As April 2019 hoves into view, and brings with it the promise of a month filled with so-so mainstream releases – Avengers: Endgame excepted (fingers crossed) – and no doubt a slew of minor releases across VoD and a variety of streaming platforms, thedullwoodexperiment is going to take a different tack and spend time looking back at some of the movies that – if I was ever able to compile such a list – would be included in my Top 100 Movies of All Time. All the movies reviewed in April will be huge favourites of mine, and ones that I consider to be all-time classics, the best of the best, movies that stand repeated viewings… you get the idea. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a few months now, but the delay has been down to working out just which movies to review. That it’s been much harder than I ever imagined was truly a surprise, but after much agonising and the compiling of several different lists, thirty movies have been chosen, and now’s the time to plough through them.
This will mean that a number of movies released either this year or last year, and which I was due to review, will now have to wait, but that’s the price that needs to be paid for this kind of retrospective. The movies that shape our tastes and opinions and increase our love for cinema are, to me, very important, and though you’ll find my Top 10 Movies of All Time elsewhere on this site, I don’t think it’s possible to stop at ten and not think about the ones that almost made it. So, from tomorrow, thedullwoodexperiment will be heading off at a different tangent, and unveiling some of the movies that mean a lot to me, and which have had a lasting impact. There’ll be something from pretty much every genre you can think of, but not one movie will be from this particular decade. I hope that some of these titles will be other people’s favourites as well, and if they are, that people will share their love and appreciation for them by posting comments.
And just in case you were wondering, no, the images here are not from movies that will be reviewed at some point in the coming month. These are two movies that are very much favourites of mine, but which just missed out on being included. Maybe they will give you an idea of what’s in store. Or then again…
Often regarded as both grandmother and mother of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda originally intended to become a museum curator. Instead she decided to focus on photography, and soon established a successful career as the official photographer at the Théâtre National Populaire in Villeurbanne. She was always fascinated by images, both still and moving, and their composition, a fascination that prompted her to make her first movie without any experience or training whatsoever. It was a bold move, and one that was an immediate critical success, it’s blend of documentary and fictional elements helping Varda to explore the lives of ordinary people, a facet of her movie making style that she would return to many times throughout her career. However, lauded as it was, La Pointe Courte failed to achieve any financial success, and though Varda remained at the Théâtre National Populaire with her reputation intact, she made only short documentaries in the seven years between her first movie and her second.
If anything though, that second movie, Cléo from 5 to 7, ostensibly about a woman facing up to the fact of her own mortality as she awaits the results of a biopsy, was the movie that cemented Varda’s reputation as a movie maker, with its deeper understanding of the objectification of women, an issue that Varda would also return to in her career. This led to her being regarded as a feminist auteur, but Varda always insisted that she made her movies not with any defined political or feminist agenda, but under her own terms and just “not… like a man”. She continued to make the movies that interested her first and foremost, and eventually, in 1977, founded her own production company, Cine-Tamaris, to ensure that she had control over how her movies were shot and edited. Varda worked mostly in the documentary genre, where she maintained her appreciation for the trials and problems of ordinary people while continuing to experiment with form and format. She made inventive and often challenging movies that offered different and differing perpsectives on a variety of subjects, from the Black Panthers to her husband Jacques Demy, to murals found in Los Angeles and the North Vietnamese Army during the time of the Vietnam war.
Varda’s idiosyncratic approach to her movies was always the best thing about them, and this usually meant that her projects offered unexpected surprises, whether she was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Cinémathèque Française, or her eightieth birthday by revisiting places from her youth. In the last decade she began to be recognised for her impressive body of work, and she received, amongst others, a lifetime achievement award from the Cannes Film Festival, as well becoming the first female director to be given both an honorary Palme d’or and an Academy Honorary Award. And in 2018 she became the oldest person to be nominated for an Oscar for Faces Places (beating fellow nominee James Ivory by eight days). But perhaps it’s her response to the nomination that sums up Varda best: “There is nothing to be proud of, but happy. Happy because we make films to love. We make films so that you love the film.”
Bluebird (Costa) is a young Spanish woman who has come to America to distance herself from her marriage, and to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. On the trail she meets Lake (Mann), and they travel on together, getting to know each other (albeit slowly) and developing an odd kind of friendship. Along the way they meet other hikers who mistake them for a couple, but Bluebird is always quick to dispel this impression. This frustrates and annoys Lake who has developed a crush on Bluebird, and although she is friendly and conspiratorial toward him, she’s also distant and often unresponsive. As the hike continues, Lake tries to forge a closer, stronger relationship with her, but Bluebird remains emotionally reserved, and their uneasy friendship begins to unravel. But when an unexpected turn of events makes it seem as if they’re about to become closer still, the lure of a nearby town prompts Bluebird to abandon her hike without completing it. It also means the probable end of her relationship with Lake, something that he doesn’t know how to deal with. As they head into town in the back of a pick-up truck, the fate of their friendship seems entirely decided…
Opening with a wordless ten-minute sequence that places its main character firmly in the movie’s physical setting, Maine is a low-budget indie offering with a surfeit of ambition that is only fitfully exploited. On the surface, it’s about Bluebird and her search for some kind of meaning to her life – the reason she’s left Spain and her husband is never revealed – but as Matthew Brown’s debut feature (he also wrote the script) unfolds with slow, painful deliberation, whether this is really the case becomes open to question. Much of this is down to Bluebird’s wayward behaviour and the inconsistency that punctuates the time we spend with her. And though it’s always possible that said wayward behaviour could be indicative of a mind that is struggling to make sense of the thoughts inside it, because Brown chooses to make Bluebird’s motivations more ephemeral than concrete, the viewer has no choice but to interpret matters on their own and hope for the best. For many this will mean a frustrating, disappointing viewing experience that tests their patience, and much like Bluebird herself, will mean whether or not they see things through until the end. Though Brown may be aiming for ambiguity, when it’s all there is, it’s not as satisfying as it might sound.
