D: Ed Gass-Donnelly / 92m
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Diego Klattenhoff, Lola Flanery, Dermot Mulroney, Justin Long, Sarah Abbott, Liisa Repo-Martell, Peyton Kennedy
1985 – Jane Ryer (Kennedy) is the sole survivor when her family is murdered in their remote farmhouse; she’s found covered in blood and holding a cutthroat razor. Twenty-five years later, Jane (Cornish) is married to Alan (Klattenhoff), and has a young daughter, Alice (Flanery). She runs a photographer’s studio that showcases the pictures she takes of often abandoned rural properties, and is plagued by lapses in her memory. A stay in hospital following a car accident reveals Jane has several skull fractures from when she was a child, but she has no memory of being injured. She also comes to learn that one of the farmhouses she has photographed is one that she owns, even though she has no memory of it, or an uncle, Patrick (Mulroney), who has been paying the taxes on it and maintaining it. Drawn to discovering what happened when she was a child, Jane, Alan and Alice decide to meet Patrick and stay at the farmhouse. Soon, Jane discovers that the house is the source of a series of supernatural occurrences that relate to the murder of her family all those years before…
From the outset, with Patrick being informed of the deaths of his sister’s family and the horrific aftermath being presented in a series of tableaux, it seems as if Lavender isn’t interested in offering viewers another generic rural ghost story. But that opening sequence, culminating in the discovery of a clearly traumatised Jane, unfortunately marks the beginning of the end in terms of originality. Jane’s plight, going from being forgetful to being plagued by supernatural events and visions, is played out in too flat a manner for it to be entirely effective. While the script – by director Gass-Donnelly and Colin Frizzell – takes its time in revealing the details of just what happened in 1985, it does so in a measured, unhurried way that robs the movie of any appreciable pace or momentum. This doesn’t even allow for a slowburn approach to the material, and instead, has the opposite effect, making the viewer wish some scenes would hurry up, while wishing others wouldn’t repeat motifs and experiences that Jane – and we – have already witnessed over and over. As a result, the central mystery is treated with sincerity but lacks verve, and the characters are forced to repeat conversations and actions that harm the movie’s narrative structure.
When presenting supernatural events on screen, many directors and screenwriters adopt a kind of “kitchen sink” approach, and throw in scares and jolts and all sorts of shenanigans because they might look good (or cool), and because even a cheap scare can be a winner. Lavender has a number of these moments, such as when adult Jane and her younger sister, Susie (Abbott), hide under a sheet in the stables. As something wicked comes nearer – cue heavy footfalls – Susie urges Jane to run, and when she does the sheet becomes more voluminous than it should be and when she finally escapes from it, she’s in the middle of a field. The juxtaposition between the expanse of the field after the confines of the sheet works well, but in terms of dramatic effect, it makes no sense (we already know Jane’s mental state isn’t the best). Gass-Donnelly works hard to give the movie a tense, unnerving atmosphere, and employs a grimly portentous score from Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld to help matters along, but the material is too thinly stretched in places, and too flatly handled, for their efforts to be successful. By the time things pick up for the climax, and some energy is injected into the proceedings, some viewers might have already taken their leave.
Rating: 5/10 – with the performances proving merely adequate (Cornish, though, makes a virtue of appearing blank-faced), and the script veering off at odd tangents at odd moments, Lavender is a lukewarm psychological horror that doesn’t follow through on its initial promise; tiresome in places, and with a central mystery that shouldn’t come as a surprise when it’s exposed, the movie struggles to be consistently interesting, and passes on several opportunities to better itself.
D: Hasraf Dulull / 94m
Cast: Katee Sackhoff, Ray Fearon, Julie Cox, Steven Cree, David Tse
In 2030, the first manned space flight to Mars reaches the surface but is destroyed by an unknown force. Six years later, the company behind the flight, United Space Planetary Corporation, has scaled back the involvement of human personnel in its space flight programme, and has entrusted its missions to an artificial intelligence called ARTi (Cree); some employees have been retained as supervisors, though. One of them is Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Sackhoff), and she and ARTi have been tasked with investigating the fate of the earlier mission. Mack has a personal connection: her father was the lead astronaut. Sending a reconnaissance probe to the Martian surface, Mack and ARTi are shocked to find a mysterious cube-like structure. News of this is fed back to Mack’s sister (and high-ranking USPC executive) Lena (Cox), but instead of seeing it as an incredible discovery, she downplays the news and behaves in a way that makes Mack worry about the true parameters of the investigation. And when two things happen – a link is discovered between the cube and ARTi’s design, and the cube disappears (only to reappear somewhere completely unexpected) – Mack becomes convinced that her search for the truth has been severely compromised…
The second feature from visual effects supervisor Hasraf Dulull, 2036 Origin Unknown wears its heart on its sleeve right from the opening frames. This is a cinematic love letter to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with imagery cribbed from that movie’s Star Gate sequence, and an AI creation that may or may not be as infallible as it seems. Add in further imagery and ideas from 2010 (1984), and you have a de facto homage to the finest science fiction movie ever made (and its laboured sequel). Now this would probably have been a good thing if Dulull – who also wrote the script – had been able to concoct a coherent and/or credible story in the first place. Instead, he’s created something of a sci-fi monster in celluloid form, with an awkward, poorly assembled storyline, some of the most confusing and confused exposition heard in a sci-fi movie for some time, and pretty visuals that barely compensate for the dramatic liberties taken elsewhere. Dulull may have had good intentions when he began writing his screenplay, but somewhere along the line no one pointed out that the awful dialogue, the one-note characters, and the unconvincing scenario, didn’t add up to anything meaningful.
Take one example of how confused Dulull’s plotting becomes as the movie plods on from one “revelation” to another: the connection between ARTi and the cube is given centre stage at one point, but why or how that connection has been made remains unexplained, even after there’s a scene that explores the idea (but in as little detail as possible). Other unexplained anomalies abound – the importance of magnetism in relation to the cube, the involvement of government spook Sterling (Fearon), and why Mack has to bear so much responsibility for the death of her father. These and other issues arise too often for comfort, making the movie an uncomfortable watch for anyone used to seeing intelligent sci-fi, and not this amalgamation of other directors’ greatest hits. Despite this, the ever-watchable Sackhoff maintains her ability to make even the worst of material sound better than it has any right to be, and there’s good support from Cree as the slightly supercilious ARTi. The visuals are clearly designed to be the movie’s standout feature, and Dulull’s background in visual effects ensures their effectiveness, but it’s a shame that more attention couldn’t have been given to the hazy material.
Rating: 4/10 – a frustrating foray into the arena of mystery sci-fi, 2036 Origin Unknown is a hodge-podge of half-formed ideas and possibilities that are hampered by a muddled, perplexing screenplay; and don’t believe the poster: the “origins of our existence” aren’t explored at all.
D: Lambert Hillyer / 16m
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, John Maxwell, Warren Jackson, Gus Glassmire
Saved by the timely intervention of Robin, Batman escapes the room full of spikes, while Linda is turned into a zombie by Daka. Batman and Robin look for another way into Daka’s lair, their opponent discovers his trap hasn’t worked. Taking no chances he detonates charges set into the roof of the entrance and collapses the tunnel. When the Dynamic Duo realise what has happened, they determine to find out where another entrance might be located. As they return to their car (with Alfred waiting as patiently as ever), two of Daka’s henchmen spot Robin getting into it. They follow the car and force it to pull over. Bruce wrong foots them, and when the henchmen drive off, it’s they who are followed. When they are pulled over, a brief fight sees them captured and taken to the Bat Cave. Alfred finds a note from Linda asking Bruce to meet her at an old house. Suspecting a trap, Batman enters the house alone, and is soon overcome by two of Daka’s men. Carried out in a wooden crate, Batman remains in it all the way to Daka’s lair, where the crate – with him still in it – is dropped into Daka’s crocodile pit, sending him to certain death…
The penultimate chapter sees the serial keeping to the idea of Batman taking the fight to Daka, but not with the same intensity or determination as in Chapter 13. That said, he’s still more proactive than he’s been for most of the serial, although in doing so, Robin continues to be sidelined: when Batman goes to the old house, Robin has to wait in the car! The increased sense of urgency about the narrative still throws up the odd anomaly, though, with the capture of Daka’s men and their subsequent incarceration in the Bat Cave – alongside the still restrained Bernie (Jackson) – proving as unnecessary as the death of Marshall in Chapter 12. Both these sequences serve only to stretch the running times of their respective installments, and with The Executioner Strikes replaying around three minutes of Chapter 13 at the beginning, the need for so much filler remains disconcerting. The whole approach seems to support the idea that the writers didn’t have a great deal of time to put everything together, and as a result, the serial’s structure has no choice but to feel haphazard.
This episode also highlights other ways in which the narrative appears to have been made up from chapter to chapter. Daka’s pursuit of radium – given so much emphasis during the serial’s first half – could be regarded as forgotten or surplus to requirements now, seeing how unimportant it’s become. Elsewhere, Linda’s involvement in the plot to trap Bruce Wayne doesn’t make sense (she has to arrive in a crate but can leave on her own two feet), and it’s troubling that a note can be left for Bruce at his home when neither Daka nor his men have any idea where Bruce lives in the first place. As we get nearer to the culmination of the whole saga, the writing has become noticeably lazier, and the urgency of the material is proving to be unequal to the task of papering over these obvious cracks. Hillyer is still plugging away, doing his best, almost refusing to let things get the better of him, but he’s hamstrung by the increasing paucity of the material. And even the nature of Batman’s intended demise, normally the source of mild conjecture as to how he’ll escape certain death, is here rendered moot by a narrative sleight of hand that won’t fool anyone, and which means there’s no need to ask, just how is Batman going to survive this time…?
Rating: 6/10 – the inconsistency of the serial as a whole is rendered vividly by the events of Chapter 14, and the misplaced energy employed in presenting them; with just the final episode of Batman left, there’s continued momentum but sadly it’s at a disservice to the story and the characters.
Recently released in the US, Damsel follows the fortunes of a lovestruck pioneer named Samuel Alabaster (played by Robert Pattinson) as he travels the American frontier in order to marry the love of his life, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). On his trek he’s accompanied by a miniature horse called Butterscotch, and a drunkard called Parson Henry (co-writer/director David Zellner). As ever, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, and Samuel’s efforts suffer more setbacks than he’s prepared for.
It’s a Western with a slapstick sensibility, humorous and absurd in places, and sees Pattinson doing comedy for the first time, and by the look of the trailer, succeeding admirably. He’s matched by Wasikowska as the less-than-pleased-to-see-Alabaster Penelope, a role that she plays with “cantankerous” going all the way up to eleven. Created by brothers David and Nathan Zellner, Damsel looks like a less than serious take on the standard Western, and for that alone it deserves our attention. Quirky and ambitious, it’s the kind of movie that could offer a breath of fresh air when weighed against the majority of multiplex offerings foisted on us these days.
