The Little Stranger (2018)

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D: Lenny Abrahamson / 111m

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

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

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

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

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

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The Middle of X (2018)

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D: Peter Odiorne / 82m

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 22 (2018)

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D: Peter Berg / 94m

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

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

Option 1: Seeing the movie (not recommended).

Option 2: Seeing something else.

Option 3: Staying at home and seeing something else.

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

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

Summer of 84 (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Sniper (2014) – $547,426,372

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

Life of Pi (2012) – $609,016,565

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

Hancock (2008) – $624, 386,746

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

Maleficent (2014) – $758,539,785

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

Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) – $870,325,439

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

Breaking and Exiting (2018)

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D: Peter Facinelli / 78m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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D: Jon M. Chu / 121m

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

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

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

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

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

The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

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D: Nicole Holofcener / 98m

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

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

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

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

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

10 Movies That Are 40 Years Old This Year – 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yardie (2018)

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D: Idris Elba / 101m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Hyena (2014)

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D: Gerard Johnson / 112m

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

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

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

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

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

Searching (2018)

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D: Aneesh Chaganty / 102m

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Movie Star (2017)

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Original title: Dog Years

D: Adam Rifkin / 104m

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

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

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

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

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

10 Reasons to Remember Burt Reynolds (1936-2018)

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Burt Reynolds (11 February 1936 – 6 September 2018)

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

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

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

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

1 – Sam Whiskey (1969)

2 – Deliverance (1972)

3 – The Longest Yard (1974)

4 – Nickelodeon (1976)

5 – Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

6 – Hooper (1978)

7 – Sharky’s Machine (1981)

8 – City Heat (1984)

9 – Breaking In (1989)

10 – Boogie Nights (1997)

American Animals (2018)

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D: Bart Layton / 117m

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Hunting (2017)

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D: Joe Dietsch, Louie Gibson / 91m

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Thin Air (2017)

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D: Dylan Howitt / 83m

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

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

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

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

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

A Hundred Streets (2016)

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aka 100 Streets; One Square Mile

D: Jim O’Hanlon / 93m

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer – Ben Is Back (2018)

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

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

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D: Macon Blair / 93m

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

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

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

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

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

Monthly Roundup – August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original title: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aka Maze Runner: The Death Cure

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

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

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

Original title: Angry Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gemini (2017)

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D: Aaron Katz / 93m

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

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

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

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

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

Chappaquiddick (2017)

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aka The Senator

D: John Curran / 107m

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

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

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

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

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

Love Me Till Monday (2013)

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D: Justin Hardy / 89m

Cast: Georgia Maguire, Tim Plester, Royce Pierreson, Sarah Jayne Butler, Sarah Barratt, Christopher Leveaux, Bennett Warden, Ludo Hardy

For Becky Williams (Maguire), life at twenty-five isn’t going the way she thought it would. Stuck in a dead-end job in an office, single, and still living with her mother, Becky is beginning to wonder if she’ll ever find true happiness. While her mother is away with her latest boyfriend, Becky also has to look after her eleven year old brother, Olly (Hardy). Things couldn’t get any bleaker. But a couple of unexpected encounters outside of work with her boss, Steve (Plester), hint at the possibility of a romantic relationship, one that grows on Becky the more she considers it. But all this happens while the main object of her would-be affections, another colleague (Pierreson), is on holiday. Should she keep her relationship with Steve going, or wait until her colleague – known only as HIM – returns to work. Fate intervenes and makes the decision for her, but as with most things in Becky’s life, what she hopes for and what actually happens proves to be something completely different, even when she seemingly gets what she wants…

A bright, entertaining romantic comedy, the basic set up of Love Me Till Monday will be familiar to fans of the genre, and even those who only occasionally watch such movies. It’s another underdog movie, where the heroine is faced with disappointment after disappointment in her search for Mr Right. Here, Becky works in an office where she’s very much the “junior”, both in terms of how long she’s been there, and her “accepted” rank with regard to the other female staff: brassy and ebullient receptionist Vicki (Butler), and classy and immaculate contracts manager Carly (Barratt) (of the three it’s noticeable that Becky wears little or no make up at work, such is her lack of confidence). With a quiet, semi-withdrawn personality as well, Becky’s hopes and dreams of finding true love are further hampered by her choice of men. Steve is a charmer outside of work while remaining stern and non-committal at the office, and HIM, though charming wherever he is, has the aura of being too good to be true. How Becky discovers the truth about both of them is the meat of a movie that drifts along from time to time, but in a wistful, breezy fashion that is engaging and often delightful as well.

Much of the movie’s success is down to Maguire’s sterling performance. Making her feature debut, Maguire perfectly inhabits and expresses a life made ordinary by circumstance and banal repetition. As Becky strives – in her own awkward way – to attain the kind of life she believes she needs, Maguire highlights Becky’s naïvete in believing that having the “right man” in her life will make her happier (she even uses a book that contains love spells as a way of securing HIM). With its improvised feel and upbeat rom-com sensibility, the movie works well, though some elements aren’t given enough screen time – or explanation – to work as effectively as they should, such as Becky’s having a book on witchcraft, the reason why she doesn’t appear to have any friends (bar one) outside of work, and why her ambitions relate only to romance. That said, Hardy injects just enough drama into the otherwise lightweight nature of the material to ensure that it’s not all sweetness and casual laughs, and thanks to Matthew Wicks’ deft cinematography, the movie’s Reading backdrop adds to the likeable nature of it all. Naturally, this is a low budget movie, but it’s also one that makes the effort to make the audience forget that it is. And like Becky herself, it’s better, and more deserving, than it looks.

Rating: 7/10 – though Love Me Till Monday has nothing new to offer, what is on offer is a charming, appealing romantic comedy anchored by an equally appealing, and genuine, performance from Maguire; an undemanding watch then, but one that is pleasant and entertaining enough to hold the attention from start to (optimistic) finish.

The Children Act (2017)

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D: Richard Eyre / 105m

Cast: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin, Jason Watkins, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Anthony Calf, Rosie Cavaliero, Rupert Vansittart, Nicholas Jones

Fiona Maye (Thompson) is a High Court judge who specialises in cases involving the Children Act 1989, cases that often involve a strict interpretation of the law and which require a consideration of what is best for the child, even if it’s at odds with the wishes of the parents. Fiona is married to Jack (Tucci), a classics professor, but in the wake of a particularly difficult case, Jack announces that he plans to have an affair; he’s unhappy with the lack of intimacy in their marriage. Fiona is upset by this but remains reticent until a call from her chambers advises of an emergency case that needs her attention. Jack leaves, while Fiona prepares to deal with the case of Adam Henry (Whitehead), a seventeen year old Jehovah’s Witness who will die from leukaemia unless he is given a blood transfusion. Adam is refusing to have the transfusion, and so the hospital is seeking a ruling to overturn his refusal. Against a background of religious determination and legal necessity, Fiona meets Adam before making her judgment. It’s a meeting that proves to have a profound effect on both of them…

Sometimes a movie has no choice but to rely heavily, if not completely, on the merits of a particular performance. Without that performance, the movie loses its central focus, or becomes less of an accomplished piece, or worst of all, lacks any appreciable impact. Such is the case with The Children Act, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2014 novel, and with a screenplay by McEwan himself. Without Emma Thompson, this would be a hollow movie with little to recommend it (though that’s not to say that another actress couldn’t have carried off the role to the same degree). What comes across, and  very early on, is that Fiona is the whole show, and without her the storyline and the movie as a whole would amount to very little indeed. McEwan is a terrific novelist, but he’s not necessarily a terrific screenwriter, because in translating his novel to the big screen, he’s forgotten to make the elements around Fiona as interesting or intriguing as those that directly concern her. This leaves the movie dependent entirely on Thompson’s performance throughout, and in the process, relegates everyone else to the second tier.

The decision Fiona makes in regard to Adam’s case won’t surprise anyone, but once she makes it, the movie jettisons its legal drama set up and becomes something entirely expected and dramatically demoralising: Fiona finds herself “pursued” by an overly enamoured Adam. Up until now, the story has played out with a keen awareness of the legal, religious and emotional undercurrents of Adam’s case – in the witness box, Adam’s father (Chaplin) is a passionate advocate for his faith in God – but with the verdict in and Adam’s life saved, it becomes an unwieldy drama of misspent longing and unwanted attention that turns Adam from a fierce proponent of religious and personal choice into a drippy, Yeats-quoting stalker whose intelligence and wit seems to have been drained out of him along with his own blood. This sudden change hurts the movie tremendously, and makes the final half an hour something of a struggle in terms of credibility. At the same time, the sub-plot with Jack is allowed to resolve itself with a minimum of effort. With so much initial momentum overturned, it’s again thanks to Thompson’s subtle yet deeply emotive portrayal that the viewer is able to carry on until the end, but with the certain (and unavoidable) awareness that, whatever the outcome, it won’t be as insightful or impactful as what happens before Fiona reveals her decision.

Rating: 7/10 – Thompson’s magnificent performance is the real deal here, and the only deal as well, making The Children Act something of a lop-sided endeavour that’s compelling when focused on Fiona’s emotional confusion, but merely adequate at all other times; Eyre’s direction is solid, but Tucci is wasted in a thankless role, and the whole thing unfolds against a backdrop of repressed emotions that the script seems uninterested in revealing.

Don’t Go in the Water! – The Meg (2018) and Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018)

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It happens so often that it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. A major studio release is announced, and before you know it, a “rival” production is rushed onto our screens. These so-called “rivals” often operate on a fraction of the budget of the mainstream release, have a cast that few people have heard of, and betray their lack of originality at every turn. Such is the case in 2018 with The Meg being pipped to the release post by Deep Blue Sea 2, a sequel/remake that no one wanted or needed (especially nineteen years after Renny Harlin’s enjoyable if still risible original).