This being essentially a two-hander – other hikers and later, a handful of townspeople, drift in and out of the narrative – much depends on the performances of Costa and Mann. Costa made a big impact in Victoria (2015), and since then has made consistently interesting choices, but here she’s saddled with a character whose arc goes nowhere (though that may be a deliberate choice – who knows?). As a result she gives a spirited yet mannered portrayal that hints at Bluebird being bi-polar, while Mann can only respond by looking confused, upset or defeated by her often callous attitude towards Lake. Their relationship flits between friendly and adversarial, optimistic and regressive, but with all these disparate elements in play it’s hard to know which are sincere and which are diversionary tactics employed by Brown to give the semblance of greater depth to the characters and the material overall. In the end, and despite everyone’s best efforts, Maine remains the kind of movie where getting to know and understand the main protagonists feels as if more effort is required than is necessary, and Brown’s directorial choices serve only to highlight how distant Bluebird and Lake remain from an audience that can’t really connect with them.
Rating: 5/10 – an unsuccessful foray into “trail movie” territory that hints at long-buried emotional traumas in both its main characters, but which refuses to explore them except superficially, Maine undermines audience expectations at every turn by remaining oblique and often dramatically inert; blessed though by Donald R. Monroe’s movement of the camera, and a succession of perfectly framed shots of the Appalachian Trail itself, this will no doubt have its supporters, but this is one time where the Emperor really has forgotten to dress himself before going out in public.
Cast: Han Ji-min, Kim Si-a, Lee Hee-joon, Kwon So-hyun, Baek Soo-jang, Jun Suk-ho, Jo Min-joon
Haunted by her past – abused by her mother as a child, sent to prison for attempted murder when she was a teenager – Baek Sang-ah (Han) works a number of jobs including that of a masseuse, and is in a relationship with a police detective, Jang-seop (Lee), that she’s largely indifferent about. But when she sees a small child on the streets, one that isn’t wearing a coat (it’s winter), looks as if she’s been mistreated, and is as reticent as Baek was as a child, it awakens feelings in Baek that she’s unprepared for. She takes the child, Ji-eun (Kim), to have some food but their time together is cut short by the arrival of Joo (Kwon), the partner of the girl’s father (Baek). Reluctantly, she parts company with Ji-eun, but later sees her again, this time with fresher injuries. Determined to ensure that Ji-eun is protected, she tries to have the father and partner arrested, but little is done, and Ji-eun continues to suffer. When she escapes from her home, Ji-eun is found by Baek who decides that the little girl isn’t going back. But Joo has plans of her own…
A sombre, uncompromising thriller that has a number of uncomfortable moments where Ji-eun is subjected to the kind of physical abuse that will make you wince and want to look away, Lee Ji-won’s feature debut is typical of middle-tier South Korean movie making in that it features a somewhat fractured narrative, oddly truncated scenes, characters whose behaviour and motivations can often change in the course of said scenes, and a fuzzy approach to morality that allows for acceptable violent retribution one moment but not the next. Apparently based on a true story, but with the details changed, Miss Baek is nobody’s idea of “entertainment”, determined as it is to show the darker side of humanity, but it isn’t short on hope for its main characters, or providing chances for personal redemption. Having been so far unable to forgive her mother for abusing and then abandoning her as a young child, Baek has carried her anger with her and used it to maintain a safe distance from everyone around her, including Jang-seop. But as she and Ji-eun spend more and more time together, her perspective on her own childhood begins to change, and Baek comes to realise that her actions now are directly related to her past. And yes, it is as simple as not wanting Ji-eun to continue suffering the kind of abuse she herself suffered.
This straightforward motivation propels much of the movie’s second half, as Baek takes matters into her own hands, while Jang-seop struggles to keep up in terms of making sure Baek isn’t arrested for kidnapping, and investigating what’s really going on in Ji-eun’s home. It’s a good job he’s on board as Lee’s script portrays the rest of the police force as either lazy, incompetent, or both, their attitude towards the abuse of a child being of the “it means lots of paperwork” variety. Whether this is an indication of prevailing sensibilities in South Korea or is just dramatic license, it still feels like a clumsy narrative device to keep the plot going, and there are too many other moments where Lee prods the story back into life when it’s on the verge of stalling. This makes for an uneven movie that never feels certain if it’s a crime thriller with a bordering on cartoonish main villain, or a sincere statement about the evils of child abuse, or an exercise in personal redemption as emotional therapy. It’s actually all three, but they don’t always gel together, and despite solid performances from Han and Kim, the connection between Baek and Ji-eun feels under-explored. That said, many of their scenes together are genuinely affecting, and Han does sorrowful with aplomb. Again, it’s a tough movie to watch at times, and deliberately so, but it’s not so disturbing that it can’t provide a happy ending (of sorts) to help viewers go away feeling more settled.
Rating: 7/10 – despite some obvious flaws in the narrative, and a penchant for melodrama that mars the movie’s final third, Miss Baek is an otherwise confidently handled debut from Lee, and one that doesn’t hold back from showing the physical and emotional consequences of child abuse; gritty and realistic, and shot in an abrasive, defiant manner by DoP Kang Guk-hyun, this is the kind of movie that if it were to be remade by Hollywood, would be robbed entirely of the harshness that makes it as effective as it is.
Cast: Pat Shortt, Lewis MacDougall, Michael Smiley, Lauren Kinsella, Art Parkinson, Peter Coonan, Cian Gallagher, Ronan Graham, Ernie Gallagher, Áine Ní Mhuirí
In a small rural town in Ireland, there’s a caravan park called Moody’s that has been closed ever since the death of its owner a few years before. After a stint in Scotland with an aunt and uncle, the owner’s son, Joey (MacDougall), has returned to re-open the site and restore it to its former glory. He’s fifteen. Also arriving in town at the same time is Ronald Tanner (Shortt), desperately in need of money to fund his ailing wife’s medical treatments, and hoping to sell a thousand Chinese made toys to local businessman and political wannabe Gits Hegarty (Smiley). When Hegarty cruelly turns him down, Ronald parks his van at the caravan site overnight while he tries to work out what to do next. However, Joey’s curiosity about what’s inside the van gets the better of him and a badly disposed of cigar leads to the van, and Ronald’s stock of toys, going up in flames. Joey determines to help Ronald in any way he can to make amends, and when they become aware of payments Hegarty makes to a couple of local criminals, they decide to steal the next payment for themselves…
Morgan Bushe’s feature debut, co-written with Greg Flanagan, owes almost its entire existence to the work of the Coen brothers. It’s that kind of movie: an homage that pillages the Coens oeuvre freely and willingly, but alas, without adopting the control over the material that helps to make the brothers’ work so successful. It’s a bleak, misery-driven piece that has trouble expressing itself as the grimly humorous movie it wants to be, and it piles so many setbacks and obstacles onto the shoulders of its ostensible heroes that by rights they should be crushed flat before they even begin to think about robbing Hegarty. Literally nothing goes right for either one of them, from Joey alienating his best friend, Lanks (Parkinson), to Ronald succumbing to the alcoholism he’s kept at bay for so long. As misfits go they’re pretty spectacular in their ability to dig themselves a bigger and bigger hole that they can’t get out of, and it’s obvious that their get-rich-quick scheme is doomed to (relative) failure, but with Bushe determined to put them through the wringer time and time again, any real sense of self-awareness – or self-preservation – is abandoned before it’s even considered.
