Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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D: James Gunn / 136m

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Laura Haddock

At the end of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), there was a reference to the identity of Peter Quill/Star Lord’s father. It wasn’t particularly complimentary, but it did give some idea of where a sequel might be headed if the movie was successful (which it ever so slightly was). Three months on from the events of the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with our heroes working for the Sovereign, a race led by Ayesha (Debicki). Charged with protecting some valuable batteries, the Guardians complete their mission but manage to earn the Sovereign’s enmity when it’s discovered that Rocket (Cooper) has stolen some of the batteries himself. Attacked by hundreds of Sovereign drone ships, the Guardians’ spaceship suffers a lot of damage before it can make a light speed jump to safety – and before the drone ships are all destroyed by another mysterious craft.

The Guardians crash land on a nearby planet and the mysterious craft lands also. The owner of the craft reveals himself as Peter’s father, called Ego (Russell), and that he’s been searching for Peter (Pratt) for years. It also transpires that Peter was abducted from Earth by Ravager Yondu Udonta (Rooker) at Ego’s request (though why Yondu kept charge of Peter goes unexplained). Now reunited, Ego suggests they travel to his home planet so that he can be “the father he should have been”. While Peter, Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Bautista) agree to journey with him, Rocket and Baby Groot (Diesel) stay behind to repair their ship and look after Nebula (Gillan), Gamora’s sister and the payment they received from the Sovereign for their work. However, Ayesha has hired Yondu with the mission of retrieving the stolen batteries and capturing the Guardians.

On Ego’s home planet, Peter and his father begin to bond, but Gamora senses that something isn’t right. Ego’s attendant, an empath called Mantis (Klementieff), appears anxious over Peter’s being there but remains silent. Meanwhile, Yondu has been the victim of a mutiny, and some of his crew, led by self-proclaimed Taserface (Sullivan) and aided by Nebula, have taken over the ship. Nebula takes a ship and heads for Ego’s planet intent on killing Gamora, while Rocket, Baby Groot and Yondu find they need to work together to avoid being killed. Soon, everyone, including another drone armada sent by Ayesha, is heading for Ego’s planet, and the fate of the Guardians and hundreds of other far-flung planets hangs in the balance…

The surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy three years ago was a shot in the arm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, proving to audiences becoming accustomed to a regular diet of superhero theatrics, that there was more to said Universe than egotists in tin suits, enhanced super soldiers, and feuding demi-gods. By making a movie that had nothing to do with anyone else in the MCU, Marvel showed a confidence in their original material, and in the movie’s writer/director, that could so easily have backfired on them. That it didn’t must lie squarely on the creative shoulders of James Gunn, the man who took a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells and made them loved the world over. It wasn’t long before there was talk of the Guardians appearing in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but a sequel was already in place. So – what to do with them in the meantime?

The answer is…not very much at all. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 falls into the category of uninspired Marvel sequel, a placement it shares with Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (only the Captain America sequels have avoided falling into this category). While it’s true that there’s much to enjoy this time around, and the first movie’s freewheeling sense of fun and adventure is firmly in place, the fact is that this is a two and a quarter hour movie that runs out of steam – dramatically at least – at around the hour and a quarter mark. By that time, the three main storylines – Peter finds his father, Yondu makes amends for breaking the Ravager code, Gamora and Nebula come to terms with their hatred of each other – have all reached a point where there’s nowhere further for them to go, and James Gunn’s script lurches into an extended series of showdowns and signposted revelations that offer little in the way of character or plot development.

On this occasion, and with only one post-credits scene designed to set up the already announced Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it’s clear that this is Marvel’s first true filler movie, designed and made to capitalise on the success of the original, and to fill a gap in the release schedule. Fortunately though, and again thanks to the involvement of Gunn and his returning cast, this is a filler movie that replicates much of the first movie’s highly enjoyable charm and visual quirkiness. From the opening credits sequence that sees Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky while his fellow Guardians take on a multi-tentacled inter-dimensional monster in the background, Gunn’s novel approach to the material proves (again) to be one of the movie’s MVP’s, and is only bested by the sequence later in the movie when Yondu and Rocket take back control of Yondu’s ship. (However, Ego’s home planet looks like it was designed by My Little Pony on an acid trip.)

But while there’s a heck of a lot going on visually, it’s down in the story department that the movie shows signs of wear and tear. The emphasis on family ties is made over and over again as old enemies become bosom buddies in order to give the movie a happy, feelgood vibe, and the ranks of the Guardians are swelled temporarily (this is personal redemption achieved easily and without the slightest challenge). The characters remain much the same too, with Peter and Gamora still at odds over their attraction for each other, and Rocket retaining his knack for deliberately saying things that will antagonise others. Drax is even more insensitive than before, Nebula is still consumed with rage against her father, Thanos, and Baby Groot – well, he’s still just as cute (if not more so). Of the newcomers, Gunn doesn’t seem entirely sure of how to use Mantis, Ayesha is akin to a spoilt little princess, while Ego’s “purpose” isn’t fully explored, and makes Russell work extra hard in getting the idea across to audiences.

With much of the movie underperforming in this way, it’s fortunate that Gunn has retained the irreverent sense of humour present in the first movie, and there are some very funny moments indeed, from Rocket being described as a “trash panda”, to an out of leftfield reference to Mary Poppins, and the pay-off to the first post-credits scene. Elsewhere, Sylvester Stallone pops up in a role that’s intended to be expanded on in future outings, Russell is given the same younger version treatment Michael Douglas received in Ant-Man (2015), the Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 2 is exactly that, and the space battles are bewildering in terms of what’s happening and to whom. But with all that, this is still hugely enjoyable stuff, lavishly produced and glossy from start to finish, and designed to please the fans first and foremost. On that level it will probably succeed, but it won’t change the fact that this is not quite the triumphant sequel that many will be expecting – or hearing about.

Rating: 6/10 – with much of the movie feeling flat and ponderous in terms of the drama, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets by on its often inspired humour, and the chemistry that unites its cast; a safe bet for the most part, with enough inventiveness and charm to make it look and sound better than it is, it’s a solid enough movie, but in automobile terms, it doesn’t have too much going on under the hood.

Mini-Review: Gold (2016)

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D: Stephen Gaghan / 121m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Macon Blair, Adam LeFevre, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Rachael Taylor, Stacy Keach, Bruce Greenwood

Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is a struggling businessman trying to keep his father’s company, Washoe Mining, afloat. Working out of the bar where his girlfriend, Kay (Howard) works, Kenny’s efforts are proving fruitless. One night he has a dream of finding gold in the jungles of Indonesia. Inspired by this, and the recollection of having met a geologist, Michael Acosta (Ramírez), who works in the region, Kenny reaches out to Acosta and convinces him to go into partnership with him. Michael will find a drilling site, and Kenny will put up the funding (using every last penny he can muster). The gamble pays off handsomely: gold is discovered, and when the news reaches the outside world, there’s no shortage of people and companies willing to invest in the newly revitalised Washoe Mining.

The company makes billions overnight, trading high on the Stock Exchange. But soon, word reaches Kenny and his team that the gold find in Indonesia is a fraud. The gold hasn’t been mined, but is river gold, not of the same calibre and nowhere near as valuable. Also, Michael has disappeared, along with $164 million that he’s accrued by dumping stock over the past few months. The FBI become involved, and their investigation, led by Agent Jennings (Kebbell), has one all-important question to ask: was Kenny a part of the fraud or not?

Using the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal as the basis for its story, Gold is a cautionary tale of desperation leading to blind greed as everyone buys into the gold find and sees multiple dollar signs everywhere – and without looking too closely to see if it was all above aboard. In this version, the movie makes it clear: the signs were there but no one wanted to look at them. The message then is “be careful what you wish for”, or more appropriately perhaps, “all that glitters is not gold”. However, this message is all but buried by the movie’s focus on Kenny and his struggle to avoid failure. Kenny is not one of Life’s winners, and even when he does achieve success it’s short-lived. He’s a loser, grabbing at a last chance to honour his father’s legacy. This is all well and good, but in terms of the movie and the story it’s trying to tell, it’s not that compelling. Thanks to the combination of Patrick Massett and John Zinman’s drawn-out screenplay and Stephen Gaghan’s static direction, Gold doesn’t trade in any expected highs and lows, but instead, maintains an even keel throughout its two hour running time.

This leaves the cast, and the audience, with little to connect with. McConaughey gives a committed performance, putting on weight, shaving back his hairline, and adopting crooked teeth, but does his appearance add depth or nuance to the character? Sadly, the answer is no. The rest of the cast, even Ramirez, are left stranded by the script’s focus on Kenny, and they operate as satellites around his ever decreasing orbit. And no one is memorable enough to stand out. The bulk of the movie is set in 1988, but this doesn’t add anything either, and Gaghan’s efforts to add tension to the movie’s latter half also fall short of succeeding. Gold could have been about a combination of avarice and hubris bringing about one man’s particular downfall. Instead it comes across as a weak-minded morality tale where no one and everyone is to blame, and the only consequence to it all is a last-minute “twist” that undermines everything that’s gone before.

Rating: 5/10 – lacklustre in both design and execution, Gold benefits from some stunning location photography (with Thailand standing in for Indonesia), and a well chosen soundtrack, but otherwise fails to impress; a missed opportunity then, and a movie that doesn’t make much of an impact thanks to its undeveloped potential.

10 Reasons to Remember Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

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Jonathan Demme (22 February 1944 – 26 April 2017)

Like many of his contemporaries, Jonathan Demme started his movie career working for Roger Corman. He wrote several screenplays, including The Hot Box (1972) and Caged Heat (1974 – which he also directed), and had several modest successes as a director in the mid-Seventies. He learned his craft well, and over the next decade Demme made a succession of well received movies as well as a string of music videos for bands such as Talking Heads and New Order (a group whose songs featured in pretty much all his movies from the Eighties onwards). Demme chose his projects carefully and as a result he wasn’t the most prolific of directors when it came to features, but he was a committed documentarian, making over a dozen during his career.

It was a certain Oscar-winning movie in 1991 that gave Demme his biggest exposure as a director, but though he could have used that success to helm any movie he wanted to, he continued to choose projects that most other directors would have passed on, from intimate documentary portrait Cousin Bobby (1992), to literary adaptation Beloved (1998), to the well intentioned but unsuccessful remake of Charade (1964), The Truth About Charlie (2002) (on the subject of remakes he never thought it was “sacrilegious to remake any movie”; for Demme it was “sacrilegious to make a bad movie”). He kept returning to music documentaries, and ventured into television, ensuring that he continued to have a varied, and sometimes eclectic career.

He was known primarily for his use of close-ups, for finding roles for his “stock company” (actors such as Charles Napier and Dean Stockwell), and for his work having had a profound influence on the writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. If anything, Demme was a mercurial director who never quite received the acclaim that his body of work deserved, but for anyone who has followed his career since those heady days working for Roger Corman, he was an intelligent, perceptive director whose talent and skill behind the camera meant that whatever project he was working on, it would always be worth watching.

1 – Caged Heat (1974)

2 – Melvin and Howard (1980)

3 – Stop Making Sense (1984)

4 – Something Wild (1986)

5 – Swimming to Cambodia (1987)

6 – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

7 – Philadelphia (1993)

8 – Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)

9 – Rachel Getting Married (2008)

10 – I’m Carolyn Parker (2011)

The Belko Experiment (2016)

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D: Greg McLean / 89m

Cast: John Gallagher Jr, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeaman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker

On the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia, Belko Industries has an office building where its mostly American, relocated staff, help other American companies set up in South America. The office building has been open for a year, and the eighty American staff that work there have what are called “trackers” implanted in the back of their heads in case of kidnappings. If any member of staff is kidnapped, these “trackers” will make them easy to find and rescue. One day, Mike Milch (Gallagher Jr), a Belko employee, arrives to find the local Colombians who work there are being sent home, and this is being overseen by a group of security guards Milch has never seen before. Inside the building, Evan (Earl), the building security guard, admits he doesn’t know what’s going on, and neither does anyone else, not even the COO, Barry Norris (Goldwyn).

While the staff talk over this strange development, new starter Dany Wilkins (Diaz) begins her first day, while Norris’s assistant, Leandra Jerez (Arjona), bemoans the unwanted attention of colleague Wendell Dukes (McGinley). Unwanted because he won’t take no for an answer, and also because she’s in a relationship with Milch. As the rest of the morning gets under way, a tannoy announcement heard throughout the building informs everyone that unless two people are killed in the next thirty minutes then more people will die as a consequence. No one takes the announcement too seriously, even when shutters come down that seal everyone inside the building (though the roof remains accessible). When no one is killed, four people die when the “trackers” in their heads explode.

Realising the danger from the “trackers”, Milch tries to remove his but the voice from the tannoy announcement starts a countdown to its being detonated. Milch stops, and the next time the voice gives instructions they’re even more chilling than the last: unless thirty people are killed in the next two hours, sixty people will be killed just as randomly as the previous four. From this, two distinct factions form amongst the employees: those who, like Milch, think no one should be killed (and an alternative solution found to their predicament), and those who, like Norris, think that thirty deaths is better than sixty. What follows pits employee against employee, and engenders a complete breakdown of morality and compassion.

Working from an old script by James Gunn, The Belko Experiment – to paraphrase the title of a Werner Herzog movie – could almost be called James Gunn, James Gunn, What Have Ye Done. While the basic premise is sound, here the “execution” is less than satisfactory, as the finished product lacks clarity, subtlety, and is only consistent in its lack of clarity and subtlety. If Gunn was attempting to write a straightforward schlock horror movie combining equally straightforward ideas regarding the erosion of social and moral restraints in a highly charged atmosphere, then in one sense that’s what he’s done. But if that is the case, and though much of that approach to the material is still in place, director Greg McLean’s interpretation still leaves a lot to be desired.

Following on from the dreadful outing that was The Darkness (2016), McLean makes only partial amends with this, focusing his efforts too quickly on getting to the kind of indiscriminate carnage that is the movie’s raison d’etre. Forget social commentary, forget a knowing critique of office politics, this is all about seeing how fast a group of (apparently) average people can descend into homicidal rage and leave rational thinking behind. On that basis alone the movie is more successful (the answer is quicker than you can say “exploding head”). But once all the niceties are done and dusted, and we get to know who’s going to be a hawk and who’s going to be a dove, then it’s on with the murky motivations and desperate attempts at credibility.

It’s always problematical when you have characters such as Milch proclaiming that no one should be killed, and then, by the movie’s end he’s on a par with psycho colleagues Norris and Dukes in terms of how many people he’s despatched. It’s not addressed because it doesn’t suit the needs of the movie, and yet if it had, it would have gone some way towards giving the movie some much needed depth. As it is, Milch takes to murdering his colleagues with as much gusto as he can manage, and any blurring of the lines that was intended on the part of the script is forsaken in favour of more killing. But with the body count rising, the movie feels rushed and even more implausible, and the problem of killing off the remaining seventy-six employees becomes more important than any moral considerations.

It could be argued that to expect any depth in a movie that’s only concerned with coming up with as many inventive deaths as it can in ninety minutes (death by tape dispenser anyone?), is something of a fool’s errand, but The Belko Experiment also lacks style and wastes its talented cast. Saddled with woefully underwritten characters who practically scream “stock!” every time they speak, the likes of Gallagher Jr, Goldwyn and Arjona get to mouth platitudes and banalities at every turn. Spare a thought for McGinley though; his character is so relentlessly one dimensional it’s amazing he doesn’t disappear when he turns to the side. There’s no one to care about – surprise, surprise – and as the movie progresses, the average viewer might feel justified in wanting to get inside the building and culling the employees themselves.

With its stock characters, muddled narrative, and laboured editing courtesy of Julia Wong, The Belko Experiment is unlikely to impress anyone but the most ardent gore fan. They’ll enjoy the numerous exploding heads, and one particularly impressive skull injury, but there’s really little else to recommend a movie that poses lots of questions at the beginning of the experiment, and then forgoes providing any answers. With a coda that attempts an explanation for what’s happened that’s as baffling as it is shallow, as well as shamelessly trying to set up a further movie, the movie should best be viewed as an old-style exploitation flick given a modern polish. However, that would be doing a disservice to old-style exploitation flicks.

Rating: 4/10 – insipid and unconvincing, The Belko Experiment is yet another nail in the coffin of Greg McLean’s directing career; it also acts as further proof that when successful writer/directors have old scripts to hand, they shouldn’t always be made into movies.

A Brief Word About Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

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They couldn’t help themselves, could they? They just couldn’t help themselves.

If by now you’ve seen the first trailer for Kingsman: The Golden Circle you’ll know that Colin Firth’s character, Harry Hart, believed to have been killed in the first movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), is very much alive, and eyepatch notwithstanding, looking pretty good. Now, it was a fairly safe assumption that this character would be back, and it was an equally safe assumption that they wouldn’t appear in the movie until some way in, making it a surprise for the audience – and a welcome one at that. But thanks to the trailer, that surprise won’t be happening at all now. Instead we’ll all be waiting for that moment some way in when the character reappears for the first time (and which we’ll already have seen). Now it’s true that his resurrection will make fans of the original very happy indeed (who still remembers the shock of it when he was killed off – apparently – with a third of the movie still to go?), but as returns go it’s not exactly earth-shattering.

But it seems that the makers of Kingsman: The Golden Circle have missed out on a golden opportunity. How much better would it have been if the character’s return had been kept quiet? This would have allowed doubt to take root in the audience’s collective mind, and provided a real surprise when he did appear. Instead the trailer gives the game away, and now we’ll no doubt be bombarded with a million and one online theories as to how he survived, and what his role in the movie will be.

And to make matters worse, the makers have gone even further in ruining the surprise. Take a look at the poster, and see who’s name is first in the list of cast members. Maybe they don’t feel it matters, maybe they don’t feel it’s important, but in this day and age when movies are hyped and promoted and positioned as important cultural events (and mostly they’re not), is it too much to ask for a little less transparency when it comes to the movies? Is it too much to ask to be kept in the dark? And is it really too much for moviemakers to do this? On this occasion, apparently so. But is it really necessary? Well, that’s an easy one: no, it’s not.

What do you think? Yes, you, reading this now. Leave a comment below – it’ll only cost you the price of a few neurons.

Unforgettable (2017)

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D: Denise Di Novi / 100m

Cast: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults, Isabella Kai Rice, Cheryl Ladd, Whitney Cummings, Simon Kassianides, Robert Wisdom

Thankfully, it isn’t.

Rating: 4/10 – rescued from a lower rating thanks to Rosario Dawson’s committed performance, Unforgettable is an unfortunate choice of title for a movie that offers nothing new, or compelling, in its tale of a bonkers ex-wife (Heigl) who tries to frame her ex-husband’s new girlfriend (Dawson) for murder; with a script best described as dramatically inert, characters who might as well be cardboard cutouts for all the depth they have, and stolid, workmanlike direction from first-timer Di Novi (better known as a producer), this is a tepid thriller that telegraphs every single plot development from a mile away, and abandons any notion of credibility right from the very start.

Adult Life Skills (2016)

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D: Rachel Tunnard / 96m

Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashbourne, Brett Goldstein, Rachael Deering, Eileen Davies, Ozzy Myers, Alice Lowe, Edward Hogg

Following the death of her twin brother, twenty-nine year old Anna (Whittaker) has moved into the shed at the bottom of her mother’s garden. It’s been eighteen months since he died, but although Anna works at a local outdoor pursuits centre, she doesn’t socialise or spend any of her free time away from the shed. Instead she stays inside it making videos that depict her two thumbs as astronauts in a space capsule. She uses this as a way of maintaining a connection with her brother, as they both made similar videos when they were younger. A lot of the stuff that’s in the shed is items and objects that she and her brother either played with or created. But while Anna is apparently content to remain living there, her mother, Marion (Ashbourne), isn’t as keen. She wants Anna to move out of the shed and start to rebuild her life. With Anna’s thirtieth birthday fast approaching, Marion gives her daughter an ultimatum: Anna has to be out of there before her birthday.

Anna has no intention of agreeing to this, and avoids or ignores all her mother’s attempts to get her to change. At the outdoor pursuits centre, Anna is given the task of monitoring the number of molehills that pop up each night, as well as ridding the site of any graffiti. It’s boring, mundane work, but she doesn’t mind, as it at least takes her mind off her brother. The reappearance of an old friend, Fiona (Deering), after she’s been away for some time, sees Anna begin to get out more (much to her mother’s delight), but she’s still adamant about remaining in the shed. Even the clumsy attentions of Brendan (Goldstein), a local estate agent who’s known Anna since childhood, aren’t enough to get her to rethink her future.

But when an eight year old boy, Clint (Myers), ends up in her family’s care temporarily following the death of his mother, his presence in Anna’s life begins to chip away at the carefully built-up walls she’s erected since her brother’s death. A night out with Fiona doesn’t go as planned, and puts a strain on their friendship, and when Clint goes missing overnight, Anna realises that she can care about someone else. But there’s still the issue of the shed, and the deadline of Anna’s birthday. Will Anna hold on to her need to be there, or will recent events show her a different way forward?

Expanded from the short, Emotional Fusebox (2014) (a lot of which is included or recycled here), Adult Life Skills is writer/director Rachel Tunnard’s feature debut. It’s a terrific little movie that’s emotionally astute and, in places, effortlessly poignant. The central conceit, that Anna feels bereft from everything following her brother’s death, is handled with sympathy and compassion for the character’s feelings, and the sadness that overwhelms her so much is often expressed in beautifully understated fashion by Whittaker. Even after eighteen months (or maybe because of that amount of time), Anna’s retreat from the world can still be regarded as understandable, but there’s still the sense that she’s using her grief as a way of avoiding any potential further heartbreak in her life.

But while Anna’s self-imposed predicament is viewed sympathetically, and the toll of her bereavement is presented with a great deal of care and sincerity, Tunnard is wise enough to know that the travails of a near-thirty something living in a shed isn’t going to be enough for a full-length movie. And so we’re introduced to the people around Anna, the people who care about her. Her mother – played with unrepressed yet entirely credible frustration by Ashbourne – is trying her best to get Anna to move on with her life, and it’s a tribute to the quality of Tunnard’s writing that Marion isn’t just the movie’s token “bad guy” but a parent trying to avoid losing both her children. No matter how acerbic or demanding she may be, she still cares. The same goes for Jean (Davies), Anna’s grandmother. Jean is supportive of Anna’s “lifestye choice”, and recognises that it’s a way for Anna to deal with her grief, that in time she’ll find her way back to everyone and everything. And though she too behaves in an acerbic manner towards Marion, there’s still the same love there as Marion feels for Anna.

The introduction of Clint, a small boy with a big attitude, acts as a catalyst for Anna’s eventual coming to terms with her pain and sadness at no longer officially being a twin. He’s challenging, acts like he doesn’t care, and sports a cowboy hat, gun and holster. He gets Anna to talk about her brother, something it’s clear she hasn’t done since his death, and as she trusts him more and more, you can see the weight lift from her shoulders. Unsurprisingly it’s Myers’ first movie, and though some of his lines don’t have the clarity needed for the viewer to understand them fully, he’s a child with wonderfully expressive features, and for his age, an equally wonderful insouciance about him.

As the emotionally tongue-tied Brendan, Goldstein provides much of the movie’s good-natured comedy (“How… is your… period?”), and Deering offers solid support as Anna’s best friend. Hogg pops up as a snorkeler Anna encounters at odd moments, while Lowe is her no-nonsense, lower-case angry work colleague, Alice. All the cast give good performances, but it’s Whittaker who holds the attention throughout, channelling Anna’s grief, confusion, and anger with an honesty and a warmth that can’t help but make the character likeable and someone to root for.

Aside from the performances, there’s much else to enjoy in Adult Life Skills, from the absurdist conversations Anna comes up with for her thumb videos (and those are Tunnard’s thumbs, not Whittaker’s), to the mangled version of Morning Has Broken courtesy of a recorder-playing barman, and its affecting sense of childhood nostalgia. Tunnard, who originally tried to pass on directing this, proves an adept, instinctive director, and her script isn’t too shoddy either. Unlike a lot of first-time moviemakers, Tunnard gets the pace just right (she is first and foremost an editor), and though she does overdo it on the quirky, shed-based activity that Anna involves herself in, she makes up for it by making Anna’s re-emergence into the outside world truthful and in keeping with the emotional journey the character is embarked upon. There’s fine cinematography courtesy of Bet Rourich, and the West Yorkshire locations provide an attractive backdrop to the action, all of which adds up to a hugely enjoyable movie about grief and loss – no, honestly.

Rating: 8/10 – sweet and sincere, and with the ability to pack an emotional wallop from time to time, Adult Life Skills is a blend of quirky characterisations, even quirkier confrontations and encounters, and sometimes, a potent examination of how grief can paralyse a person beyond their ability to deal with it; with a generosity of heart and spirit that adds further resonance to a movie with bags of sincerity already, this is a movie that doesn’t short change its characters or its cast or its viewers, and is also one of the funniest and most enjoyable British movies of the last five years.

The Transfiguration (2016)

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D: Michael O’Shea / 97m

Cast: Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine, Aaron Moten, Carter Redwood

Milo (Ruffin) is a fourteen year old who lives with his older brother, Lewis (Moten), in the apartment they shared with their mother before she died. Milo is a loner, with no friends, no other family, and he’s regularly bullied by some of the children at his school. He is fascinated by vampires, and spends a lot of his spare time watching vampire movies. When we first meet him, Milo is in a bathroom stall drinking the blood of a man he’s just killed.

Milo’s vampiric behaviour is dictated by a monthly schedule that he’s worked out, and he chooses his victims at random. He uses a blade disguised as a pen to stab them in the neck, and it’s from the wound that he drinks their blood. But he’s not always able to keep the blood down, and he has none of the traditional signs that identify a vampire: he can go out during daylight, he doesn’t have fangs, and he still casts a reflection. But in the past he has mistreated and killed small animals, something his school counsellor is aware of. However, Milo reassures her that he doesn’t do that anymore, though unsurprisingly, he stops short at telling her why.

When a girl around his age, Sophie (Levine), moves into Milo’s building, they begin a tentative friendship. In her own way, Sophie is as much a loner as Milo. She has self-esteem issues, is bullied by her grandfather, and like Milo, both her parents are dead (she lives with her grandfather). They watch Milo’s collection of vampire movies together, and spend time getting to know each other. Meanwhile, Milo continues his killing pattern. Away from the apartment and school, Milo falls foul of a local gang led by Andre (Redwood). When he’s stopped in the street by a couple out to score some cocaine, he lures the man into a basement. The man ends up being killed by one of Andre’s gang, and Milo is taken in for questioning by police as a potential witness. He says nothing though, and is released, but in such a way that it makes it look as if he has snitched. Andre promises him that “it’s not over” between them, but Milo’s carefully constructed world is shaken properly when Sophie discovers notebooks Milo has written, notebooks that set out how to hunt people, and the best ways of killing them for their blood…

There’s much to admire in writer/director Michael O’Shea’s debut feature (expanded from his 2014 short, Milo). It’s a strong amalgamation of an indie teen drama and a low-key horror movie, and the melding of those two genres has created a deceptively powerful feature that moves slowly (and yet deliberately), and which brings an uneasy tone to the material. You could argue that the narrative concerns a teenage boy who wants to be a vampire, or conversely, that it concerns a teenage boy who wants to be normal. That’s what makes the movie tick: Milo wants to be a vampire, but once he meets Sophie, he wants to be a normal teenage boy as well. It’s this duality that drives the character of Milo and makes his situation so desperately sad. He has persuaded himself that he is a vampire – of sorts – but equally, he wants to have friends and be a normal child as well. But can he? Is it too late?

In keeping with its downbeat tone, The Transfiguration offers no easy answers, keeping the audience guessing if Milo is a real vampire or not right until the end (though for some viewers the answer will be a little more cut and dried). When it moves and sounds like a horror movie, O’Shea shows great promise, and there are moments where Milo’s behaviour, allied to Ruffin’s ability to provide a thousand-yard stare when needed, creates a chilling, morbid antipathy that suits the material and makes it unexpectedly expressive in terms of examining the inner life of a fourteen year old sociopath. Milo is quite detached from the world around him, only connecting with it if it can add to his obsession with vampires. We see the moment where he changes from being merely interested in vampirism to adopting the mantle of a bloodsucker. It’s a disturbing scene, made all the more disturbing for the way in which O’Shea portrays it as both a sacrificial offering and a rite of passage.

Having Sophie come into Milo’s life allows for some hope to form that Milo can be “saved”, that it’s not too late for him to be a part of the “real” world. As their friendship develops, O’Shea has Milo yearn for a simpler life (albeit one still spent watching vampire movies), and he begins to make an effort in that direction. But his craving for blood, and the secret life he leads proves too much. When he realises he’s missed that month’s date for hunting, Milo takes a bigger risk than he’s ever done before, and his actions show just how overwhelming his obsession has become. Just like the psychopath who needs to kill more and more victims to feel a continued sense of purpose, so Milo learns that he can’t escape the life he’s taken on. And so he does the one thing he can to save himself, and to save Sophie.

Like many first-time directors though, O’Shea is guilty of letting some scenes go on beyond their natural length, and including others that remain superfluous no matter how much they might feel integral to the script. There are also certain stretches where it seems as if the material is waiting for the right moment to move forward, and is hanging around on purpose until it arrives. As a result of this, the movie’s pace is often uncomfortably slow. Fortunately, O’Shea is on firmer ground when it comes to the relationship between Milo and Sophie, and he’s blessed by two impressive performances from Ruffin and Levine. Ruffin’s serious, sincere approach makes Milo all the more believable – and sympathetic – and in his scenes with Levine he displays a maturity that makes his performance all the more credible. Likewise, Levine imbues Sophie with a kind of damaged, yet reluctant vulnerability, as if her being aware of her situation isn’t about to define her if she can help it. In their scenes together, Ruffin and Levine share a chemistry that is completely convincing in terms of their characters finding common ground and coming to depend on each other.

As an ambitious melding of two distinct genres, The Transfiguration is a welcome change from the usual, run-of-the-mill offerings seen these days, and though it’s not entirely successful, its faults can be readily forgiven. O’Shea has made a movie that tells its story with a great deal of attention to detail, and in a robust, satisfying manner. More of a considered indie/arthouse horror than an out-and-out scarefest (and all the better for being so), O’Shea’s debut feature explores themes of alienation, morbid obsession, and emotional dysfunction, and in places, is genuinely unsettling. A surprise hit at Cannes in 2016, this will still only appeal to a certain audience, but if you have the time and the patience, it’s well worth seeking out.

Rating: 8/10 – a carefully constructed urban horror movie, The Transfiguration won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is a tremendous addition to the small group of vampire movies that actually have something to say about the subject; boasting a superb performance from Ruffin, and a denouement that is both sad and uplifting, this is intelligent, vivid stuff that marks O’Shea as a moviemaker to watch out for in the future.

Going in Style (2017)

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D: Zach Braff / 96m

Cast: Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon, John Ortiz, Peter Serafinowicz, Joey King, Maria Dizzia, Josh Pais, Christopher Lloyd

Three old friends – Willie (Freeman), Joe (Caine), and Albert (Arkin) – have worked for the same steel company for over thirty years. But when the company decides to transfer all of its manufacturing abroad, all three find their jobs are gone and that their pensions are being used to facilitate the overseas set up. For Joe it’s even worse: without his pension he won’t be able to keep up the mortgage repayments on his home, and in a month will be evicted, along with his daughter, Rachel (Dizzia), and granddaughter Brooklyn (King). But Joe has the germ of an idea. Why not rob the bank that’s overseeing the liquidation of the pension funds, take only what they need personally, and give any money left over to charity?

Joe has gotten the idea because he was there when the bank was robbed only a few days before. Three masked bank robbers got away with over a million dollars, and the police, led by FBI Agent Hamer (Dillon), haven’t got any leads at all. Figuring that if the bank robbers can do it, then they can do it, Joe voices his idea to his friends. Willie, who desperately needs a kidney transplant, agrees to it more readily than Albert, who takes some convincing, but soon all three are on board. They put their stealing skills to the test at a local store, but are easily caught. This embarrassing failure at least tells them they need “professional” help. Through Joe’s ne’er-do-well ex-son-in-law, Murphy (Serafinowicz), they’re put in touch with a criminal-cum-pet store owner named Jesus (Ortiz). He agrees to help them, and soon they’re putting a plan into action that involves robbing the bank using their lodge’s carnival day as cover. But during the robbery, Willie’s identity is compromised, and though they get away with enough money to help clear their debts, FBI Agent Hamer is hot on their trail…

Another month, another remake, another reason to wonder if Hollywood has any idea why certain movies work and the majority of their remakes don’t. On paper, Going in Style has a lot going for it. It has a top-notch cast, its director has a brash, indie sensibility that could add an edge to proceedings, it has a screenplay from the co-writer/director of Hidden Figures (2016), and is a reworking of a movie that many regard with fondness even if it didn’t exactly set the box office alight. In short, and in baseball parlance, it should have been a home run. However, what we do have is a movie that settles for being bland and innocuous, and which wants its audience to have a fairly okay time with it, and not really an uproarious one. It keeps its ambitions quiet, plays things squarely by the book, and not once attempts anything that might upset the status quo. It’s as close to moviemaking by committee as you’re likely to get.

