A Brief Word About Toto

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The Wizard of Oz. It’s a classic, one of the most beloved family movies of all time. It’s a movie that has stood the test of time, generations and cultural developments. As it nears its eightieth birthday, let’s try and forget the various much-needed (not) movies that have followed in its wake. You know, movies such as Return to Oz (1985), or Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), or The Wiz (1978), and the dozens of animated variations we’ve had as well. But all of these movies have had something missing, an approach that would have guaranteed their success and allowed them to have a place in our collective hearts that the 1939 version continues to have right up until now. And that something is: the story told through the perspective of Dorothy’s dog, Toto (sorry for the unalloyed sarcasm).

Well, now we won’t have to wait too long. In a bold move that will have everyone clapping with joy (apologies for the continued sarcasm), Warner Bros. have snapped up the rights to Michael Morpurgo’s book, Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz, and put it into pre-production. And because Disney shouldn’t be the only ones to put words in the mouths of some of their favourite animal characters, Toto will have a voice. Yes, as if a talking scarecrow, tinman, and cowardly lion aren’t enough, now a Cairn terrier will have a speaking role as well. And while it’s still way too early to judge a movie that hasn’t even gone before the cameras yet, does this really sound like a great idea? Answers on that proverbial postcard…

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Entebbe (2018)

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aka 7 Days in Entebbe

D: José Padilha / 107m

Cast: Daniel Brühl, Rosamund Pike, Eddie Marsan, Lior Ashkenazi, Denis Ménochet, Nonso Anozie, Ben Schnetzer, Mark Ivanir, Angel Bonnani, Zina Zinchenko, Amir Khoury

On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked following a stopover in Athens. The hijackers – two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations, and two members of the German Revolutionary Cells (Brühl, Pike) – diverted the flight to Benghazi in Libya for re-fueling before heading to their planned destination of Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Once there, the passengers and crew were herded into the transit hall of an out-of-use terminal, where eventually, the Jewish passengers were separated from the rest. With the hijackers and their associates on the ground in Entebbe receiving support from Ugandan leader Idi Amin (Anozie), they made their demands to the Israeli government, then led by Itzhak Rabin (Ashkenazi): $5 million for the release of the plane, and the release of fifty-three Palestinian and Pro-Palestinian militants. With Israel having a no negotiation with terrorists policy, they made it seem that they were willing to break with their standard protocol, but while the hijackers began to feel that their mission was going to succeed, the Israelis actually had other plans…

With three previous movies about the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 already released, and all of them within a year of the actual event, the first question to ask about Entebbe is, why now? (A second might be, and does it retain any relevance?) The answer to the first question remains unclear, as the movie, freely adapted by Gregory Burke from the book Operation Thunderbolt (2015) by Saul David, has a tendency to flirt with the truth for dramatic purposes, and in doing so, it manages to dampen the drama by lacking the necessary focus to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The second question is easier to answer: it doesn’t, and for much the same reason as the answer to the first question. With the script trying to cover too many bases – the hijackers, the Israeli government, the hostages, Idi Amin’s need for personal aggrandisement, the raid that ended the whole thing, and a dancer taking part in a performance of the traditional Jewish song Echad Mi Yodea – the movie never settles on any one aspect for long, and never maintains a sense of the terror and danger that the hostages must have experienced.

It’s a curiously bland affair, with plenty of gun-waving by Pike, but more navel-gazing from Brühl than is necessary, and lots of scenes where the enormity of the situation is trotted out for any slow-off-the-mark viewers – and with increasing emphasis. Most of the characters are forgettable, even the hijackers, as they’re treated more as functioning stereotypes than real people who existed in a real environment and experienced real emotions (much of this by the book). Pike’s angry revolutionary pops a lot of pills but we never learn the reason why, while Brühl’s softly softly bookseller seems out of place entirely. Ashkenazi is a tortured Rabin, Méncohet is the flight engineer who’s scared of no one, and Schnetzer gets his own journey as one of the Israeli commandos who take part in the raid (though why we need his journey is another question the script can’t answer). Only the ever-reliable Marsan, as hawkish Israeli Minister of Defence Shimon Peres, delivers a credible performance, and that’s against the odds, as Burke’s script and Padilha’s direction continually combine to undermine the cast in their efforts. Worst of all though, is the raid itself. After all the build-up, and all the foreshadowing, it’s shot using techniques and a style that wouldn’t have looked out of place in any of the movies made back in the wake of the hijacking.

Rating: 5/10 – handled with a dull reluctance to make it the thriller it should be, Entebbe lacks energy, pace, and any conviction in the way that it tells its story; fascinating only for the way in which it does a disservice to the event itself, it’s a movie that wastes so many opportunities, it’s as if the material itself has been hijacked – but no one told the producers.

Last Seen in Idaho (2018)

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D: Eric Colley / 109m

Cast: Hallie Shepherd, Wes Ramsey, Shawn Christian, Casper Van Dien, Alexis Monnie, Ted Rooney, Richard Carmen, Eric Colley

When Summer (Shepherd) discovers that her boss, Dex (Colley), is knee-deep in murder and corruption, she does so through finding two bodies brought to him by local crime boss, Lance (Christian), for disposal. When matters worsen, and Lance kills another of Dex’s employees at the same time, Summer – who has captured the murder on her phone – makes a run for it. She gets to her car but loses control trying to get away; she’s thrown clear and her car blows up. When Summer wakes in the hospital, it’s to learn that she has no memory of anything that happened immediately before the crash, that she was dead for five minutes, and that she has begun to be plagued by strange visions that show her events that haven’t happened, including her death. While Lance and his gang wait for a sign that Summer is beginning to remember what happened, she begins to realise that these visions are actually premonitions. Forced to confront the very real possibility that she could soon be dead, Summer tries to piece together the reasons why someone would want her killed…

Written by its star – who also serves as producer and co-editor with Colley – Last Seen in Idaho is a moderately entertaining, but uneven mix of female-centric crime thriller and elaborate mystery drama. There’s a reason the movie runs a hundred and forty-nine minutes, and it’s because Shepherd doesn’t know how to trim a scene – either on the page or in the editing suite. This leads to several moments where the material feels like it’s been stretched too thinly, and certain scenes lack the energy or pace required to keep them interesting. The opening scenes between Summer and her sister, Trina (Monnie), are padded out, and the dialogue soon becomes repetitive, and there are lots of other scenes where some judicious pruning would have been advisable, while in others there are narrative leaps that go unexplained or barely acknowledged. Shepherd is to be congratulated on writing a script that she’s managed to get made (as well as star in, produce, and co-edit), but the services of a script editor during the production’s early stages would have been a major benefit. That said, Shepherd does use Summer’s premonitions to wrong foot the audience from time to time, and the structure itself is sound, but too much feels either extended (for no reason) or superficial.

This being a movie made on a relatively small budget, there are further limitations that harm the movie and make it unintentionally awkward, from the very sudden flip and burn of Summer’s car, to a rooftop conversation between Summer and love interest-cum-possible bad guy, Franco (Ramsey), that is so poorly lit that the background looks false. It does win points for having a strong female central lead, but then wastes that advantage by having the only other notable female role portrayed as a spoilt brat throughout, and by including an unnecessary and uncomfortably misogynistic scene where Van Dien’s callous assassin sexually assaults the girlfriend of one of the gang members. It’s this unevenness of tone and approach that ultimately stops the movie from making any headway or proving sufficiently entertaining except on a basic level. There’s ambition here, certainly, but Shepherd isn’t as good a writer as she needs to be, while Colley’s direction is flat and uninspired, and the performances all appear to operate independently of each other. It all ends in a violent, slightly cartoonish showdown that raises as many laughs as it does gasps of excitement, but is at least, one of the few times when the movie manages to elicit more than a polite reaction from the viewer.

Rating: 4/10 – many’s the time a movie could have been improved by its makers simply taking their time in assembling their picture, and paying close attention to all the working parts, but with Last Seen in Idaho, that hasn’t happened; rough and ready  as a finished item, it’s a movie with plenty of ambition, but without the wherewithal to achieve – or come close to – that ambition, making it yet another movie to be filed under Missed Opportunity.

Hannah (2017)

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D: Andrea Pallaoro / 93m

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, André Wilms, Stéphanie Van Vyve, Simon Bisschop, Fatou Traoré, Julien Vargas, Gaspard Savini

Hannah (Rampling) is a quiet woman, not given to speaking much, and not given to engaging with people unless it’s the woman whose house she cleans, Elaine (Van Vyve), or Elaine’s blind son, Nicholas (Bisschop). Her usual reticence has been exacerbated though, by the imminent imprisonment of her husband (Wilms). She’s a dutiful wife who stands by him, even though his crime appears to be of a predatory sexual nature. Once he begins his prison sentence, Hannah becomes even more withdrawn, with only her cleaning job and an acting group that she attends regularly, to break up the monotony of being alone at home. There are further setbacks: her membership at the local baths is revoked, she’s turned away from her grandson’s birthday party, and she makes a discovery at home that has a profound effect on her relationship with her husband. Hannah tries to get her life back in order, but it’s increasingly difficult, and as she negotiates the new terrain of her life, letting go of the past proves more of a struggle than she could ever have expected…

From the start, Hannah is a movie that is likely to divide audiences. For those looking for more mainstream fare, Hannah will be a challenge that may find them abandoning the movie part way through, while those looking for arthouse fare that explores the “human condition”, this will be an unalloyed pleasure. Replete with takes and scenes that depict Hannah either staring glumly off into the distance, or staring glumly into the foreground, or even staring glumly while in repose, Andrea Pallaoro’s ultra-leisurely depiction of one lonely woman’s faltering attempts at personal rehabilitation is easily the kind of movie that will have some viewers asking themselves, “when is something going to happen?” But as the phrase has it, the devil is in the details, and while at first glance Hannah’s life is full of small, inconsequential moments, it’s precisely these moments and their gradual accumulation that carry an unexpected emotional heft. Hannah may be occupying a world that only she has access to, but it’s a world that is keeping her afloat following her husband’s incarceration. Here there aren’t any sudden life-changing decisions that solve all her problems overnight (as might happen in more mainstream fare), just a number of hesitant steps toward a newer, better life.

It helps that Pallaoro has enlisted the aid of Charlotte Rampling to tell Hannah’s story. Rampling is one of the few actresses who can display a range of emotions with just a glance, and here she’s on magnificent form, giving a performance that gets to the heart of Hannah’s predicament. Behind that seemingly passive face, with its mouth permanently turned down (when she does smile it’s misinterpreted), Rampling perfectly captures the hopes and fears and muted dreams and feelings that Hannah struggles to express, even to herself. We learn nothing of Hannah’s back story, never find out what she was like before her husband’s crime turned everything upside down (or even if it did), but Rampling shows us a woman seemingly trying to reconnect with herself as well as the wider world. There’s a scene towards the end with a beached whale that Hannah feels compelled to go and see, and though the symbolism is clumsy in a movie that is otherwise compellingly subtle, it’s a moment of hope for Hannah. The only question that remains – and it’s one that Pallaoro is rightly uninterested in answering – is whether or not Hannah can take this newfound hope and use it to push herself forward to where she needs to be. But that’s a tale for another movie…

Rating: 8/10 – not for all tastes, but intriguing and fascinating nevertheless for the way it paints a portrait of personal reclamation through the accumulated minutiae of daily endeavour, Hannah is an affecting drama with far more to say than at first glance; Pallaoro keeps the focus on Rampling throughout, a decision that allows his story to be given the fullest expression possible, and which allows the patient viewer to become heavily invested in its troubled central character.

Bees Make Honey (2017)

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D: Jack Eve / 85m

Cast: Alice Eve, Wilf Scolding, Joshua McGuire, Anatole Taubman, Trevor Eve, Hermione Corfield, Ivanno Jeremiah, Joséphine de La Baume

It’s Halloween 1934, and glamorous socialite Honey (Eve) is hosting her annual Halloween costume party. But this year’s event is tinged with bitterness and revenge, for on the same night the year before, Honey’s husband was killed, and the killer never caught. Tonight, Honey has invited everyone who was there the year before on the assumption that one of her guests was the murderer. Enlisting the help of newly appointed police Inspector Shoerope (Scolding), Honey is determined to uncover the killer’s identity, and see justice done. With the party well under way, Shoerope begins his investigation and soon finds that there a number of possible suspects, from local real estate broker Mr Conick (McGuire), to German businessman Herr Werner (Taubman), and even Shoerope’s own Commissioner (Eve). Matters are further complicated when it’s suggested by one of the guests that Honey isn’t being as honest with Shoerope as she seems, raising the possibility that his investigation is a means to a far different end than justice. But as the evening continues, various clues fall into place, and Shoerope discovers that there’s more to the murder of Honey’s husband than either of them could have imagined…

Something of a family affair – Alice and Jack Eve are siblings, while Trevor Eve is their father – Bees Make Honey is a period murder mystery comedy-drama that flirts with a lot of ideas as to how to present its story visually, and then decides to include them all. And so we have a movie that throws in all manner of cinematic trickery as if someone has opened a Pandora’s Box of visual effects (leaving Hope cowering at the bottom). When a movie is this visually erratic, it’s too often a sign that the material isn’t as lively as the makers have intended, and for long stretches, this is the case with Jack Eve’s honest yet overwrought pastiche of Thirties drawing room mysteries. A huge – and this is no understatement – part of the problem is the dialogue, which is meant to be clever and dazzlingly erudite, but which causes further problems for many of the cast, lumbered as they are with lines such as, “But one can never repeat the past with complete sincerity. There’s is always the possibility, if not inevitability, of a fleeting fancy throwing a spanner in the works.”

There’s also an anachronistic use of music, with the likes of The Libertines’ What a Waster, and The Clash’s Lover’s Rock littering the soundtrack as literal counterpoints to the action, but all these incidences do is to jar the viewer out of whatever temporary mood the material has just got them into. With such a lack of focus, it’s a shame also that any mystery is undermined by a massive visual clue given away when the murder is committed at the movie’s beginning. These and other directorial decisions made by Eve make the movie a stop-start affair that never really gels or fully entertains as the high-spirited romp it could (and should) have been, and viewers may find themselves hitting the fast-forward button more than they’d like. The cast are game, however, and muddle through in support of their director, though Trevor Eve is clearly having fun with a role he wouldn’t normally be asked to play. By the end, a kind of weary acceptance sets in, allied to the knowledge that the movie isn’t going to raise its game any higher. There’s a good idea in there somewhere, but this sort of murder mystery has been done too often before, and to much better effect.

Rating: 4/10 – when a movie tries to make an apple-bobbing competition one of its highlights, you know there’s a problem, and in this respect, it’s one of many that hamper Bees Make Honey from being a success;  one to approach with caution, it’s a movie that never settles on a through line, or maintains a consistent tone – unless not maintaining one was the original idea.

Two for the Kids: Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism (2015) and Curse of Cactus Jack (2017)

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Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism (2015) / D: Christopher N. Rowley / 98m

Cast: Raffey Cassidy, Lesley Manville, Emily Watson, Dominic Monaghan, Celia Imrie, Joan Collins, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Miller, Sadie Frost, Omid Djalili, Gary Kemp, Jadon Carnelly Morris, Tallulah Evans, Tom Wisdom

Hardwick House is an orphanage that’s run on a tight rein by its headmistress, Miss Adderstone (Manville). Sour and unlikeable, and disliking the children in her care, she has to contend with Molly Moon (Cassidy), a constant thorn in her side, and someone for whom getting into mischief – deliberately or not – seems to be a way of life. When Molly discovers a book on hypnotism at the local library, she uses it to begin making life at the orphanage that much better. But she’s drawn toward living a better life far away, and travels to London, where she tricks her way into replacing incredibly famous Davina Nuttel (Evans) as the star du jour. But she’s being pursued by would-be arch-criminal Nockman (Monaghan), who wants to use the book as a means toward robbing a diamond house. Will Molly thwart Nockman’s plans, and in the process, will she abandon her friends at Hardwick House altogether…?

Based on the 2002 novel by Georgia Byng, Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism is a lightweight adaptation that hits its marks with all the energy and bounce of a movie that knows it’s not quite going to measure up in the entertainment department. This is despite a plethora of generous acting performances by a talented cast who all know what’s required of them, and a script that doesn’t skimp on making it seem as if being an orphan isn’t really that bad. Molly’s adventures in London – becoming a mega-star overnight, saving a friend, Rocky (Carnelly Morris), from the perils of middle class adoptive parents, and foiling Nockman’s plans – are played out in a day-glo fantasy world of crude ambition and guilt-free wish fulfilment. That it stays just on the right side of amiable and is even (whisper it) enjoyable for the most part, is a tribute to the invested cast and director Rowley’s simplistic approach to the material. It lacks depth – something that’s not unusual in these circumstances – and avoids presenting its target audience with anything that might be recognised as real life. But this is part of its charm, and though it relies heavily on adult caricature and Molly’s authority-defying behaviour, it’s pleasant enough, and at times, funny in a way that children will enjoy far more than the grown ups.

Rating: 6/10 – targeting its intended audience with almost laser precision, Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism will amuse and entertain those of a pre-teen persuasion, but older viewers won’t be so impressed; a great cast helps the script overcome some serious narrative hurdles, and the whole thing breezes along like a modern day fairy tale – just with manufactured magic.

 

Curse of Cactus Jack (2017) / D: Craig McMahon / 82m

Cast: Billy Kitchen, Katie Kitchen, Mitch Etter, Aaron Seever, Julie Van Lith, Glen Gold

Billy and Katie live with their parents (Seever, Van Lith) and their grandfather (Etter). When their mum and dad aren’t paying attention – which is often – their grandfather regales them with tales of the Old West, and in particular, the legend of Cactus Jack, a gold prospector who found what was said to be the most lucrative gold mine of all. Fearful of his find being taken away from him, Jack never revealed the location of his mine, though he left behind a bunch of keys and a map with cryptic clues as to its whereabouts. Now in their grandfather’s possession, he hands them over to Billy and Katie. The next day, while their parents are at work, Billy and Katie determine to find the mine and Cactus Jack’s long-hidden horde. Using the map and its clues, they realise that the mine is near to where they live (conveniently), and soon find an entrance that leads them into the mine and the first of many obstacles put in place by Cactus Jack. Risking their lives, they venture further and further into the mine, and discover the reason why the mine is known as the curse of Cactus Jack…

A tightly budgeted adventure movie for kids, Curse of Cactus Jack is an Indiana Jones-style feature that pits its intrepid siblings against a variety of deadly obstacles, but makes itself somewhat redundant in terms of actual peril thanks to the script’s decision to make almost every snag and hindrance solvable through the use of one of the keys (conveniently) left behind by Cactus Jack. This might hamper the effectiveness of the narrative, but it’s ultimately of little consequence thanks to the casting of real life siblings Billy and Katie Kitchen. The pair are most definitely a team, supportive of each other (though Billy does get to mention that he’s “been a great brother” a little too often to avoid sounding as if he’s crowing about it), and on the same page throughout. There’s no sibling rivalry here, no bickering or complaining, and while it fits with the overall blandness of their characters, it’s refreshing to see them just getting on with it all. Against this, mum and dad are the parental equivalent of Bobble Heads, grandpa speaks as if he’s just stepped out of the Old West himself, and there’s a supernatural element that sits uncomfortably amongst proceedings as if the story really needed it (it doesn’t), but this is a pleasant enough diversion, and its target audience will most likely be pleased to see two pre-teens being so proactive and capable.

Rating: 6/10 – something of a one-man show – director McMahon is also the co-writer, co-producer, cinematographer, editor, and post-production supervisor – Curse of Cactus Jack is amiable and inoffensive, but also enjoyable for being a basic, no frills kids’ adventure movie; first-timers the Kitchens are acceptable as the movie’s protagonists, but if there’s one character that steals every scene he’s in, it’s Scooter Bear – now let’s see him get his own movie.