This all keeps the main storyline unfolding with the grim inevitability of a traffic accident that could have been avoided if both drivers had noticed the lights were on red, and though Shortt and MacDougall have their moments, their efforts are overwhelmed by the unremitting obduracy of the movie’s tone, and a mood that swings between cheerless and downbeat as if they were the only two choices available to Bushe, and which suited the narrative. Only Smiley manages to rise above the gloomy nature of the material, and he does so by being openly malign and horrible in a way that suggests he views Hegarty as the kind of moustache-twirling villain who can’t help overplaying his hand at every turn (and not as the arch manipulator that Bushe may have intended). Shot in a deliberately downbeat visual style by DoP Arthur Mulhern that further promotes the oppressive atmosphere that’s cultivated and encouraged throughout, even the sub-plots feature stories that are bleak and disturbing. With all this, it’s hard to believe that there could be any light at the end of the tunnel, there is redemption and hope on offer in the movie’s final scenes, but inevitably, these pale rays of sunshine come too late to save Bushe’s debut from giving the viewer a series case of the miseries.
Rating: 5/10 – a dark and melancholy movie that wallows in the doldrums of its own making, The Belly of the Whale is as far from a laugh riot as you can get without it being Angela’s Ashes (1999); with only occasional flashes of inspiration, and the odd, unexpected visual flourish to help things along, this “black comedy” may only appeal to viewers who will see Joey and Ronald’s individual predicaments as situations that make them feel better about their own lives.
Cast: Limara Meneses, Eman Xor Oña, Mario Guerra, Lenny Mandel
In 1948, in Havana, budding pianist Chico (Oña) and his best friend, Ramon (Guerra), are enjoying a night on the town with a couple of American tourists when he encounters Rita (Meneses), a singer with the most beautiful voice Chico has ever heard. For Chico it’s love at first sight, and he pursues her, but it’s not until he proves his mettle as a pianist that Rita begins to consider him as boyfriend material. Once she does, their relationship blossoms until an unfortunate incident drives a wedge between them – and on the eve of a talent competition that they’ve a good chance of winning. Chico has written a special song for the competition that’s dedicated to Rita, and Ramon persuades her to still take part. They win, and part of the prize is a month’s residency at the Hotel Nacional. But Rita’s talent and beautiful looks attract the attention of an American businessman, Ron (Mandel), who wants to take her to New York and make her a star. However, Chico’s jealousy drives a further wedge between them, and Rita goes to New York with Ron. Realising his mistake too soon, Chico too heads for New York, but a reconciliation isn’t as easy as he hopes…
A vibrant and vividly portrayed romance set against a colourful backdrop of artistic and cultural change, Chico & Rita is a hugely enjoyable celebration of love and music that thrums with a passion and a vigour that could only have been achieved through its unique combination of animation and the jazz stylings of the period. It’s rare to see an animated movie that uses music to such good effect in electing to tell its simple story of love and heartbreak, and the pain that both characters are able to feel and express through their love of music. Their love affair is a thing of beauty and regret, of ill-advised decisions and wasted opportunities, of battered ambitions and tender expressions – in short, it’s a love story that resonates with every glance and gesture no matter what the emotion behind it. There’s not a false note (no pun intended) in the way that Chico and Rita’s relationship plays out, and the script – by Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón – keeps the viewer guessing all the way through as to whether or not they’ll have the happy ending they deserve. Beautifully observed, and rendered with a great deal of charm, this is a love story that would be hard to replicate with real people.
Chico & Rita is also a movie where the backdrop is just as lovingly and beautifully rendered as the main storyline, with co-director Mariscal using his skills as a designer and artist to create a visually arresting depiction of late Forties/early Fifties Havana, and the bright lights of Fifties New York and Las Vegas. This is another area where the movie has a vibrant, energetic feel to it, and the characters take their place amidst the noise and the commotion and the excitement of their surroundings so naturally that their whole environment feels completely realistic (even though the animation is highly stylised). It’s a tremendously life-affirming movie as well, bold and daring, and willing to take risks such as in a handful of scenes that are unapologetically sensuous and erotic, but still in keeping with the mood and tone of the movie and its approach to Chico and Rita’s tempestuous realtionship. Along the way there are astute explorations of the casual racism of the period – Rita achieves fame in Hollywood but loses out on respect because of her origins – and the flourishing jazz fusion that occurred when Cuban musicians met American musicians. It’s all of a piece, though, wonderfully thought out and assembled, and one of the most impressive animated movies of the current decade.
Rating: 9/10 – with a killer soundtrack that features the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk alongside compositions and arrangements by Bebo Valdés, Chico & Rita is a vivid piece of movie making that tells its agonising tale of tragic love with gusto and huge, great heaps of charm; simply irresistible, whether you’re a fan of animation or not (or even Cuban music), and often breathtaking in the way that it dissects a simple love affair with precision and skill.
