Facinelli directs with a good understanding of the absurdity of the basic set up, but makes it work in tandem with his committed leads, and offers up a neatly assembled and handled rom-com that does its best to avoid being predictable in its details.

Rating: 8/10 – with the chemistry between Gibson and Hinson an added plus, and Hinson’s screenplay balancing humour and more serious matters with aplomb, Breaking and Exiting is that rare rom-com that could have benefited from being longer; with fluid, emotive camerawork from DoP Christopher Hamilton and his team, and a terrific soundtrack, the movie has more than enough going on for even the most casual of viewers.

Let’s Take a Walk Down Hype Street – Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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D: Jon M. Chu / 121m

Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Chris Pang, Jing Lusi, Nico Santos, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, Pierre Png

In a summer that’s been dominated (as usual) by superhero movies, tired remakes, and special effects driven action movies, one movie has “broken out” and caught the attention of critics and audiences alike. It’s billed as a romantic comedy – though if there’s ever likely to be a breakout movie each summer it’s likely to be a comedy of some description – and it’s been hailed as not only a breakout movie but a breakthrough movie as well. The movie (surprise!) is Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s the first time since The Joy Luck Club (1993) that any feature has had a predominantly Asian cast (though it appears that an early producer thought it would be a good idea to whitewash the lead character, Rachel). Watching the movie in the wake of all this positive feedback is interesting, partly to see if it can or does live up to the hype it’s received, and partly to see if it succeeds on its own merits. Inevitably, it does and it doesn’t.

Let’s get the casting out of the way first. Perhaps a better way of describing the cast would be to say that they’re of “predominantly Asian heritage”, but that aside, it is good to see the major roles filled by recognisably Asian actors, and especially as the story is set within the confines of a recognisably Asian family and its attendant culture. But if you’ve seen one romantic comedy where the girlfriend or the boyfriend is the outsider who needs to win over a dysfunctional extended family, then much of what’s on offer in Crazy Rich Asians will be very familiar to you. Indeed, the only real difference between this movie and many others is the fact that it is an Asian family that’s on display – and display is perhaps the best word to describe what’s happening. In everyone’s rush to congratulate the movie, they seem to have forgotten that we’ve actually been here before, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and its equally culturally exploitative sequel. That the cast is predominantly Asian doesn’t matter when the same romantic comedy tropes and characterisations are trotted out, and when we’re asked to laugh at comic behaviour that’s been seen too often before. It’s not enough to have an ethnic twist when the material remains the same.

And then there’s the whole idea that the movie is a romantic comedy. There is humour in Crazy Rich Asians, much of it delivered by Awkwafina as the kind of quirky best friend to the heroine that seems de rigeuer these days, or Santos’ stereotypical gay fashion designer. But in reality this is a romantic drama that has comic overtones. There are long stretches where the material isn’t even trying to raise a laugh as it seeks to explore ideas of cultural isolationism (or indigenous racism), bitterness, marital betrayal, emotional regret, depression and envy. The obstacles that loved up couple Rachel (Wu) and Nick (Golding) have to overcome lead to some very dramatic sequences, and the hurtful behaviour of Nick’s mother (Yeoh) towards Rachel borders on the perverse. And that’s without a subplot involving Chan as Nick’s sister, Astrid, whose unhappiness causes her to binge shop and hide the purchases from her husband (Png). Perhaps the makers were aware of the darkness inherent in the material from the start, but felt that promoting the movie as a romantic drama wouldn’t attract as many viewers. And therein lies the irony: as a romantic drama it’s much more effective than as a romantic comedy.

Rating: 7/10 – with very good performances in service to a good script, solid direction, and production design that emphasises the opulent above the mundane every time (the wedding is a particular standout), Crazy Rich Asians is let down by its unapologetic sense of cultural appropriation; not as groundbreaking as everyone makes out, it’s still a refreshing change from the usual summer blockbuster fare, but definitely not the movie it’s been hyped up to be.

The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

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D: Nicole Holofcener / 98m

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco, Thomas Mann, Bill Camp, Connie Britton, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Gaston, Charlie Tahan

Anders Hill (Mendelsohn) has turned his back on his life as a husband and father, and his work in finance. Divorced and living in a condo, he’s “retired”, but finding it difficult to make his new life work. Casual (and disappointing) hook-ups with women only remind him of his ex-wife, Helene (Falco), and how much he misses her, and the fact that she’s now seeing someone he used to work with, Donny (Camp), makes it even worse. And their son, Preston (Mann), has graduated from university but seems rootless and unwilling to do anything with his life. When Anders is invited to an annual party given by his friends, the Ashfords (Marvel, Gaston), he’s not expected to actually turn up. But he does, and ends up taking drugs with the Ashfords’ son, Charlie (Tahan). When Charlie ends up in hospital that same night, it’s the beginning of an unexpected if not entirely appropriate friendship, while unresolved issues involving Helene and Preston continue to cause friction between the trio, and have a wider effect on Donny and the Ashfords, as well as a woman Anders meets called Barbara (Britton)…

The first movie directed by Nicole Holofcener that doesn’t feature Catherine Keener in the lead role, The Land of Steady Habits is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ted Thompson. The title refers to the collection of hamlets and towns that dot the Connecticut commuter line, and their similarity to each other. Anders has decided that he no longer wants to be a part of the “rat race”, and that his happiness has been impeded by his job and his marriage and having to be selfless in providing for everyone around him. But Anders is finding that being “free” brings its own set of problems, some that remain from his previous life, and newer ones that add to his woes. It’s clear he’s not happy, and it’s clear that he has no idea of what he’s doing (we first meet him trying to buy ornaments to fill the shelves in his condo; the choices he makes are less than complementary to each other). He wants to retain a connection with Helene but can’t articulate why, while he’s more in tune with Charlie and his issues with his parents than he is with his own son.

All this is handled by Holofcener (who also provides the screenplay) with her customary sincerity and sympathetic approach to each of the characters, and by doing this she manages to avoid making Anders’ story yet another dull tale of an affluent, middle-class man’s mid-life crisis. She’s helped enormously by Mendelsohn’s sensitive and often poignant portrayal of Anders as a man who is at odds with himself and what he needs out of life. Falco is slightly less well served by the material – Helene isn’t given the room to develop as a character – while Mann is terrific as Preston, with rehab in his past and facing an uncertain future. However, the movie is a mixture of drama and comedy that doesn’t always gel convincingly, the relationship between Anders and Charlie is the kind that exists purely in the movies, and there are times when it seems Holofcener has trouble making certain scenes appear relevant. The result is a movie that feels as if it’s holding itself back, and which, despite the cast’s commitment, always seems to be on the verge of saying something profound – without quite knowing just what it is it wants to say.

Rating: 7/10 – a great performance from Mendelsohn ensures The Land of Steady Habits remains watchable throughout, but the patchy material doesn’t always hold up; ultimately it’s a movie that remains likeable even when it’s not living up to its full potential, and it retains a certain charm that is hard to ignore, but a lot will depend on how much emotional dysfunction you can endure – and not just from Anders.

10 Movies That Are 40 Years Old This Year – 2018

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1977 wasn’t the best of years, and continued the downward trend in widespread innovation that had made the first half of the decade so impressive. But as always there were movie makers still willing to rise to the challenge of creating something different, or pushing previously accepted boundaries. 1978 was a year that showed that there was a definite audience for mainstream, so-called summer tentpole movies, as the shdaow of Jaws (1975) continued to influence the studios in their choice of releases and their marketing strategies. The movies below reflect both the mainstream   and the more traditional, independently produced movies that had been so prevalent just a few years before. Across a wide range of themes and subject matters, these movies have stood the test of time over the last forty years, and like all truly impressive movies, we’ll still be watching them in another forty years’ time.

1) The Deer Hunter – Michael Cimino’s epic tale of three friends caught up in the insanity of the Vietnam War is a visceral, thought-provoking drama that, at the time of its release, caused controversy because of its Russian Roulette scene, and its depiction of the Vietnamese as unnecessarily cruel and sadistic. But with powerful performances from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage as the three friends, as well as a tremendous sense of America going through a seismic period of social and political change, the movie has much to say about the nature of working class friendships, and how extreme pressure can warp the minds of even the strongest of individuals. A one of a kind movie, it’s impact can still be felt in war movies depicting the Vietnam era even now, and as such, its inclusion in 1996 in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movie seems all too appropriate.