The script, by Theodore Melfi, trades on various forms of humour, but adopts a lightweight, unassuming tone that ensures the trio’s attempts to steal from their local store – this is how bright they are! – is the movie’s comedy highpoint. After that, the bank robbery itself is an exercise in gentle whimsy, with Willie ending up reassuring a little girl and potentially putting the trio in danger of being apprehended later. There are chuckles to be had, and plenty to smile good-naturedly about, but nothing else to make the viewer laugh out loud. For a comedy, Going in Style is a pretty good heist caper, but even then it refuses to do anything to make events feel fresh or remarkable. If you want belly laughs, or a long succession of jokes and one-liners, then this isn’t the movie you’re looking for.

With the movie suffering from more than just a hint of creative ennui, it plods through its various plot contrivances and unconvincing character development with all the energy of a narcolepsy sufferer on their fifth nap of the day. Counting heavily on its cast to signpost the laughs (and then act accordingly), the movie skips lightly from one scene to another, and rarely stops long enough to add any appreciable depth or additional layers to its bare bones storyline. Thankfully, the movie’s cast have been around for a while, and know how to elevate thin material, though there are still moments that defeat them (e.g. anytime Caine has to play doting grandfather to King’s annoyingly chirpy granddaughter). Arkin is the movie’s lucky charm though, making the grumpy, defeatist Albert its MVP, and making the viewer wish he had more screen time.

Overseeing it all is actor turned director Braff, making his third feature and showing a limited amount of enthusiasm for a project that he hasn’t written himself. Perhaps the characters just aren’t quirky enough, or have enough issues to be dealing with, for Braff to be interested, but there are long stretches where his indie style of moviemaking is absent, and is replaced by a director-for-hire vibe that fits in well with the movie’s corporate, take-no-risks attitude. Maybe it was the chance to work with such a great cast that persuaded him, but judged on the final result, this won’t add much lustre to Braff’s burgeoning career as a director (unless he’s offered similar projects).

But when all is said and done, and despite the movie being as ludicrous as you’d expect, it’s entirely necessary for movies like Going in Style to be seen on our screens. While they may offer stress-free paydays for their casts and crews, and while they may also offer an amount of generic material that could only be beaten by a low-budget horror movie, movies such as this one are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. You know what to expect, and watching the movie will be an easy, minor pleasure, one you may even want to repeat at some point. Its lightweight, undemanding nature will attract viewers just as its cast will, and anyone looking for an hour and a half where they can kick back and leave their brain behind, will find this a pleasing experience that won’t tax them in the slightest.

For its target demographic (and it’s safe to assume it’s fans of the cast rather than fans of the original), Going in Style will be warmly received and, in all likelihood, it’ll gain more fans through word of mouth. Over time, some movies gain a reputation that they didn’t have when the movie was first released. This may be one of them, even though it’s too early to tell. What is certain is that right now, it’s a movie that lacks enough imagination to make it stand out from all the other remakes out there, and while it has heart and a degree of charm that’s entirely down to the efforts of its leading men, it’s not quite memorable enough to woo audiences in the long term.

Rating: 5/10 – good-natured and sweet it may be, but these are attributes that could have benefitted from being “roughed up” a little bit, and in doing so, made Going in Style more appealing; as it is, the movie moves along at a steady (though not quite geriatric) pace and manages to tick all the boxes on the path of least resistance to its eventual, and entirely predictable, denouement.

Christine (2016)

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D: Antonio Campos / 119m

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, Timothy Simons, Kim Shaw, John Cullum

In the Spring of 1974, Christine Chubbuck (Hall) was a twenty-nine year old news reporter working for Channel WXLT in Sarasota, Florida. She was single, she lived with her mother, Peg (Smith-Cameron), and she had been given her own talk show on WXLT called Suncoast Digest, in which she would focus on local people and community activities. But Christine also suffered from depression, and could be up one moment and down the next (nowadays she would likely be diagnosed as having bi-polar disorder). Her depression could lead to extreme mood swings, and she would often push people away even though the few friendships she had were very important to her. And she regularly complained that the news stories she, and the station, were covering weren’t interesting enough, and that the station should focus more on regular people’s lives and what those lives were really like.

This kept her at odds with news director Mike Simmons (Letts), and the two would have regular run-ins as Christine tried to emphasise the various ways she felt the station wasn’t living up to its potential. Simmons wanted “juicier” stories about murder and other crimes; Christine felt the station should focus more on local people and the drama inherent in their lives. Simmons didn’t. Also at this time, the owner of WXLT, Bob Anderson (Cullum), was looking for two of the news team to transfer to Baltimore to a new station he’d recently purchased. Lead anchor George Peter Ryan (Hall) was a likely candidate, but Christine felt that she could be the other person Anderson was looking for.

Christine’s determination to be that other person led her to make some questionable decisions in relation to her work, and she came close to alienating Simmons for good. When she discovered that she wouldn’t be going to Baltimore (even after speaking directly to Anderson), Christine’s depression seemed to be under control. Her mood swings disappeared, she was more agreeable to her fellow co-workers, and she apologised to Simmons. She also asked to helm a Suncoast Digest piece direct to camera, something she’d never done before. Simmons agreed, and on the morning of 15 July 1974, Christine became a news story herself…

In telling the last few months in the life of Christine Chubbuck, Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich have fashioned the kind of Seventies-based journalistic enquiry that wouldn’t look out of place when compared to similar movies made at the time. With its drab Seventies decor and often drabber costume design (brown was definitely the colour back then), Christine pays homage to an era when news reporting in the US was heavily community-based – parochial even – and sensationalism was just beginning to take hold (when one of Christine’s reports is bumped in favour of a murder outside their area, she’s informed it’s because it’s what the viewers want to see). The movie eloquently and confidently recreates the period (in all its dreary glory), and provides a perfect backdrop for its tale of a real-life news reporter who could never understand why her work wasn’t as well-regarded as she expected.

Christine’s issues at work were exacerbated by her mental health issues, and the movie spends a lot of time reinforcing the idea that she was unwell. There are references to a previous “episode” that occurred before she and her mother moved to Sarasota; Christine herself acknowledges at times her own inability to connect with the people around her (she seems more confident with strangers, something that’s noted but not examined too closely); and her continual on-again, off-again reactions to her colleagues speak effectively of someone struggling to make sense of her place in the harried world of news journalism.

That Christine Chubbuck suffered from a variety of mental health issues is clear from Shilowich’s sympathetic and engrossing screenplay, and Hall gives a bravura performance, imbuing the troubled newswoman’s lack of social skills, and her off-kilter idea of professional balance with a scary, aggressive approach that initially makes her a hard character to like. But with the knowledge that she is ill, the movie is able to provide a sympathetic hook for the audience to hold on to, even when Christine is being manipulative and horrible to her mother, berating Simmons for treating her badly, or when she mistreats her best friend and colleague, Jean (Dizzia).Through all this and more, Hall never loses sight of the woman who is trapped behind the cold veneer of mental illness, and whose sense of self-worth is only as strong as the approbation she receives from the people around her (and which she then refutes). It’s an often distressing performance, and one that’s tempered by a refusal to soften the blow of certain scenes and images (it also makes you wonder how on earth Meryl Streep could have received an Oscar nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins when Hall’s portrayal is on another level entirely).

Other aspects of Christine’s personality, character and history are explored, such as the work she did with children with intellectual disabilities, adopting a puppet show approach to teaching them life skills. The movie uses these shows to explore the depth of Christine’s own feelings about various topics, and they retain an added poignancy thanks to the knowledge that though Christine is passing on sound advice, the viewer is aware that it’s advice she herself won’t be able to follow. In a scene where Ryan takes her to a trancendental analysis meeting, Christine expresses all the things that are wrong with her life, including the lack of a partner and/or children. This is the crux of the matter: she doesn’t want to be alone anymore. She’s fast approaching thirty, is to all intents and purposes alone in her life, can’t see a way forward, and decides on a course of action that will deal with everything that contributes to her being depressed.

Anyone aware of Christine Chubbuck and what she did that baleful July morning in 1974, will already know the movie’s outcome, but what’s remarkable about the period before that day, and the way that both Shilowich and Campos treat it, is that it’s not until the last ten or twelve minutes that Christine’s fate is sealed. There are a couple of foreshadowings that viewers who are “in the dark” may well pick up on, but as well as its self-destructive mental health theme, this is the story of a woman fighting for recognition in an industry that was inherently sexist, and which was on the verge of becoming less conventional and more exploitative. This subplot is given enough screen time that it adds to the sense of Christine being beleaguered from all sides, and her efforts to break free and get to Baltimore all the more understandable. But it’s also Christine’s last chance to salvage something from her time at WXLT, and it’s only then that her “solution” presents itself. With both her personal and professional lives coming to a standstill, her decision has an inevitability about it that the movie has avoided delving into up until then.

Throughout, Campos’ direction is solid, sympathetic and invigorating. He wisely keeps the focus on Hall, while giving the likes of Letts and Michael C. Hall plenty of room to flesh out their characters and make them as credible as they can (in reality, neither Ryan nor Simmons had as much involvement in Christine’s life as they do here, and sometimes it shows). The hustle and bustle of the newsroom is downplayed in favour of effective character beats, while Joe Anderson’s muted yet moody cinematography is a perfect match for the emotional troubles Christine experiences. There’s a whole lot of heart and craft here, and as an examination of one person’s bitter disappointment with the hand Life has dealt her, it’s also painfully affecting.

Rating: 8/10 – with a mesmerising and compelling performance from Hall (a career best in fact), and a wealth of sincerity and compassion when it comes to its central character, Christine is a remarkable movie let down only by its lack of back story, and some repetition in Christine’s dealings with Simmons; absorbing and vivid, and with a sly streak of humour running throughout, it’s also a movie that refuses to pass judgment on her, and which does its best to honour her memory without sensationalising it, something she would most likely have approved of.

Little Boxes (2016)

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D: Rob Meyer / 89m

Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miranda McKeon, Christine Taylor, Janeane Garofalo, Nadia Dajani, Veanne Cox, Maliq Johnson

Gina McNulty (Lynskey) and Marcus “Mac” Burns (Ellis) are an interracial couple with a young, pre-teen son, Clark (Jackson). Gina is a photographer, while Mac is trying to come up with an idea for his second novel, his first having been published to moderate acclaim. They live in Brooklyn, have a nice, comfortable middle-class lifestyle, a great social life, and lots of friends with similar backgrounds and life experiences. In short, they’re comfortable. But their lives are about to change when Gina accepts a teaching job at a university in Rome, Washington State. Travelling across the country by road, they arrive at their new home to find the removals truck isn’t there (and won’t be for a while), and that they’ll have to make do until it does. A set of inflatable mattresses and a camping stove later, and they’ve officially moved in.

Rome proves to be a predominantly white town, with virtually no other ethnic groups represented there. This reveals itself slowly to the trio, and in different ways. Gina is accepted immediately by some of the female, tenured professors. Mac goes for long walks listening to free-form jazz on his MP3 player and encounters several of the locals who seem overly pleased that he’s moved there. Clark begins spending time with two girls near his own age, Ambrosia (Laurence) and Julie (McKeon). Gina’s acceptance is based on her being artistic and a woman. Mac’s acceptance is based on his being black, and when the local bookseller finds out, a published author. Clark is popular with Ambrosia and Julie because he’s ostensibly black and doesn’t mind being treated like a show-and-tell friend.

But at the same time, their acceptance by the townsfolk of Rome leads to divisions within the family. While Gina goes off to the university, and Clark spends more and more time with his “girlfriends”, Mac stays at home and works on an article for an online food blog. They spend less and less time together. As they adapt to their new surroundings, further cracks begin to appear in what used to be their comfortable lifestyle. Arguments and disagreements ensue, and Clark, determined to live up to Ambrosia and Julie’s expectations of him, begins acting like a surly teenager. When things go a little too far between him and Ambrosia, Gina and Mac begin to feel a sense of isolation, and it’s not long before they’re wondering if moving to Rome was such a good idea in the first place.

Diversity and equality seem to be cinematic buzzwords at the moment. The number of movies addressing issues surrounding racism and racial inclusion/exclusion seems to have increased exponentially in the wake of the OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2016. That most of these movies were in production before last year’s Oscar ceremony seems to point also to some kind of cinematic zeitgeist finally making itself felt. But one thing’s for sure: you won’t find a more low-key, or subtle, examination of middle class racism than in Little Boxes.

It’s a movie that takes reverse (or positive) discrimination and makes it feel just as insidious as direct discrimination. Mac is out walking when one of his neighbours asks if he needs any help. The inference is clear: it’s a white neighbourhood, and Mac shouldn’t be there. But the neighbour quickly realises that Mac should be there, and from then on it’s all okay, and Mac is treated like an old friend. The turnaround is sharply made and hard to dismiss as anything other than tokenism. Mac is initially bemused by this sort of thing, but as time goes on, he begins to like it, even though deep down he also despises it. Meanwhile, Clark is learning that fitting in can mean a loss of identity, but as long as Ambrosia and Julie spend time with him and include him in what they’re doing (mostly dance routines and lounging by the pool), then he seems happy to be the person they think he is: a cool black kid that only they are friends with.

It could be argued that, along with its glacial, racial undertones, Little Boxes is also about maintaining oneself in the context of a new environment. Mac struggles because he lacks a defined purpose. His writing appears stalled, and he’s more concerned about the mould he discovers in the house than anything else. And he’s easily led astray by his neighbour, knocking back uppers and ending up in a bar. For Gina, the path towards fitting in is paved with good intentions and liquid lunches with her colleagues. She does her best to fit in but finds it causes too many problems, problems that she discovers she’s ill-equipped to deal with. Clark’s growing rebelliousness adds to the lack of unity and faith in each other that all three had previously in Brooklyn, and it soon becomes obvious that this is a family that may have made a really bad decision in transporting themselves so far out of their combined comfort zones.

But while the movie examines these themes with candour and no small amount of intelligence thanks to Annie J. Howell’s perceptive script, it doesn’t make the family’s disintegration too believable. Just why their close-knit harmony and commitment to each other should fall apart so easily is never explained, and without this, the movie falls into the trap of presenting the trials and tribulations of a moderately well-to-do middle class family in an indie setting, and expecting the audience to feel sorry for them. Sadly, this doesn’t happen, and not just because these are characters who have attained a certain level of privilege in their lives, but because the trials and tribulations that they face operate on the level of minor farce. There’s nothing here that the average family couldn’t overcome or deal with as soon as it arose. Yes, it’s another movie where the characters say a lot, but aren’t actually talking to each other.

Thankfully, most of this is offset by the quality of the performances. Lynskey is a pleasure to watch – as always – and portrays Gina’s growing insecurities and bafflement with her usual sincerity. Ellis is on equally fine form, ensuring Mac is equally unsure of himself and his current role in life, and displaying Mac’s wounded pride when things he knows he can do, don’t go so well. Jackson, meanwhile, has that knack that most child actors have of not even appearing to be acting, so good is he as Clark, and he acquits himself so well it appears almost effortless. In the director’s seat, Meyer does a fine job on the whole, but can’t find a way to keep the audience sympathetic to the family and their woes (mostly because they’re self-inflicted). It’s not a movie that has a particularly distinctive visual style, and the narrative stops and starts a little too often, but it does have enough substance to keep viewers occupied, even if, in the end, they’ll find it hard to be concerned by what’s happening.

Rating: 6/10 – several nods to small-town inverse racist attitudes and the fragility of the nuclear family can’t save Little Boxes (a metaphorical title if ever there was one) from failing to connect with the viewer; good performances and a waspish sense of humour go some way to making up for the areas where the movie struggles to provide depth or resonance, but most viewers will find themselves disappointed by so much effort yielding a much smaller return than expected.

Asperger’s Are Us (2016)

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D: Alex Lehmann / 84m

With: Noah Britton, Ethan Finlan, Jack Hanke, New Michael Ingemi

In 2010, at a summer camp for children with autism in Massachusetts, graduates New Michael Ingemi, Jack Hanke and Ethan Finlan met camp counsellor Noah Britton (himself an autism sufferer). Finding that they all shared the same sense of humour, they decided to form the world’s first comedy troupe made up entirely of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. They called the troupe, Asperger’s Are Us, began putting together original comedy sketches, and eventually, doing gigs. Their aim was to use performances and interviews to promote autism-rights activism and the more positive aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. They also wanted audiences to view them as just comedians instead of “people who’ve overcome adversity”.

Four years on, Asperger’s Are Us played their final performance due to Jack heading off to England on a scholarship to an Oxford university. In the weeks leading up to the show, they struggled to find all-new material to use, and also had problems finding the time to rehearse. During this period they were never sure where their venue was going to be, whether or not they should rely on old material mixed with new, or if any of it was going to work. Their main idea, Superhero Palace, was disliked from the start by New Michael, and there were fears that if it became part of the show, then New Michael wouldn’t take part in it. Eventually, all the potential hurdles were overcome, and the show took place.

The best thing about Asperger’s Are Us the movie rather than Asperger’s Are Us the comedy troupe is that it doesn’t have an agenda, or at least, not a social or political one. The members of the group aren’t poster boys for autism, they’re not out to score points for “overcoming adversity”, and nor are they advocates for any kind of “special treatment” for people with autism. Even though some of these things do creep into their performances, they’re not there deliberately. And the quartet do their best to be funny – and that’s all. By using a mixture of visual tomfoolery, clever wordplay, and pop culture references, Asperger’s Are Us have earned the right to be thought of first and foremost as comedians, and as people with autism second.

But no matter how much the troupe, or director/cinematographer/editor Alex Lehmann, tries to downplay their various social anxieties, intimacy issues (Jack’s dad bemoans the fact that when he shows affection to his son there’s no reaction), and emotional detachments, it’s obvious from their behaviour – either individually or as a group – that their autistic nature is a very big part of who they are, and also how they’re able to do what they do. There’s a point where Noah states that they don’t put on their shows for other people, they put them on because they want to do it, they’re performing material that makes them laugh even if no one else is, and if an audience “gets” what they’re trying to do and say, then that’s a bonus. In a very real sense, if they weren’t autistic, they wouldn’t be doing what they’ve been doing.

It’s an angle that the movie engages with from time to time, but never pins down in terms of how the four friends feel about their act, or each other. The relationship between Noah and New Michael gets quite a bit of screen time, and in many ways, it’s this that drives the narrative forward, as they disagree and argue like brothers, while Jack and Ethan look on from the sidelines. In a very telling scene, New Michael equates the foursome to The Beatles, and says that, for people looking in from the outside, Noah is the group’s John Lennon, and he is Paul McCartney. If you’re not paying close attention it sounds as if New Michael (he changed his name from Aaron when he was eighteen) is claiming kinship with McCartney, while making Noah sound as if he isn’t completely worthy of all the praise the troupe has been getting (Noah initiates much of the group’s material, and from that you can understand what New Michael is saying). Pay much closer attention though, and you’ll realise that New Michael is pulling the audience’s combined legs very subtly indeed. There’s a nuance in use here that is at odds with people’s (often limited) awareness of autism, and as such it’s very telling.

But as Lehmann has followed the group in the two months prior to their final performance, there’s plenty of footage of the group rehearsing, travelling from place to place within Massachusetts (trains are very important to them, especially Ethan), and except for Noah, with their families. It’s in these moments that the wider issue of dealing with autism is put into sharp relief. While New Michael has little to say about, or do with his father (“Old Michael”), Jack’s relationship with his parents is stable, but we never learn much about Ethan and his background. Noah has no one, but seems to prefer it that way, and though New Michael does introduce a female friend, she’s soon relegated to the background. It’s only when the four are together that we see them interact in a “normal” way, joking around, sharing ideas and thoughts (and the occasional dream), and behaving like brothers from different mothers. And when New Michael reacts badly to everyone being in his home for a rehearsal meeting, Noah’s indifference to how he feels is uncomfortable to watch, and yet refreshingly at odds with how New Michael would be treated by his family or others. For Noah, out of line is out of line, whether you’ve got Asperger’s or not.

Moments like these are enlightening to say the least, and there are many more that are poignant as well, but Lehmann’s skill as an editor means that they don’t overwhelm the disjointed yet cleverly assembled narrative. As the final show draws nearer and nearer, we see the sketches and the performances slowly take shape, and we see the group’s pride in what they’ve achieved. And their material is very, very funny indeed (the Presidential press conference is a highlight, especially if you’ve been paying attention to all the train references). And away from the stage they’re funny, with Noah wearing T-shirts with slogans on them such as “Ask me about my fear of strangers”, and Ethan hoodwinking Lehmann by dishing the dirt on his friends before confessing it’s all a joke. These are four guys who, despite their autism (or maybe because of it), are all talented comedians.

The movie as a whole is remarkably well-assembled, with personal contributions from each member of the group and where applicable, their families. The family dynamic surrounding New Michael is explored in some depth, and it’s here that the poignancy comes in, as Old Michael confesses that his work ethic in the past has caused the distance between him and New Michael to be so pronounced. Neither father nor son seems to know how to repair things, and their relationship remains a terse affair that only benefits them for brief moments at a time. Lehmann captures a terrible sense of sad inevitability in these moments, and the awkwardness between the two is heartbreaking. You can’t help but hope for the best for them both, and that New Michael will eventually overcome his feelings of not being good enough for his father. Whether or not that happens only time will tell, but for now, like the futures of all the troupe, everything looks very promising indeed.

Rating: 8/10 – a moving examination of four people with autism who have no time for pity, and whose collective sense of humour is disarmingly sharp, Asperger’s Are Us is a terrific documentary and a wonderful tribute to the group as a whole; whatever your thoughts on, or experience of, autism, this movie does what all good documentaries should do: it informs and educates and entertains (where possible) all at the same time.

Life (2017)

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D: Daniel Espinosa / 104m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

It’s a good day on the International Space Station (ISS). A probe that has been collecting soil samples from the Mars surface is on its way back and is about to be intercepted by the team on board the ISS. The hope is that the soil samples will contain evidence of extraterrestrial life. The team – medical officer Dr David Jordan (Gyllenhaal), quarantine officer Dr Miranda North (Ferguson), systems engineer Rory “Roy” Adams (Reynolds), ISS pilot Sho Murakami (Sanada), biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare), and ISS commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Dihovichnaya) – are all excited at the prospect. They’re further excited when they discover a dormant cell in amongst the samples. Derry manages to revive it, and it’s not long before it grows into a multi-celled organism. Back on Earth, the news is received with even greater excitement, and the organism is given the name Calvin.

However, Calvin enters another period of dormancy. Derry elects to use a low-level electric shock to help re-stimulate it, but this approach has an unexpected result: Calvin attaches itself to Derry’s hand and begins to crush it. Derry manages to free himself, and while Calvin devours a lab rat, Adams rushes in to the quarantine area to rescue him. Derry gets out but Adams isn’t so lucky: Calvin attaches itself to his leg, leaving Jordan no option but to keep them both locked inside the quarantine area. Adams does his best to kill Calvin but the creature escapes into the vents. As it continues to grow it causes further problems for the crew, leading them to realise that it’s far more intelligent than they could ever have expected.

With their communication with Earth cut off, and an attempt to send Calvin into deep space failing, the ISS enters a decaying orbit, one that will see it burn up on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. Certain that Calvin would survive such an event, the crew have to come up with a plan that will see Calvin stopped from reaching Earth’s surface, while also ensuring their own safety, but further events dictate that this won’t be as easy as they’d hoped, and soon time is running out for everyone – both on the ISS and on Earth…

The first thing that anyone will tell you about Life is that it’s so obviously an Alien (1979) rip-off (and that’s supposed to make it a bad thing). And while it does share certain elements with that movie, it’s also a little unfair to damn the whole movie with such faint praise. With Ridley Scott poaching his own genre classic in Prometheus (2012), and no doubt the upcoming Alien: Covenant (2017) as well, accusing Life of being a rip-off isn’t exactly fair criticism. And if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Life has taken a pretty good template from which to tell its story. What screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have done is taken the bare bones of the Alien premise, and from that they’ve created an intense, thrill-ride of a movie that – if it has a real problem – only falls short when it focuses on the characters.

One aspect where the movie doesn’t emulate Alien is in the speed with which it puts the ISS crew in danger. There’s no leisurely build-up, no time to get to know anyone, and as a result, no one to care about. The characters express themselves solely through their roles on board the ISS, and when they do stop to express any philosophical or moral implications to the situation they’ve found themselves in, it all feels trite and under-developed. It’s all a bit Screenwriting 101: give the characters an inner life for the audience to connect with. But these interludes only serve to stall the movie and stop it from what it does best, which is ramp up the tension, exert as much pressure on the crew as possible, and reduce the odds of anyone surviving the longer the movie progresses.

To this end, director Daniel Espinosa and his editors, Mary Jo Markey and Frances Parker, have fashioned a series of encounters and showdowns between Calvin and the ISS crew that equate to good old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat sequences designed to have audiences holding their breath as they wait to see what’s going to happen next. Life is like a rollercoaster ride, but an often grim, horrific rollercoaster ride, one that doesn’t let up (except for those pesky dialogue scenes), and which isn’t afraid to be nasty when it wants to be. Like the Nostromo before it, the ISS is a claustrophobic, up-is-down environment where Calvin could strike at any time. Espinosa lets the camera – operated with his usual aplomb by Seamus McGarvey – roam the corridors and remote areas of the ISS with an eerie stealth, emulating Calvin’s point of view or just setting up a scare that may or may not happen (you’ll never be too sure).

With the majority of the movie given over to these sequences, Life holds the attention and plays out its simple storyline with a great deal of confidence and a gripping visual style to it. The cast, however, are hampered by the script’s need for their characters to be introspective from time to time – too often, actually – and when they’re not debating whether Calvin should be feared or admired or both, they’re action figures floating around the ISS trying to survive. Gyllenhaal has a back-story that involves wanting to be completely alone, and which gives you a clue as to the eventual resolution, but it doesn’t resonate enough to feel important, just contrived. Ferguson is the tough decision-maker who won’t feel pity or remorse for killing another living creature, even if it is just trying to survive on its own terms, while Reynolds adds yet another semi-anarchic risk-taker to his resumé, a role he does well but which he could probably do in his sleep by now. Sanada and Bakare have their moments, and both actors are well-cast in their roles, bringing a much-needed sincerity to characters who could have been entirely forgettable. Which is almost the sad fate of Dihovichnaya, except that her encounter with Calvin is one of the movie’s more impressive set ups.

Fans of serious science fiction will find lots to annoy them, and though there are many occasions where disbelief is suspended too easily for the movie’s own good, Life isn’t going to be regarded as a modern classic like its genre forbear, but in terms of what it sets out to do – that is, entertain an audience – it succeeds for the most part, and its cheesy, forehead-slapping conclusion aside, is a lot more effective than most people will give it credit for. This isn’t a movie that will change your life, nor will it prompt anyone to become an astronaut and work on the ISS, but it is a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment, and in Calvin it has an alien life form that is one of the most well-conceived creatures ever seen on our screens; and it’s eerily beautiful too.

Rating: 7/10 – boasting superb production design and a vivid sense of impending doom, Life isn’t entirely successful, but it does more than enough to justify its existence (Alien clone or not); a popcorn movie for anyone seeking an undemanding hour and three quarters to kill, it’s unashamedly populist moviemaking and none the worse for being so.

Trailers – Detroit (2017), The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017) and Atomic Blonde (2017)

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It’s been five years since the directing/writing team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal brought us Zero Dark Thirty – and it’s about time they had something new for us. Thankfully, the trailer for Detroit looks as if they’re not going to let us down. A stinging, emotive, and visceral look at the 12th Street riot that occurred in July 1967 following events that took place at the Algiers Motel, the movie has already come under fire for not including any black women in its main cast. It’s a little early to tell if this is a deliberate piece of revisionism, but what is clear from the glimpses of violence seen in the trailer is that Bigelow has captured the atmosphere and the grim inevitability of a situation that quickly spiralled out of control and left three men dead, and nine others brutally injured. Bigelow has also assembled a great cast, including John Boyega as a security guard who gets caught up in the riot, Jack Reynor, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, and in what could be the role that catapults him to well-deserved stardom, Will Poulter as one of the three cops who ended up on trial for murder. One of the must-see movies of 2017, Detroit has all the potential to be an impassioned and excoriating feature that will leave audiences stunned and impressed in equal measure when it’s released in August.

 

Samuel L. Jackson is the hitman. Ryan Reynolds is the bodyguard. Gary Oldman is the dictator both men team up to defeat. The tone of the movie? Well, you only have to see the poster for The Hitman’s Bodyguard to work that one out: a parody of The Bodyguard (1992) with Reynolds subbing for Kevin Costner, and Jackson for Whitney Houston. The trailer drives the idea home with what is obviously a deliberate lack of subtlety, and though Tom O’Connor’s screenplay was included in the 2011 Black List of unproduced scripts, this looks likely to be an action comedy that is big on action set-pieces, but short on actual laughs (though Reynolds’ comment that Jackson’s character has ruined the word “motherfucker” has an ironic touch to it that bodes well). However it turns out, and the trailer’s mix of shouty humour, action beats and Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote-style stuntwork doesn’t seem to say “instant classic”, this could still be the kind of dumb “Saturday-night-with-beers-and-a-pizza” movie that gains a loyal fanbase, and becomes a bona fide guilty pleasure in years to come.

 

After the success of John Wick (2014), it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a distaff version of that movie (literally) hitting our screens. And so we have Atomic Blonde, an adaptation of Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City (the movie’s original title), and starring Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent tasked with retrieving a list of double agents being smuggled into the West prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The John Wick connection is cemented by David Leitch being in the director’s chair, and the trailer showcases a scene that has Theron taking out a roomful of assailants in much the same style as Wick. Whether there will be too many similarities between the two movies remains to be seen, and if there are it may hurt Atomic Blonde‘s chances with the critics, but if its sense of humour is as acerbic as its action sequences are full-on kinetic, then the movie has a chance of connecting with a wider, more appreciative audience. The presence of Sofia Boutella as a French operative Theron’s character “makes contact with”, plus James McAvoy as her operational ally in Berlin, and John Goodman as a less than friendly CIA agent, adds lustre to the movie, and the trailer can’t help but give potential audiences the impression that this may well turn out to be a very, very fun ride indeed.

Rules Don’t Apply (2016)

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D: Warren Beatty / 127m

Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Haley Bennett, Megan Hilty, Paul Schneider, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sorvino, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan

Not counting the TV short, Dick Tracy Special (2010), this is Warren Beatty’s first time behind the camera since Bulworth (1998). That movie was a pithy, satirical look at (then) modern US politics, but eighteen years on, Beatty’s skill as a director isn’t on quite such good form. Rules Don’t Apply focuses on Howard Hughes’ life between 1958 and 1964, and adds a fictional romance to bolster the main storyline (which the movie can’t decide on). It’s not a bad movie per se, just one that isn’t sure which one of three stories it wants to focus on.

The first story concerns Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), who has just started for Hughes as a driver. He has a fianceé back home, Sarah (Farmiga), and a dream to build affordable housing at an undeveloped location just outside Los Angeles. Working for Hughes, though, is somewhat limiting, and for the most part he acts as a chauffeur for some of the actresses Hughes has under contract. The second story concerns one of those actresses, the fresh from Virginia, Marla Mabrey (Collins). Accompanied by her mother, Lucy (Bening), Marla is excited to meet the great Howard Hughes, and screen test for a movie called Sally Starlight. But as time goes on, she doesn’t get to meet him, and the screen test seems increasingly unlikely to happen. But she and Frank hit it off, and soon there’s the beginning of a romance. Her mother, however, returns home, leaving Marla to navigate the treacherous waters of reachable fame – and with Frank’s help.

The third story has Hughes showing signs of the strange behaviour that will eventually see his ownership of Trans-World Airlines (TWA) challenged by the US government. He refuses to see people, makes appointments that he doesn’t keep, and generally acts as if the concerns of other people are irrelevant. But eventually he and Marla meet, and he meets Frank also. Hughes takes a shine to Marla, and he begins to trust Frank, and it seems their careers are set. But their relationship takes an unexpected turn, and they grow estranged from each other. Meanwhile, Hughes becomes more and more withdrawn from the world, and begins to show clear signs of dementia, demanding things like all the available quantity of a certain flavour of ice cream (and then wanting another), and repeating himself over and over. What seemed eccentric only a few years before, now seems detrimental to both his health and his wealth. Frank stands by him, now as a personal assistant, while Marla moves away to start her life over…

On paper, Rules Don’t Apply has all the hallmarks of a very good movie indeed. It has Beatty in the role of Howard Hughes (a project he’s been planning for around forty years), a supporting cast who all do a terrific job, a recreation of the period that includes broad vistas of cities such as Los Angeles and London as they were at the time, individual scenes that carry both emotional weight and poignancy, and provides a somewhat caustic examination of wished-for fame and fortune. But the movie also has difficulty in making Hughes, or indeed any of the characters, sympathetic, and it flits between each of the storylines without always allowing them to flourish or become integral to the overall narrative.