Cast: Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, Tuppence Middleton, David Hayman, Dave Johns, Sam Swainsbury, Maggie Steed, Vahid Gold, Christian Brassington, Meadow Nobrega, Noel Clarke
For city boy and music executive Danny Anderson (Mays), the thought of leaving London for the quieter environs of Cornwall, even for a friend’s stag do, goes against the grain. But when a planned sailing weekend fails to happen, Danny, his engaged friend, Henry (Brassington), colleague Driss (Gold), and boss Troy (Clarke), all find themselves having to be rescued when their paddle boarding excursion goes wrong. Afterwards, they find that their rescuers are part of a group of local fishermen well known for singing sea shanties. Danny is immediately impressed by them, and finds himself tasked by Troy to sign the fishermen to a record deal. Unaware that he’s being pranked – Troy has no intention of taking them on – Danny manages to persuade the men to make a demo recording that he can send to the record labels. Staying at the home of de facto group leader Jim (Purefoy), who is distrustful of “outsiders”, and finding himself growing more and more attracted to Jim’s daughter, Alwyn (Middleton), as well as the way of life there, Danny begins to understand why life in Port Isaac has more to offer than he could have ever expected…
Based on the true story of the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of Cornish fishermen whose distinctive renderings of traditional sea shanties has brought them fame (if not fortune), and even a spot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, Chris Foggin’s eponymous movie features the kind of heartfelt and sincerely handled narrative that is guaranteed to raise a smile and a tear, and sometimes even in the same scene. What makes it work so well isn’t the focus on the music – though there’s plenty of that, including a rousing rendition of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? – but the sense of community that the fishermen are a part of. Shot in Port Isaac, and with the town looking like an honest picture postcard version of itself, the movie doesn’t take long to woo the unsuspecting viewer with its various charms, not least the relaxed way of life on display, and the inhabitants’ positive atttudes about pretty much everything. A buoyant, ebullient sense of mischief also runs throughout the movie, with the men’s camaraderie allowing for a handful of comedic moments where pretensions are dismantled before they can take root… all of which is in stark contrast to the less amusing “humour” evinced by Troy and his sycophants. (Troy is the ostensible bad guy in the movie – but it doesn’t need one.)
With its knowing approach to the material, and a script that takes the time to add moments of poignancy to the mix, the movie is a celebration both of the sea shanties that the men sing and the tradition that keeps them from being forgotten. Again, the music is secondary to the feelings it evokes, and through the perfectly gauged performances, this appreciation is explored through a number of fine renditions that prove infectious and affecting. Mays is particularly good as the (entirely apt) fish out of water, succumbing to the love of a good woman, and the simple pleasures of Cornish life, while Purefoy makes more out of Jim’s sour demeanour than could have been expected; there are depths to his portrayal that aren’t necessarily in the script. With a number of minor sub-plots to round out the material, the movie isn’t afraid to explore more meaningful areas, such as absentee fathers, the perceived betrayal of a community, and the serious nature of what the men do away from singing. It’s ultimately light-hearted and often as whimsical as these things are usually, but Foggin ensures that it’s sprightly and entertaining in equal measure, and no one aspect of the narrative overwhelms all the others. A distinct and effective crowd pleaser, its message couldn’t be clearer: that heritage and tradition still have a vital role to play in modern day communities.
Rating: 8/10 – rousing, rambunctious, and hugely likeable, Fisherman’s Friends tells its story simply and with a great deal of subdued, yet appropriate style; beautiful Cornish locations and sterling cinematography by Simon Tindall add extra layers of charm to the material, and though it treads a very familiar path – Danny makes as many mistakes as he gets things right on the way to a hit record – this doesn’t detract from the sheer enjoyment to be found in such an unassuming movie.
Cast: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Kathrine Thorborg Johansen, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Stig R. Amdam, Catrin Sagen, Per Frisch, Hanna Skogstad
Three years after saving hundreds of lives in the tsunami disaster that struck his home town of Geiranger, geologist Kristian Elkjord (Joner) is separated from his wife and family. While he still lives in Geiranger, they have moved to the capital, Oslo. The death of a colleague, Konrad (Frisch), in what is regarded as a rare seismic shift while working in a road tunnel, prompts Kristian to investigate further. Making contact with his former boss, Johannes (Amdam), Kristian’s suspicions that the seismic shift that killed Konrad could be an indicator of a bigger problem to come, is refuted. But when Kristian discovers that Konrad has been researching the possibility of another devastating earthquake similar to the one that struck Oslo in 1904, his suspicions appear to be well founded. With the help of Konrad’s daughter, Marit (Johansen), Kristian does his best to alert his family – wife Idun (Torp), teenage son Sondre (Oftebro), and young daughter Julia (Haagenrud-Sande) – but with all three of them in various parts of the city, getting to them in time and keeping them safe becomes even more perilous when Kristian’s fears become reality…
An unexpected but welcome sequel to The Wave (2015), The Quake is pretty much the same movie but on a grander, more devastating scale. There’s the usual long build up before the titular disaster happens, and there are the usual scenes where the hero tries to convince everyone around him that he’s not crazy or alarmist or both, and there are the standard, minor precursors to the main event to help build up the tension. It’s formulaic, and for the most part entirely predictable, but thanks to an astute script – courtesy of returning writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg – and Andersen’s confident handling of the material, this is that rare sequel that is as as good as the original. Having the same cast back to play the Elkjord family helps too, and the decision to have Kristian estranged from them due to his suffering from debilitating survivor’s guilt, gives many of the movie’s earliest scenes more of an emotional impact. So much so, that when it comes time for Kristian to take on the mantle of rescuer, the increasing peril everyone finds themselves in is all the more effective for the viewer in that there’s no guarantee they’ll all survive.
As with the scenario in The Wave, Raake and Rosenløw-Eeg have taken a real event in Norway’s history – the 1904 earthquake referred to hit 5.4 on the Richter Scale – and then explored the current research which advocates the strong possibility of another earthquake on the same scale happening at some unguessable point in the future. This plausibility adds to the credibility of the movie, and makes the actual earthquake depicted feel as if it could actually happen (there’s a restraint too in the amount of devastation that’s caused that also feels right). Joner and Torp reprise their roles with the same integrity and commitment they brought to The Wave, and there’s strong support from the rest of the cast, though Amdam is stuck playing the kind of blinkered character you hope will end up being taken out by a collapsing building. The cinematography is suitably bleak with a subdued colour palette and often gloomy lighting, but this is in keeping with the pessimistic nature of the material. The special effects are impressive without going over the top, and the various obstacles and problems that Kristian has to overcome to keep his family safe are well crafted and well thought out. The last thirty minutes are as tense and as nerve-wracking as anything else you’re likely to see in the disaster movie genre this year, but it does make you wonder, what next for the unfortunate Elkjords?