D: Colin McIvor / 97m
Cast: Art Parkinson, Toby Jones, Penelope Wilton, Emily Flain, Ian O’Reilly, Amy Huberman, Damian O’Hare, Stephen Hagan, James Stockdale, Ian McElhinney, Glen Nee
It’s 1941, and there’s a new arrival at Belfast Zoo: a baby elephant that zookeeper’s son, Tom Hall (Parkinson), names ‘Buster’. Tom’s father, George (O’Hare), is in charge of looking after Buster, and Tom visits him every day, even when the zoo is closed – and much to the chagrin of gatekeeper and security guard, Charlie (Jones). But George is enlisted in the Army and goes off to fight in the war. Soon, the first of several air raids carried out by the Germans persuades the Ministry of Public Security to order the killing of the zoo’s dangerous animals, in case any escape during any further air raids. Buster is spared on this occasion, but it’s made clear to Tom that he may not be so lucky in the future. Determined to keep Buster safe from the authorities, and obtaining help from fellow classmates Jane (Flain) and Pete (O’Reilly), Tom hatches a plan to move Buster from the zoo and into hiding. Circumstances ensure that his plan doesn’t go entirely as hoped, but the unexpected assistance of local widow (and animal lover) Mrs Austin (Wilton), allows Buster to remain hidden, until a reward is offered for his whereabouts…
Though based on a true story, Zoo plays fast and loose with what really happened, but thankfully does so in a way that retains the spirit of the actual events. In doing so, the script – by writer/director McIvor – often runs the risk of making things appear too whimsical and too fantastical (Buster isn’t the quietest of baby elephants, but none of Mrs Austin’s neighbours seem to notice or recognise when he makes a racket). But this is a kids’ movie at heart, replete with pre-teen protagonists and a reassuring approach to the story that says, “don’t worry, the elephant will be fine”. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems to be overcome along the way, from the nasty intentions of school bully, Vernon (Nee), to the random searches of two local air raid wardens, and Buster’s need for a special medicine kept at the zoo. Through it all, the war serves as a backdrop that emphasises the seriousness of Buster’s situation, and the risks being taken to keep him safe and well. Children of a certain age will be enthralled by it, though adults – well, that might be a different matter.
Still, the movie is very likeable, though at times (and particularly once Buster has been “emancipated”), it does rely a little too heavily on getting Tom and his friends out of trouble just as quickly as they get into it. And despite the adults starting off as Tom and friends’ main adversaries, it isn’t long before each of them falls into place, and McIvor can end the movie on an emotional high note. Again, this isn’t a bad way for the movie to play out, and though it is incredibly predictable, the quality of the performances and the tender sincerity of how it’s all rendered more than make up for any deficiencies in McIvor’s storytelling. Parkinson is an endearing presence as Tom, while Flain plays Jane with a reserve borne out of her character’s unhappy home life. As Pete, O’Reilly is the movie’s comic relief, though he’s matched by Stockdale as Pete’s younger, disabled brother, Mickey (his “elephant” impression is terrific). Of the adults, Jones is underused along with most everyone else, leaving it to Wilton to make an impression as the real life “Elephant Angel“, Denise Austin (seen below with real life Buster, Sheila).
Rating: 7/10 – charming, funny, and darkly dramatic on occasion, Zoo takes one of those interesting footnotes history provides us with from time to time, and makes a pleasing slice of entertainment from it; the period detail is impeccable, the use of a real elephant (called Nellie – of course) avoids the deployment of any unintentionally lifeless CGI, and thanks to Mcivor’s tight grip on the movie’s tone, keeps sentimentality and mawkishness to a minimum.
D: Greg Berlanti / 110m
Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, Talitha Eliana Bateman, Tony Hale, Natasha Rothwell, Miles Heizer
Simon Spier (Robinson) is in high school. He has three best friends – Leah (Langford), Abby (Shipp), and Nick (Lendeborg Jr) – loving parents (Garner, Duhamel), a kid sister, Nora (Bateman), whose culinary efforts he praises whether they’re good or (usually) bad, an interest in drama, and a big secret: he’s gay. Being a teenager, of course, nobody knows that he’s gay, but when Leah tells him that another pupil at their high school has come out anonymously online, Simon begins talking to him via e-mail. Soon, he and “Blue” are exchanging their mutual thoughts and feelings on their personal circumstances. When another pupil, Martin (Miller), discovers Simon’s e-mails, he uses them to blackmail Simon into helping him get together with Abby. Afraid of being outed, Simon does his best to set them up with each other, while also trying to bring Nick and Leah together (because Nick is attracted to Abby). But his attempts at matchmaking backfire, and Martin does what Simon has feared all along: he outs Simon to the entire school…
Widely touted as the first movie by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance (and it’s only taken until 2018 to happen – way to go, 20th Century Fox), Love, Simon is a tender, heartfelt, and overwhelmingly sweet movie based on the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. It features a good central performance by Robinson as the modest but likeable Simon, and it hits all the right notes in its attempts to focus on his struggle to deal with the implications of being gay, the fear of being outed, and what it means to have to protect that knowledge. And yet, once Simon’s secret is revealed to one and all, what has been a confidently handled, and sincerely expressed story – with a nice mystery sideline in trying to work out Blue’s identity – suddenly becomes an unexpected fantasy based somewhere between the world of John Hughes’ teen dramas and a return trip to the Land of Oz. All along, Simon has been dreading everyone finding out that he’s gay, and it’s at this point in the movie where you could be forgiven for thinking that things will start to get really difficult for him.
Au contraire, mon ami. Aside from a (very) brief moment of uninspired, and childish, leg-pulling (bullying is really too strong a word for it), the only other fallout from Simon’s outing is the decision of his three best friends to avoid him – he did manipulate them after all. Otherwise, his family prove to be mega-supportive, his teachers express zero tolerance for any homophobic behaviour by the other students, Martin apologises to him while admitting his own insecurities, and when Simon challenges Blue to meet him at an upcoming carnival, what seems to be the whole high school turns out to be there for them (oh, and his friends forgive him as well). Now, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, but this is like something out of the Thirties and early Forties when happy endings were guaranteed (back then it might have been called Andy Hardy Comes Out… of the Barn). If the movie’s message – coming out is easy-peasy – is intentional, then that’s fair enough, it’s still a piece of entertainment, and designed to do well in the mass market. But as a reflection of what is likely to happen in the real world when coming out, then Love, Simon is a far from perfect choice from which to take your cues.
Rating: 7/10 – a wish fulfillment tale that’s breezy and fun but also deliberately anodyne in places, Love, Simon is enjoyable and refreshing for its choice of topic, and benefits from good performances throughout – Rothwell’s drama teacher with attitude is a highlight – as well as Berlanti’s sensitive direction; becoming an entirely different movie altogether once Simon is outed, though, undermines the character’s emotional struggle, and paints first gay love in such rainbow-like colours that any real sense of drama is abandoned altogether.
D: Joshua Z. Weinstein / 83m
Cast: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz, Shlomo Klein
Menashe (Lustig) is an Hasidic Jew who works as a clerk in a grocery store. He’s a middle-aged widower with a ten year old son, Rieven (Niborski), who is being looked after by his Uncle Eizik (Weisshaus) because the Torah says that Menashe can only look after him if he has a wife; being a single parent is forbidden. But Menashe doesn’t want to remarry. His marriage wasn’t a happy one, and partly because it was arranged, so he has no wish to run the risk of being unhappy a second time. A year on from his wife’s death, he is struggling to make ends meet, is regarded as a schlimazel – someone who is chronically unlucky – and is doing his best to maintain his relationship with his son. As the day of his wife’s memorial service draws near, Menashe is allowed to have Rieven stay with him for a week, but his run of bad luck continues, and though he and Rieven become closer than ever, events conspire to make the likelihood of his keeping his son with him all the more unlikely…
If you’re wondering, how much can there be to enjoy in a movie about an Hasidic Jew given to butting heads with centuries of tradition and societal conditioning, then wonder again: it doesn’t matter that Menashe is an Hasidic Jew, and it doesn’t matter that the movie takes place in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, and it matters even less that there are moments where Jewish rituals and religious practices are portrayed in an almost documentary style. This is a movie that may take place in a specific cultural environment, but its themes are entirely universal. We can all sympathise with Menashe’s plight. He’s the perpetual underdog, doing his best to get along in the world but failing to gain the respect of his wife’s family, his friends, and his boss (Klein). He tries his best but he seems doomed to experience continual disappointment. But each setback merely spurs him on with even greater determination. He’s prideful, somewhat belligerent (though usually at the wrong time), but he has a heart of gold. He may not be the best father in the world – he may not even be in the running – but his love for his son is as sure as his good intentions.
All of this makes Menashe a pleasant and rewarding diversion from the usual run of the mill family dramas that involve fractured families and/or long-buried secrets. It’s based in part on experiences from Lustig’s own life, and these have been expertly woven into a screenplay (by director Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, and Musa Syeed) that blends an authentic Jewish milieu with problems and dilemmas that we can all relate to. Weinstein, whose background is in documentaries, approaches the material in much the same fashion, choosing camera angles and compositions within the frame that highlight the emotions being felt in any given scene, and in doing so, he avoids any need for sentimentality or misguided pathos. It’s an impressive directorial effort, as Weinstein, with no previous experience of the Hasidic community, sets about making them as recognisably “human” as the rest of us. Good as Weinstein is in the director’s chair, though, it’s Lustig as the eternally hopeful Menashe who provides the movie with the utmost sincerity and charm. It’s a dogged yet sprightly performance, carefully assembled so that even when Menashe is clearly in the wrong, you want him to be right. Alongside him, Niborski and Weisshaus offer terrific support, and there’s a subtly affecting score courtesy of Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist, all of which goes to show that a story set in an Hasidic Jewish community doesn’t have to be a challenge to sit through.
Rating: 8/10 – shot through with an amiable, wry sense of humour, Menashe offers a glimpse into a world that isn’t so different from ours, and which has the same kinds of problems and issues it needs to deal with as well; the central father/son relationship is handled with skill and aplomb, and if at times it all seems a little too simplistic, it doesn’t detract from the quality of the production as a whole.
aka The Hitman’s Apprentice
D: Craig Viveiros / 86m
Cast: Tim Roth, Jack O’Connell, Tallulah Riley, Peter Mullan, Kierston Wareing, Tomi May
Adam (O’Connell) is a nineteen year old Jack-the-lad who lives with his mum, Nicky (Wareing), and her shady businessman boyfriend, Peter (Mullan). When Adam totals one of Peter’s cars, he’s offered a chance to pay the debt he owes: he’s to drive one of Peter’s associates, Roy (Roth), around for a day. They journey to Northumberland, where, deep in the woods they find a caravan where a man called Danil (May) is hiding out. Roy kills him, but as they attempt to make his death look like the work of local serial killer, the Handyman, a young woman (Riley) comes along. She manages to get away from them, and with a bag that contains evidence of what Roy and Adam have done. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that sees the pair trying to retrieve the bag, while the young woman stays ahead of them every step of the way. Before long, Adam learns things about Roy, Peter, and the young woman, that cause him to realise that not everything is as it seems, and that his future depends on the decisions he makes when the truth reveals itself…
A deliberately low-key crime thriller with an acerbic sense of humour, The Liability begins with a subtle clue as to the criminal activity that sits at the heart of the narrative. A man watches as a container is washed out; moments later he’s attacked and killed in his car. He’s the latest victim of the Handyman, and it’s a testament to the efficiency of John Wrathall’s economical screenplay that the identity of this killer and Roy’s despatching of Danil is connected by a generous helping of unexpected irony. It’s surprising moments such as these, where the material plumbs unforeseen depths, that help make The Liability a much more entertaining movie than might be expected. Add in the material’s quirky, often droll line in mirth (Roth and O’Connell do more with a glance than some actors can manage with a three-page monologue), and you have a black comedy thriller that knows when to be serious, when to be uncomfortable, and when to be slyly humorous. It’s not a balancing act that the movie pulls off every time, but it succeeds more than it fails.