The Meg (2018) / D: Jon Turteltaub / 113m

Cast: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Winston Chao, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia Cai, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jessica McNamee, Masi Oka

The Meg is a silly, silly movie – let’s get that out of the way from the start. It provokes far more laughs than it does gasps, but at least it’s aware that it’s preposterous. This is most definitely a good thing, because if it wasn’t so self-aware, this would be an horrendously difficult movie to sit through. There are moments where the script (by Dean Georgaris and Jon and Erich Hoeber from the novel by Steve Alten) strives for serious drama – usually when someone dies, or the gravity of the situation needs reinforcing – but otherwise keeps things easy-going for much of its running time. It’s as if it can’t wait to poke fun at itself, whether it’s by giving Statham lines of the calibre of “Meg versus man isn’t a fight… it’s a slaughter” (though he does miss out on saying “Megalo-don’t”), or having its characters behave foolishly (add up how many times they deliberately put themselves at risk when there’s no need to). It’s also a movie that seems reluctant to give the Meg free rein when the script puts a resort full of swimmers, and a small dog, in its path. Anyone expecting mass carnage is going to be disappointed; better to watch Piranha 3D (2010) instead.

Of course, this is all professionally made with a suitably excessive budget needed to make the special effects look as impressive as possible, but as with many movies that have a larger than normal protagonist at its centre – see also Rampage (2018) – there are problems with the Meg’s size, and keeping it proportionally realistic in relation to its human co-stars. But there are bigger problems: the movie soon settles for being a series of showdowns between Statham’s gung-ho marine rescue specialist and the Meg that rely too often on the Meg swimming off once their encounters are over; so much for being a super-predator. Of course, this repetition is to allow the cast of characters to be picked off one by one, even though it’s obvious just who is still going to be around when the Meg is finally taken care of. Statham is fine as the improbably named Jonas (the makers clearly wanted to call him Jonah – but too much context maybe?), while Curtis and Wilson stand out because they both seem to have the measure of the material, and are obviously having fun. Turteltaub’s direction is competent without being flashy, there’s one climax too many, and sadly, Statham doesn’t get to punch or head butt the Meg (what were the makers thinking?).

Rating: 6/10 – nothing more or less than a summer popcorn movie with no other ambition than to provide audiences with a good time, The Meg is surprisingly toothless when it matters most; glossy and sleek, it goes where it needs to, but doesn’t offer the necessary thrills to make it stand out from the crowd, all of which just goes to prove that size isn’t everything.

 

Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018) / D: Darin Scott / 94m

Cast: Danielle Savre, Rob Mayes, Michael Beach, Nathan Lynn, Kim Syster, Jeremy Boado, Adrian Collins, Cameron Robertson, Darron Meyer

Where The Meg is a silly, silly movie, Deep Blue Sea 2 is a dreadful, dreadful movie, an uninspired retread of the original, and a chore to sit through (unless your standards are non-existent or you’ve suffered a recent brain trauma). Having the number two in the title would seem to make it a sequel, but in fact this is an unofficial remake, with several scenes rehashed from the first movie, and the action taking place in yet another submerged research station where genetic experiments have been carried out on – surprise! – a number of bull sharks. Sooner than you can say “shark lunch in a tin can”, things start to go wrong, and the tasty morsels – sorry, characters – inside the research facility are being picked off one by one. This tries for grim humour at times, but manages to miss the mark at every attempt; it can’t even raise some much needed unintentional humour either. Instead, the main response it provokes is one of profound ennui, and a deep regret that you started watching it in the first place. To say that it lacks energy, pace, commitment, good performances, and a decent script would be stating the obvious.

It does trade in a healthy amount of rampant absurdity, though, as evidenced by the decision to give the sharks a female leader who gives birth (thankfully off-screen) to a dozen or so little nippers who take over their mother’s murderous duties, and who make loud screeching noises when they attack (these sounds are audible above the water line – of course). Unlike The Meg, Deep Blue Sea 2 has no problem with showing the gory after effects of a shark attack, but against the odds this is one of the very few aspects it gets right. Again, the performances range from very poor (Savre) to perfunctory (Mayes, Lynn), while Beach outdoes the sharks for chewing the scenery as (the meg)alomaniacal sponsor of the research facility. Scott, clearly a long way from his days as a producer on movies such as To Sleep With Anger (1990) and Menace II Society (1993), struggles to make anything out of the by-the-numbers screenplay, its dreary nature and one-dimensional characters proving impossible to root for. If you have to see one shark-based movie in 2018, then make sure it isn’t this one. You have been warned.

Rating: 3/10 – awful enough to make you wish for a shark to come along and put you out of your misery, Deep Blue Sea 2 is the cinematic equivalent of chum in the water; brazenly stealing all the best bits from its predecessor and then doing nothing constructive with them, this is a movie that wastes no time in wearing out its welcome, and becoming irredeemably, dramatically soggy.

The House of Tomorrow (2017)

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D: Peter Livolsi / 86m

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Nick Offerman, Ellen Burstyn, Maude Apatow, Michaela Watkins

The House of Tomorrow is a museum built to honour the life and work of noted futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. Run by one of his devotees, Josephine Prendergast (Burstyn) and her grandson, Sebastian (Butterfield), it sits in a beautiful woodland setting but doesn’t have a lot of visitors. When a Lutheran church group led by their pastor, Alan Whitcomb (Offerman), and including his son, Jared (Wolff), take a tour one day, Josephine suffers a stroke. While she’s in hospital, Sebastian finds himself spending more and more time with Jared, and experiencing his first actual friendship. Jared has recently had a heart transplant, and has ambitions to start a punk rock band. He convinces Sebastian to be the band’s bass player, but the time they spend together begins to interfere with Sebastian’s work at the museum, especially when Josephine returns home. Wanting to broaden his horizons, but afraid of hurting his grandmother, Sebastian finds himself living a double life. When Alan refuses to allow Jared’s band a spot at a church talent show, Sebastian uses subterfuge to ensure the museum can be used as a venue instead, something that has far-reaching consequences…

Sometimes it’s hard to work out just what would happen if the movies didn’t have the coming of age tale to revisit over and over. Dozens, if not hundreds of movies each year would vanish from the release schedules, and literary adaptations such as this one – from Peter Bognanni’s novel – would no longer see the light of day. On the one hand, that might be a good thing; just how many times can a teenager be seen to make the same mistakes in a variety of guises without it becoming tiresome? The answer, of sorts, can be found in The House of Tomorrow, a mostly well handled indie drama that takes a home-schooled innocent and throws him head first into the world in order to help him take the first steps towards maturity. Along the way, Sebastian learns to lie and steal (and apparently without regret), and to explore new experiences through his friendship with Jared, and Jared’s sister, Meredith (Apatow). In the hands of first-time writer/director Livolsi, all of this is treated very matter-of-factly, and in a deliberate manner that aids the material immensely, and which prompts good performances from all concerned.

However, though the movie is, on the whole, a good one, it does suffer from a kind of narrative indolence that it can’t avoid no matter how hard Livolsi and his talented cast try. Sebastian’s journey is so familiar to audiences, and the story is so predictable, that it robs the movie of any emotional impact. There’s simply not enough here to resonate, whether it’s Jared’s rebellious spirit and punk sensibility, or his heart condition, or Josephine’s increasing sadness and fear as she begins to understand Sebastian is willingly drifting away from her. Here, all this narrative familiarity is at least offset by the aforementioned quality of the performances (with Offerman on particularly good form), and Livolsi’s attention to detail, but even with Corey Walter’s savvy cinematography and a punk-centric soundtrack that includes tracks by The Stranglers and The Germs, The House of Tomorrow remains a movie that tries hard but succeeds only in offering a number of expected conclusions and outcomes. Even the use of R. Buckminster Fuller and his thoughts on architecture and systems design are used as an occasional diversion rather than as an integral part of the narrative. Which leaves little else for the casual viewer to enjoy, and that’s truly a shame.

Rating: 6/10 – lacking the depth or originality that could have elevated the material, The House of Tomorrow is a perfunctory coming of age tale that offers a diluted crash course in Teen Angst 101; while it’s not affecting, it is at least honest in its endeavours, but not so much that it offers viewers anything more than the barest of dramatic rewards.

Dear Dictator (2017)

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Original title: Coup d’Etat

D: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse / 90m

Cast: Michael Caine, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Seth Green, Jason Biggs

Tatiana Mills (Rush) is fifteen years old when she decides to start writing letters to island dictator, Anton Vincent (Caine). Intrigued by her letters, Vincent writes back, and the pair develop a pen pal relationship that involves Tatiana telling him about her life and problems, and Anton proffering advice on how to deal with them. Many of her problems revolve around school (where she’s not the most popular girl), and her relationship with her mother, Darlene (Holmes). When Anton is the victim of a coup d’etat and has to flee his island country, he heads for the US, where Tatiana finds him hiding out in the garage. In return for allowing him to stay with them, Tatiana and Darlene let Anton help out with various jobs around the house, and continuing to help Tatiana with her problems. While Darlene becomes more confident in how to deal with her boss (and lover) Dr Seaver (Green), Anton teaches Tatiana how to deal with the girls who pick on her, and how to become a rebel – just like him. But the authorities are getting closer to finding him…

Yet another movie that has its origins in an unproduced Black List script – this time from 2006 – Dear Dictator is ostensibly a comedy that strives for relevance but falls well short thanks to its depiction of Anton as a sub-par Castro lookalike, and Tatiana’s tired teenage problems. It doesn’t help either that Anton vacillates between being a hard line dictator and a kindly surrogate grandfather figure. By adopting this approach to the character, writer/directors Addario and Syracuse miss out on the chance to make Anton’s stay in suburbia a truly subversive experience. Instead of making him a good man at heart, how much more satisfying it would have been if his extreme political practices had led to Tatiana adopting more than just his advice on how to deal with bullies. The movie makes a half-hearted attempt at this, but pulls Tatiana back from the edge before things can get too serious (it is a comedy, after all). Likewise, Tatiana’s problems are the stuff of too many previous movies to prompt much more than tired acknowledgment, followed quickly by deeply lodged ennui. As their relationship develops, the script shifts the balance of power between them backwards and forwards until one of them is required to make a wholly expected sacrifice.

So what we have here is an unproduced Black List script that could probably have written itself, such is its reliance on the clichés of teen dramas, and its determination to make Anton more sympathetic than dangerous. With both its central pairing and its central dynamic proving so unrewarding, there’s only Darlene’s interaction with Dr Seaver to fall back on. Ranging from exploitative to criminal (and with an element of co-dependency thrown in for good measure), their relationship provides the subversive ingredient the movie needs so desperately elsewhere (it’s certainly disturbing to see Green licking Holmes’s toes with such relish). But it’s not enough to rescue the movie from avoidable mediocrity, and despite surprisingly good performances from Caine, Rush and Holmes (particularly Holmes), it’s Addario and Syracuse’s inability to give the movie a coherent through line or tone that damages it most of all. Falling foul of that old no-no, the consecutive scenes that have no relation to each other, Dear Dictator is disjointed and unsure at times if drama or humour is the more appropriate context for the material it’s dealing with. Which is awkward as this is clearly meant to be a comedy – probably.