The Forest of Lost Souls (2017)

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Original title: A Floresta das Almas Perdidas

aka The Forest of the Lost Souls

D: José Pedro Lopes / 71m

Cast: Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, Lígia Roque, Tiago Jácome, Lília Lopes

A young woman (Lopes) travels to a remote area of forest that’s a favourite destination for people looking to commit suicide. She comes to a lake and takes a dose of poison. Wading out into the water she waits for the poison to take effect. When it does she collapses into the water. Some time later, an old man, Ricardo (Mota), also comes to the forest. There he meets a young woman, Carolina (Love); both are there (ostensibly) for the same reason: to take their own lives. Ricardo is there because he believes himself to be a failure as a father and a husband. Carolina is fearful of getting old and suffering the ill effects that old age brings. They venture deeper into the forest, and talk about their reasons for being there, and the lies they’ve told in order to be there without raising any suspicions amongst their friends and families. When Ricardo asks Carolina if she knows where the lake is, it leads to a turn of events that suggests their meeting wasn’t entirely accidental…

The first feature from writer/producer/director Lopes, The Forest of Lost Souls is a darkly disturbing psychological horror movie that spins its own version of Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, and in doing so depicts an unexpectedly grim portrait of extreme personal need. The poster sadly gives away something of the dynamic between Carolina and Ricardo, and acts as a warning as to where the movie is heading once they meet, but even with that marketing mis-step, Lopes does more than enough with his stripped back narrative to ensure that viewers will be wondering if Carolina’s “secret” will be matched or exceeded by Ricardo’s. As they challenge each other’s views and feelings on the mistakes they’ve made that have led them there, the pair spar in ways that hint at deeper motivations lurking beneath the pain that Ricardo is experiencing, and the jaunty cockiness that Carolina expresses (it’s not her first time in the forest, and she’s quick to point out the pros and cons of committing suicide if you’re not fully prepared to die). As they venture nearer to the lake, and a friendship of sorts develops between them, Lopes adroitly holds back from revealing which one of them might leave the forest alive. And then…

Well, and then the movie takes a left turn into vastly different, and yet completely related territory (there are hints of this in the trailer, but thankfully they’re not too blatant). Leaving behind the solitary, isolated forest with its occasionally discovered corpses, Lopes takes the movie and one of its two central characters off in a new direction, and cleverly links past and present through the use of a mobile phone and a sense of dread that’s borne out of knowing what must come next. As Lopes allows these scenes to play out in an unsettling and matter-of-fact manner, there’s the temptation to feel that this new direction is an unnecessary transition from the realm of psychological horror into more predictable slasher territory, but Lopes has a further trick up his sleeve, and connects the two halves of his movie with a coda that explains a great deal of what’s happened, and which does so in a way that wraps things up neatly and with a great deal of confidence and skill. It’s all enhanced by Francisco Lobo’s often beautiful widescreen compositions, with their sense of space and detachment, and the characters seemingly lost amidst the wider, wilder landscape.

Rating: 8/10 – for once, a movie’s brevity is a positive, as The Forest of Lost Souls and its deliberate pacing provide rich dividends for the viewer prepared to see it to the end; brutal in places but not gratuitously so, it’s a movie that is spare and unflinching when it needs to be, and is possibly the only psychological horror outing to name drop Nick Hornby not once but twice.

There’s Always Woodstock (2014)

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aka Always Woodstock

D: Rita Merson / 97m

Cast: Allison Miller, James Wolk, Anna Anissimova, Jason Ritter, Rumer Willis, Katey Sagal, Finesse Mitchell, Richard Reid, Richard Riehle, Brittany Snow

For Catherine Brown (Miller), life means just chugging along. She has a self-absorbed actor boyfriend, Garrett (Ritter), a mid-level job at a record company, Abundant Records, that her best friend Ryan (Anissimova) got her, and a stifled ambition to be a singer/songwriter. She’s just getting by. But when she loses her job and discovers Garrett is having an affair – all on the same day – it triggers a tailspin that lasts for a week before Ryan stages an intervention. Faced with starting afresh, Catherine decides it’s time to go home, to Woodstock, where she grew up. There she meets local doctor, Noah Bernstein (Wolk), with whom she shares an instant attraction, and begins to work on her songs. Aided by new friend, Emily (Willis), and local singer Lee Ann (Sagal), Catherine begins to find her feet, but when a song of hers comes to the attention of her ex-bosses at Abundant Records – and Garrett shows up in her life again – her old life clashes with her new life, and causes even more problems than before…

Before settling down to watch There’s Always Woodstock, another caveat needs to be borne in mind: There’s Always the Stop Button. The first feature from writer/director Rita Merson, the movie is an ill-formed and poorly structured romantic comedy drama (with music) that does a disservice to each of its thematic components, and which asks its cast to behave in some very odd ways indeed. It’s the kind of romantic comedy with added moments of drama that has the ability to put people off from watching other romantic comedies with added moments of drama. It’s a bad movie made with good intentions, but a bad movie nevertheless. Nothing in it makes any kind of sense, from the opening scene where Garrett cries like a grossly affected man-child after he and Catherine have ludicrous looking sex, to the scene where Catherine and Ryan have their first argument and which sees Ryan ask Catherine if she’s “a mental” before Catherine tells Ryan, “I hate your baby” (Ryan has just revealed she’s pregnant). There’s much else besides, with moments where Catherine behaves like a spoilt child and does her best to antagonise everyone around her with her selfish motivations and crass insensitivity. That anyone in Woodstock likes her, especially for herself, is a miracle only the script could have come up with.

The characters and the situations they find themselves in lend themselves to absurdity at almost every turn, and even when the movie does try to be serious, it’s to offer the kind of cookie-cutter wisdom that has been done a thousand times before in other, better movies. The comedy is strained and relies heavily on Miller looking bewildered or anxious or a combination of both, while the romance is bland and insipid, something which isn’t helped by Wolk’s grin-happy, what-am-I-doing-here? performance. As for the songs – a collection of subdued observations on failed or failing relationships – these at least are bearable, and offer some relief from the reluctance to be fully engaging that the movie promulgates the rest of the time. Miller is left high and dry by the script’s demands on her character, while the likes of Willis, Sagal and Anissimova pop up every now and then, contribute some lines, and then fade into the background again. It’s indicative of the problems that plague a movie when none of the supporting characters make much of an impact, and the heroine is an infuriating nitwit who has to be force fed positive life lessons in order to achieve anything.

Rating: 3/10 – with its stock characters trapped in a mildly diverting storyline, and no real attempt being made to make Catherine even remotely likeable or sympathetic, There’s Always Woodstock is a disaster as a romantic comedy with added moments of drama; with a bland visual style as well, and Merson’s clumsy hand at the tiller, this is tonally uneven, dramatically banal, and undeniably terrible.

A Brief Word About The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter (2018)

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Josh Brolin has been doing the interview circuit for what seems like an age since the release of Deadpool 2 earlier this year. And in pretty much every sit down with every reporter and journalist he’s taken part in, he’s been congratulated on his work on that movie and two others, Avengers: Infinity War, and Sicario 2: Soldado. And yes, that’s an impressive trio of movies to have released within a short space of time. Funny then, how no one has mentioned The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter (now showing on Netflix). Now why would that be exactly…?

King of Peking (2017)

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D: Sam Voutas / 88m

Cast: Zhao Jun, Wang Naixun, Han Qing, Si Chao, Geng Bowen, Yi Long, Zhou Min, Cao Maishun, Feng Lishan, Fan Chengxin, Qin Yi, Zheng Zhongli

The Wongs – father Big Wong (Zhao) and young son Little Wong (Wang) – make something of a living showing old movies to whomever they can attract. Travelling round with an old, rickety projector and a large white sheet, they advertise the latest action romance Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s never the case (one punter says he’s already got one of their movies on DVD). When the projector catches fire at a showing, the Wongs’ livelihood seems over. Further troubles come in the form of Little Wong’s mother (from whom Big Wong is divorced), who wants monthly alimony payments that just aren’t affordable. There’s something of a custody battle going on as well, which Big Wong is on the verge of losing if he continues to exploit his son (who shouldn’t be working with him). Big Wong, despite being an experienced projectionist, can only get a job as the janitor at a local cinema. The money isn’t enough – until one day, Big Wong hits on the idea of copying the movies shown at the cinema onto DVD and selling them, a development that causes the beginning of a rift between him and his son…

An unlikely storyline for a movie perhaps – our heroes make pirate copies of Hollywood movies, and are sympathetic throughout – King of Peking isn’t so much about the issues of piracy and blatant copyright infringement (or what effects it may or may not have on Hollywood’s bottom line), but on the relationship between a selfish yet determined father who wants to do his best for his son, even if the means are inherently compromised, and a son who slowly begins to realise that those same means benefit his father more than himself. The inevitable rift that develops between them is handled with a sincerity, and a salutary nature, that is made all the more credible by the ways in which the script – by writer/director Voutas – keeps the viewer on both characters’ side, and allows us to understand the motivations of each. Big Wong is always looking to get ahead, and recognises that his son is a big part of being successful; he knows how valuable the boy is in making their fortune. Sadly, that’s all he sees, and not the disappointment Little Wong experiences at being his father’s junior partner, and not his son.

With the story being told as an extended flashback – a narrator guides us through events that take place in Beijing in the Nineties – the movie has a nostalgic feel to it that is augmented by the Wongs’ small-scale though lucrative attempts at movie piracy, a reflection on a time when piracy was in its infancy and not the all-pervading, and financially ruinous, menace that the major studios would have us now believe. Voutas is careful to ensure that there’s no interference from any gangs or the authorities that would complicate matters, and instead uses the internal strife that grows between father and son to provide the necessary drama of the movie’s final third. As the ever determined Wongs (though for different reasons), both Zhao and Wang are a terrific double act, making their characters as stubborn and headstrong as each other, while also making it clear that their relationship is much stronger than any problems they might face, even when on opposing sides of an argument. There’s good support from the rest of the cast – Geng’s officious security guard stands out – and Voutas ensures that the story never runs out of steam or feels strained.

Rating: 7/10 – a small-scale comedy-drama that’s simply done, and which is all the better for it, King of Peking uses its simplicity of style to tell an engaging and likeable story; with Voutas gaining in confidence with each new feature, this is his most assured and most accomplished movie to date.

Leave No Trace (2018)

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D: Debra Granik / 109m

Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Isaiah Stone, David Pittman

In the forest outside Portland, Oregon, an Army veteran suffering from PTSD, Will (Foster), and his teenage daughter, Tom (McKenzie), live together in a makeshift encampment. Only venturing into the city to pick up supplies, the pair do their best to ensure they pass unnoticed. But when Tom is seen by a jogger, their peaceful existence is brought to an end. The authorities raid their camp, and they’re apprehended; as they learn, it’s not illegal to live in the forest per se, but it is when the forest is part of a state park. Placed with a farmer (Kober), Will remains uncomfortable being surrounded by four walls, while Tom begins to explore a wider world than the one she’s used to. It isn’t long before Will tells Tom they’re leaving, and they head off into the Oregon wilderness. It isn’t long before they’re lost, and in less than hospitable conditions, a situation that reinforces Tom’s awareness that the life they’ve been living isn’t the same one she wants to continue with…

Writer/director Granik’s follow up to Winter’s Bone (2010) (and only her third feature over all), Leave No Trace is a low-key experience, full of emotional and dramatic ellipses, and yet with a depth and a clarity of expression that seems at odds with the stripped back nature of the material. Adapted from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Leave No Trace explores the ways in which a mutually dependent relationship inevitably has to fracture when it’s exposed to outside influences. It’s also a deeply sincere look at how longing and individual need can set people in such a relationship on vastly different courses in life, and yet still be the best thing for both of them. Will is always unlikely to accept the “normal” life he and Tom are thrust into, while it’s equally likely that Tom will take to it with a greater appetite. But though all this is a given, it’s the quality of Granik and co-scripter Anne Rossellini’s screenplay that all this plays out with a great deal of compassion and understanding for both characters’ aspirations and needs. There’s not one false note to be found in the way that Will and Tom behave, or in the way that they interact with their surroundings, be it the forest or their temporary home on the farm.

The movie has a beautiful visual aesthetic too, the lush green vegetation of the forest feeling visceral and alive before giving way to the compromised homogeneity of the city, and then enveloping us again towards the end, wrapping Will and Tom (and the viewer) in a leafy embrace that’s heartening and threatening and exciting and reassuring all at the same time. Michael McDonough’s cinematography deftly switches from being an immersive, magnificent experience during its forest scenes to that of an impartial observer of Will and Tom’s emotional struggles, and back again with such authority that it’s breathtaking. Granik has also seen fit to employ a soundtrack that comprises much of the natural soundscape as its backdrop, adding to our sense of the time and place(s) that Will and Tom inhabit. Will and Tom are played to perfection by Foster and McKenzie, with Foster’s internalised, haunted performance a career best that’s matched – exceeded perhaps – by McKenzie’s beautifully nuanced portrayal of Tom. Their scenes together never feel strained or unconvincing, and Granik’s measured yet intuitive direction teases out every unspoken thought or feeling with a clarity that is unlikely to have been more impactful if they’d been uttered out loud.

Rating: 9/10 – tremendously moving and visually striking, Leave No Trace is a strong contender for Movie of the Year and easily one of the most impressive movies of the last few years; with faultless performances, inspired direction, a deceptively impassioned screenplay, and an abiding sense of hope for both its central characters, this is richly rewarding and an absolute must-see.

Paper Year (2018)

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D: Rebecca Addelman / 89m

Cast: Eve Hewson, Avan Jogia, Hamish Linklater, Andie MacDowell, Grace Glowicki, Brooks Gray, Liza Lapira, Daniela Barbosa

In Rebecca Addelman’s debut feature, we first meet Franny (Hewson) and Dan (Jogia) minutes after they’ve gotten married. It hasn’t been a big, arranged wedding, just a spur of the moment, impetuous decision made by a couple who are so in love they just couldn’t wait any longer, and rushed to the nearest courthouse. Naturally, Franny’s mother, Joanne (MacDowell), is hugely disappointed, especially as neither of them has a job, and are living in Franny’s tiny apartment. But when Dan lands a job housesitting for six months for actress Hailey Turner (Barbosa), and Franny in turn lands a job as a writer at a TV production company, their relationship begins to feel the strain. As they see less and less of each other, and become disenchanted with married life, Franny finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to co-worker Noah (Linklater), while Dan finds a notebook of Hailey’s writings and becomes obsessed with the image he builds up of her. Further complications ensue, complications that put Franny and Dan in the uncomfortable position of having to decide if being married is the right thing for both of them…

In many romantic movies, the wedding is the culmination of a story that has seen its erstwhile couple work through various problems and overcome various stumbling blocks on their way to the altar. In Paper Year, this is the launchpad for a different kind of story: what happens once that culmination is over with, and the couple have to actually begin the rest of their lives together. But while the idea is a good one, the movie itself isn’t quite as successful at making that idea work. Part of the problem lies in being introduced to Franny and Dan at their happiest, and without ever learning what brought them together in the first place. As the movie progresses, their first flush of marital bliss gives way to doubt and disillusionment, and as their characters develop, we can’t help but wonder how or why they became a couple in the first place. They don’t really have much in common, and when they’re apart it’s almost as if they’re behaving in ignorance of the other. Franny’s attraction to Noah causes her to make a number of rash decisions, while Dan retreats into a fantasy world where Hailey is his soulmate and not Franny.

Matters are further undermined by the disparity in the characters’ development, particularly in relation to Dan. He’s an actor who hasn’t had a job in two years and doesn’t appear to have any real ambition in that direction, and one of the few things we learn about him is that, left to his own devices, he’s a chronic masturbator. His obsession with Hailey feels forced, as if Addelman needed a similar character arc for Dan to match Franny’s attraction to Noah. But her script isn’t so tightly constructed that any of these decisions and behaviours appear organic or entirely credible. By the end, with their marriage in freefall and potentially doomed, the viewer is unlikely to care if their relationship survives or not. The tone of the movie is uneven as well, with scenes displaying mordaunt humour one moment and emotional drama the next, and never fitting the two together. The perfomances suffer as a result of the script’s uncertainty, with Hewson and Jogia having to play selfish and unsympathetic with very little room for anything else. Linklater is the only other actor given any prominence, but his role is so generic to indie dramas that he can’t do anything with it either, and Addelman, as with so much of her script, doesn’t have anything original for him to do.

Rating: 5/10 – a stab at being a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the demands of early married life, things fall apart too quickly and too easily to make any appreciable impact; as a drama, Paper Year relies on too many well-worn, stock indie movie set ups – yes, there’s a disastrous dinner party – to offer potential viewers something new or unexpected.

10 Reasons to Remember Robby Müller (1940-2018)

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Robby Müller (4 April 1940 – 4 July 2018)

Famous for working closely with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, Robby Müller was a multi-award winning cinematographer who was adept at using light and colour in often idiosyncratic yet beautiful ways. Watching a movie he’d lensed, there was always a sense of being invited to see the world in a different way, more heightened perhaps, but still recognisable and relevant to our own experiences. He was able to use colour as a way of “phrasing” a scene, of giving it a texture that other cinematographers could never achieve because of how he himself saw things. When he worked with Wenders or Jarmusch (or even Lars von Trier), the distinct worlds they created were enhanced by Müller’s own aesthetic style. The director Steve McQueen once referred to Müller as a “blues musician”, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment; Müller was a virtuoso in much the same way. And he had an appropriate nickname too: the Master of Light.

1 – Alice in the Cities (1974)

2 – The American Friend (1977)

3 – Saint Jack (1979)

4 – Paris, Texas (1984)

5 – To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

6 – Down by Law (1986)

7 – Dead Man (1995)

8 – Breaking the Waves (1996)

9 – The Tango Lesson (1997)

10 – Dancer in the Dark (2000)

A(nother) Brief Word About Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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If you’ve seen Ocean’s Eight by now, you’ll know that it’s full of narrative twists and turns, and a handful of obvious deceptions. But if you have seen it, then you might be wondering about the most obvious twist of all: the one in the title. When Debbie Ocean (a strangely under-used Sandra Bullock) assembles her “crew” she makes it clear that the diamond theft she’s planning will need seven people to pull it off. That means roles for Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina, making a total of seven. So who’s number eight? Well, again, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know. But given that the movie was touted as the female version of the Ocean’s Eleven idea, does the identity of the eighth member feel like something of a letdown? And given that Debbie Ocean says seven people are needed, that it’s also a bit of a cheat? Over to you…

Batman (1943) – Chapter 15: The Doom of the Rising Sun

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D: Lambert Hillyer / 20m

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Charles C. Wilson, Gus Glassmire, John Maxwell

Trapped inside a wooden crate, Batman seems doomed to be fed to Daka’s crocodiles, but when the crate is dropped into their pit, Daka and his goons are surprised to learn it’s one of their own who’s inside the crate. With help from Robin and a handy Morse Code device in his utility belt, the Caped Crusader has switched places with Daka’s unlucky henchman, and has trailed the crate to Daka’s lair. Using Alfred as a diversion, Batman and Robin sneak into the Cave of Horrors that serves as the entrance to Daka’s hideout. Overcoming several of the villain’s henchmen, and while Robin ties them up, Batman is apprehended by two of Daka’s zombies and forced into Daka’s laboratory, where he is strapped to a chair and threatened with being turned into a zonbie. Meanwhile, Alfred finds himself apprehended too: by a policeman who takes him to see Captain Arnold; soon he’s returning with more police (well, three of them) than you can shake a Japanese spy ring at. But will they be in time to save Batman from having his secret identity revealed and being turned into a zombie…?

And so, we reach the end of Batman’s first screen appearance, thanks to those good folks at Columbia, and the efforts of a cast and production crew who you could argue were suffering from serial fatigue from the very outset. It’s been a very patchy affair, with chapters that failed to advance the (very basic) plot, and performances that could provide the dictionary definition of perfunctory. The direction was inconsistent too, with Hillyer seemingly engaged in some episodes, and treading water in others (along with everyone else). In short, when Batman was good, it was really good, and when Batman was bad, it was really bad. Seventy-five years on, it’s not a serial that’s stood the test of time, but as a curio it has its good points, and is worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the Caped Crusader, or if you’re a fan of the serial format. Be prepared though to wade through some very tortuous moments in order to get to the good stuff, and then repeat as often as the script deems it necessary – which is a lot. Surprisingly, this was Columbia’s largest-scale serial production to date, but watching it, you have to wonder where the money went to.