The central relationship between the garrulous, over-eager Adam and the more taciturn, fatalistic Roy drives the movie forward, as mutual respect is established, and a degree of inter-dependency grows between them. Roth and O’Connell are a terrific combination, and the way they play off each other, especially in their early scenes together, ensures their characters’ relationship carries a greater weight later on in the movie. Alas, while Adam and Roy grow as characters and invite sympathy and compassion (despite their actions), the same can’t be said for the likes of Mullan’s one-note bad guy, or Riley’s less than innocent backpacker. Both roles suffer thanks to being painted with too broad brush strokes, and their presence offers little in relation to the material featuring Adam and Roy. That said, Viveiros (making only his second feature) shows a deftness of touch that aids the movie tremendously, and he maintains a consistently weary, yet effective tone throughout. The natural beauty of the Northumberland and Teesside locations are muted in order to match the mood of the piece, and James Friend’s cinematography – all dark hues and glowering skies – complements the darker aspects of the narrative. The ending, though, lacks the punch that’s needed to make it work properly – which is disappointing – and it’s further hampered by feeling rushed. But up until then, this is one movie that provides plenty of cinematic nourishment.
Rating: 8/10 – sombre and mournful in places, and yet funny and warm-hearted in others, The Liability isn’t just the standard crime thriller with jokes that it appears to be; an under-rated gem, it’s well worth checking out as an alternative to the East End gangster movies that populate so much of the UK’s crime-based output.
Kantemir (2015) / D: Ben Samuels / 81m
Cast: Robert Englund, Diane Cary, Daniel Gadi, Justine Griffiths, Alanna Janell, Stuart Stone, Sean Derry
John Larousse (Englund) is an actor whose career has bottomed out thanks to being an alcoholic. Given the chance to start afresh, he travels to an out of the way country estate where he and a group of actors have been assembled to work on a play. The director, Nicholas (Gadi), is secretive about the play’s content, only revealing that it’s an historical piece and that the characters are involved in a doomed romance. As the rehearsals begin, each actor starts to display the traits of their character, and they often refer to each other by their character names. Only John seems to be aware of the strange transformation that the cast is undergoing, and when he discovers that one of them has been killed, the reluctance of the others to believe him is further undermined by their increasing commitment to the play, and Nicholas’s strange hold over all of them…
If Kantemir has anything going for it, it’s Englund’s performance (though even he struggles with some of the cliché-ridden dialogue dreamed up by co-writers Mark Garbett and Ralph Glenn Howard). Englund is the glue that keeps the movie from coming unravelled altogether, which is something that’s needed, as the script, and Samuels’ sloppy direction, conspire to obscure just what kind of movie it is. On the one hand it’s a horror movie, but at times it’s also a mystery and a thriller, and an historical romance, and at a stretch, a psychological drama. What it isn’t is coherent or able to connect any two scenes to each other without making it seem as if another one has been cut from between them. Englund’s experience carries him through – just – but otherwise the performances are awkward, mannered, and unconvincing. The back story that explains it all doesn’t make any sense either, which further undermines the movie’s credibility, and John Rosario’s gloomy cinematography ensures the movie isn’t attractive to look at either. It’s not entirely a chore to sit through, but any rewards are minimal, and even then, very hard to find.
Rating: 4/10 – with its patchwork screenplay and ill-considered scenario, Kantemir is the kind of low budget horror that gets made hundreds of times each year – and which provides evidence (if it were really needed) that they shouldn’t be made in the first place; admittedly, it’s hard to come up with something truly original in the horror field, and this may be an attempt to do that, but the vast gulf between idea and execution is displayed here a little too obviously for the movie’s own good.
February (2015) / D: Oz Perkins / 94m
aka The Blackcoat’s Daughter; The Devil’s Daughter
Cast: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, James Remar, Lauren Holly, Greg Ellwand, Elana Krausz, Heather Tod Mitchell, Peter James Howarth
It’s February at the Bromford School for girls, a Catholic establishment preparing to see its pupils and staff head off for winter break. Two students however – Kat (Shipka) and Rose (Boynton) – remain behind at the school thanks to their parents being unable to collect them on the allotted day. Kat is a freshman, prone to staring off into the distance and behaving oddly. Rose is a senior who has just found out she’s pregnant; the school head has also asked her to chaperone Kat during the break (though two nuns are there as well). Meanwhile, a young woman named Joan (Roberts) has left a psychiatric hospital some distance away; at a bus station she meets and accepts a lift from Bill (Remar), a good Samaritan who reveals in time that she reminds him of his daughter, who died nine years before. He and his wife, Linda (Holly), are travelling to Bromford to lay flowers on her grave. Kat’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, and Rose begins to fear for her safety, something that is given credence when the headmaster (Howarth) returns to the school and makes a horrifying discovery…
Although it suffers from issues with pacing, and the story it tells borders on being uncomfortably slight, February is a lean and atmospheric chiller from the fertile mind of its writer/director. Perkins has an offbeat dramatic sensibility, and it’s as a writer that he’s most effective – see Removal (2010) and The Girl in the Photographs (2015) for further evidence. Here, what you see isn’t necessarily what you can believe, as the narrative weaves in and out in a non-linear fashion that keeps the viewer from fully understanding just what’s going on and why. The performances, particularly Shipka’s, are accomplished, and they ensure that the mystery is maintained for as long as possible. Perkins also throws in themes relating to grief and personal responsibility, but is unable to make certain scenes as effective as they could be, mostly due to their being stretched beyond any real benefit. The wintry locations add to the sense of unease, and the way in which the movie escalates the level of violence and horror towards the end is persuasive as well. Some viewers may find the movie’s first hour somewhat difficult to get through, but if they stick around, they’ll find that perseverance is its own reward.
Rating: 7/10 – not entirely successful, but doing more than enough to warrant the casual viewer’s attention, February is a deceptively effective horror thriller that takes its time and doesn’t give away all its secrets at once; too many longueurs hamper the movie’s pace and rhythm, but the material is strong enough to offset these faults and provide a pervasive sense of menace that is handled astutely and in appropriately cool fashion.
D: Lambert Hillyer / 14m
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Charles C. Wilson, Warren Jackson, John Maxwell, Gus Glassmire
Having managed to avoid the collapsing basement ceiling coming down on him, Batman ensures Linda isn’t trapped anywhere in the burning Ajax Metal Works before getting to safety. Instead of heading for home, he checks with Captain Arnold (Wilson) to see if the Sphinx Club has been raided and one of Daka’s men, Bernie (Jackson), has been picked up. Learning that Bernie is still at large, Batman returns to the Sphinx Club where he discovers Bernie in a hidden room. Bernie is taken back to the Bat Cave where he lets slip that the one place Batman doesn’t want to investigate is the hideout where Chuck White was taken. Meanwhile, Linda is taken to Daka’s lair where he threatens to turn her into a zombie unless she helps him lure Bruce Wayne into a trap. At the secondary hideout, Batman and Robin discover an underground tunnel that leads to Daka’s lair. While Linda is being turned into a zombie, Batman falls through a trap door and into a room with large spikes on opposing walls. Soon, the walls are closing in, sending Batman to certain death…
And there it is folks, the final stretch is in sight – at last. After so many episodes where the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder escape certain death only to retire to the Wayne home to wait for the next clue to fall into their laps, now, in Chapter 13 they finally take the initiative. Batman even takes the opportunity to criticise Captain Arnold (“Wasn’t very smart of you to take their word against mine”) when told the men caught in the Sphinx Club raid denied knowing anyone called Bernie. This new, proactive Batman is a pleasure to meet at long last, and this is the first installment where Wilson and Croft don’t get to don their civvies as Bruce and Dick. It’s also the episode where Robin’s involvement appears deliberately curtailed and he’s sidelined in favour of Batman leading the action (he goes into the Sphinx Club alone; in the underground tunnel, Robin is sent back for a crowbar). Meanwhile, Daka has nearly finished assembling his new radium gun, Uncle Martin is used as a threat to induce Linda to aid Daka, and the racism of the time gets a fresh outing when Linda’s first words on meeting Daka are, “A Jap!”
It’s an episode that, despite its short running time, feels like a proper installment, one that advances the somewhat precariously handled – up til now – plot, and one which has the vitality and energy of the Colton/radium mine chapters (ahh, those were the days). The various scenes have a punchy, determined quality, as if everyone involved can see the home stretch now and want to get there as soon as possible. It’s as if someone – the writers, Hillyer, the Columbia brass themselves – said, “come on, let’s put this serial to bed,” and the challenge was accepted (gladly). Even the usually tedious scenes where Daka monologues fiendishly, but to little avail, here actually see him behaving threateningly and to good effect. Naish hasn’t always been able to avoid chewing the scenery, but here he employs a quietly disturbing menace to the role that makes him seem like a worthy villain. Wilson benefits too. Without having to play either Bruce or Chuck White as well as Batman, Wilson is more forceful and single-minded. And Hillyer shows that he’s regained some of the verve and energy that he’s brought to earlier installments. It all bodes well for the last two chapters, though there’s still the question, just how is Batman going to survive this time…?
Rating: 7/10 – a huge improvement on the last few chapters (even if a few narrative leaps and bounds are employed to achieve this), Chapter 13 sees the serial rise from the doldrums with an urgency that can only mean the end is in sight; with Batman having relied too much on filler up until now, it’s a relief to see that it will, in all likelihood, be like this until Daka’s plans have been thwarted once and for all.
D: Clea DuVall / 89m
Cast: Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne, Vincent Piazza, Jason Ritter, Ben Schwartz, Alia Shawkat, Cobie Smulders
Annie and Matt (Lynskey, Ritter) are travelling to meet up with their friends, Sarah and Jessie (Lyonne, DuVall), Peter and Ruby (Piazza, Smulders), and Jessie’s brother, Jack (Schwartz), for a weekend get together. There is an ulterior motive for the get together: the rest are convinced that Peter and Ruby’s marriage is on the rocks and that an intervention is needed; they intend to suggest the couple divorce for both their sakes. When Jack arrives he brings a new girlfriend with him, Lola (Shawkat), but while this is initially regarded as inappropriate, it’s quickly forgotten with the arrival of Peter and Ruby. The couple bicker and squabble in front of their friends, and though Annie appears to the group’s prime mover, she fumbles a first attempt at confronting Peter and Ruby by getting drunk. Before another attempt can be made, divisions between the other couples are brought to the fore, partly because of Lola’s freewheeling sexuality, but also because of long-buried animosities. And things don’t improve when the intervention finally takes place, and Peter and Ruby react in ways that prove unexpected and which threaten the group’s friendship – perhaps irrevocably…
DuVall’s debut as a writer/director, The Intervention is a broadly optimistic, genial and amusing movie that works surprisingly well despite its largely conventional narrative and collection of characters. The basic premise plays out as you’d expect, adding fault lines in each relationship as the movie progresses, but thankfully not to the point where it looks as if each marriage/partnership needs their own intervention. Instead, DuVall does something that’s a little bit sneaky (maybe even underhanded): she pulls the rug out from under the viewer by revealing said fault lines but without wrapping them up neatly in a nice dramatic bow by the movie’s end. In doing this, she keeps the material fresher than it appears to be at first, and allows the main storyline and its various sub-plots to make much more of an impact than usual. Little betrayals and far from imagined slights have their place, but it’s the characters’ reactions to them – their bemused, uncomprehending reactions – that provide much of the enjoyment to be had from DuVall’s astute observations and the movie’s overall tone. If there’s one caveat, it’s that the drama is often underplayed in favour of the humour, but when it needs to, the script stings deliberately and painfully.
If DuVall’s first outing as a writer isn’t always successful – Lola is too obviously a catalyst for upset, the male characters aren’t as clearly defined as their female counterparts – as a director she’s on firmer ground, orchestrating matters with a great deal of confidence and precision in the way scenes are staged, and knowing when to focus on the appropriate dynamics relating to each couple. She’s aided by a terrific ensemble cast that’s headed by the always reliable Lynskey. As the commitment-phobic Annie, Lynskey invests her character with a pliable sense of responsibility and a survivor’s ignorance of individual culpability. It’s yet another performance that reinforces the fact that she’s one of the best actresses working today. Almost matching her (it’s really close) is Smulders, her portayal of Ruby as melancholy and subdued as you’d suspect in a woman whose marriage is visibly imploding (Smulders broke her leg shortly before shooting began; rather than re-cast, DuVall wrote it into the script). The rest of the cast enter into the spirit of things with gusto, and thanks to DuVall’s actor friendly approach, it’s the performances that prove to be the movie’s main attraction.