Rating: 4/10 – some of Caine’s more recent choices haven’t been the best, and Dear Dictator is another one to add to the list (though it’s not in the same league as Jaws: The Revenge (1987) – and what could be?); with only a fleeting awareness of how uneven it all is, the movie loses its way very early on and never finds its way back.

Sixteen (2013)

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D: Rob Brown / 79m

Cast: Roger Jean Nsengiyumva, Rachael Stirling, Rosie Day, Fady Elsayed, Sam Spruell, Alexis Zegerman, Christopher Simpson, Deon Lee-Williams

Despite having escaped his life as a child soldier in Congo, and having been adopted by Laura (Stirling), fifteen year old Jumah (Nsengiyumva) is finding it difficult to adapt fully to his new, British life. He’s only been at his latest school for three weeks, and already he’s in trouble for headbutting one of the other students. He has a friend, Alex (Lee-Williams), and a potential girlfriend in Chloe (Day), but otherwise he keeps himself to himself. He wants to be a barber, but lacks the self-confidence to pursue his ambition. When he and Alex witness another student, Josh (Elsayed), commit a violent crime, it causes a rift between them, and brings local drug dealer Liam (Spruell) into Jumah’s life. As he struggles to maintain an equilibrium that is already difficult to achieve, Jumah’s relationship with Chloe begins to suffer just at the point where it becomes more serious, and Liam becomes a more and more threatening presence. His relationship with Laura becomes strained as well, and it all leads to Jumah making a fateful decision that could have dire consequences for all concerned…

The feature debut of award-winning shorts director Rob Brown, Sixteen is a bold piece of movie making that isn’t afraid to paint a dour portrait of average inner city life, and its effect on someone trying to leave behind a terrible past and adjust to better surroundings. What makes this so effective is the performance of Nsengiyumva, who himself escaped from Rwanda during the Nineties, and whose blank expressions coupled with a haunting gaze reveal the pain and anger Jumah is trying so desperately to put behind him. Dominating every scene he’s in, he’s a tightly wound force of nature, mature beyond his years in many ways but also still a child trying to make sense of the new world around him. When he’s first confronted by Liam, Liam expresses veiled concerns regarding what Jumah has seen that would normally intimidate any other teenager, but Jumah is unfazed and unimpressed. And when Liam has finished, Jumah dismisses him with a simple, “I’ve met men like you before.” This is the kind of adversarial relationship he has no trouble with. If only the same could be said of his budding romance with Chloe, a relationship that comes close to foundering completely because Jumah can’t express himself half as well.

Brown, who also wrote the script, arranges his characters against a backdrop of urban misfortune that highlights the daily struggles they all face, whether it’s Jumah’s faltering attempts at social integration, Laura’s working long hours to support them both (her husband left her because he couldn’t deal with Jumah’s behaviour), Chloe’s own need to be wanted, or Josh’s damaged aspirations. Brown doesn’t make it easy for any of them, but it’s through these struggles that he manages to create characters who feel real and sharply defined. Also, Brown doesn’t let the material descend into melodrama, keeping the action credible throughout, even when Jumah decides that his previous life of violence is the only way to solve his troubles. By doing this, Brown ensures an even tone and a steady pace that suits the narrative and which is further enhanced by Barry Moen’s precise editing. Beneath all the pessimism though, there is a message of hope, that a person’s life can change, even if their life till now has been terrifying and horrible. It’s a message that is best encapsulated by the example of its star’s own life, and which goes a long way to making this a movie with a tremendous emotional charge.

Rating: 8/10 – with a bravura performance from its lead, Sixteen isn’t the coming of age tale that it appears to be, but is instead a coming to terms tale that doesn’t soft peddle any easy answers for the tough questions it poses; affecting and mature movie making from a confident and instinctive director, it’s a movie that never gives up on its main character, and never opts for being simplistic.

Operation Avalanche (2016)

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D: Matt Johnson / 94m

Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Andy Appelle, Jared Raab, Josh Boles, Ray James, Sharon Belle, Krista Madison, Joe J. Thomas

It’s 1967 and the US space programme is focused entirely on getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and in doing so, honouring a promise made by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, and stealing a march on the Soviet Union. When the CIA discovers that secrets about the space programme are finding their way to the Russians, they launch Operstion Zipper, an attempt at finding the mole within NASA. When recent CIA recruit Matt Johnson hears that the CIA is planning to send an agent who will be pretending to be a scientist – something Johnson believes would be doomed to failure – he manages to convince his boss, Director Brackett (James), to send himself and three other new recruits (Williams, Appelle, Raab) along to NASA posing as a documentary movie crew. The initial stages of their investigation reveals a startling truth: NASA won’t be able to put a man on the moon until 1971 at the earliest. This gives Johnson an idea: what if footage of the proposed moon landing could be fabricated, and broadcast as if it had really happened…?

By now, most of us will be aware of the conspiracy theory that the US faked the Apollo 11 moon landing, and that it was all shot in a studio somewhere. Capricorn One (1978) switched the moon for Mars, while in Moonwalkers (2015), Stanley Kubrick is approached to shoot the moon landing by a CIA agent. Operation Avalanche uses the notion of Kubrick’s involvement as well (and includes a shot that is technically very impressive for such a low budget movie), but in the end, takes a very different route in telling its somewhat laboured story. As a concept, Johnson and co-writer Boles’s take on things is a little off-kilter, with Johnson able to pull the wool over the eyes of his colleagues way too easily (he lies to them when he tells them Brackett has agreed to their shooting the moon landing as real). He’s also able to manufacture the “moon landing” so anonymously that when it looks as if either the Russians or the CIA themselves are monitoring his activity, he’s still able to bury the supporting evidence of what he’s done in a field – in broad daylight. Overall, these are minor issues, but when the movie takes a darker turn in the final third, a lot more reveal themselves.

For the most part, Johnson’s tale within a tale is a fascinating construction, taking many of the conspiracy theory clichés that are out there and building a largely cohesive story around them. Johnson’s alternate version of 1967 is studded with detail, and the recreation of the period is done remarkably well on such a low budget, but it’s the early scenes of the team’s subterfuge within NASA that Johnson handles really well. When it becomes clear that Johnson and his team are under surveillance, and they don’t know by whom, the movie kicks into gear after a slow start, but though the narrative picks up speed, Johnson’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic and paranoid, leading to a falling out with Williams, and the fear that Operation Avalanche might end up being sabotaged by the CIA (though the script can’t come up with a reason why this might happen). Some of it is risible, some of it is eerily effective, and there’s more that feels as if Johnson and Boles had several more ideas but they couldn’t find a way to fit them all in. The movie closes on a moment of artful ambiguity that is deceptively powerful, and incredibly apt considering the subject matter.

Rating: 6/10 – technically very impressive for a found footage movie, in the end Operation Avalanche raises more questions of its script than it provides pseudo-answers to the moon-landing-as-fake-footage question; with good performances and a subversive sense of period humour, it’s a movie that aims high, but much like the mission it’s “aiding”(?), it doesn’t always attain the goals Johnson has set out for it.

A Brief Word About Danny Boyle and Bond 25

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Yesterday, it all ended with a tweet: “Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli and Daniel Craig today announced that due to creative differences Danny Boyle has decided to no longer direct Bond 25.” And with that simple admission, the possibility that the Bond franchise, already on a creative downward spiral again – is it really twelve years since Casino Royale? – might find a way out of its self-imposed doldrums vanished completely. Say what you like about Boyle and his movies, but even his misfires are still more interesting than the successes of many of his contemporaries. Boyle at the helm of a Bond movie, even one with the increasingly uninterested Craig in the lead role, was an exciting prospect. But “creative differences” have reared their ugly head (again), and the chance to see what the idiosyncratic director would have made of his first proper action movie has fallen by the wayside.

There has been talk of a falling out over the casting of the movie’s chief villain, with Craig putting his foot down over Boyle’s choice of Polish actor Tomasz Kot (Craig apparently also has the final say over the casting of the female lead – what’s that about?). If this is true, then it raises a larger question: why on earth would Eon Productions have hired Boyle in the first place, someone who has made a number of disparate yet successful movies that carry his own unmistakable stamp on them, and ask him to direct their latest mega-budget installment? Why ask someone who has a clear vision in regard to the movies he makes to come on board as a director for hire? And leading on from that, what was Boyle thinking? Here’s something he said in an interview just last year: “I love scale and I love films that will play for everyone, and those are the films I like watching more than anything, so James Cameron – I bow down in front of him, absolutely. But I can’t handle those kind of budgets; I like having a much lower ceiling that you’re constantly battling.”

Perhaps then it’s all for the best. If Eon can’t let a director of Boyle’s calibre make basic decisions relating to casting, then what is he there for? And what hope now for Bond 25?

A Window in London (1940)

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aka Lady in Distress

D: Herbert Mason / 76m

Cast: Michael Redgrave, Sally Gray, Paul Lukas, Hartley Power, Patricia Roc, Glen Alyn, George Carney

Peter (Redgrave) and Pat (Roc) are a young married couple whose jobs are keeping them apart. Peter is a crane driver working construction on Waterloo Bridge during the day, while Pat works as a hotel telephonist overnight. One morning, while travelling to work by train, Peter witnesses what looks like a murder being committed at an open window in one of the buildings opposite the rail line. He gets off the train and makes his way quickly to the flat where he saw the murder, only to find a couple – stage magician The Great Zoltini (Lukas) and his wife, Vivienne (Gray) – both alive and well and with an explanation for what Peter saw. A reporter covering the bridge’s construction hears about Peter’s heroism and the story ends up in the papers. But when Peter learns that Zoltini and his wife have duped him, it leads him into a world of sexual jealousy, showbusiness and danger that has potentially terrible consequences, both for Peter and his marriage, and for Vivienne, whose unhappiness proves to be the catalyst for a whirlwind twenty-four hours…

A remake of the 1939 French movie Métropolitain starring Albert Préjean, A Window in London had, until 2015, been unseen in its original UK version since its release (the US version was trimmed by eight minutes). It’s a shame, as the movie is a deceptively dark thriller that deserves better recognition than it’s received since 1940, and which features strong performances from Redgrave, Gray and Lukas in what is really an unlikely love triangle. An early scene sets the tone for Peter and Pat’s marriage: two years in and only able to spend any quality time together on a Sunday, Peter goes to kiss Pat “goodnight” only for her to yawn and turn away. It’s a telling moment, rendering the increasing awkwardness of their situation in one small action, and in Peter’s disappointed reaction, paves the way for his becoming embroiled in Vivienne’s wish to get away from her abusive husband. It’s rare for a British movie from the early Forties to deal with the subject of domestic abuse, but here the script by Ian Dalrymple doesn’t shy away from the violent emotions that underpin the Zoltinis’ marriage. It makes the scenes between Gray and Lukas crackle with tension, and when that tension boils over, what happens is abrupt and shocking.