2) Days of Heaven – It’s hard to believe now but on its release, Days of Heaven wasn’t a commercial success, and there were many critics who felt that its cinematography (by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler) was its only saving grace. True, it was a problematical production, with director Terrence Malick and editor Billy Weber spending two years assembling the final cut, but beyond the magisterial photography, it’s a movie that reflects on a love triangle as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. It’s a bold, lyrical piece, structurally complex, but with deliberately muted passions on display throughout, a choice that relates specifically to the viewpoint of the teenage girl (beautifully played by Linda Manz). It’s enigmatic, certainly, but in such a fashion that the viewer can interpret matters in their own way, and take as much or as little as they want from the material. And like The Deer Hunter, it too has been included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

3) Big Wednesday – A personal project for its writer/director (and surfer), John Milius, Big Wednesday recalls something of a bygone age, a simpler time that catches its characters on the verge of adulthood and responsibility (the shadow of Vietnam looms large over the narrative). Though the sub-culture Milius was exploring – and which he himself had been a part of – was tellingly presented, critics at the time chose to be disparaging of his efforts, but viewed now the movie can be recognised as a sincere and affectionate tribute to friendships made through a shared connection, and the bonds that develop as a result. Some of the performances are a little rough around the edges, but the movie has a simple charm that more than compensates for any perceived deficiencies, and as expected, the surfing sequences – shot in a variety of locations including Sunset Beach in Pupukea in Hawaii – are beautiful and breathtaking, and thrilling to watch.

4) The Marriage of Maria Braun – A movie that’s as fascinating for what went on behind the scenes of its production as it is for the finished product, The Marriage of Maria Braun came along at a time in its director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career when he was trying to get Berlin Alexanderplatz made (he would shoot this by day and write Berlin‘s script by night). That he was able to make such a commanding and distinctive movie under such circumstances – and with the help of large quantities of cocaine – shows just how good a director he was. The tale of a woman whose marriage goes unfulfilled thanks to her husband’s post-war imprisonment, and who adapts to post-war life by becoming a wealthy industrialist’s mistress, it features a mesmerising performance from Hanna Schygulla as Maria, and works as a metaphor for Germany’s post-war renaissance. A critical and commerical success on its first release, it remains one of Fassbinder’s finest movies, and is compelling from start to finish.

5) Superman – The advertising boldly stated, “You will believe a man can fly” – and we did. Famously shot in tandem with its proposed sequel, Superman II (1980), the movie broke new ground in special effects and fantasy movie making, and this despite an inconsistent tone that veered between high camp and more serious, straightforward drama. It made an overnight star of Christopher Reeve, proved that superhero movies could be successful (it was the second highest grossing movie of the year), and ushered in an era of fantasy movie making that continues today. That it turned out as well as it did is a tribute to its director, Richard Donner, and the persistence of its producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler, who took a huge risk in making it. Full of iconic moments, and indelible performances, Superman remains hugely enjoyable to this day, and as a template for all the superhero fantasy movies that have followed in its wake, it deserves our thanks for getting so much right, and with such confidence. And it’s in the National Film Registry as well.

6) Halloween – Looking at Halloween forty years after its release (and just ahead of an official sequel that ignores all the other movies made in the years since), it’s worth pointing out that Michael Myers’ reign of terror is a surprisingly bloodless affair; it’s all about the atmosphere. Using first person point-of-view shots to put viewers in Myers’ shoes, effortlessly fluid camerawork thanks to the use of a Steadicam, introducing the trope of the “final girl”, and employing a soundtrack – and that piano motif – that instantly instills a sense of dread, John Carpenter’s hugely influential horror movie is a chilling exercise in how to build tension, then build it some more, and then a bit more before delivering some of the best jump scares ever committed to celluloid – the murder of Bob, anyone? In the years since, the movie has gained a well deserved reputation as the progenitor of the slasher movie (though there were plenty before it), but none of them has managed to replicate the sense of sheer terror that Carpenter creates here. (And yes, it’s in the National Film Registry.)

7) La Cage aux Folles – If you only know of La Cage aux Folles‘ existence through its US remake, The Birdcage (1996), then shame on you. Easily one of the best comedies of 1978, this adaptation of the play by Jean Poiret has a mischievous sense of humour and features pitch perfect performances from Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault as the warring gay couple, Renato and Albin. It’s a riotous affair, and though you could argue that Renato and Albin teeter precariously on the edge of being gay stereotypes, there’s a poignant sincerity to their relationship that offsets such criticism, and the notion that they could be just as worried as parents as a heterosexual couple is made without recourse to heavy-handed proselytising or hyperbole. Director Édouard Molinaro directs with a simple flair and consideration for the inner lives of the characters that supports the material, and there’s a freshness that two sequels, a Hollywood remake, and a gay porn version (that bizarrely exploits an elderly Greta Garbo) haven’t been able to improve on.

8) The Tree of Wooden Clogs – A three hour-plus movie about the lives of four peasant families working on farms in the Lombardy region of Italy in 1898 may not seem like the basis for a compelling drama – and especially when you realise that it features a cast entirely made up of non-professionals – but Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s a poetic, beautifully photographed movie about the hardships of everyday rural life that is given a tangible reality by Olmi’s attention to period detail and what appears to be a detached approach to both the characters and their situations, but which proves to be hugely compassionate instead. An immersive experience that is refreshingly free of guile or artifice, Olmi’s perceptive screenplay brings in elements of social revolution and self-determination that reflect working class aspirations of the period, but it’s the focus on the families’ day-to-day efforts to survive that bring the most rewards, as Olmi paints a stark yet strikingly beautiful portrait of persistent adversity and the small triumphs that make it more bearable.

9) Heaven Can Wait – During the late Sixties and on into the Seventies, Warren Beatty could do no wrong. By the time he came to make Heaven Can Wait he was an A-list star who could get a movie made just by announcing his interest in a project. Such was the case here, and in adapting Harry Segall’s original play for the second time – after Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) – Beatty knew well enough to retain the screwball feel of the previous movie but also to update it for modern audiences. The result is a cracking example of a mainstream comedy, with sleek production values that serve the material instead of overwhelming it, and a very talented cast that know exactly what they’re doing (Charles Grodin is a particular standout). With an earnest quality to its romantic angle, and characters that are pleasantly two-dimensional, the movie is a frothy confection that’s ably directed by Beatty and Buck Henry, and which is entertaining on several levels. Beatty followed this up with Reds (1981), and while that movie has its own merits, Beatty playing comedy is something to be even more thankful for.

10) The Last Waltz – Widely regarded as the greatest rock concert movie ever made, The Last Waltz occupies a lofty place in music documentary history. A record of the last concert ever to be played by the original line-up of The Band, and interspersed with interviews with the group carried out by the movie’s director, Martin Scorsese, along with studio-based versions of certain songs, this is an astonishing visual and aural feast for anyone with even a halfway serious appreciation for rock music and its attendant concert experience. With a host of guest musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Neil Young (who had to have a smudge of cocaine removed in post-production) to Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell, the movie benefits from the decision to shoot in 35mm and to use seven cameras in capturing it all (among the cinematographers: Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács, and Michael Chapman). There are tremendous renditions of classic songs and equally tremendous performances as well, all in service to a movie that celebrates a band whose contribution to the history of rock music remains as indelible now as it did forty years ago.

Yardie (2018)

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D: Idris Elba / 101m

Cast: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Stephen Graham, Fraser James, Sheldon Shepherd, Everaldo Creary, Calvin Demba, Naomi Ackie

As a child in Jamaica, Dennis Campbell aka “D” (Ameen), saw his father shot and killed by another child, Clancy, who was never apprehended. His father was trying to broker peace between two rival gangsters, and in the wake of his father’s death, Dennis was taken under the wing of one of them, King Fox (Shepherd). Ten years later, Dennis works for King Fox, but his quick temper keeps getting him into trouble. To keep him from getting into any further trouble, Fox sends Dennis to London, to deliver a package to a local associate of Fox’s called Rico (Graham). But Dennis isn’t impressed by Rico’s mock-Jamaican phrasing and attitude, and decides to keep the package (which contains cocaine) for himself and find another distributor. He’s able to reconnect with his wife, Yvonne (Jackson), and young daughter, and he also becomes involved with a group of friends who want to break into the world of sound system competitions and become DJs. It’s when he discovers that Clancy is now working for Rico that Dennis’s actions begin to cause real problems for him, and for those around him…

Victor Headley’s debut novel, from which this is adapted, was a publishing sensation when it was first released in 1992, and it paved the way for a wave of new black fiction that continues today. Now regarded as something of a “cult” novel, Headley’s debut has been given the big screen treatment, and as perhaps could have been expected, Idris Elba’s debut feature treats the source material with obvious respect and admiration. Beginning in the Seventies in Jamaica, the screenplay by Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman shows a time in Dennis’s life when his father was a true source of optimism and inspiration in the face of gang warfare. His father’s death acts as a trigger for the pessimism and violent expression that Dennis displays as a young man, and the script, plus Elba’s confident direction, rightly keeps Dennis away from the path of redemption. Instead, he follows his own vengeful path, even when it means harm being caused to others. The script shows how much his anger has consumed him, and despite the assurances he gives Yvonne of changing things around and leading a better life, these are just empty words that not even he believes.