The romance between Marla and Frank starts typically for the period with lots of exchanged glances and oblique references to the relevance of sex before marriage (Frank has, Marla hasn’t). It’s an old-fashioned courtship, made slightly more awkward by Hughes’ insistence that if any of his employees take any kind of interest in his actresses, then they’ll be fired. However, although this is mentioned on several occasions (as if the audience won’t get it the first time), in the end it makes no difference, as Hughes has no idea about them, and the few people who do know – fellow driver, Levar (Broderick), Hughes’ personal secretary, Nadine (Bergen) – don’t say anything anyway. There’s plenty of unnecessary repetition in terms of Hughes not seeing people, or making strange decisions, and it all pads out the movie, making it feel unfocused and willfully disjointed.

In the end, it’s Beatty’s script, and some of it is really, really good, but some scenes could have been excised and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the overall story. It would have made it a lot tighter, though, and kept the audience more involved. As the romance between Marla and Frank begins to crumble, and Hughes’ dispute with potential investors in TWA takes centre stage, the movie attempts to show Hughes both in decline and also more self-aware than people believed at the time. (Beatty’s script avoids the uncomfortable fact that at this period in his life, Hughes had already taken to spending long periods of time alone and naked watching movies in places such as a bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel.) Beatty’s intention seems to be to idolise the man while at the same time admitting that he was flawed, a circumstance that causes the movie to seem undecided in terms of what audiences should make of him.

This all leaves the movie feeling and sounding less dramatic than it should be, with only the occasional confrontation jolting things out of the cosy, straightforward approach that Beatty adopts as director. Inert in certain stretches, and lacking depth in others, the movie is rescued from being completely disappointing thanks to its cast. As the billionaire who marries in order to avoid being committed to an insane asylum, Beatty steals every scene he’s in because he still has that old-time star charisma. There’s a good-natured, yet inherently pathological bent to his performance, and Hughes’ unpredictable nature, complete with vacant stares, bemused glances and paranoid outbursts, is explored with the kind of range and subtlety – in both diction and movement – that makes Beatty still such a good actor. Unfortunately, both Marla and Frank, being original characters created for the movie, don’t feel as well-rounded, and their romance is tepid, and not entirely believable, as Collins and Ehrenreich – very good individually – don’t have the chemistry necessary to make audiences believe in them as a couple.

Elsewhere, Broderick and Bening are superb, there are lots of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances from the likes of Sorvino, Harris and Coleman, and a very funny cameo from Coogan as a British pilot forced to sit back and watch Hughes deliberately cause the engines to fail while up in the sky for a joyride. There are other humorous moments in the movie, many in fact, and most of them are in service to the characters, but as they’re mixed in with the drama and the romance and aren’t always played out at the best moments, some viewers may find that the comedy is forced rather than organic. Ultimately, and despite the best efforts of Beatty as writer and director, the various elements on display don’t gel to good enough effect, and this makes the movie less compelling and (often) too bland. A more immediate approach, and a more historically accurate one, may have made for a better movie – we’ll never know – but what is certain is that Beatty’s passion project, after forty years, isn’t as passionate an experience as he may have hoped it would be.

Rating: 5/10 – slow and repetitive aren’t the best of bedfellows when it comes to creating a drama about one of the most intriguing and distinctive billionaires of the twentieth century, and Rules Don’t Apply suffers accordingly; Beatty the actor is terrific, but is let down by Beatty the writer and director, and although the first half hour is briliantly executed, the rest of the movie falls short of that initial promise and settles instead for the kind of soap opera theatrics that never ring true, no matter how hard everyone tries.

The Warriors Gate (2016)

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D: Matthias Hoene / 107m

Cast: Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Ni Ni, Dave Bautista, Sienna Guillory, Francis Chun-Yu Ng, Zha Ka, Dakota Daulby, Luke Mac Davis

Jack Bronson (Shelton) is a teenager whose online gaming avatar, the Black Knight, is a complete badass, winning fantasy encounter after fantasy encounter. Away from his computer, however, he’s not quite so powerful or dominating. His life has its fair share of problems: his mother, Annie (Guillory), is a realtor who hasn’t sold a property in months (which means money is fast becoming an issue), and at school he’s being bullied by an older teen called Travis (Daulby). Jack does have a job, at least, even if it doesn’t pay an awful lot, but his boss likes him, enough to give Jack a gift: a large wooden, ornamental box. Jack takes it home and keeps it in his room. That first night, Jack wakes to find a sword at his throat, and an ancient Chinese warrior (Chao) asking if he’s the Black Knight. Even though he’s clearly not the fierce warrior the stranger is looking for, Jack is still given a task: to protect the Princess Su Lin (Ni) from harm.

The Princess is left in Jack’s care – but not before her bodyguard disappears back to their world via the box. The Princess is used to getting her own way, and it’s not long before she has Jack take her to the local mall so that she can learn how to blend in. But it’s also not long before mercenaries from the Princess’s world come for her, and despite Jack’s best efforts (which aren’t that great anyway), she’s taken back to her world. Jack follows, and finds himself in the company of the bodyguard, whose name is Zhoo. Soon, Jack learns that the Princess is the target of a murderous warlord called Arun the Cruel (Bautista). Arun plans to wed Su Lin, and once they’re married, kill her and assume the role of Emperor. Zhoo’s mission is to rescue her and kill the warlord. With the occasional aid of a wizard (Ng), and Jack himself, Zhoo sets off for the Imperial Palace.

Along the way they encounter danger in the form of three tree nymphs with a taste for human flesh, a number of Arun’s men, and having to cross a large lake despite Zhoo being unable to swim. Once at the Imperial Palace, their attempt to rescue the Princess is stalled, and they find themselves imprisoned. It’s only when a butterfly appears at their cell window that Zhoo is certain that his plan (which he’s making up as he goes along) will actually work.

If nothing else, The Warriors Gate proves that with great publicity comes greater accusations of racism. Zhang Yimou’s bloated melodrama The Great Wall (2016) came in for heaps of criticism for having an Occidental hero coming to China’s rescue when faced with hordes of rampaging dragons. Here, Matthias Hoene’s tiresome fantasy swaps Matt Damon’s Irish mercenary for Uriah Shelton’s whiny teenager as a Chinese dynasty comes under threat from a surly warlord who’s massively into face painting. And yet The Warriors Gate is just as guilty of cultural whitewashing as its more expensively mounted compatriot. More so, perhaps. How galling must it be for Chinese audiences to see their heritage, their culture, and their fierce warrior history ignored in favour of making the hero a – let’s say it again – whiny teenager.

Bad as this approach is, The Warriors Gate has far more things wrong with it than there are good. A pale imitation of the far more entertaining The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Hoene’s follow-up to the low-concept, low return Cockneys vs Zombies (2012) sees him take a script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (who really should have known better) and turn it into a bland, functional, and entirely unremarkable teen fantasy movie that feels like it was made in the Nineties and has only recently secured a big screen release. With its bizarre set up, fortune cookie philosophising, bland time travel theatrics, agonising moments of teen humour, bullying subplot, cultural indifference to Chinese history, off-putting tonal shifts (sometimes in the same scene), and forgettable characters, the movie struggles hard to work on any level… and then struggles some more.

It’s a movie that steals from other, better movies too, and in doing so, only serves to highlight just how derivative and unoriginal it all is. Jack’s lack of self-confidence is such a staple of teen heroes and heroines these days that it’s a wonder any of them get out of bed in the first place. Naturally he has a skill that will enable him to defeat the bad guy, but the script can’t decide if it’s inside him all along or is something that he’ll need to learn. In the end, the movie settles for Jack being shown one single, semi-meditative pose and it’s all he needs to be the warrior Zhoo has been looking for. Inside of him all along, or a simple technique easily learned – either way Jack steps up and never looks back. And of course, everyone says they always believed in him (and yet Zhoo doubts him repeatedly).

There’s also the small issue of the reason Jack follows the kidnapped Princess into her world: he’s horny, has never been kissed, and fancies Su Lin like mad. (His hormones made him do it!) Even when he’s fully aware of what’s at stake if Arun’s plan succeeds, Jack is still thinking with his ‘nads, and though it’s unreasonable to assume he’s trying to help for more noble reasons, the movie keeps him firmly in place as a teenager with only one thing on his mind: getting the girl. With this level of ambition, it’s no wonder Jack is a character who screams “superficial!” when compared with his Chinese assistants – sorry, enablers. Unsurprisingly, Su Lin is attracted to Jack, but their romance has all the emotional clout of a Hallmark movie of the week.

The script sabotages itself too often for comfort. Arun the Cruel is revealed to be a pretty fair despot on the whole, and possessed of a sly line in humour. Bautista gets the tone right fortunately, but can’t do anything with the silly-sounding dialogue he’s lumbered with. As the Princess, Ni is allowed to be haughty for all of five minutes before falling for Jack’s, err, charms, while Chao has the dour straight man role and as a result, sometimes fades into the background. Ng is clearly enjoying his turn as a comedy wizard, while Guillory gets the thankless role of worried mother. The cast as a whole are hampered by having to deal with perfunctory characterisations and finding themselves unsupported by Hoene and the script. The fight sequences have a certain panache, but when the final showdown between hero and villain takes place, it’s too little too late (and no one ever explains why the Princess is hanging by her wrists the whole time).

Rating: 4/10 – sloppy writing and an uninspired vibe make The Warriors Gate (yes, there’s no apostrophe) a disappointing entry in the teen fantasy stakes; acceptable only if you don’t care enough to be insulted, the movie can best be summed up by stealing a paraphrased line from the New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott: it sets a very low bar for itself, and then trips over it repeatedly.

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

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aka Fast & Furious 8

D: F. Gary Gray / 136m

Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Scott Eastwood, Kurt Russell, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Kristofer Hivju

And so we come to episode eight in the ongoing Fast and Furious franchise, the series that just keeps on giving and giving… and giving and giving and giving and giving. This is a movie, one of several that we’ll see this year, that will do incredibly well at the international box office, and which will be hugely successful no matter what critics or bloggers or anyone and their auntie says about it. It’s a movie that exists in its own little cinematic bubble, oblivious to movie making trends, advances or developments. If you live in the UK, it’s the equivalent of those Ronseal adverts that state, “It does what it says on the tin”. And if you don’t live in the UK, then try this comparison: it’s like going to McDonalds and ordering a Big Mac, fries and a Coke. You know exactly what you’re getting, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve had that particular combo more times than you can remember, that’s also kind of the point. Here, familiarity breeds expectation, and the makers of the Fast and Furious movies know exactly how to satisfy that expectation.

All the familiar elements are here: exotic locations (Iceland, Cuba, New York?), Diesel being taciturn and glowering a lot (he even shouts a few times, which is new), Johnson looking like a poster boy for steroid abuse, Rodriguez glowering a lot like Diesel, Gibson acting unconscionably stupid, Bridges giving nerds a fairly good name for once, over-the-top action sequences that regularly and deliberately challenge the laws of physics, and cars, lots of shiny, sleek, expensive cars. Relative series newbies Russell, Emmanuel and Statham slot in neatly amidst the rest of the cast, while complete newbies Eastwood (good guy) and Theron (bad guy) add little and a lot respectively. Throw in some old faces from previous entries, and a storyline that’s been built on the back of the last two outings, and you have another patchy, under-developed crowd-pleaser that does enough to keep its audience interested while at the same time giving said audience very very very little that’s new. And it’s the opener for a closing trilogy of movies that will see the franchise come to an end in April 2021.

If there’s anything interesting about the movie, it’s the way in which it harkens back to earlier entries, and tries to incorporate the look and feel of those earlier movies. The opening sequence, set in Cuba, is a throwback to the approach and feel of the first and third movies, with its street-level, underground racing vibe, and beautiful hangers-on to some of the ugliest drivers ever seen on screen. There’s a car up for grabs, a sneering minor villain who thinks he can outwit Dominic Toretto (foolish man!), and some very impressive stunt driving. But it’s a measure of how far the series has come in terms of its tone and style, that this sequence – which starts off well – soon descends into the kind of ridiculous, credibility-free, and excessive action set-piece that the series has become known for. Seeing Toretto winning the race in a stripped-down junker, in reverse, and with the engine on fire no less, serves as an acknowledgement that while the series wants to honour its more scaled-back origins, it’s grown too big and excessive to be able to.

Much has been made of this movie’s main storyline – Toretto betrays his “family” – but as a plot device it’s one of the weaker ideas in the series, and all because we know that there’s no way it’s “for real”. As expected, there’s a reason for his “betrayal”, and while it’s played out with as much sincerity as returning scribe Chris Morgan can instil in his by-the-numbers screenplay, it shows a complete disregard for the character of Letty (Rodriguez) and the trials she’s endured since “dying” in part four (and especially in relation to a scene between Letty and Toretto early on in Cuba). Worse still, the whole thing leads to a scene involving Statham’s returning nemesis Deckard Shaw, and the complete reversal of his character from murderous psychopath to genial funster. It’s as if the makers have seen his performance in Spy (2015) and thought to themselves, how can we exploit this?

Character assassination apart, the movie follows the tried and tested formula of the previous three movies, and never deviates from its cookie-cutter approach. It’s no secret that the franchise thinks up its action sequences first and fits a story and plot around them later, but this time the obvious nature of such a design is even more noticeable than before. An attack on a Russian minister on the streets of New York occurs at the halfway mark, and includes the appropriation by über-villain Cipher (Theron) of any car in the area that has an on-board computer system. Why she has to activate all of them makes no sense, but it does lead to mass collisions and vehicles falling from multi-storey car parks and no end of unconvincing CGI. Far better? The scenes predceeding this where Toretto has to escape Cipher’s surveillance in order to put his own plans into action. Short, simple, and so much more effective.

One thing The Fate of the Furious does get right – finally – is its choice of villain. Stepping out of the shadows no one knew she inhabited, Cipher is played with chilling conviction by Theron, and if as seems likely, she’s going to be the villain for the last two movies as well, then her involvement could be the best thing about them – as it is here. With Statham’s character now reformed, the movie needed someone to be a real villain, and Theron comes through in spades. She’s icy, mad, and bad to the core. Theron shares most of her scenes with Diesel, and every time it’s a no contest: she acts him off the plane Cipher uses, and off the screen as well (which is a shame, as away from all his franchise movies, Pitch Black (2000) excepted, he can be a very good actor indeed).

But what about those action sequences? And what about that submarine smashing through the ice? And all those explosions? Everything we’ve seen in the various trailers? Well, they’re all as slickly produced and homogeneously exciting as those in previous entries, and they’re fine examples of modern day action heroics, but even so they remain curiously thrill-free. A prison riot does Statham and Johnson no favours thanks to having been shot in a jerky, shaky style that makes focusing on the various punches and kicks both actors dish out quite difficult to follow. It’s a sequence that could have benefitted from having a few more bone-crunching sound effects thrown in as well. The submarine sequence is reminiscent of the ending to Furious 6 (2013) (justly famous for its neverending runway), but is surprisingly restrained for all that, while the movie’s biggest explosion – naturally saved for last – also gives rise to the movie’s most ridiculous and risible moment.

But none of this matters. Not Helen Mirren’s awful Cockney accent, not Hivju’s distracting resemblance to a young James Cosmo, not even the sight of Johnson manhandling a torpedo as it races across the ice. The Fate of the Furious can do what it likes and audiences will lap it up regardless. Does this make it a bad movie? On the whole, yes, it does. But for all that, is it entertaining? Weirdly, yes, but in a subdued, stopgap kind of fashion, as if this entry in the series was a bridge between previous episodes and the ones to come, ones that will (hopefully) up the series’ game considerably. After eight movies the franchise has reached a kind of tipping point: the final two outings need to be much stronger and more focused on what they’re trying to do. The series hasn’t quite run out of mileage yet, but it’s running perilously close, and if the makers aren’t careful, the remaining movies will most likely be running on fumes.

Rating: 5/10 – fans will lap this up, but The Fate of the Furious, with its tangled ideas about family and betrayal, doesn’t add up to much, and relies too heavily on its action sequences to prop up its awkward script; the cast have to make do with the same character beats they’ve been given in previous movies, and franchise first-timer Gray isn’t allowed to do anything different with the formula, making this a movie generated and made by committee, and as a result, lacking a distinct identity to make it stand out from the rest of the series.

Mini-Review: Sleepless (2017)

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D: Baran bo Odar / 95m

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, Scoot McNairy, David Harbour, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Gabrielle Union, Octavius J. Johnson, Tim Connolly

Vincent Downs (Foxx) is a crooked Las Vegas cop. Sean Cass (Harris) is his equally crooked partner. Together they steal twenty-five bundles of cocaine (though why they do this is a little fuzzy). Their use of department issue weapons gains the attention of Internal Affairs officer, Jennifer Bryant (Monaghan), who immediately suspects Downs of the theft. Convinced by her own intuition that he’s dirty, she brings her suspicions to her partner, Doug Dennison (Harbour), but he’s not convinced. Meanwhile, Downs – who has an ex-wife, Dena (Union) and teenage son Thomas (Johnson) – is trying to maintain a semblance of post-divorce family life when Thomas is abducted by local casino-cum-crime boss Stanley Rubino (Mulroney). The reason for this? Simple: the cocaine is his and he wants it back, or Thomas will pay for Downs’ actions.

Downs takes the cocaine to Rubino’s casino, but in one of those plot “twists” that never make sense, he hides twenty-three of the bundles in the casino, gives Rubino the other two and bargains for his son’s life, stating that he’ll hand over the rest when he knows his son is safe. Rubino agrees, but when Downs tries to retrieve the rest of the cocaine from its hiding place, he discovers that Bryant (who has been following him) has taken it, and in a move that would have her investigated by Internal Affairs as well, has hidden it elsewhere in the casino. But there’s a further wrinkle: the cocaine is owed to gangster Bobby Novak (McNairy), and he’s there to collect…

Nuit blanche. That’s the title of the French/Belgian/Luxembourgian co-production, released in 2011 that, in its English language guise, has become Sleepless. If it matters to you, Nuit blanche (aka Sleepless Night) has a score of 75 on Metacritic, while Sleepless has a score of 33. Which version would you rather see? (Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question.) Inevitably, Sleepless – a title that makes no sense without the word “night” attached to it – is professionally made, glamorous to look at, has Foxx and Monaghan working really hard to overcome the preposterousness of Andrea Berloff’s urgent-but-empty screenplay, and never once makes you care about Downs or his son’s predicament. It tries to, on several occasions, but thanks to a combination of Berloff’s writing and director Odar’s reliance on style over substance, it has a shallow, seen-it-all-before vibe that harms the movie more than it helps it, and which stops it from letting the audience in on the – sadly – warmed over intrigue.

Remakes of foreign language movies often suffer in comparison because there are more things that can be lost in translation than just the dialogue. Tone, the original movie’s rhythm, its location, its visual aesthetic, any subtexts – all these and more can be either abandoned or discarded in the process of “re-imagining” a movie for audiences who speak another language (though surely that’s what subtitles are for?). There may be an element of “we can do better” about these remakes, and though that certainly isn’t the case with Sleepless (and despite any intentions its makers may have had), this is still a bad idea that lets down audiences at every turn. Even its fight scenes, which see Foxx get pummelled regularly but to minimal effect even though he has a stab wound to deal with, don’t elicit enough reaction to be successful in themselves. And if an action thriller can’t get those scenes right…

Rating: 4/10 – lacklustre, and padded out with way too many establishing shots of Las Vegas itself (we know where we are, for Foxx’ sake), Sleepless is a run-of-the-mill effort that tries hard but doesn’t know how to deliver; an over-complicated script proves too much for the cast to deal with, and despite its relatively compact running time, you’ll be wishing for a quicker resolution than is actually on offer.

Hey Everyone, It’s Mike Mendez! – The Last Heist (2016) and Don’t Kill It (2016)

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2013 saw the relatively unheralded release of a low-budget creature feature called Big Ass Spider! It was silly but it was also huge fun, and it was obvious that the makers had a fondness for the material that kept things from being too silly, or derivative of other similar movies. Then in 2015, SyFy brought us the latest in their ongoing series of movies designed to make audiences want to pluck out their own eyes, or take psychotropic drugs, in an effort to forget what they’ve just seen. That movie was Lavalantula, a Sharknado-style offering that accentuated the comedy while still providing a fair few thrills along the way.

Both these movies were directed and edited by Mike Mendez, and if you’ve followed his career since his debut at Sundance, Killers (1996), then you’ll already know that even if he’s got the most risible of material to work with, somehow he still manages to elevate it beyond its limited expectations. He’s a director who’s able to take the most unlikeliest of projects and put a massive spin on them. This doesn’t make them into out-and-out classics, but it does make these movies far more bearable to watch than they have any right to be. So if you like low-budget features that are low on concept and even lower on potential, but are still enjoyable for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on, chances are it’s a Mike Mendez movie you’re watching.

The Last Heist (2016) / D: Mike Mendez / 84m

Cast: Henry Rollins, Torrance Coombs, Victoria Pratt, Michael Aaron Milligan, Mark Kelly, Kristina Klebe, John J. York, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Camilla Jackson, Nick Principe, Ken Lyle, Courtney Compton, Fay DeWitt, John O’Brien

What are the odds? You’re the leader of a group of heavily-armed bank robbers intent on stealing something very valuable from the vault of a decommissioned bank, and you discover that one of the civilians in the building – and the very one who isn’t a hostage – is a serial killer who is equally intent on killing everyone and taking their eyes as trophies. How does something like that happen? Why does it happen? Because this is the main idea behind The Last Heist, a movie that mixes horror, crime and action all together in a hodgepodge of a script that seriously doesn’t know how to actually mix them all together in the first place. Give thanks to writer Guy Stevenson for managing to be so diligent in messing things up from the start.

But then give thanks to Mike Mendez for taking Stevenson’s messy script and injecting it with some much needed energy and directorial awareness. What he does that is so remarkable, is that he doesn’t try to fix the things that can’t be fixed. Take for example, the bank’s location. To get to it, you have to enter a security code that opens a gate, then walk through what looks like a loading area into a small square where the bank itself is located. But this doesn’t look like a bank; instead it looks like an old rundown supermarket that’s recently closed. There’s a sign above the door that is never clearly seen – probably because it doesn’t have the word bank in it. And inside the bank it’s no better. It looks equally rundown, and there are corridors in back and floors above that seem to go on for ever. Seriously, the vault feels like it’s miles away. But Mendez isn’t interested in trying to make things look correct. He’s got his sets and he uses them to his best advantage, but he’s not focused on them. He’s got other things to worry about.

Mainly, that’s the cast. Mendez wisely concentrates on the performances, and in particular on often small moments within the action that offer a surprising amount of depth, depth that was unlikely to have been in Stevenson’s script originally. Rollins, naturally, is the serial killer, who does what he does because God has told him to. When he claims his first victim inside the bank, the unfortunate Tracey (Klebe), he does so with a calmness of manner that is eerily unnerving. As she bleeds out, he recites a monologue about the darkness within everyone, and his gentle tone and sympathetic ministrations are at odds with the grisly nature of his trophy collecting. Both actors are good here, and the scene is unexpectedly moving as Tracey fights against dying until she doesn’t have any strength left to do so. There are other moments like these dotted throughout the movie, as Mendez lets the characters reveal different sides of themselves, and though not everyone benefits from this kind of attention, there’s enough introspection between the action beats to offer a different perspective on things.

That said though, Mendez is lumbered with a number of clumsy plot developments that either muddy the waters or seem out of place, especially one very late reveal that feels like it was tacked on during shooting. Elsewhere, and once the body count inside the bank mounts up, Rollins is allowed to do his thing with impunity, while outside, first cop on the scene, Detective Pascal (Pratt), has to contend with a couple of comedy cops who want to go in guns blazing, and who act like they’re both six year olds who should be on Ritalin. Mendez is very good at strengthening the humour in his movies, and there are examples of very dark comedy scattered about in The Last Heist, but on this occasion the cops’ juvenile behaviour is another problem he chooses to ignore. It’s frustrating when things like that happen, but overall the rest of the movie, despite its failings, still feels like it’s a better movie than it is, and Mendez makes it so through sheer determination and no small amount of directorial wizardry.

Rating: 4/10 – a movie where individual scenes often carry more weight than the movie as a whole, the script for The Last Heist takes huge liberties with logic and credibility (as this kind of movie often does), but is saved by having Mendez in the director’s chair; with better-than-average performances, and a sure-footed sense of its own failings, Mendez elevates the material through his commitment to the project and a never-say-awful approach that helps immensely.

 

Don’t Kill It (2016) / D: Mike Mendez / 84m

Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Kristina Klebe, Tony Bentley, James Chalke, Miles Doleac

If you go down to the woods today… you’ll be possessed by a demon who leap frogs from person to person every time his host body is killed. This is what happens to a hapless hunter and his dog, and soon the small town of Chicory Creek (yes, really) is overrun by murders of whole families. But, wait. Help is at hand in the form of Jebediah Woodley (yes, really) (Lundgren), a demon hunter who knows exactly what the town is up against and who offers his services to the town sheriff (Bentley) and hometown girl-turned-FBI agent, Evelyn Pierce (Klebe). Of course, he’s taken for an interfering nutcase and promptly locked up, but when the sheriff and Evelyn see for themselves what the demon can do, their disbelief evaporates in seconds and they’re soon asking what can be done. Jebediah’s answer? Capture the demon while it’s in a human host, have someone willing to take fast-acting poison, and then get that person to kill the demon’s host body. The demon goes into the person who’s on the brink of dying, and its spirit is released, making it easy to capture and imprison.

Simple, huh? Well, in a year where we were advised not to breathe, think twice or look twice, or even hang up, not killing a murderous, psychopathic demon seems like a less than reasonable request, and naturally it proves more difficult than even Jebediah expects. Hampered by his own experiences, Jebediah is the kind of certain-minded hero who rarely gets it right until Lady Luck smiles on him and a solution to the problem of the demon is arrived at. Until that happens, the script has him carry around a large, heavy-looking net gun in the hopes of capturing the demon, while he gets to know Agent Pierce. The script here is slightly more polished than the one for The Last Heist – it doesn’t try to be more than what it is, for starters – but it still has no time for logic or credibility (it’s a middling supernatural version of The Hidden (1987), for Dolph’s sake), and it sprints from scene to scene with all the unsightly haste of a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Here, Mendez concentrates on the murders and making them as horrific as he can; and on the humour. Shotgun blasts and meat cleaver blows are shown with both clinical detachment and a surreal complicity made on the viewer’s behalf that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Mendez doesn’t shy away from showing the horror of these moments, and though the movie sheds “real” victims as it goes, those early scenes carry a surprising amount of intensity. He’s also able to draw out the comic absurdity of the situation, such as when the town pastor (Chalke) is exhorting Jebediah to leave his church. The pastor flings holy water at Jebediah from a small vial, but the amount that keeps coming out is way too much for the vial to hold. And when the pastor abjures Jebediah with the words, “The power of Christ compels you!”, our trusty hero replies, “I’m pretty sure that’s from The Exorcist“.

There are other moments where the humour rescues the drama, and stops the movie from being laudable merely for the impressive splatter effects, courtesy of special effects wizard Robert Kurtzman and his team. This time around, Mendez doesn’t concentrate as much on the performances, but instead he focuses on the pace and the rhythm of the movie, and in keeping the tone just this side of entirely ridiculous (even though it is). The result is a standard-narrative horror movie that belies its low-budget origins and bland location work to provide a more diverting and enjoyable Dolph Lundgren movie than most of us are used to. Lundgren himself is wryly amusing, and Klebe makes for a good foil for the aging action hero, but full marks must go to Tony Bentley, as the sheriff who leaves a major crime scene because he’s too scared and is never seen again. That’s a scene that shows Mendez’s skills as a director, and which is only marred by Klebe’s dialogue, which makes her sound desperate instead of authoritative. Again, Mendez overcomes several hurdles in his quest to make a better movie out of Don’t Kill It than it deserves, and he does so with style. He may not have the biggest budgets, or the casts he deserves, but Mendez is still able to overcome those problems thanks to his usual commitment and enthusiasm.

Rating: 4/10 – once again, Mendez’s involvement in a movie project means that it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as it could have done, and Don’t Kill It works far better than it has any right to; on the whole, still a bad movie, but flecked throughout with Mendez’s trademark attention to detail in one or two areas (and always to the movie’s benefit), and the occasional nod and a wink that says, “We know it’s bad, but hey, it could have been so much worse.”

Yoga Hosers (2016) – Or, Whatever Happened to Kevin Smith

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D: Kevin Smith / 88m

Cast: Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Johnny Depp, Austin Butler, Tyler Posey, Justin Long, Tony Hale, Natasha Lyonne, Adam Brody, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Genesis Rodriguez, Vanessa Paradis, Haley Joel Osment, Ralph Garman, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith

Twenty-three years ago, a young, bearded denizen of New Jersey made his first movie, the very low-budget indie comedy, Clerks. It was an overnight sensation: acutely funny within the milieu it created, and introducing audiences to two unforgettable characters in the stoner forms of Jay and Silent Bob. The young movie maker who maxed out around a dozen credit cards and sold off a large portion of his comic book collection to make his first movie was, of course, Kevin Smith. He followed it up with Mallrats (1995), a TV pilot, Hiatus (1996), Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma (1999), an unreleased Prince documentary, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), a string of projects that cemented Smith’s reputation, increased his fanbase, and garnered a fair amount of critical approval.

But somewhere around the time of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith’s energies seemed to wane. Both Jersey Girl (2004) and Clerks II (2006) felt as if Smith was treading water, while Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), despite the kind of premise that Smith could have had a lot of fun with, proved to be even more underwhelming than his previous two movies. He followed Zack and Miri… with the dreadful Cop Out (2010), a director-for-hire gig that made audiences and critics wonder why the King of Static Camerawork would be asked to make an action comedy. Red State (2011) came next, and while it was well-received by critics, and looked on as a return to form, it’s still a movie that only needs to be watched once. Smith took a break, and didn’t return to our screens until 2014, with Tusk. That particular movie, a Kafka-esque body horror comedy, was even more of a return to form (and despite an unnecessary cameo from Johnny Depp). Now, Smith has chosen to follow Tusk with Yoga Hosers, a movie for kids, and the second in the True North trilogy (Moose Jaws will complete the series).

For all that Smith has been making strides in regaining the kind of critical and audience mass that went with his work in the Nineties, Yoga Hosers remains Smith’s worst movie to date, a sprawling, endlessly disappointing concoction that lies flat on the screen like the title character in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) (and without that character’s internal life to help it). By taking two minor characters from Tusk – the store clerks who didn’t even have names – and spinning a whole movie around them, Smith has managed to do three things all at the same time: one, write his lamest script yet; two, bring back Depp’s eye-swivelling private detective Guy Lapointe to no greater effect than before; and three, prove that nepotism is alive and well when it comes to making movies.

This time, the two store clerks are given names – Colleen Collette (Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Smith) – and are portrayed as vacuous fifteen year olds who can’t live without their phones for more than five seconds, who disparage everyone and everything around them, and who seem destined to be the lead characters in Clerks III (should Smith ever write it). Working at the store owned by Colleen C’s dad (Hale), the pair spend much of their worktime rehearsing songs with their only other bandmate, drummer Ichabod (Brody) (cue a string of “inspired” jokes such as “Dickabod” that will give you an idea of the level Smith is aiming for). One night, one of their customers is murdered in a nearby park (though why in a park is a mystery the movie doesn’t have an answer for). The killer? Ah, there’s the rub (as Shakespeare would put it), because the killer is a six-inch tall Nazi bratwurst – or Bratzi.

Inevitably, there’s a back story, a tale of Nazis in Canada, and the legacy of Aryan supremo Andronicus Arcane (Garman). There’s cryogenesis, an arrested experiment that gives rise to the Bratzis, and a Bratzi-filled creature that’s made out of body parts and is technically inanimate, but which can still be kicked between the legs as a means of hindering it. And in an extended scene that matches Lapointe’s lone scene in Tusk for abject pointlessness, Garman gets to monologue by doing impressions of actors such as Al Pacino (‘hoo-ah!”) and Sylvester Stallone. So clever is Smith’s script, he has the Colleens unable to recognise any of Arcane’s impressions, thus reinforcing the notion (already made several times) that they don’t know about anyone or anything that hasn’t happened within their lifetime, or who isn’t their friend on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. (When Smith includes social commentary like that, it’s a shame he doesn’t realise how much it’s been done before.)

But being clever, and putting together a script that gels in all the right ways, is something that Smith seems unable to do anymore. Along with the Bratzis, the Colleens have to endure Collette C’s irritating stepmom (Lyonne) (quite lame), two teen Satanists (Butler, Posey) out to claim their virgin souls (very lame), and the snarky comments of their customers (not lame, just boring). What’s most dispiriting about the script is that Smith no longer seems to have that distinctive ear for dialogue that he had back in the days of the Quick Stop. Here, it’s all about providing the Colleens with the kind of empty-headed dialogue that confirms their latent idiocy, while poking fun at the Canadian accent, particularly the way they say words like about, which sounds like ah-boot, as in “I’m sorry ah-boot that”. Stress the word once and it’s mildly funny; stress it a hundred times and it becomes tedious.

