The Summit (2017)

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Original title: La cordillera

D: Santiago Mitre / 114m

Cast: Ricardo Darín, Dolores Fonzi, Erica Rivas, Gerardo Romano, Héctor Díaz, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Alfredo Castro, Paulina García, Leonardo Franco, Elena Anaya, Christian Slater

At the beginning of The Summit, one thing is made abundantly clear: that as Argentina’s recently elected President Blanco (Darín) is on the verge of travelling to Chile to take part in a summit arranged to discuss the setting up of a South American version of OPEC, there’s trouble waiting in the wings in the form of his son-in-law. Blanco may have been involved in a misappropriation of state funds before he became president. His team of advisors are worried about the possible repercussions if this knowledge becomes public, but with the summit just a day away, they decide to play a waiting game. Blanco makes one decision, though: he arranges for his daughter, Marina (Fonzi), to be brought out to the remote Andean hotel all the delegates are staying at. Perhaps she can provide some insight into her husband’s motives, even though they’re separated.

And so, the first of four separate plot strands is woven into place. Soon there will be the political machinations that go hand in hand with a number of countries all vying to get a large piece of the pie from assembling a mult-national oil conglomerate. Marina will suffer a breakdown that will reveal one of two things: a dark family secret, or a darker personal tragedy. And to wrap things up, Blanco will be put in a position that will make or break him as a hero of his country (this plot strand arrives a little late but it’s there nonetheless). It’s an ambitious mix of storylines, but stitched together awkwardly and with each strand causing problems for the others. Will Blanco be able to find a way out of the dilemma posed by his son-in-law? Will Marina’s breakdown bring her father’s presidency crashing down around his ears? Will Brazil, the guiding force behind the oil summit, get its own way at the expense of a better option? And will Blanco, faced with making a momentous decision that could backfire on him just as easily as it could be the making of him, survive everything that’s being thrown at him?

To answer all those questions, would inevitably, negate any reasons to watch this movie in the first place. But the answers themselves aren’t as compelling as they could have been. Without giving too much away, one answer can be guessed easily, another is resolved by an unexpected event, one could go either way, and the last is – very strangely – a mix of all three. As to which of those coded answers matches which plot strand, that would be telling, but it’s enough to also say that director Mitre and his co-screenwriter, Mariano Llinás, have attempted to tell a political drama that continually stops to explore the private lives of two of its main characters, and often forgets for long stretches that there’s even a summit going on (for the most part it seems as if the summit takes place for only an hour or so each day, such is the amount of time that Blanco has to deal with all the other issues that crop up).

Where it might have been a good idea to devote equal time and emphasis to all the various strands, and make them part of a slowly evolving (and involving) narrative, Mitre decides instead to concentrate on each one as if they were unconnected to each other. This leads to abrupt transitions of both tone and pacing, as when the summit is forgotten about in order for Marina’s breakdown to be explored in ever greater detail (and long enough for an Argentinian doctor (Castro) to be flown in to treat her). Likewise the arrival of Slater’s US government representative, which requires a hush-hush meeting with Blanco that again calls for him to be away from the summit for a length of time that in any other political thriller, would have the other delegates looking at him with dark suspicion. It’s at moments like these that Mitre seems unable to decide what’s more important: the basic set up of the summit, or the other stories he and Llinás have concocted in order to pad out the running time.

With its inelegant narrative that flits back and forth and never really lets the viewer get comfortable with what’s happening, The Summit has too many longueurs that bring it up sharply and require something of a kick start to get things moving again. Mitre also wants us to invest heavily in the relationship between Blanco and Marina, but thanks to the decision to take a side-step into psychological thriller territory, the issues each has with the other are allowed to be subsumed in a game of guess-the-truth, a game that could have been intriguing and more absorbing if it wasn’t dropped as soon as the movie needed too get back to the summit and wrap things up in a nice neat bow. Like a lot of the movie’s attempts at providing a probing, incisive narrative to draw in its audience, the end result provides instead a feeling that’s more akin to frustration than satisfaction.

Against all this, the cast struggle gamely with roles that often prove perfunctory, with even the usually dependable Darín unable to make much headway with a script that paints Blanco as a politician somewhat out of his depth on the world stage, and never really changes or challenges that assessment. As the daughter with a range of issues that every politican’s daughter seems to have, Fonzi does stary-eyed before emotion, and always seems half a beat behind where her character needs to be in any given scene. Rivas is good as the president’s loyal personal secretary, Cacho makes an impression as a Machiavellian Mexican president, and Anaya has a small role as a journalist who pops up here and there to ask “difficult” questions of the countries’ leaders. But the acting is often left to fend for itself at the expense of the material, and only Javier Julia’s crisp cinematography is allowed to furnish any respite from the dull stetches that hamper the movie’s ability to keep its audience from being truly engaged with it.

Rating: 6/10 – ponderous when it should be exciting, clumsy when it should be gripping, The Summit is an unfortunate title for a movie that never hits any creative heights, and which remains stranded at ground level throughout; somewhere in its screenplay are the makings of two, better, thrillers, but it’s unlikely now that we’ll ever see them, something that is more affecting by itself than the movie as a whole.

NOTE: The following trailer doesn’t have any English language subtitles, but it does give a good sense of the movie itself.

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You Were Never Really Here (2017)

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D: Lynne Ramsay / 95m

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Alessandro Nivola

A funny thing happened on the way from the Cannes Film Festival…

At Cannes this year, Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature, an adaptation of the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, won a joint best screenplay award (tying with The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and the best actor award for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joe, an ex-Marine working “undercover of the law” rescuing young girls from the sex trade. The movie was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, received a seven-minute standing ovation from its premiere audience, and was believed to be a strong contender for the Palme d’Or (though it lost out to Ruben Östlund’s The Square). Since then it has appeared at four further festivals before arriving at the BFI London Film Festival where it was shown three times.

At the second of its screenings in London, Ramsay was in attendance to introduce the movie. Within moments of coming out on stage she advised the audience not to hang around for the Q&A afterwards as she hated them. When pressed to answer a couple of questions there and then, Ramsay demurred to the point where the member of the BFI team who was on stage with her, realised that Ramsay wasn’t going to “play ball”, and somewhat embarrassingly, they left the stage and the movie began. Ninety-five minutes later the movie ended, and many in the audience waited for the Q&A to begin. It didn’t. Ramsay never came back out, and no one from the BFI clarified the situation. Having seen the movie, quite a few people in the audience felt they knew why Ramsay didn’t want to discuss her new movie.

First and foremost, You Were Never Really Here is a movie that invites a lot of scrutiny. It deals with themes surrounding the nature of violence, has a stripped back approach to the narrative, paints an austere portrait of a man who battles with his own demons to little avail, is uncompromising in its depiction of the aftermath of extreme violence (though it’s very fuzzy on the actual violence itself), operates within a noir-ish version of New York City, and features exemplary cinematography from Thomas Townend. It’s a movie that looks and feels important, a movie that wants to be taken seriously, and that appears to have something to say about the darkness within us and how, through the character of Joe, we can both explore and deny that darkness. In short, it’s a movie that looks to carry weight and meaning.

But here’s the odd thing: along with Phoenix’s tortured, semi-burnt out portrayal, and another impressive score from Jonny Greenwood, the movie has a lot of very good things going for it. And yet, as a whole, it doesn’t work. So many of the elements that go to make up the movie – Joe Bini’s editing, Tim Grimes’ production design, for example – are so good, so well executed, that it would seem that the movie can’t be anything other than hugely successful on its own terms. How could it not be? And yet, it’s not Ramsay’s best movie, not by a very wide margin. That honour belongs to Ratcatcher (1999). In the end, and despite all the effort put in by all concerned, You Were Never Really Here doesn’t match the potential all those disparate elements should do when they’re all combined. It’s a movie that isn’t the sum of all its parts.

Ultimately, the movie is one to admire for the way it tells its story rather than the response it provokes in its audience (which is muted to say the least). Technically well made, and with fine performances from all concerned (except for Nivola, whose appearance amounts to a cameo), Ramsay’s adaptation is hard to get involved with. There’s no sense of danger about what Joe does because he seems indestructible. At the beginning he’s attacked from behind by a man with a length of pipe. But Joe shrugs off the blow, head-butts his assailant who falls to the ground, and then he walks off as if it’s all part of his daily routine. But while it tells us that Joe is inured to the violent world he lives in, it makes the viewer inured as well. If it doesn’t mean anything to Joe, then why should it mean anything to us? It’s also no surprise that Joe has an elderly mother (Roberts) whom he looks after, but even their relationship doesn’t resonate in the way Ramsay might want it to. And then there’s Joe’s childhood, a period we see glimpses of, and which should invite the audience’s sympathy, but which remain violent additions to an already violent story, and as such, don’t have the power they’re meant to.

The movie’s basic storyline is also one that feels undercooked, with its political corruption and sex trade background something that we’ve seen countless times before. Ramsay works hard to make this section of the movie thrilling, and helped by Bini’s considerable editing skills she almost pulls it off, but the decision to obscure the violent acts taking place and to disallow any cathartic expression in either Joe or the viewer makes these violent outbursts triumphs of style instead of emotion. You can admire the way they’ve been shot and assembled, but they don’t evoke any feelings the viewer can experience for themselves. Ramsay keeps everyone, even her characters, at a remove, and closes out the movie with a moment of such extreme nihilism that it literally feels shoehorned in to provoke a response when none is actually needed. And that response? Just one of bafflement, which is not a response any movie maker should be looking for.

Rating: 7/10 – having surrounded herself with a cast and crew all working flat out to make the best movie they can, director Lynne Ramsay fails to put their efforts to practical good use, and leaves You Were Never Really Here feeling like an abandoned first cut; a movie that is likely to provoke serious debate over its merits for quite some time to come, it’s perhaps best described as an experiment that needed more time to be completed before any results could be unveiled.

The Florida Project (2017)

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D: Sean Baker / 115m

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Mela Murder, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane

Every now and then, a movie comes along that shines a light on a way of life that is so far removed from our own lives, that it is like seeing a whole new world for the first time. Sean Baker’s follow up to Tangerine (2015) is such a movie. A powerful piece of cinema verite, The Florida Project explores the world of the hidden homeless, people who live in motels along the Florida highways, and who often find it difficult to make ends meet. This is a section of society that hardly anyone knows about, or if they do, even acknowledges. They are a social underclass, with few prospects and fewer ambitions. And what makes their situation so ironic is that they’re living in the shadow of the original Florida project, Disney World, a wonderland that provides the complete opposite of their own day-to-day struggles.

The focus of Baker’s movie is single mother Halley (Vinaite), and her six year old daughter, Moonee (Prince). They live in Room 323 at the Magic Castle, a motel situated close to Disney World, which is run by long-suffering manager Bobby (Dafoe). Halley doesn’t have a job and seems content to get by on state handouts and the generosity of her friend Ashley (Murder), who provides them with free food from the diner where she works. Moonee is friends with Ashley’s son, Scooty (Rivera), and together they roam the motel and the surrounding area getting into mischief and generally doing whatever they want. They get to know another girl around their age called Jancey (Cotto), who lives at another, nearby motel. While they play and get into minor trouble, Bobby does his best to help Halley out and keep her and Moonee from being evicted. But it’s not always so easy…

To reveal more about the various things that happen in The Florida Project would be to ruin the tremendous surprises that are in store for the viewer and which sit comfortably alongside the more predictable dramatic elements. This is a movie to watch without knowing too much about it. It’s a movie that instead, works better by letting it draw you in slowly and surely, and with all the confidence that it will all be worthwhile, and the viewer’s initial patience as Baker sets up the characters and the milieu they inhabit, will be rewarded over and over. And so it proves, as Baker and co-scripter Chris Bergoch paint a portrait of hard luck and bad luck combined and the ways in which seemingly constant levels of adversity and misfortune can serve to keep people – unfortunate people – stranded in one place, and with little hope of improving their situation.

It’s also a movie that’s largely seen through the eyes of its child characters (the camera is often positioned level with their line of sight), but without neglecting the very real involvement of the adults around them. Moonee is a “handful”, often disrespectful of adults, and unafraid of challenging them in a confrontational, “don’t care” manner that is both annoying (for the adult characters) and amusing (for the audience). She’s akin to a wild child, allowed to grow up with very little consistent parental input from Halley, and with the natural assurance of a little girl who does what she wants, and when she does get into trouble, is unable to take it seriously. Of the three children, she is the biggest instigator, and the biggest rebel. Even when she is rebuked by her mother, it’s only for show, to give the impression that Halley is a fit mother – though the evidence points in entirely the opposite direction.

It’s not until the three friends do something really serious that the dynamic and the narrative begins to shift, and the seemingly aimless and responsibility-free nature of their existence becomes undermined. But while Halley and Bobby deal with the “serious stuff”, Moonee and Jancey (in particular) forge a bond that sees them continue to view their world at a remove from the harsh realities of motel living. It all has to come to a head though, and Baker provides several clues as to where Halley and Moonee’s story is likely to end up, but along the way he’s careful to show that there can be positives to living in a motel and having the kind of semi-transient lifestyle that goes with it. There are lovely moments such as Bobby’s early morning encounter with a trio of cranes, or Moonee and Jancey’s chatter about finding gold at the end of a rainbow (while one arches over the motel). Prince and Catto both give wonderfully natural performances – a lot of their dialogue sounds improvised even if it wasn’t – while Vinaite portrays Halley as fiercely aggressive when challenged on any level (watch what she does when Bobby orders her out of the motel reception area). And then there’s Dafoe, giving one of his best ever performances as a man who, in his own way, is just as stuck as Halley, but who goes about his work with a tremendous sense of pride.

What makes The Florida Project so effective overall though, isn’t just the performances, but the setting, a real motel that allowed Baker and his cast and crew to shoot while the motel was open, and which gave Baker the chance to include some of the residents in small bit parts during the filming. This all adds to the sense of verisimilitude that Baker has created, and there are plenty of scenes that have a documentary feel to them, as if Baker has managed to capture real slice-of-life footage. The movie weaves its social commentary in and out of the narrative, making poignant observations about the locations where it was shot and the people that inhabit those locations through necessity, and while it’s largely a sympathetic portrait, Baker isn’t remiss in showing the harsh realities that are part and parcel of such an existence. But through it all there’s an immense amount of hope on display, a reflection of the determination that keeps the likes of Halley and Bobby going from day to day, despite the obstacles that Life keeps putting in their way. What Baker has done so well, is to show the humanity of the characters in such a way that we can all empathise with them, and at the same time, be thankful we (hopefully) have very different lives from them.

Rating: 9/10 – a bona fide modern classic, The Florida Project is bold, assured movie making from a director whose control and intuitive approach to the material makes for one of the most impressive features so far released in 2017; with superb cinematography from Alexis Zabe that helps infuse the motel and its surroundings with a degree of magical realism when required, this is a movie that lingers long in the memory, and which works – with ease – on an remarkable number of levels.

A Brief Word About the BFI London Film Festival 2017

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Each year in October, the London Film Festival takes place, and each year I endeavour to see as many movies as I can within – usually – a five day period. And with each passing year it proves more and more difficult to decide what to see. Quite simply, there’s too much choice, so much so that it’s impossible to see every movie that is shown. This year, however, and thanks to a new job, my visit to the Festival has been reduced to the final two days, the 14th and 15th. Here is my itinerary for the next two days:

Saturday 14 October:

The Florida Project (2017) – Sean Baker’s follow up to Tangerine (2015) about a family living in the shadow of Disney World and struggling to make ends meet.