With such an anti-hero as a lead character, Yardie has something of a distance about it, thanks to Dennis being someone we wouldn’t want to know in real life, and also because he’s choosing a criminal lifestyle when he could do so much more – and has the opportunity to do so. Elba wisely exploits those moments of rare self-reflection that bring Dennis up short, but dramatically they’re not as convincing as they should be as Dennis soon returns to his criminal activities or thirst for revenge. Despite a very good performance by Ameen, Dennis remains a character on too rigid a journey to make him sympathetic, and unfortunately none of the supporting characters are fleshed out enough to make a difference. What we’re left with is a movie that’s well constructed by Elba and his cast and crew, but which fails to connect with its audience on an emotional level. So much of the material, and the narrative, plays out in a connect the dots fashion, leaving little room for spontaneity or surprises, that the movie often feels rote. Perhaps Elba and co have been too respectful and admiring of Headley’s novel, as this adaptation lacks the consistent passion and energy needed to make it work as well as it should.

Rating: 7/10 – though London in the Eighties is recreated with considerable skill, and given vibrant expression by DoP John Conroy (along with recurring visual motifs aplenty), Yardie can’t overcome the lack of attention given to the material and how to make it more gripping; a terrific soundtrack (naturally) adds to the sense of time and place, and though it’s not entirely successful, Elba shows enough talent behind the camera that if he were to give up his day job, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

Oh! the Horror! – The Nun (2018) and Strange Nature (2018)

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The Nun (2018) / D: Corin Hardy / 96m

Cast: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Sandra Teles

The fifth entry in the mega-successful Conjuring series, The Nun sees the franchise try to take a previously minor character and expand on them to make a stand-alone movie that fits in with the established mythos, while also providing the requisite scares and universe building that we’ve come to expect. But this is a horrible mis-step, a movie that makes absolutely no sense from beginning to end, but which does make you wonder if all this universe building is being as carefully planned and worked out in advance as it should be. On this evidence, the answer has to be a resounding No, because The Nun is truly terrible, with the slackest plotting seen so far, characters who barely register as recognisable human beings, a setting that seems arbitrary rather than necessary, a number of poorly executed paranormal effects sequences that are both narratively redundant and tiresome, and an overall vibe that says, “we did this because we could, not because we should”. And that’s without dialogue of the calibre of, “I’m afraid there is something very wrong with this place.”

In many ways, James Wan and co should be congratulated for the success they’ve had in creating the Conjuring universe, but this should be the point where they stop and take stock of where they’re taking the franchise, and why. The Nun is like the movie that quality control forgot. Watching it is akin to seeing a cinematic car crash happening in slow motion, but instead of bodies in the road it’s the makers’ reputations. Hardy, making his second feature after The Hallow (2015), appears to have been a director for hire only on this occasion, as he brings none of the visual flourishes he brought to that first feature, and his direction is largely anonymous. The cast don’t have a chance thanks to the banal nature of regular scribe Gary Dauberman’s screenplay, and Bichir in particular looks uncomfortable and/or wishing he’d taken another gig altogether. The set pieces rely on roving camera work to hide the so-called scares (which are astonishingly predictable), but worst of all, the title character remains a bystander in her own movie, brought out occasionally for a cheap jolt, and at the end for what amounts to a showdown. Anyone expecting to learn more about Valak and his origins (and why a nun) will be looking in the wrong place, as this is so badly constructed as to be completely nun-sensical.

Rating: 3/10 – The Nun‘s box office performance – $133 million so far – proves that you can fool a lot of the people (initially), but this is far from being a good movie, or one that deserves to do so well; a chore to sit through and woeful on so many levels – and just having a character called Frenchie is bad enough – this is movie making without thinking or conviction.

 

Strange Nature (2018) / D: Jim Ojala / 99m

Cast: Lisa Sheridan, Jonah Beres, Bruce Bohne, Faust Checho, Stephen Tobolowsky, John Hennigan, Carlos Alazraqui, Justen Overlander, David Mattey, Chalet Lizette Brannan, Angela Duffy, Tiffany Shepis

In Strange Nature, the world we’re introduced to is one that we can more easily recognise than in The Nun, but it’s not without its own unexplained phenomena. Based on a mystery that dates back to the mid-Nineties, when deformed frogs began appearing in ponds throughout Minnesota, the movie takes this as a jumping off point (excuse the pun) for a tale of mutations that begin with said frogs and which then makes its way up through the biological food chain until it starts to affect humans. Working with a limited budget, first-time feature writer/director Ojala has created a horror movie that trades on established genre tropes but which does so while doing its best to focus on a small town community that finds itself under attack from both outside and within. Ojala uses the character of Kim (Sheridan) as our guide to the ensuing developments, as stories of people going missing slowly become forgotten as the potential reason for their disappearances becomes more obvious. As Kim delves deeper into the mystery of the deformed frogs, various culprits – agricultural fertilisers, waterborne parasites, nature gone haywire – are explored, but as with real life (where the problem has since spread to India and China), the movie doesn’t settle for one easy explanation over the rest.

The movie wears its horror credentials on its sleeve, and peppers the narrative with various examples of body horror (a deformed puppy, skin sloughing away from flesh), but the effectiveness of these scenes is hampered by the budget, and though Ojala opts for practical, in-camera effects wherever possible, many of them betray the lack of funds available (editor David Mattey does what he can, but in trying to obscure the lacklustre effects he actually draws attention to them even more). Away from the more overt horror elements, Ojala does a good job of developing the sense of a small town whose initial scepticism soon gives way to fear and paranoia, and adds a layer of tragedy when one character’s pregnancy doesn’t end in the blessed event she was expecting. The performances are adequate, with Tobolowsky suitably oily as the town mayor, and the Duluth, Minnesota locations add a degree of verisimilitude that works well as a backdrop for the action. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Strange Nature, and it’s certainly not as bad as some other horror movies out there (see above), but it does suffer from a surfeit of ideas that it doesn’t have the wherewithal to explore fully, and refreshingly, keeps any unnecessary melodramatics to a minimum.

Rating: 6/10 – though its narrative arc is entirely predictable, and some of the characters remain stereotypes throughout, Strange Nature works exceedingly well as a cautionary tale, and is well worth a look; with a sense of ambition often missing from low budget horror movies, Ojala’s feature debut unfolds confidently, and more importantly, with a purpose that is often missing from some of its bigger budgeted brethren.

Hyena (2014)

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D: Gerard Johnson / 112m

Cast: Peter Ferdinando, Richard Dormer, Neil Maskell, Elisa Lasowski, MyAnna Buring, Stephen Graham, Tony Pitts, Gordon Brown, Orli Shuka, Gjevat Kelmendi

For Detective Sergeant Michael Logan (Ferdinando), being an undercover police officer means striking deals with European drug syndicates, and along with his fellow task force colleagues, Martin (Maskell), Keith (Pitts), and Chris (Brown), receiving a cut for looking the other way. Logan is negotiating one such deal when his Turkish contact is murdered by Albanian gangsters the Kabashi brothers (Shuka, Kelmendi). With the brothers looking to expand their power base, Logan is forced to begin dealing with them instead. As he begins to salvage his original deal (which he has invested £100,000 into), Logan finds himself transferred to the vice squad, and onto an operation spearheaded by an old rival of his, Detective Inspector David Knight (Graham). The focus of the operation is the Kabashi brothers, and Logan finds himself walking a fine line between keeping his deal going and keeping it quiet from Knight. He also has Detective Inspector Nick Taylor (Dormer) from the Professional Standards department threatening to expose his crooked dealings. Beset from all sides, Logan finds things spiralling out of his control, and each new desperate attempt to maintain his position sees things get increasingly worse…

A dark, gritty, violent crime thriller, Hyena is a movie that takes the viewer on a trip through a sordid criminal underworld as experienced by its lead character, anti-hero Michael Logan, and in the process, it paints a very dark portrait indeed of police corruption and casual immorality. This is a bleak movie throughout, with plenty of violence (some of which is uncomfortable to watch), plenty of drug taking (Logan gets through a prodigious amount of cocaine), plenty of corrupt behaviour (mostly from the police, the villains aren’t quite so duplicitous), and plenty of amorality (courtesy of just about everyone except Logan’s friend, Lisa (Buring), and his boss on the task force). The message from writer/director Johnson is clear: this is a world you don’t want to be a part of. But at the same time, he makes it just fascinating enough for the viewer to become embroiled in Logan’s story and just how bad it can get. Johnson doesn’t disappoint, with even the one good thing that Logan does – rescuing a woman, Ariana (Lasowski), from the brothers’ clutches – inevitably causing him more trouble than he bargained for. How doomed, or damned, must he be that an actual good deed so quickly backfires on him?