Ultimately, the whole thing looks and sounds like a mess that’s been made off the back of a draft script that Smith couldn’t be bothered to tidy up or give a proper shape to. The performances range from grating (Depp as Lapointe, Rodriguez as the Colleens Phys Ed teacher), to one-note (Depp as Lapointe, Lyonne, Hale, Posey, Garman), to passable (Depp as Colleen C, Smith as Colleen M, Long as their yoga teacher), but it’s hard to stand out when the script you’re working from is determined to be as juvenile as possible while also trying to hold onto a semi-adult sensibility (this is only a movie for kids if those kids are fourteen to seventeen in age). Smith just doesn’t seem to have the focus or the fire that would make this movie even partially entertaining, and long stretches of it pass by without making any difference to the plot, any of the storylines, or any of the characters. And the Colleens remain the same at the end as they were at the beginning.

Whatever’s going on with Smith at the moment, one thing is very clear: like Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Smith needs to get his mojo back. How he’s going to do that – or if he can – remains to be seen, but right now he’s fast becoming a member of that singular group of movie makers, the ones who are fast out of the gate with their first movie, but who struggle to maintain the initial quality of their work. Directors such as Tobe Hooper and Spike Lee, movie makers for whom the news of a new project is no longer cause for the kind of interest they garnered earlier in their career. Smith is at that point, where his career may be better suited to podcasting and one-man shows than it is to making movies. Time, perhaps, for a rethink going forward, before his career is littered with more bad movies than good.

Rating: 3/10 – if this is what Kevin Smith is happy to see released with his name attached, then Yoga Hosers is a sign that any ideas relating to originality he may have had have long since left the building; he’s already proven that low budget doesn’t have to mean low quality, but this has all the hallmarks of a movie made cheaply and with the idea of making a quick return before anyone realises just how awful it is.

True Memoirs of an International Assassin (2016)

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D: Jeff Wadlow / 98m

Cast: Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Kim Coates, Zulay Henao, Maurice Compte, Andrew Howard, Yul Vazquez, Leonard Earl Howze, Rob Riggle, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Katie Couric

Sometimes you just want to sit down and watch a movie and not have to think about it. Sometimes all you need is a movie that you don’t expect much from, or a movie that you’re pretty sure isn’t going to live up to any expectations you may or may not have, and just be that movie, the one that you can watch without waiting for this moment or that moment to happen. A movie that, when it’s over, you can say, “Okay, that did the trick, I needed that.” A movie that can be as awful as it likes, and it doesn’t make any difference. All it needs to do is keep you occupied – mostly – for an hour and a half (or maybe more) and maybe help you tick the box marked “Seen it”.

A perfect candidate for this kind of movie is True Memoirs of an International Assassin, the latest “comedy” from Netflix. After The Ridiculous 6 (2015) and Special Correspondents (2016), you might think that Netflix would have wanted to reconsider their comedy projects, but True Memoirs… shoots down that idea within the first fifteen minutes, the period in which the movie is at its funniest. Would-be writer Sam Larson (James) is putting the finishing touches to his latest book. We see his lead character, Mason Carver  (also James), fight off a horde of bad guys until he’s faced by one carrying an RPG. Deciding that an RPG is a little over the top, Sam has trouble coming up with an alternative. While he thinks about it, we see Mason and the (ex-)RPG carrier waiting around for the solution so that they can continue. They look like two actors on a set waiting for the next set up, or new script pages. It’s funny, and anyone watching the movie should remember this sequence well, because once it’s over, that’s as funny as the movie gets.

They say that comedy is harder than straight drama, and watching True Memoirs… is like trying to watch a comedy that has taken that particular maxim to heart and is doing everything it can to prove the saying right. Rejected by seemingly every publisher under the sun, Sam’s ambitions are kept alive by the unexpected appearance of an online publishing rep called Kylie (Coleman). She takes his manuscript, makes one very important change to the title, and the next thing he knows, Sam has a runaway bestseller on his hands. That change? It’s in the movie’s title: Sam’s book was originally called Memoirs of an International Assassin. Though his book is a work of fiction, Sam does his research, and he’s helped by his friend and ex-Mossad analyst, Amos (Rifkin) (can everyone say “lazy plotting”?). A story about a real assassin who was around in the Eighties and was called the Ghost, has found its way into Sam’s book, and now it’s non-fiction status and level of detail has people thinking Sam is actually the Ghost.

Now, if you’re watching this on Netflix – and chances are more people will see it there than will buy it on DVD or Blu-ray – then this is the point at which you should pause the movie and think very hard about that last sentence. People think Sam is really the Ghost. Later on this month (the 26th to be exact), Kevin James will be forty-two years old (and looks it). In order for Sam to be the Ghost he would have had to have been a pre-teen when he began his life as an international assassin. But nobody – seriously, nobody – brings this up. Not Andy Garcia’s Venezuelan freedom fighter, not his second-in-command, Juan (Compte), not even bumbling CIA field agents Cleveland (Howze) and Cobb (Riggle). Can everyone say “stupid plotting”?

Sam is kidnapped by Garcia’s El Toro and threatened with a horrible death unless he agrees to kill the Venezuelan President, Miguel Cueto (Coates). Through a further series of encounters too tedious to recount here, Sam is also tasked with killing a Russian criminal called Anton Masovich (Howard). Aided by DEA agent, Rosa Bolivar (Henao), Sam manages to avoid getting killed long enough to put a plan of sorts into action, one that involves bugging the President, and supporting El Toro’s revolution. By this stage, the screenplay – by director Wadlow and Jeff Morris – is intent on piling on huge levels of exposition onto huge levels of exposition as it does its best to make what should be a simple enough premise into something much more unwieldy and irksome. It’s a scenario that abandons simplicity almost from the beginning, and never looks back (it may actually be frightened to).

Fans of brain-dead comedies will no doubt enjoy True Memoirs… but for everyone else, the endless machinations that keep Sam ahead of everyone else will soon become tiresome, and the decreasing attempts at making the viewer laugh will become horribly apparent. By the movie’s end, discerning viewers will be wondering if they’ve really just wasted ninety-eight minutes of their life on this farrago, while even those viewers who were looking for the kind of distraction mentioned in the first paragraph will be shaking their heads in despair. When you end up hoping for something to come along to distract you from the distraction you’re already experiencing, then it’s time to choose your distractions more carefully.

Forced to carry the weight of the movie on his shoulders, James struggles to remain cheerful throughout, and soon gives in to the script’s requirement that he repeat over and over that he’s not the Ghost, while behaving like a petulant coward (and looking for a way out of his contract). James has a proscribed gift for physical comedy, but here he’s not given the chance to highlight that gift. Instead he’s pressed more into action hero mode, acquitting himself well in a series of fight scenes that are well choreographed and surprisingly invigorating. At all other times he plays the same physically awkward, bumbling, slightly desperate character he pretty much always plays. It makes you think that if True Memoirs… was written with James in mind, then he needs to avoid these kind of scripts in the future.

Orchestrating it all is Wadlow, a writer/director who for some reason was allowed to give us Kick-Ass 2 (2013). The same stumbling approach to the material that marred that movie is repeated here, with unexplained tonal shifts thrown in for good measure, and the cast encouraged to play their roles as clichéd stereotypes, or even stereotypical clichés. Garcia is wasted in his role (and that’s not a drug reference), Compte and Vazquez are allowed to pop up every now and then and add little to the overall narrative, Henao is tasked with being earnest while the camera focuses elsewhere, and Coates is in a different movie altogether as the Venezuelan President whose real name is Mike, and who doesn’t want the job anymore. Such is the variety and the standard of the performances, it’s obvious that Wadlow gave everyone carte blanche to do what they wanted. It would have been best if they’d all said no to the script (and a working holiday in the Dominican Republic), and just stayed at home. And if they needed to, watched something distracting.

Rating: 3/10 – while comedy is definitely harder to pull off than drama, there’s no argument when the comedy doesn’t even try that hard to beat the odds; a prime example of less is less, True Memoirs of an International Assassin is an embarrassing hodge-podge of stock situations and characters that reinforces the idea that when it comes to movies, Netflix are really good at making television shows.

Salt and Fire (2016)

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D: Werner Herzog / 98m

Cast: Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael García Bernal, Volker Michalowski, Lawrence Krauss, Danner Ignacio Márquez Arancibia, Gabriel Márquez Arancibia

If you’re a fan of movies where the characters sit around philosophising obliquely on the nature of existence or other such topics, and where said characters behave in a mannered, artificial way that doesn’t reflect the behaviour of anyone you know or have ever met, then Werner Herzog’s latest foray into movie making, Salt and Fire, will provide you with ninety-eight minutes of elliptical, cod-poetic pleasure. What ostensibly looks like a thriller soon turns into something else entirely, and just as you get to grips with where Herzog is taking you, he then pulls the rug out from under you and leaves you to deal with yet another change in tone – or, as you might want to put it, his latest attempt at narrative (and audience) manipulation.

Such is the case with Salt and Fire, which begins with a car heading toward a lonely country estate. Once arrived, we see lots of armed guards, and a blindfolded woman taken out of the car and led inside. There she is surrounded by even more men, all of whom are wearing balaclavas to disguise their faces; one is even in a wheelchair. The woman is a scientist, Dr Laura Sommerfeld (Ferres), and it transpires that she is the head of a United Nations team sent to investigate a recent ecological disaster that has occurred somewhere in South America. Accompanied by two colleagues, Dr Fabio Cavani (Bernal) and Dr Arnold Meier (Michalowski), Sommerfeld is expecting to be met at the airport by a government representative. Instead, all three of them are flown to another location, and upon arrival, are kidnapped.

At the country estate, matters are made no clearer, and Sommerfeld is kept away from her colleagues. The man who seems to be in charge won’t explain why they’ve been abducted, but he does tell her that there won’t be any ransom demand. She’s given her own room, treated fairly despite the situation, and soon the man in charge reveals himself to be Matt Riley (Shannon), the CEO of The Consortium, the company responsible for the ecological disaster. Days pass without Sommerfeld becoming any the wiser as to the reason for Riley’s actions, but a grudging respect does develop between them. One day they head out on a trip to the site of the disaster, a vast expanse of salt flats known as El Diablo Blanco, and which is expanding at an exponential rate that could see it cover the entire continent in – possibly – a generation. Nearby is a supervolcano, Uturunku, that is showing signs of increased activity, and Riley is worried by that as well, though whether or not The Consortium is responsible for that, Riley neither confirms or denies.

By this stage of the movie, Shannon has been saddled with the kind of dialogue that could best be described as “pretentious twaddle”. Lines such as, “There is no reality, there are only perceptions of reality”, or “Truth is the only daughter of time”, are delivered with as much depth and sincerity as the actor can give them, but they just add to the whole pretentiousness of the situation. But once we’re at the salt flats, Herzog does us all a favour and removes Shannon and his daft philosophising from the movie, and leaves Sommerfeld stranded on a rocky outcrop that’s home to hundreds of cacti, and with supplies to last about a week. Oh, and she’s stranded there with two young boys, both nearly blind, called Huascar (Danner Arancibia) and Atahualpa (Gabriel Arancibia).

In this third act, Sommerfeld occupies her time by playing unofficial mum to the boys (who seem completely unperturbed by their being stranded in the middle of the salt flats), looking out over the vast expanse surrounding them, or making short videos on her tablet (which miraculously retains its battery charge for the whole time). Finally, and with their water on the verge of running out, Sommerfeld and the two brothers are saved by a twist that is as unlikely and dramatically unsound as most of the rest of the movie. If you’re still here at this point, you might be thinking that Herzog spent just as much time writing the script – itself based on the story, Aral, by Tom Bissell – as he did shooting it (a mere sixteen days). It’s a movie that rarely makes sense, rarely seems coherent, and though it’s trying to make a point about Man’s impact on nature, it makes the point so badly that no one’s ever going to care.

But while this is a movie by Werner Herzog that aims high and then never gets off the ground, this is also a Werner Herzog movie, and though it has a number of faults, and many of them are insurmountable, it can’t be dismissed so easily. Whatever he may be guilty of here, Herzog is still one of the most ingenious and perceptive directors working today, and while his dialectic approach to the material is an unfortunate liability, what isn’t is the truly stunning cinematography courtesy of Peter Zeitlinger. Salt and Fire features an impressive array of aerial views and beautifully framed landscapes, and the salt flats themselves, the quietly incredible Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Zeitlinger captures their vast expanse and the intricate nature of their honeycomb-like appearance so vividly that watching them can’t fail to provoke a response, even if that response is hard to articulate. What’s even more impressive is that the flats have been heavily exploited as a tourist attraction in recent years (you half expect the latest Kia model to zoom past in the background), but thanks to Zeitlinger’s diligence, you wouldn’t know it from seeing the movie.

Despite the poor quality of the script, and the lack of both nuance and insight, Salt and Fire, thanks to Herzog’s innate skill as a director, is still a mesmersing experience. There are few directors who could make a movie such as this one and still make it absorbing to watch, even if it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, doesn’t give its cast a fair chance at providing good performances (Bernal’s lascivious, hysterical Italian feels like he should be in a romantic comedy instead of a semi-literate exploration of whatever Herzog is trying to say), and doesn’t bother to provide credible motivations for the characters. Instead, what’s surprisingly effective about the movie is the mood Herzog creates. He’s described Salt and Fire as “a daydream that doesn’t follow the rules of cinema”, and on that level, he’s not too far off. Somehow it manages to get under your skin and it keeps you watching right until the end.

With both Ferres and Shannon doing their best to cope with the demands of Herzog’s script, but left to drift without any recognisable direction – Shannon randomly shouts at his female co-star, Ferres talks to her tablet as if it were another character – there’s even less for Bernal and Michalowski to do, and they soon disappear from the story, their characters left suffering from extreme diarrhoea (if there’s a subtext here it’s incredibly difficult to track it down). Only Krauss provides some much-needed levity, but inevitably, it’s at odds with the overall tone. It all adds up to possibly Herzog’s worst fiction feature ever – yes, even worse than Queen of the Desert (2015) – and a clear indication that not every director should work from their own script.

Rating: 4/10 – with its fragmented structure and appetite for obfuscation, Salt and Fire is a misfire that will probably have little effect on Herzog’s ability to make the kind of movies he wants to make; dramatically inert for long stretches but saved by some outstanding photography, it’s a movie that frustrates and confounds without any consideration for the negative effect these drawbacks have on the movie as a whole (or, indeed, Herzog’s reputation).

20th Century Women (2016)

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D: Mike Mills / 119m

Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup

Mike Mills’ last movie was the appealing and very enjoyable Beginners (2010), in which Christopher Plummer gave an Oscar-winning performance. Six years on and Mills has upped his game considerably with 20th Century Women, a semi-autobiographical tale set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. By writing a script that’s much closer to home than his previous outings, Mills has made a quirky, sensitive, and much more mature feature, and one that impresses on a variety of levels.

It begins with declarations of life, as divorced, single mother Dorothea (Bening) recounts giving birth to her son, Jamie (Zumann). Despite being a single mother, and receiving no support from her ex-husband, Dorothea views those early years when it was just her and Jamie with warm-hearted nostalgia. But finances being what they were, Dorothea was forced to take in lodgers. In 1979, with Jamie aged fifteen, he and his mother live with Abbie (Gerwig), a budding photographer, and William (Crudup), a carpenter whose work on the house is often paid for in lieu of rent. Abbie is like a big sister to Jamie, but he and William are virtually strangers to each other. Add in the presence of Julie (Fanning), Jamie’s best friend (and object of his romantic affections), and Dorothea begins to believe that her son, because he doesn’t have a father (or father figure) to guide him, and because she feels as if her connection with him is slipping away, decides he needs help “understanding women” and being a “good man”.

To this end, Dorothea recruits Abbie and Julie and persuades them to help Jamie learn more about life and relationships and women. When she tells him this, he reacts angrily and goes off with some of his friends to L.A. to see a concert. When he gets back he finds out that Julie has slept with someone and thinks she might be pregnant. Leading on from that, Dorothea advises Jamie that Abbie, who is in remission from cervical cancer, will be attending a doctor’s appointment and may receive bad news; she asks that he be at home in case she needs some support (Dorothea can’t be there). Instead, he goes with her. The news is both good and bad, but Abbie is glad of Jamie’s presence, and she starts to “teach” him about women by giving him books on feminism.

Jamie’s “education” causes a growing rift between him and his mother, and it provokes a straining of the relationships between Abbie and Dorothea, Jamie and Julie, and William and Dorothea. The friendship between Jamie and Julie is tested the most: an admission made by Julie causes him to question his feelings for her, but she manages to persuade him to take a trip along the coast with her. In San Luis Obispo, things come to a sticking point and Jamie leaves Julie at the motel where they’re staying. Julie alerts Dorothea, and she heads there along with William and Abbie. It proves to be a turning point for everyone, and the status quo is irrevocably affected.

There is so much more to 20th Century Women that any proper synopsis would run to thousands of words instead of mere hundreds. What is mentioned above is only a fraction of the material that Mills has collated for his screenplay, but almost none of it feels extraneous or superficial. Each scene acts in service to the character(s) appearing in it, and each scene helps to further the narrative and the myriad of subplots that float along waiting for the next occasion when they can be exploited. Mills has written such a carefully constructed screenplay that there are dozens of moments that echo or resonate in relation to both earlier and future moments (yes, it’s that good a script), and there are a similar amount of subtle references and non-linear connections that add to the quality and the depth of his writing.

Mills has also taken the time to make the various characters memorable and credible and unique in their own way, with special attention given to the relationships between them all. Dorothea is an odd mix of honest maternal concern and inappropriate parenting, wanting her son to be a “good man” but still wishing he could remain her little boy. The emotional tug-of-war that occurs through these warring factions leave Dorothea looking and sounding a little distracted at times, as if the notion of being a mother requires abstract thought for it to make sense (to her, at least). Bening perfectly captures the hopeful, yet curiously distant nature of Jamie’s mother with her customary skill and attention to character detail, making her by turns alarmingly obtuse and/or resolutely indifferent, and fixated by love at the same time. It’s a fine balancing act, and one that would have challenged most actresses, but Bening carries it off with seeming ease, displaying an emotional and intellectual dexterity in the role that serves as a reminder of just how fine an actress she is.

There are equally impressive turns from Fanning and Gerwig. As the seemingly carefree (and care-less) Julie, Fanning shows the character’s innate vulnerability even when she’s trying to be offhand or dismissive of her feelings, and there are times when Julie seems determined to suffer the fate she believes others expect her to. This kind of disturbing fatalism can be difficult to pull off (if it’s given too much emphasis it can come across as irreparably narcissistic), but Fanning acquits herself well, grounding the character through the discomfort and confusion she feels at being regarded solely as an object of desire. Gerwig is just as impressive as Abbie, taking the character’s history and using it to portray a young woman who speaks for the rights of others, but who seems unable to heed her own advice when it comes to the opposite sex. Like Jamie, she lacks a father figure in her life, and this informs her behaviour far more than she would like to admit, and when she’s challenged over this, she can only retaliate, and in doing so, deflect the pain she’s all too aware she’s causing herself. It’s a very subtle role indeed, but Gerwig carries it off with style and confidence.

On the male side, Crudup is the kind of sensitive, caring man who always appears attractive to women, even though they won’t ever commit to a sustained relationship with him, and the actor portrays him with an easy-going attitude that plays off well against the stresses and strained emotions of the female characters. And then there’s Zumann, a young actor showing a lot of promise, and more than capable of keeping up with his more experienced co-stars. Like a lot of child actors, Zumann has the ability to be casually audacious, and show the kind of emotional range that some adult actors never achieve. He’s intuitive, adventurous, quick off the mark, and he has the gift of making it seem that he’s much more wiser than his years. His scenes with Bening are touching, and Mills is to be congratulated for finding a young actor who can share a scene with her and not be intimidated or do anything that doesn’t match the effort she herself is putting in.

By setting the movie in 1979, Mills makes use of that period’s history to provide a backdrop of social and political upheaval that compliments the upheavals going on in the Fields’ household. He also plays deliberate havoc with the characters’ pasts and futures, illuminating them in a way that adds even more resonance to the main storylines. And while it can be an emotionally messy movie at times, Mills has become such a strong, confident movie maker that he can be forgiven the occasional misstep. He’s said in the past that, “Making a movie is so hard, you’d better make movies about something you really know about.” By making this semi-autobiographical tale so moving and funny and poignant and life-affirming, he’s certainly done that, and to an incredibly rewarding degree.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that constantly surprises and impresses, 20th Century Women is that rare thing: a picture about women told from a male perspective and infused with a great deal of understanding and respect; with a clutch of great performances, and an equally great soundtrack to accompany it, Mills and his cast and crew have created a movie that is so good, repeat viewings will only make it look and sound better.

Free Fire (2016)

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D: Ben Wheatley / 90m

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin

It’s 1978 (not that it really matters), and at an abandoned warehouse in Boston, two groups come together to conclude an arms deal. Chris (Murphy) and Frank (Smiley), are members of the IRA, and they’re accompanied by two local career criminals, Bernie (Cilenti) and Stevo (Riley). They’re attempting to buy M-16’s from arms dealer Vernon (Copley) and his associate, Martin (Ceesay); they in turn have back-up in the form of Harry (Reynor) and Gordon (Taylor). Also present are facilitators Justine (Larson), who has brought the two groups together, and Ord (Hammer) who is there to ensure the deal goes through without any problems.

But as night follows day and action comedies demand conflict followed by murderous gunplay, the deal almost falls through when Vernon reveals a case containing AR-70’s and not the M-16’s Chris ordered. Ord helps pacify things and the deal goes ahead, with Chris accepting the guns and Vernon happy with his payment. But the inevitable fly in the ointment occurs when Stevo recognises Harry as the person who beat him up earlier over Stevo’s treatment of Harry’s seventeen year old cousin. Harry sees him and is incensed, and the deal is in jeopardy again. Chris tells Stevo to apologise, but though he does, he can’t resist bragging about what he did to Harry’s cousin. Harry responds by shooting Stevo in the shoulder, and the next moment everybody is shooting at each other, and fanning out across the warehouse.

What follows sees everybody shot and wounded in some way, but in particular it’s Martin who becomes everyone’s focus as he suffers a head wound that leaves him unconscious and lying next to the briefcase with the money inside it. Efforts are made to retrieve it on both sides, but it proves more difficult than anyone could have expected, and further injuries/wounds occur, leaving pretty much everyone struggling to stay alive – and when two further men turn up and shoot at them all, the whole situation goes from bad to worse to ridiculous.

The Closing Night Gala at last year’s London Film Festival, Free Fire is a movie that further cements writer/director Ben Wheatley’s reputation, but does so in a way that will have some viewers wondering what all the fuss is about. This doesn’t mean that Wheatley isn’t a talent to watch, or that his movies aren’t worth watching either, but Free Fire arrives in cinemas with a wealth of expectation behind it following its successfully received screenings at various festivals. Whether or not that level of expectation is warranted will depend on your acceptance of Wheatley being a movie maker with a distinctive visual style, and something to say. Because even though Free Fire is certainly distinctive, and directed with no small amount of flair by Wheatley, it’s not his most accomplished movie to date, and after the misfire that was High-Rise (2015), prompts the question, When will he make another movie that really confirms the talent we all know he has?

This isn’t to say that Free Fire is necessarily a bad movie, but it does appear to have been made with the intention of being entertaining, and it’s here that the movie gives cause for concern. For a director of Wheatley’s talent and rising stature, Free Fire feels too forced too often to be effective, or win over its audience. Some viewers, if they take the movie at face value, will find it enjoyable, but in a kind of loud, dumb fun kind of way. Wheatley, and his co-writer (and wife) Amy Jump, have gone for a crowd-pleasing black comedy action thriller that focuses heavily on the “fun” to be had from seeing a group of villainous individuals shoot each other, and which then sits back and watches them suffer even further.

This is where the notion that the movie is “fun” loses traction the longer the movie goes on. By letting all of its motley assortment of characters drag themselves around to less and less dramatic effect – Stevo’s demise is a particular example, a moment that makes no sense given his capacity thus far for survival – the problem of what to do with them all becomes increasingly more difficult for Wheatley to solve. In the end, he signposts the movie’s final scene, attempts to wrap it all up neatly, and confirms that any originality has been spent long before. For all its likeability, the movie hopes to beguile its audience into thinking that it’s fresh, sharp and funny, and though it does raise a smile quite often, this is more to do with the performances than Wheatley and Jump’s script.

Once the action and the shooting begins, some viewers will be left wondering who’s shooting and wounding who, and why co-writers Wheatley and Jump couldn’t have hired someone other than themselves to edit the movie. In the initial melee, it’s hard to work out just exactly what’s going on, and while it may serve to highlight the chaotic nature of the action, the spacing and the staging of the various protagonists isn’t made clear enough for viewers to accurately gauge where everyone is and how anyone can shoot anyone else. As a result, characters are hit – some more than once – and often it seems as if it’s the random choice of the screenplay. The effect this has is to distance the viewer from what’s happening – and to whom – and to reduce the characters to little more than that of ducks in a shooting gallery.

Thankfully, the cast know what they’re doing, from Copley’s quick to take offence arms dealer, to Hammer’s smooth-talking facilitator, to Riley’s drug-addled liability. As the lone female in the cast, Larson quickly becomes “one of the lads” as Justine has no option but to fight for her own survival just like everyone else. Strangely though, it’s Murphy’s IRA man who is the movie’s nominal hero, but the movie doesn’t do anything with this, and like its period setting, lacks any relevance to the action. But then relevance doesn’t appear to be in Wheatley’s remit. Instead, he wants to bludgeon us with a movie whose ambition is to be a wildly anarchic, blackly amusing thrill ride that will have audiences wincing and laughing in equal measure. He succeeds with the wincing, and occasionally with the laughing, but overall, this is dispiriting stuff from a director who can do so much more. Perhaps this is a movie Wheatley had to do in order to “get it out of his system”, and if so, then hopefully his next project will showcase his real talents as a movie maker.

Rating: 6/10 – on a basic level, Free Fire is a movie that will attract a lot of fans, and for some, reinforce their opinion of Wheatley’s skill as a director; however, even as a slice of depth-free entertainment, it fails to hit the mark fully, and stumbles too often in its execution to offer more than an occasionally diverting experience, leavened only by the occasional humorous twist, and an equally occasional sense of its own absurdity.

Mini-Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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D: Rupert Sanders / 107m

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Peter Ferdinando, Anamaria Marinca, Chin Han, Kaori Momoi

While watching Ghost in the Shell, the latest animation to live action remake to reach our screens, it’s not too long before the question, Why? pops up. As in, why has this movie been made in the first place? Visually stunning but emotionally stagnant, this close proximity adaptation of the manga original (released in 1995) looks impressive, but soon reveals a heart that is as non-existent as its lead character’s. This is a sleek, shiny, superficial movie that in some ways has a very apt title: the movie is a ghost in its own shell, offering little in the way of a coherent or cohesive meaningful subtext about what it means to be synthetic of body and yet human of mind. This makes it very difficult to sympathise with Scarlett Johansson’s Major, despite her frowning a lot of the time as if she’s trying to work out a particularly difficult Sudoku puzzle.

Although this is a very faithful adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking anime, somewhere along the way, the essence of Oshii’s work has been jettisoned in favour of a standard, by-the-numbers approach that keeps its characters firmly entrenched in a kind of personality-free limbo, and which struggles to provide equally standard motivations for their actions. Major’s dilemma: are the glitches she experiences part of a past that has been suppressed (for nefarious reasons), or merely issues with her current programming, is played out in such a way that there’s no emotional payoff or impact when – surprise! – the extent of those nefarious reasons are revealed.

Part of the problem here is the amount of time that’s passed since the original Ghost in the Shell was released. Twenty-two years on and the issues it raises around notions of self-identity and cyber-assisted body enhancement have become too commonplace in cinema for this incarnation to contain any resonance. With nothing new to offer, or even follow up on, the movie lacks the relevancy it could have had if it had been made twenty years ago. Instead, it makes a few spurious attempts at looking and sounding significant, and opts for a bland, uninspired standpoint that ensures the movie takes no real risks with the material (aside from the equally spurious idea that Johansson’s casting was a case of “whitewashing”).

With the script – credited to Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger – showing signs of ennui thanks to its long gestation process (the project was first announced in 2008), and Sanders unable to overcome the problems that hold it back from allowing its audience to engage with it, Ghost in the Shell ultimately – and ironically given how impressive it looks – suffers from a lack of vision that does it more harm than good. As a result, the cast are often left stranded by the banal nature of the material. Johansson tries her best, but is hamstrung by having to look deadly serious all the time, while Asbæk and Binoche have thankless secondary roles; only Kitano has the measure of his character, and he plays the head of Section 9 perfectly. In the end, the movie is only effective in its many well-choreographed action scenes, but even they’re not enough to offset the tedium that makes up the rest of its running time.

Rating: 6/10 – anyone looking for a live action anime with depth and something to say about the ethics of melding humans and machines should look elsewhere, as Ghost in the Shell has little to say about either; a remake that lacks purpose and drive, it’s a movie that disappoints on many levels, and which makes the cardinal sin of not being very interesting.

All Nighter (2017)

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D: Gavin Wiesen / 86m

Cast: J.K. Simmons, Emile Hirsch, Taran Killam, Analeigh Tipton, Jon Daly, Kristen Schaal, Xosha Roquemore, Shannon Woodward

Martin (Hirsch) is a struggling musician who plays the banjo in an on-again, off-again band. Ginnie (Tipton) is his beautiful, confident girlfriend. Frank (Simmons) is her workaholic father who spends most of his time abroad. Frank and Ginnie’s mother are divorced. Martin is intimidated by Frank, even though Ginnie tells him he shouldn’t be. When the three of them meet up for dinner, Martin continues to be intimidated, Ginnie continues to be reassuring, and Frank proves to be aloof and unimpressed by Martin. It’s almost but-not-quite, the dinner from hell.

Fast forward six months and Martin is woken one afternoon by someone at his door. He finds Frank on his doorstep looking for Ginnie. He hasn’t been able to get hold of her for a couple of days and is worried. But Frank is unaware that Martin and Ginnie split up three months before. However, Frank is a resourceful man, and when Martin remembers that Ginnie went to stay with their friends, Gary and Roberta (Killam, Schaal), he coerces a still mostly intimidated Martin into helping him find her. The pair soon find that Gary and Roberta have their own issues (some of it involving cheese) as well as the address Ginnie has moved to. Unsurprisingly, though, they can’t find it, and Frank and Martin begin searching for Ginnie through the places she’s worked at.

Soon they learn that Ginnie is seeing someone new, someone referred to as Mr Hot Stuff. But they’re still no nearer to finding her, despite some promising nods in the right direction, and Frank’s persuasive way with strangers. Along the way they encounter an assortment of Ginnie’s friends and work colleagues, get into a couple of fights, fall foul of the law, and (inevitably) learn that they have more in common than they thought. And by the end of the night, both men will have also learnt a lot about themselves as well.

A variation on the mismatched buddy movie, All Nighter is an amiable, good-natured comedy that – to its credit – doesn’t try too hard to make its audience like it, and as a result, proves to be endearing and enjoyable. In terms of the hoops that Seth Owen’s script makes Frank and Martin jump through, there’s nothing too outrageous (though a certain sex toy is likely to give the average viewer pause for thought), and if any offence is given, then it’s unlikely to have been intended. The only moment where the script teeters off-balance and seems like it’s about to fall into character disrepute is when Martin calls someone a rapist. It’s an odd misstep in a movie that’s as genial and inoffensive as you’re likely to see all year.

Despite its amiable nature, the movie does have several key strengths. One is the pairing of Simmons and Hirsch. Trading somewhat on his character from Whiplash (2014), Simmons plays Frank as a controlling, no-nonsense, humourless man of mystery (he works in “procurement”), and the actor’s stony, icily bemused features are a joy to watch as he displays his continual annoyance at everything and (almost) everyone around him. He’s contained, conservative, and contemptuous of Martin’s more freewheeling, carefree lifestyle. In contrast, Hirsch portrays Martin as the direct opposite of Frank: he’s insecure, unable to make decisions, and he’s not quite as concerned as Frank is over Ginnie’s apparent disappearance. He even has the solution to the problem of finding her (it involves knowing just who to speak to), but he allows Frank to talk him out of doing it.

As a double act, Simmons is ostensibly the straight man, and Hirsch the funny one, but their characters are such that those roles flip back and forth between them throughout the movie. Each has some damning things to say about the other, and each has some encouraging things to say about the other, and it’s in this way that Owen and second-time director Wiesen tease out the growing friendship between the two. It’s not unusual in this kind of movie for two markedly different characters to find a common ground and a mutual understanding, and All Nighter is exactly that kind of movie, but here it’s done in such a slow, unforced manner that it very nearly creeps up on the viewer before they’ve even realised it’s happened.

With both actors on very good form, it’s heartening to realise that one of the movie’s other key strengths is the simple nature of its storyline. Too often these days, too many movies feel as if they have to be edgy or dark or quietly subversive (or even openly subversive), and it’s to All Nighter‘s credit that it doesn’t try to be anything other than a straightforward search for someone who’s missing. There are the necessary obstacles that have to be overcome before they can be found, but none of the obstacles here feel forced or contrived. A lot of the humour comes out of the characters rather than the situations they find themselves in, and a lot of the drama – yes, there’s drama as well – is similarly well-rooted. You may not be surprised at what happens, but at least everything is in keeping with the basic set up.