The Prince of Adventurers (1927) – a French production charting the life of Casanova with the Italian lover played by Russian émigré Ivan Mosjoukine.

The Cured (2017) – an Irish horror movie where a zombie outbreak has seen a cure found, but distrust of the once infected leads to social injustice and eventual martial interference.

Wrath of Silence (2017) – more international intrigue in this Chinese movie set in a small town where corruption is rife and a mute miner takes a violent stand against it.

Sunday 15 October:

You Were Never Really Here (2017) – Lynne Ramsay’s latest is a taut psychological thriller that promises a terrific performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

Thelma (2017) – a Norwegian thriller that’s also a mystery and a romantic drama, and the latest mainstream art movie from Joachim Trier.

The Endless (2017) – this is a dark, cult-like movie about a cult and two ex-members who begin to wonder/suspect that maybe there’s more to the cult’s beliefs than they ever considered.

The Summit (2017) – an Argentinian political thriller that places that country’s (fictional) President in a personal bind that could have far-reaching effects on his personal and professional lives.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing all of these movies – and reviewing them over the coming week. Being at the Festival and seeing a range of movies that are unlikely to be released in UK cinemas (and sometimes no matter how well received they are) is a massive bonus each year, and the BFI always manages to pull together an impressive programme of movies for everyone to enjoy. Away from the special gala showings and red carpet screenings, it’s often the less well known movies that have the most to offer, and not one of the movies that I’m planning to see lacks the ability to stand out from the crowd. I just can’t wait to get started!

A Ghost Story (2017)

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D: David Lowery / 92m

Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Liz Cardenas Franke, Sonia Acevedo, Will Oldham

There’s a saying that death comes to us all, and for some of us it means the end of life altogether, while for others it means the beginning of a new journey into an afterlife that may or may not prove to be better than the life we’ve lived. David Lowery’s latest movie takes that idea, but then adds a twist to it, and asks the question, what if there is an afterlife, but we were delayed in taking that journey onward? What if we found ourselves trapped between our old life and the next one? What would that be like? How would it feel? And how would someone cope in such a situation? Could someone cope in that situation? These are all intriguing ideas, and Lowery does his best to answer all of those questions, including what could sustain us through such an experience, and how much would it change us?

The ghost of the title is at first just a man, a musician called C (Affleck) who is married to M (Mara). They live in a small tract house, and seem to get along okay, but there are shifts and challenges in their relationship that show themselves from time to time. But their time together is coming to an end. C is killed in a car crash outside their home. M is asked to identify his body at a hospital mortuary. He lies on a table covered by a large white sheet, and after she has seen him and left, he sits up. He walks slowly through the hospital, unseen by staff, patients and visitors, until he comes to a wall. The wall opens to reveal a portal full of swirling light. The invitation is clear, but C doesn’t take it. Instead he makes his way back to his home, where a grieving M has no idea of his presence. He watches her as she begins to rebuild her life, and then one day he sees her write something down on a slip of paper, and then put the slip of paper in a small gap in the wall. She paints over the gap, sealing it. C decides to retrieve the slip of paper but the sheet makes it awkward to remove the paint. As he picks away at the paint, time appears to race on and he finds an Hispanic single mother (Acevedo) and her two children have moved into the house.

Having established a secondary reason for C’s remaining at the property, Lowery soon shows how this affects C and increases the sense of separation that he’s experiencing. As with everyone else, this new family go about their days oblivious to his presence, just as M did, but now it’s more pronounced. This family is living in his home, and M isn’t among them; she isn’t coming back and now he’s stranded there, amongst strangers. He learns how to move things, how to have a corporeal effect despite being a non-corporeal form. Eventually they leave, frightened by the violent behaviour he’s able to display. But it proves to be a transient victory. Soon he’s surrounded by people, as the next owners of the house throw a party. And then time passes more quickly, folding over and into itself, forging ahead in great leaps, and leaving the house behind as a distant memory, much as C has become a distant memory in the minds of those who knew him.

It’s at this point in the movie that Lowery effectively makes C’s existence the stuff of existential horror. As if things haven’t been bad enough, events transpire that keep C even more isolated and becalmed by his death. He’s forced to bear witness to changes and developments that he couldn’t have foreseen and Time becomes an implacable foe, thoughtless and cruel. He becomes even more stranded despite his never moving from the site of his home, and soon he’s nothing more than a shell, just existing in a vague approximation of Life. Lowery and Affleck find the sadness and the intense loneliness in this, and C becomes an even more tragic figure, the black eye holes of the sheet expressing longing, regret, anguish, melancholy, and the overwhelming grief that C is feeling. Affleck uses slow, measured movements to show just how C’s emotions are ebbing and flowing, and despite the sheet (or maybe because of it), there’s not one moment in the movie where C’s sensitivity to his situation isn’t easy to grasp. It’s a performance that is so detailed and so subtle that it makes the movie much more emotional and affecting than it looks.

Of course, what’s really clever and exceptional about A Ghost Story, is that Lowery has taken such an iconic image – perhaps the most simple ghost “costume” – and used it as a metaphor for the pain that grief can cause us, and its potentially unyielding nature. The enormity of C’s situation is horrifying, to remain trapped in a place that offers less and less reason to be there, and which only serves to highlight and increase the amount of pain C is experiencing as each and every day passes by. How crushing must that be? That Lowery is able to get this message across so effectively – and so chillingly – is a tribute to the clarity of his artistic vision, and the work of Affleck and Mara, and a very talented crew. Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, and production designers Jade Healy and Tom Walker, Lowery has put together a movie whose distinct visual look includes a high number of static shots where the camera remains resolutely fixed in position, to careful framing of C as he watches and waits in the same location even as it changes all around him. This is as much about the space that he exists in, as it is his own existence within it.

What all this gives us is a movie that is by turns poetic, sad, poignant, humorous (yes), engrossing, and endlessly thought-provoking. It seeks to address and confront aspects of our existence that we don’t give regular consideration to, such as what it is to be truly alone, and our very reason for being, both physically and spiritually. But it’s not a “heavy” movie, and nor is it one to avoid because of the challenging ideas it explores. Rather it’s a movie that celebrates life and many of the complexities that make it worth living, and which we might continue to explore after death (if an afterlife is what awaits us). C has the opportunity to “move on” but he chooses to remain, to be with his wife and in his home, because – and as corny as it sounds – he loves them both and doesn’t want to lose them. What better reason could there be for spending an eternity covered in a sheet?

Rating: 9/10 – not for all tastes, but nevertheless one of the most audacious and moving movies of recent years, A Ghost Story is a powerful meditation on the forces of grief and love, and what they can make us do – and endure; a superb, necessarily understated performance by Affleck provides much of the movie’s emotional depth, but this is also intelligent and shrewd in its approach to what could have been a much weightier, and less focused story.

Old-Time Crime: Grand Central Murder (1942) and The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942)

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Grand Central Murder (1942) / D: S. Sylvan Simon / 73m

Cast: Van Heflin, Patricia Dane, Cecilia Parker, Virginia Grey, Samuel S. Hinds, Sam Levene, Connie Gilchrist, Mark Daniels, Stephen McNally, Tom Conway, Betty Wells, George Lynn, Roman Bohnen

Back in the Thirties and Forties, many a low budget murder mystery was adapted from a literary source, and Grand Central Murder is no exception. Based on Sue McVeigh’s 1939 novel of the same name, the movie is a sprightly, fun-packed whodunnit that zips along at a steady clip as it builds up a strong case for each suspect in the murder of actress Mida King (Dane). Of course, there’s one suspect who seems more likely to have committed the deed than all the rest, and here it’s convicted killer Turk (McNally). On his way to a retrial, Turk escapes from his police escort while at Grand Central station, and instead of finding somewhere to hide out, he calls Mida and threatens to kill her. Later, Mida is found dead in the private railroad car she has on a siding at Grand Central. Could Turk really be the killer, or could it someone else with a grudge against her?

With Mida murdered, the stage is set for an investigation launched by Inspector Gunther (Levene), but one that will be hampered and helped by private investigator “Rocky” Custer (Heflin), who Turk has hired to prove his innocence. Custer persuades Turk to give himself up, while Gunther assembles several of Mida’s friends and colleagues – and other interested parties – in an effort to find out what happened between Mida getting the call from Turk, and being found dead in her sidecar. Among the suspects are her supposedly psychic stepfather Ramon (Bohnen), her maid, Pearl (Gilchrist), her producer, Frankie (Conway), and her rich fiancé, David (Daniels). As th investigation covers more and more ground, even Custer and his wife and business partner Sue (Grey) have the finger of suspicion pointed at them.

Part of the fun here is the way that the story is told via flashbacks, as each new suspect in Gunther’s firing line explains their previous interaction with Mida, and defends any suggestion that they had a motive for killing her (even though pretty much everyone does). There are plenty of red herrings fed to the audience along the way, and though some of them might seem obvious to modern day audiences, there’s no doubting the enthusiasm with which the cast set them up and then let them loose. What may prove more contentious is the idea that a stage actress has a private railroad car at her disposal, but this is a variation on the old “locked room” mystery, with the cause of Mida’s death baffling both Gunther and the coroner.

Of course, it’s Custer who does the real sleuthing (never let it be said that a cop in a Forties mystery thriller was ever brighter than the amateur detective who eventually solves the case). Heflin invests Custer with a wry amusement at everything going on around him, while his counterpart/nemesis, Gunther (expertly played by Levene, who was the original Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls on Broadway), stumbles on with grim determination even as he gets it wrong at every turn. Dane is good as the victim with a chequered past, while there’s equally solid support from Gilchrist and Conway. Simon, a somewhat journeyman director for most of his career, is on better form than usual, and the movie integrates its flashbacks into the narrative in a way that doesn’t make them confusing or lets them slow things down. The solution when it arrives is quite clever, though eagle-eyed viewers will have worked out the killer’s identity long before then, if not how they (almost) got away with it.

Rating: 7/10 – well-paced and with an underlying sense of humour that helps keep an otherwise dry storyline from becoming banal, Grand Central Murder is pleasant, diverting stuff that keeps the audience guessing, but which doesn’t try to be too tricky; in some ways, a minor classic that doesn’t try too hard to make it completely convincing, it’s a movie that is smart, occasionally irreverent, and very entertaining.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942) / D: Herbert I. Leeds / 65m

Cast: Lloyd Nolan, Marjorie Weaver, Helene Reynolds, Henry Wilcoxon, Richard Derr, Paul Harvey, Billy Bevan, Olin Howland, Robert Emmett Keane

Three weeks before MGM released Grand Central Murder, 20th Century Fox released this, the fifth in an eventual series of seven Michael Shayne movies starring Lloyd Nolan as a wisecracking private eye. It too was based on a novel, this time No Coffin for the Corpse by Clayton Rawson, but Rawson’s tale wasn’t a Michael Shayne adventure, rather it was one concerning a sleuth (and yes, he’s an amateur) called The Great Merlini. Merlini is reduced to a minor role here, while Brett Halliday’s creation takes centre stage in helping old flame Catherine Wolff (Weaver) solve a mystery involving a vanished corpse, murder, and strange experiments at her father’s home. To this end, Shayne (Nolan) pretends to be Roger Blake, the man Catherine has recently married, and together they investigate shootings in the middle of the night, and much more besides.

The Michael Shayne movies all contained a good leavening of humour, and The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is no exception, with Nolan racking up wisecracks and genuine laughs in such a dry, subversive manner that you don’t want him to stop (or have the script run out of steam). Circumstances allow him to play funny with a skeleton, and poke fun at the rest of the characters, and Nolan displays a deft approach towards the material that allows him to make the most of each scene he’s in, whether it’s comedic or dramatic. As is usually the case, the cast are all experienced hands at this sort of palaver, and it’s great to see ex-silent comedian Bevan as the mildly indignant butler, Phillips.

The mystery elements aren’t handled quite as well as they should be, mainly because the script opts to make them unnecessarily complicated, with a sub-plot involving basement-set experiments that have a distinctive sci-fi/horror vibe to them a case in point. These help pad out the modest running time, but don’t elevate the material in any way, leaving the narrative feeling a little stretched beyond its credibility. But however you look at it, this is a fun movie that plays fast and loose with its characters’ motivations, throws in a couple of fright moments to spice things up, and relies heavily on its cast’s charm and commitment in order to make its convoluted narrative more enjoyable. Nolan is an appealing screen presence, as is Weaver as this movie’s version of a dumb blonde, while there’s fine support from the likes of Harvey (bluff and cranky as ever as Catherine’s father), and Howland as the bumbling Chief of Police Jonathan Meek.

This is at heart an old dark house mystery, with much of the action taking place at night and in shadowy patches of the screen that prove atmospheric and somewhat creepy. The identity of the vanished corpse is not one you’d be able to predict – mostly because of its relation to one of the main characters, which isn’t obvious – while the identity of that main character (and secondary villain) is slightly easier to work out. In the director’s chair, Leeds shows off an occasional visual flourish and maintains an easy pace throughout, without taking it at all seriously. Leeds seems to be having as much fun as Nolan is, and the whole thing often teeters on the point of complete absurdity before dragging itself back at the last moment. But nevertheless, it’s a movie that sets out to entertain first and foremost, and thanks to Nolan’s previous experience in the role, does so regularly and comfortably.

Rating: 6/10 – some flaws in the script aside, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is a prime example of a franchise entry that doesn’t show signs of the series’ running out of steam any time soon; solid and reliable in terms of its narrative, and quip heavy, it’s another example of a B-movie that has more to offer than it seems at first glance.

Devil’s Knot (2013)

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D: Atom Egoyan / 114m

Cast: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Amy Ryan, Robert Baker, Rex Linn, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Kevin Durand, Stephen Moyer, Elias Koteas

There are times when the very existence of a movie proves puzzling, puzzling because the content of the movie has already been covered in greater depth, and with far more fidelity, elsewhere. Such is the case with Devil’s Knot, an exploration of the Robin Hood Hills Murders that took place in West Memphis, Arkansas on 5 May 1993. On that fateful day, three eight year old friends – Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore – disappeared. Their bodies were found in a muddy creek the following day. It didn’t take long for the police and the local community to ascribe the murders to a Satanic cult believed to be operating in the area. It wasn’t long either before the police had three suspects firmly in their sights: teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley Jr. After Misskelley Jr was interrogated for twelve straight hours, he confessed that all three were involved in the deaths of the children, and all three were subsequently arrested. At their trials, Misskelley Jr and Baldwin were sentenced to life imprisonment, while Echols was sentenced to be executed.

The problem with Devil’s Knot is not just that it’s another movie “based on a true story” and with all the limitations that usually apply, but that the story of the Robin Hood Hills murders and the West Memphis Three (the accused) have been so well documented elsewhere. There are currently four documentaries available that cover the case, and which do so in more depth, and with greater clarity of purpose. They are Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), its sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), a further sequel, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011), and a separate entry which covers the whole story, West of Memphis (2012). With all these excellent documentaries on offer (particularly the first one, which is nothing short of exceptional for the access the makers had), it remains surprising that Devil’s Knot was actually greenlit in the first place, let alone made.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Mara Leveritt, Devil’s Knot benefits greatly from having Atom Egoyan perched, however precariously, in the director’s chair. He’s a very talented movie maker, but he’s never seemed as comfortable as when he’s working from a script he’s written himself, and this proves to be the case here. Making the most of a script that doesn’t really tell us anything new and which can be found dramatically twiddling its thumbs from time to time, Egoyan shows occasional flashes of the erudite and ambitious director who has given us such modern classics as Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997). But these are few and far between, and there are long periods where Egoyan feels like a jobbing director who hasn’t been able to connect with the material – and doesn’t know how to. And yet, conversely, there are moments where he does, and these contain a quiet power that is indisputably effective (and affecting).