The answer lies in Logan’s initially diffident, unconcerned nature. Even when he sees his Turkish contact killed and dismembered (a recurring violent motif), Logan’s shock soon wears off, and he’s back quickly to making deals and taking charge. It’s when he meets Ariana that his self-serving attitude begins to change. But Johnson is clever enough to obscure Logan’s motives for doing so. Is it because he has feelings for her, feelings he finds it hard to articulate? Or is it because, deep down, he still has a sense of right and wrong, however compromised? Thanks to the script’s ambiguity and a potent performance from Ferdinando, Logan’s motives remain a mystery even until the end. You could argue that there is good in him, but it’s unlikely Logan would agree with you. The character makes for a perfect guide into a world where notions of right and wrong are interchangeable, and where subterfuge exposes the flaws in those characters who need to lie in order to make personal connections. Johnson explores the tragedy of what this means for Logan as an individual, and in a wider sense as a police officer who’s strayed so far from the right path it’s like a distant memory.

Rating: 8/10 – an uncompromising look at personal, professional, institutional, and emotional betrayal and corruption, Hyena has a substantial streak of nihilism running through it, one that makes it relentless in its depiction of the pitiless world Logan inhabits; with first-rate performances from all concerned, and a tremendously fetid atmosphere that’s exploited to the full by Benjamin Kracun’s restless, probing cinematography, Johnson’s powerful, oppressive thriller is a tough watch but more than worth it.

Searching (2018)

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D: Aneesh Chaganty / 102m

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Sara Sohn, Briana McLean, Erica Jenkins, Steven Michael Eich

It’s been two years since David Kim (Cho) and his daughter, Margot (La), lost their wife and mother respectively to cancer. In those two years the pair have grown distant, with both waiting for the other to talk about what happened. Instead, David focuses on Margot’s education (she has a gift for playing the piano), while Margot tries to focus on being a normal teenager. One night, they speak via FaceTime while Margot is at a study group, and everything seems fine. Later that night, she tries to call David but he’s asleep and misses her calls. The next day, she doesn’t respond when he tries to call her back. Expecting her to be at a piano lesson after school David calls the tutor, only to learn that Margot cancelled her lessons six months before. When he finds himself unable to track her down, David calls the police and reports Margot as missing. The detective assigned to the case, Rosemary Vick (Messing) asks David to look into Margot’s background, her school life and her friends. But when he does he discovers things about his daughter that don’t make any sense, and which only make her disappearance that much more inexplicable…

Cleverly constructed from the start until the end, Searching is a mystery thriller that utilises modern technology in such a way that the movie feels – for much of its running time at least – like it hasn’t been filmed at all. Using a variety of virtual photography tricks and sleights of hand, we see the action unfold within the foreground of computer screens and other electronic devices, and against a backdrop of computer apps. Sometimes there’s so much going on on the screen that it’s hard to take it all in, but it’s all so cleverly assembled and handled that, much like reading subtitles, the eye and the brain soon compensate and pick out what’s relevant and what isn’t. David is our guide, and in Cho’s more than capable hands, we follow him willingly as he begins to piece together the various clues that go to make up the details of Margot’s disappearance. Whether he’s using FaceTime or Google or accessing photos, or trawling through Margot’s vlogs on YouCast, David takes us on a journey that is fascinating and akin to exploring a foreign country.

With the movie’s visuals broadening to include news footage (amongst others), and remaining compelling until the end, it’s a shame then that it’s all in service to a screenplay by director Chaganty and Sev Ohanian that can’t sustain the initial promise of its first hour. In amongst all the internet pages and online research that David carries out, and amid all the relevant information that Margot leaves behind (unknowingly), the script throws in a number of massively signposted clues that will have keen-eyed and -eared viewers shaking their heads in disbelief at how obvious the solution is. Up until the hour mark, Chaganty has kept the mystery elements front and centre and each twist and turn of the narrative has been smartly handled, but the need to start revealing things and head into the finishing stretch sees the movie lose momentum and its carefully assembled credibility. By the end, and a confession that sounds like the very definition of contrived, the movie has lost its way completely, and not even Cho, who is on superb form, can bring it back from the abyss it seems so set on throwing itself into. Make no mistake, this is a tense, visually arresting movie, but also one that doesn’t have a narrative that remains consistent enough throughout to match the quality of its presentation.

Rating: 7/10 – compelling and persuasive (for that first hour), Searching is a visual breath of fresh air, effectively handled and confidently displayed; a shame then that more attention couldn’t have been applied to the script, which lets down the visuals and which also hinders a terrific performance from Cho.

The Last Movie Star (2017)

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Original title: Dog Years

D: Adam Rifkin / 104m

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Ariel Winter, Clark Duke, Ellar Coltrane, Al-Jaleel Knox, Nikki Blonsky, Juston Street, Kathleen Nolan, Chevy Chase

Vic Edwards (Reynolds) is an aging, and mostly forgotten, movie star who lives by himself in a sprawling home, and whose one remaining real friend is another aging, mostly forgotten actor called Sonny (Chase). When Vic receives an invitation to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Nashville Film Festival, he’s reluctant at first, but soon his curiosity gets the better of him, and he decides to attend. However, it soon becomes clear that the festival – run by two young friends, Doug (Duke) and Shane (Coltrane) – is on a shoestring, as evidenced by its being held in a bar. Annoyed at being fooled so badly, Vic decides to take advantage of having a personal driver, Doug’s sister Lil (Winter), and gets her to take her to Knoxville, where he was born and raised. Along the way, their adversarial relationship blossoms into something more friendly, as both share stories from their lives, and learn some life lessons that each other haven’t thought about…

Just in case you’re unsure of how “meta” The Last Movie Star is going to be, the opening scene dispels any doubts whatsover. Though introduced as Vic Edwards, it’s clearly Burt Reynolds being interviewed by David Frost sometime in the Seventies. So immediately we know that this movie is going to be self-reverential to quite a degree, and will be mining Reynolds’ own professional history (if not his personal life) for the details that make up the character of Vic Edwards. And following that interview is a close up of Edwards (or Reynolds; they’re interchangeable in too many ways for it to matter much of the time), his time-worn features bringing us up to date with the fate of a man once adored by millions. Edwards is a lonely man tempted by the limelight of long-past recognition. What’s a tired old actor who still wants to be relevant to do? In these early scenes, writer/director Rifkin shows us the monotony of Edwards’ daily life, the impulse to look at pretty girls his only remaining pleasure. Of course he’s going to go to Nashville, but Edwards still has his pride. He still remembers what it means to be a star. And being duped into attending a film festival both re-awakens that pride, and an unexpected need to reconnect with his childhood.

The subsequent tour of Knoxville and Edwards’ old haunts is a remarkably affecting and bittersweet occasion (bolstered by an overnight stay in a plush hotel), with Reynolds putting aside his character’s tetchy, arrogant persona and finding the man’s inner melancholy, those regrets he’s carried with him since becoming a star and living the kind of rarefied life that is being celebrated at the festival. As he revisits his past, Rifkin takes the movie into really “meta” territory and has Edwards share scenes with Reyynolds’ screen incarnations from Deliverance (1972) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). They’re not entirely successful, both in terms of the visual effects used, and the dialogue on Reynolds’ side, which is minimal. But it’s a clever conceit, and much more subtle than the script’s approach to the matter of growing old, which is one area where it lets the side down. Rifkin is so keen to point out that growing old is a terrible thing that he hammers it home over and over, just in case we didn’t get it the first time. Along with an extraneous subplot involving Lil’s commitment-phobe boyfriend, and Edwards suffering the kinds of falls that would see most OAP’s end up in hospital, the movie rarely falters, and offers the kind of reflective musing on life that doesn’t have to be done in someone’s twilight years.

Rating: 7/10 – a moving performance from Reynolds anchors The Last Movie Star, and helps make it an enjoyable slice of life movie that is both bittersweet and poignant; with good support from Winter, and an apposite score by Austin Wintory, it’s the use of Reynolds’ screen history that has the most impact, and Rifkin is to be congratulated for not making it feel exploitative.