What’s also fascinating is the ease with which Peter allows himself to become attracted to Vivienne. It’s as if she reminds him of the feelings he had when he first met Pat, when their relationship was new and exciting (if not so perilous). Drawn along in her wake, Peter is in way over his head, and doesn’t seem to care; Pat is forgotten as he follows Vivienne down the rabbit hole of her showbiz connections and a past that could be her only salvation. The movie maintains a terrible hold over the viewer, as it continually teeters on the edge of a happy ending – surely there’ll be a happy ending – but there’s a continual sense of foreboding throughout. And when the ending does arrive, it’s like a gut punch delivered full force. It’s a movie that’s tough and uncompromising in its own way, and which doesn’t pander to the accepted values of the time, preferring instead to retain the fatalistic Gallic flavour of the original. With an intriguing look at pre-war London, and scenes taking place at the site of Waterloo Bridge’s construction, this is an intimate and unsettling reflection of a time before things became really, really dark.

Rating: 7/10 – with fine performances from its three leads, and a dark, unnerving tone that Mason exploits to maximum effect, A Window in London is a minor British classic that deserves a wider, modern audience; a psychological drama in many respects, it’s also a nervy thriller and a doomed love story – though not in the way that you might be expecting.

NOTE: There’s no trailer currently available for A Window in London.

Blush (2015)

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Original title: Barash

D: Michal Vinik / 85m

Cast: Sivan Noam Shivon, Hadas Jade Sakori, Dvir Benedek, Irit Pashtan, Amit Muchtar, Bar Ben Vakil, Hila Gozlan, Einav Levi, Reut Akkerman

Naama (Shivon) is a typical Israeli teenager, living a different life from the one her parents (Benedek, Pashtan) believe she lives. Away from her home – where she’s something of a moody presence – Naama spends time with her best friends, Iris (Gozlan) and Lili (Levi), taking drugs and having casual sex with random boys. Her parents are more concerned with her older sister, Liora (Vakil), who’s a secretary in the Army, but who it soon transpires, has run off with her latest boyfriend. While the search for Liora escalates, Naama meets Dana (Sakori), a confident free spirit who she finds herself attracted to. The two become friends, and soon Dana is introducing Naama to the nightclub scene in Tel Aviv. Naama and Dana become lovers, but what is a serious development for Naama, appears to be less so for Dana, whose past hints at her having unresolved issues that threaten their relationship. When a trip to Tel Aviv takes an unexpected turn, Naama is forced to confront both the reality of her relationship with Dana, and her new-found sexuality…

A frank and appealing exploration of racial, sexual and political tensions in modern-day Israel, Michal Vinik’s debut feature (which she also wrote) is a movie that tells a familiar tale but with an edge that’s borne out of its setting and the parochialism of Naama’s social background. It’s a movie that avoids depicting easy sentimentality or indulging in melodramatic flourishes, and which subverts audience expectations in often clever and unexpected ways. One such occasion occurs when Naama, high on a drug whose effects will last for several hours, is given no choice but to accompany her mother on a trip to the military base where Liora is stationed. What feels like an opportunity for some embarrassing comedy at Naama’s expense, instead leads to an outpouring of rage at an unsuspecting (and inflexible) guard that is a perfect representation of the anger and frustration that Naama feels in her own life. So extreme is this outpouring that her mother can only stand and watch, unable to intervene. Elsewhere, Vinik casts an acerbic eye over a family dynamic that includes a father whose hatred of Palestinians is all-consuming, and a rebellious older sister whose personal liberation comes at the expense of her cultural heritage.

For much of the movie, this family dynamic, with its roiling undercurrents of inter-personal animosity, is the movie’s trump card, and easily more interesting than the somewhat standardised coming-of-age tale that sits at its centre. Though Naama is a wonderfully realised character – thanks to Shivon’s tough, unsparing efforts – and her sexual awakening is handled with a delicacy that’s at odds with the jarring discomfort of the social conventions she’s expected to adhere to, there’s still the feeling that we’re in much charted territory, even down to the inevitable betrayal that lies ahead of her. To offset this, Vinik employs Shai Peleg’s sharply composited cinematography to present a world that is both familiar and alien, and even to its protagonists. Often the frame teems with details that can be easily missed, visual cues that point to the stability of Naama’s emotional state. There are terrific performances from all concerned, with Shivon a standout as Naama, Benedek proving an uncompromising bull-like presence, and Pashtan quietly impressive as Naama’s mother, her passive body language and blank expressions hiding the kind of emotional intensity that has been repressed for far too long. In the end, it’s not the sadness of Naama’s failed romance that resonates, but the idea that it’s her mother’s life that is the future she’s locked into.

Rating: 8/10 – a mixture of the bold and the commonplace (dramatically speaking), Blush offers a fascinating insight into the trials and tribulations of an average Israeli family and the challenges faced when trying to be different; full of telling moments and deft directorial touches that add poignancy to an otherwise familiar tale of burgeoning sexual expression, this is finely tuned for the most part, and with a well-defined vibrancy that makes it all the more engaging.

Most Likely to Murder (2018)

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D: Dan Gregor / 99m

Cast: Adam Pally, Rachel Bloom, Vincent Kartheiser, Doug Mand, John Reynolds, Didi Conn, Ethan Phillips, Julia Goldani Telles, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Bonnie Rose

Billy (Pally), the one-time king of his local high school, is now, ten years later, working at a dead-end job in a Las Vegas hotel. Deciding it’s time for a holiday, he returns home to his parents (Conn, Phillips), but makes out he’s successful and on the verge of completing a major deal. Billy reconnects with his old friend, Duane (Mand), but finds that most everyone else in town isn’t as pleased to see him back, including old flame, Kara (Bloom). Billy left her behind to go to Las Vegas; now she’s dating Billy’s neighbour and town pharmacist, Lowell (Kartheiser). When Lowell’s mother dies suddenly, Billy becomes suspicious when he realises that Lowell has lied to the police. Convinced that Lowell is a killer, Billy sets about gathering evidence, and even voices his suspicions to Lieutenant Perkins (Reynolds). But with everyone believing Lowell to be a pillar of the community, and unable to produce clear evidence that Lowell has killed his mother, Billy decides to return to Las Vegas. Until Kara notices something strange about the pharmacy inventory…

A valiant attempt to combine comedy with a murder mystery, Most Likely to Murder is the kind of eccentric mash-up that needs to be on its toes with both aspects of its construction. It’s moderately successful on both counts, but makes mistakes along the way that could have been easily avoided. First is Billy himself, a self-aggrandising, arrogant, insensitive jerk whose character arc is non-existent until the very end when the script – previously uninterested in giving him any redeeming features – gets him to do an abrupt volte face and reveal a previously well hidden (if not absent) conscience. The second is the mystery itself, which, though the movie has a great deal of fun with the whole did-he-didn’t-he? angle, is too laboured and predictable to work as effectively as needed, and keen-eyed fans of murder mysteries will correctly guess the outcome well in advance of the movie revealing it. So, as a result, the movie has a lead character who’s immediately unlikeable and behaves inappropriately because it drives most of the comedy, and a murder mystery that is dependent on making the main suspect as guilty looking as possible but only because, in Billy’s eyes, he’s a “bit weird”.

There are moments when the script – by co-star Mand and director Gregor – contorts itself in its efforts to keep things moving, and the movie’s pace dips when it has to choose between being funny or serious. This leads to odd moments such as Billy’s brief “interaction” with Duane’s mother (Rose), a bathroom “reveal” that defies the belief that “Lowell has no pole”, and a running joke involving a VHS tape of Billy and Lt. Perkins’ wife (Jones) from high school that everyone wants to see. Against the odds, the performances make things far more enjoyable than the script allows for, with Pally embracing Billy’s faults in a way that, while not making him sympathetic, does at least allow the viewer to understand him. There’s good support from Bloom and Mand, and Reynolds finds different ways to play henpecked and exasperated without it feeling forced, but if anyone has a hard time, it’s Kartheiser, who has to deal with the script’s determination to make Lowell as weird as possible to fit Billy’s suspicions. He does what he can but there are clear moments when the actor is struggling to keep his performance on track. By the end, you’ll know if he’s succeeded, but before then, this is a movie that doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to remain entirely interested in Billy’s search for the truth.

Rating: 5/10 – moderately funny with a moderately interesting murder mystery, Most Likely to Murder will exasperate some viewers while proving moderately entertaining to others; the kind of movie that comes and goes with little fanfare, it’s worth checking out if you’re in an undemanding mood, but anyone looking for something with a bit more substance would be wise to look elsewhere.