Somewhat inevitably, the script tries to pull in various different directions, and by doing so, tries to cover too much ground all at once. This leads to scenes feeling unnecessarily truncated, and others feeling like filler. In its efforts to tell as much of the story as possible, the movie proves disjointed in its approach to the victims’ families – only Witherspoon’s grief-stricken mother, Pamela Hobbs gets a look in, and then only because she begins to believe Echols and co aren’t guilty – while the holes in the police investigation (and there are dozens of them) are allowed to go by remarked upon but under-emphasised. The trial scenes take up most of the second half of the movie but serve only to show that justice is not only blind in some US courts but sometimes half asleep as well, a situation that we’re already way too familiar with for these scenes to carry any appreciable weight. Egoyan gamely makes his way through them, throwing in an occasionally interesting shot, but relaying events in a style that resembles a TV Movie of the Week instead of a fully-fledged feature.

With the screenplay trying to fit so much in (there’s a reason the documentaries all run longer), it’s inevitable as well that some characters come to feel like observers rather than participants. Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad, flits in and out of the narrative and remains elusive until the movie’s end when we learn something unexpected that relates to him. By the time this happens though it’s too late to have much of an impact as we haven’t got to know him well enough. Likewise for Durand’s scary-stary John Mark Byers, a potential alternative suspect whose day in court is remarkable for the way in which he’s let off the hook by all concerned (even the defence lawyers). Egoyan regular Koteas pops up as an expert on Satanic cults, Linn is the police official who knows his case is full of holes but pushes on regardless, and then there’s DeHaan as another potential suspect, Chris Morgan, who confesses then recants and is allowed to do so while Misskelley Jr does the same and ends up in prison for life. All these roles feel incidental to the overall aim of the movie, which in itself isn’t clear. As an undeniable miscarriage of justice, the movie does more than enough to get that across through some of the evidence that’s presented, but elements such as the local community’s willingness to accept the presence of Satanic cults despite there being no concrete evidence to support this, lands with a thud every time it’s mentioned.

More curious still is the decision to focus much of the movie on an outsider, Firth’s crusading legal investigator, Ron Lax. We see him challenging everyone around him to do their jobs properly, and he behaves like a man with a Messiah complex at times, but if the idea is that he’s the viewer’s guide through the maze of “evidence” and supposition that sees the West Memphis Three convicted, then it’s unfortunate but we don’t need him. There’s an awkward scene in the Robin Hood Hills woods between Lax and Pam Hobbs that is pure Hollywood speculation and has no place in a movie that’s striving to be taken seriously as a re-enactment of true events. It’s moments like these, where the script is trying to manipulate its audience, that it undermines its overall effectiveness and leaves the viewer wondering if the movie will ever settle for a consistent tone it can work with. The answer is a resounding No, and like so many other moments or issues this movie has, it’s in too much of a hurry to squeeze in the major plot points, however indifferently at times, and without giving them room to breathe.

Rating: 5/10 – as the movie equivalent of an unnecessary footnote, Devil’s Knot is only sporadically engaging, and on a severely reduced par with the likes of its documentary brethren; perfunctory in a way that shouldn’t be the case when you consider the story it’s trying to tell, this remains an ill-advised project that could have been a lot worse if it weren’t for the occasionally mindful ministrations of its director.

Marjorie Prime (2017)

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D: Michael Almereyda / 99m

Cast: Jon Hamm, Lois Smith, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, Stephanie Andujar, Hannah Gross

How much do you trust your memories? Or rather, how much can you trust your memories? And where do they come from? Are they exclusively made up of your own recollections, or are they a combination of what you can remember and the recollections of others? And can they ever be really regarded as true memories, an accurate representation of something that happened in the past? These are just some of the questions that Marjorie Prime asks as it ponders the nature of memory, its provenance, and its importance in our lives.

Michael Almereyda’s latest movie is a challenging examination of how we remember things, and why. The why is perhaps more important than the how, but it’s how our memories shape our character and our personalities, and help us connect our past and present lives that seems to be more important. But if memory can be elusive, if it can be confusing, or contrary, or unreliable, then how can we know if a memory carries the weight that it should do? How can it retain the meaning it relies on to be an accurate memory? Almereyda’s answer – adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison – is that, ultimately, we can’t be sure of anything related to memory because there are just too many variables. And many of those variables are the memories of other people.

The movie begins with Marjorie (Smith) having a conversation with a younger facsimile of her late husband, Walter (Hamm) (Walter is a computer programme, an example of artificial intelligence used as memory therapy). Together they probe various memories and attitudes towards memory that are largely to do with Marjorie’s attempts at building a coherent narrative out of her past. Walter is a computer-driven replica of Marjorie’s husband at the time of their engagement. He already knows a lot about Marjorie and the man he represents, but his knowledge is far from complete. In order to further his knowledge, and his usefulness to Marjorie – whose own memory is under threat from the early onset of Alzheimer’s – he discusses their shared past and allows her to correct him whenever he gets something wrong. Walter at first believes that they were watching My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) when he proposed to her, but Marjorie is eqaully sure that it was Casablanca (1942), or at least that Michael Curtiz’s perennial classic seems more likely. Marjorie’s memory of that event is eluding her, so she creates a memory that sounds like it could be true, and once it’s accepted by the programme acting as Walter, then it passes into memory, and into truth.

And then there’s the input from Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Davis), and her husband, Jon (Robbins). Both talk to Walter and both express their own feelings and views on events that happened to Marjorie during her life, and they don’t confine themselves to moments that they have direct knowledge or recollection of. Walter accepts what they tell him without verification or any kind of fact-checking being carried out. And when he relays their recollections to Marjorie – like him – she accepts these as having really happened. But how can such memories truly be “real” when they’re an amalgam of various sources?  With the frailty of the human mind being explored in this way, Almereyda shows us how unreliable our memories really are, and how our need to provide context for them can often mean we overlook any contentious issues that may arise from remembering them. The more we remember, Almereyda seems to be saying, the more we actually forget.

By showing the pitfalls of allowing future technology to “guide” us through the labyrinth of our reminiscences, Marjorie Prime highlights just how memory and truth can be ephemeral and an unreliable witness to our own experiences. Tess refers to the way in which we remember the emotion of an experience rather than the fact of it, and how this informs the details of that experience. From this we can understand that feelings and emotions are often more important than the facts, and can help us to derive a better appreciation or understanding of what we’re trying to remember. But these impressions can be just as subjective or erroneous as the memory itself, and as the movie progresses, and focuses more and more on Tess and Jon’s relationship and their own recollections, Almereyda uses the shift in perspective to show how relative memory really is. And there are further narrative shifts that provide even more examples of how memory can collude with us in providing the kind of recollections that help us make sense of our world and the world around us (and especially, other people). Layer upon layer upon layer, and soon the source can no longer be recognised. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Sensibly, Almereyda doesn’t provide the viewer with any conclusions, merely more and more questions, some of which can be answered within the narrative itself, and others that remain a mystery, fleeting notions of recognition that may or may not be reliable. The movie regards these questions as components in a kind of mental jigsaw puzzle, and in trying to piece them together, the characters all behave as though their own memories are more credible than others. Even Marjorie, whose moments of lucid behaviour grow fewer and further apart, believes what she remembers, and when she discusses with Walter their shared history, there are moments where she is creating rather than looking back. The same can be said for Tess and Jon, who want to help Marjorie retain her memory for as long as possible, but who also create incidents and details out of a misguided sense of being supportive. As in so many areas of life, lies become truth, and the boundaries between the two become irrevocably blurred, no matter how good the original intention.

Marjorie Prime is a small movie about big ideas, but important ones nevertheless, and the dialogue is smart, funny and precise in its statements and observations. The cast all give measured, thoughtful performances, with Smith (reprising her role in the original stage production) offering a particularly sprightly portrayal of Marjorie that is both sympathetic and endearing. Against this, Hamm has the more challenging role as Walter, a synthetic approximation of a person who has no life experience except that which is given to him by others. As the sometimes feuding Tess and Jon, Davis and Robbins give expression to the rituals that they go through in order to provide certainty for their own memories, and then Marjorie’s as well, but without seeing the problems inherent in doing this. All four actors are mesmerising, especially Davis, who plays a character who’s increasingly conflicted over the benefits of (re-)constructed memories, and who is stricken by memories of her own that are unwanted.

Viewers may find the opening exchange between Marjorie and Walter a little slow going, and the introduction of several minor characters later on may make the movie feel a little fragmented, but otherwise this is intelligent, thought-provoking stuff that isn’t afraid to tackle big ideas head on. It has a wintry, melancholy feel to it, highlighted by the starkly beautiful cinematography of Sean Price Williams, and a deftly supportive, and unobtrusive score by Mica Levi that provides an effective counterpoint to the emotional turmoil experienced by the characters. But it’s Almereyda’s confident, assured direction that remains the movie’s most impressive element, and proof – if it were needed – that he is one of the most distinctive and talented voices working in movies today.

Rating: 9/10 – an award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, few movies made at the moment have the rigorousness or the attention to detail that infuses Marjorie Prime and which make it a movie to admire and to lose oneself in; if you’re a fan of cinema as a reflection of real life and all its flaws and imperfections, then this is a movie that will reward you over and over again.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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D: Denis Villeneuve / 163m

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Hiam Abbass, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Bautista, Edward James Olmos

Perhaps the most anticipated sequel of 2017, Blade Runner 2049 is finally with us, having been in development – in one form or another – since 1999. It’s a fascinating movie to watch, built as it is on the legacy of its predecessor, and it’s received a lot of praise from critics and fans alike. But it’s not entirely successful in the goals it’s set itself, and despite some terrific performances, Villeneuve’s inspired direction, and sterling efforts from all concerned with the movie’s look and design, the movie struggles at times to maintain proper focus and to make more of its story elements than it actually does. The style is tremendous, then, but the story it supports isn’t as well worked out as it initially looks. Partly this is to do with decisions made at the pre-production stages, and partly to do with a script – by returning scribe Hampton Fancher, and Michael Green – that rarely tries to flesh out its themes or tease out the inherent subtleties within them. This is being touted as intelligent sci-fi and a worthy successor to its predecessor (and on the whole, it is), but in reality it’s a movie that looks amazing, but can’t make its mind up about the story it wants to tell.

It seems straightforward enough. Modern replicants are now being used as blade runners, and are tasked with tracking down and eliminating any remaining Nexus-8 models that are still out there. K (Gosling) is one such replicant, and he’s generally regarded as good at his job. But then what should be a simple “retirement” throws up an unexpected development in the form of buried human remains. But the truth is stranger still: the bones are those of a female replicant who has given birth, something that was, and is still, regarded as impossible, due to it not being a part of their bio-engineering. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Wright), fearing such information would be catastrophic if it were made public, orders K to destroy all evidence relating to the case, and locate and kill the child. K visits replicant manufacturer Nyander Wallace (Leto), who identifies the remains as those of Rachael, a replicant who thirty years before, had an affair with a blade runner called Deckard (Ford). Wallace, who can’t manufacture replicants fast enough to match the demand for them both on Earth and on the Off-Worlds, instructs his enforcer, Luv (Hoeks), to follow K and locate the child before it can be “retired”.

And so the stage is set for a race against time in the search for the child (now clearly an adult but referred to as a child throughout). Except Fancher and Green’s script isn’t too concerned about this, and despite the amount of time it’s taken to set it all up. Instead we’re treated to extended passages concerning K’s relationship with a hologram called Joi (de Armas), evidence that K might be the child everyone (including himself) is seeking, meditations on the nature of memory and its veracity, an encounter with what could charitably called the Popular Replicant’s Front of Judea, and further oblique references to Joshi’s insistence that social upheaval will be the result of the child’s existence being made public. Some of this is interesting on a superficial, let’s-not-think-about-this-too-closely level, but that’s also why it remains at a superficial level. The idea that there’ll be a breakdown in the way that replicants are treated comes only from Lieutenant Joshi, but as there doesn’t seem to be anyone that she reports to (she and K could be the only two people in the blade runner department; we never see anyone else), this can only be looked on as her assumption, or her prejudice. But as neither idea is addressed or delved into, the viewer is left with the understanding that if she hadn’t raised it conveniently as an issue, then the movie would struggle to provide audiences with a strong plot.

Out of this, there’s still the confusing issue of whether or not replicants having children is a good or a bad thing. With nothing to suggest that it’s a bad thing – even though the viewer is asked to go along with this idea on faith alone – the fact that Wallace wants to crack this particular genetic anomaly in order to beef up his workforce in the off-world colonies (which would be a benefit for everyone), doesn’t seem such a bad idea at all. But the script insists that he has to behave badly in order to solve this issue  and move forward (actually Luv behaves badly, and deliberately so, while Wallace is confined to the sidelines for much of the movie). As a result, tension and discord amongst the characters is encouraged instead of any détente, and once K finds Deckard hiding out amid the ruins of Las Vegas, the movie remembers it’s also a thriller as well as a romantic drama (K and Joi), and it ramps up the action accordingly.

From this it could be assumed that Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at it closely – and this is true. Fancher and Green’s script doesn’t always delve as deeply as it could do, particularly as replicants are still being treated as slave labour, a situation that should resonate but which is soundly ignored. But fortunately, the movie has Villeneuve as its director, and if he’s not able to smooth overt the cracks in the plot successfully, what he is able to do is make this sequel one of the most visually impressive movies of the last five/ten/fifteen (delete as applicable) years. Along with DoP Roger Deakins, Villeneuve has created a world that has devolved even further in the last thirty years, and which is alternately breathtaking and disconcerting. Dennis Gassner’s production design should be singled out for praise as well, as he makes every last aspect of 2049 life feel immediate and yet compromised, as if everyone is living in a world that’s becoming more and more withdrawn from their day-to-day reality. Large areas surrounding Los Angeles are now wastelands to varying degrees, and there’s still that perpetual rain to remind you of how bad things have remained, and the movie widens its horizons appropriately as it tells its bigger, broader story.

There are good performances throughout, with Gosling proving a good choice as K, his initially blank features slowly giving way to pained resignation mixed with profound hope as to his possibly being “the child”. It’s another outsider-looking-in portrayal, the kind of role that Gosling is so good at playing, and here he doesn’t disappoint. Ford is terrific as well, reconnecting with a role that he hasn’t played in thirty-five years but which he infuses with a grizzled intensity, and a great deal of sympathy. It’s good to see him embracing a part in a way that, Han Solo aside, he hasn’t done for quite some time. There’s great support from the likes of de Armas (in a role that is intended to make K’s replicant nature more human, but which remains surplus to requirements, no matter how hard the screenplay tries), and Hoeks as the movie’s resident replicant psycho. Leto wears odd contact lenses that contribute to his character’s blindness, and aims for urbane but still bizarro villain and largely succeeds thanks to his decision to underplay the role, while Wright, ultimately, is given too little to do other than repeat dire warnings about the child etc. etc.