And sadly, the problems that have plagued the serial throughout the first fourteen chapters are still present in the last, and are exacerbated by the need to wrap things up. The radium remains completely forgotten, the references to Daka as a “Jap” are rehashed (three times by Batman, who can’t refer to him in any other way), Daka’s zombies continue to hang around like glorified human ornaments, and the fight scenes are as clumsily choreographed as ever – but are now much shorter as Daka’s men prove to have glass jaws all of a sudden. Aside from being tied to a chair for a few minutes, it’s all too easy for Batman, and Daka’s fate is sealed with a minimum of (ironic and appropriate) fuss. If there’s one positive aspect about the whole thing, it’s that Robin gets to save the day not once but twice, but even then he remains as invisible as ever. If you watch each chapter closely, you’ll find that Batman is always referred to in the singular, and there’s no mention of Batman and Robin. Perhaps it’s an oversight, perhaps it’s deliberate, but it is indicative of the lack of care taken in the script, something that happens a lot, and which, sadly, stops this particular serial from scaling the heights of some of its predecessors.

Rating: 6/10 – narrative short cuts and the need to wrap things up neatly leads Chapter 15 into a dramatic cul-de-sac that sees what should be an energetic and exciting finale become something of a chore to get through; historically important for being the character’s first screen outing, Batman isn’t the best example of the Forties serial format, and it’s only sporadically rewarding (oh for the heyday of Chapters 6-8), all of which ensures that this particular episode fits right in in the overall scheme of things.

Ideal Home (2018)

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D: Andrew Fleming / 91m

Cast: Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Allison Pill, Jake McDorman, Jack Gore, Evan Bittencourt, Kate Walsh, Jesse Luken

Erasmus Brumble (Coogan) is a well-known TV culinary expert. He’s also vain, self-centred, self-aggrandising, emotionally obtuse, and gay. His partner, Paul (Rudd), is also the producer of his TV show. They bicker, they argue, they fight, and they treat each other with as little respect as possible. When a ten year old boy (Gore) turns up at their home unexpectedly, they’re both surprised to learn that he’s Erasmus’s grandson. The boy is there because his father, Beau (McDorman), has been arrested, and despite the fact that Beau and Erasmus are estranged, Beau has sent his son there because it’s better than the boy being with social services. Unprepared for being parents, even for a potentially temporary period, the trio find themselves bonding into a family unit, even though Paul does all the work, Erasmus takes all the credit, and the boy will only eat at Taco Bell. As they adjust to each other, they learn things that allow them to grow as individuals (well, not so much with Erasmus). But when Beau is released from prison and wants his son back, what was meant to be temporary, now feels like it should be permanent…

Existing in a broad, farcical fantasy world where parenting roles are fluid and ill-defined (and yet somehow they work), Ideal Home is not a movie to be taken at all seriously. It has a positive message to make about the aptitude or suitability of gay couples to raise children, but it’s a message that’s buried below a welter of crass humour, egregious stereotyping (Erasmus’s caricature nature is only rescued by the quality of Coogan’s performance), a healthy/unhealthy (you decide) disregard for authority, and the idea that the nuclear family unit is something that’s become a bit old-fashioned. It’s not a movie that’s trying to blaze a trail for same-sex parenting, but in its own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way, it is putting forward the idea that it’s no longer something for certain people to be afraid of. That said, if you’re easily offended by references to homosexuality in the context of raising a child (or at all), then this isn’t the movie for you. Maybe go and see Hereditary (2018) if you don’t want to watch a dysfunctional couple trying to make sense of being parents… oh, wait a minute…

Cutely delivered message aside, what this movie is most definitely about is making its audience laugh, and this it achieves with ease thanks to the quality of Fleming’s script, the boisterous partnership of Coogan and Rudd, and a kind of subdued anarchy that suits the material well. But most of all it’s laugh out loud funny: coarse, irreverent, near the knuckle on occasions, and unapologetically profane. The bickering between Erasmus and Paul is beautifully constructed, with the kind of wounding remarks made on both sides that can only come out of a long-term relationship, and Coogan and Rudd deliver these broadsides with gusto, dismantling the couple’s bond while maintaining the deep love they have for each other. In the middle of all this, Gore is a moppet with quiet attitude, deadpan for long stretches and more than a match for his two more experienced co-stars. Alas, the same can’t be said for McDorman, whose role as the boy’s father is more deus ex machina than fully developed character, and Pill, whose portrayal of a social worker is restricted to three short scenes. Otherwise it’s all about Erasmus’s annoying man-child, and Paul’s long-suffering semi-adult fighting and challenging each other and being won over by the growing appreciation for their “efforts” by a de facto orphan. And here, that’s no bad thing at all…

Rating: 7/10 – the drama that props up the comedy is too straightforward to make any impact, so it’s a good job that Fleming and his stars are on such good form in the laughs department; avoiding the kind of icky sentimentality that can so easily scupper a movie of this kind, Ideal Home is often lightweight in tone and lightweight in terms of the material, but when it’s funny, oh boy is it funny.

Monthly Roundup – June 2018

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Borg McEnroe (2017) / D: Janus Metz / 107m

Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg, Jackson Gann, Scott Arthur

Rating: 7/10 – the rivalry between tennis players Björn Borg (Gudnason) and John McEnroe (LaBeouf) is explored during the run up to the 1980 Wimbledon Tennis Championships, and the tournament itself; with a script that delves into both players’ formative years (and if you think Borg is a terrific choice for the young Swede then it’s no surprise: Bjōrn is his dad), Borg McEnroe is an absorbing yet diffident look at what drove both men to be as good as they were, and features fine work from Gudnason and LaBeouf, though at times it’s all a little too dry and respectful.

The Ferryman (2018) / D: Elliott Maguire / 76m

Cast: Nicola Holt, Garth Maunders, Shobi Rae Mclean, Pamela Ashton, Philip Scott-Shurety

Rating: 4/10 – following a suicide attempt, a young woman, Mara (Holt), finds herself experiencing strange phenomena and being pursued by a mysterious hooded figure; an ultra-low budget British horror, The Ferryman is let down by terrible performances, cringeworthy dialogue, and a patently obvious storyline, and yet it’s saved from complete disaster by a strong visual style that’s supported by a disconcerting soundtrack, an approach that first-timer Maguire exploits as often as possible.

Red Sparrow (2018) / D: Francis Lawrence / 140m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Jeremy Irons, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge

Rating: 6/10 – Ex-ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited to a secret Russian organisation that trains her to use her body as a weapon, and which then uses her to expose a double agent working in the heart of the Soviet system; a movie made up of so many twists and turns it becomes tiring to keep track of them all, Red Sparrow is an unlikely project to be released in the current gender/political climate, seeking as it does to objectify and fetishise its star as often as possible, but it tells a decent enough story while not exactly providing viewers with anything new or memorable.

Spinning Man (2018) / D: Simon Kaijser / 100m

Cast: Guy Pearce, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver, Alexandra Shipp, Odeya Rush, Jamie Kennedy, Clark Gregg

Rating: 4/10 – when a teenage student (Rush) goes missing, suspicion falls on the professor (Pearce) who may or may not have been having a relationship with her; with arguably the most annoying character of 2018 propping up the narrative (Pearce’s commitment to the role doesn’t help), Spinning Man is a dreary mystery thriller that has its chief suspect behave as guiltily as possible and as often as he can, while putting him in as many unlikely situations as the script can come up with, all of which makes for a dismally executed movie that can’t even rustle up a decent denouement.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) / D: J.A. Bayona / 128m

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, Jeff Goldblum, BD Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Isabella Sermon

Rating: 7/10 – with the volcano on Isla Nublar about to erupt, a rescue mission is launched to save as many of the dinosaurs as possible, but it’s a rescue mission with an ulterior motive; clearly the movie designed to move the series forward – just how many times can Jurassic Park be reworked before everyone gets fed up with it all? – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom concentrates on the horror elements that have always been a part of the franchise’s raison d’être, and does so in a way that broadens the scope of the series, and allows Bayona to provide an inventive twist on the old dark house scenario.

Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946) / D: Spencer Williams / 61m

Cast: Francine Everett, Don Wilson, Katherine Moore, Alfred Hawkins, David Boykin, L.E. Lewis, Inez Newell, Piano Frank, John King

Rating: 7/10 – making an appearance at a club on a Caribbean island resort, dancer Gertie La Rue’s free-spirited behaviour causes all sorts of problems, for her and for the men she meets; an all-black production that takes W. Somerset Maugham’s tale Miss Thompson and puts its own passionate spin on it, Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. overcomes its limited production values thanks to its faux-theatrical mise-en-scene, Williams’ confidence as a director, a vivid performance from Everett that emphasises Gertie’s irresponsible nature, and by virtue of the relaxed attitude it takes to the themes of race and sexuality.

Wagon Wheels (1934) / D: Charles Barton / 59m

Cast: Randolph Scott, Gail Patrick, Billy Lee, Monte Blue, Raymond Hatton, Jan Duggan, Leila Bennett, Olin Howland

Rating: 5/10 – a wagon train heading for Oregon encounters trials and hardships along the way, including Indian attacks that are being organised by someone who’s a part of the group; a middling Western that finds too much room for songs round the campfire, Wagon Wheels takes a while to get going, but once it does, it has pace and a certain amount of B-movie charm thanks to Scott’s square-jawed performance, and Barton’s experienced direction, benefits that help offset the clunky storyline and one-note characters.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018) / D: Sam Liu / 77m

Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Jennifer Carpenter, Scott Patterson, Kari Wuhrer, Anthony Head, Yuri Lowenthal, William Salyers, Grey Griffin

Rating: 6/10 – in an alternate, Victorian-era Gotham City, the Batman (Greenwood) has only recently begun his efforts at stopping crime, efforts that see him cross paths with the notorious Jack the Ripper; though kudos is due to Warner Bros. for trying something different, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight doesn’t always feel as if it’s been thoroughly thought out, with too much time given over to the mystery of Jack’s real identity, and a sub-plot involving Selena Kyle (Carpenter) that seems designed to pad out a storyline that doesn’t have enough substance for a full-length feature.

Batman vs. Two-Face (2017) / D: Rick Morales / 72m

Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, William Shatner, Julie Newmar, Steven Weber, Jim Ward, Lee Meriwether

Rating: 6/10 – when a laboratory accident turns Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Shatner) into arch-villain Two-Face, Batman (West) and Robin (Ward) soon end his criminal activities, only to find themselves battling all their old adversaries – but who is manipulating them?; what probably seemed like a good idea at the time – have West and Ward (and Newmar) reprise their television roles – Batman vs. Two-Face is let down by a tired script that does its best to revisit past TV glories but without replicating the sheer ebullience the 60’s series enjoyed, making this very much a missed opportunity.

Stratton (2017) / D: Simon West / 94m

Cast: Dominic Cooper, Austin Stowell, Gemma Chan, Connie Nielsen, Thomas Kretschmann, Tom Felton, Derek Jacobi, Igal Naor

Rating: 4/10 – a Special Boat Service commando, John Stratton (Cooper), teams up with an American military operative (Stowell) to track down an international terrorist cell that is targeting a major Western target – but which one?; the kind of action movie that wants to be packed with impressive action sequences, and thrilling moments, Stratton is let down by a tepid script, restrictive production values, poor performances, and despite West’s best efforts, action scenes that only inspire yawns, not appreciation.

SnakeHead Swamp (2014) / D: Don E. FauntLeRoy / 86m

Cast: Ayla Kell, Dave Davis, Terri Garber, Antonio Fargas

Rating: 3/10 – a truck full of genetically mutated snakehead fish crashes, releasing its cargo into the Louisiana swamp land, where they soon start making their way to the top of the food chain; another lousy SyFy movie that mixes mutant creatures, endangered teens, a muddled voodoo subplot, and sub-par special effects to less than astounding results, SnakeHead Swamp might best be described as a “no-brainer”, in that it doesn’t try very hard, FauntLeRoy’s direction is rarely noticeable, and the cast – even Fargas – don’t come anywhere near making their characters credible or realistic, all of which is down to a script that should have been rejected at the title stage.

Lavender (2016)

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aka Trauma

D: Ed Gass-Donnelly / 92m

Cast: Abbie Cornish, Diego Klattenhoff, Lola Flanery, Dermot Mulroney, Justin Long, Sarah Abbott, Liisa Repo-Martell, Peyton Kennedy

1985 – Jane Ryer (Kennedy) is the sole survivor when her family is murdered in their remote farmhouse; she’s found covered in blood and holding a cutthroat razor. Twenty-five years later, Jane (Cornish) is married to Alan (Klattenhoff), and has a young daughter, Alice (Flanery). She runs a photographer’s studio that showcases the pictures she takes of often abandoned rural properties, and is plagued by lapses in her memory. A stay in hospital following a car accident reveals Jane has several skull fractures from when she was a child, but she has no memory of being injured. She also comes to learn that one of the farmhouses she has photographed is one that she owns, even though she has no memory of it, or an uncle, Patrick (Mulroney), who has been paying the taxes on it and maintaining it. Drawn to discovering what happened when she was a child, Jane, Alan and Alice decide to meet Patrick and stay at the farmhouse. Soon, Jane discovers that the house is the source of a series of supernatural occurrences that relate to the murder of her family all those years before…

From the outset, with Patrick being informed of the deaths of his sister’s family and the horrific aftermath being presented in a series of tableaux, it seems as if Lavender isn’t interested in offering viewers another generic rural ghost story. But that opening sequence, culminating in the discovery of a clearly traumatised Jane, unfortunately marks the beginning of the end in terms of originality. Jane’s plight, going from being forgetful to being plagued by supernatural events and visions, is played out in too flat a manner for it to be entirely effective. While the script – by director Gass-Donnelly and Colin Frizzell – takes its time in revealing the details of just what happened in 1985, it does so in a measured, unhurried way that robs the movie of any appreciable pace or momentum. This doesn’t even allow for a slowburn approach to the material, and instead, has the opposite effect, making the viewer wish some scenes would hurry up, while wishing others wouldn’t repeat motifs and experiences that Jane – and we – have already witnessed over and over. As a result, the central mystery is treated with sincerity but lacks verve, and the characters are forced to repeat conversations and actions that harm the movie’s narrative structure.

When presenting supernatural events on screen, many directors and screenwriters adopt a kind of “kitchen sink” approach, and throw in scares and jolts and all sorts of shenanigans because they might look good (or cool), and because even a cheap scare can be a winner. Lavender has a number of these moments, such as when adult Jane and her younger sister, Susie (Abbott), hide under a sheet in the stables. As something wicked comes nearer – cue heavy footfalls – Susie urges Jane to run, and when she does the sheet becomes more voluminous than it should be and when she finally escapes from it, she’s in the middle of a field. The juxtaposition between the expanse of the field after the confines of the sheet works well, but in terms of dramatic effect, it makes no sense (we already know Jane’s mental state isn’t the best). Gass-Donnelly works hard to give the movie a tense, unnerving atmosphere, and employs a grimly portentous score from Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld to help matters along, but the material is too thinly stretched in places, and too flatly handled, for their efforts to be successful. By the time things pick up for the climax, and some energy is injected into the proceedings, some viewers might have already taken their leave.

Rating: 5/10 – with the performances proving merely adequate (Cornish, though, makes a virtue of appearing blank-faced), and the script veering off at odd tangents at odd moments, Lavender is a lukewarm psychological horror that doesn’t follow through on its initial promise; tiresome in places, and with a central mystery that shouldn’t come as a surprise when it’s exposed, the movie struggles to be consistently interesting, and passes on several opportunities to better itself.

2036 Origin Unknown (2018)

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D: Hasraf Dulull / 94m

Cast: Katee Sackhoff, Ray Fearon, Julie Cox, Steven Cree, David Tse

In 2030, the first manned space flight to Mars reaches the surface but is destroyed by an unknown force. Six years later, the company behind the flight, United Space Planetary Corporation, has scaled back the involvement of human personnel in its space flight programme, and has entrusted its missions to an artificial intelligence called ARTi (Cree); some employees have been retained as supervisors, though. One of them is Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Sackhoff), and she and ARTi have been tasked with investigating the fate of the earlier mission. Mack has a personal connection: her father was the lead astronaut. Sending a reconnaissance probe to the Martian surface, Mack and ARTi are shocked to find a mysterious cube-like structure. News of this is fed back to Mack’s sister (and high-ranking USPC executive) Lena (Cox), but instead of seeing it as an incredible discovery, she downplays the news and behaves in a way that makes Mack worry about the true parameters of the investigation. And when two things happen – a link is discovered between the cube and ARTi’s design, and the cube disappears (only to reappear somewhere completely unexpected) – Mack becomes convinced that her search for the truth has been severely compromised…

The second feature from visual effects supervisor Hasraf Dulull, 2036 Origin Unknown wears its heart on its sleeve right from the opening frames. This is a cinematic love letter to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with imagery cribbed from that movie’s Star Gate sequence, and an AI creation that may or may not be as infallible as it seems. Add in further imagery and ideas from 2010 (1984), and you have a de facto homage to the finest science fiction movie ever made (and its laboured sequel). Now this would probably have been a good thing if Dulull – who also wrote the script – had been able to concoct a coherent and/or credible story in the first place. Instead, he’s created something of a sci-fi monster in celluloid form, with an awkward, poorly assembled storyline, some of the most confusing and confused exposition heard in a sci-fi movie for some time, and pretty visuals that barely compensate for the dramatic liberties taken elsewhere. Dulull may have had good intentions when he began writing his screenplay, but somewhere along the line no one pointed out that the awful dialogue, the one-note characters, and the unconvincing scenario, didn’t add up to anything meaningful.

Take one example of how confused Dulull’s plotting becomes as the movie plods on from one “revelation” to another: the connection between ARTi and the cube is given centre stage at one point, but why or how that connection has been made remains unexplained, even after there’s a scene that explores the idea (but in as little detail as possible). Other unexplained anomalies abound – the importance of magnetism in relation to the cube, the involvement of government spook Sterling (Fearon), and why Mack has to bear so much responsibility for the death of her father. These and other issues arise too often for comfort, making the movie an uncomfortable watch for anyone used to seeing intelligent sci-fi, and not this amalgamation of other directors’ greatest hits. Despite this, the ever-watchable Sackhoff maintains her ability to make even the worst of material sound better than it has any right to be, and there’s good support from Cree as the slightly supercilious ARTi. The visuals are clearly designed to be the movie’s standout feature, and Dulull’s background in visual effects ensures their effectiveness, but it’s a shame that more attention couldn’t have been given to the hazy material.

Rating: 4/10 – a frustrating foray into the arena of mystery sci-fi, 2036 Origin Unknown is a hodge-podge of half-formed ideas and possibilities that are hampered by a muddled, perplexing screenplay; and don’t believe the poster: the “origins of our existence” aren’t explored at all.

Batman (1943) – Chapter 14: The Executioner Strikes

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D: Lambert Hillyer / 16m

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, John Maxwell, Warren Jackson, Gus Glassmire

Saved by the timely intervention of Robin, Batman escapes the room full of spikes, while Linda is turned into a zombie by Daka. Batman and Robin look for another way into Daka’s lair, their opponent discovers his trap hasn’t worked. Taking no chances he detonates charges set into the roof of the entrance and collapses the tunnel. When the Dynamic Duo realise what has happened, they determine to find out where another entrance might be located. As they return to their car (with Alfred waiting as patiently as ever), two of Daka’s henchmen spot Robin getting into it. They follow the car and force it to pull over. Bruce wrong foots them, and when the henchmen drive off, it’s they who are followed. When they are pulled over, a brief fight sees them captured and taken to the Bat Cave. Alfred finds a note from Linda asking Bruce to meet her at an old house. Suspecting a trap, Batman enters the house alone, and is soon overcome by two of Daka’s men. Carried out in a wooden crate, Batman remains in it all the way to Daka’s lair, where the crate – with him still in it – is dropped into Daka’s crocodile pit, sending him to certain death…

The penultimate chapter sees the serial keeping to the idea of Batman taking the fight to Daka, but not with the same intensity or determination as in Chapter 13. That said, he’s still more proactive than he’s been for most of the serial, although in doing so, Robin continues to be sidelined: when Batman goes to the old house, Robin has to wait in the car! The increased sense of urgency about the narrative still throws up the odd anomaly, though, with the capture of Daka’s men and their subsequent incarceration in the Bat Cave – alongside the still restrained Bernie (Jackson) – proving as unnecessary as the death of Marshall in Chapter 12. Both these sequences serve only to stretch the running times of their respective installments, and with The Executioner Strikes replaying around three minutes of Chapter 13 at the beginning, the need for so much filler remains disconcerting. The whole approach seems to support the idea that the writers didn’t have a great deal of time to put everything together, and as a result, the serial’s structure has no choice but to feel haphazard.