By keeping everything fairly low-key and on an even keel (two more of its key strengths) , the movie does risk losing the viewer’s interest, and some of the minor characters are one step removed from being stereotypes, but this is a movie that needs to be approached purely as a pleasant, undemanding hour and a half that won’t change your life or make you want to take on the world. Instead it’s that rare thing: a movie that has modest ambitions and achieves them through a modest approach and an awareness that what it’s doing isn’t going to have critics falling all over themselves to praise it. Kevin Costner might call it “neat”, others may damn it with faint praise, but if you sit down to watch All Nighter in the right frame of mind, then it won’t disappoint you.

Rating: 7/10 – you won’t find anything original or different on show in All Nighter, but in this case that’s not a bad thing, as this is the kind of agreeable, diverting “fluff movie” that is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food; back in the Thirties, Hollywood used to churn dozens of movies like this every year, and now they’re looked on with fondness, a fate that wouldn’t be inappropriate for this movie in another eighty years from now.

Monthly Roundup – March 2017

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Fist Fight (2017) / D: Richie Keen / 91m

Cast: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, Dennis Haysbert, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Alexa Nisenson

Rating: 3/10 – meh; lame on levels you wouldn’t have thought possible (Bell’s character wants to have sex with a pupil – and doesn’t think it’s wrong), Fist Fight is a virtually laugh-free exercise that wastes the time of everyone concerned, and its unsuspecting audience.

I.T. (2016) / D: John Moore / 95m

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, James Frecheville, Anna Friel, Stefanie Scott, Michael Nyqvist

Rating: 3/10 – meh; lame on levels you wouldn’t have thought possible (Brosnan’s character is a tech mogul who doesn’t know the first thing about the tech he’s promoting), I.T. is a virtually tension-free exercise that wastes the time of everyone concerned, and its unsuspecting audience.

Collide (2016) / D: Eran Creevy / 99m

Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Marwan Kenzari, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Christian Rubeck, Erdal Yildiz, Clemens Schick, Johnny Palmiero

Rating: 6/10 – Hoult’s backpacker finds himself mixed up with rival gangsters Hopkins and Kingsley, and using his driving skills to stay one step ahead of both of them; the focus is squarely on the action, which is a good thing, as Collide‘s plot is as all over the place as the various cars Hoult throws about on German autobahns, but when it’s bad it’s Hopkins intoning “I’m the destroyer of worlds” bad.

Jimmy the Gent (1934) / D: Michael Curtiz / 67m

Cast: James Cagney, Bette Davis, Allen Jenkins, Alan Dinehart, Alice White, Arthur Hohl, Mayo Methot

Rating: 7/10 – in an effort to woo back his former secretary (Davis), Cagney’s brash racketeer attempts to put a classier spin on his finding “lost” heirs business, and finds himself mellowing when a case challenges his compromised ethics; worth watching just for the pairing of Cagney and Davis, Jimmy the Gent is a typically fast-paced, razor sharp romantic comedy that may seem predictable nowadays but is nevertheless a minor gem that is effortlessly entertaining.

Kong: Skull Island (2017) / D: Jordan Vogt-Roberts / 118m

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Richard Jenkins, Terry Notary

Rating: 5/10 – an expedition to a mysterious island in the Pacific yields dangers galore for its participants – Jackson’s crazed Army Colonel, Hiddleston’s ex-SAS captain, Larson’s anti-war photographer, Goodman’s duplicitous government official et al – not the least of which is an angry hundred-foot gorilla called Kong; while Kong: Skull Island may be visually arresting, and its action sequences pleasingly vivid, the lack of a decent plot and characters with any kind of inner life makes the movie yet another franchise-building letdown.

The Rezort (2015) / D: Steve Barker / 93m

Cast: Dougray Scott, Jessica De Gouw, Martin McCann, Elen Rhys, Claire Goose, Jassa Ahluwalia, Lawrence Walker

Rating: 4/10 – after a viral outbreak that turned its victims into flesh-hungry zombies is contained, an island resort opens that offers survivors the chance to hunt down and exterminate zombies with little or no risk of harm – but the resort is targeted from the inside and a group of holiday makers find themselves becoming the hunted; a strong idea that runs out of steam by the halfway mark, The Rezort leaves its cast stranded with a standard “run from this place to the next and look desperate” approach that drains the movie of any tension and makes it all look as generic as the next zombie movie.

Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday (1939) / D: Walter Forde / 90m

Cast: Gordon Harker, Alistair Sim, Linden Travers, Wally Patch, Edward Chapman, Philip Leaver, Kynaston Reeves

Rating: 7/10 – a seaside holiday for Inspector Hornleigh (Harker) and his trusty sidekick, Sergeant Bingham (Sim), leads inevitably to a murder case involving an inheritance and a criminal outfit who target their victims with the unwitting aid of döppelgangers; the second of three movies featuring Harker’s irascible policeman and Sim’s less-than-sharp second-in-command, Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday is a simple, easy-going, undemanding bit of fun that manages to combine drama and comedy to good effect, and which still holds up nearly eighty years later.

Inspector Hornleigh Gets on It (1941) / D: Walter Forde / 87m

aka Mail Train

Cast: Gordon Harker, Alistair Sim, Phyllis Calvert, Edward Chapman, Charles Oliver, Raymond Huntley, Percy Walsh, David Horne

Rating: 7/10 – despite being sidelined from regular detective work through a stint investigating thefts at an army barracks, Hornleigh and Bingham find themselves on the trail of Fifth Columnists; the last in the short-lived series, Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It is as sprightly and entertaining as the previous two instalments, and allows Huntley to make this priceless observation: “One of them’s tall, bald, looks intelligent but isn’t. The other’s short, sour-faced, doesn’t look intelligent but is.”

Omega Rising: Remembering Joe D’Amato (2017) / D: Eugenio Ercolani, Guiliano Emanuele / 69m

With: Joe D’Amato (archive footage), Luigi Montefiori, Michele Soavi, Claudio Fragasso, Rossella Drudi, Antonio Tentori, Carlo Maria Cordio, Mark Thompson-Ashworth

Rating: 3/10 – Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato)’s career in movies is assessed by some of the people who worked with him closely when he first started out; at sixty-nine minutes, Omega Rising: Remembering Joe D’Amato is a documentary that feels like it lasts twice as long, thanks to Ercolani and Emanuele’s decision to let their interviewees ramble on at length (and usually about themselves instead of D’Amato), and a random assortment of clips that don’t always illustrate what’s being talked about.

Prevenge (2016)

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D: Alice Lowe / 88m

Cast: Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Kayvan Novak, Kate Dickie, Dan Renton Skinner, Tom Davis, Mike Wozniak, Tom Meeten, Gemma Whelan

In Alice Lowe’s feature debut as writer/director, the premise is simple: a pregnant woman is convinced her unborn foetus is compelling her to kill the people she holds responsible for the death of her partner. Angry and upset at being alone, Ruth (Lowe) targets each individual – inappropriate pet shop owner Mr Zabek (Skinner), repulsive Seventies DJ Dan (Davis), lonely corporate lawyer Ella (Dickie), anonymous victim  Zac (Meeten), apologetic rock climbing guide Tom (Novak), fitness fanatic Len (Whelan) – at the behest of her unborn child, and in the process finds being a mother-to-be more daunting (obviously) than she’d ever expected.

Made over a two week period while Lowe was actually pregnant, Prevenge is a movie that covers a lot of ground in its relatively short running time, and which isn’t just a standard revenge thriller tricked out with gory set pieces. It’s also a pitch black comedy, an uncompromising examination of an emotionally disturbed pregnant woman, and a mordaunt exercise in extreme pre-natal depression. Lowe has created a complex, flawed-yet-undeniably decent anti-heroine whose particular psychosis is both alarming and understandable at the same time. She has conversations with her unborn child that push the envelope of maternal paranoia. While most expectant mothers will worry that there might be something wrong with their baby, it’s safe to assume that they won’t be worried about the foetus talking to them and advocating a string of murders.

Throughout, Ruth is worried that her baby might not be normal. She misses a scan just in case it reveals something abnormal, an issue that Ruth’s midwife (Hartley) dismisses with the practised ease of someone who’s heard it all before. But of course, Ruth knows better. Cajoled and persuaded by the baby growing inside her to become a serial killer, Ruth knows that her baby is abnormal; she just doesn’t want anyone to know how much. When the midwife makes mention of letting Social Services know that Ruth is struggling with the pregnancy, Ruth is adamant that she doesn’t want them involved, that she doesn’t want her baby taken away from her. Despite her mixed feelings, Ruth’s maternal instinct to protect her offspring is as deep-rooted and profound as any other mother’s.

Lowe makes Ruth’s ambivalence a credible reaction to the idea that she’s being urged to revenge by a foetus, a “belief” that is clearly the result of a mental break that Ruth has experienced in the wake of her partner’s death. Lowe is also clever enough to avoid trying to introduce any notion of ambiguity to this fractured relationship – Ruth is mentally ill, and though is a movie with very definite horror overtones, any potential supernatural reason for the foetus’ speaking to her is never allowed any credence. Ruth is maddened by grief, then, and it’s this reason that provides her with both a defined character arc, and the necessary sympathy to help audiences identify with her.

In terms of Ruth’s victims, Lowe is also clever enough to make it a game of two halves. Mr Zabek, DJ Dan, and Ella are all horrible people in their own right. Mr Zabek is the slimy high priest of sexual innuendo, while DJ Dan is so crass and boorish that he can throw up into his Seventies afro wig and then think nothing of kissing Ruth full on the lips. Ella is unfeeling, dismissive of others, and generally insensitive. Each of them are so awful that when Ruth kills them the temptation is to cheer, and urge her on to the next victim. But when she arrives at Zac’s home – and makes Ruth the cuckoo in the nest, a neat twist on her own situation – Lowe finds that Zac’s flatmate, Josh (Wozniak), is a genuinely nice man, something she wasn’t expecting. His subsequent demise doesn’t sit well with Ruth, despite her baby’s withering disregard for both him and Ruth’s feelings.

From there on, Ruth’s commitment to avenging her partner’s death begins to falter. Her first contact with Tom (prior to despatching Zac) didn’t go the way she’d planned, and her next attempt fails also, so she moves on to Len, who puts up a fight (complete with boxing gloves). Her midwife, realising something is wrong, admonishes Ruth and tells her it’s got to stop. Returning to Tom again, Ruth finds his partner is expecting a child also, and her maternal instinct kicks in for this other mother-to-be: how fair would it be for Tom’s partner to be in the same situation as Ruth? The foetus is unconcerned, but before Ruth can go through with anything, her waters break and her whole world changes. Some viewers may think that this “second half” isn’t as effective as the gore and humour-soaked “first half”, but Lowe isn’t interested in simply repeating the early formula, and instead adds layers to both Ruth’s predicament and the movie’s overall sense of bitter regret.

But this is a comedy as well as a sustained and impressive look at pre-natal paranoia and psychosis. Lowe is an accomplished writer of naturalistic dialogue, but she’s also a winner when it comes to pithy one-liners (of anchovies: “They look like the eyelids of old men that have died”), and isn’t afraid to include some really bad puns, such as, “It’s a cutthroat world, you know”, after slitting Ella’s throat. There’s the aforementioned sexual innuendo of Mr Zabek (which often settles for the single entendre), and some of DJ Dan’s observations (“You’re not Olivia Newton-John. You’re more like Elton John”) are so cruelly insulting that you can’t help laughing at them, even though you shouldn’t. And Ruth herself, in her disjointed, socially awkward way, says things that only she could (mostly) get away with. It’s through the dialogue that Lowe builds her characters, fleshing them out and giving the cast much more to work with than it seems at first.

When it comes to the gore, the movie doesn’t hold back, with each death played out in the style of an Eighties British horror, and there’s a mundanity to each one that adds to the overall effectiveness (Ruth’s weapon of choice is a carving knife). Again, Lowe isn’t afraid to show how awful each murder is, nor how it affects Ruth the longer she continues. In the lead role, Lowe gives a terrific performance, one that’s brimming with quiet verve and sincerity, and is thoughtful and brave. When she applies make up for Halloween and takes to the streets, it’s easy to see just how disturbed she is thanks to the design she’s created (even though you can see it just as well by the look in Ruth’s eyes). Ruth is a wonderful creation, and Lowe does her justice, never striking a false note, and staying true to the character throughout. The movie could almost be a one-woman show, were it not for a battery of equally commendable performances from the likes of Hartley and Dickie, and if the men – for the most part – come off as douchebags and unreliable pricks, then it’s a small price to pay when a movie is this good and this rewarding.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie about a damaged soul that comes complete with plenty of heart and soul amidst all the carnage, Prevenge is uncompromising, poignant and hilarious, and a major feather in Lowe’s cap; marred only by some poor lighting choices made on too many occasions, and a final scene that goes against everything that’s gone before, it’s a movie that’s full of surprises and confidently assembled by its very talented writer/director/star.

Genius (2016)

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D: Michael Grandage / 104m

Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West

If you’ve never heard of Maxwell Perkins (Firth) – and it’s very likely that you haven’t – then Genius, the debut feature by Michael Grandage, won’t actually tell you very much about him. You will discover that he was an editor at Charles Scribner’s & Sons during the Twenties and Thirties, and that he helped shape the writing careers of both F. Scott Fitzgerald (Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (West). You’ll also learn that he had a wife, Louise (Linney), five daughters, and – apparently – never took off his hat, even at home. But these are just facts about the man. What made him tick, so to speak, what made him so passionate about books and writers, well, that’s another matter. And it’s one the movie, despite being based on A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) and adapted by John Logan, fails to address.

Instead, the movie focuses on Thomas Wolfe (Law), an aspiring novelist whose first work of full-length fiction has been turned down by every other publishing house in New York except for Scribner’s. The novel, O Lost, is long, unwieldy, and overly descriptive in a grand romantic manner, but Perkins believes sincerely that it should be published, though with a fair bit of judicious pruning. Wolfe can’t believe his good luck, and agrees to working with Perkins to wrestle the novel into a more publishable form. Long months pass, and in 1929, Wolfe’s first novel is published to great acclaim with a new title, Look Homeward, Angel.

The two men are polar opposites. Perkins is quiet to the point of apparent catatonia, while Wolfe is brash, loud, and unapologetically hedonistic. He also writes like a man possessed, producing hundreds of pages of prose almost every day, but with no idea of how to corral that prose into a consistent format, or how to self-edit. Hence his need for Perkins to work with him. Wolfe’s success is compounded by his second novel (initially even more long, unwieldy and overly descriptive in a grand romantic manner), Of Time and the River, being just as well-regarded and received as his first. But now, jealousy and paranoia begin to take hold of Wolfe, and the idea that his books are only successful because of Perkins’ involvement, starts to nag at the author, and he takes steps to distance himself from Perkins and claim all the credit. This leads to an estrangement between the two men, as well as Wolfe signing with another publisher.

Genius moves at an agonisingly slow pace for the majority of its running time, and there are no end of scenes where Perkins sits reading manuscripts with nothing else happening within the frame. His is an interior, contemplative existence, allied to a contained, watchful existence that allows for few displays of honest emotion (when he raises his voice in anger to Louise at one point, it’s like a verbal slap across the face, such is the shock of it). Perkins may live most of his life through the pages of the books he edits, and he may be deliberately reclusive in terms of having a social life, but his skills as an editor can’t be challenged. The movie makes this point quite cleverly and quite succinctly, during a sequence where Perkins’ skill as an editor is given the spotlight. At first he reads out a passage Wolfe has written about the central character in O Lost falling in love at first sight. It’s overlong, and Perkins is unconvinced by much of Wolfe’s prose. And so he challenges Wolfe’s assertions at every turn, and soon the passage has been whittled down to a single, concise paragraph. And it’s so much better.

It’s also one of the very few occasions where the movie attempts to speed up or show a sense of urgency, but this is down to the editing of the sequence – step forward, Chris Dickens – rather than anything that Logan’s script or Grandage’s direction does. The slow, measured pace of the movie is its biggest obstacle to being liked, though the way in which Wolfe is introduced to the audience doesn’t help either. Where Firth underplays Perkins to silent perfection, Law is a bundle of energy as Wolfe, but in a way that soon proves wearing. He’s overly voluble, lacks filters, and is unconcerned if he upsets the people around him, a trait that become more and more entrenched the more successful he becomes. By the time Law has theatrically made his way through his third or fourth literary-style monologue, it’s clear that the template for the character has been set. Law is good as Wolfe, but his performance is one that Grandage doesn’t seem able to rein in when needed, and as a result, Law seems more in control of his performance than his director is.

While Linney is consigned to the background as Perkins’ demure, supportive wife, Kidman is given the more dramatic role of Wolfe’s lover, Aline Bernstein. Aline supported Wolfe when he was trying to get O Lost published, but as he found fame and fortune, their relationship became more and more adversarial, thanks largely to Aline’s feelings of betrayal and abandonment. Wolfe became dismissive of her feelings, and the disintegration of their relationship adds some much needed meat to the bones of Logan’s script. Kidman is caustic yet vulnerable as Aline, and it’s a shot in the arm for viewers who may have been thinking that the actress’s best work is behind her.

Despite the performances (Pearce is also on good form as a struggling Fitzgerald), the movie appears deliberately gloomy thanks to an almost monochrome colour scheme that’s been lit in equally dreary fashion by DoP Ben Davis. This makes the movie seem drier and even more constrained than it actually is, and again, Grandage doesn’t have any answers to combat this. Maybe it was a deliberate choice, and the movie is certainly consistent enough for this to be the case, but by making the movie look so unappealing and drab it has a knock-on effect on the material as a whole. It’s one of those occasions where you wonder if anyone was watching the dailies that closely.

In the end, the movie is less about Perkins and his talent as an editor, and it’s even less concerned with his legacy (trotting out scenes with Fitzgerald and Hemingway appears to be an attempt to do this, but these scenes are more about them than Perkins). The focus is on Wolfe and his need to write to the exclusion of all else that doesn’t further his writing. A scene midway through has Wolfe take Perkins to a jazz club. There the differences between the two men are highlighted, but in such a way that Perkins is left adrift as the scene concentrates on Wolfe. What Grandage and Logan have forgotten, it seems, is that Perkins is their main character, and not Wolfe, and this in turn makes one wonder: where was someone to shape and polish the script in the same way that Perkins shaped and polished the novels he helped publish? A fair point, maybe, but not one you’re likely to find an answer to.

Rating: 6/10 – good performances all round can’t help Genius avoid being labelled as tedious, tepid, or perfunctory; lacking emotions that might instil reactions from its audience, the movie is a dry, humdrum examination of literary excellence behind the scenes, and a love of the printed word aside, never takes flight in the way that it should do.

My Blind Brother (2016)

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D: Sophie Goodhart / 85m

Cast: Adam Scott, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Zoe Kazan, Charlie Hewson

Robbie (Scott) is blind. His brother, Bill (Kroll), is not. Robbie is an athlete who regularly takes part in sponsored sporting events such as marathons in order to raise money for charity (and hey, if it gets him a little press or TV attention, that’s okay, isn’t it?). Bill is the manager of a small printing firm who regularly finds himself helping Robbie with his training, and taking part in each sponsored sporting event. Does he want to? Well, yes and no. Bill loves his brother, but deep down he wants to be free to live his own life and not defer so much of it to Robbie. This makes him feel guilty, which in turn pushes him to help his brother, which in turn makes him want to feel free to live his own life, which in turn makes him feel guilty, etc. etc.

It doesn’t help matters that Robbie is a bit of a jerk, one who never credits Bill for the help and support he provides, and who rarely acknowledges that he even needs any help in the first place. Living in Robbie’s shadow for so long – Robbie has been blind ever since a childhood accident – Bill has become aimless, self-deprecating, and bored. So when he meets Rose (Slate) at the wake for her boyfriend (who was knocked down and killed by a bus while having an argument with her), Bill’s emotional guilt over Robbie is matched by Rose’s feelings of guilt over her boyfriend. They find they have lots of things in common, and later on that same evening, they sleep together.

But in the morning, Rose has second thoughts about seeing Bill again, and tells him so. Upset and humiliated, Bill tries to forget about her, but he finds that he can’t. Meanwhile, Robbie announces his latest plan to swim across a local lake, but Bill stands his ground and refuses to take part. Robbie continues with the plan and finds a volunteer willing to help him train, and be in the boat that guides him across the lake. Of course, the volunteer is Rose, and when Bill finds out she’s helping his brother, he begins to take more of an active role in Robbie’s training. This leads to some unexpected complications (unexpected except in romantic comedies such as this one), as Bill realises he’s in love with Rose, Rose develops feelings for Robbie, and after not too long, Robbie takes it for granted that Rose and he are a couple. As the day of the swim approaches, the relationships of all three are tested, and certain revelations muddy the waters enough so that on the day, nothing goes quite as planned.

Early on in My Blind Brother, Bill reveals to Rose how much he doesn’t like Robbie, and that he sometimes wishes him harm. Later, we see him leave open a kitchen cupboard in order for Robbie to walk into it face first. It’s darker moments like these that make the movie a little more interesting than you’d expect given its low-budget indie roots and general indie demeanour. But My Blind Brother does its best not to be so predictable, and even though the outcome can be guessed before you even sit down to watch the movie, there’s still enough there in the run-up to keep audiences involved and amused. This is thanks mostly to Scott’s performance as Robbie, whose narcissistic, self-centred, arrogant tendencies mark him out as a rare creature of little depth or self-awareness. At a restaurant, he criticises another disabled man for being too noisy, and makes no apology for it. The message is clear: his disability is more “important” than anyone else’s.

By making Robbie such a jerk, writer/director Goodhart – here expanding on her original 2003 short of the same name – allows the movie to retain a dramatic sensibility amidst the more standard rom-com tropes. As well, Bill is a bit of a maladjusted schlepp, the antithesis of Robbie’s hard-line positivity, a guy whose one ambition is to spend lots of time watching TV. When he discovers that this is one of Rose’s favourite pastimes, his face lights up with the unexpected joy of finding a kindred spirit. It’s no wonder he falls in love with her: she’s as unhappy as he is. But whereas Bill would be happy to wallow on his couch for the rest of his life, Rose at least wants to do something, even if she’s not sure what that something is. Thus her involvement with Robbie leads Bill to regain some of his self-respect, and shed the ennui that’s been holding him back.

These themes are spread throughout the script, and given equal screen time with the more comedic moments, such as the one pictured above, where Bill and Rose have been interrupted having sex by Robbie, and have to put their clothes back on without him realising what’s going on. Goodhart’s direction is so good in this scene. It’s not just the physical awkwardness of the moment, but the expressions on the faces of both Bill and Rose that makes the scene so funny. They barely have to say a word, and that’s what makes it so effective. Elsewhere there’s plenty of mileage to be made from Robbie’s overwhelming self-belief, whether he’s driving a car, jumping into a swimming pool, or patronising female reporters, and Bill’s perplexed looks when things don’t go his way.

The romantic elements are handled well, and though viewers won’t find anything new on offer, it’s the quality of the performances and the sharpness of Goodhart’s script that makes up for any failings in the material. Scott’s portrayal of Robbie is often harsh and uncompromising; he’s like the pantomime villain everyone wants to boo and hiss. Kroll (the former Bobby Bottleservice) is lovable and sympathetic as Bill, and handles the darker aspects of his character with understated aplomb. Slate, an actress who impresses with each role she takes, and who was especially effective in Obvious Child (2014), brings an off-kilter sincerity to her role that helps define the character and her quirky understanding of personal responsibility. There are good supporting turns too from Kazan as Rose’s roommate, Francie, and Hewson as Bill’s blind, stoner friend, GT, while the script balances the light and shade of Robbie and Bill’s relationship with a good deal of appealing charm.

Watching My Blind Brother is one of those movie experiences where you think you know exactly what’s going to happen and how, but again, Goodhart’s script is much better than the basic storyline suggests, and though it ends exactly as it should, its caustic approach to the combative nature of Robbie and Bill’s relationship (exacerbated by Rose’s involvement with them both) elevates the material and aids the movie in avoiding being too lightweight or frivolous by comparison. If Robbie’s “advanced spatial awareness” means he moves around or picks things up a little too easily, then that’s a small quibble to make, but overall this is an enjoyable mix of the conventional and the unconventional that is well worth checking out.

Rating: 7/10 – a winning combination of comedy and drama that is easy to like and which is unafraid to try a slightly different approach to its basic rom-com storyline, My Blind Brother has an agreeableness to it that helps it stand out from the crowd; likely to be overlooked amongst all the other rom-coms that get released these days, it would be a shame if it failed completely to attract an audience, or missed out on the attention it deserves.

A United Kingdom (2016)

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D: Amma Asante / 111m

Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Anton Lesser

In 1947, Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (Oyelowo) was studying law in England when he met and fell in love with Ruth Williams (Pike), a clerk at a London-based law firm. Poised to inherit the position of King, Seretse’s relationship with a white woman caused concern among both the British government (who ruled over Bechuanaland as a proctectorate), and Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi (Kunene), who was ruling as regent until Seretse was ready to ascend the throne. Faced with opposition on all sides – Ruth’s father effectively disowned her – the couple ignored warnings and approbation and eventually married in September 1948.

A political maelstrom ensued, and all intended to ensure that Seretse never became King. The British government, in the form of Alistair Canning (Davenport), their representative in South Africa, attempted to bully Seretse into renouncing his claim, but he stood firm, and both he and Ruth travelled to Bechuanaland (now modern day Botswana) to begin their life together. They received a muted welcome, with Ruth being treated with hostility by Seretse’s family, and Seretse’s uncle refusing to accept the marriage, or Seretse’s wish for them to work together to solve their country’s problems. With the people of Bechuanaland supporting Seretse’s claim to the throne (and his marriage), the British government tricked him into travelling to Britain, where in 1951, he was promptly informed that he and Ruth were being exiled from his home country for a period of five years (fortunately, Ruth stayed behind).

Back in Bechuanaland, Ruth discovered that she was pregnant. Her predicament proved beneficial in that it brought her closer to Seretse’s family, particularly his sister, Naledi (Pheto). With the women of Bechuanaland beginning to support her as well, Ruth did her best to support Seretse from afar, but with the British government proving intransigent in their attitude toward him, the would-be King was hindered at every turn. Eventually he found backing and support from members of the Labour Party, including Tony Benn (Lowden), and pressure was brought to bear. With the people of Britain voicing their dismay at the way in which Seretse and Ruth were being treated, a solution seemed on the horizon when Winston Churchill, ahead of the next General Election, announced he would rescind Seretse’s exile if the Conservatives won. They did win, but Seretse’s exile became even more of a political hot potato…

The story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams has been filmed before, as a TV drama in 1990 called A Marriage of Inconvenience. But where that version ran to an hour and focused more on their romance than the political upheaval that surrounded them, Amma Asante’s follow up to Belle (2013) aims to be a more comprehensive look at the trials and tribulations that affected both Seretse and Ruth, and an entire country. But as with so many historical dramas that have been made in recent years – The Birth of a Nation (2016), J. Edgar (2011), The Monuments Men (2014) – getting the balance right between historical accuracy and telling a compelling story is often the biggest problem of all. And so it proves with A United Kingdom, a movie that sets out to tell a fascinating tale wherein true love really does conquer all, but which somehow manages to fall short of making the impact it that should.

It begins well, placing the audience firmly in heritage picture-land, with convincing depictions of post-war London: its foggy streets, stoic populace, and rationing-led austerity. Seretse and Ruth’s courtship is depicted with a great deal of charm and it’s easy to see why these two fell in love with each other so easily and so readily, and despite the obvious social disapproval they would encounter (and on both sides of the racial divide, a theme that continues in Bechuanaland). Oyelowo and Pike have an easy-going chemistry, and it’s a delight to see them bring Seretse and Ruth together. Even the introduction of Davenport’s sneering, arrogant government representative can’t derail or diminish their love for each other. But this isn’t just a love story, it’s also a political drama, and once the movie switches from the gloomy back streets of London to the colourful plains of Bechuanaland, the movie changes tone and emphasis, and in doing so, loses sight of what has, up until now, made it so effective.

The trouble is that Seretse and Ruth’s relationship actually ceases being as relevant as it was before their arrival in Bechuanaland. Once there, the movie has to deal more directly with tribal politics, colonial do’s and don’t’s, government machinations, and the consequences of exile. Against all this and as a couple, Seretse and Ruth are required to take a back seat, as the wider world becomes more and more involved in their plight. Canning’s ruses and double dealings keep them marginalised, while the key to all their worries, Seretse’s uncle, disappears from the movie for around an hour. It’s left to British politicians to make the difference that’s needed, while Seretse lets himself become a figurehead for national change in Bechuanaland. And Ruth doesn’t fare any better, becoming a mother and gaining tribal respect. While this is important for the character, it has less impact than Guy Hibbert’s screenplay may have intended, and Pike is too often called upon to smile hopefully and talk in short, clichéd bursts.

Playing yet another important black historical figure after Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma (2014), Oyelowo is earnest, forthright, passionate in his dealings with Seretse’s people, and as the movie progresses, just a little on the dull side. It’s not Oyelowo’s fault; rather it seems that, by the time Seretse has been exiled, we’ve seen all there is to him. It’s a disconcerting thing to realise, and makes the movie’s second half more than a little disappointing as both central characters take an effective back seat in their own lives. Dramatically this is somewhat necessary – after all, they couldn’t be involved in all the background political manoeuvrings that occurred – but the downside is that the movie’s philosophical tagline, “No man is free who is not master of himself”, doesn’t feel quite as affirmative as it sounds.

Asante at least makes all those political manoeuvrings more interesting than expected (and easy to follow), and there’s some degree of humour to be derived from the way in which Canning and the rest of the British establishment receive their deserved come-uppance, but the movie ends on a triumphalist note that is a tad more simplistic than necessary (though it will send audiences away in a happy frame of mind). She also makes good use of the Botswanan locations, shooting in Seretse and Ruth’s real home at the time, and in the hospital where Ruth gave birth to their first child. Sam McCurdy’s cinematography is suitably drab and claustrophobic when in London, and beautifully airy when in Bechuanaland, making the movie hugely attractive to watch, and highlighting the impressive efforts of production designer Simon Bowles and costume designers Jenny Beavan and Anushia Nieradzik.

Rating: 7/10 – despite some prolonged stretches where the narrative either maintains the same tone from scene to scene, or it repeats itself (any scene between Seretse and Canning), A United Kingdom is still a movie that holds the attention and treats its real-life characters with respect and admiration; though not as powerful as it could have been, it’s still a movie that has the undeniable charm of a well-mounted heritage picture, and more besides.

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

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D: Ti West / 104m

Cast: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan, Toby Huss, Tommy Nohilly, Larry Fessenden, Burn Gorman

These days, Westerns come and go infrequently, but largely seem to be a cause for (minor) celebration. A genre that had its heyday in the Fifties and Sixties, the Western was a simple beast, telling classic tales of good versus evil (white hats versus black hats, cowboys versus Indians), until they got darker, more symbolic, and infused with heavy psychological importance. In the last twenty years, the Western has lain relatively dormant. But for some movie makers, the Western is a genre that’s ripe for re-evaluation and examination. Ti West, who has made his name on the back of a run of horror thrillers, is one such movie maker. And so, we have In a Valley of Violence, his “tribute” to the Western genre.

It begins with a recognisable Western encounter. A lone rider (Hawke) comes upon a priest (Gorman), who’s stranded thanks to a lame mule. He’s looking to get to the nearest town, Denton, but needs help. He pulls a gun on the lone rider, but it has no effect whatsoever; the man doesn’t appear worried in the slightest. The next thing the priest knows, the man’s dog has him by his gun arm, and the tables have been turned in an instant. The man doesn’t kill him, though. Instead, he takes the priest’s water and the bullets from his gun, and lets him live. He rides off, heading for Mexico, and at first, he’s intending to avoid Denton, but when he sees what kind of a detour he’d need to make to avoid it, he decides passing through is the better option. As long as he doesn’t draw any attention to himself…

Ten minutes in and already we’re in classic Western territory (almost as classic as its New Mexico setting). We’ve got the tactiturn, quick-witted loner (whose name we later discover is Paul), and we have a supporting character in the priest that you can be sure will make another appearance later on. And then there’s Denton, a town that, according to the priest, is “run by sinners”. As Paul heads into town, the viewer could almost be asking themselves, “What could possibly go wrong?” The answer is as obvious as the scar on the side of Paul’s face: everything.

And at first, it looks as if West is going to honour all the staples of a Western movie. The loner rides into town, and within minutes is being challenged by the town bully, a loudmouth by the name of Gilly Martin (Ransone). A showdown is on the cards, as Gilly goads the stranger in town into a gunfight. But here’s where West wrong foots the audience, and instead of a classic gunfight in the middle of the street, Gilly’s efforts to call out Paul meet with quiet dismissal. Until Gilly realises that Paul’s dog is across the street and makes a threatening move towards it. It’s too much for Paul: he comes out, water bowl for the dog in hand, throws it at Gilly, and when he catches it, Paul punches him once in the face and lays him out. Not a shot fired, not even a gun drawn out of a holster. The lead-up is stretched out, but the fight is short, and the outcome is funny as all hell. We’re in classic Western territory all right, but somewhere along the way, West has taken his audience down a different trail, and though quite a lot of what follows cleaves to the staples mentioned above, it’s clear that West is going to put his own spin on things.