A sequel to Blade Runner (1982) may have been on a lot of people’s wish lists over the years, but now that it’s here, there’s something of a temptation to praise it for what it does do – look astounding on too many occasions to count, have a score that complements Vangelis’ original score while being its own thing, create several worlds in one – instead of admitting that what it doesn’t do harms it too often (and on a couple of occasions, irreparably). Yes, it’s an incredible movie visually, and the makers should be congratulated, and awarded, for their efforts, but the script isn’t as convincing as it could have been. Still a movie to watch on the biggest screen possible (though not in 3D, which doesn’t add anything to the experience), and one to discuss for some time to come, this is one sequel that could have been bolder in its approach, and more complex in its ruminations.

Rating: 7/10 – though hugely effective for long stretches, Blade Runner 2049 does get bogged down in too many needless secondary plot lines during its middle section, but rallies to provide an exciting action sequence that rounds things off satisfactorily (even if it’s a long time coming); with many scenes that could have been trimmed or excised altogether, this is still a triumph for Villeneuve and his two male leads, and serves as another example of a movie that strives to be different from the rest of its multiplex brethren, even if it’s not fully successful.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

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D: William Oldroyd / 89m

Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer

Rural England, 1865. A harsh time and place to live if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a young woman entering into a marriage with a man you don’t know, and all because you were part and parcel of a land sale. That’s the fate of Katherine (Pugh), a farmer’s daughter who finds herself the wife of local landowner, Alexander Lester (Hilton), and living in his father’s house. Forbidden to go outside the house and expected to maintain a strict schedule in relation to running the house, Katherine is less than happy with the way her life is playing out. Her husband won’t even fulfill his duties in the marital bed, content instead to make Katherine strip naked and face the wall while he pleasures himself. And as if his indifference wasn’t enough, it’s compounded by her father-in-law’s ironic disapproval at her not being able to provide a son and heir. All the company she has is that of one of the servants, Anna (Ackie), who is the epitomy of subjection.

It’s only when both men leave on separate business trips that Katherine is able to explore the surrounding countryside and take back some aspects of the life she used to enjoy. She also encounters Sebastian (Jarvis), one of her husband’s workers. She’s attracted to him immediately, and he notices this. Soon after he comes to the house to see her, and though she rebuffs his advances at first, she succumbs readily and the pair embark on an affair. When her father-in-law (Fairbank) returns, he is aware of the unseemly relationship between Katherine and Sebastian, and he quickly berates her for it. Treating her even more harshly than he did before, and giving Sebastian a beating, Katherine determines to ensure that her affair can continue. To this end, the old man meets an untimely end, and Katherine installs Sebastian as the de facto man of the house. Some time passes, and then Alexander does return home, and though he knows about his wife’s duplicity, his plan to deal with her doesn’t go as expected…

Alexander’s return is the culmination of the movie’s second act, and it comes at a time when Katherine’s natural character has become somewhat exposed through her actions and her baser emotions. The viewer is beginning to understand that beneath the lustful, all-encompassing passion she feels for Sebastian, there lurks something that’s a little more sinister, and a little more discomfiting. Flashes of this have been seen up until now, but if this transposed Lady Macbeth of the wild English countryside (the movie was shot in Northumberland, and is an adaptation of the novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov) has anything to say about its central character then it’s simply this: beware of how you treat her, for she isn’t one to forgive. Now whether this is due to madness brought on by an aversion to solitude, or is part of her natural temperament and she will do anything to protect herself, that’s down to the viewer to decide. But what the viewer can be certain of is that Katherine will go to whatever lengths she deems necessary to maintain the life she wants. And this we discover at the end of the second act, and well into the third, where her sense of self-preservation becomes entirely twisted and goads her into doing something truly horrible.

All this passion and reckless abandonment of the accepted social norms and proprieties of the period is underlined by the stark severity of life in the Lester household, a place of cold, airy rooms – well-lit, but encouraging little warmth – and the even chillier nature of its male inhabitants, whose sense of puritan endeavour involves mocking and restraining the lives of others. It’s into this unforgiving patrician, and God-fearing environment that Katherine finds herself thrust without the benefit of any say in the matter. It’s this unfairness of place and position that allows Katherine to gain the viewer’s sympathy, and when she embarks on her affair with Sebastian, it’s good to see her find true affection – and love – even though it’s obvious there’s not going to be a “happy ever after”. And so it proves, with the patriarchal society she struggles against continuously, circling round her like hawks, ready to swoop down and punish her for her perceived impudence and “whorish” behaviour.

With the milieu firmly and unforgivingly established – there’s no better evocation of the social shackles Katherine is forced to endure than the sight of her sitting on a divan waiting for her husband to come home – director William Oldroyd is free to encourage and draw out a mesmerising performance from the twenty-one year old Pugh that is one of the most poised and impressive of 2016. She lets the audience know exactly what Katherine is thinking and feeling throughout, and reveals a maturity of approach to building the character that is even more extraordinary when you consider that after The Falling (2014), this is only her second feature (it also makes her next appearance in The Commuter (2018) seem like something of a backward step). So good is she that sometimes, and no matter what else is going on in a scene, the viewer is drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Passionate or icy-cold in her dealings with the other characters, Pugh ensures that Katherine remains endlessly fascinating, and a character you can love or hate or sympathise with or fear with equal intensity.

Pugh is ably supported by Jarvis as the easily manipulated (at first) Sebastian, his initial devil-may-care attitude more and more eroded the deeper he becomes embroiled in Katherine’s refusal to give up on their affair. There’s an element of Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover about the characterisation, but as the story progresses that too fades away, and it’s not long before, like him, you can see that it’s not going to work out well for him. Ackie is on equally good form as Anna, the maid who retreats into silence when it all gets too much for her to deal with, while Hilton and Fairbank, though good in their roles, are a little too one-note – unrelentingly nasty, that is – in their portrayals (though this is down to the script than any intention of their own). Still, Oldroyd holds it all together by tightening the increasing suspense of just how far Katherine will go, and with cinematographer Ari Wegner ensures that the wild, sprawling moorland serves as a fine backdrop to the emotional upheavals occurring within the Lester household.

Rating: 8/10 – a gripping, emotionally charged tale of lust, madness and murder, Lady Macbeth is anchored by a superb performance from Pugh, and a chilly atmosphere that soon becomes as claustrophobic for the viewer as it is for the characters; a violent tragedy of emotions, it’s a movie that carries a rigorous beauty about it, and which remains absorbing from start to finish.

American Assassin (2017)

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D: Michael Cuesta / 112m

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Scott Adkins, Joseph Long, Mohammad Bakri, Navid Negahban, Khalid Laith, Vladimir Friedman, Charlotte Vega

It doesn’t take long – or much – to work out that American Assassin wants to be the first in a new spy/action series. After all, it’s an origin story, and the main character, Mitch Rapp (O’Brien), is in his early twenties at this point, so the potential is there for several more movies to be adapted from the novels by Vince Flynn, and made into the kind of slick, glossily produced, but largely pedestrian movie that’s been put together here. Depending on your patience or your level of appreciation for Rapp and his personal mission to rid the world of terrorists – particuarly Muslim ones – this will either have you urging him on, or wondering what makes him so special. However, what is certain, is that Mitch’s origin story leaves a lot to be desired.

What sets Mitch off on his pesonal mission happens on a beach in Ibiza. Having just proposed to his girlfriend, Katrina (Vega), Mitch is getting them drinks to celebrate when, from out of nowhere and with no warning at all, the beach is overrun by terrorists who start shooting randomly at everyone, including Mitch himself, who gets wounded, and (of course) Katrina, who is killed right in front of him. Fast forward eighteen months, and Mitch is now on the trail of the terrorist responsible for the beach attack. He’s managed to persuade said terrorist that they share the same aims and gotten himself a personal invitation to meet up in person. But just as he’s face to face with his arch-nemesis, a team of US Special Forces ops take out the terrorist and his men, and leave taking Mitch with them. He’s taken to a CIA safe house where he spends thirty days being debriefed, and impressing CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Lathan). She wants him for a black ops team called Orion, because “he tests off the chart” for what they need.

Without wishing to use this site’s favourite I-word, what follows could be predicted by just about anyone, even someone who’s never seen this kind of movie before (or any kind of revenge flick). Mitch is revealed to have authority issues, and he clashes with his trainer/handler Stan Hurley (Keaton), while also getting on the nerves of the rest of his team, and in particular, those of Victor (Adkins), his main rival for the position of Alpha Male. But Irene keeps on vouching for him, even when Mitch makes it clear he’s not a team player, and even when Stan correctly deduces that he’s driven by revenge and not by any patriotic duty (which is apparently preferable, as revenge is regarded as something that gets in the way of being a fully competent operative). Sent on the trail of some missing weapons grade plutonium that may or may not be about to fall into the hands of a trio of Iranian hardliners, Mitch disobeys orders on a mission in Istanbul, but is fortunate enough to retrieve vital information in the process.

This sets the pattern for the rest of the movie, as Stan tries to focus Mitch’s energies in the right direction, while Mitch continues acting impulsively and without the slightest idea of what he’s going to do next until he makes it up on the spot. He’s kind of an anti-hero, using the resources of the CIA to wage his own war on terror, while being told that his approach and attitude isn’t the best. This leads to a fair bit of confusion on the script’s part, as Irene and Stan (mostly Stan) keep telling him that his motives are wrong. But without them, Mitch wouldn’t have the skill set that he has, and he wouldn’t “test off the chart”. Apparently, he’s a natural, the kind of operative that the CIA prays comes along every so often, but at the same time they want to reign him in and make him fit their approach and attitude. And they wonder why it doesn’t work…

In the end, the movie can’t help but try and have its cake and eat it, as Mitch swings into action single-handedly at every turn, ignoring Stan’s orders and advice, and getting by on sheer exuberance and luck. O’Brien gives an intense performance as Mitch, but aside from a growing respect for Stan that fits the standard template for this kind of movie, there’s no character arc as such because he goes from delighted fiancé to revenge-fuelled assassin in the space of those eighteen months we never get to see. What we’re left with is a dour, singularly remote character that the viewer can’t connect with, and whose only emotional trait is anger. Other than that, Mitch is pretty much a stiff with a variety of weapons. As his mentor, Keaton continues a run of performances that prove he’s an actor who can make more out of a character than is on the page, and whose work ethic is almost second to none. Whenever he’s on screen, the movie picks up, and his energy helps carry the movie forward when at times it’s in danger of stalling.

Elsewhere, Lathan’s CIA Deputy Director remains a bland interpretation of an even blander role, while Negar grabs some of the limelight as an Iranian agent who’s part of the team when they get to Rome. The main villain is a renegade Orion operative called Ghost (Kitsch) who has his own revenge issues, but like a lot of self-absorbed bad guys he’s prone to too much monologuing and being lenient when it’s absolutely not in his best interest. The script’s nuclear bomb McGuffin feels old hat, and it all leads to an unfortunate bout of ruinous CGI involving the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet that requires such a major suspension of disbelief that only unintentional laughter can be regarded as the correct response to it. Trying to keep all this feeling fresh and exciting, but being undermined by the tired scenarios on display, Cuesta – whose pedigree includes stints on TV’s Six Feet Under, Dexter and Homeland – does what he can, and there are flashes of what he could have achieved, but they’re not enough to lift the material out of its self-imposed doldrums. By the end of the movie, you’ll either be optimistically looking forward to another outing for Mitch and his authority issues, or you might be agreeing with Tina Turner and saying, “We don’t need another hero”.

Rating: 5/10 – a broad spectrum action thriller that’s at least professionally made, American Assassin is the result of the work of four screenwriters (including Edward Zwick when he was attached to direct as well) who, between them, couldn’t make the material memorable enough; formulaic and predictable at every turn, it’s not a bad movie per se, just one that doesn’t have the necessary impact to help it rise above the bar set by the likes of James Bond or Jason Bourne.

The Hero (2017)

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D: Brett Haley / 93m

Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katharine Ross, Max Gail

Ah, mortality. It gets us all in the end, sometimes without warning, and sometimes it gives us plenty of time to get used to the idea (or not). For Lee Hayden (Elliott), an aging actor best known for his appearances in Westerns during the Seventies and Eighties, work is a little on the slow side. Movie offers have dried up, and his agent can only get him voice over work on radio ads. Lee spends most of his time mooching around his home in the hills outside Los Angeles, or smoking pot with his friend, Jeremy (Offerman), who co-starred with him in a TV series called Cattle Drive. Lee is divorced, and has a daughter, Lucy (Ritter). He doesn’t see either of them very much as he was a poor husband and father. One day he receives good news and bad news. The good news is that a Western Appreciation Guild want to honour him with a Lifetime Achievement award. The bad news is that he has pancreatic cancer.

The news that he has a terminal condition sends Lee into a bit of a tailspin. He makes an attempt at telling his ex-wife, Valarie (Ross – Elliott’s real life wife), but can’t bring himself to say the words. He makes a further attempt to reconnect with Lucy, and she agrees to have dinner with him the following week. Meanwhile he meets a woman, Charlotte (Prepon), at Jeremy’s house, and later they bump into each other. They begin a relationship, one that’s more tentative on his part than hers, and she agrees to go with him to the guild ceremony. There, his acceptance speech – which isn’t what people were expecting – goes viral, and suddenly, movie offers are coming in, with one in particular looking as if it will thrust him back into the spotlight. However, while his career appears to be getting back on track, his personal life remains a mess. He misses his dinner with Lucy, takes exception to Charlotte using their relationship as part of her stand-up routine, and keeps putting off making a decision about his oncology treatment.

Some roles are written with specific actors or actresses in mind, and Lee Hayden seems like he was written with Sam Elliott at the top of the list of actors to be considered. It’s on these occasions that wondering how the movie would have turned out if someone else had taken the role, proves to be an impossible task, as the actor who is in the role is so good you can’t even begin to replace them with someone else. Such is the case here. While there are a small handful of actors who could have played Lee Hayden, it’s unlikely that any of them could have done as good a job as Sam Elliott. It’s a performance that perfectly gauges the doubts and insecurities and fears of a man in his early seventies who no longer trusts good things will happen to him, and who is hesitant about accepting them when they do. Elliott captures the character’s sense of having been alone for so long that even the idea of engaging emotionally with his family is painful to him, or with someone new like Charlotte. Lee also hopes that if he doesn’t talk about his condition, then he won’t have to deal with it (at one point Lee researches a procedure that could extend his life expectancy by five years, but is put off by pictures of how he would look after the surgery).

Elliott’s laconic, gravel-voiced delivery is also perfect for the role, as is his tall, rangy physique. If you’re going to employ someone to play an aging Western actor, then Elliott has got to be top of the list after Clint Eastwood, but here there’s a level of introspection and vulnerability that Eastwood probably wouldn’t have been able to make convincing. Elliott also embodies the role of Lee in such a way that there’s not one false note to be seen or heard, and if anyone has any doubts as to his ability as an actor, then two scenes should be enough to dissuade them: Lee’s acceptance speech at the guild ceremony, and Lee’s reading of lines from Galactic, the YA sci-fi epic that could be his ticket back to the big time. In both scenes, Elliott wrings out every last drop of nuance and emotion, and his delivery is impeccable. And then there’s Lee’s qualms about his relationship with Charlotte, and why she’s with him. It all adds up to a performance that is completely awards worthy (and yet, it will likely go unrewarded come the awards season in a few months’ time).