Rating: 7/10 – uneven in places, but with a sincerity and a sharpness to the material that keeps it (mostly) fresh and appealing, The Intervention is rewarding in an undemanding yet enjoyable way; bolstered by a raft of good performances, it’s unpretentious stuff that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and which knows not to resolve all its characters’ problems.
If you’ve already seen the trailer for Dumbo (2019) – directed by Tim Burton, and starring Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton – then you might be asking yourself: really? And it would be a fair question. Is anyone, having watched the trailer, really excited to see this unnecessary and unappealing remake? Does anyone truly believe that this incarnation of Helen Aberson’s classic story will be an improvement on Disney’s 1941 original? And perhaps more importantly, just what on Earth are Disney doing?
The answer to that last question is very simple: Disney are trampling all over their legacy as a leading purveyor of animated movies – classic animated movies – in an effort to bring in big box office returns. As a business plan it has its own undeniable merits: give an entirely new generation live action movies based on older, animated movies that Disney have stopped re-releasing on home video via that seven-year cycle that seemed to be the old business plan. Having already gone down the unnecessary and unappealing animated sequel route in the years between 1994 and 2008, Disney have decided that live action versions of their classic (emphasis on the world ‘classic’) animated originals are what’s best for business. And sadly, those live action movies that have already been released have been very successful financially – so why shouldn’t Disney continue milking their very own cash cow?
But though we’ve had Cinderella (2015), and The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017), and though they’ve made a ton of money at the box office, can anyone say, hand on heart, that they’re an improvement on the originals? Or that they’re even a match for the quality of those movies? They’re all missing that vital spark that their animated predecessors all seem to have in abundance. But with Dumbo, Disney have gone several steps further than those other live action “events”. This is one of the synopses for Dumbo that’s listed on IMDb: A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus. But when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer. Dark secrets? Is this what Dumbo needs, dark secrets at the heart of its storyline? Does this adaptation have to be a mystery, a thriller with the usual eccentric Tim Burton elements? Will this make Dumbo one of the must-see movies of 2019? (Sadly, it will probably make no difference at all.) The trailer seems to confirm all these things, and that’s without mentioning the strong whiff of The Greatest Showman (2017) about it all as well. Sometimes, and to paraphrase the well known saying, just because Disney can, doesn’t mean that they should.
D: Jeffrey Walker / 110m
Cast: Osamah Sami, Don Hany, Helana Sawires, Robert Rabiah, Khaled Khalafalla, Asal Shenaveh, Rodney Afif, Ghazi Alkinani, Majid Shokor, Shayan Salehian, Ryan Corr
Ali (Sami) and his family live in Australia, but are originally from Iraq. His father (Hany) is the cleric of the local mosque, and wants Ali to become a doctor. Ali isn’t so sure that’s going to happen as he doesn’t have a natural aptitude for medicine and struggles with his studies; when he only gets 68.5 on his university entrance exam, it confirms what he already knows. However, because he doesn’t want to disappoint his father, Ali keeps the result to himself, but when another student boasts of getting a high score, Ali tells everyone he scored even higher. And when he learns that the girl he’s attracted to, Dianne (Sawires), has also passed, Ali determines to attend the university anyway. Meanwhile, Ali’s parents reveal that they are arranging a bride for him (now that he’s on his way to being a successful doctor), and are making plans for their upcoming wedding. As Ali fights to keep his secret from being revealed, he has to find a way of getting out of the arranged marriage, and ensuring that he and Dianne can be together – even though she’s Lebanese…
Based on Sami’s own experiences, Ali’s Wedding is something of a first: a Muslim romantic comedy that manages to be respectful of Muslim traditions and his family’s transplanted way of life, while also acknowledging that his generation may not be as “wedded” to those traditions as elder generations would expect them to be. It’s a movie that avoids the usual condemnation that you’d expect when young love rears its socially unacceptable head and challenges the status quo, or entrenched religious sensibilities, and part of the movie’s charm is that Sami, along with co-writer Andrew Knight, recognises the validity of both points of view. So there’s no demonising of the Muslim religion, no stereotypical characterisations, and no deciding if one side is “better” than the other. Arguments are made for both sides of the cultural divide, and it’s left to the viewer to decide which one they agree with most. That said, Sami’s unwavering fairness to both sides should be enough, as he makes sure that the movie’s nominal bad guy, a would-be usurper of his father’s role of cleric, is undone by an outburst of arrogant pride.
Having set the tone for the movie’s cultural and religious backdrop, Sami is free to build a lightweight yet likeable romance out of Ali’s relationship with Dianne, and to pepper proceedings with the kind of knowing humour that wouldn’t necessarily work outside of the movie’s framework. Hence we have Saddam The Musical (all true), and an abortive trip to the US to stage the show (the principal cast are all returned home in handcuffs). And that’s without a tractor ride that ends in disaster, and a joke about community service that is both beautifully timed and arrives out of the blue. Walker lets the narrative breathe, and doesn’t rush things, allowing the material and the performances to progress naturally and to good effect. As himself, Sami has a mischievous twinkle in his eye that at times is infectiously winning, and he’s supported by a great cast who all contribute greatly to the movie’s likeability (though Hany’s Aussie accent slips through from time to time, which can be off-putting). There are themes surrounding trust and respect, community and togetherness that are played out with a directness and simplicity that enhance the material, and though the ending is never in doubt, there’s still an awful lot of fun to be had in getting there.
Rating: 8/10 – an agreeable and amusing romantic comedy, Ali’s Wedding does what all the best rom-coms do, and puts its hero through the ringer before giving him a chance at coming up trumps; the romance between Ali and Dianne is entirely credible, as are the various inter-relationships within families and the wider Muslim community, making this an unexpected, but modestly vital, success.
D: Woody Harrelson / 103m
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Eleanor Matsuura, Martin McCann, Peter Ferdinando, Zrinka Cvitešić, Al Nedjari, David Mumeni, David Avery, Amir El-Masry, Willie Nelson, Daniel Radcliffe
In 2002, Woody Harrelson was in London appearing in John Kolvenbach’s play, On an Average Day. One night, following a visit to Chinawhite, a club in Soho, Harrelson was in a taxi where he broke an ashtray. The police were called, and Harrelson, having transferred to another taxi, was subsequently chased by them before being arrested. He spent the night in jail before being bailed the following morning. This incident forms the basis for Lost in London, a reworking of the events of that night, events that begin with Harrelson getting into trouble with his wife, Laura (Matsuura), after she reads about him in the papers having partied with three strippers. Given until midnight to be by himself and think about his actions, while Laura decides what to do herself, Woody finds himself hooking up with an Arab prince (Nedjari) and his three sons and going to a nightclub. There he bumps into Owen Wilson, and an ensuing altercation between the two men leads to Woody having to leave the club suddenly, and get into the first available taxi, a decision that will prove to have far-reaching consequences…
Lost in London is notable for two reasons: it’s Harrelson’s first movie as a director (he also wrote the script as well), and it was the first – and so far only – movie to be screened in cinemas live. Necessarily playing out in real time, apart from a temporal sleight of hand towards the end, Harrelson’s debut is much more than a gimmick of a movie. Shot through with an absurdist sense of humour that feels more British than American, the movie sees Harrelson riffing on his career (often to self-deprecating effect), and his public persona at the time (drugs and booze his staple diet). He also expands on the original problem with the ashtray to include such priceless moments as “hiding” from the police at the top of a children’s slide, and Martin McCann’s sympathetic policeman’s phone call to a reggae-obsessed Bono (actually Bono). The humour in the movie ranges from the broad to the scalpel sharp to inspired to silly, and all the way back again. At the beginning, having come off stage after a less than well received performance of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Harrelson bemoans being stuck doing serious drama. Watching Lost in London, that’s definitely not a problem.
Harrelson has assembled a great cast in support of his endeavours, with McCann and Cvitešić (as a woman he meets outside the nightclub) particularly good, while Wilson trades increasingly vicious barbs with him as they trash each other’s movies (Wilson: “You were just oozing sex appeal in Kingpin.” Harrelson: “You got out-acted by a dog in Marley & Me“). There are some serious moments as well though, caustic observations about the nature of celebrity, and the drawbacks of public perception (at one point Harrelson sings the theme song to Cheers to an unimpressed and unaware bouncer). But most of all, this is meant to make its audience laugh, and this Harrelson achieves with a great deal of skill and wit. As a technical challenge, it has to be regarded as an unalloyed success, with Nigel Willoughby’s single camera cinematography providing a sense of immediacy that, if it had been missing, would have undermined the movie completely. That it all works so well is a testament to the planning and the practice that must have gone into putting the movie together in such a way, and so confidently. It may be some time before anyone attempts such a movie again, but until then, this is a more than worthy effort all by itself.
Rating: 8/10 – having given himself a major challenge with his first feature as a director, Woody Harrelson delivers a movie that’s funny, warm-hearted, and full of indelible moments; Lost in London may stretch the format out of shape on occasion, but Harrelson has such overall control of the material that the odd mis-step now and again can easily be forgiven.
Okay, hands up if you don’t know that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon. (Sorry – first person.) If you don’t, it shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, it happened nearly fifty years ago, and a lot has happened since then, so what he did back on 21 July 1969 could so easily be overlooked, or forgotten maybe. And it’s not as if the US has a manned space programme any more. So this is history, recent history to be sure, but something that a lot of people should know about, and even if they can’t remember Armstrong’s name or that he was the first, they should be aware that a handful of very lucky astronauts got to walk on the Moon.
With all that in mind, the latest movie from director Damien Chazelle – Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016) – looks set to address the issue, putting Armstrong and his “leap for Man” firmly in the public spotlight again. In some ways, it’s surprising that the Apollo 11 mission hasn’t been given the big screen treatment already, but now that it’s here, the trailer – admirably assembled in the way that all trailers for “important” movies should be – begs one question above all others: why does it look and sound like a thriller? We all – sorry, most of us – know the outcome, so why does the trailer make First Man look and feel like there’s some doubt as to whether or not the mission will succeed? And “the most dangerous mission in history”? Hasn’t anyone seen Apollo 13 (1995)?
Still, it does have a great cast, with Ryan Gosling portraying Armstrong as all steely jawed determination, and Claire Foy as his first wife, Janet (equally serious and determined), but the trailer doesn’t give us much more to work with in terms of the real people they’re playing, and how true to life their performances are. The trailer concentrates instead on quotable soundbites – “We have to fail down here so we don’t fail up there” – and pounding music beats to push the tension of the launch. In many respects it’s a trailer designed to make the movie look good (naturally), but it does so by being exactly the kind of trailer you’d expect for this kind of movie: dramatic, forceful, and a little too dry for its own good.