But therein lies the problem with the movie as a whole: it’s a classic Western that’s been bent out of shape, and though it looks like a Western, and it sounds like a Western (even down to Jeff Grace’s Morricone-inspired score), it’s only a Western in terms of its starting-off point. Once Paul throws that bowl, we’re in a whole different kind of Western altogether, and a lot of it doesn’t fit together. There’s a lot of sly humour here, and while it would be unfair to pin the blame for the movie’s unevenness on the humour alone, it does contribute greatly to the sense that West, while he definitely wanted to make a Western, didn’t quite know what kind of Western he wanted to make. As a result, bullets do fly, and revenge is placed firmly on the table as a motivating force for the violence, but there are other elements – sibling rivalry, public confidence in the town marshal (Travolta), bravery and cowardice co-existing at the same time in most of the characters, lead-footed moments of irony – that are part of the material, and which serve to either slow down the movie, or make it seem ragged and unfocused.

The other problem is with the characters themselves, archetypes that are also twisted out of shape. At one pivotal point in the narrative, Paul is ambushed by Gilly and his men. West can’t decide from one moment to the next if Paul should be angry, upset, fearful for his life, pleading, or stubborn in the face of imminent death, and so has him be all of these things. Hawke’s a great actor, but even he can’t pull off all that. When we meet the marshal, we find he has a wooden leg and is of a temperament to let his son get a beating from a stranger (yes, Gilly is his son), and not pursue it because he knows what his son is like. The wooden leg proves to be incidental, while the decision to send Paul on his way, proves to be an awkward way of allowing the revenge angle to be introduced. Gilly himself is vainglorious and stupid, and vacillates between the two, sometimes in the same scene. As a result, Ransone has a hard time keeping him even remotely credible as a character. Farmiga is the sixteen-year-old whose husband has left her(!) and wants to leave town (but won’t do it unless a man takes her with him), while Gillan (as her sister) gets to screech a lot at Ransone, and generally behave like a spoilt brat. While many Westerns play up the stereotypes of the genre, usually it’s a welcome gambit – a movie shorthand, if you will – but here, the impression given is that West wasn’t too interested in having his characters interact or behave in a way that the audience could identify or sympathise with.

Visually, West does provide enough cues and familiar set ups to make his Western look and feel authentic, and the town of Denton is cleverly realised, from its boarded up church and empty saloon, to the absence of its townsfolk or any thriving businesses. It’s a ghost town in the making, and what better way to help it on its way than to bring in a lone stranger to kill most of the people who still remain there? Of course, being a Western there’s plenty of violence, and West doesn’t skimp on making it impactful and severe, with Fessenden and Ransone in particular suffering quite nastily at Hawke’s hands (and cutthroat razor, and boot). But again, there’s that humour to soften the blow, but it’s not as successful in that respect as West has probably intended. Instead the two elements sit together unhappily, with neither elevating the other.

Something of a vanity project for West, the movie does work for the most part, but there are too many occasions where the awkward mix of styles and elements derails the narrative, and brings everything up short. This leads to the movie having an awkward rhythm as well, with some scenes extended beyond their ability to be effective, or to advance the various storylines. Hawke is a great choice for the lead role, while Travolta appears to be having more fun than he’s had on a movie set in years. There’s enough to admire here without feeling that West has done his audience a disservice, but there’s also enough here to leave said audience also feeling that he hasn’t quite done enough for them either.

Rating: 6/10 – ambitious but ultimately disappointing given West’s track record so far, In a Valley of Violence never really reconciles itself as to what kind of Western it wants to be; Hawke and Travolta make for appealing adversaries, and there’s a sense that if West had adopted a more straightforward approach, this could have been the classic modern Western he was (perhaps) aiming for.

Mini-Review: Why Him? (2016)

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D: John Hamburg / 111m

Cast: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Megan Mullally, Zoey Deutch, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key, Cedric the Entertainer, Zack Pearlman, Adam Devine, Kaley Cuoco

It’s any father’s nightmare: that the daughter he adores meets a man that she adores but whom the father hates. Such is the case in Why Him?, where Bryan Cranston’s struggling businessman dad, Ned Fleming (he owns a printing company), and his wife, Barb (Mullally) are invited to meet their daughter’s new boyfriend. Their daughter, Stephanie (Deutch), has kept quiet about her new boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (Franco), but as it’s Xmas, she thinks it’s a good idea for everyone to start getting to know each other. But Laird, who owns a video game company and is very, very successful, is also a bit of a loose cannon. He swears a lot, behaves inappropriately, appears to have few or no filters at all, and spends his money seemingly at random and on random things.

Despite his efforts to impress Ned, Laird doesn’t make it easy for himself, and soon learns that Ned doesn’t trust him. Furthermore, when Laird asks for Ned’s blessing so he can propose to Stephanie, the answer is an emphatic No. Laird is persistent, though, and tells Ned that by the time it’s Xmas Day (three days later), he will have won over Ned, and he’ll have his blessing. Ned thinks that is highly unlikely. A wager is made, and Laird does his best to get Ned to like him, but it’s not so easy, and the road to mutual respect is littered with the best of intentions, a few misunderstandings, and the appearance of two real-life rock stars.

However you look at it, Why Him? is a reasonably funny, yet also stupidly awful comedy that relies on its very talented cast to get itself out of quite a few holes (plot- and otherwise). It’s also an awkward mix of culture and generational clashes that rely heavily on clichés and predictable responses from both Ned and Laird as it chugs steadily along the path of least dramatic resistance in its need to be as heartfelt as it is puerile. This is the movie’s biggest flaw: it wants to be humorously crude and shocking in the same fashion as, say, some of Franco’s other recent work (that is, as bluntly as possible), and yet it also wants to be warm-hearted and decent. In the end, decent wins out, but there’s always the feeling that writer/director Hamburg and his screenwriting cohort Ian Helfer didn’t actually know at first which way things were going to work out.

But the movie has a trump card in the form of its casting, with Cranston playing the uptight dad to perfection, and providing the equally perfect foil to Franco’s crass, whacko video game designer. Mullally, who some may remember as the self-serving über-bitch Karen from TV’s Will & Grace, is kept largely in the background but then excels in an hilarious scene where she attempts to seduce Cranston while completely drunk. Deutch does well as the movie’s nominal “straight man”, and Gluck combines the best attributes of both Cranston and Franco’s characters as Stephanie’s younger brother, Scotty. But as is so often the case, it’s one of the supporting characters who proves the most effective. Step forward Keegan-Michael Key as Gustav, Laird’s estate manager who also doubles as this movie’s version of Cato from the Pink Panther series. The movie steps up a notch every time he appears, and if there has to be a spin-off, then Why Gustav? might not be such a bad idea.

Rating: 6/10 – not as obvious or objectionable as it appears to be, Why Him? struggles to maintain a consistent tone throughout, but has a good success rate when it comes to providing big laughs; good performances help paper over some very rough cracks indeed, but overall it’s an enjoyable movie that often tries too hard in its efforts to be edgy, and which doesn’t always seem able to rein itself in for the better.

A (Very) Brief Word About the Justice League (2017) Trailer

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(This could also qualify as a Question of the Week.)

If you’ve seen the trailer for Justice League (2017) – and it appears millions of you have – then ask yourself this: did you spot anything that gave you an idea as to the actual storyline? Or did it seem like just another Warner Bros./DCEU trailer that was only concerned with showing off how much action will be included? And lastly, does anyone at this stage hold out any hope that this will be an improvement on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)?

(Nope, no trailer this time. Did you really expect one?)

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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D: James Gray / 141m

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Harry Melling, Franco Nero

A throwback to the kind of big budget adventure stories made in the Seventies and Eighties, with location filming designed to heighten the events shown, The Lost City of Z concerns the efforts of military man turned explorer Perceval “Percy” Fawcett (Hunnam) to find a city he believes is hidden somewhere in the Amazonian jungle. Covering the years between 1905 and 1925, the movie introduces us to Fawcett the military man while he’s posted to Ireland, and finding it difficult to advance through the ranks thanks to what a senior officer refers to as, “an unfortunate choice in ancestors”. Good fortune arrives in the form of a secondment to the Royal Geographical Society, where he is asked to map an area of jungle on the Brazil-Bolivia border.

Fawcett accepts the commission, and finds himself in the company of fellow military men Henry Costin (Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Ashley). While they carry out their task, Fawcett finds what he believes is evidence of an advanced civilisation that once existed within the jungle but which has remained, until now, undiscovered. When he returns to England, and presents his findings to the RGS, they and he are ridiculed, and the idea that the indigenous tribes are anything but “savages” is dismissed. Fawcett does, however, find an ally in RGS member James Murray (Macfadyen), who agrees to fund a further expedition in search of what Fawcett is calling “the lost city of Z”. And so in 1911, Fawcett, accompanied again by Costin and Manley, and with Murray in tow, returns to the Bolivian jungle.

The expedition, however, suffers a series of setbacks, from the loss of equipment to Murray’s inability to deal with the harsh, uncompromising environment. Forced to turn back despite Fawcett’s conviction that they are close to finding the lost city, the trio return home just as war in Europe breaks out. They find themselves fighting together in France, and during a push across the Somme in 1916, Fawcett falls victim to a chlorine gas attack and is temporarily blinded. Invalided out of the Army, Fawcett believes his exploring days are now behind him. That is, until his son, Jack (Holland), convinces him that they should travel together to Bolivia, and make one more effort to find the lost city. And so, in 1925, the pair set off into the jungle in an effort to prove once and for all that the fabled city and its ancient civilisation did exist.

Based on the book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009) by David Grann, James Gray’s adaptation is sincere, meticulously researched, beautifully shot by Darius Khondji, engaging on a Boys’ Own adventure level, and yet, despite everyone’s best efforts, not as interesting to watch as it should be. The tale of Fawcett’s obsession should be strong, compelling stuff, but thanks to Gray’s adaptation covering such a long period of time, the movie suffers from being episodic, and as a result, feels hesitant in some scenes and overly confident in others. Gray handles the material well, but the narrative’s stop-start approach – something that Gray in both roles as screenwriter and director fails to find a solution for – means that it’s always difficult for the viewer to maintain interest in a story that, ultimately, isn’t going to lead anywhere.

If you already know the outcome of Fawcett’s third expedition to the Bolivian jungle, then this movie won’t necessarily be of interest. Having to wade through a succession of failures before this point, the movie does its best to make each disappointment and setback in Fawcett’s life part of a never-give-up, never-say-die attitude that drives the man forward, but the key word in Grann’s title – “obsession” – never really applies, and that’s partly due to Gray’s script, which never portrays Fawcett as passionate in his beliefs. It’s also due to Hunnam’s less-than-charismatic performance, one that will have viewers wondering why Costin and Manley stick with Fawcett for so long, and how he managed to attract backers for his second and third expeditions. Watching the movie, it gives the impression that the idea of a hidden civilisation in the Bolivian jungle is more enticing than the idea of Fawcett being the man to lead the search.

The expeditions themselves lack any tension, even when Fawcett and his companions encounter a tribe of cannibals, and though Gray shows an impressive capacity for framing the jungle scenes in such a way that they feel other-worldly, these sections of the movie go by without making as much of an impact as Gray was no doubt aiming for. There are also signposted moments that are straight out of Predictable Storytelling 101, such as when Fawcett holds a book up in front of his face and an arrow pierces it, stopping just inches away from hitting him. Or the moment where Murray demands an apology from Fawcett, and he agrees to do so, and then turns and apologises to Costin and Manley instead.

Also problematical is Fawcett’s relationship with his wife, Nina (Miller). She accepts his going to Bolivia in 1906, and is supportive of the trip. But when it comes time for the 1911 trip, Nina wants to go with him, and the pair have an awkward argument where Fawcett plays down her physical ability to make the journey there and back, and she argues that she has endured childbirth (twice by now) and if she can weather that particular experience then the jungle shouldn’t be any worse. Again, it’s an awkward exchange that feels out-of-place – and designed to give Miller something to do other than play the otherwise doting wife – and feels even more out-of-place when their oldest son, Jack, suggests a third trip and she agrees without so much as a murmur. Perhaps Gray felt the need to include a slice of proto-feminism amongst all the testosterone flying around, but if so, it’s not something that works.

By the time Fawcett and his eldest son get to Bolivia, viewers will probably be wondering how this is all going to pan out. Those in the know will find Gray’s choice of endings (technically, there are three) unlikely, overly poignant, and at odds with the tone of the movie thus far. That said, Gray does give Miller another chance to stand out from the overwhelmingly male cast, and while wish fulfilment is the order of the day, it sits uncomfortably with what we know of Fawcett and that last trip.

Overall, The Lost City of Z is a sterile drama that never hits any emotional highs and struggles to provide the audience with a sense of just how important Fawcett’s search for a hidden civilisation really was back in the Georgian era (or even if it was). There’s the usual degree of sexism sitting alongside the kind of blinkered attitudes that seem to define the period, and though Gray keeps the movie interesting on a visual level, with spectacular scenery and beautifully composed individual shots aplenty, it’s on a dramatic level that the movie fails to gain traction, becoming a succession of scenes that aim for a classic adventure feel, but which lack the depth to elevate it to such lofty heights. An adventure then, but one that offers scant reward for both its characters’ efforts, and the audience’s.

Rating: 6/10 – not as compelling or as rich in detail as viewers will need in order to gain maximum enjoyment from it, The Lost City of Z wastes its potential by making Fawcett’s “obsession” a strictly pedestrian affair; Gray delivers on the production side but can’t seem to work his magic on his own script or the cast, leaving the movie feeling like it’s always about to step up a gear while remaining steadfastly in neutral.

Land of Mine (2015)

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Original title: Under sandet

D: Martin Zandvliet / 97m

Cast: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Mads Riisom, Oskar Bökelmann, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton, Leon Seidel

In the wake of World War II, German POWs were sent to various places along the Danish coast with a view to their being used to clear the beaches of landmines. The fact that they were expendable made them the perfect choice for the job, and the Danes had no compunction about putting them in harm’s way (though they did train them beforehand). It was a large-scale operation, using approximately two thousand Germans – most of them barely out of their teens – to clear approximately two million landmines. And the Danes were in a hurry.

This is the background to Martin Zandvliet’s sparse yet rigorous post-War drama, Land of Mine. The German soldiers co-opted for the task are young, inexperienced for the most part, and looking forward to going back home… until the Danes come calling in the form of Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Følsgaard). He teaches them the basics of how to disarm a landmine, and then sends fourteen of them off to the coast and into the care of Sgt Carl Rasmussen (Møller). Rasmussen’s antipathy toward them is soon evidenced by his lack of concern when food supplies aren’t delivered, and the Germans begin to scavenge for food, all of which leads to sickness amongst the men and the first fatality within the group.

Despite their initial fears, the Germans unite as a team, and their conscientious approach to their work begins to pay off. A natural leader emerges, Sebastian Schumann (Hofmann), and he and Rasmussen begin to forge a relationship based on mutual respect, a situation that catches the Danish sergeant by surprise. He softens his attitude toward the men, and even brings them food from the Danish army camp further inland. Eventually, he even removes the barricade on the men’s barracks that keeps them locked in at night. Another fatality occurs, an unforeseen event that serves to make one of the men, Helmut Morbach (Basman), question the likelihood of their ever returning home. It’s an unpopular idea, but when a further death has a profound effect on Rasmussen, his reaction only serves to reinforce Morbach’s paranoia, and the men are faced with the very real possibility that all their lives will be forfeited there on the beaches.

Despite its simple storyline and set up, Land of Mine is resolutely not a simplistic tale. There’s far too much going on than it appears at first glance, and Zandvliet (working from his own script) has forged a powerful, compelling portrait of commitment under pressure, both in the relationships between the men (including Rasmussen), and in the disabling of the landmines. Zandvliet shows that, even in the worst of circumstances, bonds can be formed between even the unlikeliest of adversaries. When we first meet Rasmussen he’s in a jeep watching a large group of German POWs trudging past him on the road. He assaults one of them, displaying a deep-rooted anger towards the German soldiers that doesn’t augur well for his future charges.

For their part, the German POWs who are selected to clear the beaches are too young to have seen any meaningful action during the war, and aren’t to be blamed for the decisions made by their elders. They all look ahead to the time when they’ll be back home in Germany and making their way, fruitfully, in the world. Even though the odds are against them (and nearly half of the two thousand Germans made to remove the mines were either killed or maimed for life), these young men still have the capacity to look forward to a better, brighter future. It’s this optimism in the face of grim experience that helps give the movie a positive spin, one that’s sorely needed to balance the inevitability of their dying. And once Rasmussen discovers he can respect them as people, and not just German soldiers, then that optimism flares brightly, and in contrast to the flare of the explosions that threaten them every day.

As well as hope and optimism, the movie dwells on camaraderie and the notion of friendship under fire, but to a lesser extent. It still manages to explore the nature of reliance on others in extreme circumstances (both emotionally and practically), but it does so in an understated manner that complements the restraint Zandvliet shows in handling the narrative. This isn’t a showy, flashy movie intent on making eye candy out of explosive situations. Rather, it’s a stringent, occasionally profound meditation on the human ability to find something worth saving or fighting for in the worst of situations. All of these men confront death each day, and all of these men find strength in having each other around them.

Land of Mine‘s introspective qualities are highlighted by the performances. Møller is the nominal “angry man”, ruled by his prejudices until he realises the Germans are just young men thrown into the war like cannon fodder – just like they are when they’re on the beaches. Møller adopts a stern, patrician gaze for most of his scenes, but when Rasmussen lets down his guard (in his scenes with Sebastian), the one-time career criminal turned actor shows that he has a natural talent for portraying a character’s inner workings and thoughts. Relaxing into the role with every scene, Møller is the one cast member who draws the eye throughout, and his transformation from “angry man” to unacknowledged friend and back again to “angry man” is convincing because he’s sincere and there’s an equally sincere sense of purpose in his approach to the role.

The rest of the cast are more than capable, and provide impressive support when needed, particularly Hofmann as the thoughtful, clever Sebastian, and Emil Belton as one of two brothers, Ernst, whose sadness at the loss of his sibling leads to both triumph and tragedy in the same scene. Zandvliet never compromises with the characters, and manages to make them all feel like fully rounded human beings, ones that you could imagine being stuck in such horrendous circumstances. They populate a beautiful stretch of the Danish coastline, locations that are historically authentic, and Camilla Hjelm’s bright, stately cinematography adds a lustre to the movie that makes it seem hyper-real in places, with the blinding white of the beaches reflecting back off the blue skies above in striking fashion. Between them, she and Zandvliet have crafted a visual aesthetic that belies the grim nature of the material, and which instinctively elevates the movie beyond that of yet another post-War drama where enemies learn to respect each other.

Rating: 9/10 – its nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars may have surprised some people, but Land of Mine was a worthy nominee, and it’s a movie that is well worth seeking out; bold, absorbing, and in places, delicately nuanced, this is a triumph of low-key yet resonant movie making, and full of neat directorial touches that confirm Zandvliet is a director who knows exactly what he’s doing.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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D: Gurinder Chadha / 106m

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon, Om Puri, Simon Callow, Lily Travers, Tanveer Ghani, Denzil Smith, Neeraj Kabi, Darshan Jariwala

The awkwardly titled Viceroy’s House opens with a quote by Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.” Bearing in mind the story that follows, it’s hard to see why this particular quote has been chosen to open the movie. Perhaps director Gurinder Chadha is using it in an ironic fashion; any winners borne out of the terrible circumstances and outcomes surrounding the partition of India in 1947 may not have been aware of their having “won” anything at the time – even those who wanted the creation of Pakistan.

One thing that soon becomes apparent from watching the movie is that it’s going to be a politics-lite experience, with little depth beyond that given to an adaptation being shown on UK Sunday evening television. This means that some viewers, especially those with little awareness of the period when the British withdrew from India, and the terrible consequences that followed, will take much of what the movie tells them to heart. What should be made clear from the start is that Viceroy’s House is better viewed as an impression of those events than as a recreation.

The problem here is that one of the most traumatic upheavals of the 20th Century that involved a country and fifteen million of its inhabitants – those who were displaced – is given an unremarkable soap opera sheen that paints the British as saviours, and the Indian people as the authors of their own downfall. As an interpretation of what actually occurred on the Indian sub-continent, the movie takes several factual liberties with the events surrounding partition, and panders to the idea that the frustration experienced by Lord Louis Mountbatten (known more familiarly as “Dickie”) (Bonneville) is somehow more affecting and deserving of our sympathy than the political and social upheavals being experienced by India’s Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. As a dramatic approach to the material, it’s akin to asking an audience to be more sympathetic towards someone with a slight case of sunburn than someone who’s lost a limb.

The obvious comparison here is with the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (or Downton Abbey for that matter, which also stars Bonneville). By attempting to focus on both the political machinations going on above stairs and the social upheavals occurring below stairs, Viceroy’s House tries to show the effect of partition on the British and the Indians alike. But the script – by Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini, and Chadha – takes an uncomfortable approach to the historical material, and tries to add a standard Romeo and Juliet-style romance to proceedings through the attraction between valet Jeet Kumar (Dayal) and lady’s attendant Aalia Noor (Qureshi). Alas, and despite the best efforts of Dayal and Qureshi, their romance is a tepid affair that occupies too much screen time, and lacks the kind of epic passion that could be seen as a compelling reflection of the violent passions of a country expressing itself through mounting conflict.

Other members of the Viceroy’s staff have arguments and cause problems from time to time, and Mountbatten is seen to berate them as if they were all naughty children. It’s a condescending attitude that extends to Mountbatten’s meetings with India’s leading politicians. Whether it’s Nehru (Ghani), Jinnah (Smith) or Ghandi (Dabi), the movie has “Dickie” treating them as if they should all just get along because he needs them to. And as a sop to the current need for strong female characters in pretty much every movie being made, Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Anderson) is portrayed as the “brains of the outfit”, while at the same time falling victim to the idea that their predicament is worse than that of the Indian people (“How can it be getting worse under us?”).

As the inevitability of partition looms ever nearer, and outbreaks of violence become the norm, Mountbatten is pushed into a corner and forced to accept that there can’t be a united India. With Pakistan now a certainty, he’s required to divide India into two, and enlists British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Callow) to carry out the task. But it proves too difficult, until he’s advised by General Ismay (Gambon), Mountbatten’s advisor on all things Indian and political, that there is a solution. It’s here that the movie cements its appreciation and sympathy for the Viceroy by showing him as having been tricked by the British Government and set up for a fall if the violence continues and/or escalates out of control. It’s a moment that should elicit a good deal of compassion for “poor old” Mountbatten, but instead makes the viewer realise that Chadha feels more for him than she does for the Indian people.

Much else in the movie is perfunctory stuff designed to move the story forward with the least amount of effort or acknowledgment as to how dry and uninvolving it all is. Chadha directs with a minimum of fuss or apparent enthusiasm, leaving some scenes feeling cursory and superficial. Against this, the cast can only do their best, though Anderson manages to imbue Lady Mountbatten with a supportive, agreeable nature that makes her feel like more of a fully rounded character than anyone else. Bonneville is a good choice for “Dickie” (though he doesn’t look anything like him), but even he’s held back by a script that paints Mountbatten, somewhat plainly, as a good man in a bad situation (though if you need someone to portray “pained frustration” then Bonneville’s your man).

For someone whose family were involved in the partition and the subsequent resettlement of so many people, Chadha doesn’t always seem interested in telling a coherent, responsible story. Muslims are unlikely to be happy about the way in which they are shown to be the main instigators of the violence depicted, while the religious enmities between Muslims and Hindus are reduced to petty squabbling, a direction that is extended to the encounters between Nehru and Jinnah – if you believe the movie, then neither man could be in the same room as the other without resorting to childish bickering. By reducing the key players’ importance in this way, and by playing up the ineffective nature of Mountbatten’s tenure as Viceroy, the movie ends up paying lip service to a terrible period in India’s history, a period that deserves a much more focused and intelligent approach than is featured here.

Rating: 4/10 – sporadically effective as a heritage picture, Viceroy’s House is let down by its one-sided consideration of British colonialism, and by its insistence on depicting Indians of the time as quarreling malcontents; nowhere is freedom from oppression expressed as forcibly as needed, and the movie’s tacit exoneration of Great Britain’s often brutal occupation makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience throughout.

Wolves at the Door (2016)

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D: John R. Leonetti / 73m

Cast: Katie Cassidy, Elizabeth Henstridge, Adam Campbell, Miles Fisher, Lucas Adams, Spencer Daniels, Jane Kaczmarek, Chris Mulkey, Eric Ladin

Here on thedullwoodexperiment it’s often the case that a review will question why a movie was made in the first place. Sometimes it just seems incredible that no one – seriously, no one – saw how a movie was progressing during production and didn’t say anything along the lines of, “Hey guys, this isn’t really very good, shouldn’t we just call it quits and save ourselves the embarrassment?” With low-budget movies it’s a little more forgivable. Fewer resources and an inexperienced cast and crew should always be taken into consideration, even if the end result fails to meet any and all expectations; at least the movie makers have tried their best (and even if their best proves to be their worst). Good intentions can mean a lot.

But then there are movies that are made by established, world-renowned production companies such as New Line Cinema, and/or released by equally world-renowned distributors such as Warner Bros. These movies get a wider shot at audiences than those made by independents or first-timers, and have a wider chance of making their production costs back. But when you watch them, it’s like watching a movie where the least amount of thought and consideration has gone into them, from the script to the cinematography to the editing to the soundtrack to the acting to the directing to the whole tone of the thing. It’s like watching the movie version of a contractual obligation.

And so we have Wolves at the Door, the latest movie to fit the criteria listed above. Based on “true events”, the movie recounts what happened over two particular nights in Los Angeles in August 1969. First we witness the early morning home invasion of a couple (Kaczmarek, Mulkey) that results in the couple being frightened for their lives but suffering no actual physical harm. A detective (Ladin) tells them that there have been a lot of similar incidents recently, but that this is something different. Cue the next evening and four friends having dinner together. The quartet – eight months pregnant Sharon (Cassidy), and her friends, Jay (Fisher), and couple Abigail (Henstridge) and Wojciech (Campbell) – are commiserating over Abigail’s imminent trip to Boston. They head back to Sharon’s home, intending to continue their “commiserations”.

Another friend, Steven (Adams), is there too, but he’s spending more time with the property’s caretaker, William (Daniels), who lives in a separate building. When he parts company with William, Steven encounters a strange man and woman who stop him from leaving the estate. Meanwhile, Wojciech, upset by Abigail’s decision to move to Boston, decides to get some air. He too encounters the strangers. Inside, Jay settles on the sofa to watch TV while Sharon and Abigail begin to hear strange noises. At one point, they see a strange woman in the house. Though scared, they still attempt to find out why the woman is there, but soon they both realise that there’s more than just the one stranger, and that the four friends are all in danger.

If you made the effort you could watch Wolves at the Door without knowing anything about it; which would be a blessing of sorts. If you managed to avoid reading any reviews, or hearing any word of mouth reports, or even seeing the poster with its give-away tagline, then there’s a certain degree of intrigue that will attach itself to the viewing experience. You’d be asking yourself why is all this happening, and you’d also be waiting for the four friends to turn the table on their attackers and come out on top (after the requisite amount of violent reprisals and bloodshed). But this isn’t that kind of movie, and it’s that tagline that gives it all away. For yes, this isn’t based on “true events” in the sense that it takes something that happened and fashions a different story around those events. No, this is a movie that takes those events and purports to be a recreation of those events – mostly.

Putting aside the movie’s appropriation of the Tate murders for mild exploitation purposes, what is more distressing is the absence of any connection with the characters themselves, and especially as they’re based on real people. The movie leaves Sharon Tate and her friends with no discernible personalities, lets the cast behave like approximations of the people they’re portraying, and doesn’t even try to engage the audience’s sympathy for the terrible things that happen to them. The viewer can only watch, distant and uninvolved, as the Manson Family members terrorise and attack the four friends (and Steven), and keep their motives unexplained (until the movie’s coda). It could all be happening to any group of strangers, and again it’s odd that with the movie being based on “true events”, the producers have decided to adopt an approach that reduces the impact of real people being attacked and killed to that achieved by a below-average slasher movie.

It doesn’t help that Gary Dauberman’s script is uninterested in telling a coherent story in the first place. The story of the Tate murders is one that’s ripe for a powerful, impactful movie, but this plods along employing standard horror movie clichés and failing to provide any tension. Despite the short running time, there are still plenty of scenes that could be removed and not be missed thanks to Dauberman’s disjointed approach to structure, and the absence of any appreciable imagination. He also has a tin ear for dialogue, saddling the cast with the kind of lines that would defeat even the most inspired casting. In terms of the cast, Cassidy and Henstridge are the nominal stars, but they’re soon reduced to crying, hiding, running about and making stupid decisions without any regard for logic or credibility, while everyone else involved has to hope that their performances survive the arbitrary decisions made by director Leonetti and editor Ken Blackwell at the assembly stage.

As the director, John R. Leonetti reminds audiences why he’s better off in his regular day job as a cinematographer, but at the same time, leaves those same audiences perplexed by his encouraging the kind of dimly-lit, murky photography that leaves this movie looking so bland and unremarkable, and which adopts the same kind of predictable framing and shot construction that we’ve seen so many, many times before in the realm of low-budget horror. All of this adds up to a flat, generic, dull movie that someone should have pointed out wasn’t going to work however much everyone tried – because it doesn’t seem as if anyone was. So once again, audiences are left with a movie that doesn’t work, is beyond lacklustre, and which can’t even manage the energy to be at least partially interesting.

Rating: 2/10 – a movie that reinforces the idea that some projects are just exercises in going through the motions, Wolves at the Door takes a real life tragedy and makes it seem trivial in comparison; and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s just plain awful.

Can We Take a Joke? (2015)

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D: Ted Balaker / 75m

Narrator: Christina Pazsitzky

With: Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, Gilbert Gottfried, Karith Foster, Penn Jillette, Heather McDonald, Christopher Lee, Noam Dworman, Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Rauch, Adam Carolla, Jon Ronson

They say that humour is subjective, that what one person finds funny is likely to leave another person unmoved. But what if a joke is deemed offensive? And what if that joke, or comment, is deemed so offensive that the person making the joke is condemned by an audience member, or perhaps the whole audience, or worse still, thousands (perhaps millions) of social media users? How does that work, and why is it happening so often in the United States? Why has free speech come under so much threat, and why is one person’s idea of free speech more important than someone else’s? Why, in short, are so many people now quick to be or feel offended?

This is the central conundrum of Can We Take a Joke?, a documentary that explores the notion that if you tell a joke that’s offensive, and someone takes offence against that joke, then they’re right to do so, and it’s the comedian’s fault for stepping over the line – deliberately or not. It seems outrage is all the rage now, as jokes have to pass a kind of cultural litmus test of what’s acceptable and what’s not. And woe betide you if you’re the one stepping over that line, because you will be pilloried. And don’t think that you’ll find support from the liberals in America, because in reality, they’ve become even more stringent than the conservatives. What’s a comedian to do? The answer’s easy: keep on doing what you’re doing.

The movie takes us back to the early Sixties and the rise to prominence of Lenny Bruce, the godfather of modern comedy. Bruce was uncompromising and he regularly skewered the fascist tendencies of a heirarchy that ensured the police were in attendance at his shows, waiting to arrest him if he said anything the authorities deemed offensive or inflammatory or obscene. The point here is that no one in the audience at a Lenny Bruce gig ever complained or said they were outraged or offended. The end result of Bruce’s several arrests? Since then, not one comedian has been arrested for being offensive, inflammatory or obscene. Progress, then. Except, as Can We Take a Joke? shows, in the years since, there has been a sea change, a growing reluctance by some people to accept that comedians can, and will, use offensive material in their routines.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t ask why this has happened. It makes the point – and it’s rightly a bit of a blow to realise – that some audiences are now less tolerant of political satire, or attacks on sexist and racist attitudes, or just about anything that they don’t like. And they are increasingly vocal about it, whether they’re heckling performers (sometimes they’re organised, as at a college show that was advertised as deliberately offensive), or taking to social media outlets such as Facebook and/or Twitter in order to make their intolerance known. The movie shows just how pervasive this intolerance can be through the restrictions put on comedians when they do campus gigs – some, like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld won’t perform at campuses because they have to self-censor their material – and the unfortunate tale of Justine Sacco, who in 2013 tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She tweeted this while at Heathrow Airport, then turned off her mobile phone. Eleven-and-a-half hours later, she arrived in South Africa, turned her mobile back on, and discovered that her tweet had generated enough online outrage that she lost her job.

Sacco’s tweet was clearly ill-considered, but the sheer scale of the backlash against her was also clearly disproportionate. So why is comedy targeted in this way, and why do the complainers and the outraged respond with such venom? Again, the movie doesn’t have an answer. What it does have is a roster of comedians who are recognised for their use of offensive material in their acts. The movie’s quick to make the point: what do audiences expect if they go to see comedians like Lisa Lampanelli or Gilbert Gottfried? These are comedians who are renowned for the offensive nature of their material, for the challenging, uncomfortable mirror they hold up to the rest of society. And they’re condemned for doing so, and all because it seems that modern audiences have no idea about context, or perversely, won’t tolerate the idea of free speech if it goes against their own ideas about what’s funny and what isn’t.