Elliott’s performance aside, there is much else to savour, with the script by director Haley and co-writer Marc Basch, confident in its handling of the other characters, and with a series of dreams Lee has that reflect on his glory days in the only movie he’s ever been proud of (The Hero), and his hope that he’ll be able to make one last movie that’s on a par with it. These dream sequences are vivid and affecting, and speak to Lee’s state of mind throughout, just as a handful of scenes set at the ocean’s edge see him contemplating just walking into the waves and foregoing any further pain. The movie isn’t just a bittersweet drama, however, but also an understated comedy, with moments of inspired humour such as Lee and Charlotte being stoned at the guild ceremony, and Lee being asked to “do one more” line reading for a barbeque sauce ad (when he’s just done “one more”).

Though the movie as a whole is engaging and holds the viewer’s interest and attention with ease, it has to be noted that there’s not a lot that’s new or hasn’t been tried before in The Hero. Fast approaching mortality isn’t exactly an unexplored theme in the movies, and neither is the idea of a relationship with an extended age gap, but Haley and Basch have done more than enough to offset any familiarity by investing heavily in the characters, and by concentrating on providing them with believable dialogue. Ultimately, it’s a movie about legacies and second chances and coming to terms with just how much actual control anyone has over these aspects of our lives, and on that level, it’s very successful indeed.

Rating: 8/10 – Elliott is The Hero‘s MVP, and he dominates the movie in a way that raises the material and makes it more impressive than its basic premise would suggest; backed by good performances from Prepon and Offerman, a very poignant use of the Edna St Vincent Millay poem Dirge Without Music, and vibrant cinematography courtesy of Rob Givens, this is a movie that is quietly potent and well worth finding the time for.

Cult of Chucky (2017)

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D: Don Mancini / 91m

Cast: Fiona Dourif, Brad Dourif, Michael Therriault, Alex Vincent, Adam Hurtig, Elisabeth Rosen, Grace Lynn Kung, Zak Santiago, Ali Tataryn, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Jennifer Tilly

Number seven in a franchise that’s proving as hard to keep down as the titular character itself, Cult of Chucky is the latest instalment in a series that at least has tried to do something different with each entry. However, while this has its moments, it’s not as good as Child’s Play (1988), or its predecessor, Curse of Chucky (2013), but instead, occupies the largely stagnant middle ground of the rest of the series. Fans will no doubt love it, while non-fans will spend much of their time trying to work out who all the returning characters are. It’s very much a movie that’s been made to satisfy the fans, but if so, then it has to be argued that said fans are pretty undemanding.

It’s a movie that throws the viewer in at the deep end right from the start, and assumes that they’ll know exactly what’s going on, why, and who it’s happening to. It’s a continuation of the story that began in Curse of Chucky, but here the story is presented in a much more straightforward way that doesn’t try to connect itself with the events and characters of earlier entries as Curse did. But what it does do, as so many of the other entries have done, is to cut narrative corners whenever it’s convenient to do so. This means the movie is disjointed, takes liberties with its own continuity, and poses questions it has no intention of answering. For fans of horror franchises, a lot of this will be familiar territory, but as this is another entry written and directed by series’ keeper of the flame, Don Mancini, it’s all the more disappointing.

Set largely in a medium security mental institution, the movie focuses on Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif), who was framed by Chucky (Brad Dourif) for the murders of her family in the last movie. Four years have passed, and her therapist, Dr Foley (Therriault), has managed to persuade Nica that she murdered her family, and that attributing their murders to Chucky has been a way of dealing with the guilt of what she “did”. But it’s not long before Chucky’s presence begins to make itself felt, first by one of the other patients, Angela (Kerr), telling Nica she’s spoken to Chucky and he’s coming for her, and then by Dr Foley bringing a talking Chucky doll into a group therapy session. A vsit by Tiffany Valentine (Tilly) sees Nica given another talking Chucky doll as a gift, and so, the stage is set for Chucky to go on yet another murderous rampage.

Having toned down the humour that marred Bride of Chucky (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004), and reconnected with the strengths of the first movie, Mancini seems to be bogged down by what looks and feels like a transition movie, or that difficult second movie in a trilogy. It certainly leaves several plot strands dangling, and then right at the death (so to speak) it springs a surprise that has to be addressed/followed up in the next instalment (it’s one of those moments that will have fans punching the air in delight, while baffling the average viewer). Despite Mancini’s best efforts, the movie plays out with a grim determination to provide just enough death and franchise maintenance to keep people interested until next time, when perhaps, there’ll be a better payoff. And at least this time, the makers have foregone the low budget CGI employed on the last couple of entries, and returned to the animatronic and puppetry effects that have been used so well in the past. Chucky still moves like he’s got rickets, or is in need of a hip replacement, but it’s in keeping with how a plastic doll without functioning knees or ankles would move if it really was alive.

Fortunately though, and amidst all the pedestrian plotting and characterisations, Mancini manages to pull off a number of masterful moments that elevate the material, if only briefly. There are several establishing shots of the interior of the mental institution that show off its sharp lines and white open spaces, and there’s a character reveal that is both unexpected and effective purely because there’s no previous set up for it. There’s the puzzle of why one Chucky doll has a brutal fringe, and best of all, a death scene involving a skylight that Mancini shoots first with an eye for its initial static beauty, and then with an eye for its devastating, bloody outcome. These help the movie haul itself out of the doldrums it finds itself in at times, and gives some hope that if Mancini has already got number eight mapped out in his head, that it will contain moments as good as these, and perhaps a lot more besides.

Another bonus is the presence of the Dourifs, with Brad providing more solid voice work as Chucky, and daughter Fiona back in the fray as Nica. Fiona isn’t always best served by the script, but she has a similar intensity to her father that keeps the character more credible than most. As the movie progresses – and this may have been deliberate on Mancini’s part – Fiona looks more and more like her father, so much so that in a scene where she’s being hypnotised by Dr Foley and a light flashes in front of her, her features alternate between her own and what could have been her father’s super-imposed on hers, though that’s clearly not the case. It’s an odd, somewhat disturbing moment, and the feeling persists from that moment on. If it is deliberate, then it’s a clever trick considering where the movie ends up. Along the way though, Mancini plays to genre conventions for the most part, and keeps the movie from looking or feeling too fresh (the setting is yet another hospital where only the same three members of staff are on duty at any one time; otherwise it’s deserted). Held back perhaps by budgetary restrictions, the movie is nevertheless one that tries to bring something new to the series, but doesn’t quite manage it. Maybe next time…

Rating: 5/10 – lacking the consistency and attention to detail of its predecessor, Cult of Chucky gets by on a handful of bravura moments, but lets itself down by abandoning any attempt at maintaining its own internal logic very early on; the need to set up another sequel means the ending is something of a letdown, but if you’re a fan then this is something you’re probably going to derive a lot of pleasure from.

The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

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D: Jim Strouse / 84m

Cast: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield, Noël Wells, Taliyah Whitaker

Despite having their name plastered all over the advertising, potential viewers of The Incredible Jessica James can rest easy – this is not a Netflix original. Instead it’s a movie that Netflix picked up for distribution after it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With that near miss taken care of, it’s unsurprising to learn that the latest from the writer/director of People Places Things (2015) is on a par with that movie, and head and shoulders above many other so-called romantic comedies released this year. Shot through with Strouse’s gift for natural-sounding dialogue, the movie brings together two characters who are trying hard to deal with the fallout from relationships that have recently ended. How good are they at doing this? Does the phrase “cyber stalking” give you a clue?

The title character, Jessica James (Williams), has split up from her boyfriend, Damon (Stanfield). She’s not sure how it happened, but she is sure she still has feelings for him. Well, confused feelings, as she arranges dates with guys on Tinder and meets them in places where she knows she’s likely to bump into Damon, just so she can tell him how well she’s doing without him (she also continues to follow him on social media). Three and a half months have passed since their relationship ended, and while it seems Damon has moved on, Jessica is so critical of anyone else she meets that she might as well not bother. Then her friend, Tasha (Wells), suggests Jessica go on a blind date with someone she knows called Boone (O’Dowd). Boone is eight months divorced, and is prone to following his ex’s Instagram account, as well as hanging around outside the apartment she shares with her new partner. Their date doesn’t go too well at first, but once they agree to talk honestly about their previous relationships, the pair find themselves hitting it off. So well, in fact, that they end up spending the night together.

The rest is almost entirely predictable, and follows such a standard arc that the average viewer could probably describe it in their sleep. But in amongst the familiar tropes and romantic ups and downs, Strouse weaves a charming tale of burgeoning love that is anything but formulaic, and which owes a lot of its success to Strouse’s gifts as a writer, and the easy way in which he translates his screenplay into well structured yet seemingly carefree incidents. We follow Jessica as she navigates this new friendship with Boone, as well as teaching at a children’s theatre workshop, and trying to get her work as a playwright recognised by a theatre company. She’s smart, she’s intelligent, she’s sexy, she’s trying hard not to be a slave to her emotions, and she’s taking it all one step at a time. Two things stop her from moving forward with confidence or the appropriate speed: her mixed feelings for Damon, and Boone’s mixed feelings for his ex, Mandy Moore (not the singer/actress).

Boone is plagued by similar doubts, but of the two of them he seems to be the more prepared to commit to Jessica and forge a new relationship. Inevitably there’s a stumbling block, a situation that pulls them apart before they’re reunited at the end, but it’s all done with an honesty and a simplicity that is in many ways, quite refreshing to witness. Strouse uses dialogue as a way of exploring the characters’ emotional needs, and to draw out small but effective contributions to the way in which both of them deal with disappointment and pain, and being hurt. They’re both vulnerable people, determined to be honest with each other as a relationship “best policy” and to protect themselves, and Strouse is on fine form when it’s just the two of them, happily tiptoe-ing through the minefield of a new romance and largely unafraid of losing a metaphorical limb.

Strouse is helped immensely by relaxed, detailed performances by Williams and O’Dowd, a romantic “odd couple” you probably wouldn’t have put together in a million years. And yet, there’s a definite chemistry there (if not a completely convincing physical one; when they kiss it’s like watching two people trying it out for the first time and getting the basic idea from a manual). Williams has a very likeable screen presence, and she uses her expressive features and comic timing to very good effect. Those viewers who only know her from US TV’s The Daily Show (where she’s played roles as varied as Abraham Lincoln and Lorena Bobbitt), may well be surprised by the way in which she handles the more serious elements of Strouse’s script, but when she is called upon to jettison the comedy and hit up the drama, you can see just what an all-rounder she really is. She’s in good company with O’Dowd, who, no matter what movie he appears in, is pretty much the definition of relaxed and easy-going. He’s proven his range on many occasions, and though Boone is something of a supporting character, O’Dowd plays him as if he’s integral to the whole movie, and makes him both inherently credible and hugely sympathetic; you want Boone to find happiness with Jessica (and vice versa).

Strouse, who’s work as a writer/director seems to get better and better with every movie, handles a number of subplots with aplomb as well, gaining extra mileage from the situations his romantic duo find themselves in when they’re not together. Jessica tries to persuade the mother of one of her pupils of the importance of the class itself, while Boone is confronted by his ex-wife’s new partner and only barely survives the encounter without sounding like a complete ass. Strouse isn’t afraid as well to make Jessica initially unsympathetic, with her treatment of potential suitors brought into question by her abrupt manners and rude dissemination of why she doesn’t want to be there. But as she begins to find love with Boone, Jessica mellows and allows herself to trust a lot more, and the character blossoms as a result. Again, it’s all held together by the quality of Strouse’s writing, and the quality of Williams’ and O’Dowd’s portrayals, and in the end, the movie ends up being a more than pleasant way of spending eighty-four minutes, and one that makes you wonder just what kind of a life the pair will have long after the credits roll.

Rating: 8/10 – somewhat of a surprise (though it shouldn’t be given Strouse’s involvement), The Incredible Jessica James is a sure-fire winner that doesn’t have a lot to shout about on the surface (in terms of originality), but which is deceptively graceful below it; a low-key experience that rewards dramatically and comedically, this is a movie that works to its strengths throughout, and in doing so, stakes a claim to being one of the most intelligent and pleasurable romantic comedies of the year.

Aquarius (2016)

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D: Kleber Mendonça Filho / 146m

Cast: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão, Zoraide Coleto, Carla Ribas, Fernando Teixiera, Buda Lira, Paula de Renor, Barbara Colen, Pedro Queiroz

When we meet Clara for the first time, it’s in 1980 and she’s introducing her brother, his girlfriend, and one of their other friends to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust. Later, at a party to celebrate the seventieth birthday of one of her aunts, we learn that Clara (Colen) has recently beaten breast cancer. Her husband makes a speech in which he praises her strength, and his gratitude that they will be able to spend the rest of their lives together. Fast forward to the present day, and Clara (Braga) is a retired music writer, and a widow of seventeen years. She lives alone in the Aquarius apartment building in Recife, surrounded by hundreds of vinyl records, and a lifetime of memories. Mostly content with her lot, she is well liked and known in the local community, lives near enough to the beach to go for a swim in the sea if she feels like it – and despite how much it worries lifeguard Roberval (Santos) – and is charitable enough to fend off inane questions when interviewed by local journalists. She has family and friends around her, but aside from the daily presence of her housekeeper, Ladjane (Coleto), appears to be comfortable living by herself.

The peace she has attained is soon threatened however, when her apartment building is targeted by a construction company, Bonfim, for redevelopment. While everyone else accepts Bonfim’s offer, and moves out, Clara refuses to budge; she doesn’t even look at their proposal. Her family, particularly her daughter, Ana Paula (Jinkings), believe she should accept the offer, but Clara is resolute, even when some of Bonfim’s workmen install mattresses in the apartment above hers and have a noisy party one night. Further instances such as finding human faeces on the stairwell, and being patronised by Diego (Carrão), the grandson of Bonfim’s owner, and the architect behind the proposed redevelopment, serve only to make Clara even more determined to stay put. Eventually, she decides to take the fight to Bonfim, and with the aid of a friend with political connections, she learns of documents that would be incredibly damaging to Bonfim if they were made public. But while she and her lawyer, Cleide (Ribas), take steps to locate these documents, two of the construction company’s ex-workers provide Clara with disturbing information that, if true, will prove even more damning than the documents…

On the surface, Aquarius is a movie looking to tell its David v Goliath story through the eyes and ears of its savvy heroine, but thanks to a wonderfully diverse, and yet also focused script by its director, the movie is much more than that. It’s a terrifically constructed character piece, with Clara the centre of attention throughout, and made all the more impressive by a complex, intuitive performance by Braga. The key to Clara’s dogged determination to stay where she is, is the fact that she’s a survivor. She has already endured a terrible period in her life, and come out the other side a stronger person. This makes it easy for her to withstand the pleas her family make, and the brickbats that follow when their pleas aren’t acted on. Clara has such a sense of being right, of being right for her and her alone, that she can brush off these attacks with ease. She finds courage in being so resolute, and in turn, this courage helps to maintain her resolute stance. And if Bonfim’s efforts to disturb her peace and solitude were ever likely to succeed in their desired aim, then they clearly had no idea who they were up against. Who else would react to discovering an orgy taking place in the apartment above theirs by calling a friend’s toyboy lover and inviting him over for a session of their own?