10 Reasons to Remember Burt Reynolds (1936-2018)

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Burt Reynolds (11 February 1936 – 6 September 2018)

If it hadn’t been for a series of injuries that ended his college football career, we might never have heard of Burt Reynolds. Faced with rethinking his future, Reynolds at first opted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer. But his father, with tremendous foresight, persuaded him to finish college (albeit with the intention of becoming a parole officer afterwards). There, Reynolds impressed his English teacher so much that he was given the lead role in a production of Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound (for which he won a state drama award). A career in the theatre followed on from this, and through the Fifties Reynolds honed his craft on the stage before transferring to television at the end of the decade.

Reynolds made his movie debut in Angel Baby (1961), but it would be a further decade  before he found his breakout role as Lewis Medlock in John Boorman’s survivalist thriller Deliverance (1972). Finally given a role that he could make something of, Reynolds impressed critics and audiences alike, and thanks to a number of canny career choices that saw him take the action comedy genre to new box office heights. Always perceived as an easy-going, likeable actor, Reynolds channelled this perception into an on-screen good ole boy character that saw him become a major star across a succession of movies such as White Lightning (1973) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). In the Eighties he segued from action comedies to action thrillers, but his star began to wane and his success at the box office was no longer guaranteed. Reynolds kept working steadily though, and returned to television at the start of the Nineties, particularly in the series, Evening Shade (1990-94).

Reynolds enjoyed something of a career resurgence with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), and his performance gained him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, which must have felt good after his previous two movies, Meet Wally Sparks and Bean (both 1997) (and even though he hated the movie itself). But though he continued to appear on both the big and the small screen, often it was in supporting or guest roles, with an occasional lead role thrown in. Health issues plagued him throughout his later years, and by the time he gave what might be called a valedictory performance, in Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star (2017), his obvious frailty made it seem unlikely he would appear in any more lead roles. That said, he was due to appear in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he passed away before he could begin shooting his scenes.

Reynolds was once asked to play James Bond but he wisely turned it down, saying an American couldn’t play Bond; it wouldn’t be right. You could argue that he was an actor of limited range, but a more apt description would be that he was a movie star for nearly two decades, and an actor on either side of that period. And with a movie career that spanned fifty-seven years, that makes him an actor first and foremost – and one who will be sorely missed.

1 – Sam Whiskey (1969)

2 – Deliverance (1972)

3 – The Longest Yard (1974)

4 – Nickelodeon (1976)

5 – Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

6 – Hooper (1978)

7 – Sharky’s Machine (1981)

8 – City Heat (1984)

9 – Breaking In (1989)

10 – Boogie Nights (1997)

American Animals (2018)

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D: Bart Layton / 117m

Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier, Gary Basaraba, Wayne Duvall, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, Chas Allen, Betty Jean Gooch

In 2003, in Lexington, Kentucky, an art student by the name of Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan), feeling that his life has no meaning, looks for something exciting to happen to him. A visit to the Transylvania University library’s rare book room gives Spencer the idea to steal several of those rare books, including Audubon’s The Birds of America. Enlisting the help of another student, Warren Lipka (Peters), the pair begin to plan how to steal the books. When they learn that the books they’re targeting could bring them as much as $12 million, they decide they must go ahead with their plan. However, they soon realise that carrying out the theft by themselves is impractical, and they enlist the help of fellow students Erik Borsuk (Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Jenner). Their first attempt, with all four disguised as elderly men, is abandoned when they realise there are too many other people in the rare books room. Warren quickly arranges a private visit for the next day, and despite the reservations of the others, the robbery goes ahead…

With a storyline that’s straight out of the “so crazy it must be true” box of cinematic adaptations, American Animals – a reference to animals inhabiting Kentucky caves from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, one of the targeted books – is a movie that throws a curveball at the audience almost from the beginning, when we meet the real Spencer Reinhard and the real Warren Lipka and they start to comment on the action as it unfolds. It’s a clever way of approaching the material, but what’s even more clever is the way in which their own memories of what happened don’t always tally. Whenever a movie is based on a true story, there’s always that doubt in the viewer’s mind: did it really happen like this? Here, we get as close as possible – probably – and the essential details are there, but it’s these sometimes hazy recollections that make everything seem more realistic, rather than just being Layton’s interpretation. If it all added up, it would be too neat. So, rather than being an odd framing device, or a matter of dramatic contrivance, the movie benefits greatly from being a mix of documentary and drama.

The actual story itself is played out with a great deal of verve, with first class performances from Peters and Keoghan, and solid support from Jenner and Abrahmson, and as the librarian in charge of the rare books, the ever-reliable Dowd. It’s a tale that beggars belief, as well, as woven within the fabric of the robbery’s planning, are subtle hints that none of it will work out as they hope. Also, there are fantasy elements embedded in the narrative, where Spencer and Warren quote lines from the movies to illustrate the ease or difficulty of what they’re doing, as well as assigning each other names from the characters in Reservoir Dogs (1992) (and look how well that heist turned out). There’s a disconnect from reality that makes you wonder just how they could have believed they could have not only stolen the books but fenced them as well (and to a buyer (Kier) in Amsterdam). Layton lays it all out in clinical yet thrilling fashion, stepping up the tempo during the robbery itself and then highlighting the inevitable ways in which it all falls apart. But it’s the way in which Spencer et al reflect on what happened – and how, or why – that makes the movie so impressive, and which elevates this from being just another movie based on a true story.

Rating: 9/10 – absorbing, intelligent, gripping, and refreshingly character-driven, American Animals is a cautionary reminder about getting what you wish for, something Reinhard should have done before deciding that robbing a rare books collection was a way of adding excitement to his life; with an impressive screenplay by Layton, first rate cinematography from Ole Bratt Birkeland, and an immersive production design from Scott Dougan, this is heady stuff indeed, and one of this year’s best.

Happy Hunting (2017)

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D: Joe Dietsch, Louie Gibson / 91m

Cast: Martin Dingle Wall, Ken Lally, Kenny Wormald, Connor Williams, Gary Sturm, C.J. Baker, Jeremy Lawson, Michael Tipps, Liesel Hanson, Kenneth Billings, Frederick Lawrence, Sherry Leigh

Warren Novack (Wall) receives news that an ex-girlfriend of his has died in Mexico, and that he has a daughter by her. Intending to travel to Mexico to do right by his daughter, Warren first has to negotiate a meth deal with a local drug dealer, Bo Dawg (Lawson). But the deal goes wrong, and Bo Dawg and his associate wind up dead. Warren heads for Mexico with two of Bo Dawg’s other associates (Williams, Lawrence) on his trail. On the way, Warren stops at the small town of Bedford Flats, close to the border. There are notices announcing an annual hunting event, but Warren has a more pressing concern: his chronic alcoholism and the need to go cold turkey before meeting his daughter. Help appears in the form of Steve (Lally), a local who runs a sobriety meeting. When Warren finds out Bo Dawg’s associates are in town, he accepts an offer of dinner with Steve and his wife (Leigh). But their hospitality has an ulterior motive, and after being drugged, Warren wakes to find himself, Bo Dawg’s associates and one of the townspeople, the objects of the annual hunt…

A tough, uncompromising reworking of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Happy Hunting is an unashamedly brutal tale that puts its central character through the wringer time and time again while celebrating his impressive knack for survival. Warren comes with a minimal back story, but he has been in the Army (even though it didn’t work out), and he has a quick, intuitive mind that helps him problem solve being chased by the gun-toting hunters of Bedford Flats. With any movie that pits one person against a gang of would-be killers, it’s the ingenuity on display that counts, and the script, by co-writers/directors Dietsch and Gibson, is full of ingenious moments that keep the savagery and violence from being just that. It helps that Warren is given more motivation than usual to stay alive, and this, added to the clever solutions he comes up with, gives the movie a greater depth than usual. For every bloody injury and unforeseen setback, Dietsch and Gibson ensure Warren stays one (mangled) step ahead of his pursuers, and is able to turn the tables on them each time – even if it’s at a physical cost to himself (which is often).

Though the movie isn’t averse to showing the effects and consequences of the violence meted out – some of it is admirably hardcore – it’s shot through with a sardonic sense of humour that makes much of it easier to accept. There’s irony too in places (Warren encounters a group of Mexicans crossing into the US), and there’s a willingness to make the escalating bloodshed a little too extreme for comfort, but it’s all done with a calculated energy that serves the material well and which doesn’t allow it to become too outrageous or over the top. Wall is a terrific choice for Warren, his weather-beaten features and gruff manner perfectly suited to the needs of the character, while the largely unknown supporting cast add verisimilitude to the people of Bedford Flats. It’s all shot by Dietsch with an eye on the natural grandeur of the Californian desert locations, while he and Gibson edit the movie with a keen sense of how to maintain or increase the tension as required. Fans of this sort of thing will find much to enjoy, but even casual viewers should find this a rewarding, if occasonally harrowing experience – though in a good way.