This episode also highlights other ways in which the narrative appears to have been made up from chapter to chapter. Daka’s pursuit of radium – given so much emphasis during the serial’s first half – could be regarded as forgotten or surplus to requirements  now, seeing how unimportant it’s become. Elsewhere, Linda’s involvement in the plot to trap Bruce Wayne doesn’t make sense (she has to arrive in a crate but can leave on her own two feet), and it’s troubling that a note can be left for Bruce at his home when neither Daka nor his men have any idea where Bruce lives in the first place. As we get nearer to the culmination of the whole saga, the writing has become noticeably lazier, and the urgency of the material is proving to be unequal to the task of papering over these obvious cracks. Hillyer is still plugging away, doing his best, almost refusing to let things get the better of him, but he’s hamstrung by the increasing paucity of the material. And even the nature of Batman’s intended demise, normally the source of mild conjecture as to how he’ll escape certain death, is here rendered moot by a narrative sleight of hand that won’t fool anyone, and which means there’s no need to ask, just how is Batman going to survive this time…?

Rating: 6/10 – the inconsistency of the serial as a whole is rendered vividly by the events of Chapter 14, and the misplaced energy employed in presenting them; with just the final episode of Batman left, there’s continued momentum but sadly it’s at a disservice to the story and the characters.

Trailer – Damsel (2018)

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Recently released in the US, Damsel follows the fortunes of a lovestruck pioneer named Samuel Alabaster (played by Robert Pattinson) as he travels the American frontier in order to marry the love of his life, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). On his trek he’s accompanied by a miniature horse called Butterscotch, and a drunkard called Parson Henry (co-writer/director David Zellner). As ever, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, and Samuel’s efforts suffer more setbacks than he’s prepared for.

It’s a Western with a slapstick sensibility, humorous and absurd in places, and sees Pattinson doing comedy for the first time, and by the look of the trailer, succeeding admirably. He’s matched by Wasikowska as the less-than-pleased-to-see-Alabaster Penelope, a role that she plays with “cantankerous” going all the way up to eleven. Created by brothers David and Nathan Zellner, Damsel looks like a less than serious take on the standard Western, and for that alone it deserves our attention. Quirky and ambitious, it’s the kind of movie that could offer a breath of fresh air when weighed against the majority of multiplex offerings foisted on us these days.

Zoo (2017)

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D: Colin McIvor / 97m

Cast: Art Parkinson, Toby Jones, Penelope Wilton, Emily Flain, Ian O’Reilly, Amy Huberman, Damian O’Hare, Stephen Hagan, James Stockdale, Ian McElhinney, Glen Nee

It’s 1941, and there’s a new arrival at Belfast Zoo: a baby elephant that zookeeper’s son, Tom Hall (Parkinson), names ‘Buster’. Tom’s father, George (O’Hare), is in charge of looking after Buster, and Tom visits him every day, even when the zoo is closed – and much to the chagrin of gatekeeper and security guard, Charlie (Jones). But George is enlisted in the Army and goes off to fight in the war. Soon, the first of several air raids carried out by the Germans persuades the Ministry of Public Security to order the killing of the zoo’s dangerous animals, in case any escape during any further air raids. Buster is spared on this occasion, but it’s made clear to Tom that he may not be so lucky in the future. Determined to keep Buster safe from the authorities, and obtaining help from fellow classmates Jane (Flain) and Pete (O’Reilly), Tom hatches a plan to move Buster from the zoo and into hiding. Circumstances ensure that his plan doesn’t go entirely as hoped, but the unexpected assistance of local widow (and animal lover) Mrs Austin (Wilton), allows Buster to remain hidden, until a reward is offered for his whereabouts…

Though based on a true story, Zoo plays fast and loose with what really happened, but thankfully does so in a way that retains the spirit of the actual events. In doing so, the script – by writer/director McIvor – often runs the risk of making things appear too whimsical and too fantastical (Buster isn’t the quietest of baby elephants, but none of Mrs Austin’s neighbours seem to notice or recognise when he makes a racket). But this is a kids’ movie at heart, replete with pre-teen protagonists and a reassuring approach to the story that says, “don’t worry, the elephant will be fine”. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems to be overcome along the way, from the nasty intentions of school bully, Vernon (Nee), to the random searches of two local air raid wardens, and Buster’s need for a special medicine kept at the zoo. Through it all, the war serves as a backdrop that emphasises the seriousness of Buster’s situation, and the risks being taken to keep him safe and well. Children of a certain age will be enthralled by it, though adults – well, that might be a different matter.

Still, the movie is very likeable, though at times (and particularly once Buster has been “emancipated”), it does rely a little too heavily on getting Tom and his friends out of trouble just as quickly as they get into it. And despite the adults starting off as Tom and friends’ main adversaries, it isn’t long before each of them falls into place, and McIvor can end the movie on an emotional high note. Again, this isn’t a bad way for the movie to play out, and though it is incredibly predictable, the quality of the performances and the tender sincerity of how it’s all rendered more than make up for any deficiencies in McIvor’s storytelling. Parkinson is an endearing presence as Tom, while Flain plays Jane with a reserve borne out of her character’s unhappy home life. As Pete, O’Reilly is the movie’s comic relief, though he’s matched by Stockdale as Pete’s younger, disabled brother, Mickey (his “elephant” impression is terrific). Of the adults, Jones is underused along with most everyone else, leaving it to Wilton to make an impression as the real life “Elephant Angel“, Denise Austin (seen below with real life Buster, Sheila).

Rating: 7/10 – charming, funny, and darkly dramatic on occasion, Zoo takes one of those interesting footnotes history provides us with from time to time, and makes a pleasing slice of entertainment from it; the period detail is impeccable, the use of a real elephant (called Nellie – of course) avoids the deployment of any unintentionally lifeless CGI, and thanks to Mcivor’s tight grip on the movie’s tone, keeps sentimentality and mawkishness to a minimum.

Love, Simon (2018)

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D: Greg Berlanti / 110m

Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, Talitha Eliana Bateman, Tony Hale, Natasha Rothwell, Miles Heizer

Simon Spier (Robinson) is in high school. He has three best friends – Leah (Langford), Abby (Shipp), and Nick (Lendeborg Jr) – loving parents (Garner, Duhamel), a kid sister, Nora (Bateman), whose culinary efforts he praises whether they’re good or (usually) bad, an interest in drama, and a big secret: he’s gay. Being a teenager, of course, nobody knows that he’s gay, but when Leah tells him that another pupil at their high school has come out anonymously online, Simon begins talking to him via e-mail. Soon, he and “Blue” are exchanging their mutual thoughts and feelings on their personal circumstances. When another pupil, Martin (Miller), discovers Simon’s e-mails, he uses them to blackmail Simon into helping him get together with Abby. Afraid of being outed, Simon does his best to set them up with each other, while also trying to bring Nick and Leah together (because Nick is attracted to Abby). But his attempts at matchmaking backfire, and Martin does what Simon has feared all along: he outs Simon to the entire school…

Widely touted as the first movie by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance (and it’s only taken until 2018 to happen – way to go, 20th Century Fox), Love, Simon is a tender, heartfelt, and overwhelmingly sweet movie based on the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. It features a good central performance by Robinson as the modest but likeable Simon, and it hits all the right notes in its attempts to focus on his struggle to deal with the implications of being gay, the fear of being outed, and what it means to have to protect that knowledge. And yet, once Simon’s secret is revealed to one and all, what has been a confidently handled, and sincerely expressed story – with a nice mystery sideline in trying to work out Blue’s identity – suddenly becomes an unexpected fantasy based somewhere between the world of John Hughes’ teen dramas and a return trip to the Land of Oz. All along, Simon has been dreading everyone finding out that he’s gay, and it’s at this point in the movie where you could be forgiven for thinking that things will start to get really difficult for him.

Au contraire, mon ami. Aside from a (very) brief moment of uninspired, and childish, leg-pulling (bullying is really too strong a word for it), the only other fallout from Simon’s outing is the decision of his three best friends to avoid him – he did manipulate them after all. Otherwise, his family prove to be mega-supportive, his teachers express zero tolerance for any homophobic behaviour by the other students, Martin apologises to him while admitting his own insecurities, and when Simon challenges Blue to meet him at an upcoming carnival, what seems to be the whole high school turns out to be there for them (oh, and his friends forgive him as well). Now, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, but this is like something out of the Thirties and early Forties when happy endings were guaranteed (back then it might have been called Andy Hardy Comes Out… of the Barn). If the movie’s message – coming out is easy-peasy – is intentional, then that’s fair enough, it’s still a piece of entertainment, and designed to do well in the mass market. But as a reflection of what is likely to happen in the real world when coming out, then Love, Simon is a far from perfect choice from which to take your cues.

Rating: 7/10 – a wish fulfillment tale that’s breezy and fun but also deliberately anodyne in places, Love, Simon is enjoyable and refreshing for its choice of topic, and benefits from good performances throughout – Rothwell’s drama teacher with attitude is a highlight – as well as Berlanti’s sensitive direction; becoming an entirely different movie altogether once Simon is outed, though, undermines the character’s emotional struggle, and paints first gay love in such rainbow-like colours that any real sense of drama is abandoned altogether.

Menashe (2017)

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D: Joshua Z. Weinstein / 83m

Cast: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz, Shlomo Klein

Menashe (Lustig) is an Hasidic Jew who works as a clerk in a grocery store. He’s a middle-aged widower with a ten year old son, Rieven (Niborski), who is being looked after by his Uncle Eizik (Weisshaus) because the Torah says that Menashe can only look after him if he has a wife; being a single parent is forbidden. But Menashe doesn’t want to remarry. His marriage wasn’t a happy one, and partly because it was arranged, so he has no wish to run the risk of being unhappy a second time. A year on from his wife’s death, he is struggling to make ends meet, is regarded as a schlimazel – someone who is chronically unlucky – and is doing his best to maintain his relationship with his son. As the day of his wife’s memorial service draws near, Menashe is allowed to have Rieven stay with him for a week, but his run of bad luck continues, and though he and Rieven become closer than ever, events conspire to make the likelihood of his keeping his son with him all the more unlikely…

If you’re wondering, how much can there be to enjoy in a movie about an Hasidic Jew given to butting heads with centuries of tradition and societal conditioning, then wonder again: it doesn’t matter that Menashe is an Hasidic Jew, and it doesn’t matter that the movie takes place in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, and it matters even less that there are moments where Jewish rituals and religious practices are portrayed in an almost documentary style. This is a movie that may take place in a specific cultural environment, but its themes are entirely universal. We can all sympathise with Menashe’s plight. He’s the perpetual underdog, doing his best to get along in the world but failing to gain the respect of his wife’s family, his friends, and his boss (Klein). He tries his best but he seems doomed to experience continual disappointment. But each setback merely spurs him on with even greater determination. He’s prideful, somewhat belligerent (though usually at the wrong time), but he has a heart of gold. He may not be the best father in the world – he may not even be in the running – but his love for his son is as sure as his good intentions.

All of this makes Menashe a pleasant and rewarding diversion from the usual run of the mill family dramas that involve fractured families and/or long-buried secrets. It’s based in part on experiences from Lustig’s own life, and these have been expertly woven into a screenplay (by director Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, and Musa Syeed) that blends an authentic Jewish milieu with problems and dilemmas that we can all relate to. Weinstein, whose background is in documentaries, approaches the material in much the same fashion, choosing camera angles and compositions within the frame that highlight the emotions being felt in any given scene, and in doing so, he avoids any need for sentimentality or misguided pathos. It’s an impressive directorial effort, as Weinstein, with no previous experience of the Hasidic community, sets about making them as recognisably “human” as the rest of us. Good as Weinstein is in the director’s chair, though, it’s Lustig as the eternally hopeful Menashe who provides the movie with the utmost sincerity and charm. It’s a dogged yet sprightly performance, carefully assembled so that even when Menashe is clearly in the wrong, you want him to be right. Alongside him, Niborski and Weisshaus offer terrific support, and there’s a subtly affecting score courtesy of Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist, all of which goes to show that a story set in an Hasidic Jewish community doesn’t have to be a challenge to sit through.

Rating: 8/10 – shot through with an amiable, wry sense of humour, Menashe offers a glimpse into a world that isn’t so different from ours, and which has the same kinds of problems and issues it needs to deal with as well; the central father/son relationship is handled with skill and aplomb, and if at times it all seems a little too simplistic, it doesn’t detract from the quality of the production as a whole.

The Liability (2012)

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aka The Hitman’s Apprentice

D: Craig Viveiros / 86m

Cast: Tim Roth, Jack O’Connell, Tallulah Riley, Peter Mullan, Kierston Wareing, Tomi May

Adam (O’Connell) is a nineteen year old Jack-the-lad who lives with his mum, Nicky (Wareing), and her shady businessman boyfriend, Peter (Mullan). When Adam totals one of Peter’s cars, he’s offered a chance to pay the debt he owes: he’s to drive one of Peter’s associates, Roy (Roth), around for a day. They journey to Northumberland, where, deep in the woods they find a caravan where a man called Danil (May) is hiding out. Roy kills him, but as they attempt to make his death look like the work of local serial killer, the Handyman, a young woman (Riley) comes along. She manages to get away from them, and with a bag that contains evidence of what Roy and Adam have done. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that sees the pair trying to retrieve the bag, while the young woman stays ahead of them every step of the way. Before long, Adam learns things about Roy, Peter, and the young woman, that cause him to realise that not everything is as it seems, and that his future depends on the decisions he makes when the truth reveals itself…

A deliberately low-key crime thriller with an acerbic sense of humour, The Liability begins with a subtle clue as to the criminal activity that sits at the heart of the narrative. A man watches as a container is washed out; moments later he’s attacked and killed in his car. He’s the latest victim of the Handyman, and it’s a testament to the efficiency of John Wrathall’s economical screenplay that the identity of this killer and Roy’s despatching of Danil is connected by a generous helping of unexpected irony. It’s surprising moments such as these, where the material plumbs unforeseen depths, that help make The Liability a much more entertaining movie than might be expected. Add in the material’s quirky, often droll line in mirth (Roth and O’Connell do more with a glance than some actors can manage with a three-page monologue), and you have a black comedy thriller that knows when to be serious, when to be uncomfortable, and when to be slyly humorous. It’s not a balancing act that the movie pulls off every time, but it succeeds more than it fails.

The central relationship between the garrulous, over-eager Adam and the more taciturn, fatalistic Roy drives the movie forward, as mutual respect is established, and a degree of inter-dependency grows between them. Roth and O’Connell are a terrific combination, and the way they play off each other, especially in their early scenes together, ensures their characters’ relationship carries a greater weight later on in the movie. Alas, while Adam and Roy grow as characters and invite sympathy and compassion (despite their actions), the same can’t be said for the likes of Mullan’s one-note bad guy, or Riley’s less than innocent backpacker. Both roles suffer thanks to being painted with too broad brush strokes, and their presence offers little in relation to the material featuring Adam and Roy. That said, Viveiros (making only his second feature) shows a deftness of touch that aids the movie tremendously, and he maintains a consistently weary, yet effective tone throughout. The natural beauty of the Northumberland and Teesside locations are muted in order to match the mood of the piece, and James Friend’s cinematography – all dark hues and glowering skies – complements the darker aspects of the narrative. The ending, though, lacks the punch that’s needed to make it work properly – which is disappointing – and it’s further hampered by feeling rushed. But up until then, this is one movie that provides plenty of cinematic nourishment.

Rating: 8/10 – sombre and mournful in places, and yet funny and warm-hearted in others, The Liability isn’t just the standard crime thriller with jokes that it appears to be; an under-rated gem, it’s well worth checking out as an alternative to the East End gangster movies that populate so much of the UK’s crime-based output.

Oh! the Horror! – Kantemir (2015) and February (2015)

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Kantemir (2015) / D: Ben Samuels / 81m

Cast: Robert Englund, Diane Cary, Daniel Gadi, Justine Griffiths, Alanna Janell, Stuart Stone, Sean Derry

John Larousse (Englund) is an actor whose career has bottomed out thanks to being an alcoholic. Given the chance to start afresh, he travels to an out of the way country estate where he and a group of actors have been assembled to work on a play. The director, Nicholas (Gadi), is secretive about the play’s content, only revealing that it’s an historical piece and that the characters are involved in a doomed romance. As the rehearsals begin, each actor starts to display the traits of their character, and they often refer to each other by their character names. Only John seems to be aware of the strange transformation that the cast is undergoing, and when he discovers that one of them has been killed, the reluctance of the others to believe him is further undermined by their increasing commitment to the play, and Nicholas’s strange hold over all of them…

If Kantemir has anything going for it, it’s Englund’s performance (though even he struggles with some of the cliché-ridden dialogue dreamed up by co-writers Mark Garbett and Ralph Glenn Howard). Englund is the glue that keeps the movie from coming unravelled altogether, which is something that’s needed, as the script, and Samuels’ sloppy direction, conspire to obscure just what kind of movie it is. On the one hand it’s a horror movie, but at times it’s also a mystery and a thriller, and an historical romance, and at a stretch, a psychological drama. What it isn’t is coherent or able to connect any two scenes to each other without making it seem as if another one has been cut from between them. Englund’s experience carries him through – just – but otherwise the performances are awkward, mannered, and unconvincing. The back story that explains it all doesn’t make any sense either, which further undermines the movie’s credibility, and John Rosario’s gloomy cinematography ensures the movie isn’t attractive to look at either. It’s not entirely a chore to sit through, but any rewards are minimal, and even then, very hard to find.

Rating: 4/10 – with its patchwork screenplay and ill-considered scenario, Kantemir is the kind of low budget horror that gets made hundreds of times each year – and which provides evidence (if it were really needed) that they shouldn’t be made in the first place; admittedly, it’s hard to come up with something truly original in the horror field, and this may be an attempt to do that, but the vast gulf between idea and execution is displayed here a little too obviously for the movie’s own good.

 

February (2015) / D: Oz Perkins / 94m

aka The Blackcoat’s Daughter; The Devil’s Daughter

Cast: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, James Remar, Lauren Holly, Greg Ellwand, Elana Krausz, Heather Tod Mitchell, Peter James Howarth

It’s February at the Bromford School for girls, a Catholic establishment preparing to see its pupils and staff head off for winter break. Two students however – Kat (Shipka) and Rose (Boynton) – remain behind at the school thanks to their parents being unable to collect them on the allotted day. Kat is a freshman, prone to staring off into the distance and behaving oddly. Rose is a senior who has just found out she’s pregnant; the school head has also asked her to chaperone Kat during the break (though two nuns are there as well). Meanwhile, a young woman named Joan (Roberts) has left a psychiatric hospital some distance away; at a bus station she meets and accepts a lift from Bill (Remar), a good Samaritan who reveals in time that she reminds him of his daughter, who died nine years before. He and his wife, Linda (Holly), are travelling to Bromford to lay flowers on her grave. Kat’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, and Rose begins to fear for her safety, something that is given credence when the headmaster (Howarth) returns to the school and makes a horrifying discovery…

Although it suffers from issues with pacing, and the story it tells borders on being uncomfortably slight, February is a lean and atmospheric chiller from the fertile mind of its writer/director. Perkins has an offbeat dramatic sensibility, and it’s as a writer that he’s most effective – see Removal (2010) and The Girl in the Photographs (2015) for further evidence. Here, what you see isn’t necessarily what you can believe, as the narrative weaves in and out in a non-linear fashion that keeps the viewer from fully understanding just what’s going on and why. The performances, particularly Shipka’s, are accomplished, and they ensure that the mystery is maintained for as long as possible. Perkins also throws in themes relating to grief and personal responsibility, but  is unable to make certain scenes as effective as they could be, mostly due to their being stretched beyond any real benefit. The wintry locations add to the sense of unease, and the way in which the movie escalates the level of violence and horror towards the end is persuasive as well. Some viewers may find the movie’s first hour somewhat difficult to get through, but if they stick around, they’ll find that perseverance is its own reward.