It’s moments like these, where Clara doesn’t react or behave in the way that you might expect her to, that make Filho’s script so effective. Clara is simply not a victim, and she has no intention of ever being one, even if it would make everyone else’s lives more convenient or stress-free. For the most part she ignores Bonfim’s clumsy attempts to dislodge her, and goes about her daily life as if their attentions were of no importance at all (which, to a certain degree, they aren’t). She goes to the beach, goes dancing at a club with her friends and picks up a handsome stranger, babysits her grandson, and spends time with her nephew, Tomás (Queiroz), and his girlfriend. She deals with Bonfim if and when she has to, and always with a patient resignation. It’s only when matters escalate that she shows just how angry she is, and there’s a confrontation with Diego that sees Clara let rip in formidable fashion. Over the course of the movie we see Clara as widow, lover, mother, friend, intellectual, implacable foe, and above all, a fully recognisable woman.

It’s rare for any movie to present such a fully rounded portrait of its lead character, male or female, and it’s to Filho’s credit that Clara is so vividly written. It doesn’t hurt that Clara is played by Braga in a career best performance that contains not one false note or mis-step to betray either the character or her director’s faith in her. Braga’s range is hugely impressive, from the melancholy emotions she expresses when Clara remembers her husband, to the tolerant understanding Clara shows to her children when they challenge her obduracy, and the fiery sense of righteousness Clara exudes in the movie’s final twenty minutes. It’s also a defiantly physical portrayal, with Braga seemingly in motion even when Clara is seen at rest, as if the character has pent-up levels of energy that can barely be contained. Braga is an hypnotic presence from the first moment we see her, and she holds the viewer’s attention in every scene, the focus for everything we need to know or understand.

Overall, the movie is a subtle creation, with a temperate, knowledgeable script that examines notions of survival, respect (everyone evinces respect for everyone else but it’s obvious that it’s a façade adopted by everyone, even Clara on occasion), the importance of family, the closeness of friends, political expediency, and nepotism – to name but a few – and Filho combines them all with a skill and a sureness of touch that is just as impressive as Braga’s performance. There are social and political connotations too that are relevant to the present day situation in Brazil, and while most of these connotations will be lost on international audiences, they’re reflected in the machinations of Bonfim and their ultimate disregard for Clara and her feelings. The movie also features fluid, well framed camerawork by Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu, and it’s all held together by Eduardo Serrano’s skillful, perceptive editing. A word of praise also for the absence of a score, a decision that proves invaluable when the lead character has such an eclectic, and terrific record collection in the first place.

Rating: 9/10 – marred only by an abrupt ending that isn’t quite the crowd pleaser that audiences may be expecting, Aquarius is nevertheless an intelligent, quietly provocative movie that is superbly assembled and which draws in the viewer effortlessly; anchored by a glorious performance from Braga, this has a clarity of purpose and a maturity of style that few other movies can match.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

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D: Mike Flanagan / 103m

Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken

And so we have another Stephen King adaptation, the third within two months after The Dark Tower and It, and a movie that falls somewhere in between the two in terms of quality. Gerald’s Game may not be as bad as The Dark Tower, but it’s certainly nowhere near as good as It. But what it is, is a huge disappointment, one that forgets the cardinal rule when adapting one of King’s novels: that all the interior stuff that King does so well, doesn’t translate well to the screen. Unfortunately, that’s what takes up most of King’s novel, as unhappy wife Jessie Burlingame (Gugino) finds herself handcuffed to a bed while her previously equally unhappy husband, Gerald (Greenwood), lies dead on the floor from a heart attack. The one major problem? They’re at a deserted lake house, and no one’s likely to happen by any time soon. In fact, it might be a week or more before anyone shows up. And by then? Well, if Jessie doesn’t find a way out of her predicament, then whoever does show up is likely to find two dead bodies for the price of one.

And there you have it: the plot in a nutshell. It’s a slight plot, very simple in its nature, and if you were to make a movie based purely on that plotline and nothing else, you’d have a very short movie (and King would most likely have written a short story). But King wrote a novel, and he gave Jessie an abusive childhood (one more example of his parents as monsters motif) that enabled the basic plot to be expanded upon and Jessie’s plight made all the more resonant for highlighting how trapped she’s been throughout her life, first as a protector to her sister, and then as a trophy wife. More importantly, King is very good indeed at exploring the interior lives of his characters. But again, how King writes, and the detail he provides, doesn’t translate well to the (on this occasion small) screen. But director Mike Flanagan – who gave us the better than average Oculus (2013) and the entertaining if flawed Before I Wake (2016) – along with his fellow screenwriter, Jeff Howard, opts to include Jessie’s back story, but ends up having far more trouble connecting it to her present situation than perhaps should be the case. What the viewer is left with, is a movie that plays connect the psychological dots, but which manages to leave out some of those very same dots.

The basic set up is one we’ve seen many times before, both in novels and the movies, with a couple whose marriage isn’t working as well as it used to (if it did at all), trying to “spice things up in the bedroom” as way of improving things. But it’s obvious from the start that Jessie isn’t as confident about this as Gerald is, and when things become uncomfortable for her she calls a halt. But she’s already handcuffed to the bed, and after a short marital spat where a number of home truths are laid out on both sides, Gerald has a heart attack and dies (let that be a lesson to hypertensives who take Viagra). Cue Jessie having conversations in her head that are shown as hallucinations. Gerald keeps returning to tell her just how bad her situation is, and how unlikely it is that she’ll survive, while she also conjures up a version of herself who is more supportive and willing to do a bit of problem solving in order to keep Jessie alive. Both “characters” function as a part of Jessie’s psyche, which is fractured enough (and very quickly thanks to the demands of the script), but the repetitive nature of their dialogue soon becomes tiring, and any impact they initially have from “being there” disappears just as quickly as they show up.

From this we head off into Jessie’s childhood and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, Tom (Thomas). But Flanagan and Howard don’t quite know how to equate the abuse she suffered with the way in which Jessie behaves as an adult; the two don’t connect in a way that would make Jessie’s current predicament that much more affecting. In the end, the movie seems to be more about laying to rest the ghosts of Jessie’s childhood. And once that’s done, then it can get back to the small matter of Jessie being handcuffed to the bed. With that having been decided on, it’s left to Gugino to look increasingly awful thanks to dehydration, and to use an incident from her childhood to spark an idea as to how she can free herself. (Those familiar with the novel may be pleased/repulsed to know that King’s solution has been retained – and it’s not for the squeamish.)

Along the way there’s the added danger of a hungry stray dog who takes a liking to Gerald’s body and who might want to have a taste of “fresher meat”, and a mysterious presence, the Moonlight Man (Struycken), who may or may not be real. The problem with these elements, and many more besides, is that they are all signposted long before they become unveiled, and any suspense is squashed before it has a chance to make itself felt. Consequently, there is very little tension in the movie, and the pacing is erratic, with whole scenes feeling flat and pedestrian in nature. When the movie does pick up the pace, it’s only fleeting, but it still feels as if Flanagan hasn’t got as firm a grip on the material as he should have. He’s not helped by the performances of Gugino and Greenwood, which are serviceable at best, and often hampered by some unappealing dialogue (kudos to Greenwood though: he looks great for sixty-one).

Somewhat predictably, the script can’t help but throw in some referential dialogue to other works by King – the dog is referred to as “Cujo”, Gerald tells Jessie “all things serve the beam” – and there are moments when the promise inherent in the material threatens to break out, particularly with the Moonlight Man, but the wordplay is allowed to dominate, making this a movie that stops on several occasions to allow for lengthy speeches and broad declarations of how bad Jessie and Gerald’s marriage had become, or Jessie’s feelings about her childhood. Flanagan manages the odd flourish here and there, and visually it’s quite robust despite its mostly single set restrictions. There’s also a simple, yet evocative score by the Newton Brothers that does its best to amplify the emotional and psychological components of the script without making them too heavy handed. Good as these things are, though, they’re not enough to prevent Gerald’s Game from being a bit of a letdown.

Rating: 5/10 – yet another King adaptation that could have been a whole lot better, Gerald’s Game is a movie that only occasionally delivers any suspense or tension, and which concentrates more on its central character’s mental health than on tightening the structure of the main plot; earnest and a little bland (and despite the basic premise), this should be a tour-de-force of acting and directing, but instead it falls down way too often to provide the impact it needs.

Voice from the Stone (2017)

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D: Eric Dennis Howell / 90m

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Marton Csokas, Caterina Murino, Remo Girone, Lisa Gastoni, Edward George Dring

There’s a whole other sub-section of the movies where English or American actors and actresses take roles that are shot in foreign locations with a foreign crew, and often their presence is there to ensure a decent enough showing in the international market. A lot of these movies, however, don’t always get the exposure they need, and head straight for DVD or VOD. Some manage to get into cinemas but they rarely make much of an impact, and often see out a week’s residency without too much fuss and bother. One such movie is Voice from the Stone, which since its world premiere at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Film Festival on 20 April this year, has made it onto the big screen in only five countries so far (six if you include its appearance at this year’s UK FrightFest). So how does this movie fare against all the others?

Without deliberately invoking this blog’s favourite i-word, Voice from the Stone proves largely disappointing, and for a number of reasons. The basic premise is ideal for setting up a semi-Gothic mystery thriller, but somewhere along the way, Howell’s interpretation of Andrew Shaw’s screenplay (itself an adaptation of Silvio Raffo’s novel La Voce Della Pietra), jettisons the idea of playing the obvious mystery elements – is grief-stricken son Jakob (Dring) really hearing the voice of his dead mother, Malvina (Murino), in the walls of his Tuscan villa home? – in order to focus on the nature of grief and the (not too) dark places it can lead us to. There’s Jakob’s grief, the grief his father, Klaus (Csokas), is dealing with, and then to a lesser extent, there’s the grief that Verena (Clarke) is feeling. Verena is a nurse who tends to sick children in their homes, and each time her work is done, it becomes harder and harder to leave, such is the emotional connections she makes as part of her approach to caring for the children in her charge.

Jakob was with his mother when she died, and had stayed by her bedside almost all throughout her illness. Since then he hasn’t said a word, whether through choice (as an expression, excuse the pun, of his grief), or something more sinister. The fact that he listens to the walls, and seems to be hearing his dead mother’s voice, is excused by his father as the boy’s way of dealing with his sadness. But Verena sees it as much more dangerous to Jakob’s emotional health, and in an initially oblique way, begins to challenge his behaviour. She’s encouraged in this by Lilia (Gastoni), Malvina’s mother, who is confident that Verena can get Jakob to talk. But although Verena slowly begins to make headway in bringing Jakob out of his grief, the dynamic within the villa starts to shift around her, and she finds she can no longer trust all that she believed when she first arrived…

Annoyingly, Voice from the Stone sets itself up as a slow-paced, methodical thriller that’s big on atmosphere and rich in emotional detail. However, while it never promises startling revelations along the way, what it does do is morph ever so slowly into a static drama that can’t make much of the few dramatic incidents that the script sets up. A visit to the family mausoleum should be disquieting but avoids making an impact by having its heroine behave as if she’s seeing ghosts that aren’t there, and a potentially frightening dream sequence is undermined by the way in which it’s staged. And despite Clarke’s best efforts, the character of Verena doesn’t convey the necessary depth that would allow the viewer to care about her predicament. The same is true of Csokas’ one-minute-guarded, the next-minute-approachable reading of Klaus, a grieving husband whose personality and demeanour lacks consistency, and who occupies a kind of there-when-the-script-needs-him-to-be middle ground that keeps the character from engaging with the viewer.

Shaw’s screenplay becomes increasingly erratic the longer the movie goes on, and there are a couple of jarring shifts in the narrative, along with a dramatic development involving a piece of sculpture that Klaus is working on, that nudges the story along but so unconvincingly you might be wondering if there’s a reel missing. There’s also a “surprise” that some viewers will have spotted a mile off, and which, when it’s revealed, has all the impact of being slapped with a damp tissue. As for the mystery of the voice in the walls, the script settles for being ambiguous when it needs to be more definitive (otherwise it’s a mystery with no payoff, and how much fun are they?). And the ending, when it comes, proves just as underwhelming as what’s gone before, though it does at least avoid throwing in a cheap twist to round things off or to try and set up a potential sequel.

With Shaw’s screenplay suffering from a number of fatal flaws, matters aren’t helped by Howell’s turn in the director’s chair. Only his second feature since From Heaven to Hell in 2002 (check out its cast), Voice from the Stone soon proves itself to be a challenge that Howell, a former stuntman, isn’t able to overcome. There are too many scenes that are flat and drearily composed, and the flow of the movie is stalled time and time again by decisions made in the editing suite, decisions that stop the movie from gaining any traction when it needs to, and stop it from being anything other than a chore to sit through for much of its running time. Clarke tries her best to get a good grip on the character of Verena but is unable to because her character makes too many random, unsupported choices, while Csokas is left to fashion a performance from too few clues and too few insights. And Dring, as the silent Jakob, can only frown a lot or remain passive, something he does well, but it’s not necessarily a recommendation of his performance, rather a drawback he can’t defeat. The movie is also unattractive to watch for the most part, too often dimly lit (even the exteriors) and attempting to provide itself with some atmosphere by doing so.

Rating: 4/10 – undercooked and underwhelming, Voice from the Stone is a movie that offers little in the way of satisfactory viewing, and only occasionally rises above the mundane handling of the material; a thriller that doesn’t thrill and with a mystery that’s never solved one way or the other, this is one for Emilia Clarke completists only, or viewers willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – though it would be hard to understand why.

Bushwick (2017)

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D: Cary Murnion, Jonathan Milott / 94m

Cast: Dave Bautista, Brittany Snow, Angelic Zambrana, Jeremie Harris, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Alex Breaux, Arturo Castro

Bushwick asks the question, what would a modern day US Civil War be like? The answer is a lot like The Purge (2013), abut without that movie’s intended freakshow aesthetic or its extreme fantasy elements. Here, everybody is fair game, but not just for one night. Here, secessionists go from door to door shooting everyone on sight, and the local residents of Bushwick fight back as best they can, and without really knowing why it’s all happening. What should have been an easy takeover of the US political system has become a guerrilla-led fight to the death. But is this a fight to maintain the status quo, or is it just because you shouldn’t mess with Bushwick?

The straightforward answer is, you shouldn’t mess with Bushwick. This is shown by the way in which Lucy (Snow) transforms from being a scared college student into a gutsy, gun-toting leader of others, solving problems and taking charge and kicking ass when necessary. She’s from the area, and when we first meet her she’s just trying to get home accompanied by her boyfriend, Jose (Castro). Getting off the subway they find it’s deserted except for a man who runs through the station screaming because he’s on fire. Adopting a “let’s-not-get-involved” stance, Lucy decides it would be better if they just headed to her parents’ house. As they ascend the steps out of the subway station though, they soon become aware that something wrong is going on, a fact that’s confirmed when Jose goes to see what’s happening and is promptly killed in an explosion. Lucy tries to find her way to her grandmother’s house, but along the way she witnesses a murder and is chased into a basement dwelling by the killer and his accomplice. It’s there that she meets Stupe (Bautista), who saves her from the two men.