Rating: 8/10 – harsh, gritty, and single-minded in its approach, Happy Hunting is an action thriller that doesn’t pull any punches, and which is unapologetic about doing so; with a terrific performance from Wall, and an ending that acts as a gut punch, this is strong, mature stuff that is gripping and expertly assembled.

Out of Thin Air (2017)

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D: Dylan Howitt / 83m

Cast: Elín Sif Halldórsdóttir, Hinrik Kanneworff, Tómas Kolbeinn Georgs, Tumi Björnsson, Hjalti Steinar Guðmundsson, Arnar Hauksson, Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Ingi Hrafn Hilmarsson, Trausti Örn þóróarson

On 26 January 1974, while walking home that evening, Guðmundur Einarsson went missing, and was never seen again. On the evening of 19 November 1974, Geirfinnur Einarsson also went missing, and was never seen again. Despite their surnames, the two men weren’t related. Two such disappearances in such a short period of time prompted public concern in the lack of progress that the police had made in finding the two men, or discovering what had happened to them. In December 1975, the Icelandic police arrested a young couple, Erla Bolladóttir (Halldórsdóttir) and Sævar Ciesielski (Kanneworff), on a minor charge. Erla confessed immediately to the crime she was accused of, but just as she was leaving the interrogation room, the police showed her a photograph of Guðmundur Einarsson and asked her if she knew him. She admitted she did, and when pressed about the night he disappeared, she told them about a nightmare she’d had in which Sævar and his friends were whispering at her window. The police seized on this, and over the ensuing year, Erla and Sævar and four others confessed to their involvement in the murders of both men…

Reviewing the case forty years later, Dylan Howitt’s absorbing documentary is a sober, and sobering, account of a miscarriage of justice that is shocking not just for the deliberate handling of the case by the police, and the methods they used to extract the confessions – one of the suspects, Tryggvi Liefsson, spent 655 days in solitary confinement – but the suffering those suspects endured for years after they were found guilty. Slowly, and with great attention to detail, Howitt reveals the deliberate nature of a police investigation that encompassed physical and mental torture, and where basic human rights were ignored. Much is made early on about Iceland being a country of very little crime, and of how peaceful it is. As the movie unfolds, that assumption is shown to be just that – an assumption – and in a patient, methodical manner that suits the material, Howitt strips away the veneer of respectability that the Icelandic authorities presented publicly. What remains is disturbing for the ease with which it all happened, and the concurrent ease with which the six suspects cooperated with the police in admitting to two murders where there was no physical evidence to sustain the belief that murder had even been committed.

This extraordinary situation begs the question, how could this have happened? Enter Memory Distrust Syndrome, where a person can be led to believe that something happened and they were involved in it, even if they weren’t; it’s like the dark side of the power of suggestion. This is the tragedy that strikes at the heart of the movie, as even forty years on, the likes of Erla and co-suspect Guðjón Skarphéðinsson (who both appear as themselves) still have trouble believing what is true and what was instilled in their memories by the insistence of the police. Hearing Erla express her lingering confusion even now over what she remembers as being true is dispiriting and sad, while the fate of Sævar is far more tragic. Howitt does an excellent job of threading the procedural reportage with strands of the personal that are both affecting and distressing, and the movie takes an observational stance, content to let the material speak for itself. The result is powerful without being melodramatic, and appalling in what it reveals about a police force, and a complicit wider community, that resorts to torture in order to solve two murder cases that were never murder cases to begin with.

Rating: 8/10 – quietly and diligently going about its business, Out of Thin Air not only highlights a terrible miscarriage of justice, but it also paints an affecting portrait of the lives that were ruined in the process; sincere, and peppered with some very haunting imagery, it’s a documentary that isn’t so easy to shake off – and nor should it be.

A Hundred Streets (2016)

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aka 100 Streets; One Square Mile

D: Jim O’Hanlon / 93m

Cast: Idris Elba, Gemma Arterton, Charlie Creed-Miles, Franz Drameh, Kierston Wareing, Tom Cullen, Ken Stott, Ashley Thomas, Ryan Gage

Max Moore (Elba) is a retired rugby player whose fame on the field has translated into a media career where he promotes a favourite, sports-related charity. His public image – seen in clubs and bars and at functions, often surrounded by attractive women – is at odds with the fractured home life he’s trying to repair. He’s estranged from his wife, Emily (Arterton), and their two young children. While Max plays at being a responsible family man in an effort to win Emily back (after sleeping with the children’s nanny), she has embarked on an affair with an old friend, Jake (Cullen). Kingsley (Drameh) is a young man whose aptitude for street poetry, plus a chance meeting with well connected actor Terence (Stott), provides him with an opportunity to leave behind the gang he’s currently a part of. And George (Creed-Miles) is a cab driver who, along with his wife Kathy (Wareing), is looking to adopt their first child. Over the course of several weeks their lives will intersect in unexpected ways, but each will be irrevocably changed by their experiences…

A low budget British drama with a glossy sheen to it, A Hundred Streets looks like the kind of movie that will offer a pointed and affecting social commentary on modern life in the UK capital, and which will examine in detail the pressures that people endure in order to get by. Alas, a closer inspection reveals a movie that paints its characters against a far broader canvas than might be hoped for, and by using brush strokes better suited to a daytime soap opera. Writer/producer Leon Butler (who raised the entire budget single-handedly), immediately gives the viewer two problems to deal with. The first is Elba’s Max, a caricature of a faded sports star who behaves badly but underneath the promiscuity and self-loathing, has a good heart and loves his kids. Despite these good qualities, Max is unsympathetic from the start, and though Elba tries hard, remains so until the end, and a dramatically absurd sequence that sees him waving – and firing – a shotgun from a balcony window, while the police standby until Emily can get home and talk him down (and let’s not mention the police marksman who has Max in his sights the whole time – for tension purposes only).

Neither Max nor Emily are characters you can warm to, so self-absorbed are they in their individual needs. This leaves Drameh’s earnest Kingsley and Creed-Miles’s dopey George to pick up the slack, but therein lies the second problem: their storylines are just as routine as Max and Emily’s. Tragedy stalks them both, but in such a way that neither tragic incident comes as a surprise, or indeed the events and outcomes that follow. As the movie progresses, it becomes something of a tick-box exercise for the viewer, and for the movie makers, as the characters behave either recklessly for no reason, regressively for “dramatic” purposes, or reactively because the script demands it. Struggling to make more out of Butler’s script than he’s able to, director Jim O’Hanlon can only focus on the performances, and though Elba and Arterton are adequate, Creed-Miles, Drameh and Stott at least manage to make an impact in their roles, though this is very much against the odds. Stott in particular is good, but even he has trouble with some of the dialogue Terence is given, and hearing it makes you wish there had been more opportunities for improvisation.

Rating: 5/10 – formulaic and at times dramatically challenging – though not in a good way – A Hundred Streets aims for a modicum of prestige but misses by a square mile, and then some; adopting clichés as if they were the answer to every problem raised, the script undermines the movie from the word go, and as a result, leaves it in just as good a state as Max’s career as a rugby star.

Trailer – Ben Is Back (2018)

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At last we have a trailer that doesn’t tell us the whole story in two and a half minutes or less. With Ben Is Back, all we have is a two-part mystery: where has Ben (Lucas Hedges) been, and why is he back now, on Christmas Eve (okay, the trailer doesn’t tell you when he’s come back, but that’s when it is; is it relevant? Who knows). It may well be that this is a teaser trailer, and there may well be a further, longer trailer before the movie is released in December, but right now this is a nigh on perfect way to introduce a movie. There are so many questions prompted by this trailer that it’s actually refreshing not to be spoon-fed the answers in advance. Along with where has Ben been, and why is he back now, you could also be asking why he doesn’t have any belongings with him, or why is his sister (Kathryn Newton) so wary of his reappearance? And if she’s wary then why isn’t his mother (Julia Roberts)? Is she just relieved to have him home? And from that, why did he leave in the first place, and how long has he been gone? So many questions, and no answers – yet. Full marks then to the trailer’s creators, and the movie makers who signed off on it. Now let’s hope that further, longer trailer never appears, but if it does, here’s another question: with a teaser this good, would watching a longer trailer that reveals a whole lot more be a good thing? Would it? Would it really?