Rating: 7/10 – not entirely successful, but doing more than enough to warrant the casual viewer’s attention, February is a deceptively effective horror thriller that takes its time and doesn’t give away all its secrets at once; too many longueurs hamper the movie’s pace and rhythm, but the material is strong enough to offset these faults and provide a pervasive sense of menace that is handled astutely and in appropriately cool fashion.

Batman (1943) – Chapter 13: Eight Steps Down

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D: Lambert Hillyer / 14m

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Charles C. Wilson, Warren Jackson, John Maxwell, Gus Glassmire

Having managed to avoid the collapsing basement ceiling coming down on him, Batman ensures Linda isn’t trapped anywhere in the burning Ajax Metal Works before getting to safety. Instead of heading for home, he checks with Captain Arnold (Wilson) to see if the Sphinx Club has been raided and one of Daka’s men, Bernie (Jackson), has been picked up. Learning that Bernie is still at large, Batman returns to the Sphinx Club where he discovers Bernie in a hidden room. Bernie is taken back to the Bat Cave where he lets slip that the one place Batman doesn’t want to investigate is the hideout where Chuck White was taken. Meanwhile, Linda is taken to Daka’s lair where he threatens to turn her into a zombie unless she helps him lure Bruce Wayne into a trap. At the secondary hideout, Batman and Robin discover an underground tunnel that leads to Daka’s lair. While Linda is being turned into a zombie, Batman falls through a trap door and into a room with large spikes on opposing walls. Soon, the walls are closing in, sending Batman to certain death…

And there it is folks, the final stretch is in sight – at last. After so many episodes where the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder escape certain death only to retire to the Wayne home to wait for the next clue to fall into their laps, now, in Chapter 13 they finally take the initiative. Batman even takes the opportunity to criticise Captain Arnold (“Wasn’t very smart of you to take their word against mine”) when told the men caught in the Sphinx Club raid denied knowing anyone called Bernie. This new, proactive Batman is a pleasure to meet at long last, and this is the first installment where Wilson and Croft don’t get to don their civvies as Bruce and Dick. It’s also the episode where Robin’s involvement appears deliberately curtailed and he’s sidelined in favour of Batman leading the action (he goes into the Sphinx Club alone; in the underground tunnel, Robin is sent back for a crowbar). Meanwhile, Daka has nearly finished assembling his new radium gun, Uncle Martin is used as a threat to induce Linda to aid Daka, and the racism of the time gets a fresh outing when Linda’s first words on meeting Daka are, “A Jap!”

It’s an episode that, despite its short running time, feels like a proper installment, one that advances the somewhat precariously handled – up til now – plot, and one which has the vitality and energy of the Colton/radium mine chapters (ahh, those were the days). The various scenes have a punchy, determined quality, as if everyone involved can see the home stretch now and want to get there as soon as possible. It’s as if someone – the writers, Hillyer, the Columbia brass themselves – said, “come on, let’s put this serial to bed,” and the challenge was accepted (gladly). Even the usually tedious scenes where Daka monologues fiendishly, but to little avail, here actually see him behaving threateningly and to good effect. Naish hasn’t always been able to avoid chewing the scenery, but here he employs a quietly disturbing menace to the role that makes him seem like a worthy villain. Wilson benefits too. Without having to play either Bruce or Chuck White as well as Batman, Wilson is more forceful and single-minded. And Hillyer shows that he’s regained some of the verve and energy that he’s brought to earlier installments. It all bodes well for the last two chapters, though there’s still the question, just how is Batman going to survive this time…?

Rating: 7/10 – a huge improvement on the last few chapters (even if a few narrative leaps and bounds are employed to achieve this), Chapter 13 sees the serial rise from the doldrums with an urgency that can only mean the end is in sight; with Batman having relied too much on filler up until now, it’s a relief to see that it will, in all likelihood, be like this until Daka’s plans have been thwarted once and for all.

The Intervention (2016)

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D: Clea DuVall / 89m

Cast: Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne, Vincent Piazza, Jason Ritter, Ben Schwartz, Alia Shawkat, Cobie Smulders

Annie and Matt (Lynskey, Ritter) are travelling to meet up with their friends, Sarah and Jessie (Lyonne, DuVall), Peter and Ruby (Piazza, Smulders), and Jessie’s brother, Jack (Schwartz), for a weekend get together. There is an ulterior motive for the get together: the rest are convinced that Peter and Ruby’s marriage is on the rocks and that an intervention is needed; they intend to suggest the couple divorce for both their sakes. When Jack arrives he brings a new girlfriend with him, Lola (Shawkat), but while this is initially regarded as inappropriate, it’s quickly forgotten with the arrival of Peter and Ruby. The couple bicker and squabble in front of their friends, and though Annie appears to the group’s prime mover, she fumbles a first attempt at confronting Peter and Ruby by getting drunk. Before another attempt can be made, divisions between the other couples are brought to the fore, partly because of Lola’s freewheeling sexuality, but also because of long-buried animosities. And things don’t improve when the intervention finally takes place, and Peter and Ruby react in ways that prove unexpected and which threaten the group’s friendship – perhaps irrevocably…

DuVall’s debut as a writer/director, The Intervention is a broadly optimistic, genial and amusing movie that works surprisingly well despite its largely conventional narrative and collection of characters. The basic premise plays out as you’d expect, adding fault lines in each relationship as the movie progresses, but thankfully not to the point where it looks as if each marriage/partnership needs their own intervention. Instead, DuVall does something that’s a little bit sneaky (maybe even underhanded): she pulls the rug out from under the viewer by revealing said fault lines but without wrapping them up neatly in a nice dramatic bow by the movie’s end. In doing this, she keeps the material fresher than it appears to be at first, and allows the main storyline and its various sub-plots to make much more of an impact than usual. Little betrayals and far from imagined slights have their place, but it’s the characters’ reactions to them – their bemused, uncomprehending reactions – that provide much of the enjoyment to be had from DuVall’s astute observations and the movie’s overall tone. If there’s one caveat, it’s that the drama is often underplayed in favour of the humour, but when it needs to, the script stings deliberately and painfully.

If DuVall’s first outing as a writer isn’t always successful – Lola is too obviously a catalyst for upset, the male characters aren’t as clearly defined as their female counterparts – as a director she’s on firmer ground, orchestrating matters with a great deal of confidence and precision in the way scenes are staged, and knowing when to focus on the appropriate dynamics relating to each couple. She’s aided by a terrific ensemble cast that’s headed by the always reliable Lynskey. As the commitment-phobic Annie, Lynskey invests her character with a pliable sense of responsibility and a survivor’s ignorance of individual culpability. It’s yet another performance that reinforces the fact that she’s one of the best actresses working today. Almost matching her (it’s really close) is Smulders, her portayal of Ruby as melancholy and subdued as you’d suspect in a woman whose marriage is visibly imploding (Smulders broke her leg shortly before shooting began; rather than re-cast, DuVall wrote it into the script). The rest of the cast enter into the spirit of things with gusto, and thanks to DuVall’s actor friendly approach, it’s the performances that prove to be the movie’s main attraction.

Rating: 7/10 – uneven in places, but with a sincerity and a sharpness to the material that keeps it (mostly) fresh and appealing, The Intervention is rewarding in an undemanding yet enjoyable way; bolstered by a raft of good performances, it’s unpretentious stuff that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and which knows not to resolve all its characters’ problems.

Trailer – Dumbo (2019)

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If you’ve already seen the trailer for Dumbo (2019) – directed by Tim Burton, and starring Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton – then you might be asking yourself: really? And it would be a fair question. Is anyone, having watched the trailer, really excited to see this unnecessary and unappealing remake? Does anyone truly believe that this incarnation of Helen Aberson’s classic story will be an improvement on Disney’s 1941 original? And perhaps more importantly, just what on Earth are Disney doing?

The answer to that last question is very simple: Disney are trampling all over their legacy as a leading purveyor of animated movies – classic animated movies – in an effort to bring in big box office returns. As a business plan it has its own undeniable merits: give an entirely new generation live action movies based on older, animated movies that Disney have stopped re-releasing on home video via that seven-year cycle that seemed to be the old business plan. Having already gone down the unnecessary and unappealing animated sequel route in the years between 1994 and 2008, Disney have decided that live action versions of their classic (emphasis on the world ‘classic’) animated originals are what’s best for business. And sadly, those live action movies that have already been released have been very successful financially – so why shouldn’t Disney continue milking their very own cash cow?

But though we’ve had Cinderella (2015), and The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017), and though they’ve made a ton of money at the box office, can anyone say, hand on heart, that they’re an improvement on the originals? Or that they’re even a match for the quality of those movies? They’re all missing that vital spark that their animated predecessors all seem to have in abundance. But with Dumbo, Disney have gone several steps further than those other live action “events”. This is one of the synopses for Dumbo that’s listed on IMDb: A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus. But when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer. Dark secrets? Is this what Dumbo needs, dark secrets at the heart of its storyline? Does this adaptation have to be a mystery, a thriller with the usual eccentric Tim Burton elements? Will this make Dumbo one of the must-see movies of 2019? (Sadly, it will probably make no difference at all.) The trailer seems to confirm all these things, and that’s without mentioning the strong whiff of The Greatest Showman (2017) about it all as well. Sometimes, and to paraphrase the well known saying, just because Disney can, doesn’t mean that they should.

Ali’s Wedding (2016)

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D: Jeffrey Walker / 110m

Cast: Osamah Sami, Don Hany, Helana Sawires, Robert Rabiah, Khaled Khalafalla, Asal Shenaveh, Rodney Afif, Ghazi Alkinani, Majid Shokor, Shayan Salehian, Ryan Corr

Ali (Sami) and his family live in Australia, but are originally from Iraq. His father (Hany) is the cleric of the local mosque, and wants Ali to become a doctor. Ali isn’t so sure that’s going to happen as he doesn’t have a natural aptitude for medicine and struggles with his studies; when he only gets 68.5 on his university entrance exam, it confirms what he already knows. However, because he doesn’t want to disappoint his father, Ali keeps the result to himself, but when another student boasts of getting a high score, Ali tells everyone he scored even higher. And when he learns that the girl he’s attracted to, Dianne (Sawires), has also passed, Ali determines to attend the university anyway. Meanwhile, Ali’s parents reveal that they are arranging a bride for him (now that he’s on his way to being a successful doctor), and are making plans for their upcoming wedding. As Ali fights to keep his secret from being revealed, he has to find a way of getting out of the arranged marriage, and ensuring that he and Dianne can be together – even though she’s Lebanese…

Based on Sami’s own experiences, Ali’s Wedding is something of a first: a Muslim romantic comedy that manages to be respectful of Muslim traditions and his family’s transplanted way of life, while also acknowledging that his generation may not be as “wedded” to those traditions as elder generations would expect them to be. It’s a movie that avoids the usual condemnation that you’d expect when young love rears its socially unacceptable head and challenges the status quo, or entrenched religious sensibilities, and part of the movie’s charm is that Sami, along with co-writer Andrew Knight, recognises the validity of both points of view. So there’s no demonising of the Muslim religion, no stereotypical characterisations, and no deciding if one side is “better” than the other. Arguments are made for both sides of the cultural divide, and it’s left to the viewer to decide which one they agree with most. That said, Sami’s unwavering fairness to both sides should be enough, as he makes sure that the movie’s nominal bad guy, a would-be usurper of his father’s role of cleric, is undone by an outburst of arrogant pride.

Having set the tone for the movie’s cultural and religious backdrop, Sami is free to build a lightweight yet likeable romance out of Ali’s relationship with Dianne, and to pepper proceedings with the kind of knowing humour that wouldn’t necessarily work outside of the movie’s framework. Hence we have Saddam The Musical (all true), and an abortive trip to the US to stage the show (the principal cast are all returned home in handcuffs). And that’s without a tractor ride that ends in disaster, and a joke about community service that is both beautifully timed and arrives out of the blue. Walker lets the narrative breathe, and doesn’t rush things, allowing the material and the performances to progress naturally and to good effect. As himself, Sami has a mischievous twinkle in his eye that at times is infectiously winning, and he’s supported by a great cast who all contribute greatly to the movie’s likeability (though Hany’s Aussie accent slips through from time to time, which can be off-putting). There are themes surrounding trust and respect, community and togetherness that are played out with a directness and simplicity that enhance the material, and though the ending is never in doubt, there’s still an awful lot of fun to be had in getting there.

Rating: 8/10 – an agreeable and amusing romantic comedy, Ali’s Wedding does what all the best rom-coms do, and puts its hero through the ringer before giving him a chance at coming up trumps; the romance between Ali and Dianne is entirely credible, as are the various inter-relationships within families and the wider Muslim community, making this an unexpected, but modestly vital, success.

Lost in London (2017)

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D: Woody Harrelson / 103m

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Eleanor Matsuura, Martin McCann, Peter Ferdinando, Zrinka Cvitešić, Al Nedjari, David Mumeni, David Avery, Amir El-Masry, Willie Nelson, Daniel Radcliffe

In 2002, Woody Harrelson was in London appearing in John Kolvenbach’s play, On an Average Day. One night, following a visit to Chinawhite, a club in Soho, Harrelson was in a taxi where he broke an ashtray. The police were called, and Harrelson, having transferred to another taxi, was subsequently chased by them before being arrested. He spent the night in jail before being bailed the following morning. This incident forms the basis for Lost in London, a reworking of the events of that night, events that begin with Harrelson getting into trouble with his wife, Laura (Matsuura), after she reads about him in the papers having partied with three strippers. Given until midnight to be by himself and think about his actions, while Laura decides what to do herself, Woody finds himself hooking up with an Arab prince (Nedjari) and his three sons and going to a nightclub. There he bumps into Owen Wilson, and an ensuing altercation between the two men leads to Woody having to leave the club suddenly, and get into the first available taxi, a decision that will prove to have far-reaching consequences…

Lost in London is notable for two reasons: it’s Harrelson’s first movie as a director (he also wrote the script as well), and it was the first – and so far only – movie to be screened in cinemas live. Necessarily playing out in real time, apart from a temporal sleight of hand towards the end, Harrelson’s debut is much more than a gimmick of a movie. Shot through with an absurdist sense of humour that feels more British than American, the movie sees Harrelson riffing on his career (often to self-deprecating effect), and his public persona at the time (drugs and booze his staple diet). He also expands on the original problem with the ashtray to include such priceless moments as “hiding” from the police at the top of a children’s slide, and Martin McCann’s sympathetic policeman’s phone call to a reggae-obsessed Bono (actually Bono). The humour in the movie ranges from the broad to the scalpel sharp to inspired to silly, and all the way back again. At the beginning, having come off stage after a less than well received performance of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Harrelson bemoans being stuck doing serious drama. Watching Lost in London, that’s definitely not a problem.

Harrelson has assembled a great cast in support of his endeavours, with McCann and Cvitešić (as a woman he meets outside the nightclub) particularly good, while Wilson trades increasingly vicious barbs with him as they trash each other’s movies (Wilson: “You were just oozing sex appeal in Kingpin.” Harrelson: “You got out-acted by a dog in Marley & Me“). There are some serious moments as well though, caustic observations about the nature of celebrity, and the drawbacks of public perception (at one point Harrelson sings the theme song to Cheers to an unimpressed and unaware bouncer). But most of all, this is meant to make its audience laugh, and this Harrelson achieves with a great deal of skill and wit. As a technical challenge, it has to be regarded as an unalloyed success, with Nigel Willoughby’s single camera cinematography providing a sense of immediacy that, if it had been missing, would have undermined the movie completely. That it all works so well is a testament to the planning and the practice that must have gone into putting the movie together in such a way, and so confidently. It may be some time before anyone attempts such a movie again, but until then, this is a more than worthy effort all by itself.

Rating: 8/10 – having given himself a major challenge with his first feature as a director, Woody Harrelson delivers a movie that’s funny, warm-hearted, and full of indelible moments; Lost in London may stretch the format out of shape on occasion, but Harrelson has such overall control of the material that the odd mis-step now and again can easily be forgiven.

Trailer – First Man (2018)

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Okay, hands up if you don’t know that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon. (Sorry – first person.) If you don’t, it shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, it happened nearly fifty years ago, and a lot has happened since then, so what he did back on 21 July 1969 could so easily be overlooked, or forgotten maybe. And it’s not as if the US has a manned space programme any more. So this is history, recent history to be sure, but something that a lot of people should know about, and even if they can’t remember Armstrong’s name or that he was the first, they should be aware that a handful of very lucky astronauts got to walk on the Moon.

With all that in mind, the latest movie from director Damien Chazelle – Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016) – looks set to address the issue, putting Armstrong and his “leap for Man” firmly in the public spotlight again. In some ways, it’s surprising that the Apollo 11 mission hasn’t been given the big screen treatment already, but now that it’s here, the trailer – admirably assembled in the way that all trailers for “important” movies should be – begs one question above all others: why does it look and sound like a thriller? We all – sorry, most of us – know the outcome, so why does the trailer make First Man look and feel like there’s some doubt as to whether or not the mission will succeed? And “the most dangerous mission in history”? Hasn’t anyone seen Apollo 13 (1995)?

Still, it does have a great cast, with Ryan Gosling portraying Armstrong as all steely jawed determination, and Claire Foy as his first wife, Janet (equally serious and determined), but the trailer doesn’t give us much more to work with in terms of the real people they’re playing, and how true to life their performances are. The trailer concentrates instead on quotable soundbites – “We have to fail down here so we don’t fail up there” – and pounding music beats to push the tension of the launch. In many respects it’s a trailer designed to make the movie look good (naturally), but it does so by being exactly the kind of trailer you’d expect for this kind of movie: dramatic, forceful, and a little too dry for its own good.

Batman (1943) – Chapter 12: Embers of Evil

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D: Lambert Hillyer / 14m

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Charles C. Wilson, Warren Jackson, Gus Glassmire

Having avoided certain death from the explosion at one of Daka’s hideouts thanks to a conveniently placed trap door that leads to the outside, Batman and Robin meet up with Alfred and head back home. Daka receives the news with his customary annoyance, and learns from one of his henchmen, Bernie (Jackson), that Marshall (presumed dead in the Colton mine collapse) is in jail and was talking to Chuck White. Daka sends Bernie to the jail to give Marshall a “special brand” of cigarettes called Medusa. The next morning, Bruce and Dick go to see Captain Arnold (Wilson); he wants them to identify Marshall as one of the men who attacked them, but when they get to his cell, Marshall is dead. Bruce picks up a cigarette and analyses it with the aid of his Young Scientist chemical set and learns it’s poisonous. Following this, Daka decides to target Linda in an effort to draw out Batman and ambush him at the Ajax Metal Works. When she goes missing, Batman and Robin track her whereabouts to the metal works, but their attempt to rescue her leads to a fire breaking out and Batman trapped in the basement as part of the ceiling collapses on him, sending him to certain death…

The shortest chapter so far fairly whizzes by as it crams in as much as it can while still failing to advance the main plot in any way, shape or form (whatever the main plot is; by now it’s hard to remember if there is one). The whole set up surrounding the “rubbing out” of Marshall serves no dramatic purpose at all, and while it’s always good to see Captain Arnold providing some much needed, and at least scripted, humour, there’s no reason to devote any time to Marshall’s demise at all. More padding then, and in an episode that runs two minutes shorter than the previous record holders. The phrase “running out of steam” seems entirely appropriate, and this with only three chapters left to go. The trailer gives a better idea of where everything is headed at this stage, as the repetitive nature of the script takes a further toll on the narrative. It’s as if – the Colton episodes aside – the writers’ brief was to repeat each episode’s basic structure as often as possible.