D: Lambert Hillyer / 14m
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Charles C. Wilson, Warren Jackson, Gus Glassmire
Having avoided certain death from the explosion at one of Daka’s hideouts thanks to a conveniently placed trap door that leads to the outside, Batman and Robin meet up with Alfred and head back home. Daka receives the news with his customary annoyance, and learns from one of his henchmen, Bernie (Jackson), that Marshall (presumed dead in the Colton mine collapse) is in jail and was talking to Chuck White. Daka sends Bernie to the jail to give Marshall a “special brand” of cigarettes called Medusa. The next morning, Bruce and Dick go to see Captain Arnold (Wilson); he wants them to identify Marshall as one of the men who attacked them, but when they get to his cell, Marshall is dead. Bruce picks up a cigarette and analyses it with the aid of his Young Scientist chemical set and learns it’s poisonous. Following this, Daka decides to target Linda in an effort to draw out Batman and ambush him at the Ajax Metal Works. When she goes missing, Batman and Robin track her whereabouts to the metal works, but their attempt to rescue her leads to a fire breaking out and Batman trapped in the basement as part of the ceiling collapses on him, sending him to certain death…
The shortest chapter so far fairly whizzes by as it crams in as much as it can while still failing to advance the main plot in any way, shape or form (whatever the main plot is; by now it’s hard to remember if there is one). The whole set up surrounding the “rubbing out” of Marshall serves no dramatic purpose at all, and while it’s always good to see Captain Arnold providing some much needed, and at least scripted, humour, there’s no reason to devote any time to Marshall’s demise at all. More padding then, and in an episode that runs two minutes shorter than the previous record holders. The phrase “running out of steam” seems entirely appropriate, and this with only three chapters left to go. The trailer gives a better idea of where everything is headed at this stage, as the repetitive nature of the script takes a further toll on the narrative. It’s as if – the Colton episodes aside – the writers’ brief was to repeat each episode’s basic structure as often as possible.
Inevitably, this leaves the cast stranded as if on a loop they can’t escape from. The formulaic nature of the serial means Wilson and Croft now only don their Batman and Robin outfits in order to have a punch up with Daka’s goons at the end of each chapter, while Naish leers and sneers as Daka to banal, off-putting effect, and Patterson – when allowed – is given the littlest possible to do (some of the actors playing henchmen have more screen time than she does). The credibility of the crime fighters themselves is brought into question this time as they put themselves in jeopardy by alerting Daka’s men to their presence at the metal works by using a smoke bomb in a basement filled with crates and highly flammable packing materials. (So much for lying low and not drawing attention to yourself). All it needs is for one of Daka’s men to be smoking a cigarette… oh, wait a minute, one of them is. With so many issues and so little time now to improve on them, it’s getting harder to believe that the writers will be able to turn things around and bring the serial to a satisfactory end – let alone working out how Batman is going to survive this time…
Rating: 5/10 – it’s over almost before you know it, but Chapter 12 is also another dispiriting entry in a serial that is proving to be more filler than fulfillment; at this stage, Batman is losing traction with every chapter, and any energy it has is like the oxygen in the basement room at the end of this episode: fast running out.
D: Joseph Ruben / 110m
Cast: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner
It’s 1914, and in Philadelphia, Lillie Rowe (Hilmar), the daughter of well-to-do society parents is trying to make her way in the world as a nurse. It’s not easy, what with class and racial prejudice making it more and more difficult to treat those needing treatment, so when she meets Dr Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at one of her parents’ soirées, and learns he works at a hospital in a remote part of Turkey that offers medical aid to anyone who needs it, Christian or Muslim, she decides to take a truck full of medical supplies there all by herself. Needing a military escort, Lillie is guided to the hospital by Lieutenant Ismail Veli (Huisman), who is stationed at a nearby garrison. They develop romantic feelings for each other, despite the difference in their faiths, and despite the objections of Gresham (who loves Lillie himself), and the advice of the hospital’s founder, Dr Garrett Woodruff (Kingsley). When World War I breaks out, their romance is put under further pressure thanks to the political upheavals the war brings, and the difficulty in keeping the hospital a neutral place for all…
Despite the tumultuous events that occurred during the period it covers, The Ottoman Lieutenant is largely unconcerned with such minor details as the Armenian genocide that began in 1915, or in exploring too closely the religious, political, ethnic and historical realities of the time. Instead, it sidesteps these issues (for the most part) in order to focus on one of the most excruciatingly bland three-way romances seen in quite some time. If you’re expecting the movie to be a grand, sweeping romantic drama set against a turbulent backdrop, and full of passion and fire, then be prepared: it’s not that kind of movie, and the combination of Jeff Stockwell’s anodyne screenplay, Joseph Ruben’s pedestrian direction, and three tired-from-the-word-go performances by Huisman, Hilmar and Hartnett, ensure that the movie never gets out of the starting gate. And that’s without Geoff Zanelli’s by-the-numbers score, and cinematography by Daniel Aranyó that only seems to fizz when depicting the beautiful Turkish countryside; any interiors appear drab and unappealingly flat in their presentation. Apparently, the movie was given a limited release in December 2016 to allow it to qualify for Oscar consideration. If so, the obvious question is: why?
All round, it’s a woeful lump of a movie, uninspired, straining for momentum and merit, and unable to raise any interest especially when its lacklustre love story is pushed to the forefront. It’s hard to care about Veli and Lillie when their love affair is played out with all the perfunctory flair of a dismal soap opera, and it’s worse that neither Huisman or Hilmar seem interested in doing anything more than going through the (e)motions (there’s certainly no chemistry between them). Hartnett is no better, which means that, performance-wise, it’s only Kingsley who appears to be putting any effort in. Making more out of his character, and some truly awful dialogue, than his three co-stars put together, Kingsley is the movie’s sole saving grace; without him it would be even more tortuous. Even when the movie throws in a couple of action sequences, the viewer’s pulse is unlikely to quicken, and any tension is dismissed early on when it becomes obvious that, one character aside, no one is in any real danger from the Turks, the Russians, or anyone else – though the viewer is at risk of succumbing to terminal lethargy. Best advice: if you have to make one trip to Turkey this year, make sure it isn’t this one.
Rating: 3/10 – what was probably intended to be a good old-fashioned romantic adventure yarn with a plucky heroine and a dashing suitor, is instead the opposite: trite, run-of-the-mill, and poorly executed; when it’s not addressing the issues of the period (which is most of its running time), The Ottoman Lieutenant remains firmly in dramatic limbo, unable to rouse itself beyond the mundane and the banal.
D: Brian Taylor / 83m
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert T. Cunningham, Olivia Crocicchia, Lance Henriksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank
For the Ryans it’s just another ordinary, humdrum day. Dad Brent (Cage) is getting through another dull day at the office, mum Kendall (Blair) is trying to make sense of where her life has gone, teenage daughter Carly (Winters) is rebelling against her parents because they don’t approve of her boyfriend, Damon (Cunningham), and young son Josh (Arthur) is home for the day. But partway through the morning, news reports start referring to incidents of parents attacking and killing their children. Carly and her best friend, Riley (Crocicchia), discover this when groups of parents show up at their school with murderous intent. Kendall hears about these incidents too, and rushes home to ensure Josh is safe – but little realising that once she’s there he won’t be. With Carly reaching home accompanied by Damon, she finds Josh alive and well, but only just before Brent arrives home too, followed by Kendall. Soon, the three children are doing their best to stay alive as Brent and Kendall show their determination to kill their children, and if it has to be messy, well…
The basic premise of Mom & Dad – what would happen if parents took up filicide with gleeful enthusiasm – is evidenced in a number of cruel, horrific, and yet somehow satisfying ways. The movie begins with a mother leaving her baby in a car on some railroad tracks with a train fast approaching. Later, a first-time mum attempts to kill her newborn within moments of its birth, and as Kendall speeds home, another mum shoves a stroller with her child inside it in front of Kendall’s car. These and other examples of parental rage in suburbia are presented with a joyful sense of mischief that is unapologetic, and the source of much of the movie’s black comedy. Of course, whether or not the idea of filicide is an acceptable source of humour will be down to the individual, but Brian Taylor’s script offers no defence in the matter – and nor should it. It’s a crazy idea, but a perfect one for a low budget horror thriller that rolls along in the wake of The Purge series, and which doesn’t show anything too graphic, such as Georgie Denbrough losing an arm in It (2017). It’s all about the tone – which is admittedly warped – but Taylor pulls it off with brash exuberance, and more to spare.
In doing so he marshalls two terrific performances from Cage and Blair. It’s a given that Cage will go overboard in his portrayal of the world weary Brent (trapped in a life he never wanted), but this time it’s in full service to the story, and it’s entirely in context of his character’s insane, murderous intentions. But it’s Blair who impresses the most, going from shocked and horrified to eerily calm about murdering her children, and offering odd, quirky moments such as when she picks up a meat tenderiser and realises what it can be used for. Both actors are clearly having a lot of fun, and Taylor’s script allows them to explore (admittedly) basic notions of what it means to be a parent and the pressures that go with it. Taylor also gets the action right – as the co-writer/director of the Crank movies should – and does so with an acknowledgment that he’s on a restricted budget, which makes some of the set ups more inventive than expected. It’s not the subtlest of movies, and though it’s far-fetched nature sometimes works against it, it’s still an entertaining, and often very funny, look at what some parents would really like to do to their kids if they were able to.
Rating: 7/10 – surprisingly well put together, and shot through with a casual disregard for the sanctity of parenthood, Mom & Dad is a blithely amoral horror thriller that works well within its production boundaries and its basic premise; wisely choosing not to explain the reason or source of why parents start killing their children, it gets on with the challenge of making it as terrifying a situation as possible – and for the most part, succeeds admirably.
D: Josh Helman / 90m
Cast: Celeste Arias, Jennifer Allcott, Grayson DeJesus, Josh Helman, Zosia Mamet, Evan Jonigkeit
Kate (Arias) and Em (Allcott) have been best friends for years. Recently, Em has been in Paris following the break up of her latest relationship. When she returns, she has a surprise: having been in exclusively lesbian relationships before now, now she’s met and is seeing a man, Aussie photographer Nick (Helman). Kate is surprised and pleased at the news, and accepts an invitation for herself and her partner, Pete (DeJesus), to spend the weekend at Nick’s lakeside cabin. Kate and Pete take to Nick straight away, and he’s a gracious host, even if the cabin is full of framed photographs of the models Nick has slept with. As the weekend progresses, tension begins to develop between Kate and Nick following a prank where he threw her into the lake. Matters worsen during a game of Sardines when Kate does something to threaten the stability of both relationships, as well as her friendship with Em. It coincides with Pete learning he’s landed a new job that means moving to Seattle (he and Kate live in New York), and it all puts Kate in the position of having to decide what she wants moving forward…
An indie movie co-written by Helman and Allcott, Kate Can’t Swim takes two couples, puts them in a remote, semi-isolated cabin in the woods, and proceeds to challenge each individual’s middle class, aspirational values, and the security of their partnerships. Kate is a writer struggling with her first novel, Em is an artist whose work appears to be recognised but we’re never sure who by, Nick is a well-regarded photographer looking to move from nudes to portraiture, and Pete is on the cusp of getting the job he’s worked so hard for over the last five years. They are all fun-loving, serious when necessary individuals, apparently secure in their own emotions and beliefs, but beneath the surface there are tensions and insecurities that beset all of them (though to different extremes). Helman and Allport aren’t in any rush to exploit these tensions and insecurities, which means that the movie takes a while to get going, content to introduce each character slowly and deliberately, and to provide a few obvious clues as to where it’s all heading. It’s lively in places, thoughtful in others, and engaging enough to keep the viewer interested in what’s going to happen.
However, what happens leads to a final twenty minutes that feels unbalanced against the rest of the movie. Even though things become necessarily more serious, there’s also a large dollop of melodrama introduced to the mix that feels clunky and contrived, as if Helman and Allcott didn’t know how to address fully the issues raised by Kate’s actions and the emotions we learn she’s been repressing. These developments may alienate some viewers, while others may find themselves happier to go with the flow, but either way, the fact there’s a choice to be made is still concerning. Helman’s direction is at least consistent, opting for static shots as a way of highlighting the isolation each character is feeling at various times, and he coaxes good performances from his co-stars, particularly Arias, whose portrayal of Kate is sympathetic, though not entirely so. The inter-relationships are effectively portrayed, and there’s some knowing humour to help leaven the growing drama, all of which makes the movie a mostly enjoyable experience, even if the structure is a little predictable. It’s not an indie movie that stands out from the crowd per se, but it is one that offers a number of small pleasures along the way.