So, with the battle lines drawn, what’s a comedian to do? The answer appears to be, go on the offensive (no pun intended). None of the interviewees are prepared to back down, and some, like comedian and podcaster Adam Carolla are actively attempting to challenge the anti-free speech brigade while continuing to engage in the kind of comedy routines that are likely to rile said brigade in the first place. There’s a hint that Carolla is just as militant in his opinions as the people who take exception to offensive jokes or routines or shows. But the movie skirts round this particular possibility, and provides a succession of comic talking heads who espouse their own distaste with the people who don’t like their material. There’s an irony here that seems lost on director Balaker and his production team, and which allows for a certain amount of mirth as we see nominally thick-skinned comedians criticise the people who criticise them.

In the end, the movie asks a lot of questions, makes several relevant points, provides a few clever insights (mostly thanks to author and activist Jonathan Rauch), but lacks both balance and answers. That the movie lacks balance isn’t necessarily a negative, as it’s clear that Can We Take a Joke? is intended as a riposte to the very hyperbolic hysteria that seems to follow in the wake of offensive material being aired. That it doesn’t offer the “other side” a voice is likely to upset some viewers, but the idea that a fair-minded approach should be mandatory in documentaries is ridiculous; how would any debate on any issue ever get started? And as for answers, the movie’s relatively short running time and plethora of questions doesn’t allow for too many answers, and those that it includes are all from the comedians getting to air their views unchallenged.

If there is one answer that the movie does accept (and wholeheartedly at that) is the one to its title. That answer is definitely: no. But if it’s no because tastes have changed, or because society is less tolerant of so-called taboo subjects (for some reason), or because of some hidden agenda within society itself – well, these are the questions that aren’t addressed but could have been. The movie’s one over-riding consensus is that offensive comedy is good and venomous criticism is bad. This may be true (if a little trite), but then we’re back to the same point made at the beginning of this review: that humour is subjective, and that will always be the case.

Rating: 7/10 – a documentary that has a tendency to waste too much of its short running time on repeating the same claims re: the necessity for offensive comedy, Can We Take a Joke? is nevertheless a caustic response to those who feel it isn’t; by accepting that there is a need (though without explaining why), the movie doesn’t always do justice to the questions it asks, but as a platform for debate, it’s much more successful.

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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D: Danny Boyle / 117m

Cast: Ewen McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald, James Cosmo, Shirley Henderson, Pauline Turner, Scot Greenan, Kyle Fitzpatrick, Gordon Kennedy, Irvine Welsh

Choose life, choose four characters who have led miserable lives for the past twenty years and can’t overcome their failings. Choose redemption if only because it sounds good and it might make you feel better. Choose old friends, however much they might hate you, because making new ones is too difficult. Choose Scotland. Choose to make amends. Choose the past over the future because it’s safer. Choose remorse. Choose anger at seeing your dreams go unfulfilled, and try to make new dreams to stop yourself from feeling angry. Choose revenge if remorse won’t work. Choose life over a slow, drawn-out, painful trudge towards non-existence. Choose drugs to soothe or melt away the pain of choosing life. And choose the path of least resistence so that choices become easy. Choose football, music, sex, anything to make the emptiness inside you feel less overwhelming. But above all, choose life, and live it with everything you’ve got, even when you feel that you don’t have anything to offer, and if you did, that no one would want it.

Twenty-one years on from the events depicted in Trainspotting (1996), we finally have the sequel that’s been mooted for so long (Danny Boyle first voiced the idea back in January 2009). Back then, the original movie ended with Renton (McGregor) stealing the proceeds of a drug deal – £16,000 – from his friends, Simon aka Sick Boy (Miller), Spud (Bremner) and Begbie (Carlyle), and heading off to live a normal life. But that “normal” life, which included living in Amsterdam and being married, has fallen apart, and now Renton is back in Edinburgh. His mother has died, he’s staying with his dad (Cosmo), and looking to hook up with his old friends – if they’ll let him. He visits Spud first, only to find him trying to asphyxiate himself with a plastic bag. Saving an initially ungrateful Spud, Renton learns that Begbie is in jail serving a twenty-five year sentence, Simon is the landlord of a rundown pub that an aunt has left him, and Spud himself is a drug addict.

Renton reconnects with Simon, but Simon holds too much enmity towards his old friend because of the money from the drug deal. Along with his business partner, Veronika (Nedyalkova), Simon offers Renton the chance to become part of a scam to acquire European development funds that Simon can use to open a “leisure” club above the pub. Renton agrees, and ropes in Spud to help design the club and oversee its construction once the funds are awarded. Meanwhile, Begbie finds a way out of prison and back home to his wife, June (Turner), and teenage son, Frank Jr (Greenan). Begbie takes his son with him when he burgles properties, but is sidetracked from his endeavours when he learns from Simon that Renton is back in Edinburgh. Begbie’s thirst for revenge is exploited by Simon, and a chance encounter at a nightclub between the AWOL gaolbird and Renton leads to a showdown above the pub, and the chance to settle old scores the hard way.

If you enjoyed Trainspotting, then T2 Trainspotting is likely to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Laced with affectionate nostalgia and perceptive notions of what it is to be middle-aged and treading water, this looked-for sequel isn’t as iconic as its predecessor – and to be fair, it was never likely to be – but it does have an erstwhile melancholy feel to it that accurately reflects the regrets of its four main characters. Like everyone else, Renton is the architect of his own downfall: drug-free but without any purpose in life, he’s come home because he’s not been able to make a go of it in Amsterdam; he’s adrift in his own life, and lacking ambition. Conversely, Simon has nothing but ambition, a drive to better himself financially, but he lacks foresight and cohesive thinking; his plans always backfire as a result. Spud is an addict who wants to swap his drug habit for something more meaningful, another addiction preferably, but one that has a positive effect on his life; writing down stories from twenty years ago helps him on this path. And Begbie – well, Begbie’s only regret is that he’s only just now got out of prison.

With the characters locked in place, John Hodge’s screenplay is free to explore themes of personal responsibility, misplaced nostalgia, revenge, deceit, and compromised friendships. It looks back further than Trainspotting itself, to when all four friends were much younger, pre-teens with the whole world ahead of them, and all the promise that entailed. It provides flashbacks to the first movie, and reintroduces other characters from twenty years before, such as Renton’s girlfriend, Diane (Macdonald), now a successful solicitor. And it shows how stagnant each of the main characters’ lives have become, how mired in mediocrity they are thanks to emotional malaise and impulsive behaviour. There’s little in the way of meaningful progress for any of them, just a desire to lead brighter, better lives that is slipping away from them with every passing year.

This gloomy, regret-laden approach could have made the movie too depressing or downbeat for audiences unfamiliar with the original (which was itself a frank, unapologetic examination of the joys and horrors inherent in taking drugs), but there’s too much mordaunt humour and scabrous comedy on display, and Hodge and returning director Danny Boyle have made a movie that connects on various, different levels, and which does so with Boyle’s trademark visual stylings. This is still a movie that fizzes with invention, from its seemingly scattershot, haphazard camera angles, complex yet rewarding editing rhythms, exceptionally well chosen soundtrack, and emphatic performances, and all the way down to the integration of “old’ footage with new, including a recreation of that classic moment from the original where Renton is almost knocked down by a car – and then stops to revel in the moment.

It’s a Danny Boyle movie through and through, with several moments where the semi-linear narrative seems unlikely to knit together into a satisfying whole, until by the end, everything has been explained and the various strands all neatly tied up. And there are fitting outcomes for all the characters, with all bar one back on the road to self-respect and potential absolution. In bringing back the original cast, and at a point where their own ages reflect the passing of time more effectively than if it had been achieved through make up, the movie offers a kind of shorthand for new viewers, introducing each character they play with an economy of purpose that’s admirable and effective. McGregor still retains some of that boyish charm that made the younger Renton so attractive to watch, while Miller takes glowering to new heights, his features displaying the frustration of Simon’s life with an icy conviction. Carlyle is still effortlessly frightening as Begbie, a man who may not be as comfortable in his own skin as we thought, but who can still inject menace and venom into the most unremarkable line of dialogue.

But if there’s one performance that stands out from the rest, and unexpectedly so, it’s that of Bremner as Spud. Spud is the eternal fuck-up, the addict with the unenviable ability to still feel deeply and profoundly despite the mental numbing he endures, and Bremner is simply superb in the role. Spud is the only character that the viewer can sympathise with, as his motives are selfless, and focused (as best he can) on providing for his partner, Gail (Henderson), and son, Fergus (Fitzpatrick). There’s an innate bravery about Spud that Bremner underplays with skill, making the moment where his writing skills are acknowledged by Veronika, a touching and heartfelt one. Through Veronika’s eyes we see Spud as more than just an addict, and unlike his friends, he can be cheered on with affectionate glee. But friendship is still the key ingredient in what makes these four people tick, even if they’re at odds with each other over past indiscretions. And some bonds, however stretched or damaged they may have become, will, as the movie tells us, withstand much more besides, and still prove beneficial to everyone concerned, no matter how much life has battered them.

Rating: 8/10 – an invigorating if pensive look at middle-aged bitterness wrapped up in a blanket of repentance, T2 Trainspotting doesn’t match the heights of its predecessor, but in fairness, it never actually tries; as much a product of its time as the first movie, there’s a heartache about this movie that is genuinely affecting, and which allows new viewers to see Renton et al as far more than cyphers in a movie about trying not to let the past inform and dictate the future.

Get Out (2017)

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D: Jordan Peele / 104m

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, LilRel Howery

Chris Washington (Kaluuya) is a young, gifted photographer whose work is beginning to be noticed. He’s also black and in a relationship with Rose Armitage (Williams), who is white. Invited by her parents to come stay for the weekend, Chris is anxious about meeting them, fearing they might be uncomfortable with their daughter dating a black man. But Rose reassures him, and tells him that her parents haven’t a racist bone in either of their bodies, and if he could have, her father would have voted a third time for Barack Obama. They set off, but along the way their car collides with a deer, causing some damage but not enough to stop them from reaching Rose’s parents’ home. Once there, her parents – Missy (Keener) and Dean (Whitford) – greet them both warmly, but Chris is perplexed by the odd behaviour exhibited by the Armitages’ housekeeper and gardener, Georgina (Gabriel) and Walter (Henderson), who are both black.

Later that evening Chris meets Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Jones), whose behaviour is provocative and aggressive. He also continues to observe Georgina and Walter behaving strangely. When Missy persuades Chris into sitting with her, he finds that she’s hypnotising him, and he ends up in the Sunken Place, a limbo he can’t return from. At least, that’s what he believes, as he wakes the next morning, confused about what’s happened to him but finding his smoking habit is now cured. He also finds his mobile phone has been somehow disconnected from its charger. At an annual get together that the Armitages hold for their friends, Chris is surprised to see another black man arrive with a much older white woman. But the black man behaves just as oddly as Georgina and Walter, even going so far as to grab Chris and yell at him to “get out”. Chris voices his suspicions that there is something sinister going on, and Rose agrees to leave with him. But when Chris discovers evidence that makes him scared for his life, leaving proves to be far more difficult than he could have ever imagined.

Ever since its debut at the Sundance Festival back in January this year, Get Out has attracted a lot of attention for being a horror movie that takes a satirical look at contemporary racial attitudes in the good ole US of A. The movie certainly paints a satirical portrait of white liberal hubris that’s hard to ignore, but its basic premise – once it’s revealed – plants the movie firmly in paranoid thriller territory. So while there are some standard horror tropes on display, they take a firm backseat to the mystery that is carefully developed by first-time writer/director Jordan Peele, and which proves far more satisfying for its Twilight Zone stylings than for any horror trappings Get Out may be trying to appropriate.

This isn’t to say that the movie is unsure of just what kind of a movie it wants to be, far from it. It’s just that appearances can be deceiving, and Peele instills his tale of racial profiling and assimilation with so many genuinely unsettling moments that mistaking Get Out for a horror movie is only natural – and that’s without its ultra-violent, cathartic final fifteen minutes. But in terms of Peele’s acidulous look at the state of racism in modern day America, the movie is on much firmer ground. Chris’s fear that Rose’s parents won’t approve of him reflects the lingering sense of outrage over miscegenation that still resonates within the US. Despite all the advances made since the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties, Peele is saying these attitudes still prevail, subconsciously perhaps, but then that’s the point: they’ve never really gone away, and they never will. Whisper it if you must, but racism is endemic to the American psyche.

That’s a pretty blatant way of putting it, but Peele is much more subtle than that, and finds various clever ways of getting his message across. This allows the movie to flesh out its subplots – notions surrounding the nuclear family, self-determinism, and social acceptance – unencumbered by the need to be forthright or didactic. Peele is confident enough in his central narrative that he can give these subplots their due, while also playing around – successfully – with the movie’s tone. It starts off as a relationship drama, slightly anecdotal, but set up in such a way that Rose’s parents seem like just another liberal white couple with awkward yet good intentions. The introduction of Walter and Georgina and their odd behaviour allows the thriller elements to begin to take centre stage, and Peele handles the growing uncertainty of what’s really happening with a sureness of touch that’s surprising in someone making this kind of movie for the first time.

Following on, the movie descends into paranoid conspiracy territory, with Chris’s fears amplified by each successive clue he discovers, and with each one serving to reinforce his paranoia. And then we’re in full-on horror mode, as Peele pulls out all the stops to give the viewer a rousing, blood-soaked resolution. Peele displays complete control over the material, keeping each tonal shift feeling organic and unforced. And he keeps the irony spread throughout the movie, allowing it to show itself and act as a counterpoint to the serious nature of the overall material. But Peele’s comedic background won’t be denied either, and there are times when the movie is flat out funny. This is largely due to the inclusion of Chris’s friend Rod (Howery), a Transport Security Administration (TSA) officer who acts as the movie’s comic relief. Again, it’s a measure of Peele’s confidence in his material that he unites these disparate elements and makes them mesh together to such good effect.

But while there is much to recommend Get Out, Peele does drop the ball at times, with some scenes feeling unnecessary or out-of-place – the car-deer collision and its racist cop aftermath, a telephone conversation between Rose and Rod – and his command of the camera (one of this movie’s key strengths) failing him at key moments. But these don’t harm the movie insomuch as they draw attention to themselves when they occur, making for a handful of jarring moments that crop up here and there. At all other times, Peele and his crew, including DoP Toby Oliver, editor Gregory Plotkin, and production designer Rusty Smith, combine to make Get Out one of the boldest and most assured first feature’s for some time.

Peele is aided immeasurably too by his talented cast, with the UK’s Kaluuya giving a measured, yet nervy performance, perfectly displaying the disquiet Chris experiences and the misgivings Chris feels during his visit. As Rose, Williams is all sunny smiles and reassuring glances, though her character also possesses a wicked sense of humour. Keener and Whitford bring an understated menace to proceedings, but Jones is once more on barely restrained psycho duties, leaving Henderson and Gabriel to add real unease to their portrayals. And then there’s Howery, stealing the movie with a succession of one-liners, all of which lead up to a bona fide final line classic: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

Rating: 8/10 – a multi-faceted racial drama/horror/mystery hybrid with satirical overtones (and undertones as well), Get Out is one of the more polished and convincing thrillers you’re likely to see in 2017; well thought out, constructed and delivered, its writer/director deserves all the praise that’s been coming his way, and if he wants to give up his comedy day job and make more movies like this one, then that will be absolutely fine.

Trailers – Coco (2017), Baby Driver (2017) and Early Man (2018)

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The second movie this year from Pixar (after Cars 3), Coco sees the creators of the Toy Story series make what is arguably their first fantasy movie, as twelve year old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) finds himself embroiled in a long-standing family mystery surrounding a ban on music. Miguel’s quest to solve this mystery, and how it connects to his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), leads Miguel into the fabled Land of the Dead. The trailer makes it clear that music is integral to the story in Coco, and the TV footage of de la Cruz is reminiscent of the newsreel footage from Up (2009), but once again it’s the quality of the animation that captures the attention: the end reveal is breathtaking. Pixar appear to have weathered the initial controversy surrounding their decision to try and trademark the term “Día de los Muertos”, and in doing so, have created a Pixar movie first: Miguel is their first central character of ethnic origin. In a way this could be a movie to savour, as it’s the last original story idea we’ll see from Pixar until March 2020. But if the story is locked in, then this could be the kind of uplifting, emotionally resonant tale that Pixar does so well when it’s not concentrating too much on banging out lacklustre sequels to existing favourites.

 

Edgar Wright may be the only director to turn down a gig at Marvel (he walked away from Ant-Man (2015) citing creative differences), but the downside of that decision for movie fans was his distinctive directing style being absent from our screens for four loooong years. But now he’s back, and with baby-faced Ansel Elgort as, well, the Baby Driver of the title. An action/crime/thriller about a getaway driver (yes, Elgort) looking to “retire” after meeting the girl of his dreams (Lily Collins), but reeled in for one last job by über-crime lord Kevin Spacey, the movie is replete with Wright’s trademark visual stylings (no static angles allowed here), and offbeat sense of humour (the Halloween argument). Anyone familiar with the video for Mint Royale’s Blue Song will already know how Baby Driver begins, but those who don’t will be in for a treat nevertheless. The trailer features some very impressive stunt driving, a great supporting cast that includes the likes of Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, and appropriately for a movie where the title character drives to the sounds of his own personal soundtrack, some really great tunes.

 

Aardman Studios are gloriously unique. They’re the only animation company who work with stop-motion clay animation techniques, and they regularly make crowd-pleasing movies that thrive on their own unique form of invention and wit. And if the teaser trailer for Early Man is anything to go by, then they’re onto another winner here as well. Even though we won’t see the finished product until January 2018, there’s already enough here to vouchsafe its tale of Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his efforts to unite his tribe against rivals from the Bronze Age (yes, time travel is involved) in a confrontation that pre-dates European football by thousands and thousands of years. Dug is a classic Aardman creation, and will no doubt prove popular, but if one character is likely to stand out from all the rest, it has to be Dug’s trusty sidekick, Hognob the (early) pig. With this being Nick Park’s first solo venture as a director, and like Pixar’s Coco, Aardman’s last original story idea for some time to come, this is definitely one to look forward to (and hopefully treasure).

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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D: Ang Lee / 113m

Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Makenzie Leigh, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, Beau Knapp, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Ben Platt, Tim Blake Nelson

When Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk went into production back in April 2015, there was much talk about Ang Lee’s decision to shoot the movie at a projection frame rate of 120fps in 3D and at 4K resolution. The previous highest frame rate was 48fps for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), but that experience didn’t prove as successful as hoped for. Lee’s idea was to make the movie as immersive as possible, and shooting at 120fps would have achieved the visual effect he was looking for. It’s a measure of Lee’s standing that his idea was supported by the various production companies who put up the money for the movie to be made. Lee’s idea was revolutionary, but also meant that there would only six cinemas worldwide that would be able to show it as Lee intended. So – artistic idealism or financial folly?

In the end, and inevitably, it’s a bit of both. Lee has taken the novel by Ben Fountain and given it the kind of loving attention to detail that is rare in mainstream movie making these days, but in doing so, has somehow managed to lose focus on the “bigger” picture. It’s a valiant effort, and one that deserves greater attention, but the movie itself proves too wayward in its execution for any distinct meaning to be attributed to the title character’s feelings about the public’s perception of him as a hero. Billy (Alwyn) is meant to be torn between two options: following the advice of his sister, Kathryn (Stewart), and leaving the army after an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving home game, or returning to Iraq for another tour of duty (which is what his squad is supposed to be doing).

Billy and the rest of his squad, led by Sergeant Dime (Hedlund), are on the last leg of a nationwide victory tour. The group of soldiers, misnamed Bravo Squad by the media, are there because Billy was caught on camera in heroic fashion as he tried to save another wounded sergeant, Virgil “Shroom” Breem (Diesel), during a firefight. Back home for the tour, Billy has had time to visit his home, where his sister Kathryn has voiced her fears for his continued safety, and her worries that he’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Billy is undecided, unsure if he should commit to his sister’s  proposal, or reaffirm his commitment to his squad. Making a decision is made more difficult both by the attention he’s getting, and the lack of understanding from the public. Nobody seems to be able to grasp what it’s like fighting in a war, and when he tries to explain how it is, he’s either unable to express himself clearly enough, or the other person doesn’t want to hear it.

This is the crux of the matter, and the script – by Jean-Christophe Castelli – spends an awful lot of time examining this aspect of what it’s like to be a soldier. At one point, the squad are approached by a businessman (Nelson) who tries to flatter them into endorsing his fracking operation, but his obvious lack of empathy leads to an overly sarcastic response from Sgt Dime that highlights the distance between them. It’s the kind of well-rehearsed comeback that happens only in the movies, but along with a shorter retort made by Billy in response to Dallas Cowboys’ owner Norm Oglesby’s (Martin) understanding of Billy’s public status, it does make clear just how distant a soldier’s experience is from what the public supposes; and how difficult it is for each side to meet in the middle. Billy connects with one of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Faison (Leigh), and tells her “It’s sort of weird, being honored for the worst day of your life”. She’s sympathetic, but doesn’t really understand what he’s telling her.

Around all this, the movie explores notions of fate, camaraderie, personal philosophies, determinism, what it means to be a hero, and the broader effects of violence, and the script and the movie are on firmer ground when these are being examined. There are moments where PTSD is shown to be a problem for some of the squad, particularly when a disrespectful Dallas Cowboy fan is choked into unconsciousness. And during flashbacks, Sgt Breem makes it clear to Lynn that there’s no point worrying about being killed; as he puts it, if that’s the way Billy is destined to die then “the bullet’s already been fired”. Breem’s philosophical bent makes sense to Billy, and he does his best to embrace his sergeant’s more thoughtful approach to the war and being a soldier. But he’s also firmly behind the assault on the fan, deeming the inappropriate use of force as acceptable. These contradictions add to the dichotomy inherent in Billy’s thinking, and provide a better understanding of why he’s so torn between leaving and staying. They’re also a much better way of explaining why there will always be a distance between the soldiers and the public.

Billy’s relationships with Kathryn and Faison act as a counterpoint to the macho solidarity he has with the rest of the squad, but they don’t occupy enough screen time to make as much of an impact as may have been intended. Along with movie producer Albert Brown (Tucker), there trying to clinch a deal for a movie version of the squad’s endeavours in Iraq, Dallas Cowboys gofer, Josh (Platt), and his boss, Norm, there are few other characters who are given much prominence. Fortunately, Billy’s story is absorbing enough to compensate for all this, and newcomer Alwyn proves to be a great choice in the role, having got the part just two days after leaving drama school. His ability to express the doubts and fears and troubled feelings of the character are exemplary, and it’s a performance of remarkable maturity for someone who at the time of shooting was only twenty-four (also, his American accent was so convincing, that at first Steve Martin didn’t even realise he was British).

Alwyn is given a lot of room by Lee to explore Billy’s relationship with his comrades and his return to life back home, and this freedom pays off extremely well, with Billy becoming a fully rounded character who’s entirely sympathetic thanks to the dilemma he has to face. Elsewhere, Hedlund is on equally good form as the acerbic, straight-talking Dime, Stewart looks unfortunately as if Kathryn has a drug problem, Martin is unctuous and insincere as Oglesby, Leigh is refreshing as a cheerleader with Christian beliefs, and Diesel shows that there’s far more to his acting abilities than driving muscle cars and propping up other, unsuccessful franchises.

With the performances offsetting some of the more troublesome aspects of the script, Lee’s decision to shoot the movie at 120fps does pay off, even in lower frame rate versions. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is possibly the most beautiful, most visually arresting movie of 2016. Images are crystal clear and possessed of a sharpness and depth that is amazing to watch, so much so that when Lee opts for a close-up (cue shots of Martin and Tucker late on in the movie) it’s a little unnerving; it’s as if the actors are really “in your face”. Lee’s aim to make the movie as immersive as possible has been achieved with no small amount of style and panache, and as a gamble it’s paid off far more effectively than with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. He’s also chosen one of the best cinematographers working today, John Toll, to help make the movie so astounding to watch. It’s a shame then that the material on screen doesn’t quite match up to the efforts made off screen.

Rating: 7/10 – with its muddled exploration of the soldier’s lot, and a lack of clarity in terms of explaining said lot to a wider public (namely the audience), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk doesn’t quite manage to reach the heights it was aiming for; technically superb but not as gripping or insightful as it could have been, it’s still a movie that has plenty of things to recommend it, though expectations should be reined in ahead of seeing it.

Miss Sloane (2016)

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D: John Madden / 132m

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston, David Wilson Barnes, Al Mukadam, Douglas Smith, Chuck Shamata, Dylan Baker

At the beginning of Miss Sloane, the title character (Chastain) looks directly into camera and says the following: “Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.” Chastain delivers this short speech with complete conviction and due gravitas. And in doing so, the movie puts the audience on notice: what follows may not be as true or as real as you believe.

The movie follows lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane into a senate hearing where she’s accused of authorising expenses for the Indonesian government, something which is illegal for a lobbyist to do. At first she refuses to answer the questions she’s asked, hiding behind her lawyer’s brief to “plead the Fifth”. But a more personal line of questioning leads to her abandoning this line of defence and taking the fight to the hearing. Afterwards, her lawyer (Barnes) keeps repeating “five years”, the term of imprisonment she’ll receive if she’s found guilty of perjury. But Elizabeth appears unperturbed.

The movie then travels back to roughly seven months before. Elizabeth is working for a law firm owned by George Dupont (Waterston). A representative of the National Rifle Association, Bob Sanford (Shamata), asks for her help in connecting with a broader female demographic ahead of an upcoming vote on a bill that would mean mandatory background checks on anyone looking to purchase a gun. The NRA sees it as an infringement on civil liberties, and wants to make sure that the bill, the Heaton-Harris Amendment, isn’t passed. Elizabeth laughs in Sanford’s face, and refuses to have anything to do with it. Later, Dupont makes it clear that if she doesn’t work on the NRA’s initiative then her position won’t be as assured as she thinks. That night she meets Rodolfo Schmidt (Strong), head of the law firm Peterson Wyatt, and the man in charge of the fight to get the Heaton-Harris Amendment passed. The next day, Elizabeth resigns, and takes several of her team with her to Peterson Wyatt, though one of her best colleagues, Jane Molloy (Pill), chooses to stay.

In order for the Amendment to have a chance of being successful, Elizabeth, her team, and the staff at Peterson Wyatt, including Esme Manucharian (Mbatha-Raw), have to persuade sixteen out of twenty-one uncommitted senators to vote their way. As they set about this seemingly huge task – Dupont and the NRA only need to persuade six – Elizabeth plays out various strategies in her efforts to secure the necessary votes. But it soon becomes obvious that she’ll cross almost any line in order to win, even if it means sacrificing colleagues or lying to them deliberately. With the tide turning in her favour, and Dupont becoming ever more determined to derail her progress, her old firm launches a smear campaign, one that leads to Elizabeth’s sitting before a senate hearing committee and having to answer for her actions.

From the off, Miss Sloane is a thriller that throws the viewer deep into the mire of political lobbying, and which expects them to keep up with everything that’s going on. It’s an intellectual minefield, with so many issues dependent on the appropriate (or inappropriate) use of legal and ethical considerations, that looking away for even a moment could mean the difference between knowing exactly what’s going on – difficult enough thanks to Jonathan Perera’s dauntingly detailed script – and what might be going on. If you’re ever unsure as to what is happening, and/or why, then it’s best to bear in mind that opening speech, and the lobbyist always being “one step ahead”. Do that, and most of the movie will make sense… eventually.

By preferring (or needing) to stay one step ahead at all times, Elizabeth inevitably becomes a character that the viewer can’t trust. But we can have faith in her, in her need to win, and her commitment to never being out-thought, outfoxed, or outmanoeuvred. For all her manipulations and outright deceptions, Elizabeth is consistent in her efforts to be the winner, and she makes no bones about her methods: if they get the win then that’s all that matters. Along the way this means there are some casualties, notably Mbatha-Raw’s Esme, who has a personal secret exposed in front of millions of TV viewers. Elizabeth would argue that the end justifies the means, but as she is drawn deeper and deeper into the fight to get the Amendment passed, she begins to learn that some lines, once crossed, can’t be re-crossed. And as the stakes are increased, and the senate hearing hoves into view, Elizabeth has no option but to reassess her approach to lobbying and the people she works with.

Bringing the character of Elizabeth Sloane to mesmerising life, Chastain gives, arguably, her best performance since Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Cool, controlling, yet undeniably complex in both her motivations and her need to win at all costs, Chastain portrays Elizabeth as a restless, rest-avoiding predator, always looking for the weak link in an opponent’s armour, and always ready to exploit that weak link. She’ll even use her own people if she feels it’s necessary, but she’s up front about it, and it’s this straight-shooting, unapologetic persona that Chastain exploits so well, making her unlikeable and yet still strangely admirable at the same time. Chastain is the star of the movie, unforgettable whether she’s trampling on other people’s feelings or struggling to contain her own. She’s not alone, though. As her “boss” (a term you soon feel is inadequate in describing anyone who employs her), Strong goes from marvelling at her successes to feeling increasingly worried that she’s going too far with her own, hidden agenda. As the cruelly exposed Esme, Mbatha-Raw is a perfect foil for Chastain’s ebullient performance, her wide-eyed naïvete and quiet strength making her the movie’s most sympathetic character. And there’s further impressive support from Stuhlbarg as Elizabeth’s main adversary at Dupont, Lithgow as the head of the senate committee, and Barnes as her exasperated lawyer.

Orchestrating all this is Madden, now free from depicting events at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and displaying all the skills and directorial touches needed to shepherd Perera’s screenplay (a top five Black List script from 2015) through its varied twists and turns. Make no mistake, this is an intelligent, penetrating look at a world few of us have any conception of, and which is paced like a thriller, all of which makes Miss Sloane a much more compelling movie than expected. It’s also put together very skilfully by editor Alexander Berner, and he and Madden ensure that the many scenes that are taken up by immense amounts of exposition are as equally vital as those scenes where Elizabeth’s plans are achieving momentum, or are already in full swing. In the end, it’s a tale about personal redemption set against a dark backdrop of corruption and ethical malaise, and thanks to Chastain, is nothing less than exhilarating.

Rating: 8/10 – marred only by its predictable denouement, some by-the-numbers villainy from Dupont, and Elizabeth’s not-quite-credible overall gamble, Miss Sloane is still a political thriller with teeth, and replete with flashes of dark humour that leaven the serious tone; irresistible once it’s in full flow, this has unfortunately been overlooked by audiences – which is a shame given the pedigree of the cast, the skill of its director, and the sharpness of its script.

Sing (2016)

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D: Garth Jennings, Christophe Lourdelet / 108m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Nick Kroll, Beck Bennett, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharaoh, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman

In a world where animals inhabit human roles, Buster Moon (McConaughey) is a koala whose love of show business has led him to owning his own theatre. But his recent productions have failed to make any money, and Buster is in debt to pretty much everyone, including his own stage crew, and the bank, in the form of llama Judith (Perlman). Needing to come up with a successful idea, Buster decides to hold a singing contest with a $1000 prize for the winner. But his secretary, Miss Crawly (Jennings), accidentally adds two extra zeros to the flier he plans to distribute across the city, and when they find their way into the hands of the public, the prize money reads $100,000. The next day, there’s a massive queue outside Moon’s theatre, all ready to audition for the contest.

Amongst the hundreds of contenders, there’s arrogant blowhard Mike (MacFarlane), a white mouse with the heart and voice of a crooner; long-suffering Rosita (Witherspoon), a pig whose dreams of becoming a singer were sidetracked when she married and had twenty-five piglets; conflicted Johnny (Egerton), a teenage gorilla who wants to avoid following in his father’s criminal footsteps; wildly extroverted Gunter (Kroll), another pig who is teamed up with Rosita; aspiring lead guitarist Ash (Johansson), a porcupine whose musical tastes run to alternative rock; and reluctant Meena (Kelly), an elephant whose shyness stops her from performing. All bar Meena are chosen by Buster to take part in the contest, and rehearsals begin in anticipation of a fantastic night for all of them.

Away from the contest, all of them face personal problems that threaten their involvement in the show. As they each juggle these problems, Buster tries to find the $100,000 he needs, and targets Nana Noodleman (Saunders), a former star who performed at Buster’s theatre. The grandmother of his best friend, sheep Eddie (O”Reilly), at first she refuses to help, but agrees to see a one-off performance by all the acts. But disaster strikes thanks to Mike’s crooked fleecing of three bears in a card game. Their interruption of the show leads to the contest having to be cancelled. Buster hides himself away at Eddie’s place, but the contestants aren’t about to give up on their dreams, and they badger him to carry on. Buster refuses, until that is, he hears a certain elephant singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

A bright and breezy musical comedy with a great deal of heart, Sing is as much a feelgood musical as La La Land (2016), and maybe more so. It’s a genuinely heartfelt, uplifting experience that takes its generic “let’s put on a show” narrative and populates it with a winning collection of anthropomorphic animals, all of whom are likeable, endearing and fun to watch. The brainchild of writer and co-director Garth Jennings (who is also a hoot as Miss Crawly, an iguana who keeps losing her glass eye), the movie doesn’t offer anything new in terms of the overall material – you can pretty much predict the solution/outcome of each character’s problems from the word go – but what it does offer is a selection of musical performances that are well-staged and wonderfully rendered by Illumination Entertainment’s animation wizards.