Inevitably, this leaves the cast stranded as if on a loop they can’t escape from. The formulaic nature of the serial means Wilson and Croft now only don their Batman and Robin outfits in order to have a punch up with Daka’s goons at the end of each chapter, while Naish leers and sneers as Daka to banal, off-putting effect, and Patterson – when allowed – is given the littlest possible to do (some of the actors playing henchmen have more screen time than she does). The credibility of the crime fighters themselves is brought into question this time as they put themselves in jeopardy by alerting Daka’s men to their presence at the metal works by using a smoke bomb in a basement filled with crates and highly flammable packing materials. (So much for lying low and not drawing attention to yourself). All it needs is for one of Daka’s men to be smoking a cigarette… oh, wait a minute, one of them is. With so many issues and so little time now to improve on them, it’s getting harder to believe that the writers will be able to turn things around and bring the serial to a satisfactory end – let alone working out how Batman is going to survive this time…

Rating: 5/10 – it’s over almost before you know it, but Chapter 12 is also another dispiriting entry in a serial that is proving to be more filler than fulfillment; at this stage, Batman is losing traction with every chapter, and any energy it has is like the oxygen in the basement room at the end of this episode: fast running out.

The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017)

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D: Joseph Ruben / 110m

Cast: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner

It’s 1914, and in Philadelphia, Lillie Rowe (Hilmar), the daughter of well-to-do society parents is trying to make her way in the world as a nurse. It’s not easy, what with class and racial prejudice making it more and more difficult to treat those needing treatment, so when she meets Dr Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at one of her parents’ soirées, and learns he works at a hospital in a remote part of Turkey that offers medical aid to anyone who needs it, Christian or Muslim, she decides to take a truck full of medical supplies there all by herself. Needing a military escort, Lillie is guided to the hospital by Lieutenant Ismail Veli (Huisman), who is stationed at a nearby garrison. They develop romantic feelings for each other, despite the difference in their faiths, and despite the objections of Gresham (who loves Lillie himself), and the advice of the hospital’s founder, Dr Garrett Woodruff (Kingsley). When World War I breaks out, their romance is put under further pressure thanks to the political upheavals the war brings, and the difficulty in keeping the hospital a neutral place for all…

Despite the tumultuous events that occurred during the period it covers, The Ottoman Lieutenant is largely unconcerned with such minor details as the Armenian genocide that began in 1915, or in exploring too closely the religious, political, ethnic and historical realities of the time. Instead, it sidesteps these issues (for the most part) in order to focus on one of the most excruciatingly bland three-way romances seen in quite some time. If you’re expecting the movie to be a grand, sweeping romantic drama set against a turbulent backdrop, and full of passion and fire, then be prepared: it’s not that kind of movie, and the combination of Jeff Stockwell’s anodyne screenplay, Joseph Ruben’s pedestrian direction, and three tired-from-the-word-go performances by Huisman, Hilmar and Hartnett, ensure that the movie never gets out of the starting gate. And that’s without Geoff Zanelli’s by-the-numbers score, and cinematography by Daniel Aranyó that only seems to fizz when depicting the beautiful Turkish countryside; any interiors appear drab and unappealingly flat in their presentation. Apparently, the movie was given a limited release in December 2016 to allow it to qualify for Oscar consideration. If so, the obvious question is: why?

All round, it’s a woeful lump of a movie, uninspired, straining for momentum and merit, and unable to raise any interest especially when its lacklustre love story is pushed to the forefront. It’s hard to care about Veli and Lillie when their love affair is played out with all the perfunctory flair of a dismal soap opera, and it’s worse that neither Huisman or Hilmar seem interested in doing anything more than going through the (e)motions (there’s certainly no chemistry between them). Hartnett is no better, which means that, performance-wise, it’s only Kingsley who appears to be putting any effort in. Making more out of his character, and some truly awful dialogue, than his three co-stars put together, Kingsley is the movie’s sole saving grace; without him it would be even more tortuous. Even when the movie throws in a couple of action sequences, the viewer’s pulse is unlikely to quicken, and any tension is dismissed early on when it becomes obvious that, one character aside, no one is in any real danger from the Turks, the Russians, or anyone else – though the viewer is at risk of succumbing to terminal lethargy. Best advice: if you have to make one trip to Turkey this year, make sure it isn’t this one.

Rating: 3/10 – what was probably intended to be a good old-fashioned romantic adventure yarn with a plucky heroine and a dashing suitor, is instead the opposite: trite, run-of-the-mill, and poorly executed; when it’s not addressing the issues of the period (which is most of its running time), The Ottoman Lieutenant remains firmly in dramatic limbo, unable to rouse itself beyond the mundane and the banal.

Mom & Dad (2017)

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D: Brian Taylor / 83m

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert T. Cunningham, Olivia Crocicchia, Lance Henriksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank

For the Ryans it’s just another ordinary, humdrum day. Dad Brent (Cage) is getting through another dull day at the office, mum Kendall (Blair) is trying to make sense of where her life has gone, teenage daughter Carly (Winters) is rebelling against her parents because they don’t approve of her boyfriend, Damon (Cunningham), and young son Josh (Arthur) is home for the day. But partway through the morning, news reports start referring to incidents of parents attacking and killing their children. Carly and her best friend, Riley (Crocicchia), discover this when groups of parents show up at their school with murderous intent. Kendall hears about these incidents too, and rushes home to ensure Josh is safe – but little realising that once she’s there he won’t be. With Carly reaching home accompanied by Damon, she finds Josh alive and well, but only just before Brent arrives home too, followed by Kendall. Soon, the three children are doing their best to stay alive as Brent and Kendall show their determination to kill their children, and if it has to be messy, well…

The basic premise of Mom & Dad – what would happen if parents took up filicide with gleeful enthusiasm – is evidenced in a number of cruel, horrific, and yet somehow satisfying ways. The movie begins with a mother leaving her baby in a car on some railroad tracks with a train fast approaching. Later, a first-time mum attempts to kill her newborn within moments of its birth, and as Kendall speeds home, another mum shoves a stroller with her child inside it in front of Kendall’s car. These and other examples of parental rage in suburbia are presented with a joyful sense of mischief that is unapologetic, and the source of much of the movie’s black comedy. Of course, whether or not the idea of filicide is an acceptable source of humour will be down to the individual, but Brian Taylor’s script offers no defence in the matter – and nor should it. It’s a crazy idea, but a perfect one for a low budget horror thriller that rolls along in the wake of The Purge series, and which doesn’t show anything too graphic, such as Georgie Denbrough losing an arm in It (2017). It’s all about the tone – which is admittedly warped – but Taylor pulls it off with brash exuberance, and more to spare.

In doing so he marshalls two terrific performances from Cage and Blair. It’s a given that Cage will go overboard in his portrayal of the world weary Brent (trapped in a life he never wanted), but this time it’s in full service to the story, and it’s entirely in context of his character’s insane, murderous intentions. But it’s Blair who impresses the most, going from shocked and horrified to eerily calm about murdering her children, and offering odd, quirky moments such as when she picks up a meat tenderiser and realises what it can be used for. Both actors are clearly having a lot of fun, and Taylor’s script allows them to explore (admittedly) basic notions of what it means to be a parent and the pressures that go with it. Taylor also gets the action right – as the co-writer/director of the Crank movies should – and does so with an acknowledgment that he’s on a restricted budget, which makes some of the set ups more inventive than expected. It’s not the subtlest of movies, and though it’s far-fetched nature sometimes works against it, it’s still an entertaining, and often very funny, look at what some parents would really like to do to their kids if they were able to.

Rating: 7/10 – surprisingly well put together, and shot through with a casual disregard for the sanctity of parenthood, Mom & Dad is a blithely amoral horror thriller that works well within its production boundaries and its basic premise; wisely choosing not to explain the reason or source of why parents start killing their children, it gets on with the challenge of making it as terrifying a situation as possible – and for the most part, succeeds admirably.

Kate Can’t Swim (2017)

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D: Josh Helman / 90m

Cast: Celeste Arias, Jennifer Allcott, Grayson DeJesus, Josh Helman, Zosia Mamet, Evan Jonigkeit

Kate (Arias) and Em (Allcott) have been best friends for years. Recently, Em has been in Paris following the break up of her latest relationship. When she returns, she has a surprise: having been in exclusively lesbian relationships before now, now she’s met and is seeing a man, Aussie photographer Nick (Helman). Kate is surprised and pleased at the news, and accepts an invitation for herself and her partner, Pete (DeJesus), to spend the weekend at Nick’s lakeside cabin. Kate and Pete take to Nick straight away, and he’s a gracious host, even if the cabin is full of framed photographs of the models Nick has slept with. As the weekend progresses, tension begins to develop between Kate and Nick following a prank where he threw her into the lake. Matters worsen during a game of Sardines when Kate does something to threaten the stability of both relationships, as well as her friendship with Em. It coincides with Pete learning he’s landed a new job that means moving to Seattle (he and Kate live in New York), and it all puts Kate in the position of having to decide what she wants moving forward…

An indie movie co-written by Helman and Allcott, Kate Can’t Swim takes two couples, puts them in a remote, semi-isolated cabin in the woods, and proceeds to challenge each individual’s middle class, aspirational values, and the security of their partnerships. Kate is a writer struggling with her first novel, Em is an artist whose work appears to be recognised but we’re never sure who by, Nick is a well-regarded photographer looking to move from nudes to portraiture, and Pete is on the cusp of getting the job he’s worked so hard for over the last five years. They are all fun-loving, serious when necessary individuals, apparently secure in their own emotions and beliefs, but beneath the surface there are tensions and insecurities that beset all of them (though to different extremes). Helman and Allport aren’t in any rush to exploit these tensions and insecurities, which means that the movie takes a while to get going, content to introduce each character slowly and deliberately, and to provide a few obvious clues as to where it’s all heading. It’s lively in places, thoughtful in others, and engaging enough to keep the viewer interested in what’s going to happen.

However, what happens leads to a final twenty minutes that feels unbalanced against the rest of the movie. Even though things become necessarily more serious, there’s also a large dollop of melodrama introduced to the mix that feels clunky and contrived, as if Helman and Allcott didn’t know how to address fully the issues raised by Kate’s actions and the emotions we learn she’s been repressing. These developments may alienate some viewers, while others may find themselves happier to go with the flow, but either way, the fact there’s a choice to be made is still concerning. Helman’s direction is at least consistent, opting for static shots as a way of highlighting the isolation each character is feeling at various times, and he coaxes good performances from his co-stars, particularly Arias, whose portrayal of Kate is sympathetic, though not entirely so. The inter-relationships are effectively portrayed, and there’s some knowing humour to help leaven the growing drama, all of which makes the movie a mostly enjoyable experience, even if the structure is a little predictable. It’s not an indie movie that stands out from the crowd per se, but it is one that offers a number of small pleasures along the way.

Rating: 7/10 – easy-going and happily laid back for most of its running time, Kate Can’t Swim doesn’t always offer a fresh take on its choice of storyline, but it does enough to hold the viewer’s interest throughout; solidly assembled and amenable in its approach, on this evidence any further movies from Helman and Allcott will be ones to look forward to.

The Mercy (2018)

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D: James Marsh / 101m

Cast: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Finn Elliot, Eleanor Stagg, Kit Connor, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Oliver Maltman

In the summer of 1968, and with his electronics business failing, amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst (Firth) hears about the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round the world yacht race with a prize of £5,000 to the yachtsman who completes the race in the fastest time. Determined to win the prize, Crowhurst gains financial backing from businessman Stanley Best (Stott), and sets about building a purpose-desogned trimaran for the voyage. He also hires a crime reporter for the Daily Express, Rodney Hallworth (Thewlis), to act as his publicist. Problems with the design of the trimaran and getting the right materials delay Crowhurst’s start in the race, and in order to maintain Best’s sponsorship, Crowhurst signs over his business and his home; now he has to succeed. Eventually, Crowhurst, in his boat Teignmouth Electron, sets sail on 31 October, the last day allowed. Leaving his wife, Clare (Weisz), and three children with promises of being back in nine months’ time, Crowhurst soon encounters problems early on in his voyage, problems that contribute to his making a number of rash decisions…

If you’ve never heard of Donald Crowhurst – and fifty years on, it’s unlikely given the circumstances – watching The Mercy may prove a singularly frustrating experience. It’s the true story (modified as ever for the movies) of a man pursuing a dream but lacking in the abilities and skills required to achieve that dream – and knowing it, deep down. On the eve of sailing, Crowhurst tells Hallworth and Best that he thinks it’s a good idea for him not to go, to abandon the idea. It’s a moment of desperate clarity for Crowhurst, and he wants the two men to agree with him and support him in his decision. But the opposite happens: Hallworth acknowledges Crowhurst’s fears as being a normal reaction to the enormity of what he’s about to do. And in that moment, Crowhurst’s last hope is crushed through good intentions. Firth’s performance says it all: Crowhurst is doomed; whatever happens, he won’t win the prize. It’s a terrible, disconsolate moment for the amateur sailor, and for the audience. Now we’re set up for a tale of tragedy. The only thing to do is to wait it out and see just how things go wrong, and why.

But Crowhurst’s story – and this is where the frustration comes in – requires a great deal of guesswork and supposition. What actually happened isn’t in doubt, but the why remains tantalisingly out of reach, which means that the movie has to fill in the gaps as best it can. As a result, Scott Z. Burns’ script becomes less and less gripping as Crowhurst’s voyage continues, and becomes a series of loosely connected scenes that leave the viewer as stranded as the movie’s central character. Marsh is a terrific director – Man on Wire (2008), The Theory of Everything (2014) – but somehow the tragedy of Crowhurst’s story isn’t conveyed as forcefully as it could have been. Firth is good in the role, showing Crowhurst slowly coming to terms with the futility of chasing a dream he can’t ever catch, but Weisz is stuck with a typical wife-at-home role where she’s required to look worried a lot and little else (proving there’s still plenty of “thankless female” roles around in this day and age of the #MeToo Movement). Thewlis is also good as Hallworth (another man whose ambitions weren’t realised), even if he’s more spiv than publicist, and the movie has a beautiful sheen to it thanks to Eric Gautier’s sparkling cinematography. But there’s still a sense, once the outcome is known, that the voyage getting there isn’t as affecting as it should be.

Rating: 6/10 – laced with a sympathetic streak that, given some of Crowhurst’s pre-sailing decisions, is debatable for its presence, The Mercy remains a hollow effort that keeps Crowhurst at a distance from the audience; still, there’s enough in terms of the non-seafaring narrative to semi-compensate for this, and there’s another fine score from Jóhann Jóhannsson to further ameliorate matters.

The Night of the Wild Boar (2016)

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Original title: La noche del jabali

D: Ramiro Tenorio / 71m

Cast: Catalina Zahri, Fernando Kliche, Renzo Briceño, Gastón Salgado, Spyros Papadatos

A writer of romantic fiction, Claudia Moratti (Zahri), travels to the southern most area of South America, and the small town where her partner, the horror novelist Guillermo San Román (Papadatos), grew up. Guillermo’s novels were each inspired by a series of murders that took place in his home town, and specific details of the crimes were always included in his books. Claudia has come looking for answers to the question, did Guillermo commit the murders? The local police chief, Benno (Kliche), seems to think so, and is determined to find evidence that he did. Claudia begins her own investigation, looking through Guillermo’s novels and research materials, until she is faced with the serious possibility that he at least had a hand in the murders. The discovery of another body complicates matters as Guillermo has been dead for a year, having committed suicide. With suspicion falling on both Mario (Briceño), who looks after Guillermo’s home, and Sebastian (Salgado), who helps him, Claudia has to work out who is lying to her, and who is hiding a terrible secret. Things come to a head when she discovers materials in Sebastian’s home that point to him being the killer…

The debut feature of writer/director Ramiro Tenorio, The Night of the Wild Boar is that unfortunate beast, the poorly thought out thriller. It begins well, creating a vivid sense of mystery and a tainted atmosphere for its backdrop. Claudia’s arrival is met with the usual customary suspicion in these cases, with Mario offering her glowering looks, and Benno wasting no time in voicing his opinions about Guillermo’s likely guilt. It’s a strong set up, and even though there are few suspects, each – and including the police chief – appear to have their own fair share of secrets, and each of them could be the culprit. With Claudia feeling like she’s made a big mistake in going there, and her interactions with everyone adding further confusion to the notion of Guillermo’s possible guilt or innocence, Tenorio tightens the screws somewhat, making Claudia – and the audience – feel uncomfortable and more unsafe the more she finds out. But having done a fine job in setting up the central mystery, as well as introducing the suspects, Tenorio then goes ahead and spoils things by having Claudia find copies of Guillermo’s novels and his notes and his research – in his home.

At this stage – and bearing in mind these files have lain untouched for a year – Tenorio’s grip on the narrative begins to unravel, and further developments start to collapse in on one another as the script leads the way to the kind of overly melodramatic conclusion that tests the movie’s internal logic, and makes Claudia’s presence from the beginning entirely problematical. With a relatively short running time as well, the need to wrap things up neatly becomes paramount, but the answer to the mystery of the dead girls is awkward and unconvincing; it feels like a fait accompli. Visually, though, the movie is often lovely if a little gloomy to look at, and Nick Deeg’s cinematography highlights the rugged beauty of the area, while also providing the movie with a sense of unyielding claustrophobia that can feel unnerving. The performances are good, though hampered at times by the demands of the material, and Tenorio handles several tense scenes with aplomb, but remains unable to make up for the way in which the movie sheds any credibility it has built up in favour of a denouement that doesn’t make any sense when judged against what’s happened so far.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie with a lot of early promise that is abandoned thanks to an increasingly muddled script, and a couple of very bad directorial decisions, The Night of the Wild Boar could have been a solid, efficient little thriller; a decent premise finds itself wasted, while moments such as Claudia revealing a personal secret, or a cryptic conversation between Benno and Mario, only add to the confusion.

NOTE: The trailer below doesn’t have English subtitles, but it still provides a good sense of the movie’s atmospheric and slightly uncomfortable nature.

A Brief Word About Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

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If you haven’t seen Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom yet, then here’s something to watch out for. Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a BBC news report about the imminent destruction of Isla Nubar and the plight of the dinosaurs still on the island. Throughout the report, a news ticker tape runs along the bottom of the screen. If you can, pay close attention to the headlines that appear, and in particular, one that relates to a particular world leader… It’s one of the funniest things in the movie, and is actually quite subtle, but if you’re not in the know, it can be easily missed. As for the rest of the movie, well, that’s for another time and place.

Batman (1943) – Chapter 11: A Nipponese Trap

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D: Lambert Hillyer / 16m

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, William Austin, Ted Oliver, Dick Curtis, Eddie Kane

Having avoided being burned alive by throwing himself from the car before it burst into flames, Batman is unhappy to realise that Daka’s men have gotten away with the radium, which they take straight to Daka’s hideout. Meanwhile, Bruce decides to introduce Marshall (Oliver), the henchman they dropped off at the police station, to Chuck White. To this end, Chuck is put in jail in the cell next to Marshall. Chuck gains Marshall’s confidence by admitting to being a burglar and stating that he recently broke into a house where he saw Batman. Marshall is eager for Chuck to meet his “friends” and gives him an address to go to when he gets out. Dick and Alfred arrange for Chuck’s bail, but Daka hears about Chuck being in jail as well and sends two of his men to kill him when he gets out. They orchestrate a car crash – though Chuck/Bruce survives, something they’re not aware of. Later, Batman and Robin go to the address given by Marshall but are overpowered by Daka’s men. One of them sets a bomb to go off, one that destroys the building, sending Batman and Robin to certain death…

Eleven chapters in and finally, Batman and Robin fail to stop Daka and his men from succeeding in one of their plans. It’s a momentous occasion, and one that hopefully will be used as a springboard for the events of the final four chapters, because otherwise this one is yet another filler episode that keeps the serial chugging along and Wilson’s nose draped in putty. The use of Chuck White as yet another alter ego for Bruce Wayne has been moderately successful in terms of the narrative, but each time he’s been brought out it’s purely so that another hideout can be identified and then dropped as a way of Batman finding out more about Daka’s plans. While there are fifteen chapters and each have to be filled with incident, it’s reasonable to ask if the same kind of incident had to be used over and over? And thanks to the speed at which these things are cranked out, it’s not as if Wilson is rising to any great challenge either; he’s just as clumsy as Chuck as he is as Bruce (or Batman for that matter).