Earthworm Tractors (1936)

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aka A Natural Born Salesman

D: Ray Enright / 69m

Cast: Joe E. Brown, June Travis, Guy Kibbee, Dick Foran, Carol Hughes, Gene Lockhart, Olin Howland, Joseph Crehan, Charles C. Wilson

Alexander Botts (Brown) is a self-professed natural born salesman. Looking to impress his girlfriend, Sally (Hughes), and win her hand in marriage, Botts takes a job with the Earthworm Tractor Company as a master salesman and mechanic (even though he has no experience with tractors at all). Sent to the midwest town of Cypress City, Botts is tasked with selling tractors to an old, intransigent lumberman called Johnson (Kibbee). Even with the aid of Johnson’s daughter, Mabel (Travis), Botts finds the old man a hard sell, and his efforts to impress the lumberman usually end in calamity. A stroke of luck keeps Botts in his job, and he becomes even more determined to clinch the deal, but one more disaster ruins his chances, both with the old man, and with Mabel. Chastened, Botts heads home to seek solace with Sally, but that idea doesn’t work out either. Still in danger of losing his job, Botts returns to Cypress City intending to make one last effort to change Johnson’s mind, and win back Mabel…

Based on the character created by William Hazlett Upson in a series of stories for The Saturday Evening Post, Earthworm Tractors trades heavily on Joe E. Brown’s ebullient screen persona, and a number of slapstick action sequences based around Botts’ misuse of an Earthworm Tractor (often with Johnson as an unwilling passenger). It’s something of a curio now, an off-centre comedy with the requisite romantic elements, that looks and feels more like a silent movie given an audio upgrade than a movie released in 1936. But while it has the perfunctory quality inherent in so many low budget B-movies of the Thirties – all the characters are recognisable staples of the genre, the camerawork, editing and score are all adequate without standing out – there’s an energy to the movie that keeps the viewer entertained as each one of Botts’ plans comes to an ignoble, and often destructive end. Working from a script by Richard Macaulay, Joe Traub and Hugh Cummings, Enright and his star keep things moving with impressive dexterity, imbuing even the most pedestrian of scenes with a comic sheen that highlights Brown’s skills as a comic actor, and his director’s deft understanding of what constitutes effectiv physical comedy.

Brown is irrepressible as Botts (even when he’s down, a contradiction that works when it shouldn’t), and his infectious smile goes a long way towards keeping the viewer rooting for him throughout. Of the rest of the cast, Kibbee is notable for another variation on his grouchy old man routine, though Travis and Hughes are, frankly, too bland to make much of an impact. However, the acting isn’t the movie’s focal point. Rather it’s the impressive-for-a-low-budget-movie stunt sequences involving the Earthworm Tractor. The finale – which takes place in a quarry that’s primed with explosives that will inevitably be set off – sees Botts, Johnson and the Earthworm Tractor having to negotiate each detonation and a rickety old wooden bridge before reaching safety, and it’s this sequence that is the movie’s highlight. Along the way there are numerous examples of clever ideas that have been used cleverly, such as the couple of occasions where Botts is thrown bodily from Johnson’s premises and onto the ground, only for him to land on a carefully placed mattresss on the third occasion. Little moments such as that one help make the movie resonate much more with the viewer, and though some of those moments are almost thrown away (though deliberately), the ones that are included help make the movie as silly and as entertaining as it is.

Rating: 7/10 – a slapstick comedy with romantic overtones and a quiet sense of irony regarding its capitalist message, Earthworm Tractors is still very definitely a Thirties movie, but one that’s flecked with nice touches and occasional, surreal moments; Brown is the main star, but the likes of Lockhart and Crehan boost the supporting cast thanks to their efforts, and Enright orchestrates it all with a dexterity and prowess that belies his reputation as a journeyman director.

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

Trailer – Green Book (2018)

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It looks and sounds exactly like a shaggy dog story: a white New York nightclub bouncer takes a job driving a black pianist around the Deep South on a concert tour – in the 1960’s. What could possibly go wrong? Inspired (as the poster has it) by a true friendship, Green Book clearly has awards bait written all over it, and the double acting powerhouse of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is definitely something to look forward to, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of this movie is its director and co-screenwriter, Peter Farrelly. Known, along with his brother Bobby, for some of the most raucous and indelicate of comedies of the last twenty-five years, Farrelly would appear to be an odd choice for a tale of inter-racial harmony, and especially when you consider his last three movies were Hall Pass (2011), The Three Stooges (2012), and Dumb and Dumber To (2014). But the trailer for Green Book – and despite its obvious yearnings for Oscar nominations come February 2019 – shows Farrelly upping his game and getting the measure of both the period and a friendship that doesn’t depend on madcap antics or toilet humour. There is humour, mostly from Mortensen’s less than worldly Tony Lip, but you can see already that his performance won’t be as broad as it looks, while Ali’s exasperated Don Shirley has a quiet sincerity that belies a more passionate soul underneath his reserve. So, early indications are that this could be a movie to resonate with its audience, and in its way, to hold up a mirror to the continuing racial and class divisions that still plague the US fifty years on.

Permission (2017)

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D: Brian Crano / 98m

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, Gina Gershon, François Arnaud, Morgan Spector, David Joseph Craig, Jason Sudeikis

Anna (Hall) and Will (Stevens) have been together since forever, a couple with no other relationship experience except their own. They’ve never lived as a couple with anyone else, never had sex with anyone else, and never felt that they’ve missed out on anything as a result. In short, they live in a state of blissful monogamy. Will is an artisan who makes furniture and is renovating a house for he and Anna to move into, while Anna is finishing up her music thesis. Will has begun to believe that it’s the perfect time to propose, but at the same dinner in which he plans to pop the question, another one is raised by Reece (Spector), the partner of Anna’s brother, Hale (Craig): how can either of them be sure each is “the one” when they’ve never “been” with anyone else? Will holds off on proposing, and it isn’t long before both of them are contemplating the idea of sleeping with other people. Soon an agreement is reached whereby Anna meets musician Dane (Arnaud), and Will meets wealthy divorcée, Lydia (Gershon). But their agreement soon starts to cause problems between them…

It’s not immediately obvious while watching Permission, but Brian Crano’s second feature after the more easy-going A Bag of Hammers (2011), has a secret agenda that it doesn’t reveal until at the very end. You could say it’s in the nature of a twist, something that the viewer won’t see coming, but with any good twist the clues should be woven into the narrative from the start so that even if the twist really does come as a complete surprise then at least the viewer can look back and – hopefully – spot those moments where they were hoodwinked. Unfortunately, writer/director Crano doesn’t do this, so when one of his two main characters does pitch that curveball, it’s likely to provoke more headscratching than nodding in agreement. But before then, Crano is already sending the viewer mixed messages, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. Anna and Will are set up initially as the poster couple for committed monogamy, but the speed with which they allow Reece’s poser to have them throwing away their commitment to each other is as unseemly as Anna’s later encounter with a gallery owner.

Of course, this is the thrust of the movie: is Anna and Will’s specific kind of monogamy healthy enough for a relationship to succeed? But the material is too uneven to provide any kind of definitive answer (though it does decide that casual hook-ups are a no-no), and so instead of having Anna and Will explore other sexual experiences and then bring those experiences back to their own relationship, both engage in new relationships that test their own commitment in different ways. Crano can’t resist throwing in some clichés – Will asks if Dane is bigger than him, Dane falls in love with Anna – but too often the script fails to relate things back to Will and Anna except in the most perfunctory of ways. Hall is as spiky and watchable as ever, while Stevens has more of a comic role that feels at odds with the intended drama of the material. As the objects of Will and Anna’s new affections, Gershon is breezy and likeable while Arnaud is left high and dry by his character having nowhere to go. There’s an intriguing sub-plot involving Hale’s desire to have a baby (which isn’t shared by Reece), and at times this is more interesting, but overall this is a movie that puts its central characters into a number of uncomfortable situations and then gifts them a convenient way out almost every time – so where’s the lesson there?

Rating: 6/10 – if monogamy is your thing and “well-meaning” affairs are the antithesis of what you believe is right, then Permission won’t be the movie for you; even as a potential comedy of errors and/or manners it falls short, and if the movie has any kind of message it’s that you actually don’t have to be careful what you wish for.

Let the Corpses Tan (2017)

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Original tltle: Laissez bronzer les cadavres

D: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani / 88m

Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Hervé Sogne, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Dorylia Calmel, Dominique Troyes

On a remote outcrop of land, an abandoned church and its surrounding buildings has become the home of a once in-demand artistic muse Madame Luce (Löwensohn), her partner, an unscrupulous lawyer called Brisorgueil (Marchese), and a bohemian writer, Max Bernier (Barbé), who was once her lover. One day they are joined by a group of men – Rhino (Ferrara), Gros (Bonvoisin), and an unnamed young man (Nisse) – who, while on their way back from getting supplies at a nearby town, rob an armoured car of 250 kilos of gold bullion. But as they head back to the church, they find themselves picking up a woman, Mélanie (Calmel), her young son, and the boy’s nanny (Sainsily). The woman proves to be Max’s wife, there to hide out after abducting her son from her ex-husband who has custody. Meanwhile, two motorcycle cops (Sogne, Troyes) become intrigued by a sighting of Max’s wife, and decide to ride out to Madame Luce’s, a decision that will prove to have a number of far-reaching consequences for everyone there…

A Franco-Belgian production adapted from the novel of the same name by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, Let the Corpses Tan is a heavily stylised kaleidoscope of unflinching violence  supported by a bravura visual palette that employs all kinds of cinematic trickery to tell its tale of intrigue and betrayal and the legacy of the Golden Woman (Löwensohn’s Madame Luce, albeit in younger days). It’s an absurdist Euro-meta-Western, straight out of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and with compositions by Ennio Morricone from the period that fit neatly into Cattet and Forzani’s excessively mounted pastiche. Replete with every trick in the book to add energy and pizzazz to its flamboyant tale, the movie is exhausting to watch, with the camerawork and the editing designed in tandem to assault the eyes and render any resistance as futile. This is a movie that wants to dominate its audience into submission, to send it reeling away at the movie’s end having been visually assaulted by the extent of Cattet and Forzani’s colour drenched aesthetic. But while it does have an excess of, well… excess, Let the Corpses Tan doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights it sets for itself, and for all the visual distractions, its basic premise lacks conviction.

It’s nearly always the same: the more striking a movie is to look at, and the more its creators rely on creating an overly stylised mise en scene, the more likely it is that the story isn’t on the same level. Here this is unfortunately the case, as Cattet and Forzani (who also wrote the screenplay) forget to make any of the characters relatable or sympathetic, and though you could argue that this might be deliberate, when you don’t even care who gets out alive – or at all – then an opportunity has been missed. Such is the case with a movie where the expected body count happens at regular enough intervals but without any of them making an impact or eliciting an emotional response in the viewer. It’s rote storytelling, with the original source material diluted and weakened by the visual artifice it’s asked to support. The cast struggle too, with Löwensohn behaving as if Madame Luce is still tripping from the Seventies, while the male characters are pretty much indistinguishable from each other. And by the end even the violence has become tiresome. There’s a better movie hidden somewhere inside Cattet and Forzani’s screenplay, but in allowing themselves free rein with the movie’s look, that particular version was always doomed to stay hidden.