Rating: 8/10 – with a slow start that concentrates on its characters and promoting the inevitable danger they’ll face later on, The Quake offers a number of edge-of-the-seat moments in amongst all the mayhem, and it does so with a great deal of shrewdness and self-assurance; with a surfeit of suspense, and a handful of visceral shocks, this is an object lesson to how to make a disaster movie feel realistic, and how not to lose sight of the characters once it all goes spectacularly wrong.
Cast: John Travolta, Spencer Lofranco, Kelly Preston, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Stacy Keach, William DeMeo, Leo Rossi, Chris Kerson, Chris Mulkey
Where to begin…
It’s not just that Gotti is a bad movie – and it really, truly is – it’s that watching it you begin to wonder if anyone working on it had any idea of how misguided and inept it all was, from the opening scene that sees Travolta as Gotti breaking the fourth wall and beginning to tell his story from beyond the grave, to the final scene, where Travolta as Gotti again speaks to camera and brags that you’ll never see anyone like him ever again. These scenes are bad enough, what with their eulogising of Gotti and his flamboyant look, but they’re overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of what unfolds between them. This is a movie that doesn’t so much shy away from being impartial, as get into an Indy 500 car and race off into the distance at top speed in order to do so, and it’s not long before you realise that the script – by cast member Leo Rossi and Lem Dobbs – has been constructed to lionise Gotti and his life of crime. In other, more capable hands, the contemporary footage of Gotti supporters praising him in the wake of his death in 2002, would have been used to make an ironic statement about his public persona; instead they’re used for exactly what they are: idolaters remembering (for them) a great man.
In terms of a wider ineptitude, Gotti struggles to get anything right. Having decided to impose a non-linear narrative on itself, the movie plays like a rough cut where scenes have been jumbled together and still need to be assembled in an effective, relatable order. It’s a lucky coincidence if one scene follows another and there’s a connection between them, and many are short, leaden and lacking in relevance. Gotti‘s editor, Jim Flynn, fumbles reaction shots, drains scenes of any energy or flow, and makes what should have been one of the movie’s standout set pieces, the execution of Gambino Crime Family boss Paul Castellano, into an exercise in how not to depict a shootout. It’s a mess of randomly stitched together shots that leaves the viewer with no way of knowing who is shooting who, or how many times, or where from (and that’s without the CG blood spurts). In fairness, Flynn’s job may have been made more difficult thanks to a lack of coverage provided by the movie’s director, but even if that is the case then it serves only as confirmation that Connolly, whose previous outing, Dear Eleanor (2016), is well worth seeking out, is here either out of his depth or hasn’t learnt very much during the course of his twenty year plus directing career.
It would be some consolation if the performances offered a respite from the dreary depictions of backroom betrayals, the travails of John Gotti Jr (Lofranco) – here made out to be something of a paragon of virtue for turning his back on his criminal lifestyle – and several random killings that are meant to mean something but never do. However, Travolta aside (this became a personal project designed to give a boost to his ailing career), it appears that the rest of the cast decided that because of the script’s propensity for volumes of exposition, and its lack of a coherent story, as well as its wafer thin characterisations, that a minimum amount of effort should be expended. Travolta tries too hard, and grinds his teeth a lot in that way that he has when he wants his character to be taken seriously, and Connolly does nothing to rein him in or modulate the performance. (Spare a thought though for Lofranco, taking on the role of Gotti Jr and having to create the character from scratch; as far as the script is concerned he’s a blank page.) In the end, the script gives Gotti an elegiac send-off, providing further evidence that this is far from the gritty exposé viewers might be expecting, and instead something that could easily pass as a celebration of a smartly dressed murderer – and without the judgement.
Rating: 3/10 – a terrible movie about a terrible man, Gotti sinks to new levels of silliness, stupidity and inadequacy, and works best as an object lesson in how not to put together a true crime biography; fully deserving of whatever criticism can be levelled against it, it’s a movie that feels like a patchwork quilt of bad intentions and low ideas, and which routinely undermines itself at every turn, leaving it looking and sounding like the trainwreck of all trainwrecks.
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Josh Brener, Erykah Badu, Tracy Morgan, Richard Roundtree, Wendy McLendon Covey, Phoebe Robinson, Tamala Jones, Brian Bosworth, Jason Jones, Chris Witaske, Max Greenfield, Shane Paul McGhie, Auston Jon Moore, Kellan Lutz
On paper it had all the potential for being a classic screwball comedy built around a contemporary mindset, but in what seems to be a continuing trend, What Men Want is yet another movie that makes you wonder if Hollywood even knows how to make a comedy any more. Telling the story of a lone female sports agent (Henson) at a prestigious agency who is forever battling against the “boys’ club” that determines who makes partner, this remake of the Mel Gibson-starrer What Women Want (2000) – you see what they did there? – runs for nearly two hours and for long stretches forgets that it’s meant to make its audience laugh. They say that comedy is more of a challenge than tragedy or straight up drama, and in many ways “they” are right, but with all the talent and facilities available to producers in Hollywood, why is it that when it comes time to make us chuckle and smile, or even give out a big belly laugh, the movies that can do this are so few and far between? When was the last time a mainstream comedy really did deliver the goods and proved itself to be consistently funny? Was it The Spy Who Dumped Me? Or maybe Night School? Or what about The Happytime Murders (yes, what about it?).
There are too many comedies being churned out that follow the same safe formula: the lead character has to embark on a journey of self-discovery and become a better person. Along the way they’ll find themselves in all sorts of awkward situations, and decide that lying to everyone is the best way to get out of trouble, until later on when they realise the need to apologise and are unanimously forgiven. This is what happens in What Men Want, and Henson’s character, Ali (her father (Roundtree) is a boxing coach, just to make the metaphor stick all the more) uses her “gift” to get ahead at work while trampling over friends and colleagues and the obligatory love interest (Hodge) because that’s all she knows. Cue a multitude of platitudes and homilies about treating people with respect and being a team player and being true to yourself. But in amongst all the life lessons and the free psychoanalysis for anyone who behaves in a similar fashion in real life (the movie knows you’re out there), the script by Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory often resorts to padding out its scenes with unnecessary dialogue and extended “business” that add little or nothing to the overall narrative.