Rating: 7/10 – easy-going and happily laid back for most of its running time, Kate Can’t Swim doesn’t always offer a fresh take on its choice of storyline, but it does enough to hold the viewer’s interest throughout; solidly assembled and amenable in its approach, on this evidence any further movies from Helman and Allcott will be ones to look forward to.
D: James Marsh / 101m
Cast: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Finn Elliot, Eleanor Stagg, Kit Connor, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Oliver Maltman
In the summer of 1968, and with his electronics business failing, amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst (Firth) hears about the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round the world yacht race with a prize of £5,000 to the yachtsman who completes the race in the fastest time. Determined to win the prize, Crowhurst gains financial backing from businessman Stanley Best (Stott), and sets about building a purpose-desogned trimaran for the voyage. He also hires a crime reporter for the Daily Express, Rodney Hallworth (Thewlis), to act as his publicist. Problems with the design of the trimaran and getting the right materials delay Crowhurst’s start in the race, and in order to maintain Best’s sponsorship, Crowhurst signs over his business and his home; now he has to succeed. Eventually, Crowhurst, in his boat Teignmouth Electron, sets sail on 31 October, the last day allowed. Leaving his wife, Clare (Weisz), and three children with promises of being back in nine months’ time, Crowhurst soon encounters problems early on in his voyage, problems that contribute to his making a number of rash decisions…
If you’ve never heard of Donald Crowhurst – and fifty years on, it’s unlikely given the circumstances – watching The Mercy may prove a singularly frustrating experience. It’s the true story (modified as ever for the movies) of a man pursuing a dream but lacking in the abilities and skills required to achieve that dream – and knowing it, deep down. On the eve of sailing, Crowhurst tells Hallworth and Best that he thinks it’s a good idea for him not to go, to abandon the idea. It’s a moment of desperate clarity for Crowhurst, and he wants the two men to agree with him and support him in his decision. But the opposite happens: Hallworth acknowledges Crowhurst’s fears as being a normal reaction to the enormity of what he’s about to do. And in that moment, Crowhurst’s last hope is crushed through good intentions. Firth’s performance says it all: Crowhurst is doomed; whatever happens, he won’t win the prize. It’s a terrible, disconsolate moment for the amateur sailor, and for the audience. Now we’re set up for a tale of tragedy. The only thing to do is to wait it out and see just how things go wrong, and why.
But Crowhurst’s story – and this is where the frustration comes in – requires a great deal of guesswork and supposition. What actually happened isn’t in doubt, but the why remains tantalisingly out of reach, which means that the movie has to fill in the gaps as best it can. As a result, Scott Z. Burns’ script becomes less and less gripping as Crowhurst’s voyage continues, and becomes a series of loosely connected scenes that leave the viewer as stranded as the movie’s central character. Marsh is a terrific director – Man on Wire (2008), The Theory of Everything (2014) – but somehow the tragedy of Crowhurst’s story isn’t conveyed as forcefully as it could have been. Firth is good in the role, showing Crowhurst slowly coming to terms with the futility of chasing a dream he can’t ever catch, but Weisz is stuck with a typical wife-at-home role where she’s required to look worried a lot and little else (proving there’s still plenty of “thankless female” roles around in this day and age of the #MeToo Movement). Thewlis is also good as Hallworth (another man whose ambitions weren’t realised), even if he’s more spiv than publicist, and the movie has a beautiful sheen to it thanks to Eric Gautier’s sparkling cinematography. But there’s still a sense, once the outcome is known, that the voyage getting there isn’t as affecting as it should be.
Rating: 6/10 – laced with a sympathetic streak that, given some of Crowhurst’s pre-sailing decisions, is debatable for its presence, The Mercy remains a hollow effort that keeps Crowhurst at a distance from the audience; still, there’s enough in terms of the non-seafaring narrative to semi-compensate for this, and there’s another fine score from Jóhann Jóhannsson to further ameliorate matters.
Original title: La noche del jabali
D: Ramiro Tenorio / 71m
Cast: Catalina Zahri, Fernando Kliche, Renzo Briceño, Gastón Salgado, Spyros Papadatos
A writer of romantic fiction, Claudia Moratti (Zahri), travels to the southern most area of South America, and the small town where her partner, the horror novelist Guillermo San Román (Papadatos), grew up. Guillermo’s novels were each inspired by a series of murders that took place in his home town, and specific details of the crimes were always included in his books. Claudia has come looking for answers to the question, did Guillermo commit the murders? The local police chief, Benno (Kliche), seems to think so, and is determined to find evidence that he did. Claudia begins her own investigation, looking through Guillermo’s novels and research materials, until she is faced with the serious possibility that he at least had a hand in the murders. The discovery of another body complicates matters as Guillermo has been dead for a year, having committed suicide. With suspicion falling on both Mario (Briceño), who looks after Guillermo’s home, and Sebastian (Salgado), who helps him, Claudia has to work out who is lying to her, and who is hiding a terrible secret. Things come to a head when she discovers materials in Sebastian’s home that point to him being the killer…
The debut feature of writer/director Ramiro Tenorio, The Night of the Wild Boar is that unfortunate beast, the poorly thought out thriller. It begins well, creating a vivid sense of mystery and a tainted atmosphere for its backdrop. Claudia’s arrival is met with the usual customary suspicion in these cases, with Mario offering her glowering looks, and Benno wasting no time in voicing his opinions about Guillermo’s likely guilt. It’s a strong set up, and even though there are few suspects, each – and including the police chief – appear to have their own fair share of secrets, and each of them could be the culprit. With Claudia feeling like she’s made a big mistake in going there, and her interactions with everyone adding further confusion to the notion of Guillermo’s possible guilt or innocence, Tenorio tightens the screws somewhat, making Claudia – and the audience – feel uncomfortable and more unsafe the more she finds out. But having done a fine job in setting up the central mystery, as well as introducing the suspects, Tenorio then goes ahead and spoils things by having Claudia find copies of Guillermo’s novels and his notes and his research – in his home.
At this stage – and bearing in mind these files have lain untouched for a year – Tenorio’s grip on the narrative begins to unravel, and further developments start to collapse in on one another as the script leads the way to the kind of overly melodramatic conclusion that tests the movie’s internal logic, and makes Claudia’s presence from the beginning entirely problematical. With a relatively short running time as well, the need to wrap things up neatly becomes paramount, but the answer to the mystery of the dead girls is awkward and unconvincing; it feels like a fait accompli. Visually, though, the movie is often lovely if a little gloomy to look at, and Nick Deeg’s cinematography highlights the rugged beauty of the area, while also providing the movie with a sense of unyielding claustrophobia that can feel unnerving. The performances are good, though hampered at times by the demands of the material, and Tenorio handles several tense scenes with aplomb, but remains unable to make up for the way in which the movie sheds any credibility it has built up in favour of a denouement that doesn’t make any sense when judged against what’s happened so far.
Rating: 5/10 – a movie with a lot of early promise that is abandoned thanks to an increasingly muddled script, and a couple of very bad directorial decisions, The Night of the Wild Boar could have been a solid, efficient little thriller; a decent premise finds itself wasted, while moments such as Claudia revealing a personal secret, or a cryptic conversation between Benno and Mario, only add to the confusion.
NOTE: The trailer below doesn’t have English subtitles, but it still provides a good sense of the movie’s atmospheric and slightly uncomfortable nature.
If you haven’t seen Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom yet, then here’s something to watch out for. Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a BBC news report about the imminent destruction of Isla Nubar and the plight of the dinosaurs still on the island. Throughout the report, a news ticker tape runs along the bottom of the screen. If you can, pay close attention to the headlines that appear, and in particular, one that relates to a particular world leader… It’s one of the funniest things in the movie, and is actually quite subtle, but if you’re not in the know, it can be easily missed. As for the rest of the movie, well, that’s for another time and place.
D: Lambert Hillyer / 16m
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, William Austin, Ted Oliver, Dick Curtis, Eddie Kane
Having avoided being burned alive by throwing himself from the car before it burst into flames, Batman is unhappy to realise that Daka’s men have gotten away with the radium, which they take straight to Daka’s hideout. Meanwhile, Bruce decides to introduce Marshall (Oliver), the henchman they dropped off at the police station, to Chuck White. To this end, Chuck is put in jail in the cell next to Marshall. Chuck gains Marshall’s confidence by admitting to being a burglar and stating that he recently broke into a house where he saw Batman. Marshall is eager for Chuck to meet his “friends” and gives him an address to go to when he gets out. Dick and Alfred arrange for Chuck’s bail, but Daka hears about Chuck being in jail as well and sends two of his men to kill him when he gets out. They orchestrate a car crash – though Chuck/Bruce survives, something they’re not aware of. Later, Batman and Robin go to the address given by Marshall but are overpowered by Daka’s men. One of them sets a bomb to go off, one that destroys the building, sending Batman and Robin to certain death…
Eleven chapters in and finally, Batman and Robin fail to stop Daka and his men from succeeding in one of their plans. It’s a momentous occasion, and one that hopefully will be used as a springboard for the events of the final four chapters, because otherwise this one is yet another filler episode that keeps the serial chugging along and Wilson’s nose draped in putty. The use of Chuck White as yet another alter ego for Bruce Wayne has been moderately successful in terms of the narrative, but each time he’s been brought out it’s purely so that another hideout can be identified and then dropped as a way of Batman finding out more about Daka’s plans. While there are fifteen chapters and each have to be filled with incident, it’s reasonable to ask if the same kind of incident had to be used over and over? And thanks to the speed at which these things are cranked out, it’s not as if Wilson is rising to any great challenge either; he’s just as clumsy as Chuck as he is as Bruce (or Batman for that matter).
And just once you’d hope that Daka’s men wouldn’t report back to their boss that they’ve definitely killed Batman. Just once you’d hope that they’d check first, but once again, it’s a no-no. Each time now it gets funnier and funnier, a triumph of optimism over experience that Daka lets pass every time (he’s very forgiving for a bad guy). Much better – and a serial highlight – is the attempt on Chuck’s life, where a very large truck slams into a taxi and knocks it over onto its side. This has clearly been shot for real on a Columbia backlot, but is brutal in its effect, and if by some miracle of inter-movie time travel, Richard Thornburg was covering it, he’d be saying, “Tell me you got that.” Elsewhere, Linda is again absent from proceedings, getting a man out of jail on bail consists of paying twenty dollars for the release and five dollars for the (slightly corrupt) policeman organising it, and Batman’s real identity is revealed as Chuck White – lucky for Bruce! Chapter 11 isn’t the best or the worst of the series so far, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking – car crash aside – nor is it as entertaining as some other episodes, but when the bomb goes off, it at least has us asking, just how is Batman (and Robin) going to survive this time…?
Rating: 6/10 – another stopgap episode, Chapter 11 continues the semi-moribund influence of Chapter 10, and gets by on an unexpected development (Daka’s men get the radium), and an unexpected and spectacular event (the car crash); treading water is to be expected to some degree in a fifteen chapter serial, but Batman has done this now on a number of occasions, making the viewer wonder if ten or twelve chapters might have been a better idea.