Rating: 6/10 – though visually adventurous and on occasion quite audacious – a fantasy sequence where the nanny’s clothes are ripped to shreds by gunfire leaving her naked is a prime example – nevertheless Let the Corpses Tan is only partly successful; a movie with style in (over-)abundance, but without the necessary substance to back it up, this can be enjoyed on a basic level, but those looking for more than just visual panache would do better to look elsewhere.

7:19 (2016)

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D: Jorge Michel Grau / 94m

Cast: Demián Bichir, Héctor Bonilla, Óscar Serrano, Azalia Ortiz, Octavio Michel Grau, Carmen Beato

On the morning of 19 September 1985, the staff at an office building in Mexico City begin arriving for work. Already there is the building’s caretaker, Martin Soriano (Bonilla), who is waiting to go home having been there overnight. As he waits, the building becomes busier and busier, with cleaners and maintenance workers getting on with their tasks while people who work in the various offices arrive and chat at the beginning of their day. It’s an average Thursday, until at 7:19 am precisely, an earthquake registering 8.0 on the Richter Scale hits the seven storey building and brings it crumbling to the ground. Once the debris has settled, there are survivors, but they’re trapped beneath tons of rubble. There’s Dr Fernando Pellicer (Bichir), who’s a lawyer as well as a doctor, and who’s legs are trapped. He discovers a flashlight that’s just within reach. When he turns it on, he finds that Martin is trapped several feet away. As time passes, other survivors in other parts of the rubble make themselves known, and as they wait to be rescued, they all try to keep each other from despairing or losing hope…

In terms of its timing, this shortlisted entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards (it wasn’t selected), appears to be a movie that’s arrived at too far a remove from the original event to make much of an impact. It’s a simple, straightforward movie as well, devoid of any major special effects sequences – the earthquake itself is depicted from within the lobby of the building, and is effectively handled if brief – and focusing on Pellicer and Martin as they struggle to maintain their composure and their strength while trapped under a building that has collapsed on top of them. Anyone familiar with Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) will recognise the basic set up, as Bichir and Serrano (until very late on), are the only people we can see. We hear others, and one character has a radio that keeps everyone in touch with what’s happened and what is happening, but otherwise this is a two-man show. As the beleaguered pair, Bichir and Serrano acquit themselves well, and display mixed feelings of courage and fear that highlight the uncertainty of their situation. For them, every shudder and shift of the debris around them could mean a crushing death.

With the decision made to concentrate on Pellicer and Martin, Grau and co-scripter Alberto Chimal opt for a visual conceit post-quake to emphasise the horrible nature of their circumstances. The frame is reduced considerably, almost to an Academy ratio, as we focus closely on Pellicer. As he comes to terms with his plight, so the screen widens and expands to encompass the two men and the apparent unlikelihood of their being rescued. It’s a move designed to put the audience in the thick of things, to help them feel as helpless as the characters, but it’s also oddly distracting, a visual motif that keeps you watching for the changes in scope rather than the inevitable issues that Martin has with Pellicer. Grau switches back and forth between the two men in an unfussy, severe style that plays down the chances of any visual flourishes, and the disembodied voices, along with a number of distinct sound effects, illustrate the range of emotions felt by those who have been trapped. There’s little in the way of subtext or broader social themes, just a no frills, stripped back exploration of the will to survive against overwhelming odds in a seemingly impossible situation.

Rating: 7/10 – simply told, and with a minimum of artifice or glamour, 7:19 is a sobering, grimly effective story of quiet heroism and strength in adversity; dour for the most part – but deliberately so – this doesn’t always carry the emotional wallop that might be expected, but it is a finely tuned, true-to-life drama nevertheless.

NOTE: Alas, there isn’t a trailer with English subtitles available for 7:19.

Pin Cushion (2017)

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D: Deborah Haywood / 82m

Cast: Joanna Scanlan, Lily Newmark, Sacha Cordy-Nice, Saskia Paige Martin, Bethany Antonia, Loris Scarpa, Chanel Cresswell, John Henshaw, Isy Suttie, Nadine Coyle, Bruce Jones

It’s time for a new start for Lyn (Scanlan) and her teenage daughter, Iona (Newmark). Having moved to a new town, both are ready to fit in with their new surroundings. But several things aren’t likely to work in their favour: Lyn is a hunchback whose right leg is shorter than the other; she’s also socially awkward. Iona is almost desperate to fit in, but she has less life experience than her peers, and is easily manipulated. At her school she tries to be friends with a trio of girls – Keeley (Cordy-Nice) and her cohorts in bullying, Stacie (Martin) and Chelsea (Antonia) – and though she’s treated appallingly by them, Iona still regards them as her best friends, even when Keeley steals away the one boy (Scarpa) who’s shown any interest in her. Meanwhile, Lyn struggles with self-esteem and -confidence issues, and is rebuffed by everyone she meets, from an aggressive neighbour (Cresswell) to the organiser of a local support group (Suttie). As each suffers, their once solid relationship begins to fracture and tear…

When we first meet Lyn and Iona, their combined appearances immediately mark them out as different, as the kind of people society in general will be unkind to. And so it proves in Deborah Haywood’s first feature, a strikingly misanthropic and unremitting tale of deliberate social exclusion and unconscionable bullying. That both Lyn and Iona are victims is a given: they mis-read social cues, trust in others even when experience teaches them they shouldn’t, and persevere in the face of untold setbacks. They’re figures of fun for the people they encounter, a source of endless amusement and/or disgust, but such is the nature of their own needs that they carry on, hoping to make some connection – any connection – that can exist independently of their own. Being that much older (if not wiser), Lyn is more reluctant to engage with others; she’s had enough disappointment in her life already, and the depth of the pain she’s had to endure because of her physical appearance can only be guessed at (when she explains the circumstances of Iona’s conception it’s horrifying and heartrending at the same time). She tries her best, but the self-styled Dafty One (Iona is Dafty Two) can only absorb the blows she receives with a grieving acceptance.

Iona’s plight is explored in greater detail, and Haywood really piles on the agony. As Keeley and her pals take her under their wing, their ulterior motives are as obvious as Iona’s desperate need to fit in. It’s an awful thing to contemplate, but there’s a horrible symbiosis here, and the script exploits Iona’s capacity for self-abasement in such a rigidly unforgiving way that what begins as bullying becomes something worse: a situation in which she is entirely culpable. Haywood orchestrates Iona’s journey of self-deception as a terrifying coming of age drama spliced with fantasy moments that serve as pointers to the character’s self-delusions. It’s a supremely confident first feature, enhanced by Nicola Daley’s impeccable cinematography, and featuring two exemplary and moving performances from Scanlan as Lyn and Newmark as Iona (in her first starring role). Both actresses shine, highlighting their characters’ innate feelings of loneliness and vulnerabilities, and making the viewer hope that they’ll find some small measure of acceptance, even though it’s unlikely. In some ways, this is an urban horror movie, and there are moments of body horror that Haywood could have taken further, but she employs a restrained, matter-of-fact approach that is actually more effective. Mesmerising and fascinating, this an impressive first feature that isn’t so easily shaken off once it’s been seen.

Rating: 8/10 – with a deeply unsettling mise en scene and two central characters whose lives are blighted to such an extent that each successive misfortune they endure adds to the discomfort of spending time with them, Pin Cushion is a triumph for its writer/director; with an excess of style and form to help it along, this is a movie that’s unafraid to leave a nasty taste in the viewer’s mouth, or provide anything remotely close to a happy ending.

Aardvark (2017)

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D: Brian Shoaf / 89m

Cast: Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Sheila Vand, Jon Hamm

Josh Norman (Quinto) has his fair share of issues – more, actually – and most of them relate to the strained relationship he has with his brother, Craig (Hamm). When he was nineteen, Josh suffered a psychotic break, and since then he’s been on a variety of medications for a variety of undiagnosed afflictions. In recent years, Josh has come to believe that Craig visits him from time to time, and in disguise as his latest role (and even if it’s an elderly homeless lady). Josh is aware that he is ill, and so he seeks out Emily Milburton (Slate), a licensed clinical support worker, to help him with his problems. Emily correctly identifies that much of what ails Josh stems from unresolved issues to do with Craig, but is unable to get Josh to face them – or Craig, who appears at Emily’s door one night. He and Emily begin a relationship, while Josh finds a measure of solace in a burgeoning romance with Hannah (Vand), with whom he goes for long walks. But Emily’s efforts to reconcile the two brothers aren’t as successful as she hopes they’ll be, and her own relationship with Craig suffers as a result…

The debut feature of writer/director Brian Shoaf, Aardvark is a curious beast (pun intended) that is likely to test the patience of viewers as they wait for Shoaf to work out just what it is he’s trying to say, and to put more than two scenes together that are organically linked. This is a meandering, focus-lite movie that generates a modicum of polite interest in its characters, all of whom interact with each other as if they’re meeting for the first time. It’s like a version of Chinese Whispers where no one deliberately pays any attention to what the other person is saying, and misconceptions and misunderstandings abound as a natural result. In Josh this would make sense as his perceptions are skewed anyway, but there’s no excuse for Emily, a therapist who is so obtuse that when her skill as a therapist is brought into question, you want to shout out, “Finally!” Perhaps Shoaf wants us to feel more sympathy for Emily than for Josh, and that would be fine if she weren’t so poorly defined as a character. Slate does what she can, but as Emily is called upon to look bewildered a lot of the time, perhaps it’s a more perfect meld of actress and role than expected.