And even less of this nonsense is actually, deliberately, intentionally funny. The movie simply tries too hard. It’s almost relentless in its efforts to be humorous, and only succeeds on any kind of regular basis when the material tries to be off-the-cuff, or it feels as if a line of dialogue has been improvised. It’s as if the structure and Ali’s character arc were deemed too important to tamper with and this left the comedy out in the cold and struggling to find a proper place for itself. And for a movie where a woman can hear men’s thoughts, and the immense potential of that idea, much of what is heard is uninspired and predictable. It doesn’t help either that Shankman directs with all the pizzazz and verve of a man who heard the word “anonymous” and took it as his own personal mantra, or that the supporting characters – usually the reliable comedic backbone of any self-respecting comedy – lack the purpose and the inappropriate eccentricity we’re used to (Badu’s weed-supplying psychic comes close but her appearance is the most interesting thing about her). In the end, watching What Men Want is a dispiriting, frustrating experience that succeeds only in reaffirming the notion that Hollywood is wedded to formula and doesn’t want a divorce.
Rating: 5/10 – dull in parts, and over-stretched in others, with a surfeit of scenes that sit there hoping to be funny just by being there, What Men Want is yet another mainstream comedy that should have been abandoned in the planning stages; no one should have to struggle through a movie that doesn’t know how to be amusing, or that requires its more than capable cast of playing it broad when subtlety would be so much more effective, but this is what Hollywood is serving up these days… and that kind of Kool Aid really isn’t funny…
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Rachael Taylor, William Fichtner, Forest Whitaker, Louis Lombardi, Rhys Coiro, Jake Weary, Lily Rabe, John Finn
1980. John Baker (Fimmel) meets his girlfriend, Molly Murphy (Taylor) at a diner, where he proceeds to tell her that he’s not the man she thinks he is. Baker reveals that his real name is Harry Barber, and that in 1972, along with four other men, he robbed the United California Bank of around $12 million. The robbery was carried out in the belief that then President Richard Nixon had stashed $30 million in illegal campaign funds within the bank’s vault. After the robbery, the five men went their separate ways, Harry and his younger brother, Tommy (Weary), having been paid their “share” already. But it wasn’t long before the FBI, and lead agent Howard Lambert (Whitaker), had tracked down and arrested everyone except Harry, who promptly went on the run. Ending up in a small town, and finding a job as a bartender, Harry met Molly, and they began seeing each other. While Harry settled into small town life, he was still being sought by the FBI, but eight years later his relationship with Molly has become too important for him not to tell her the truth…
If you like your movies – whether based on a true story or not – whimsical and slightly silly, or with a surfeit of gosh-darn wholesomeness that overrides the drama of the biggest bank robbery in U.S. history, then Finding Steve McQueen will be the movie for you. It’s a movie that takes several disparate elements and mixes them all together to tell a light-hearted (and lightweight) story that opts for charm as its main characteristic, while adding dollops of goofy humour to its romantic sub-plot. Though inspired by a true story, Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon’s screenplay uses the robbery as a branching off point for a pointed exploration of Nixon’s fall from grace, an idealised appreciation for the movies of Steve McQueen, and a gently meandering romance between Harry and Molly that feels like it should be quirkier and more affecting. There’s also the FBI investigation, an avuncular affair that sees Whitaker play Lambert with a sad twinkle in his eye, and which sees the intervention of real life figure Mark Felt (Finn) in order to keep Lambert finding out (from him at least) that, yes, the President might be involved – somehow. These are worthy attempts at boosting the minimal impact the movie has as a whole, and though they’re not entirely successful, that charm that Johnson and his cast and crew have aimed for, is undeniable.
It would be easy to dismiss Finding Steve McQueen as a piece of cinematic fluff, or the movie equivalent of a meringue, but the fact that it is an enjoyable, and undemanding diversion is it’s main strength. With a slew of performances that display an awareness of the thinness of the material, and which have adjusted themselves accordingly, Fimmel et al give the more maudlin or outright saccharine-drenched moments a likeability that’s hard to ignore, and they make more of the humour than is likely was ever in the script to begin with. Fichtner is great as the Nixon-hating mastermind behind the robbery, Weary gives an affecting turn as Harry’s withdrawn, simple-minded brother, and Rabe is endearing as the rookie FBI agent whose eyes light up when she receives even the merest word of praise. Again, it’s a movie that shouldn’t work as well as it does, and kudos should go to Johnson (making only his sixth feature in twenty years) for finding a way to make each element feel more connected to the others than they should do, and for finding the through line in the narrative that keeps it all from becoming vapid and irredeemably innocuous. But then any movie that has one of its bank robbers attempt to eacape capture on a motorised lawnmower can’t be all bad…
Rating: 6/10 – with a script that could have been sharper, more focused, or less determined to make a Seventies cultural reference every two minutes or so (or all three), Finding Steve McQueen is a curious beast in that it somehow makes you forget just how bland it is once you take away the performances and Johnson’s direction; pleasant and undemanding – and those are good things – it’s a movie that serves as a reminder that sometimes less can really mean less, and still be entertaining.
If you’re a fan of ultra-low to no-budget horror movies – particularly from the Eighties and Nineties – then you’ll be aware of the work of John Carl Buechler, actor, writer, producer, director, and above all, special effects maestro. It was in this arena that Buechler (pronounced Beekler) found his true calling, having got into the movie business providing special prosthetic effects for Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980). He stayed with special effects make up, and began to make a name for himself as someone who could be relied upon to give a creature feature something of a boost thanks to his ability to come up with practical effects that often belied the paucity of a movie’s budget. He made his directing debut in 1984, contributing the segment Demons of the Dead to The Dungeonmaster, but it was his next outing as a director that cemented his reputation – for good and for bad. The movie was Troll (1986), widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made (and now something of a cult classic – how tastes change). Despite its reputation at the time, Buechler remained as busy as ever, and in 1988 alone he made varying contributions to nine different movies, including Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (which he also directed), A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.
Buechler worked almost exclusively in the fantasy and/or horror genres, and had long stints with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (Corman regarded him as “the best in the business”), but occasionally he would land a gig on a mainstream movie, even providing uncredited animatronic effects on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He formed his own company, Magical Media Industries Inc, and through the Nineties worked more as a designer than a special effects technician, though still on movies with perilously small budgets and minimal resources. Though most of his output since the late Nineties has been available only through home video releases (and some deservedly so, such as the movies he worked on for Donald F. Glut), Buechler maintained his standing within the industry and was an inspiration for many up and coming young special effects artists. He was an affable figure, well respected, and in his own way exceptionally talented. Outside of the world of low budget horror, Buechler may not be particularly well known, but for anyone who has ever watched the likes of Crawlspace (1986) or Scanner Cop (1994) and wondered just who was responsible for their surprisingly impressive special effects, then the very skilled John Carl Buechler is the answer.