And just once you’d hope that Daka’s men wouldn’t report back to their boss that they’ve definitely killed Batman. Just once you’d hope that they’d check first, but once again, it’s a no-no. Each time now it gets funnier and funnier, a triumph of optimism over experience that Daka lets pass every time (he’s very forgiving for a bad guy). Much better – and a serial highlight – is the attempt on Chuck’s life, where a very large truck slams into a taxi and knocks it over onto its side. This has clearly been shot for real on a Columbia backlot, but is brutal in its effect, and if by some miracle of inter-movie time travel, Richard Thornburg was covering it, he’d be saying, “Tell me you got that.” Elsewhere, Linda is again absent from proceedings, getting a man out of jail on bail consists of paying twenty dollars for the release and five dollars for the (slightly corrupt) policeman organising it, and Batman’s real identity is revealed as Chuck White – lucky for Bruce! Chapter 11 isn’t the best or the worst of the series so far, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking – car crash aside – nor is it as entertaining as some other episodes, but when the bomb goes off, it at least has us asking, just how is Batman (and Robin) going to survive this time…?

Rating: 6/10 – another stopgap episode, Chapter 11 continues the semi-moribund influence of Chapter 10, and gets by on an unexpected development (Daka’s men get the radium), and an unexpected and spectacular event (the car crash); treading water is to be expected to some degree in a fifteen chapter serial, but Batman has done this now on a number of occasions, making the viewer wonder if ten or twelve chapters might have been a better idea.

Hector (2015)

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D: Jake Gavin / 87m

Cast: Peter Mullan, Keith Allen, Natalie Gavin, Laurie Ventry, Sarah Solemani, Ewan Stewart, Stephen Tompkinson, Gina McKee

Hector McAdam (Mullan) is a fifty-something homeless man “living” with two other homeless people, Dougie (Ventry) and Hazel (Gavin), in a makeshift “home” at the rear of a service station in Scotland. He walks with a limp and has been in poor health for some time. Needing an operation, Hector decides to get in touch with his sister, Lizzie (McKee), who lives in Newcastle, but though he tracks down her husband, Derek (Tompkinson), his sister doesn’t want to see him. With his annual trip to London to stay at a charity shelter over the Xmas period coming up, Hector determines instead to find his brother, Peter (Stewart). With the aid of one of the shelter’s support workers, Sara (Solemani), Hector tries to locate Peter, but with only a vague idea of where to find him, his chances of being successful are very slim. But one day, Sara has a surprise for him, an unexpected visitor – Peter. As the reasons for Hector being homeless begin to be revealed, he’s also given a chance to reconnect with his family, and to face the future with more optimism than before…

Movies like Hector can appear – at first – as if they’re too slight, or too ephemeral, to work properly. This is borne out by the movie’s opening scenes, which see Hector trudging the streets from place to place and looking forlorn and rootless, a man adrift from his own life but having made a kind of peace with that. He’s good-natured, kind and thoughtful, but above all modest in his efforts to get by. Whatever his previous life, he’s moved on in his own way, even though it’s meant rejecting his family (and losing much more). We never learn what it is that means he needs an operation, but the emphasis is clear: it’s serious enough to make him rethink his situation and want to make amends (he has been homeless, and isolated himself, for fifteen years). As we spend more time with Hector, watching how painful walking is for him, how he has moments where he seems on the verge of some kind of seizure, first-time writer/director Jake Gavin ensures that Hector’s plight is one the viewer is entirely sympathetic of. He’s a good man, well liked and regarded, and thanks to Peter Mullan’s exemplary performance, deserving of our support.

By telling Hector’s story against a backdrop of homelessness and personal hardship, Gavin eschews the usual tropes and themes associated with such elements in favour of an approach that allows for tragedy and heartbreak, but not in a way that’s exploitative or melodramatic. Gavin’s direction is confident yet simple, allowing the narrative to broaden its scope when necessary, and to introduce a number of secondary characters, including Solemani’s ultra-supportive charity worker, that allows for an optimistic tone throughout. It’s arguable that Hector has it too easy – a social worker has helped him get his benefits and a pension, a shopkeeper helps him after he’s been assaulted – but that would be to miss the point of Hector’s story: it’s about taking those first brave steps toward reconciliation, both with his family and with himself. Mullan’s performance is first class, quietly commanding and authoritative, and with an emotional clarity to the character that’s all the more impressive for being so restrained. There’s fine support from Solemani, Ventry and Gavin, though Tompkinson’s over protective (and boorish) brother-in-law feels out of place, something that fortunately doesn’t harm the movie too much. It’s a surprisingly rewarding first feature, touching but persuasive, and with a simple sincerity that’s hard to beat.

Rating: 8/10 – a good example of the antithesis of today’s modern blockbuster, Hector is a small gem of a movie: unshowy yet emotive, and handled with due care and attention by all concerned; shot in a low-key style by DoP David Raedeker, this modest production is intelligent, absorbing, and beautifully understated.

Mary Shelley (2017)

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D: Haifaa al-Mansour / 120m

Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Stephen Dillane, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Joanne Froggatt, Ben Hardy, Maisie Williams

London, 1813. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Fanning) is the sixteen year old daughter of bookseller and political philosopher, William Godwin (Dillane). Mary is wilful, and more interested in reading and writing than contributing to the household chores, and this in turn causes bad feelings with her stepmother (Froggatt). Things come to a head and Mary is sent to stay with one of her father’s friends in Scotland. There she meets the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Booth), and an attraction develops between them. When Mary returns to London, Shelley follows her and their relationship deepens, even though Mary learns Shelley is married and has a child. Leaving her family home along with her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Powley), the pair and Shelley at first live in less than impressive surroundings until Shelley comes into some money. An invitation through Claire to stay with notorious poet and philanderer Lord Byron (Sturridge) near Geneva in the summer of 1816 comes just at the right time: Shelley’s creditors are literally knocking at the door. Once there, a challenge from Byron to write a ghost story led Mary to begin writing the novel that would seal her fame and her reputation…

A heritage picture with all the attendant tropes that go with it, Mary Shelley focuses on the early romantic life of the creator of Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, and does its best to show the trials and tribulations that made up Mary’s life, but without connecting them convincingly with the writing of her classic novel. With any historical biography, the problem lies in recreating an acceptable and authentic sounding series of events to illustrate how a novel, a painting, or a similar work of art came into being. Emma Jensen’s original screenplay does its best – there’s the loss of Mary’s mother shortly after she was born, a theatrical display of galvanism, querulous thoughts on an afterlife – but it can’t quite make us believe that Mary was destined to write her “ghost story” in the way that the script would have us accept. There’s both encouragement and discouragement from Shelley, Mary’s own determination to prove a patriarchal society that it’s dismissal of the efforts of women is wrong, and inevitably, the support of her father at a crucial point in the novel’s publication. That these things happened is not necessarily in dispute, but the way in which they’re laid out is unfortunately quite mundane.

This proves a detriment to the movie overall, with al-Mansour’s efforts held in check by the demands of the feel and shape of the narrative, which is respectful without being passionate, and fluid though without feeling driven. There are the requisite setbacks and tragedies on display, and they come at their expected moments, and so much so that you can tick them off as you watch. This leaves Fanning somewhat adrift in a movie that her peformance dominates, and which allows her to show a greater range and skill in her portrayal of Mary than is usually the case. In support, Booth is a gifted yet emotionally petulant Shelley, Powley is terrific as the envious stepsister trying to make her own mark through an unfortunate dalliance with Byron, and Dillane does seemingly little, but to such good effect that he’s the focus of every scene he’s in. al-Mansour, following up her debut feature Wadjda (2012), is a great choice as director but again is defeated by the apparent requirements for making a period picture. It’s ironic then, that a movie about the creator of a literary figure brought to life by lightning, lacks the spark needed to bring it’s own tale fully to life.

Rating: 6/10 – it looks good (thanks to David Ungaro’s sterling cinematography), and it’s replete with good performances, but Mary Shelley is ultimately too pedestrian in nature and presentation to linger in the memory; the romance between Mary and Percy fizzles out in a perfunctory “that’s done” fashion, her stance as a proto-feminist (and the nominal ease with which she overcomes the gender prejudice of the times) is clunky, and is undermined by the movie’s end, where her fame and fortune is guaranteed by the intervention of her lover and her father – and there’s further irony for you.

Monthly Roundup – May 2018

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Enemies Closer (2013) / D: Peter Hyams / 85m

Cast: Tom Everett Scott, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Orlando Jones, Linzey Cocker, Christopher Robbie, Zachary Baharov, Dimo Alexiev, Kris Van Damme

Rating: 5/10 – when a plane carrying drugs crash lands in the waters off King’s Island it’s up to ranger (and ex-Navy Seal) Henry Taylor (Scott) to stop mercenary Xander (Van Damme) and his men from retrieving the cargo; a bone-headed action movie with a flamboyant performance from Van Damme, Enemies Closer is saved from complete disaster by Hyams’ confident direction and cinematography, a script that often seems aware of how silly it all is, and an earnest turn from Scott that eschews the usual macho heroics expected from something that, in essence, is Die Hard on a Small Island.

From Hell to the Wild West (2017) / D: Rene Perez / 77m

Cast: Robert Kovacs, Alanna Forte, Charlie Glackin, Karin Brauns, Robert Bronzi, Sammy Durrani

Rating: 3/10 – a masked serial killer sets up home in a ghost town in California, until a Marshall (Kovacs) and a bounty hunter (Bronzi) team up to end his reign of terror; a low budget horror with an interesting premise, From Hell to the Wild West is let down by poor production values, terrible acting, the kind of Easter eggs that stick out like a sore thumb (Bronzi was a stunt double for Charles Bronson, and his character name is Buchinski), a threadbare plot, and occasional stabs at direction by Perez – all of which make it yet another horror movie that’s a chore to sit through.

Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018) / D: Don Michael Paul / 98m

Cast: Michael Gross, Jamie Kennedy, Tanya van Graan, Jamie-Lee Money, Kiroshan Naidoo, Keeno Lee Hector, Rob van Vuuren, Adrienne Pearce, Francesco Nassimbeni, Paul de Toit

Rating: 4/10 – Burt Gummer (Gross) and his son, Travis (Kennedy), are called in when Graboid activity is discovered in the Canadian tundra, and threatens a research facility; number six in the series, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell marks a serious downturn in quality thanks to dreary plotting, cardboard characters, and absentee suspense, and supports the notion that the franchise should be put to bed (even though there’s a TV series on the horizon), something that not even the continued presence of Gross can mitigate against, or the producers.

The Debt Collector (2018) / D: Jesse V. Johnson / 96m

Cast: Scott Adkins, Louis Mandylor, Vladimir Kulich, Michael Paré, Tony Todd, Rachel Brann, Esteban Cueto, Jack Lowe

Rating: 5/10 – a financially strapped martial arts instructor, French (Adkins), takes on a job as a debt collector for a local gangster, and finds himself elbow deep in unexpected violence and the search for someone who may or may not have swindled one of the debtors on his list; though breezy and easy-going, and replete with fight scenes designed to show off Adkins prowess as an action hero, The Debt Collector gets bogged down by its neo-noir-style script, and a plethora of supporting characters that come and go without making an impact, or contributing much to the story.

Air Hawks (1935) / D: Albert S. Rogell / 68m

Cast: Ralph Bellamy, Tala Birell, Wiley Post, Douglass Dumbrille, Robert Allen, Billie Seward, Victor Kilian, Robert Middlemass, Geneva Mitchell, Wyrley Birch, Edward Van Sloan

Rating: 6/10 – a small-time independent airline finds itself being sabotaged by a rival airline in its attempts to win a transcontinental contract from the government; a mash-up of aviation drama and sci-fi elements (Van Sloan’s character operates a “death ray” from the back of a truck), Air Hawks is the kind of sincerely acted and directed nonsense that Hollywood churned out by the dozens during the Thirties, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless, with eager performances from Bellamy and Kilian, nightclub scenes that don’t feel out of place at all(!), and a knowing sense of how silly it all is.

Supercon (2018) / D: Zak Knutson / 100m

Cast: Russell Peters, Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, Brooks Braselman, Clancy Brown, John Malkovich, Mike Epps, Caroline Fourmy

Rating: 3/10 – at a TV/artists/superhero convention, a group of friends decide to rob the promoter and at the same time, stick it to an overbearing TV icon (Brown) as payback for the way they’ve been treated; somewhere – though buried deep – inside the mess that is Supercon is a great idea for a movie set at a fantasy convention centre, but this dire, uninspired comedy isn’t it, lacking as it does real laughs, any conviction, and consistent direction, all things that seemed to have been “refused entry” at the earliest stages of production.

The 15:17 to Paris (2018) / D: Clint Eastwood / 94m

Cast: Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Ray Corasani, P.J. Byrne, Thomas Lennon, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikél Williams

Rating: 6/10 – the true story of how three friends, two of whom (Stone, Skarlatos) were American servicemen, tackled and overcame a gun-toting terrorist on a train bound for Paris from Amsterdam in August 2015; with the terrorist incident being dealt with in a matter of minutes, The 15:17 to Paris has to pad out its running time, and does so by showing how the three friends met and grew up, and their progress through Europe until that fateful train ride, a decision that works well in introducing the trio, but which makes this in some ways more of a rites of passage-cum-travelogue movie than the incisive thriller it wants to be.

The Mask of Medusa (2009) / D: Jean Rollin / 73m

Original title: Le masque de la Méduse

Cast: Simone Rollin, Bernard Charnacé, Sabine Lenoël, Thomas Smith, Marlène Delcambre

Rating: 5/10 – a retelling of the classical story of the Gorgon presented in two parts; Rollin’s final project, The Mask of Medusa is much more of an experimental movie than you’ll find amongst his usual work, but it has a starkly defined approach that allows the largely idiosyncratic dialogue room to work, and the austere nature of the visuals has an unnerving effect that works well at times with the narrative, but it’s also an experience that offers little in the way of intellectual or emotional reward for the viewer, which makes this something of a disappointment as Rollin’s last movie.

Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017) / D: Victor Salva / 101m

Cast: Stan Shaw, Gabrielle Haugh, Brandon Smith, Meg Foster, Jordan Salloum, Chester Rushing, Jason Bayle, Ryan Moore, Jonathan Breck

Rating: 3/10 – the Creeper targets anyone who comes near the truck he collects his victims in, as well as the members of a family he terrorised originally twenty-three years before; set between the first and second movies, Jeepers Creepers 3 suffers from tortuous sequelitis, with Salva stretching the franchise’s time frame out of whack, and failing to provide viewers with the scares and thrills seen in the original movie, something that, though predictable, doesn’t bode well for the already in gestation Part Four.

Navy Blue and Gold (1937) / D: Sam Wood / 94m

Cast: Robert Young, James Stewart, Florence Rice, Billie Burke, Lionel Barrymore, Tom Brown, Samuel S. Hinds, Paul Kelly, Barnett Parker, Frank Albertson

Rating: 7/10 – three new recruits to the United States Naval Academy (Young, Stewart, Brown) battle their own individual problems, as well as trying to make the grade; a patriotic flag waver of a movie, and cinematic recruitment drive for the US Navy, Navy Blue and Gold features likeable performances from all three “cadets”, the usual soap opera elements to help keep the plot ticking over, and Barrymore doing yet another variation on his crusty old man persona, all of which, along with Wood’s erstwhile direction, ensure the movie is pleasant if undemanding.

Bedelia (1946) / D: Lance Comfort / 90m

Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Ian Hunter, Barry K. Barnes, Anne Crawford, Beatrice Varley, Louise Hampton, Jill Esmond

Rating: 7/10 – a woman (Lockwood), married for the second time, comes under the suspicion of an artist (Barnes) who believes her husband (Hunter) is likely to end up dead – just as her first husband did; a clever piece of melodrama from the novel by Vera Caspary, Bedelia doesn’t quite ratchet up the suspense as it goes along, but it does offer a fine performance from Lockwood as a femme with the emphasis on fatale, and occasional psychological details that help keep Bedelia herself from appearing evil for evil’s sake.

Peter Rabbit (2018) / D: Will Gluck / 95m

Cast: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Sam Neill, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Sia, Colin Moody

Rating: 7/10 – when the farmer (Neill) who continually tries to stop Peter Rabbit (Corden) and his friends stealing from his vegetable garden drops dead, so begins a war of attrition with his grandnephew (Gleeson); as a modern updating of Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters, purists might want to stay away from Peter Rabbit, but this is a colourful, immensely charming (if occasionally cynical) tale that is both funny and sweet, and which falls just the right side of being overwhelmingly saccharine.

Insidious: The Last Key (2018) / D: Adam Robitel / 103m

Cast: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Javier Botet

Rating: 6/10 – Elise Rainier (Shaye) is forced to come face to face with a demon from her childhood, as it targets members of her brother’s family; another trip into the Further reveals signs of the franchise beginning to cannibalise itself in the search for newer, scarier installments, though at least Insidious: The Last Key has the ever reliable Shaye to add a layer of sincerity to the usual hokey paranormal goings on, and one or two scares that do actually hit the mark, but this should be more way more effective than it actually is.

Deadpool 2 (2018) / D: David Leitch / 119m

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic, Eddie Marsan, Rob Delaney, Lewis Tan, Bill Skarsgård, Terry Crews

Rating: 8/10 – everyone’s favourite Merc with a Mouth is called upon to protect a teenage mutant (Dennison) with pyro abilities from a time-travelling half-man, half-cyborg called Cable (Brolin); any worries about Deadpool 2 not living up to the hype and being a letdown are dispensed with by more meta jokes than you can shake a pair of baby legs at, the same extreme levels of bloody violence as the first movie, and the opening title sequence, which gleefully advertises the fact that it’s directed by “one of the directors who killed the dog in John Wick”.

Vapors (1965) / D: Andy Milligan / 32m

Cast: Robert Dahdah, Gerard Jacuzzo, Hal Sherwood, Hal Borske, Richard Goldberger, Larry Ree

Rating: 7/10 – set in a bath house for homosexuals, first-timer Thomas (Jacuzzo) ends up sharing a room with married man, Mr Jaffee (Dahdah), who in between interruptions by some of the other patrons, tells him a disturbing personal story; an absorbing insight into both the freedom of expression afforded gay men by the confines of a bath house, as well as the personal stories that often have a tragic nature to them, Vapors is a redolent and pungent exploration of a milieu that few of us will have any experience of, and which contains content that is still relevant today.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) / D: Ron Howard / 135m

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt

Rating: 6/10 – Han Solo (Ehrenreich), a pilot for the Imperial Empire, breaks away from the Empire to work with smuggler Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) in an attempt to rescue his lover Qi’ra (Clarke) from their home planet – but it’s not as easy as it first seems; a movie that spends too much time reminding audiences that its main character has a chequered history, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a series of admittedly entertaining action sequences in search of a coherent story to wrap around them, but hamstrung by a bland lead performance, and another round of secondary characters you can’t connect with.

Prankz. (2017) / D: Warren Dudley / 71m

Cast: Betsy-Blue English, Elliot Windsor, Ray d James, Isabelle Rayner, Sharon Drain

Rating: 3/10 – six vlogs, two of which were never uploaded, show a footballer (Windsor), his girlfriend (English), and his best friend (James), playing pranks on each other, until a planned prank backfires with horrific consequences; an object lesson in how not to make a found footage horror movie, Prankz. is low budget awfulness personified, and as far from entertaining, or scary, or credible, or worth your time as it’s possible to be, which is the only achievement this dire movie is able to claim.

Ibiza (2018) / D: Alex Richanbach / 94m

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Vanessa Bayer, Phoebe Robinson, Michaela Watkins, Richard Madden, Nelson Dante, Anjela Nedyalkova, Jordi Mollá

Rating: 3/10 – tasked with clinching a business deal in Barcelona, Harper (Jacobs) not only takes along her two best friends (Bayer, Robinson), but falls for a DJ (Madden) whose next gig is in Ibiza – where she determines to find him, even if it puts the deal in jeopardy; a romantic comedy that is neither romantic or funny – desperate is a more appropriate description – Ibiza is so bad that it’s yet another Netflix movie that you can’t believe was ever given a green light, or that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay stayed on board as producers once they saw the script (or what passes for one).