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. (2017)

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D: Macon Blair / 93m

Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Devon Graye, Jane Levy, Gary Anthony Williams, Myron Natwick, Christine Woods, Robert Longstreet

Ruth (Lynskey) is a nursing assistant who is continually annoyed by the thoughtlessness of others. When she comes home from work one day to find that she’s been burgled and the thief has stolen her laptop, grandmother’s silverware and some prescription medication, her day is made even worse when the investigating detective, Bendix (Williams), chides her for leaving her back door unlocked. Later, as she goes door to door to see if anyone saw anything, she meets Tony (Wood) who becomes violently outraged at what has happened. Ruth discovers evidence in her backyard – a conspicuous shoeprint in the mud – and when she uses a phone app to track her laptop, and discovers its location, Bendix is uninterested. Needing someone to go with her to retrieve her laptop, Ruth asks Tony, who’s only too keen to do so. When they get it back, they learn it was bought from a resale shop. There, Ruth discovers her grandmother’s silverware, and as she tries to sneak it out, she also discovers a young man (Graye) at the counter wearing a shoe that’s a match for the print in her garden…

The words ‘quirky’ and ‘unconventional’ seem tailor-made for I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore., Macon Blair’s feature debut as a writer/director. You could add ‘wacky’ and ‘peculiar’, and they wouldn’t be too far off the mark either. But while there are plenty of other low budget indie movies that fit those descriptions quite easily, what Blair has achieved here is something a little more rarefied. In Ruth, there’s a temptation to view this as a “worm has turned” story, but that would be to cast a superficial eye over both the material and Ruth herself. Ruth may be one of Life’s minor victims, and she may appear to be a bystander in her own life, but she has an innate strength of character that just needs the right stimulus to bring her into her own. Being robbed does just that, and by aligning herself with Tony – who has a number of his own issues – Ruth becomes empowered in a way she’s unfamiliar with. It’s a step in the right direction, but Blair is confident enough in his screenplay to ensure that Ruth’s journey doesn’t change her completely. By the end, she’s more positive, but she’s still finding herself.

By making Ruth’s journey one that is affectionately handled and which resonates far more than expected, Blair has gifted Lynskey with yet another terrific role for the actress to make her own. Whether she’s sipping beer from a bottle out of habit, or being instinctively happy when she finds others are reading the same book she is, Ruth is a wonderful creation. Blair is equally on form with the rest of the characters, with Wood’s NWBHM-loving Tony prone to inappropriate violent outbursts, and Graye’s troubled teen burglar, Christian, having a back story that takes the material into unforeseen territory. In amongst the millennial concerns and suburban drama there’s a great deal of comedy, from Ruth’s look when asked the last words of a deceased patient, to a lovely visual gag involving Tony’s dog, Kevin, and the reaction of Christian’s stepmother (Woods) when asked why she’s speaking to two fake cops (that she knows are fake cops). Blair’s ‘quirky’ sensibility ensures the movie is always interesting for what’s going to happen next, and there’s first-rate cinematography from Larkin Seiple that paints Ruth’s particular part of suburbia as a bright yet deceptively unstable place to live.

Rating: 8/10 – another wonderful performance from the always reliable Lynskey anchors I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore., and makes it one of the more enjoyable indie movies of recent years; with such a good meld of drama and comedy, and a cruel streak to keep things ‘unconventional’, Blair’s directorial debut is so good that his next movie can’t come quickly enough.

Monthly Roundup – August 2018

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Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016) / D: Mandie Fletcher / 91m

Cast: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks, June Whitfield, Kathy Burke, Celia Imrie, Robert Webb, Lulu, Emma Bunton, Rebel Wilson, Barry Humphries, Wanda Ventham, Kate Moss

Rating: 3/10 – fashionistas Edina (Saunders) and Patsy (Lumley) flee to the south of France after thinking they’ve killed supermodel Kate Moss; making this yet another British TV comedy success story that goes badly, horribly wrong when transferred to the big screen, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is another reminder that humour needs context in which to work, and rehashing the same old jokes over and over is less about giving fans what they want and more about lazy screenwriting.

Revenge (2017) / D: Coralie Fargeat / 108m

Cast: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchéde

Rating: 7/10 – a married CEO (Janssens) takes his mistress (Lutz) along with him on a hunting weekend with two friends (Colombe, Bouchéde), but things go badly wrong, and all three men find themselves being hunted instead; a visceral and very, very bloody thriller, Revenge is relentlessly nihilistic, and with characters so broadly drawn they might as well be archetypes, but Fargeat makes good use of the desert landscapes, and Lutz is a resourceful and unapologetically violent heroine.

Incredibles 2 (2018) / D: Brad Bird / 118m

Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Isabella Rossellini, Jonathan Banks, John Ratzenberger

Rating: 9/10 – when a successful businessman (Odenkirk) approaches the Parr family with a plan to have Supers allowed to use their super powers again, it proves to be good timing as a new super villain, the Screenslaver, makes himself known; following directly on from the original, Incredibles 2 retains the Sixties vibe, visual ingenuity, and genuine laughs from before, and continues to focus on the Parr family first and foremost, making this a hugely entertaining sequel – even if the villain (as in a lot of superhero movies) is the movie’s weakest link.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018) / D: Stefano Sollima / 122m

Original title: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Catherine Keener, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez

Rating: 7/10 – Federal agent Matt Graver (Brolin) is tasked with taking the fight to the Mexican drug cartels when evidence points to their helping terrorists get into the US; an odd sequel that goes off in an unexpected direction partway through (and which sets up what’s likely to be a banal third chapter), Sicario 2: Soldado is still head and shoulders above most action thrillers thanks to returning scribe Taylor Sheridan’s taut screenplay, Del Toro’s singular performance as the Sicario of the title, and a handful of well choreographed action scenes.

Terrifier (2017) / D: Damien Leone / 84m

Cast: Jenna Kanell, Samantha Scaffidi, David Howard Thornton, Catherine Corcoran, Pooya Mohseni, Matt McAllister, Katie Maguire

Rating: 4/10 – one night, two young women (Kanell, Scaffidi) find themselves being pursued by a killer clown (Thornton) intent on murdering them and anyone they come into contact with – and as gruesomely as possible; old school practical gore effects are the order of the day here, with Terrifier using every trick in the book to make viewers wince or look away, while building a fair amount of tension, but it’s let down by the usual non-investment in credible characters, lacklustre direction, and making its villain indestructible.

Tomb Raider (2018) / D: Roar Uthaug / 118m

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristen Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Hannah John-Kamen

Rating: 6/10 – Lara Croft (Vikander) sets off in search of her missing father (West) when she discovers a clue to where he went missing, while looking for an ancient artefact that could have devastating consequences for the modern world; another unnecessary reboot, Tomb Raider tries hard – sometimes too hard – to make its by-the-numbers storyline exciting, but too many perfunctory action sequences, allied to so-so performances and Uthaug’s corporate directing style makes this an unlikely contender as the opener for a whole new franchise.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) / D: Steven S. DeKnight / 111m

Cast: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Callee Spaeny, Burn Gorman, Charlie Day, Tian Jing, Jin Zhang, Adria Arjona, Rinko Kikuchi

Rating: 5/10 – a new threat to Earth’s defences brings the Jaeger force back into operation, but they soon find themselves fighting against a foe whose plans don’t just involve the Jaeger force’s destruction, but the return of the Kaiju as well; there’s an element of dumb fun about Pacific Rim: Uprising that keeps things ticking over, but though DeKnight is able to provide a decent amount of energy to proceedings, the looming threat to Earth lacks the first movie’s effectiveness, and the Kaiju arrive too late to improve things.

The Death Cure (2018) / D: Wes Ball / 141m

aka Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Walton Goggins

Rating: 8/10 – with their friends imprisoned in the Last City, a WCKD stronghold, Thomas (O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers must find a way of freeing them, and of finding a cure for the Flare, before it’s too late; the final part of the Maze Runner trilogy, The Death Cure ensures the series goes out with a bang, with high octane action sequences, a strong emotional undercurrent to proceedings, and though it’s a little bit too long, it does provide each of the main characters with a suitable and satisfactory conclusion to their story arcs, and doesn’t leave things hanging on the possibility of there being any further chapters.

The Angry Birds Movie (2016) / D: Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly / 97m

Original title: Angry Birds

Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Sean Penn, Keegan Michael-Key, Kate McKinnon, Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, Ike Barinholtz, Tituss Burgess

Rating: 6/10 – trouble comes to an island of (mostly) happy birds in the form of green pigs who aren’t quite as friendly as they seem, leaving the unlikely trio of Red (Sudeikis), Chuck (Gad), and Bomb (McBride) to save the day; a brightly animated game adaptation that will appeal to children far more than adults, The Angry Birds Movie is acceptable fun within the confines of its basic storyline, but the humour is inconsistent, the plot developments seem designed to pad things out instead of feeling organic, and the whole thing becomes less interesting as it goes on.