1 – Ghoulies (1984)
2 – Troll (1986)
3 – From Beyond (1986)
4 – Cellar Dweller (1988)
5 – Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie
Detroit, 1984. Richard Wershe (McConaughey) and his fourteen year old son, Rick (Merritt), are a staple at gun shows. Richard purchases guns that he then re-sells on the street, but when he modifies a couple of rifles, Rick has the idea to sell them to a local drug dealer, Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry (Majors). Later, he’s approached by two FBI agents, Snyder (Leigh) and Byrd (Cochrane); they make it known that one of the modified rifles was used to kill a man.Using this as a means to persuade him, Snyder and Byrd get Rick to start making drug buys as a way of infiltrating Lil Man’s operation. Once on the inside, Rick does his best to keep things from his father, while learning the tricks of the trade – tricks that come in handy when Lil Man and his crew are arrested and Rick decides that he needs a way to make money for himself, his father and sister, Dawn (Powley), and his infant son. Soon he’s in a similar position to the one that Lil Man had, but inevitably there are consequences…
A story that would stretch credulity if it hadn’t really happened, Rick Wershe’s involvement with the FBI and his subsequent life of crime should be a movie slam dunk, the equivalent of a football striker faced with an open goal (to mix sports metaphors). And while White Boy Rick benefits from two detailed and persuasive performances from McConaughey and Merritt (making his movie debut), the screenplay by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller lacks cohesion and a clear through line – though it does try its best. Rick’s story has to vie with several others, and it’s this approach that stops the movie from being as compelling as it should be. Alongside Rick’s fall from grace, the narrative momentum stops from time to time to catch up with Dawn’s on-going drug addiction and Rick’s efforts to help her (the script never quite grasps the irony of a drug dealer trying to get someone off of drugs), and Rick’s continuing liking for Lil Man’s wife, Cathy (Paige), whom he gets into bed with in more ways than one. These and other secondary storylines hamper the flow of the movie, and with its jumping from year to successive year between 1984 and 1987, the episodic nature of the material means that the cast have to work extra hard to keep it all afloat.
In the end, some of the background details have more resonance and relevance than expected, as with the deprived lower middle class neighbourhood that the Wershes live in offering a powerful reason for Rick’s turning to drug dealing as a way out. Looking out for his family is another, and taking advantage of what he’s learnt through working for the FBI allows Rick to be successful in his chosen field (more irony that the script doesn’t explore). But Rick is also a mixture of brains and naïveté, enjoying the rewards of drug dealing while ignoring the object lesson given by Lil Man’s arrest and incarceration: the FBI will always get you in the end (and even if you’ve been an informant for them). Merritt is completely convincing as Rick, cocky and unfazed by anything and everything at fourteen, more mature and focused but still easily outwitted at seventeen, and with that sense of invincibility that every teenager has. He’s matched by McConaughey, his beaten down father still hanging onto dreams of success, even if they’re modest dreams, and always looking to be the best role model for his children that he can be. Make no mistake, both father and son are flawed characters, with a penchant for moral compromise when it can benefit them both, but the bond between them gives the movie an emotional component that is missing elsewhere. Now, if the movie had focused on their relationship to the exclusion of everything else…
Rating: 6/10 – good performances all round and solid direction from Demange aren’t enough to stop the viewer from realising that White Boy Rick is not exactly involving, and that even though the majority of it is true, it’s not always as interesting as its screenplay tries to make out; with a smattering of laughs, and moments of sudden violence to leaven the evenness of the material, this is a movie that tries hard in some places, unconvincingly in others, and which often feels the strain of the effort it’s making.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Sheila Vand, Reynaldo Gallegos, Maddy Wary, Juan Camilo Castillo
While working as a private military advisor combating a drug cartel in Colombia, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac) learns that the head of the cartel, Lorea (Gallegos), keeps all his money at a safe house in the middle of the jungle. Instead of passing on this information to the authorities, Pope returns to the US to recruit four friends, all ex-Special Forces, for a mission to grab the money for themselves. Each of his friends has a reason for going: Tom “Redfly” Davis (Affleck) is a realtor with financial problems; William “Ironhead” Miller (Hunnam) is a motivational speaker who misses being a part of the military; his brother, Ben (Hedlund), is an MMA fighter who’ll follow wherever Ironhead goes; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pascal) is a pilot whose licence has been withdrawn. They reconnoitre Lorea’s jungle hideout, and determine to raid the place on a Sunday morning when his family and most of his men will be at church. Although Ironhead is wounded, the raid is a success, and they get away with around $250 million in cash. Now all they have to do is stay alive long enough to make it back home…
Triple Frontier‘s production history is in some ways more interesting than the finished movie. Originally set to star Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp, and with Kathryn Bigelow directing, delays since 2010 meant that it wasn’t until 2015 that Chandor came aboard and added his own input to Mark Boal’s original screenplay. With Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy having replaced Hanks and Depp at that stage, Mahershala Ali was added to the cast before all three dropped out, and Affleck et al signed on (Affleck even quit the project himself for a while before shooting began). With all this in mind, it’s interesting to re-imagine the movie with those actors in the main roles – and realise that the right choices were made in the end. For though Triple Frontier is ultimately an uneven movie that puts itself in danger of losing its audience’s interest in the final third, its the strength of its final casting that makes the movie so effective. With impressive performances from all concerned – Affleck is particularly good as the morally ambiguous Redfly – the movie plays well when it’s concerned with issues of camaraderie and masculinity (both supportive and toxic), and in showing the levels of trust these men have in each other, even when things are going wrong and blaming each other is a natural response.