Bastards (2013)

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Original title: Les salauds

D: Claire Denis / 100m

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor, Lola Créton, Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Florence Loiret Caille, Christophe Miossec, Yann Antoine Bizette, Laurent Grévill

Following the death by suicide of his brother-in-law Jacques (Grévill), supertanker captain Marco Silvestri (Lindon) returns home at the behest of his sister, Sandra (Bataille). Sandra is convinced Jacques killed himself because of his involvement with successful businessman Edouard Laporte (Subor), though she has no proof. Marco moves into the apartment above Laporte’s, and begins a relationship with his mistress, Raphaëlle (Mastroianni); she lives there with their son, Joseph (Bizette). While Marco investigates Jacques’ death, he also discovers that his teenage niece, Justine (Créton), is in hospital having tried to take her life. He also learns that she has been sexually abused, but she won’t reveal who by. As his relationship with Raphaëlle becomes more intense, evidence seems to support the idea that Laporte is the person who assaulted Justine. Proof of what happened comes in the form of video footage, but it complicates things for Marco, and matters are further exacerbated when Justine runs away from the hospital where she’s convalescing, and Laporte tells Raphaëlle that Joseph is going to live with him…

A dark and moody thriller that, in Denis’s customary style, plays with notions of time and space and its characters physical connections to both, Bastards is a deliberately downbeat movie that is like taking a bath in multiple levels of corruption and moral culpability. Marco is a nominal hero, the nearest we get to a crusader looking for the truth, but even he’s not above behaving selfishly or violently in order to get the answers he’s looking for. He’s still the most sympathetic character in the movie – and that includes Justine, who is lost to both her family and the audience through her actions – but Denis, along with co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, ensures Marco isn’t above reproach for his actions, even though he’s doing his best to unravel the mystery of Jacques’s death, and Justine’s assault. He’s a good man with good intentions, but his actions are often as unsavoury as his nemeses. Lindon plays him with a taciturn, no-nonsense approach that hides deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and failure, the self-imposed distance between him and his family causing guilt to be the driving force behind his actions. Lindon is a strong masculine presence, powerful and stocky in a blunt, uncompromising way, and his casting is one of Denis’s best decisions.

There’s good support from Mastroianni as the compromised Raphaëlle, and though Subor is perhaps a little too reptilian for Laporte, he’s still an appropriately chilling figure (a moment where he takes Joseph’s hand in his is uncomfortable for the implication that goes with it). Denis has crafted an adroit though straightforward thriller that teases out its characters’ secrets and motivations in revelatory moments that are impactful dramatically if not quite promoting an emotional response in the viewer. Combined with the way in which the movie is assembled – Annette Dutertre’s editing, overseen by Denis, allows for scenes that feel disjointed and at times, out of place – this is as much an intellectual movie making exercise as it is a polished if gloomy thriller. It’s still a movie to admire in terms of its construction and the way it unfolds, but the lack of sympathetic characters makes it difficult to engage with, or care about the outcome, which is meant to be shocking, both for what is revealed, and for what it means overall. That being the case, the movie falls short of reaching its full potential, and remains a triumph of style over content.

Rating: 7/10 – not one of Denis’s best movies, but still intriguing to watch nevertheless, Bastards has a distinctly grim atmosphere to it, and a nihilistic streak that adds to its intensity; not entirely successful, but even a below par Denis movie is better than ones made by some movie makers operating at the top of their game.

Welcome to Leith (2015)

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D: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker / 86m

With: Craig Cobb, Ryan Schock, Lee Cook, Kynan Dutton, Michelle Schock, Gregory Bruce, Jeff Schoep, Deborah Henderson, Ryan Lenz, Heidi Beirich, Bobby Harper, Todd Schwarz

In May 2012, a white supremacist by the name of Craig Cobb bought twelve plots of land in the small North Dakota town of Leith – population twenty-four. Cobb’s intention was to build a community of like-minded people which would allow them to gain an electoral majority in Leith, and be “in charge”. Once the people of Leith became aware of Cobb’s background, as well as his intentions, they banded together to protect themselves from the prospect of seeing their town overrun in this way. The mayor, Ryan Schock, along with the rest of the town council, implemented an ordinance that required Cobb and those who’d come to Leith to support him, to be connected to the mains water and sewage supply or be evicted from their properties (none were). Following this decision, in November 2013, Cobb, along with a fellow white supremacist, Kynan Dutton, were arrested after walking the streets of Leith carrying loaded weapons. Charges of terrorising the citizens of Leith were brought against both men, and a trial was expected to begin the following year. But not everything went according to plan…

In Welcome to Leith, the battle lines are clearly drawn: an influx of white supremacists versus horrified townspeople increasingly afraid for their lives and livelihood. For most viewers it’s an easy decision to make as to where any sympathies should lie, but the undeniable power of Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s gripping documentary is not that this decision is so obvious, or cut and dried, but that it highlights the irony of a section of society fighting for its place in the world by displacing another section of society in order to do so. This is an aspect that seems to escape Cobb and his followers and supporters, but it’s made abundantly clear by the white supremacist’s actions and behaviour. At a town council meeting, Cobb impugns the involvement of a father, Lee Cook, in the murder of his seventeen year old daughter. It’s a particularly horrible moment in a movie full of moments where negative racial profiling is exposed for the hate crime it is, and so-called Christians defend their First Amendment rights as if they are the only ones entitled to them.

Another irony exposed by the movie is the way in which Cobb and his followers behave, as if by spewing bile and hatred towards others, that it makes their cause all the more agreeable or acceptable. While Nichols and Walker don’t delve into the psychology of Cobb’s beliefs (it’s not really necessary), they do show the ways in which a small group of townspeople became affected by those beliefs, and the fear and mistrust engendered by them – for example, Cook wouldn’t let his family stay in their home while he was at work. More importantly, Nichols and Walker approach the material using a balance that offsets any accusations of bias, instead presenting events from all sides, even if as a viewer, you don’t agree with some of them. Also, what happens after Cobb and Dutton are arrested, and the subsequent legal wranglings that went on, shows just how committed both men were to their beliefs (and there’s irony there too). But if there’s any one moment where Cobb’s white nationalist observance is punctured for good and all it’s when the results of a DNA test he undertook for The Trisha Goddard Show reveal he’s genetically fourteen per cent sub-Saharan African. Now, how’s that for irony?

Rating: 8/10 – a formidable examination of an attempt to subvert a small township for a cause’s own subversive ends, Welcome to Leith is chilling, breathtaking to watch unfold, and a cautionary tale for our times; forget the Insidious horror series, what Cobb and his followers tried to do is really insidious, and the fact that it could happen elsewhere is a message the movie makes very loud and clear.

Batman (1943) – Chapter 10: Flying Spies

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D: Lambert Hillyer / 18m

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol  Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, John Maxwell, Ted Oliver, Lester Dorr

Having survived being crushed by a ship’s gang plank (by simply rolling out of the way), Batman, along with Robin, returns to the Bat Cave, and decides to drop off their (not forgotten) captive, Marshall (Oliver), to the police. Meanwhile, Daka learns that another supply of radium has become available. Batman learns of the radium too, in a secret government message. Believing that his recent disguise as Chuck White is still a better way of infiltrating Daka’s gang, he returns to the Sphinx Club. From there he’s taken to another of the gang’s hideouts, where he’s observed by Daka and given approval to go along with the henchmen assigned to retrieving the radium; this is going to be dropped by parachute from an airplane that night. At the drop site, Chuck gets away from Daka’s men and changes into Batman. With Robin’s help he gets the radium package before they do, and drives off in one of their vehicles. With a tire shot out, and the Caped Crusader unable to control the steering, the vehicle crashes down the side of a hill and bursts into flames, sending Batman to certain death…

With two thirds over, and no end game in sight still, Chapter 10 is a curious installment. It’s better than Chapter 9, but not so good that it matches the standard of Chapters 6-8. For all that, though, this is another filler episode, but one that somehow feels that it has more momentum and more incident than the last time out (it doesn’t, but still, there’s a definite sense of the serial somehow upping its game). Perhaps it’s the serial’s weird sense of humour, which makes itself felt throughout, or the way in which each scene seems to be operating at speed. Hillyer appears to be in a hurry, as is the script, but it’s hard to work out why. It follows the standard formula for a filler episode, so perhaps the humour is an unexpected by-product (though Hillyer is too experienced for that to be entirely true). There’s the scene where Linda comes to see Bruce, gets jealous of White (don’t ask), and then leaves in a huff – and that’s it for Linda in this chapter. There’s Daka assessing Bruce as Chuck through the eyeholes in a painting, and the radium package (which Daka’s agent has trouble lifting) being attached to the kind of parachute that is the epitome of inadequate.

Credibility has never been the serial’s strong suit, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone making it thought they were making anything other than a B-movie with a better than average budget – even if you’re not sure where the money went. However, Chapter 10 does prove entertaining overall, from Alfred posing as a cab driver, to Marshall’s abrupt dismissal from the story, and the inclusion of yet more radium to be hijacked/stolen (which begs the question, just how secure is this stuff?). One aspect that does appear to be getting worse is the recap of the last episode, which this time means that Chapter 10 doesn’t get started properly until after three minutes have elapsed. Of course, this is to ensure that the required couple of bouts of fisticuffs still occur in each installment, but it’s becoming more and more of a liability, especially as the fight choreography remains as laughable as ever. Bruce’s disguise as Chuck is still something of an unacceptable caricature (that nose), but at least the chapter ends on a much more dramatic note than usual. An exploding vehicle? Just how is Batman going to survive this time…?

Rating: 6/10 – neither very good or very bad, but strangely acceptable as a moderately entertaining episode, Chapter 10 of Batman always feels like it could go either way, but it actually holds to the middle ground with some elan; if one wish could be granted, though, it would be for no more talk of radium, a plot device that has now been run into the ground.

Mad to Be Normal (2017)

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D: Robert Mullan / 105m

Cast: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon, Gabriel Byrne, David Bamber, Adam Paul Harvey, Olivia Poulet, Jerome Holder, Lydia Orange, Tom Richards

Beginning in 1965, the noted psychiatrist R.D. Laing (Tennant) was the head of the Philadelphia Association, a community-based psychiatric project based at Kingsley Hall in London’s  East End. There, therapists and patients lived together, and the aim was to provide a restraint-free, drug-free environment for those afflicted by schizophrenia. It was a pioneering experiment that drew plenty of criticism from the psychiatric establishment of the time, which decried Laing’s rejection of traditional treatments such as constant sedation and electro-convulsive therapy. For the purposes of Mad to Be Normal, Laing’s relationship with his girlfriend at the time, Jutta Werner, is transposed into one with an ambitious American student called Angie Wood (Moss). Their relationship provides the backbone of Robert Mullan’s movie, a serious yet distant piece that only superficially explores both Laing the man and Laing the health care professional. While he deals with the dynamics of their relationship, Laing also fights off challenges from the establishment (in the form of David Bamber’s blinkered traditionalist), and the patients at Kingsley Hall itself.

These patients include Sydney (Gambon), an elderly childhood trauma sufferer, Maria (Poulet), who can’t forgive herself for losing her baby, John (Holder), who hears voices, and Jim (Byrne), whose obsession with the moon belies violent tendencies relating to childbirth. The movie works well when it focuses on the patients, and there’s a terrific scene set in New York where Laing coaxes responses from a young woman, Sarah (Orange), who doesn’t speak or eat or otherwise engage with anyone. But away from these interactions, Laing’s life and commitment to his work don’t have the same impact, or come anywhere close to it. This is a major drawback for the movie as a whole, because though there is plenty of tension and dramatic incident borne out of Mullan and co-screenwriter Tracy Moreton’s script, Mullan doesn’t seem to know how to present these incidents in such a way that we get a clear insight into Laing’s own mental processes. He’s eloquent enough when challenged, and Tennant displays a passion and commitment to the role that gets the character through several moments where the drama lapses into soap opera, but as to the man himself, and his reasons for doing the work he does, this isn’t necessarily the forum for that kind of revelation.

This leaves the movie focusing mainly on said challenges, and the slow descent into violent madness experienced by Jim. Despite a terrific performance from Byrne, though, Jim’s story is predictable in the extreme, and the irony of his eventual treatment is hammered home with all the subtlety of an ECT session. But while Byrne is gifted with possibly the best role in the movie (it reminds you just how good an actor he is), Moss is left stranded by a role that keeps her sidelined for much of the running time, and which reduces Angie to the status of a secondary character, even when she has Laing’s child (though not his first; a subplot involving the five children he already has is thrown in for good but not lasting measure). Mullan and the script rarely attempt to explore the efficacy of the work carried out at Kingsley Hall, or show if there is any improvement gained by any of the patients there, and so we see patients behaving erratically though consistently, while Laing becomes more and more depressed himself. That there’s no real dramatic conclusion to all this – the movie ends very abruptly – doesn’t help either, leaving the viewer to wonder if there was any point to the movie, and on which level.

Rating: 6/10 – an uneven and dramatically unsatisfying look at a pivotal moment in the annals of “alternative psychiatry”, Mad to Be Normal is predicated on the assumption that Laing knew exactly what he was doing – and then doesn’t show the viewer how or why he was doing it; rescued by a clutch of good performances, the movie short changes Laing in favour of a routinely mounted biography that only skims the surface of its controversial and charismatic central character.

Every Day (2018)

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D: Michael Sucsy / 97m

Cast: Angourie Rice, Justice Smith, Lucas Jade Zumann, Jacob Batalon, Colin Ford, Owen Teague, Maria Bello, Michael Cram, Debby Ryan

Rhiannon (Rice) is a sixteen year old schoolgirl whose boyfriend, Justin (Smith), surprises her one day by convincing her to skip classes and go to the beach. It’s a wonderful day, one that ends with Rhiannon believing that Justin, who isn’t normally so spontaneous or thoughtful, has changed for the better. However, the next day sees Justin finding it difficult to remember what happened the day before, and back to his usual self. Over the next few days, Rhiannon meets a handful of new people, all of whom are different but who also exhibit similar behaviours. One girl she meets tells her that these people have all been one person, inhabiting each body for a day, and that day at the beach has caused this person – who calls himself A – to want to spend more time with Rhiannon. Though at first she’s incredulous, Rhiannon begins to believe A’s story, and in the process starts to fall in love with him, despite the obstacles between them. But it’s when A finds himself able to stay in a body for more than a day that things become even more complicated…

A Twilight Zone-style scenario given a teen soap opera makeover, Every Day is the kind of inoffensive, and somewhat blandly presented movie that wants its characters to be better versions of themselves, but through the intervention of a body swapping entity instead of going on a personal journey of self-discovery. Rhiannon’s parents have their issues – dad had a breakdown some time before, mom now “works late” a lot – but it’s only when Rhiannon is substituted by A for a day that “she” does anything about these problems. Similarly, a teenager with suicidal thoughts is saved by A’s stepping up and saving the day. Every Day wears its wish fulfillment heart on its sleeve, and Jesse Andrews’ adaptation of David Levithan’s novel is keen to ensure that any drama is cleared away as tidily as possible, and as soon after it’s introduced, as if real life is ever that simple. What this means is that the material remains mostly good natured throughout and any lows are compensated for by the next high waiting around the corner. With the structure and the plotting laid out in such a straightforward, no frills way, the movie rarely moves out of second gear, or gains any real dramatic traction.

However, one area where the movie does excel is in its assembled depiction of A. Played by a total of fifteen actors and actresses (including Rice), it’s this aspect of the movie that works best. Watching so many different people playing the same character, and with all of them, even those with a limited amount of screen time, providing a consistent personality and mannerisms, is the movie’s trump card. A is handled with a great deal of care and attention throughout, and Sucsy and his talented cast ensure that his predicament is handled with a degree of sensitivity and even gravitas that is both unexpected and sincere. With A’s character feeling and sounding so grounded from the beginning, it helps the rest of the movie in terms of the drama surrounding his relationship with Rhiannon. As romances go, it’s not ideal, or practical, and the script doesn’t shy away from the likelihood that not everything will work out as it does in most other teen romantic dramas. But again, things run a little too smoothly, and any tension or close examinaton of A’s condition is passed over, making this a teen romance that can’t quite muster enough passion or depth to stand out from the crowd.

Rating: 6/10 – though the challenge of having fifteen different actors play the same role is achieved with a great degree of skill and confidence, it’s the overall story of Every Day that stops it from being better than it is; lacking in substance and/or dramatic thrust, it’s a movie that ambles along comfortably, while offering just enough to keep viewers interested until the end.

Bottom of the World (2017)

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D: Richard Sears / 85m

Cast: Jena Malone, Douglas Smith, Ted Levine, Tamara Duarte, Kevin Owen McDonald, Jon McLaren, Mark Sivertsen

While on their way to LA and travelling through the South West, young couple Scarlett (Malone) and Alex (Smith) find themselves staying at a hotel overnight where they appear to be the only guests. At one point, Alex sees a man in a hoodie (McDonald) outside their room, looking up. When they leave the next morning, the man is there again. Back on the road, Scarlett becomes ill and they turn back, staying overnight at another hotel. The same thing happens again the next day, but this time, Scarlett disappears while Alex is in the hotel bar. When he tries to find her he meets the man in the hoodie who takes him out into the desert where he tells Alex there are bodies that he’s buried there at a certain spot; he then vanishes. Certain that Scarlett is with a locally based evangelist (Levine), Alex tracks him down to his church, but their confrontation offers more questions than answers, and Alex is forced to accept (or deny) that his trip with Scarlett has all been a dream when he wakes up and finds he is married to Paige (Duarte), and his next door neighbour looks exactly like Scarlett…

Early on in Richard Sears’ mystery mindbender of a movie, Scarlett asks Alex what’s the worst thing he’s ever done. His reply is boring, and no match for her tale of her mistreatment of a severely brain damaged cousin that she was meant to be looking after when she was younger. It’s a disturbing account, and feels somewhat out of place so early in the narrative, but it’s key to the events that transpire once Alex finds himself searching for Scarlett and then trying to decide if his life with her or his life with Paige is his true reality. With elements of both seeping and bleeding through and into each other, Alex’s quest for “the truth” becomes something that threatens to undermine his sanity. Through it all though, Brian Gottlieb’s script keeps bringing Alex back to Scarlett’s grim admission, and the mystery of her complicity – real or not? – becomes an obsession. It also leads Alex (and the viewer) to question the veracity of his memories, and the nature of his relationship with Scarlett. In his “dream” were they running away from a guilty truth, or toward one?

The answer(s) aren’t all forthcoming. Gottlieb’s script isn’t entirely successful when it comes to explaining just what exactly is going on, and while a fair degree of ambiguity is necessary to keep the scenario intriguing, a couple of narrative corners require a “one bound and he was free” approach to resolve matters. This leaves some moments feeling contrived and less than completely credible, and though Sears keeps things resolutely cryptic through a combination of hallucinatory visuals and an unsettling soundtrack, too much comes across as forced and/or unnecessary (Alex obsessing over the one black pea in a can is a case in point). So while the mystery of Scarlett’s story is eventually decided on, it’s at a disservice to the characters, who are required to behave bizarrely just to match the requirements of the plot. Playing two roles, Malone is a captivating presence as Scarlett, and ice cool as the more traditional femme fatale Alex has for a neighbour. As the tortured and conflicted Alex, Smith copes well with a role that could have been too arch and mannered for comfort (though it’s a close call at times), while Levine provides brief but effective support, and Adrian Langley’s apposite cinematography creates two distinct worlds for the price of one.

Rating: 6/10 – there are echoes of David Lynch here that aren’t as successfully integrated as they might have been, and the fusion of dream and reality doesn’t always gel, but there’s enough in Bottom of the World to make it worth watching; a valid attempt to create a waking nightmare, it nevertheless relies too heavily on the kinds of narrative “claim jumping” that requires too many occasions where belief has to be tempered thanks to narrative necessity.