By the time night has fallen, and the pair have had more than their fair share of shootouts, near misses, murderous encounters, disappointments, and injuries – Stupe suffers a nasty leg wound that needs to be cauterised, Lucy loses half a finger (“Oh my God. Oh my God. What am I going to do when I get married?”) – Lucy and Stupe have switched roles, and she displays a confidence and a determination that she didn’t have when they first met. Lucy learns to survive, and to keep others around her alive, and though the experience of being thrust into the midst of a bona fide Civil War is immediately frightening, she steps up and starts to make a difference. Lucy is exactly the kind of person we’d all like to think we would be if we were in the same situation, but probably wouldn’t be (run and hide until it’s all over? Now that sounds like a plan). Watching her character arc play out over the course of the movie is one of the best things about it, and Snow portrays Lucy as credibly and persuasively as you could expect, and for the viewer, she’s someone to admire and respect.

Snow is matched by an equally intuitive and convincing performance by Bautista as an ex-US Army medic turned janitor who has a tragic back story. His is a more contained portrayal, but combined with Snow’s more emotionally expressive performance, the difference in their characters’ respective temperaments allows their growing friendship and reliance on each other to blossom naturally and without feeling forced. The script – by Nick Damici and Graham Reznick – keeps the duo at the forefront of the action, and despite a couple of occasions where plot developments stretch the movie’s otherwise carefully constructed plausibility (Lucy’s encounter with a priest is particularly jarring), following their progress to safety is handled extremely well by both the script and directing team Murnion and Milott.

Indeed it’s the way in which Murnion and Milott – making their second feature together after Cooties (2014) – handle the material that makes the movie so effective. Adopting a Steadicam approach to the photography that provides a sense of immediacy, the duo also keep much of what is happening around Stupe and Lucy at the edge of the frame or just outside it. It all adds to the sense that despite their being careful, that something could happen to them at any moment. This feeling of jeopardy is maintained throughout, and the script’s investment in them as recognisable characters adds a further sense of uncertainty that increases the tension. The directing duo also elicit good performances from the supporting cast, and with the aid of sound mixer Richard Hart and supervising sound editor Rich Bologna, they’ve constructed an aural landscape for the movie that ensures there is always something going on in the background or just out of sight (except for when Stupe reveals his tragic back story).

Wisely perhaps, the movie doesn’t attempt to provide much more of a political statement regarding its Civil War backdrop other than the secessionists having a misguided sense of patriotism, but in doing so (and you could argue this may be deliberate) a parallel can be drawn with the recent upsurge of sentiments in the US around Making America Great Again. If this is a deliberate ploy by the makers to pass comment on what could happen as a result of parts of the US electorate deciding they want to have their own government, then the movie does have an eerie prescience about it, despite common sense saying this won’t ever happen. But then, whoever thought that an actor would become President, or a black man, or a businessman who’d end up keeping Alec Baldwin in continuous work for at least four years? A good movie overall, Bushwick has more going on behind the gunfire and the street-level anarchy than is at first apparent, and this adds to its considerable effectiveness.

Rating: 7/10 – a solid, well thought out thriller with modest ambitions, most of which it achieves, Bushwick is engrossing for the most part and not always as predictable as it sounds; with very good performances from Bautista and Snow, and fine attention to detail, it’s marred only by a generic urban soundtrack by Aesop Rock, and an ending that disappoints thanks the movie’s need to be edgy and dark at a point where it doesn’t need to be at all.

mother! (2017)

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D: Darren Aronofsky / 121m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Stephen McHattie, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepo

Tucked away near the bottom left hand corner of the poster for mother! is the tagline, seeing is believing. Like much of the movie itself, it’s a phrase that’s open to interpretation, while at the same time, it can also be dismissed quite readily. If what we’re seeing is to be believed, then principal production company Protozoa Pictures have handed writer/director Darren Aronofsky $30 million in order for him to go off and make a movie that reaches for great heights but which fails to achieve those heights because somewhere along the way – and apologies for the clumsy analogy – Aronofsky forgot to bring along the ladder that would allow him to get there. It’s a brave, fearless movie, reckless even, and one that challenges its audience on many levels, not least as to whether or not they’ll like it. But it’s not the great success that some critics are avowing, and it’s not the complete disaster that others are saying of it. Instead it’s a movie that reveals a truth about artistic vision that often gets overlooked: it’s the vision of one individual, and as such, isn’t likely to be shared or appreciated by everyone.

For the most part, mother! is a religious allegory, with the main characters – mother (Lawrence), Him (Bardem), Man (Harris), and Woman (Pfeiffer) – recycling moments from the Old Testament that trade on our familiarity with them in order to help the viewer process the world they’ve been thrust into. The house where mother and Him live is a veritable Garden of Eden; beyond it is blasted ground and decaying flora. It’s an oasis that mother wants to perpetuate, and while Him is having trouble writing (he’s known also as the Poet), mother busies herself in renovating the large, spacious house they live in. But into every paradise must come discord, and soon the arrival of man, someone who appears to know Him (though how is never decided on), leads to the beginning of a great unhappiness for mother, as Him puts their guest before both Himself and mother. mother can’t understand it, and her attempts to return things to how they were before man’s arrival, all of which are unsuccessful, are further overturned by the arrival of man’s wife, woman.

If you know your Old Testament then you’ll know that the further arrival of their two sons, known as younger brother (Brian Gleeson) and oldest son (Domhnall Gleeson), will lead predictably to the movie’s first outbreak of violence. The wake that follows sees the guests take advantage of Him’s hospitality, but while Him isn’t bothered by it all, mother becomes more and more angry and annoyed, and eventually throws them all out. mother confronts Him about his willingness to embrace the love he’s shown by others, while in turn he ignores the love she has for him. Her anger sparks passion in Him and they have sex; the next morning, mother announces she’s pregnant. At that, Him’s writing block vanishes and he sets to work again with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. Time passes (though perhaps not in the same fashion as we are aware of it). mother is heavily pregnant, and Him has finished writing his first poem. mother takes steps to celebrate their good fortune, but the arrival of fans of the Poet at the house soon makes the events of the wake seem trivial in comparison…

Written (apparently) in five days, mother! sets out its stall quite early on, and builds from an intimate character piece to a cautionary tale, and finally, to a riotous excursion into the apocalypse. For all the religious allegory that litters and upholds the screenplay, as well as its occasional forays into the consequences of much sought after celebrity, when it’s brought fully into play it lacks any subtlety, and Aronofsky seems determined to batter his audience over the head with the intensity of it all. An extended sequence that sees mother battling for her home and her life provides little respite as the director of the much more polished Black Swan (2010) gives us a potted history of the world and its fall from grace, and its adoption of original sin as a mission statement for pursuing life (or should that be death?). It’s a heavy-handed though technically stunning section of the movie, but it also proves numbing, as violence is meted out at every turn and each atrocity depicted has less and less effect on the viewer. There may be a point being made here about the way in which we’ve become inured or desensitised to violence, but if there is it’s buried beneath Aronofsky’s bludgeoning approach and the combination of Matthew Libatique’s careering cinematography and Andrew Weisblum’s frenetic editing.

Whatever message Aronofsky might be trying to get across, what hampers the movie most in enabling that message to be received by audiences, is the singular lack of sympathy or empathy that the viewer could have for any of the characters. mother may seem like the most obvious choice for the viewer to connect with – after all, the camera follows her around capturing close ups of her for most of the movie – but for the most part it’s a passive role that requires Lawrence to react rather than participate, and she’s forced to shuttle through a variety of expressions that range from unpleasantly surprised to easily confused and back again. It’s a good performance from Lawrence, but somehow it’s against the odds, as if Aronofsky was more concerned with the physical surroundings of his characters – the house is like a maze of unconnected rooms and dislocated floors – rather than any interior life they might have. Bardem is equally good and in the same fashion, making two good performances that help make the movie more accessible than perhaps Aronofsky was prepared to agree to.

In the end, mother! is a movie that is likely to prove divisive for some time to come. Some will like it immensely, others will be repulsed by it (and especially by a scene that has a less literal parallel in real life). It would be wrong to claim it as a masterpiece, as there are long stretches where the pace is becalmed, and mother’s persistent inability to control what’s happening around her soon becomes increasingly frustrating to watch. It would also be wrong to claim it as a catastrophe as it’s a movie that’s striving to be ambitious on its own terms, and in that sense it is successful; it’s unlikely you’ll see another movie this year that is so uncompromising and unapologetic in the way it’s being presented. On balance then, there’s more that’s good about the movie than bad, though it’s a narrow margin that separates the two. But whatever anyone may think about its successes or failings, this is bold, visionary storytelling from a director who has made a movie that is both experimental and formal in its design, and thought-provoking for much of its demanding running time.

Rating: 6/10 – a movie that may well develop a better reputation in years to come, mother! is a frustrating, relentless, impressive, and yet reproachful assault on the senses; emotionally oblique and intellectually compromised it may be, but this is still a visually and aesthetically astounding feature that flirts with the kind of regressive ideas that other movie makers wouldn’t even begin to contemplate taking on.

The Layover (2017)

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D: William H. Macy / 88m

Cast: Kate Upton, Alexandra Daddario, Matt Barr, Matt Jones, Kal Penn, Molly Shannon, Rob Corddry

There are times when you just want to leave your brain at the door and settle down to watch something that you don’t have to concentrate on, a movie that you can watch and just sit back and have a bit of fun with. Not quite a guilty pleasure, but something that is appropriate for the easy-going mood you’re in. On the face of it, The Layover is exactly that kind of movie. But don’t be fooled, not for a second, because this movie has all the appeal of root canal work. Here are five things you need to know before even contemplating watching The Layover

1 – It was shot over six weeks in May-June 2015, and has only recently been granted a release (or you could say, it’s recently escaped).

2 – The movie features two life-long friends, Meg (Upton) and Kate (Daddario), who abandon their friendship because they both want to hump a guy (Barr) they meet on a plane (go female empowerment; no, really, just go, you’re not wanted here).

3 – Screenwriters David Hornsby and Lance Krall have never written a screenplay together before (and it could be argued they still haven’t).

4 – This is the second time that William H. Macy has directed a feature-length movie (but it’s unlikely he’ll be bragging about it).

5 – It’s not even remotely funny (no, seriously, it’s the comedy that laughs forgot).

Rating: 3/10 – a leaden, dreary, soul-destroying mess of a movie, The Layover could almost qualify as the dictionary definition of inept – if Baywatch (2017) hadn’t already claimed the title; one to file under Couldn’t Even Have Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, it’s a movie that stalls long before its lead characters even get to the airport.

Churchill (2017)

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D: Jonathan Teplitzky / 105m

Cast: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Julian Wadham, Ella Purnell, Richard Durden, James Purefoy, Danny Webb

Based on a true story. Possibly one of the worst phrases you can see appear on screen at the beginning of a movie. Based on a true story. Which means… what exactly? That the makers of the movie have taken a true story and made their own version? Well, if that’s the best definition, then the makers of Churchill have done precisely that: they’ve taken a true story, the lead-up to the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, and woven a tale that paints Winston Churchill (Cox) as a self-aggrandising blowhard, his wife Clementine (Richardson), as a dutiful yet exasperated woman who nearly comes to leave him, and puts both of them at the centre of a turgid retelling of an event that determined the course of human history.

Winston Churchill has been portrayed on screen many, many times in the past, but always as the fearless leader who guided Great Britain through World War II, and who helped bring about the demise of Hitler and the Nazis. For the British, he was a hero, a public figure they trusted and the only man who could lead the country during those terrible times. But this version of Churchill is the tortured, reluctant hero so consumed by guilt and self-doubt that he thinks it’s a great idea for both he and King George VI (Purefoy) to sail at the forefront of the Normandy landings as a sign of commitment to their troops. This is the version of Churchill who behaves like a spoilt child who can’t get his own way, who puts his own needs ahead of the needs of his country, and who isn’t above throwing a childish tantrum when his needs aren’t met. This is Churchill deconstructed and reassembled as a potential liability. Look, the movie is saying, look how close Churchill came to ruining Great Britain’s war effort.

Except, inevitably (there’s that word again, regular readers), very, very little of it is actually true. In fact, so much of Churchill is inarguably wrong that it’s hard to work out why the movie was made, and why everyone involved thought the approach taken by screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann was a good idea. The movie is a deliberate attempt to create a fictional drama out of a situation that doesn’t need to be rewritten at all; if the lead up to D-Day isn’t dramatic enough without all these fabrications, then someone is really missing the point. For UK audiences it should be even more galling. Not content with casting aspersions about Churchill’s character at a time when he was fully supportive of the aims and objectives of Operation Overlord, the production seeks to promote the idea that Winston and Clementine had an unhappy marriage, and that some kind of coup has taken place in the run up to D-Day, with General Eisenhower firmly in charge of the whole plan, and Churchill reduced to sitting belligerently on the sidelines voicing concerns he didn’t have.

In order to provide some kind of psychological grounding for Churchill’s misgivings, the script refers repeatedly to the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, which in this version he tried hard to stop (when in fact, he was very much in favour of it, and even recommended sending obsolete warships against the superior German fleet). Cue blood-tinged tides and Churchill looking sad. But it never rings true as a reason for Churchill’s behaviour within the movie itself, and despite a tremendous amount of effort by the script to convince us otherwise, it’s an argument that falls flat every time it’s mentioned. It’s as if everyone around him – including the viewer – can see the necessity of the Normandy landings, but somehow, this astute, politically and militarily aware man doesn’t get it at all. Can we really expect this to be the case, and does it make sense even within the parameters of von Tunzelmann’s alternate wartime reality?

Sadly, the answer is no, and what’s even sadder is that the movie limps along from one scene where Churchill abuses the people around him to another, and with all the dramatic flair of an episode of a reality TV show. Teplitzky offers several moments where melodrama creeps in uninvited, and others where the unlikelihood of what transpires is shocking, such as Field Marshal Montgomery (Wadham) calling Churchill a “bastard” to his face, or typist Helen Garrett (Purnell) putting a halt to Churchill’s doom and gloom predictions of untold slaughter on the Normandy beaches by mentioning her fiancé is on one of the ships taking part (this has a further, and even more unlikely payoff later when Churchill lets Helen know her fiancé is okay and that he “sends her his love” – all during the midst of the first wave of landings). All this makes Churchill an uneasy and unconvincing mix of psychological drama and wartime soap opera.

But if the level of fabrication is weirdly impressive, what is truly impressive is Cox’s portrayal of the man himself, which despite the implausibilities and repetitious nature of von Tunzelmann’s script, is an acting tour-de-force, one that magnifies the (perceived) insecurities and guilt-ridden anguish that propel Churchill on, and which saves the movie from being completely and irrevocably execrable. Cox has long wanted to play Churchill, and the wait has been worth it, even if the material itself isn’t worthy of, or a match for, his performance. He’s ably and effectively supported by Richardson who also transcends the material with her performance as the (perceived) long-suffering Clementine Churchill, the character’s exasperation at her husband’s antics something that the viewer can appreciate entirely. But two performances, even ones as good as these, can’t stop Churchill from being a facetious way to treat a story that could have been told as it happened, and far more credibly.

Rating: 3/10 – based on a true story which here means let’s make a movie that distorts the truth (which is ironic coming from the author of Reel History: The World According to the Movies), Churchill is factually inaccurate, often insipid, slackly directed, and lacks any appreciable depth for viewers to latch onto; Cox and Richardson save the movie from being a complete disaster, and there’s reason to congratulate David Higgs for his sterling cinematography, but otherwise this is one for history buffs to avoid, and for non-history buffs to take with a huge pinch of salt.