Sing is a bright, sometimes gaudy, colourful movie that revels in its feelgood vibe, from Buster’s ebullient never-say-die attitude, to Gunter’s carefree, self-confidence, and Mike’s insistence on being the inevitable contest winner. Even the travails of the other characters are overcome by positive, ingenious thinking, with Rosita creating a husband and children management system out of weights and pulleys, and Ash relying on her songwriting skills to offset her sadness at being replaced so readily. Only Johnny’s story contains any potential upset, as his father’s refusal to accept his son’s dream of being a singer leads to an estrangement between them, especially when Johnny puts the preview show for Nana ahead of being the getaway driver for his father’s latest robbery.

Of course, the story is about people following their dreams, and achieving them despite the obstacles in their way. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, but then it doesn’t have to be. What’s important is that the characters, and the audience, are having a good time, and on this level, Sing is entirely successful, its vibrant, crowd-pleasing musical performances boasting great song choices, great interpretations (MacFarlane’s version of My Way is particularly good), and great visual representations (Rosita and Gunter’s version of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off). On and off the stage, there’s a great selection of songs on the soundtrack, and there’s not one dud amongst them.

This being an Illumination Entertainment movie, there’s plenty of jokes, gags and visual humour, from Miss Crawly (just by herself), to Gunter’s avowal of “piggy power”, Johnny’s father’s gang wearing bunny masks on their robberies, and what happens when Rosita’s “home care system” eventually malfunctions. Only in an animated movie could you see such invention, and such comic anarchy, and only in an animated movie would it all make such wonderful, physics-defying sense. Perhaps inevitably though, there are a few maudlin moments, but there are only a few, and it’s perhaps to be expected that the script has seen fit to include them. The thing to remember is that for every sentimental moment, there’s at least five gags to compensate for it.

As is now the standard with Illumination, the animation is exemplary, with the characters’ mannerisms and foibles beautifully expressed, and Jennings is particularly adept at balancing their various storylines and subplots so that no one is reduced to a supporting role. Buster may be the ostensible lead, but the script is more than capable of focusing on each contestant without reducing the others’ screen time. Jennings has also assembled a great cast, with the likes of Johansson and Egerton proving that they’re just as good at singing as they are at acting. As Eddie the sheep, O’Reilly is a great foil for McConaughey’s chipper impresario, while Saunders delivers a sharply withering turn as the great Nana Noodleman. And for fans of innovation in animation, look out for the time-lapse photography that occurs near the end of the movie, and which is as breathtaking in its audacity as it is in its execution.

Rating: 8/10 – another critical and financial success for Illumination, Sing is a gorgeous, freewheeling exercise in the power of dreams, and features a wonderful variety of exciting musical performances; top-notch entertainment that extends the company’s run of success at the box office, this is just the kind of movie to chase away any negative feelings, and provide its audience with a thoroughly good time.

Oh! the Horror! – Train to Busan (2016) and XX (2017)

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Train to Busan (2016) / D: Yeon Sang-ho / 118m

aka Busanhaeng

Cast: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee, Choi Gwi-hwa, Jung Suk-yong, Ye Soo-jung, Park Myung-sin

Seok-woo (Gong) is a workaholic whose marriage has ended in divorce, and who neglects to spend time with his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim). When she insists he goes with her to Busan to visit her mother, he feels guilty enough to do it. They board the train in Seoul, but just before it departs a young woman gets on who proceeds to have convulsions. One of the train attendants goes to help her, but she’s attacked by the woman, and within moments both have become zombies. The pair attack the rest of the passengers in that section of the train. Seok-woo grabs his daughter, and heads as far down the train as he can, while behind them, more and more passengers become victims. Only the fact that the zombies seem unable to work out how to open the doors between compartments keeps the remaining unharmed travellers from suffering the same fate.

As the train journey continues it soon becomes clear that the zombie outbreak is spreading throughout South Korea. The train eventually stops at Daejeon, which appears deserted. But once they’ve got off the train, the passengers discover that they’re not as safe as they thought. Back on the train, they find themselves separated by several zombie infested compartments. One group, including Seok-woo, fight their way through to the other passengers, only to find the others – under the direction of paranoid businessman Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung) – barring them from entering the safety of their compartment. When they finally do get in, they’re forced to quarantine themselves in another section. And then the zombies get in as well…

A major success in South Korea (being the first movie from there in 2016 to be seen by over ten million viewers), Train to Busan takes its zombie cues from movies such as 28 Days Later… (2002) and World War Z (2013). Here the afflicted are fast, rapacious, and all kitted out with special contact lenses. The difference between these and any other zombie is their inability to notice any of the living if the living don’t move, or if they’re all in the dark (Seok-woo and co’s efforts to unite with the other passengers relies on the train travelling through several tunnels). There’s a clear sense of peril as the train embarks on its journey, and director Yeon and writer Park Joo-suk do their utmost to ramp up the tension, killing off the cast with a determined frequency, until only a handful are left (though you’ll probably be able to guess just who quite early on).

There are attempts at underscoring it all with a degree of social commentary, but unless you’re familiar with South Korean life, much of it will pass you by. That said, what will be more comforting is the number of stereotypes on display in terms of the characters, from Ma’s tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside father-to-be, to Kim Eui-sung’s self-serving, Machiavellian businessman. The movie wastes no time on fleshing them out as characters, and instead, focuses on the action, which includes a spectacular train wreck, and several gripping on-board encounters between the unaffected and the (dis)affected. The cast, particularly Jung as Ma’s pregnant wife, and Gong, play their parts with conviction, and the entire mise en scene is given an eerie verisimilitude thanks to Lee Hyung-doek’s crisp, strangely homogensied cinematography.

Rating: 7/10 – an above average entry in the zombie sub-genre of horror movies, Train to Busan has lots of neat directorial flourishes, and isn’t afraid to acknowledge its influences (especially in the final scene); refreshingly direct, and making good use of its largely claustrophobic settings, the movie is solidly made and definitely worth spending two hours in its company.

 

XX (2017) / D: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama / 81m

Cast: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha, Melanie Lynskey, Sheila Vand, Casey Adams, Breeda Wool, Angela Trimbur, Morgan Krantz, Christina Kirk, Kyle Allen, Mike Doyle

A portmanteau of four stories wrapped up in an interstitial animated tale, XX opens with Vuckovic’s The Box, in which a young boy, Danny (DaCunha), is allowed a peek inside the box a man on the subway says is a present, and thereafter refuses to eat. His parents (Brown, Watton) think it’s all just a phase, but then his sister starts refusing to eat as well, followed by the father. Come Xmas and all three are wasting away, but seem happy and resigned about it. Soon, the mother is riding the subway in the hope of finding the man with the box, and learning what was inside it. In Clark’s The Birthday Party, a mother (Lynskey) trying to organise her young daughter’s birthday party finds an obstacle to everything going well in the form of her recently dead husband. She tries to hide the body, but interruptions and other problems get in the way until she comes up with an ingenious, but risky, solution – if only no one looks too closely at the giant panda.

The third tale, Benjamin’s Don’t Fall, sees two couples on a trip to the desert. They find an ancient cave painting that depicts a demon. Later that night, one of them, Gretchen (Wool), is attacked. She turns into a murderous creature, and tries to kill her friends. In the final story, Kusama’s Her Only Living Son, Cora (Kirk) is a single mother who wants nothing to do with the father of her only son, Andy (Allen). But as he approaches eighteen, she begins to find that he’s not exactly the child she thinks he is, and that there are dark forces surrounding him, forces that have an agenda for him that she has either suppressed, or is completely unaware of.

XX is being promoted heavily thanks to its four female directors – five if you count Sofia Carrillo’s animated contributions – but it’s an approach that should have been avoided, because what may have sounded like a good gimmick in the planning stages, soon wears out any promise it held by the end of the first story. Now, that’s not to say that the four women behind the camera aren’t necessarily up to the challenge, it’s just that they’re unable to overcome the limitations inherent in the movie’s format. With each tale running under twenty minutes, they’re over before they’ve barely begun, and  the resulting lack of defined characters, predictable storylines, hurried plot developments, and quickly applied scares/gory moments means that there’s very little substance with which to engage the audience.

Benjamin’s tale suffers the most, having four characters that we never get a chance to even halfway care about before they’re being killed off. Elsewhere, credulity is stretched to breaking point by The Birthday Party‘s central conceit, and the parents in The Box not doing more to seek help for their son apart from making just one trip to the doctor’s. The various tales are also short on atmosphere, or a sense of dread, leaving each one to slip by without meeting many of the viewer’s expectations. It’s an admirable effort, but one that tumbles helplessly and expectedly into the pit of fruitless endeavours. The performances are mostly perfunctory (though Lynskey stands out from the crowd), and the look of each tale only occasionally rises above being bland and uninspired. The idea of women doing horror is a sound one, and shouldn’t be discouraged, but on this occasion, it doesn’t work as well as it could.

Rating: 4/10 – four talented directors, four underwhelming tales, one frustrating movie – XX is all this and more, an idea that needed stronger material than that shown; if there is to be an XX 2, then maybe the directors shouldn’t be the writers as well, and maybe the running time should be expanded on, allowing for a greater emphasis on characterisation, atmosphere and increasing tension.

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

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D: Gore Verbinski / 146m

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Ivo Nandi, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Harry Groener, Tomas Norström, Ashok Mandanna, Magnus Krepper, Peter Benedict

An early contender for Most Disappointing Movie of the Year, A Cure for Wellness held so much promise that it was perhaps inevitable that it wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny. The return to live action moviemaking of Gore Verbinski after the less-than-stellar The Lone Ranger (2013), the movie looked like it could be many different things all at once, and while that’s not usually a good sign, Verbinski’s skill as a director meant that the movie had a better than average chance of being a success. And with no other feature in 2017 looking as if it could match the movie’s style and sense of mysterious intrigue, it seemed equally inevitable that, whatever reaction it received, it was destined for cult status.

While it’s a little early to be certain if A Cure for Wellness will achieve cult status, right now one thing that can be said is that if you make it all the way through to the end, then your own status as a tenacious, determined individual is assured. Put simply, the movie has a similar effect that a stay at the mysterious wellness centre has on its patients: it slowly drains the life out of anyone watching it, and they end up a dried out husk (it’s one of the movie’s more clumsy revelations: that patients at the spa are dying from dehydration). Verbinski has attempted to make a gothic mystery, but in doing so, has forgotten that if you’re going to put people in mortal jeopardy, then the mortal jeopardy has got to be very frightening indeed, and the nature of the mystery has got to be fully explained and not rendered unintelligible thanks to its being unintelligible in the first place.

The mystery itself is quite a simple one: what’s going on at a secluded spa in the Swiss Alps? But on the back of this, Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe have fashioned a tepid melodrama that twists and turns in an effort to be intriguing, but which unfortunately, is more likely to leave viewers irretrievably puzzled instead of satisfied. As the viewer slowly learns the deep, dark, terrible history of the area, and how its legacy is still being felt two hundred years later, the movie hints at even darker, more disturbing things going on behind the spa’s public façade. And to help the viewer unravel the mystery, we have DeHaan’s venal financial consultant, a man we know almost from the start to be duplicitous and corrupt. He’s our anti-hero, unsympathetic for the most part, and someone we wouldn’t want to identify with in a million years. It seems, though, that DeHaan knows this, and he doesn’t try to make the character likeable, or misunderstood, or deserving of anything other than our immediate mistrust. But that’s at the beginning; sadly though, very little of that changes as the movie wearyingly moves on.

In making DeHaan’s character, Lockhart, so unappealing, the movie lacks a central figure for the audience to care about (even when he’s strapped into a dentist’s chair with a drill about to do something horrible to him; the audience won’t be cringing because he’s the one in the chair, but because they’re imagining themselves in the chair). Lockhart is the intended fall guy, the patsy, and for long periods – and this is a movie that delights in long periods – his fate seems assured. Sent to retrieve his firm’s AWOL CEO, Pembroke (Groener), Lockhart encounters obstacle after obstacle until he’s reassured he can see his boss later that day. But a car crash leaves him with a broken leg and no immediate way of leaving the spa. And when he finally sees Pembroke, the man is initially reluctant to leave, though he does eventually agree he should return (there’s some nonsense about an imminent business merger and financial irregularities to be pinned on the CEO, but it’s all irrelevant to the main plot and serves merely as a contrived way of getting Lockhart to Switzerland).

The best laid plans rule comes into play at this point, and Pembroke is supposed to have suffered a relapse and retracted his decision. Lockhart becomes intrigued by the spa’s history – aided by a conveniently interested and knowledgeable patient, Victoria Watkins (Imrie) – and begins to piece together its tortuous past. He also becomes intrigued by the presence of Hannah (Goth), the youngest patient there by at least thirty years, and in the words of the spa’s director, Dr Volmer (Isaacs), “a special case”. Lockhart begins to suspect that Volmer is conducting clandestine experiments on the so-called patients, and that the water everyone drinks is contributing to the ill health that they’re all experiencing. As he begins to piece together the truth of what is happening, and Hannah’s role in it all, he makes another, more startling discovery, and soon finds his own life is in serious jeopardy.

There’s a lot more to the movie than the previous two paragraphs can cover, and that’s part of the problem; it tries to be so many different things, and never settles on one thing for good. As the plot unfolds, stranger and stranger things occur and are witnessed, but not with any sense that said stranger things might be meaningful, or dangerous necessarily to Lockhart’s health. There’s a scene late on where Lockhart is trapped (barring his head) in what looks like a reconstituted iron lung. He’s roughly intubated and live eels flow down into his body. If this was a normal, reality-based incident, Lockhart would die from the experience; in the aftermath however, Verbinski has DeHaan play him like he’s experiencing time dilation, or has taken one too many downers. And then, just as suddenly, he’s over it, because the movie needs a rousing climax – not that it gets it; it gets perverse body horror instead – rather than its anti-hero staring into space until he dies.

A Cure for Wellness is a movie that its creators have made inaccessible and obscure in terms of its narrative, and the tangled history of the spa and what happened on its site two hundred years before. Some viewers will manage to work out what’s going on and why, but it won’t make any difference if they’re right or wrong. Verbinski and Haythe are less concerned with making it all appear real than they are in trying to instill a palpable sense of dread into the material. But with too many scenes outstaying their welcome, or failing to advance the plot in any way, what the viewer is left with is a movie that often looks stunning – Eve Stewart’s production design deserves every superlative you can think of – but which doesn’t know when to shut up shop and say “that’s enough already”. By the time it reaches its faux-Hammer finale, the movie has lost any intensity it may have had, and Verbinski’s handling of the last ten to fifteen minutes lacks the necessary impact to make it work properly. It’s less “Oh my God!” and more “Oh my, is that the time?”

On the performance side, DeHaan enters into the spirit of things with obvious commitment (and no small amount of personal discomfort in some scenes), but even though he brings a great deal of sincerity to his role, it doesn’t help the viewer connect with Lockhart in any meaningful way, and when he does suffer at the hands of Volmer or others, there’s no emotional investment there on the viewer’s part. As the probably devious Volmer, Isaacs is a calmer presence than DeHaan, his urbane manner contrasting with DeHaan’s more aggressive portrayal, but all that is thrown away by the demands of the finale’s Gothic excesses. And as the ethereal Hannah, Goth gets to act all mysterious and coy in a performance that matches the part, but which isn’t allowed to develop beyond Hannah’s being a very curious damsel in distress. All three make the movie more palatable thanks to their involvement, but ultimately all three are just pawns moved about in awkward ways by Verbinski’s unconvincing approach to the material.

Rating: 5/10 – bloated and stagnant for long stretches, A Cure for Wellness looks impressive from the outside, but is fatally hollow on the inside; part psychological drama, part horror, it’s a movie whose storyline never really gels or feels organic, and which relies too heavily on its visuals to be anywhere near as effective as the thriller it’s meant to be.

10 Movies That Are 40 Years Old This Year – 2017

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1976 wasn’t exactly a great year for the movies, and 1977 seemed content to follow in its footsteps. Aside from the movies listed below (and a certain movie set in a galaxy far, far away), 1977 was a year that disappointed more than it rewarded, and the massive forward strides that had been made in the first half of the decade in terms of storytelling, directing, and acting, were beginning to seem like a distant memory. What all the movies listed below have in common is a director at the helm with a clear vision of what the movie is about, and how that message is best relayed/imparted to the audience. 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 talking about them in another forty years’ time.

1) Eraserhead – A movie that could qualify as the dictionary definition of bizarre (and which Variety described as “a sickening bad-taste exercise”), Eraserhead is an unsettling, disturbing surrealist masterpiece. Deftly examining contrary notions of sexual disgust and longing, Lynch’s debut feature is visually arresting, but is more notable for its sound design, an aural landscape that permeates the movie and provides an unnerving backdrop for the events occurring on screen. For many, this is the highpoint of Lynch’s career, but if one thing about it is true, it’s that it’s a movie that’s never been replicated; nor is it ever likely to be.

2) That Obscure Object of Desire – Luis Buñuel’s last movie is a romantic drama set against the backdrop of a terrorist insurgency, and is famous for his use of two actresses – Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina – in the same role. It also contains Buñuel’s trademark surrealist humour, explorations of sexual frustration, a healthy dose of cynicism, and one of Fernando Rey’s most enjoyable performances. Regarded as a masterpiece by contemporary critics, That Obscure Object of Desire sees Buñuel having fun, and rewarding his fans with possibly the most relaxed and accessible movie of his entire career.

3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Justly famous for its stunning Devil’s Tower-set climax, Steven Spielberg’s ode to (peaceful) alien contact is big on awe and wonder, and forty years on, still retains an emotional wallop. Richard Dreyfus is a great choice for the movie’s everyman central character, and though the movie has been re-edited twice since its original release, it’s arguable that the 1977 version is still the best cut available. With that musical motif still oddly effective after all this time, and Spielberg managing to keep everything grounded, it’s an exciting, hugely entertaining slice of science fiction and a classic of the genre.

4) Annie Hall – It was nearly called Anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure), and could have been known as either It Had to Be Jew or Me and My Goy, but in the end, Woody Allen settled for the much simpler Annie Hall, and an Best Film Oscar winner was born. The movie that first saw Allen move away from making out and out comedies, and address more dramatic issues, it sees Allen’s Alvy “Max” Singer break the fourth wall on various occasions, and make a fashion icon (albeit briefly) out of Diane Keaton. Much like David Lynch and Eraserhead, there are those who feel that Annie Hall is Allen’s best movie… and you know what? It’s difficult to argue with them.

5) Julia – When Fred Zinnemann’s Nazi-era drama first appeared on our screens, its depiction of writer Lillian Hellman’s own pre-War experiences was quickly challenged by critics and those in the know. But though Hellman’s credibility may have been in question, what isn’t is the quality of the movie itself, from its star performances (Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda) to its impressive period settings, and its fascinating storyline (even if it is largely apocryphal). A movie that’s still ripe for discussion, the controversy that surrounds it makes it all the more intriguing to watch, and it sees Zinnemann on fine form, orchestrating the material with his usual aplomb.

6) 3 Women – Robert Altman was a mercurial director, with a tremendous faith in his own abilities, but even he may have been surprised that he got 3 Women made as easily as he did. Based on a dream Altman had and which he intended to make without a formal script, the movie’s psychological examination of the titular characters and the relationships they develop was greenlit on the back of Altman’s previous work. It’s a movie that can be described in many ways: absorbing, meticulous, grandiose, ambitious, funny, and more still, making it a movie that contains a number of wonderful surprises and is as fresh now as it was in 1977.

7) The American Friend – Wim Wenders’ atmospheric neo-noir thriller, adapted from the novel Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith, is at first glance, a movie that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but if you stick with it (or better still, see it a second time) then the cleverness of Wenders’ approach, along with Dennis Hopper’s accomplished performance as Tom Ripley, becomes immediately apparent. A tragic tale that is by turns gripping, stylish, and unapologetic in its nihilism, The American Friend coasts through the seedy underbelly of European criminal life with a dispassionate eye for its crueller details, and Wenders turns famous directors such as Samuel Fuller into on screen gangsters.

8) Opening Night – A movie that suffered at the hands of critics on its release, John Cassavetes’ excoriating look at a self-destructive actress (played convincingly by Gena Rowlands) is difficult, intense, emotionally exhausting, powerful, and an undeniable triumph. A movie that makes its audience think about what’s happening, and which doesn’t provide any easy answers, Opening Night sees Cassavetes at the height of his writing and directing powers.

9) Desperate Living – Welcome to Mortville, home of criminals, nudists and sexual deviants, and the evil Queen Carlotta (who else but Edith Massey?). Just from that sentence alone you’d know it was a John Waters movie, and even though there’s no Divine to increase the level of audacious trashiness (is that a phrase? It is now), this is still a terrific example of how wickedly inventive Waters could be on a tiny budget. And let’s be honest, who else could get the critics from Good Housekeeping to walk out after ten minutes?

10) The Last Wave – Amazingly, The Last Wave was never picked up for distribution in the US back in ’77, an oversight that seems absurd given the movie’s reputation since then. But Peter Weir’s elliptical, thought-provoking clash of cultures and belief systems does feature one of Richard Chamberlain’s finest performances (if not the finest), some startling imagery courtesy of DoP Russell Boyd, and a final image that can be taken either literally or figuratively – something which is left entirely to the viewer.

The Hollars (2016)

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D: John Krasinski / 89m

Cast: John Krasinski, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Margo Martindale, Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day, Josh Groban, Randall Park, Ashley Dyke, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mary Kay Place

Dysfunctional families – where would indie movie makers be without them? A staple of indie movie making, the dysfunctional family has provided us with some great movies over the years, from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) to Little Miss Sunshine (2006) to August: Osage County (2013). Now it’s John Krasinski’s turn to shine a light on a family for whom “normal behaviour” isn’t exactly customary practice.

Krasinski plays John Hollar, a struggling graphic artist whose self-confidence is almost exhausted. As if that wasn’t enough, his girlfriend, Rebecca (Kendrick), is expecting their baby. Feeling the pressure from both sides, things get even more stressful for him when he learns that his mother, Sally (Martindale), is in the hospital and needs an operation to remove a brain tumour. Returning to his hometown after several years away, John reconnects with his father, Don (Jenkins), and his older brother, Ron (Copley). With a few days to go before the operation, John comes face to face with the problems and issues that occupy his family members’ time. Ron is screwing up his divorce from Stacey (Dyke) by spying on her and her new partner, Reverend Dan (Groban), as well as acting inappropriately in order to spend time with his two daughters. Meanwhile, Don’s plumbing business is on the brink of going under.

Adding to John’s worries is one of his mother’s nurses, an old high school classmate called Jason (Day) who has married John’s old girlfriend Gwen (Winstead). At first, Jason is concerned that John is going to try and sleep with Gwen while he’s back. John reassures him that he won’t, and receives an invitation to dinner. But though his intentions are honourable, Gwen’s aren’t and he has to rebuff her advances. Wanting to be open and honest about the encounter, he tells Rebecca about it, but in such a clumsy way that she becomes worried and travels to his hometown to be with him. Once there, she reveals a few truths that John has been avoiding admitting, while he too reveals a truth that she has been unaware of. Meanwhile, Ron finds an unlikely supporter in Reverend Dan, Don takes a job at a wine store to bolster his business’s finances, and soon, the day of Sally’s operation is at hand.

Krasinski has said that the one-liner for The Hollars is something that we’ve heard before: a guy goes home to his family and finds out about himself. And he’s spot on. But while it’s true that it’s a theme that’s been done several times before, and that the movie doesn’t really offer us anything new in terms of characterisation or the narrative, what the movie does do is to introduce us to a new, disparate bunch of people who are all trying to deal with their own individual problems, while also trying to support each other as best they can. But that’s the basis of any movie about a dysfunctional family. The question to ask is: within its own terms and its own ambitions, does The Hollars work?

Inevitably, the answer is yes and no. There is much to recommend The Hollars, and Krasinski plays to the strengths of Jim Strouse’s screenplay at every opportunity. The characters are well-drawn, and the interaction between them is sympathetic and knowing, allowing the cast to display each character’s vulnerabilities and strengths to good effect. From Krasinski’s self-doubting, slightly adrift John to Copley’s manic, short-sighted Ron, from Jenkins’ overly emotional, self-deluding Don to Martindale’s anxious yet eternally supportive Sally, and Kendrick’s mostly confident, comforting Rebecca, the movie is populated by characters who are easily recognisable and a pleasure to spend time with. Strouse keeps the various inter-relationships on the simple side, with few complications to upset or muddy the waters. This allows the viewer to engage with them more easily, and though this also leads to a feeling of unnecessary mawkishness that develops as the movie goes on, Krasinski’s skill as a director ensures it doesn’t overwhelm the material as a whole.

Krasinski is helped by a clutch of great performances, and he exploits each member of his talented cast in justifiable fashion. Jenkins does bewildered to very good effect, making Don seem as if he’s barely in the room. Copley’s take on Ron is to mix a committed father with an ADD sufferer, and he provides a good deal of the movie’s easy humour. Kendrick tenders another slight variation on the type of character that she always plays in this kind of thing, but Rebecca is very much a supporting role whose job it is to show John the way forward when he needs it. Krasinski slips easily into the central role, and plays the gauche, somewhat perplexed John with a good deal of charm. But if anyone stands out from the ensemble cast then it’s Martindale, who once again, reaffirms her status as one of the best character actors currently working in movies. As the affable, good-natured Sally, Martindale gives a delicate, thoughtful performance that is entirely natural and heartfelt.

But while the performances are the movie’s main draw, some of the subplots fail to take hold in – perhaps – the way they were meant to. Ron’s often childish behaviour, particularly in the presence of Reverend Dan, is a little over-the-top and far from credible, even for a character who appears, for the most part, to be a man-child. And Don’s business problems, which at first seem like they’re going to have a lasting impact on the family as a whole, waste a whole scene where he’s refused credit, only for a solution to come along that fails to address the issue of depleted funds entirely. The inclusion of John’s ex-girlfriend, Gwen, has even less impact, as beyond the dinner scenes, she doesn’t reappear, leaving the viewer to wonder if she was meant to have an effect on John’s life in some way. But if that’s so, then it seems it was either left out at one of the draft stages, or on the cutting room floor. These failings help to make the movie feel uneven at times, and there’s a definite sense that more time would have been needed to address them properly.

Overall, Strouse’s screenplay and Krasinski’s direction combine to make The Hollars an enjoyable comedy with serious moments, and a poignant drama with humorous stretches. A lot of it is predictable, but that’s not a bad thing as this is one of those occasions where familiarity breeds fondness and uncomplicated indulgence instead of contempt. With a suitably indie soundtrack made up of original songs by Josh Ritter, and a winning, relaxed feel to proceedings, The Hollars provides viewers with an offbeat, captivating experience that adds up to a warm-hearted, generous good time for anyone that seeks it out.

Rating: 7/10 – genial and obliging, The Hollars doesn’t waste a second in its attempts to get you to like it, and once you do, you can forgive it when the material stumbles over itself from time to time; buoyed by a great ensemble cast, and a good sense of its own strengths and weaknesses, it tells its story succinctly and without any undue fuss – and that’s not always when there’s a dysfunctional family involved.

The Great Wall (2016)

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D: Yimou Zhang / 103m

Cast: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen, Pilou Asbæk

On paper it must have sounded like a great idea. A US/China co-production directed by Yimou Zhang and starring Matt Damon, and telling one of the legends behind the creation of the Great Wall of China: that it was built to stop a species of monster called the Tao Tei from over-running the country. On paper it promised Zhang’s visionary skill as a director, Damon’s solid acting presence, and some of the most exciting battle scenes this side of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It would also be the most expensive movie in Chinese history, costing $135 million.

But somewhere along the way, what everyone – the production companies and the producers, Zhang and Damon, anyone else involved – forgot was that the movie was going to need a decent script. Or maybe they were aware it needed a decent script but decided to make do with the one they had (or maybe working with more than one hundred on-set translators didn’t help). However it was, The Great Wall reaches us with its goal to entertain its audience undermined almost from the word go. And it never recovers, offering lazy characterisations, even lazier motivations for its characters, plotting that goes beyond ridiculous, and the kind of moments that are meant to be, well, meaningful but just look and sound awkward. It’s only the well-mounted action sequences that provide any fun, but by the end, any credibility they’ve given the movie has run dry as well. So step forward Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz who came up with the story, and Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy who actually wrote the script. Give them all a hearty round of applause – and let that be the only acknowledgment they get for coming up with this farrago.

Now obviously, The Great Wall is a fantasy movie, and none of it ever happened for real, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be grounded as far as possible within its own fantastical world. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal as mercenaries trying to steal black powder (gunpowder) from the Chinese? Okay, that one’s possible. The Great Wall built to stop a horde of monsters from over-running the country (and by extension, the world)? Ahh, hang on a minute. No, that’s not going to work. There are problems with that idea straight away, and these are problems the movie ignores, as if by ignoring them no one will stop and say, ahhh, hang on a minute… The problem lies with those pesky, awkward timescales, the ones the movie itself comes up with. Seventeen hundred years to build. Okay, but the Tao Tei attack every sixty years, and again according to the movie, have been doing so for two thousand years. So the obvious question is: how is it that the Tao Tei haven’t over-run the country already? There’s thousands upon thousands of the ugly creatures (which must mean their Queen is kept very busy).

To be fair, the movie does try to provide an answer to this conundrum, by mentioning that the Tao Tei are evolving with each sixty year cycle, and becoming more and more intelligent. But then it shoots itself in the foot – again – by giving Damon’s character, William, a large chunk of magnetised rock (don’t ask; really, don’t). Magnets apparently have the ability to literally put the creatures to sleep, something the Chinese are aware of but which they’ve never put to the test. Cue a mission to capture one of the creatures. Once secured, the creature is then whisked off to the capital city of Bianliang where the magnet is removed far enough for the creature to wake up and transmit its location telepathically to its Queen (oh, yes, they’re telepathic as well). And just at the same moment, the Chinese, led by Commander Lin (Jing) and Strategist Wang (Lau) discover that the Tao Tei have been digging a massive tunnel through the Wall and are heading for Bianliang (and no one has noticed this, or spotted them heading for the capital; no, really, no one).

If after all this, you’re not convinced that The Great Wall has a really duff script then you’ll really have to see it for yourself. What was probably meant to be an effective melding of Western and Eastern movie making, or at the very least a Chinese tale adapted for a wider international audience, in the end becomes a collection of cinematic clichés, desultory character beats, and an ending that’s so rushed you get the feeling that maybe you’ve missed something (one minute the tunnel is discovered, the next, everyone’s climbing onto unstable hot-air balloons to reach Bianliang before the Tao Tei get there). It’s a movie that doesn’t seem to trust itself with any depth or nuance, as if audiences wouldn’t appreciate their inclusion. In its aim to be as entertaining as possible, it appears to have shed anything that might be thought-provoking, original, or ambitious.

During the movie’s production there was a lot of criticism surrounding Damon’s casting (as if no one realised this was an international co-production). Accusations of the movie using a white saviour narrative prevailed for a long while, and on watching the movie, it’s not hard to see why such accusations were made. Whether they’re well-founded or not will be down to the individual viewer, but as the Chinese have been fending off the Tao Tei for centuries, and only defeat them once Damon’s character turns up – well, you do the math. There’s also the inevitable attraction between Damon’s early medieval archer and Jing’s initially wary (but intrigued) commander. Their relationship remains entirely platonic throughout, with admiring glances appearing here and there, but the idea of an actual romance is firmly kept in its place. This may be an international co-production made for modern audiences, but let’s not get several centuries ahead of ourselves.

In the end, this is an American production that takes an ostensibly Chinese story (it was actually dreamed up by Legendary Entertainment CEO Thomas Tull and World War Z author Max Brooks), makes it on Chinese soil with a largely Chinese cast and crew, appropriates a Chinese national monument, and then jettisons anything that makes it truly, identifiably Chinese. (There’s also a corollary with World War Z as the Tao Tei climb up and over each other in their efforts to scale the Wall.) Should the Chinese feel insulted by this? That’s a difficult one to answer, their having been involved in this almost from the beginning, but if the white saviour narrative does apply then this is arguably one of  the most racially condescending movies made in a very long while.

But inevitably, with all the talent involved, there are some things that the movie gets right, it’s just that there aren’t enough of them to make up for when it goes wrong. The movie is often beautiful to look at, with a dazzling array of colours for the Chinese to wear and be seen against, and the overall production design by John Myhre is equally dazzling. The Wall’s defences are impressive too, with one unexpected, built-in feature proving particularly effective against the Tao Tei (though frustratingly it’s only used once). And one character’s death prompts a beautiful display of sky lanterns against the backdrop of the night sky. But as already mentioned, these aspects don’t make up for the clumsy, substance-free elements that are thrust centre-stage, from those awkward timescales, some truly awful dialogue, a subplot involving Dafoe’s captive mercenary and his plan to steal the black powder, and the inclusion of a young soldier who proves his bravery when everyone (except William) doubts him.

Rating: 4/10 – as dumb as dumb can be, The Great Wall is a terrible mis-step by Zhang, and by everyone else involved; big on spectacle but short on invention and lacking any internal logic, it’s a movie built out of nothing and unsurprisingly, is well on course to lose a lot of money for the studios who made it.