The Equalizer 2 (2018) / D: Antoine Fuqua / 121m

Cast: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Orson Bean, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo

Rating: 6/10 – ex-spy Robert McCall (Washington) goes after the people responsible for the murder of his ex-boss (Leo), and finds himself up against a cadre of mercenaries with a similar skill-set; Washington’s first sequel, The Equalizer 2 is unremarkable at best and unnecessary at worst, with a banal storyline and cookie cutter character motivations that are offset by Fuqua’s authoritative direction, Washington’s commanding performance, and several very effective fight sequences.

Selfie from Hell (2018) / D: Erdal Ceylan / 76m

Cast: Alyson Walker, Tony Giroux, Meelah Adams, Ian Butcher

Rating: 3/10 – strange paranormal events that have a connection to the Dark Web begin to affect a young woman (Walker) when her cousin (Adams) comes to visit; even for its modest running time, Selfie from Hell soon outwears its welcome, thanks to its confused plotting, wayward acting, leaden direction, and meaningless frights, all of which add up to yet another horror movie where things happen because they can instead of because they make sense within the terms of the story.

Scooby-Doo! and the Gourmet Ghost (2018) / D: Doug Murphy / 77m

Cast: Frank Welker, Grey Griffin, Matthew Lillard, Kate Micucci, Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, Marcus Samuelsson, David Kaye, Dana Snyder, Jason Spisak

Rating: 7/10 – the Mystery Gang travel to Bar Harbour to help Fred’s Uncle Bobby deal with a ghost that’s jeopardising the opening of a culinary resort; the format and the jokes are all present and correct, making Scooby-Doo! and the Gourmet Ghost another satisfying entry in the series, but it’s also one that highlights just how predictable these movies are becoming.

Gemini (2017)

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D: Aaron Katz / 93m

Cast: Lola Kirke, Zoë Kravitz, Greta Lee, John Cho, Michelle Forbes, Nelson Franklin, Reeve Carney, Jessica Parker Kennedy, James Ransone, Ricki Lake

Jill LeBeau (Kirke) is the personal assistant to famous actress Heather Anderson (Kravitz). Heather has been in talks to make a new movie but has decided to take a break for a while instead. She persuades Jill to tell one of the producers, Greg (Franklin), the news, and he’s predictably angry. Ensuing attention from a self-proclaimed superfan (Kennedy), as well as a paparazzi, Stan (Ransone), adds further stress to Heather’s decision. When Heather asks Jill to borrow her gun because she doesn’t feel “safe”, Jill reluctantly agrees. At Heather’s home one morning, Jill tries to take back the gun but it goes off accidentally. No one is hurt, but Heather keeps the weapon. However, when Jill comes back later, she finds Heather dead from multiple gun shot wounds. It isn’t long before the police, led by Detective Ahn (Cho), deduce that Jill was the last person to see Heather alive, and that only her fingerprints are on the gun. With the residue from the misfire on her hand as well, Jill quickly becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of the police, but she determines to find out for herself just who did kill Heather…

For much of the first twenty minutes of Gemini, the nature of the relationship between Jill and Heather is somewhat blurred, and perhaps deliberately so. There’s a hint that they might be lovers, something that’s given a degree of credence when one of Heather’s ex-boyfriends, Devin (Carney), calls to say that he knows “what’s going on” (and to make a convenient death threat). Later, when the superfan asks if they’re an item, Heather’s response is indignant, but she doesn’t deny it outright. Nor does she when Stan the paparazzi asks the same question. But on another night, they share a bed at Heather’s home, and Heather whispers “I love you” while Jill sleeps. With the possibility of a deeper emotional relationship existing between the pair, writer-director Katz establishes a more profound meaning for Jill’s solo investigation of Heather’s murder: she’s not just keeping herself out of jail, she wants to find the killer of someone she truly cared about. This informs much of Jill’s quest to keep one step ahead of the police, while also providing the narrative with a depth that is both unexpected and entirely welcome.

What also helps is the modern day film noir vibe that the movie gives off, with Jill in the role of erstwhile private investigator, and the list of suspects such that any one of them could have done it. Katz manipulates the various clues and potential culprits with a great deal of skill, even including a scene where Jill speaks to Greg and he tells her who he thinks is the killer – if he were writing the whole thing as a script. Clever touches such as this, along with a number of visual flourishes, keep the movie from feeling stale or inevitable, and it’s further embellished by a terrific performance from Kirke, giving Jill a resourcefulness that keeps her focused and willing to take calculated risks, whether it’s sneaking into Devin’s hotel room or evading the police on a motorcycle. It’s a confident portrayal of a confident woman, and Kirke proves throughout that Katz was right to choose her for the role. In support, Kravitz is sweet natured yet nervy as Heather, while Cho is charmingly off kilter as the detective who would usually believe in the heroine’s innocence but instead is convinced she’s guilty. It’s another quirky, atypical choice from Katz, and like much else, makes Gemini more than just a pleasant diversion.

Rating: 8/10 – an conventional murder mystery given an unconventional spin, Gemini is an unexpected delight, thanks to Kirke’s self-assured performance, Katz’s witty screenplay, and a tremendously atmospheric mise en scene; only occasionally betraying its modest budget, it’s a movie that provides far more than meets the eye for the viewer willing to delve deeper into its seemingly straightforward plotting.

Chappaquiddick (2017)

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aka The Senator

D: John Curran / 107m

Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Bruce Dern, Olivia Thirlby, Lexie Roth, John Fiore

It’s July 18 1969, and while Apollo 11 speeds its way to the Moon, Massachusetts’ senator Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy (Clarke) has travelled to Chappaquiddick Island to take part in a sail race with his cousin, Joe Gargan (Helms), and US Attorney for Massachusetts, Paul Markham (Gaffigan). That evening, Kennedy, Gargan, and Markham attend a party at a beach house for the Boiler Room Girls, women who were campaign workers for his brother Robert. One of them is Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara). Late on, she and Kennedy go for a drive. Kennedy loses control of the car, and it crashes off a bridge and into a pond. With the car upside down in the water, Kennedy manages to get clear but Mary Jo isn’t so lucky; she drowns. Kennedy returns to the beach house where he tells Joe and Paul what’s happened, but even though they return to the pond, they’re unable to do anything. One thing that both Joe and Paul are certain of is that Kennedy should report the accident as soon as possible. He agrees with them, but his subsequent actions show that doing the right thing is at odds with political expediency…

If you take anything away from Chappaquiddick, it’s that Ted Kennedy was very much in thrall to his family’s political ambitions, and this caused him to behave very erratically in the days following the accident that derailed his chances of ever becoming president. Somewhere behind the experienced political manipulator was a man with a conscience who knew what he had to do – the right thing – but who also didn’t want his political life to be ruined in the process. The tug-of-war between these two ideas is the focus of a movie that tries to be fair to Kennedy and the situation he found himself in, but when you have a character (from real life or not) who tries to manipulate the details of someone’s death for their own personal advantage, and who does so almost as soon as possible, then it’s hard to look at them so objectively. Two moments stand out: Kennedy deciding to say Mary Jo was driving, and later, at her funeral, deciding to wear a neck brace to back up the fabrication that he was suffering from concussion. The movie tries, but it’s hard to sympathise with someone who defaults to manipulation so easily.

As Kennedy, Clarke gives a terrific performance, presenting Kennedy as a weak man clutching at any and all options to keep his political career alive, but with little understanding of how this makes him seem, both to his advisors and the public – and ultimately, without the necessary self-respect that would allow him to see the difference. Mara has what amounts to a supporting role as Mary Jo, while Helms has a rare dramatic role as the increasingly disillusioned Gargan, a man adopted into the Kennedy family but having to come to terms with the fact that Ted isn’t in the same league as his older brothers. The movie keeps an even, methodical pace, but given the subject matter, lacks the energy and passion needed to reinforce just how much of an impact these events had on Kennedy and his future career. Curran directs with a firm eye on the performances, while visually the movie has a dour, melancholy feel to it that matches the subject matter. As an exercise in shining a light on a story that hasn’t been dramatised before, it’s a welcome look at a turbulent moment in late Sixties US history, and as a cautionary tale it’s more than effective.

Rating: 7/10 – with a potent central performance from Clarke, Chappaquiddick is a tale of political hubris that doesn’t pull its punches when exposing just how far someone will go to protect their public position; with a matter-of-fact approach to the material, and a straightforward narrative, it’s certainly a no frills movie, but in many ways it’s all the better for being so.