Old-Time Crime: The Rogues Tavern (1936) and Lady in the Death House (1944)

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The Rogues Tavern (1936) / D: Robert F. Hill / 70m

Cast: Wallace Ford, Barbara Pepper, Joan Woodbury, Clara Kimball Young, Jack Mulhall, John Elliott, Earl Dwire, John W. Cowell, Vincent Dennis, Arthur Loft, Ivo Henderson, Ed Cassidy, Silver Wolf

Wise-cracking detective Jimmy Kelly (Ford) is in a hurry to marry ex-store detective Marjorie Burns (Pepper), but has to cross the state line in order to do so. The pair end up at the Red Rock Tavern late one night waiting for a justice of the peace to turn up. Soon, one of the other guests, a man named Harrison (Henderson) has been killed, his throat ostensibly ripped out by a dog (Silver Wolf) that roams around the outside of the inn. When a second murder occurs, Kelly takes charge of the situation, but finds few clues to help him. A third murder, plus the arrival of another guest named Wentworth (Loft), makes things even more confusing, but it’s not long before the inn’s owner, wheelchair bound Mr Jamison (Elliott), points Jimmy in the right direction, and it becomes clear that a conspiracy is in progress and that the guests are all potential murder victims of an unknown assailant. But is that assailant someone who is already there at the inn?

There were literally hundreds (if not thousands) of murder mysteries set in old dark houses during the Thirties and Forties, and they all followed a very predictable formula: a group of people are brought together (some might know each other, most will be strangers to each other) at a remote location, soon their numbers will begin to dwindle as one by one they’re killed off, and one of the assembled guests will prove to be a detective (or amateur sleuth) who will solve the mystery in the last reel (and may even get to sock the villain on the jaw in the process). Along the way there will be the usual amount of red herrings, obvious characters who must be the villain but who will turn out to be innocent, and a leading lady acting as the hero’s annoying, always-getting-into-trouble girlfriend (or if he’s a newspaperman, then she’ll be a rival journalist trying to figure out who the murderer is before he does).

The Rogues Tavern follows that formula very carefully, with its stranded characters arguing amongst each other as the wily murderer picks them off one by one, and the screenplay – an original by Al Martin – seeks to keep the viewer guessing at every turn, and doing a pretty good job of it. The first two murders are blamed on the dog (who looks about as frightening as Lassie), but when it’s in the same room as (nearly) all the others and a third murder is committed, then it’s clear that the movie has something else up its sleeve. This is eventually revealed in the final reel, where the murderer’s identity is uncovered, they laugh maniacally while explaining their dastardly plan for everyone, and are overpowered by Kelly appearing at the last second to save the day. Before then secrets are exposed, Marjorie does her own sleuthing (which pays off), Kelly gets socked on the jaw more than once (and not by the villain), and the inn is revealed to be one big death trap.

Despite its unprepossessing scenario and overly familiar set up, the movie is a sprightly example of what could be achieved on a meagre budget. Hill – who would go on to direct Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) – refrains from using too many wide shots and keeps things tight, giving the movie an occasionally claustrophobic feel, an effect that’s helped by the camera staying close to the characters and capturing as many close ups as it can. The cast, many of whom are veterans of this type of movie, play their parts with agreeable gusto, while Ford makes for an enjoyable leading man, his easy-going demeanour and vaudeville background ensuring Kelly isn’t the genre’s usual earnest young hero. Pepper is stranded in blonde-bimboland but acquits herself well, and there’s an opportunity to see silent era star Kimball Young in a small but pivotal role that shows off the skills that, by that stage in her career, were criminally under-used.

Rating: 6/10 – despite its familiar setting and occasionally dodgy line readings, The Rogues Tavern is an entertaining old dark house mystery thriller that offers a handful of surprises to sweeten the experience; there’s comedy too amongst the thrills, and the whole thing is a delightful reminder that not every low budget, minor league thriller from the Thirties was a poor excuse for entertainment.

Lady in the Death House (1944) / D: Steve Sekely / 55m

Cast: Jean Parker, Lionel Atwill, Douglas Fowley, Marcia Mae Jones, Cy Kendall, John Maxwell, Robert Middlemass, George Irving

The tag line for Lady in the Death House says it all really: “Condemned to die…by the hand of the man I love!”, and only in a murder mystery from the Forties (oh, okay, and maybe the Fifties as well) would a scenario such as that one even exist. The movie begins with Mary Kirk Logan (Parker) on her way to the electric chair for the murder of a blackmailer. She’s just written a letter to a friend, criminal psychologist Dr Charles Finch (Atwill), who recounts both the details of the letter, and the case, to a group of journalists. We see Finch first meet struggling scientist Dwight Bradford (Fowley), and then they in turn meet Mary. Bradford and Mary soon fall in love but there’s a sticking point to their relationship: in order to make ends meet and further his research into reviving dead tissue, he has a second job as the state executioner (you can see where this is going, can’t you?). Mary won’t marry him while he’s a sanctioned killer, but before they get a chance to patch things up, Mary is sent to prison, and it’s down to Finch and Bradford, aided by Mary’s younger sister, Suzy (Jones), to prove her innocence before she’s executed.

Despite the absurdity of its romantic conundrum, Lady in the Death House is a neat, compelling little murder mystery that packs a lot into its short running time, and is far more rewarding than it has any right to be. A lot of its appeal has to do with the presence of Parker and Atwill, two actors who rarely gave disappointing performances and who should have had much bigger careers than was actually the case. Parker was a very talented actress, and it shows here as she resists the urge to make Mary’s situation one that many other actresses would have decided was ripe for unrestrained melodrama. It’s this very restraint that makes her role all the more sympathetic and credible. Atwill is at his most charming and relaxed, carrying the weight of so much exposition with an ease that most other actors would have wilted under. Like Parker, he divests his character of any melodramatic tendencies, something that for the time wasn’t the norm. When they share a scene together, it’s like a mini acting masterclass, and their performances stand out from those around them.

They’re helped immensely by Harry O. Hoyt’s focused screenplay – from a story by Frederick C. Davis – which culminates in a race against time to keep Mary alive. Bradford has a crisis of conscience along the way, but by then it’s too late for the character, who proves to be the movie’s one weak link. Fowley was a capable actor for the most part, but here he’s cruelly exposed by the constraints of a character who can’t or won’t give up his job as state executioner for the woman he loves (because the script says he can’t or won’t). Whenever it’s brought up, Fowley adopts the look of a man suffering from extreme emotional torment and remains quiet, frowning in apparent pain and wishing he was elsewhere. It’s not Fowley’s fault, but Bradford’s avoidance of the subject makes the character appear wilfully stupid.

That one issue aside though, the movie has a consistent, well developed pace that Hungarian-born director Sekely maintains through using effective cutting to provide a sense of urgency. His use of light and shadow is also much more effective than is usual for this kind of movie (see above image), and though this is a Producers Releasing Corporation production – a company more usually associated with so-called Poverty Row releases – it doesn’t look as washed out or as bland as many other movies made on such a small budget. The mystery elements are cleverly and plausibly established (even if there’s a clear miscarriage of justice at the heart of Mary’s trial that’s likely to have modern day audiences yelling at the screen), and the identity of the murderer, and their motive, is revealed in an equally acceptable and plausible way. On the whole, this is a low budget thriller that’s had a lot more attention paid to it than you’d usually expect.

Rating: 6/10 – good performances from Parker and Atwill, and confident direction from Sekely, help tremendously in keeping Lady in the Death House from becoming a pedestrian retread of every other innocent-facing-certain-death mystery movie; a largely polished exercise in small-scale thrills, it may not strike a chord with everyone, but for those who enjoy this sort of thing, there’s plenty to keep them happy.

Top 10 Actresses at the Box Office 2017

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As with the list of the Top 10 Actors at the Box Office 2017, this has been returned to its usual slot in September, thanks to a number of changes within the list itself, including a goodbye to Anne Hathaway, and some interesting jockeying for position. With only a few months left to go before 2018 potentially changes things even more, the list continues to reflect the popularity of older movies made by these actresses, and the likelihood that the top six all are here to stay indefinitely. Last year‘s list was interesting because of how many changes there were and this year is no different, making it look as if the Top 10 Actress list can provide more surprises than its male counterpart. And with many of the stars on the list appearing in some big movies in 2018, where they land up this time next year is just as open to debate as previous years.

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

10 – Sandra Bullock / HGM: Minions (2015) – $1,159,398,397

Down two places from last year, Bullock has been quiet of late, and at the moment has only Ocean’s Eight next year ready to hit our screens. It’s too early to tell if this female-centric reboot will attract audiences in the same way that Steven Soderbergh’s own reboot/remake did, but if it doesn’t, then there’s a good possibility that Bullock will be off the list next year and back to the fringes.

9 – Jennifer Lawrence / HGM: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) – $865,011,746

Up one place from last year, Lawrence has had a patchy couple of years recently, but though Passengers (2016) made over $300 million, her place on the list is just as liable to be taken over by someone else as it is to be retained. Watch this space then, because Lawrence’s upcoming slate of releases consists of just three movies, one of which is the not-exactly-wanted-right-now X-Men: Dark Phoenix, due next year. If she’s to stay on the list, that movie needs to be more like X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and less like X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).

8 – Zoe Saldana / HGM: Avatar (2009) – $2,787,965,087

The newbie on the list, Saldana arrives thanks to her involvement in not only Avatar (and just think where she could be in a few years’ time if that movie’s sequels are anywhere near as successful as James Cameron hopes they’ll be), but also through her work for Marvel, and to a lesser extent, her thankless role in the latest Star Trek franchise. It’s as much a certainty as you could get that she’ll be on this list now for quite some time to come. The only question is: how far will she go?

7 – Julia Roberts / HGM: Pretty Woman (1990) – $463,406,268

Dropping two places a la Bullock, Roberts keeps a firm grip on her place in the Top 10, but with her workload getting lighter and lighter – just one TV episode lined up for 2018 at the moment – and with everyone immediately around her appearing in movies that have the potential to bring in blockbuster-sized returns, her place on the list isn’t quite as assured as it has been since it started back in 2014. It would be a shame too, as she’s the only person on either list whose HGM earned less than $500 million.

6 – Cate Blanchett / HGM: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – $1,119,929,521

Also dropping two places (is this a theme?), Blanchett is unlikely to be any lower on next year’s list thanks to her upcoming appearances in the eagerly awaited Thor: Ragnarok later this year, and that Ocean’s Eight reboot. There’s also the (hopefully less than) small matter of Andy Serkis’s version of The Jungle Book in which she plays Kaa. She may even bound back up a place in the process. But a mid-place position seems to be where she’ll remain whatever happens.

5 – Elizabeth Banks / HGM: Spider-Man 3 (2007) – $890,871,626

Roberts and Blanchett’s misfortune is Banks’s gain as she moves up one place from last year, and does so thanks to her appearance in the moderately successful Power Rangers. However, with only her supporting role in Pitch Perfect 3 (this year’s most dubious Xmas present), and high concept The Happytime Murders along with her directorial turn on the Charlie’s Angels reboot keeping her occupied, Banks’ rise up the list may come to a halt, or even a decline, a lot sooner than expected.

4 – Helena Bonham Carter / HGM: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – $1,341,511,219

Bonham Carter slips one place to four (she’s never been lower), and retains her position in the top five despite making a number of low profile, barely-registered-at-the-box-office movies in the last few years. She too is in Ocean’s Eight, and so it’s likely she’ll remain in the top five, but with little else on the horizon, there’s equally a chance that she’ll be even further down the list come next September. If there’s one actress on the list who it’s hard to determine if they’ll suffer or not in the rankings, Bonham Carter is that actress.

3 – Cameron Diaz / HGM: Shrek 2 (2004) – $919,838,758

Diaz’s top three place on the list is all the more astonishing due to the fact that she hasn’t made a movie since the ill-advised remake of Annie in 2014. Since then, Diaz hasn’t been attached to a single project and appears to be in some kind of semi-retirement, seemingly content to write self-help books instead. Whatever the future may bring, it’s still unlikely that she’ll slip from the list altogether, but her tenure in the top three – unassailable until now – may not last too much longer.

2 – Emma Watson / HGM: Beauty and the Beast (2017) – $1,262,852,042

A leap of five places from last year’s number seven spot sees Watson challenging hard for the number one spot, but even though Beauty and the Beast will keep her near the top for some time to come – probably – she is currently on something of a sabbatical, with no projects currently lined up in the near future. This may see her drop a place or two next year, but again, like so many others on the list, suffering that kind of result in future years won’t necessarily mean au revoir but à bientôt instead.

1 – Scarlett Johansson / HGM: The Avengers (2012) – $1,518,812,988

Perhaps an inevitable outcome, Johansson retains the top spot she grabbed last year, and like her Marvel co-star Samuel L. Jackson on the Top 10 Actors list, looks set to stay where she is for quite some time to come. Beyond Avengers: Infinity War there’s nothing else lined up for her (not even a Black Widow solo movie – surprise, surprise), but it won’t matter a bit; Johansson is here to stay and no one else can touch her.

Top 10 Actors at the Box Office 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

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D: Matthew Vaughn / 141m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The African Doctor (2016)

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Original title: Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont

D: Julien Rambaldi / 96m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hippopotamus (2017)

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D: John Jencks / 89m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Girl Like Her (2015)

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D: Amy S. Weber / 91m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 – Straight Time (1978)

2 – Wise Blood (1979)

3 – Alien (1979)

4 – Escape from New York (1981)

5 – Repo Man (1984)

6 – Paris, Texas (1984)

7 – Wild at Heart (1990)

8 – The Mighty (1998)

9 – Sonny (2002)

10 – INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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D: Juan Carlos Medina / 109m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It (2017)

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D: Andy Muschietti / 135m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wind River (2017)

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D: Taylor Sheridan / 107m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Logan Lucky (2017)

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D: Steven Soderbergh / 118m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gun Shy (2017)

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Original title: Salty

D: Simon West / 91m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain Men (2014)

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D: Cameron Labine / 89m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contratiempo (2016)

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aka The Invisible Guest

D: Oriol Paulo / 106m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Prey (2014)

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D: Brian O’Malley / 95m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017)

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D: Brian Knappenberger / 95m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Made (2017)

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D: Doug Liman / 115m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Evil (2017)

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D: Eli Craig / 95m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dish (2000)

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D: Rob Sitch / 101m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monthly Roundup – August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrator: Colm Meaney

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

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

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

Original title: Ataúd Blanco: El Juego Diabólico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original title: Deux hommes dans Manhattan

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

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

The BFG (2016)

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D: Steven Spielberg / 117m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detroit (2017)

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D: Kathryn Bigelow / 143m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

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D: Patrick Hughes / 118m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hotel Salvation (2016)

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Original title: Mukti Bhawan

D: Shubhashish Bhutiani / 99m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Reasons to Remember Tobe Hooper (1943-2017)

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Tobe Hooper (25 January 1943 – 26 August 2017)

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

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

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

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

1 – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

2 – Death Trap (1976)

3 – Salem’s Lot (1979)

4 – The Funhouse (1981)

5 – Poltergeist (1982)

6 – Lifeforce (1985)

7 – Invaders from Mars (1986)

8 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

9 – Crocodile (2000)

10 – Toolbox Murders (2004)

Rings (2017)

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D: F. Javier Gutiérrez / 102m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appropriate Behavior (2014)

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D: Desiree Akhavan / 86m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Circle (2017)

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D: James Ponsoldt / 110m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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