As Josh, Quinto does well in portraying his character’s dissociative tendencies, and he does a nice line in wounded perplexity, but it’s still a performance that relies on the actor’s input rather than the script’s, or Shoaf’s imprecise direction. Josh’s friendship with Hannah also suffers, coming across at first as a staple meet-cute of romantic dramas but with added mental illness to help it stand out, something that doesn’t happen anyway thanks to Hannah’s status as a cypher and Josh’s judgmental narcissism. But Shoaf really scores an own goal with Craig, a character who appears to have all the answers for Josh’s condition, but is used more as a convenient plot device than a credible protagonist (you have to ask at what point Shoaf thought putting Emily and Craig together was ever a good idea). Stilted and frustrating, the movie wanders around in various directions without ever settling on a simple, straightforward through line, and by the end, all of the characters have been undermined for the sake of narrative expediency, and an ending that feels detached from what’s gone before. And the aardvark of the title? Hmmm…

Rating: 4/10 – an indie drama that plays at being smart and contemplative while missing the mark by a country mile, Aardvark is an awkwardly assembled reminder that good intentions alone don’t make a movie; a good cast can’t save this from being anything more than a curiosity, and even then, that curiosity is unlikely to be satisfied.

Trailer – Lizzie (2018)

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In recent years, the legend of Lizzie Borden has spawned a number of movies, and even a TV series, but it seems this endless fascination with the gruesome murders of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby, and Lizzie herself, has yet to be satiated. Now we have another variation on the classic tale, but one that posits the idea of a lesbian relationship between Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and the Bordens’ maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), something that the author Ed McBain explored in his 1984 novel, Lizzie. True or not, writer Bryce Kass and director Craig William Mcneill appear to have created an atmospheric, and agitated movie that relies on deep rooted passions and a feverish sense of increasing dread in order to relay the events leading up to and following on from the events of 4 August 1892. Sevigny is a great choice for the troubled (and troubling) Lizzie, while Stewart, taking another step further away from the mainstream, looks to be just as good. The only proviso? The depiction of Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) as unremittingly horrible. Whereas the rest of the movie seems to be inhabiting psychological horror territory, his performance appears to be straight out of the Grand Guignol Book of Movie Villains. Still, trailers can be deceptive – and definitely not to be trusted, most of the time – but if this trailer is anything to go by, this might be more intriguing, and unnerving, than expected… and that final shot is undeniably chilling.

Struck by Lightning (2012)

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D: Brian Dannelly / 84m

Cast: Chris Colfer, Allison Janney, Rebel Wilson, Dermot Mulroney, Christina Hendricks, Sarah Hyland, Carter Jenkins, Brad William Henke, Angela Kinsey, Polly Bergen

Carson Phillips (Colfer) is a high school senior with a major literary ambition: to be the youngest ever editor of The New Yorker magazine. But life in high school isn’t exactly a bed of roses for Carson: he’s the kind of sarcastic, openly contemptuous of his peers teenager who’s treated harshly by his fellow students, and who can’t get a break to save his life. He’s the editor and sole contributor of the school paper – which no one reads, and his mother, Sheryl (Janney), is an over-medicated alcoholic who continually reminds him she would have had a better life if he hadn’t been born. But a chance discovery leads Carson to the possibility of getting his revenge on some of his fellow high schoolers while also adding to his prospects in getting into Northwestern University. His plan involves blackmailing his peers into providing material for a literary magazine, but while at first his plan seems to be paying dividends, Carson’s belligerent, anti-authoritarian attitude throws a massive spanner in the works, and what seemed like a foolproof idea, soon turns horribly wrong…

Told in flashback after Carson is struck by lightning and killed, this literally titled movie is a teen comedy-drama that puts its narrator front and centre while also taking a risk in doing so. Carson is so dismissive of everyone around him, adults and peers alike (with the exception of Wilson’s plagiaristic Malerie: “Call me Ishmael”), that Colfer’s script comes very close to making him completely unlikeable. His arrogance, though, is a thin line of defence against the blows he’s experienced throughout his life. From his parents’ break-up – dad Neal (Mulroney) has a new partner, April (Hendricks), who’s six months’ pregnant – to his grandmother (Bergen) developing Alzheimer’s, Carson’s unstable home life has left him sad and permanently at odds with everyone around him. He’s a figure to be pitied though rather than dismissed, and Colfer works hard to make the character more rounded than he appears on the page. Take away Colfer’s performance and you have a character who behaves meanly on purpose, and lacks any sense of proportion in his loathing of his peers (who he doesn’t regard as such). It’s only thanks to Colfer – who clearly understands Carson completely (and so he should) – that the role isn’t continuously one-note and irritating.

It’s the script and the performances that resonate the most. Colfer has a good ear for the rhythms and diction of high school teenagers, and though some of Carson’s co-seniors border on the stereotypical, there’s enough depth and detail provided by the mostly young cast to offset any over-familiarity (plus they’re having a lot of fun at the same time). Amongst the adults, Janney is good value as ever, giving Sheryl a weary self-awareness beneath the character’s own tattered dreams, while Mulroney’s feckless father is a purely comic creation that the actor also has a lot of fun with. Colfer adds a handful of sub-plots to his tale of foiled ambition, with the most notable being the awkward relationship between Sheryl and April, and there’s a strong sense of carpe diem that is used to spur the blackmailed students into writing for the magazine. Dannelly keeps things amusing and laced with teenage angst as appropriate, and the whole thing relies on an easy-going if pointed charm that works well in supporting the material. There’s a good balance between drama and comedy, and Colfer is a confident enough writer that he can mix the two in the same scene without it feeling contrived. And for a first-time script, that’s impressive.

Rating: 7/10 – an underdog movie where the protagonist doesn’t overcome all the challenges thrown at him, Struck by Lightning is instead an often witty, acerbic comedy of despair that doesn’t short change its main character or the audience; a familiar tale that can’t always shake off its more prosaic influences, it’s still a movie with a lot to offer, and several moments of (very) impressive and inspired humour.

Skybound (2017)

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D: Alex Tavakoli / 81m

Cast: Scarlett Byrne, Gavin Stenhouse, Rick Cosnett, Morten Suurballe, Tyler Fayose, Carla Carolina Pimentel, Jerry Coyle

For their first date together, Matt (Cosnett) decides to take Lisa (Byrne) on a cross-country flight from The Hamptons to Malibu in his parents’ private jet. Joining them are their friends, Odin (Fayose) and Roxy (Pimentel), and by a twist of fate, Matt’s brother, Kyle (Stenhouse), with whom Lisa had a brief relationship the year before. At first the flight is uneventful but as they approach Chicago air space, a sudden electrical failure affects some of their systems, including the warning signal that alerts other planes to their presence. When Matt tries to rectify things he discovers they have a stowaway, Erik Harris (Suurballe). When Erik tries to take over the jet, Kyle ends up being shot before the stowaway can be overpowered. Needing to land and seek help for Kyle, they aim for Chicago but soon find dozens of other planes waiting in the sky as well, and all with the same problem warning signal problem. They decide to travel on, and the further they fly, the more they come to realise that staying skybound is their best option, as whatever has happened below the clouds is likely to mean their deaths if they land…

The debut feature of writer/producer/director Tavakoli, Skybound is a low-budget disaster movie that often belies its constrained production values, scattershot dramatics, and unlikely characters. It’s also a disaster movie that plays as a mystery for much of its running time, as Tavakoli makes a stab at increasing the tension of the situation and whether or not Matt and everyone else will survive the journey. But though it’s often stodgy in its execution, with some really tortured dialogue to complement the wayward character motivations, Tavakoli also manages to keep it all chugging along with a rude energy that flags on occasion but which also ensures a surprising level of enjoyment. Make no mistake, Skybound is exactly the kind of movie for which leaving your brain at the door is a prerequisite, but somehow – and against all the odds – it’s never tiresome or overstays its welcome. What it is, is a movie that revels in its implausibility and never apologises for it. It also piles on a number of WtF? moments that should hurt it irreparably, but which just add to the enjoyment of it all. Tavakoli may not be the best movie maker in the world, but here he does more than enough to hold the viewer’s attention.

The mystery elements are played to the fore, with Suurballe’s villainous stowaway employed as a narrative red herring, but the character’s presence does add a further layer to the riddle of what’s happening on the ground, and as more and more information is gathered, Tavakoli does a good job of delaying the big bad reveal. When he does, it proves to be less far-fetched than expected, and more credible than some of the other hypotheses that his characters come up with, especially those who’ve seen 2012 (2009). It all culminates in a last ditch effort for survival that relies on a level of narrative absurdity that is so absurd that you can only go with it or give up. But again, in a weirdly effective way, Tavakoli knows what he’s doing, and though it all depends on one character’s unexpected mathematical smarts and the most ridiculous act of self-sacrifice seen in many a recent disaster movie, it’s still carried off with a flair and a level of self-aware chutzpah that you have to applaud its creator’s audacity. And with low-budget disaster movies, how often can you say that?

Rating: 5/10 – bad movies can sometimes be really bad and still be enjoyable, and despite its many drawbacks, Skybound is one of them; a flawed production to be sure, but if given the right amount of leeway, it’s a movie that brings its own unexpected rewards, and one that has no right to be as entertaining as it is.

Siberia (2018)

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D: Matthew Ross / 105m

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ana Ularu, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, James Gracie, Veronica Ferres, Molly Ringwald, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Rafael Petardi, Eugene Lipinsky

Brought to St Petersburg by the promise of a high-figure deal, diamond merchant Lucas Hill (Reeves) arrives to find his Russian business partner, Pyotr, has vanished, and with the single blue diamond he was meant to give Lucas to help initiate the deal. The buyer, a shady businessman named Boris Volkov (Lychnikoff), allows Lucas two days in which to bring him the sample and the other twenty blue diamonds that make up the deal. Learning that his partner is waiting for him in the Siberian town of Mirny, Lucas flies there, only to learn that his partner has moved on again. With bad weather keeping him there, Lucas, who is married, begins an affair with café owner, Katya (Ularu); he also gets to know her fiercely protective brother, Ivan (Chepovetsky). Returning to St Petersburg, Lucas manages to find the sample diamond and discovers through bringing Katya to him, why his partner was in Mirny: he left another sample diamond there, but this one is a fake. As Lucas begins to piece together the details of the deal Pyotr was arranging, he comes to realise that his life is in danger – and so is Katya’s…

It has to be acknowledged that Keanu Reeves, away from the John Wick series (and any possible mention of a third Bill & Ted movie), appears to be much in demand and works steadily as a result. However, his choice of movies leaves a lot to be desired, and for every good movie he makes, there’s a five-to-one ratio of movies he makes that aren’t. Siberia definitely falls into the latter category. It starts off well enough, but that’s just the first ten minutes, with Lucas arriving in St Petersburg (to a cheery welcome from Ferres’ desk clerk), and learning that he’s already well on the way to being shafted by all and sundry. Thankfully, Lucas can speak Russian, a fact that doesn’t stop everyone around him talking in their native language as if he can’t understand them. This is one of many narrative decisions made by Scott B. Smith’s irritating screenplay that hinders the flow of the material, but none more so when the movie morphs from nascent crime thriller to fully fledged romantic drama within a handful of scenes. This development is too absurd to be credible: Katya is literally the only woman we see in Mirny, and she tells Lucas they might as well have sex because everyone else will think they’ve done it anyway.