D: Jake Gavin / 87m
Cast: Peter Mullan, Keith Allen, Natalie Gavin, Laurie Ventry, Sarah Solemani, Ewan Stewart, Stephen Tompkinson, Gina McKee
Hector McAdam (Mullan) is a fifty-something homeless man “living” with two other homeless people, Dougie (Ventry) and Hazel (Gavin), in a makeshift “home” at the rear of a service station in Scotland. He walks with a limp and has been in poor health for some time. Needing an operation, Hector decides to get in touch with his sister, Lizzie (McKee), who lives in Newcastle, but though he tracks down her husband, Derek (Tompkinson), his sister doesn’t want to see him. With his annual trip to London to stay at a charity shelter over the Xmas period coming up, Hector determines instead to find his brother, Peter (Stewart). With the aid of one of the shelter’s support workers, Sara (Solemani), Hector tries to locate Peter, but with only a vague idea of where to find him, his chances of being successful are very slim. But one day, Sara has a surprise for him, an unexpected visitor – Peter. As the reasons for Hector being homeless begin to be revealed, he’s also given a chance to reconnect with his family, and to face the future with more optimism than before…
Movies like Hector can appear – at first – as if they’re too slight, or too ephemeral, to work properly. This is borne out by the movie’s opening scenes, which see Hector trudging the streets from place to place and looking forlorn and rootless, a man adrift from his own life but having made a kind of peace with that. He’s good-natured, kind and thoughtful, but above all modest in his efforts to get by. Whatever his previous life, he’s moved on in his own way, even though it’s meant rejecting his family (and losing much more). We never learn what it is that means he needs an operation, but the emphasis is clear: it’s serious enough to make him rethink his situation and want to make amends (he has been homeless, and isolated himself, for fifteen years). As we spend more time with Hector, watching how painful walking is for him, how he has moments where he seems on the verge of some kind of seizure, first-time writer/director Jake Gavin ensures that Hector’s plight is one the viewer is entirely sympathetic of. He’s a good man, well liked and regarded, and thanks to Peter Mullan’s exemplary performance, deserving of our support.
By telling Hector’s story against a backdrop of homelessness and personal hardship, Gavin eschews the usual tropes and themes associated with such elements in favour of an approach that allows for tragedy and heartbreak, but not in a way that’s exploitative or melodramatic. Gavin’s direction is confident yet simple, allowing the narrative to broaden its scope when necessary, and to introduce a number of secondary characters, including Solemani’s ultra-supportive charity worker, that allows for an optimistic tone throughout. It’s arguable that Hector has it too easy – a social worker has helped him get his benefits and a pension, a shopkeeper helps him after he’s been assaulted – but that would be to miss the point of Hector’s story: it’s about taking those first brave steps toward reconciliation, both with his family and with himself. Mullan’s performance is first class, quietly commanding and authoritative, and with an emotional clarity to the character that’s all the more impressive for being so restrained. There’s fine support from Solemani, Ventry and Gavin, though Tompkinson’s over protective (and boorish) brother-in-law feels out of place, something that fortunately doesn’t harm the movie too much. It’s a surprisingly rewarding first feature, touching but persuasive, and with a simple sincerity that’s hard to beat.
Rating: 8/10 – a good example of the antithesis of today’s modern blockbuster, Hector is a small gem of a movie: unshowy yet emotive, and handled with due care and attention by all concerned; shot in a low-key style by DoP David Raedeker, this modest production is intelligent, absorbing, and beautifully understated.
D: Haifaa al-Mansour / 120m
Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Stephen Dillane, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Joanne Froggatt, Ben Hardy, Maisie Williams
London, 1813. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Fanning) is the sixteen year old daughter of bookseller and political philosopher, William Godwin (Dillane). Mary is wilful, and more interested in reading and writing than contributing to the household chores, and this in turn causes bad feelings with her stepmother (Froggatt). Things come to a head and Mary is sent to stay with one of her father’s friends in Scotland. There she meets the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Booth), and an attraction develops between them. When Mary returns to London, Shelley follows her and their relationship deepens, even though Mary learns Shelley is married and has a child. Leaving her family home along with her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Powley), the pair and Shelley at first live in less than impressive surroundings until Shelley comes into some money. An invitation through Claire to stay with notorious poet and philanderer Lord Byron (Sturridge) near Geneva in the summer of 1816 comes just at the right time: Shelley’s creditors are literally knocking at the door. Once there, a challenge from Byron to write a ghost story led Mary to begin writing the novel that would seal her fame and her reputation…
A heritage picture with all the attendant tropes that go with it, Mary Shelley focuses on the early romantic life of the creator of Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, and does its best to show the trials and tribulations that made up Mary’s life, but without connecting them convincingly with the writing of her classic novel. With any historical biography, the problem lies in recreating an acceptable and authentic sounding series of events to illustrate how a novel, a painting, or a similar work of art came into being. Emma Jensen’s original screenplay does its best – there’s the loss of Mary’s mother shortly after she was born, a theatrical display of galvanism, querulous thoughts on an afterlife – but it can’t quite make us believe that Mary was destined to write her “ghost story” in the way that the script would have us accept. There’s both encouragement and discouragement from Shelley, Mary’s own determination to prove a patriarchal society that it’s dismissal of the efforts of women is wrong, and inevitably, the support of her father at a crucial point in the novel’s publication. That these things happened is not necessarily in dispute, but the way in which they’re laid out is unfortunately quite mundane.
This proves a detriment to the movie overall, with al-Mansour’s efforts held in check by the demands of the feel and shape of the narrative, which is respectful without being passionate, and fluid though without feeling driven. There are the requisite setbacks and tragedies on display, and they come at their expected moments, and so much so that you can tick them off as you watch. This leaves Fanning somewhat adrift in a movie that her peformance dominates, and which allows her to show a greater range and skill in her portrayal of Mary than is usually the case. In support, Booth is a gifted yet emotionally petulant Shelley, Powley is terrific as the envious stepsister trying to make her own mark through an unfortunate dalliance with Byron, and Dillane does seemingly little, but to such good effect that he’s the focus of every scene he’s in. al-Mansour, following up her debut feature Wadjda (2012), is a great choice as director but again is defeated by the apparent requirements for making a period picture. It’s ironic then, that a movie about the creator of a literary figure brought to life by lightning, lacks the spark needed to bring it’s own tale fully to life.
Rating: 6/10 – it looks good (thanks to David Ungaro’s sterling cinematography), and it’s replete with good performances, but Mary Shelley is ultimately too pedestrian in nature and presentation to linger in the memory; the romance between Mary and Percy fizzles out in a perfunctory “that’s done” fashion, her stance as a proto-feminist (and the nominal ease with which she overcomes the gender prejudice of the times) is clunky, and is undermined by the movie’s end, where her fame and fortune is guaranteed by the intervention of her lover and her father – and there’s further irony for you.
Action, Adam Robitel, Air Hawks, Alanna Forte, Albert S. Rogell, Alden Ehrenreich, Alex Richanbach, Alex Skarlatos, Andy Milligan, Animation, Aviation, Bath house, Beatrix Potter, Bedelia, Bernard Charnacé, Betsy-Blue English, CGI, Clint Eastwood, Comedy, David Leitch, Deadpool 2, DJ, Domhnall Gleeson, Don Michael Paul, Drama, Emilia Clarke, Enemies Closer, From Hell to the Wild West, Gabrielle Haugh, Gerard Jacuzzo, Gillian Jacobs, Graboids, Han Solo, Homosexuality, Horror, Ian Hunter, Ibiza, Insidious: The Last Key, Jack the Ripper, James Corden, James Stewart, Jamie Kennedy, Jean Rollin, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jeepers Creepers 3, Jesse V. Johnson, Josh Brolin, Lance Comfort, Lin Shaye, Louis Mandylor, Maggie Grace, Margaret Lockwood, Marvel, Michael Gross, Murder, Mutants, Mystery, Navy Blue and Gold, Newhaven Fort, Peter Hyams, Peter Rabbit, Prankz., Prequel, Ralph Bellamy, Rene Perez, Reviews, Robert Dahdah, Robert Kovacs, Robert Young, Romance, Ron Howard, Rose Byrne, Russell Peters, Ryan Reynolds, Sam Wood, Sci-fi, Scott Adkins, Sequel, Simone Rollin, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Spencer Stone, Stan Shaw, Supercon, Superhero, Tala Birell, The 15:17 to Paris, The Creeper, The Debt Collector, The Mask of Medusa, Thriller, Tom Everett Scott, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, True story, Vapors, Victor Salva, Warren Dudley, Will Gluck, Zak Knutson
Enemies Closer (2013) / D: Peter Hyams / 85m
Cast: Tom Everett Scott, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Orlando Jones, Linzey Cocker, Christopher Robbie, Zachary Baharov, Dimo Alexiev, Kris Van Damme
Rating: 5/10 – when a plane carrying drugs crash lands in the waters off King’s Island it’s up to ranger (and ex-Navy Seal) Henry Taylor (Scott) to stop mercenary Xander (Van Damme) and his men from retrieving the cargo; a bone-headed action movie with a flamboyant performance from Van Damme, Enemies Closer is saved from complete disaster by Hyams’ confident direction and cinematography, a script that often seems aware of how silly it all is, and an earnest turn from Scott that eschews the usual macho heroics expected from something that, in essence, is Die Hard on a Small Island.
From Hell to the Wild West (2017) / D: Rene Perez / 77m
Cast: Robert Kovacs, Alanna Forte, Charlie Glackin, Karin Brauns, Robert Bronzi, Sammy Durrani
Rating: 3/10 – a masked serial killer sets up home in a ghost town in California, until a Marshall (Kovacs) and a bounty hunter (Bronzi) team up to end his reign of terror; a low budget horror with an interesting premise, From Hell to the Wild West is let down by poor production values, terrible acting, the kind of Easter eggs that stick out like a sore thumb (Bronzi was a stunt double for Charles Bronson, and his character name is Buchinski), a threadbare plot, and occasional stabs at direction by Perez – all of which make it yet another horror movie that’s a chore to sit through.
Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018) / D: Don Michael Paul / 98m
Cast: Michael Gross, Jamie Kennedy, Tanya van Graan, Jamie-Lee Money, Kiroshan Naidoo, Keeno Lee Hector, Rob van Vuuren, Adrienne Pearce, Francesco Nassimbeni, Paul de Toit
Rating: 4/10 – Burt Gummer (Gross) and his son, Travis (Kennedy), are called in when Graboid activity is discovered in the Canadian tundra, and threatens a research facility; number six in the series, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell marks a serious downturn in quality thanks to dreary plotting, cardboard characters, and absentee suspense, and supports the notion that the franchise should be put to bed (even though there’s a TV series on the horizon), something that not even the continued presence of Gross can mitigate against, or the producers.
The Debt Collector (2018) / D: Jesse V. Johnson / 96m
Cast: Scott Adkins, Louis Mandylor, Vladimir Kulich, Michael Paré, Tony Todd, Rachel Brann, Esteban Cueto, Jack Lowe
Rating: 5/10 – a financially strapped martial arts instructor, French (Adkins), takes on a job as a debt collector for a local gangster, and finds himself elbow deep in unexpected violence and the search for someone who may or may not have swindled one of the debtors on his list; though breezy and easy-going, and replete with fight scenes designed to show off Adkins prowess as an action hero, The Debt Collector gets bogged down by its neo-noir-style script, and a plethora of supporting characters that come and go without making an impact, or contributing much to the story.
Air Hawks (1935) / D: Albert S. Rogell / 68m
Cast: Ralph Bellamy, Tala Birell, Wiley Post, Douglass Dumbrille, Robert Allen, Billie Seward, Victor Kilian, Robert Middlemass, Geneva Mitchell, Wyrley Birch, Edward Van Sloan
Rating: 6/10 – a small-time independent airline finds itself being sabotaged by a rival airline in its attempts to win a transcontinental contract from the government; a mash-up of aviation drama and sci-fi elements (Van Sloan’s character operates a “death ray” from the back of a truck), Air Hawks is the kind of sincerely acted and directed nonsense that Hollywood churned out by the dozens during the Thirties, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless, with eager performances from Bellamy and Kilian, nightclub scenes that don’t feel out of place at all(!), and a knowing sense of how silly it all is.