So the middle third of the movie is taken up with scenes of Lucas and Katya having sex at every opportunity – bear in mind he’s only there for two days – and then having more sex when she’s in St Petersburg. The couple’s emotions are created to order, there’s little chemistry between them, and their pillow talk is of the “do you know why I like blue diamonds?” variety. As if this aspect of the movie isn’t bad enough, the shady business deal involving passing off fake diamonds as real never really holds any weight or plausibility, though Lychnikoff’s smiling dirtbag (while still its own kind of stereotype) is mesmerising in a callous, offhand manner that works better than it should. None of this is even remotely believable, and it all leads to a violent showdown that only goes to prove that the makers had painted themselves into a corner in terms of a credible outcome. Ross, making only his second feature after the much more accessible Frank & Lola (2016), fumbles things badly throughout, and the movie’s wayward tone undermines any serious attempts at drama – or thriller elements – that the script might be aiming for. There’s an obvious joke about being sent to Siberia, but on this occasion it’s too ironic for comfort.

Rating: 4/10 – another dire entry in the Reeves resumé, Siberia adds up to a collection of scenes and characters that feel like they were assembled by someone with only a rough idea of how to put a script together; definitely one to avoid unless you’re a committed Reeves fan, and even then you should think twice.

Shock and Awe (2017)

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D: Rob Reiner / 90m

Cast: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Richard Schiff, Luke Tennie

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the US government began asserting that Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden had been aided by Iragi leader Saddam Hussein. This was at odds with the perceived wisdom that Bin Laden was operating out of Afghanistan, and despite an on-going mission to bomb him and the country “back to the Stone Age”. With most of the mainstream media, including publishing giants such as The New York Times and The Washington Post accepting the government’s “shoddy intelligence” as fact, it was only the likes of independent news service Knight Ridder journalists Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (Marsden) who challenged the government’s stance, and did their best to expose the neo-con conspiracy that wanted to manufacture a war with Iraq. Supported by their editor, John Walcott (Reiner), Landay and Strobel strove to find evidence to contradict the government’s assertions that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that this was the excuse being used to support the call for war, a call that had no basis in fact…

Recently, the journalist Carl Bernstein tweeted, “This is worse than Watergate, because the system worked in Watergate.” Of course he’s referring to the current situation with Donald Trump as President, but his remark could equally apply to the state of play following 9/11. After Watergate, the Republicans began managing the mainstream news media in a way that can still be seen today, and the post-9/11 watershed in political reporting is a perfect example of how government manipulation of the truth – or outright lying, if you prefer – was aided and abetted by the news corporations. But if you’re looking for a savage indictment of this kind of behaviour then Shock and Awe is not the place to find it. Instead, the movie flits between scenes of rote exposition and misjudged solemnity as it tries to exploit a situation where one group of journalists were outmanoeuvred by the Bush Administration, and their message was undermined by not getting it out to the public in as wide a manner as was needed. So what we have is a movie that deals with failure but not in an outraged, we-demand-justice kind of way, but in a poor-naïve-us kind of way that just isn’t attractive.

It also tries to be more than it has to be by including a distaff side to things through the paranoid (yet correct) assertions of Landay’s Yugoslavian wife Vlatka (Jovovich), and an awkward, should-have-been-jettisoned-from-the-get-go boy-meets-girl scenario involving Strobel and his neighbour, Lisa Mayr (Biel) (the scene where she recounts a potted version of fourteen hundred years of Iraqi history has to be seen to be believed). These episodes sit uneasily between scenes of Landay failing to charm various sources, and Strobel continually doubting if what they’re discovering is right. Added to this is a clumsy sub-plot involving The Philadelphia Enquirer not running any of Knight Ridder’s stories when they contradict the government, and the inclusion of veteran war reporter turned State Department official Joe Galloway (Jones), whose sole purpose seems to be to provide pithy comments about the duplicitous nature of his bosses. It’s all a huge, uninspired, unworthy, and unrelentingly mediocre movie with no fire or energy, and which uses a disabled soldier (Tennie) to make a thumpingly obvious point about the waste of men and resources once the US got to Iraq. Harrelson and Marsden are unlikely reporters, and Reiner overdoes his serious, flinty editor role, but it makes no difference as there’s not one relatable character in the whole movie. Is there any shock and awe? Yes, but only at how bad it all is.

Rating: 4/10 – you know your movie’s in trouble when its best performance is given by George W. Bush in archive footage, but that’s just one of the dilemmas that Shock and Awe fails to overcome; with no sense of outrage to build on or to, and by telling a story that’s too little too late, the movie lacks a purpose or a workable design, something that should have been spotted right from the start.

Journeyman (2017)

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D: Paddy Considine / 92m

Cast: Paddy Considine, Jodie Whittaker, Anthony Welsh, Tony Pitts, Paul Popplewell

For Matty Burton (Considine), his upcoming defence of his newly attained WBO World Middleweight Championship title, will be his last fight. He’s an average boxer who has become champion by default, and his best years are behind him. But his pride is pushing him to take up the challenge of rising star Andre Bryte (Welsh) and despite the younger boxer’s considerable talent, hope to win the fight. The bout is a bruising, punishing encounter, and Matty endures several traumatic blows to the head. Back home after the fight, he collapses. When he wakes, his memory is impaired and his personality is changed. His wife, Emma (Whittaker), does her best to help him with his rehabilitation, but when Matty becomes prone to violent outbursts when he doesn’t get what he wants, this and an incident involving their baby daughter, Mia, prompts her to leave him, for the safety of both of them. Another traumatising experience leads Matty back to the gym where his former trainers, Richie (Pitts) and Jackie (Popplewell), decide to take over his rehabilitation, and help him do enough to win Emma back – but will be able to fight back against the brain injury that has changed him so drastically…?

A powerful and uncompromising movie, Journeyman is Paddy Considine’s second outing as writer/director – after the equally impressive Tyrannosaur (2011) – and a showcase for his considerable talents both behind and in front of the camera. As a writer, Considine has a knack for keeping dialogue to a minimum while still allowing his characters to express so much of how they’re feeling. Here, the challenge is to ensure that Matty, despite his memory loss and personality change, is still fundamentally the same man, and Considine achieves this by the slow reveal of key phrases from pre-injury moments that show a mind in turmoil, but one that’s also able to lock onto those important phrases. It’s an emotional process as well, one that highlights Matty’s progress, and which gives hope for his eventual rehabilitation. As a director, Considine pays close attention to the small details that help in Matty’s recovery, such as remembering his father’s name, while also showing just how difficult it is through things such as Matty leaving tea bags in people’s drinks. He never romanticises Matty’s struggle, either, keeping the drama of his situation entirely credible, and the pitfalls and setbacks he experiences are often heart-rending.

But it’s Considine’s work as an actor that is the most impressive here. As Matty, he gives a tour-de-force portrayal of a proud man brought low by a traumatic experience, and the problems he faces in regaining everything he’s lost. It’s an unsentimental, sobering performance, flecked with moments of quiet yet affecting pathos and unsparing emotional simplicity. You can sense the pain behind Matty’s seemingly vacant gaze, and the depth of that pain. Considine is in a class of his own, wringing every last piece of poignancy and heartfelt regret from Matty’s journey back to himself. Alongside him, Whittaker – in what is effectively a secondary role – is a worried presence as Emma, anxious enough before the fight, and then increasingly so afterwards as her marriage begins to implode, and it becomes clear there’s nothing she can do in the short term to stop it. The future Doctor Who has perhaps the less “difficult” role, but Considine is such an unselfish actor that Whittaker is given the room to make Emma an equally integral part of Matty’s story. If there’s one moment of mild controversy it’s when Considine lets boxing off the hook for Matty’s injury – would he have sustained it otherwise? – but otherwise this is a fiercely intelligent, tough, and demanding movie that, thankfully, doesn’t pull its punches.

Rating: 9/10 – a sincere and credible story told incredibly well by its writer/director/star, Journeyman lands knockout after knockout in its unflinching tale of a boxer’s struggle to reboot his life; Considine’s performance is simply astonishing, and is the beating heart of a movie that packs an emotional wallop over and over again.

A Brief Word About Netflix Original Comedies

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Does anyone still remember the bright, heady days of the earliest Netflix originals? When the streaming giant released movies such as Beasts of No Nation (2015) and er, er, probably some other good stuff (emphasis on probably). No? It’s not surprising, as in reality, the ratio of good Netflix originals to bad is embarrassingly low. Take the deal agreed with Adam Sandler for six movies to be made exclusively for Netflix. So far we’ve had The Ridiculous 6 (2015), The Do-Over (2016), Sandy Wexler (2017), and The Week Of (2018). How many of those movies is anyone likely to have in their All-Time Top 10 list (even of Adam Sandler flicks)? It’s not happening, not even as guilty pleasures. And comedy is where Netflix has a real problem. They just can’t seem to attract movie makers who can make decent comedies, or projects that might just be truly “original” enough to make us laugh out loud.

2018 has been a bumper year so far for Netflix original comedies, with twenty movies released, and all of them – no, really, all of them – proving as bad and as lazy and as dreadful as each other. There’s no getting away from it: Netflix and comedy are about as compatible as long road trips and explosive diarrhoea. Just this past month, we’ve had The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, and Father of the Year, two movies that haven’t been so much released as allowed to escape, and which are as misguided and wretchedly assembled as any other Netflix original comedy. By now, regular Netflix viewers must be clawing at their eyeballs and yelling at their TV’s, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” But the streaming giant keeps trotting them out with scary regularity and an indecent sense of purpose. Just once it would be great to hear the words “Netflix original comedy” and not have to hide behind the sofa. So, over to you, Netflix. Who you gonna call?