Supercon (2018) / D: Zak Knutson / 100m
Cast: Russell Peters, Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, Brooks Braselman, Clancy Brown, John Malkovich, Mike Epps, Caroline Fourmy
Rating: 3/10 – at a TV/artists/superhero convention, a group of friends decide to rob the promoter and at the same time, stick it to an overbearing TV icon (Brown) as payback for the way they’ve been treated; somewhere – though buried deep – inside the mess that is Supercon is a great idea for a movie set at a fantasy convention centre, but this dire, uninspired comedy isn’t it, lacking as it does real laughs, any conviction, and consistent direction, all things that seemed to have been “refused entry” at the earliest stages of production.
The 15:17 to Paris (2018) / D: Clint Eastwood / 94m
Cast: Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Ray Corasani, P.J. Byrne, Thomas Lennon, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikél Williams
Rating: 6/10 – the true story of how three friends, two of whom (Stone, Skarlatos) were American servicemen, tackled and overcame a gun-toting terrorist on a train bound for Paris from Amsterdam in August 2015; with the terrorist incident being dealt with in a matter of minutes, The 15:17 to Paris has to pad out its running time, and does so by showing how the three friends met and grew up, and their progress through Europe until that fateful train ride, a decision that works well in introducing the trio, but which makes this in some ways more of a rites of passage-cum-travelogue movie than the incisive thriller it wants to be.
The Mask of Medusa (2009) / D: Jean Rollin / 73m
Original title: Le masque de la Méduse
Cast: Simone Rollin, Bernard Charnacé, Sabine Lenoël, Thomas Smith, Marlène Delcambre
Rating: 5/10 – a retelling of the classical story of the Gorgon presented in two parts; Rollin’s final project, The Mask of Medusa is much more of an experimental movie than you’ll find amongst his usual work, but it has a starkly defined approach that allows the largely idiosyncratic dialogue room to work, and the austere nature of the visuals has an unnerving effect that works well at times with the narrative, but it’s also an experience that offers little in the way of intellectual or emotional reward for the viewer, which makes this something of a disappointment as Rollin’s last movie.
Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017) / D: Victor Salva / 101m
Cast: Stan Shaw, Gabrielle Haugh, Brandon Smith, Meg Foster, Jordan Salloum, Chester Rushing, Jason Bayle, Ryan Moore, Jonathan Breck
Rating: 3/10 – the Creeper targets anyone who comes near the truck he collects his victims in, as well as the members of a family he terrorised originally twenty-three years before; set between the first and second movies, Jeepers Creepers 3 suffers from tortuous sequelitis, with Salva stretching the franchise’s time frame out of whack, and failing to provide viewers with the scares and thrills seen in the original movie, something that, though predictable, doesn’t bode well for the already in gestation Part Four.
Navy Blue and Gold (1937) / D: Sam Wood / 94m
Cast: Robert Young, James Stewart, Florence Rice, Billie Burke, Lionel Barrymore, Tom Brown, Samuel S. Hinds, Paul Kelly, Barnett Parker, Frank Albertson
Rating: 7/10 – three new recruits to the United States Naval Academy (Young, Stewart, Brown) battle their own individual problems, as well as trying to make the grade; a patriotic flag waver of a movie, and cinematic recruitment drive for the US Navy, Navy Blue and Gold features likeable performances from all three “cadets”, the usual soap opera elements to help keep the plot ticking over, and Barrymore doing yet another variation on his crusty old man persona, all of which, along with Wood’s erstwhile direction, ensure the movie is pleasant if undemanding.
Bedelia (1946) / D: Lance Comfort / 90m
Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Ian Hunter, Barry K. Barnes, Anne Crawford, Beatrice Varley, Louise Hampton, Jill Esmond
Rating: 7/10 – a woman (Lockwood), married for the second time, comes under the suspicion of an artist (Barnes) who believes her husband (Hunter) is likely to end up dead – just as her first husband did; a clever piece of melodrama from the novel by Vera Caspary, Bedelia doesn’t quite ratchet up the suspense as it goes along, but it does offer a fine performance from Lockwood as a femme with the emphasis on fatale, and occasional psychological details that help keep Bedelia herself from appearing evil for evil’s sake.
Peter Rabbit (2018) / D: Will Gluck / 95m
Cast: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Sam Neill, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Sia, Colin Moody
Rating: 7/10 – when the farmer (Neill) who continually tries to stop Peter Rabbit (Corden) and his friends stealing from his vegetable garden drops dead, so begins a war of attrition with his grandnephew (Gleeson); as a modern updating of Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters, purists might want to stay away from Peter Rabbit, but this is a colourful, immensely charming (if occasionally cynical) tale that is both funny and sweet, and which falls just the right side of being overwhelmingly saccharine.
Insidious: The Last Key (2018) / D: Adam Robitel / 103m
Cast: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Javier Botet
Rating: 6/10 – Elise Rainier (Shaye) is forced to come face to face with a demon from her childhood, as it targets members of her brother’s family; another trip into the Further reveals signs of the franchise beginning to cannibalise itself in the search for newer, scarier installments, though at least Insidious: The Last Key has the ever reliable Shaye to add a layer of sincerity to the usual hokey paranormal goings on, and one or two scares that do actually hit the mark, but this should be more way more effective than it actually is.
Deadpool 2 (2018) / D: David Leitch / 119m
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic, Eddie Marsan, Rob Delaney, Lewis Tan, Bill Skarsgård, Terry Crews
Rating: 8/10 – everyone’s favourite Merc with a Mouth is called upon to protect a teenage mutant (Dennison) with pyro abilities from a time-travelling half-man, half-cyborg called Cable (Brolin); any worries about Deadpool 2 not living up to the hype and being a letdown are dispensed with by more meta jokes than you can shake a pair of baby legs at, the same extreme levels of bloody violence as the first movie, and the opening title sequence, which gleefully advertises the fact that it’s directed by “one of the directors who killed the dog in John Wick”.
Vapors (1965) / D: Andy Milligan / 32m
Cast: Robert Dahdah, Gerard Jacuzzo, Hal Sherwood, Hal Borske, Richard Goldberger, Larry Ree
Rating: 7/10 – set in a bath house for homosexuals, first-timer Thomas (Jacuzzo) ends up sharing a room with married man, Mr Jaffee (Dahdah), who in between interruptions by some of the other patrons, tells him a disturbing personal story; an absorbing insight into both the freedom of expression afforded gay men by the confines of a bath house, as well as the personal stories that often have a tragic nature to them, Vapors is a redolent and pungent exploration of a milieu that few of us will have any experience of, and which contains content that is still relevant today.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) / D: Ron Howard / 135m
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt
Rating: 6/10 – Han Solo (Ehrenreich), a pilot for the Imperial Empire, breaks away from the Empire to work with smuggler Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) in an attempt to rescue his lover Qi’ra (Clarke) from their home planet – but it’s not as easy as it first seems; a movie that spends too much time reminding audiences that its main character has a chequered history, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a series of admittedly entertaining action sequences in search of a coherent story to wrap around them, but hamstrung by a bland lead performance, and another round of secondary characters you can’t connect with.
Prankz. (2017) / D: Warren Dudley / 71m
Cast: Betsy-Blue English, Elliot Windsor, Ray d James, Isabelle Rayner, Sharon Drain
Rating: 3/10 – six vlogs, two of which were never uploaded, show a footballer (Windsor), his girlfriend (English), and his best friend (James), playing pranks on each other, until a planned prank backfires with horrific consequences; an object lesson in how not to make a found footage horror movie, Prankz. is low budget awfulness personified, and as far from entertaining, or scary, or credible, or worth your time as it’s possible to be, which is the only achievement this dire movie is able to claim.
Ibiza (2018) / D: Alex Richanbach / 94m
Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Vanessa Bayer, Phoebe Robinson, Michaela Watkins, Richard Madden, Nelson Dante, Anjela Nedyalkova, Jordi Mollá
Rating: 3/10 – tasked with clinching a business deal in Barcelona, Harper (Jacobs) not only takes along her two best friends (Bayer, Robinson), but falls for a DJ (Madden) whose next gig is in Ibiza – where she determines to find him, even if it puts the deal in jeopardy; a romantic comedy that is neither romantic or funny – desperate is a more appropriate description – Ibiza is so bad that it’s yet another Netflix movie that you can’t believe was ever given a green light, or that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay stayed on board as producers once they saw the script (or what passes for one).
Original title: Les salauds
D: Claire Denis / 100m
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor, Lola Créton, Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Florence Loiret Caille, Christophe Miossec, Yann Antoine Bizette, Laurent Grévill
Following the death by suicide of his brother-in-law Jacques (Grévill), supertanker captain Marco Silvestri (Lindon) returns home at the behest of his sister, Sandra (Bataille). Sandra is convinced Jacques killed himself because of his involvement with successful businessman Edouard Laporte (Subor), though she has no proof. Marco moves into the apartment above Laporte’s, and begins a relationship with his mistress, Raphaëlle (Mastroianni); she lives there with their son, Joseph (Bizette). While Marco investigates Jacques’ death, he also discovers that his teenage niece, Justine (Créton), is in hospital having tried to take her life. He also learns that she has been sexually abused, but she won’t reveal who by. As his relationship with Raphaëlle becomes more intense, evidence seems to support the idea that Laporte is the person who assaulted Justine. Proof of what happened comes in the form of video footage, but it complicates things for Marco, and matters are further exacerbated when Justine runs away from the hospital where she’s convalescing, and Laporte tells Raphaëlle that Joseph is going to live with him…
A dark and moody thriller that, in Denis’s customary style, plays with notions of time and space and its characters physical connections to both, Bastards is a deliberately downbeat movie that is like taking a bath in multiple levels of corruption and moral culpability. Marco is a nominal hero, the nearest we get to a crusader looking for the truth, but even he’s not above behaving selfishly or violently in order to get the answers he’s looking for. He’s still the most sympathetic character in the movie – and that includes Justine, who is lost to both her family and the audience through her actions – but Denis, along with co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, ensures Marco isn’t above reproach for his actions, even though he’s doing his best to unravel the mystery of Jacques’s death, and Justine’s assault. He’s a good man with good intentions, but his actions are often as unsavoury as his nemeses. Lindon plays him with a taciturn, no-nonsense approach that hides deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and failure, the self-imposed distance between him and his family causing guilt to be the driving force behind his actions. Lindon is a strong masculine presence, powerful and stocky in a blunt, uncompromising way, and his casting is one of Denis’s best decisions.
There’s good support from Mastroianni as the compromised Raphaëlle, and though Subor is perhaps a little too reptilian for Laporte, he’s still an appropriately chilling figure (a moment where he takes Joseph’s hand in his is uncomfortable for the implication that goes with it). Denis has crafted an adroit though straightforward thriller that teases out its characters’ secrets and motivations in revelatory moments that are impactful dramatically if not quite promoting an emotional response in the viewer. Combined with the way in which the movie is assembled – Annette Dutertre’s editing, overseen by Denis, allows for scenes that feel disjointed and at times, out of place – this is as much an intellectual movie making exercise as it is a polished if gloomy thriller. It’s still a movie to admire in terms of its construction and the way it unfolds, but the lack of sympathetic characters makes it difficult to engage with, or care about the outcome, which is meant to be shocking, both for what is revealed, and for what it means overall. That being the case, the movie falls short of reaching its full potential, and remains a triumph of style over content.
Rating: 7/10 – not one of Denis’s best movies, but still intriguing to watch nevertheless, Bastards has a distinctly grim atmosphere to it, and a nihilistic streak that adds to its intensity; not entirely successful, but even a below par Denis movie is better than ones made by some movie makers operating at the top of their game.