The relationships the five men have form the core of the movie, and give it an emotional resonance that most action thrillers never attempt let alone achieve. And Chandor ensures that it’s not all about the money, but more about how all of them except Pope miss being a part of the action. These are men who’ve lost their sense of purpose, their identities now they’re back in the real world, and when the movie focuses on this, it does so perceptively and persuasively. But this is also an action thriller, and for the first two thirds a very accomplished one, with Chandor staging an opening attack on a cartel building with verve and skill, and the raid on Lorea’s house like a chess match with rifles instead of pieces. But then comes the getaway, and though there’s already the sense that it won’t be as smooth and well planned as hoped for, where Chandor and Boal take Redfly and the others leads to a number of surprisingly flat scenes that lack energy and pace, and which feel like the dictionary definition of padding. As a result, a moment of tragedy lacks the impact it should have, and the movie struggles through to an ending that doesn’t carry the dramatic weight that’s expected. Still, it’s a good movie, for the most part, and Chandor continues to show why he’s one of the best directors working today, but this has to be regarded as something of a disappointment.
Rating: 7/10 – as a three-act narrative with both prologue and epilogue, Triple Frontier is only effective up until the end of the second act, when different forces come into play and the focus shifts from being about five men regaining their sense of purpose in the world, and becomes a generic tale of survival against low odds; with ambitions beyond the standard heist movie, it’s a shame then that those ambitions weren’t as well thought out and worked through as they needed to be.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell Martin, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Kevin Carroll, Nyambi Nyambi, Jon Chaffin, Wayne Knight
Nearing the end of a year’s probation following a prison sentence for aggravated assault, Collin Hoskins (Diggs) is doing his best to avoid any trouble. With three days to go he’s living at a halfway house, and working with his best friend, Miles (Casal), at a removals firm called Commander Moving. One night while he’s driving back to the halfway house, he witnesses a white police officer (Embry) shoot an unarmed black man. Unwilling to jeopardise his probation, Collin elects not to come forward, but he does begin to experience nightmares about the shooting, nightmares that make him question if he’s done the right thing. Matters are further complicated by Collin’s ex-girlfriend, Val (Gavankar), working at the removal company, and Miles’ often irrational behaviour, such as buying a gun when he doesn’t need one, and giving in to violent outbursts. As Collin nears the end of his probation, two incidents involving Miles threaten his impending freedom, and he’s forced to wonder if remaining friends with Miles is going to allow him to move on with his life…
Nine years in the making, Blindspotting is the brainchild of Messrs Diggs and Casal, and a movie that aims to show what life is really like in today’s Oakland community, with all its racial variety and simmering intolerance. It’s a heady mix of comedy and drama, with a lot to say about racism, prejudice, and the title term, a phrase that means always seeing what your mind tells you is there instead of looking more closely. It’s an apt phrase for much of what causes pain and suffering in the world, our inability to see beyond what we want to see, and it’s brought out beautifully in a split screen exchange between Collin and Val that explains their whole relationship in a nutshell. The movie is full of perceptive moments like this one, with Diggs and Casal’s script being far more nuanced than anyone might have expected, and along with prejudice and the skewed perception people can have about us, it also examines notions of racial identity (and identification), as well as Oakland’s sense of its own identity now that the area is becoming more and more gentrified. Collin is wondering how he’s going to fit in once his probation is over, but as he’s reminded, he’s now known forever as a convicted felon – and how do you adjust to that?
Miles, on the other hand, knows where he fits in, but maintaining his place is his particular burden, as he too feels threatened by the changes in the community. Loudmouthed and brash, and prone to inappropriate behaviour, Miles is a relic of the past, a dinosaur unwilling to accept that his ways are fast becoming unacceptable, and threatened by the possibility that he’ll lose everything he’s achieved (and particularly his family). As Collin begins to question his future role, Miles is forced to examine his, and for both men it’s not a comfortable situation to be in. How they deal with all this is the crux of a movie that grows in confidence and charm the longer it goes on, and the script is peppered with small gems of observation, and moments of quiet introspection that perfectly complement the more dramatic scenes, such as Collin jogging through a graveyard where the dead all stand by their headstones. With so many disparate elements at work, and all needing their own moments to be effective, it’s a relief to see that Estrada (making his feature debut) never loses sight of what a scene is saying, or how best to get that message across. Directing with an honesty and a focus that boosts the material, Estrada takes Diggs and Casal’s screenplay and invests it with a sincerity and a sense of purpose that makes the narrative feel all the more impressively handled. And with both Diggs and Casal giving excellent performances, this is one occasion where being an indie movie with a voice is easily it’s best recommendation.
Rating: 9/10 – without a bum note anywhere to be had, and without resorting to cynicism or a jaded attitude, Blindspotting proves itself to be one of the most astute movies of 2018; hopefully it won’t be the last time that Diggs and Casal put together a script, but if they do, let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another nine years for it, and that it proves as hilarious, thought-provoking, sensitive, intense, and enjoyable as this is.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, Damián Alcázar, Aislinn Derbez, Anthony Mackie
Gloria Fuentes (Rodriguez) is a make up artist living and working in Los Angeles. She takes a trip to Tijuana in Mexico to see her best friend, Suzu (Rodlo). Suzu is planning to enter the Miss Baja California beauty contest, and that night she and Gloria go to a club where Suzu aims to impress one of the contest’s supporters, Chief of Police Saucedo (Alcázar). However, armed gunmen attempt to kill Saucedo and in the ensuing confusion, Gloria and Suzu are separated. The next morning, and still unable to find Suzu, Gloria seeks help from a policeman. But instead of taking her to the nearest police station, he hands her over to Lino (Cordova), the leader of Las Estrellas, the drug cartel responsible for the attack on Chief Saucedo. Lino tells Gloria he will help her find Suzu, but what this means in reality is that she will have to work for Las Estrellas first. Seizing an opportunity to escape them, Gloria winds up in the hands of the DEA and agent Brian Reich (Lauria), who blackmails her into going back and being a mole in Lino’s organisation…
Comparisons between remakes and their original predecessors is often invidious: the remake rarely makes the same impact, or has the same energy, or succeeds in the same fashion as the original did, and this is doubly so when the remake is an English language version of a foreign language movie. Such is the case with Miss Bala, a re-working of the 2011 movie of the same name that was Mexico’s submission for that year’s Oscars. There’s undoubted talent involved here – director Hardwicke has Lords of Dogtown (2005) and Twilight (2008) on her resumé, Rodriguez is best known for TV’s Jane the Virgin, and DoP Patrick Murguia lensed the under-rated The Frozen Ground (2013) – but there’s not much they can do to offset Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s smoothed over screenplay and its Hollywoodised approach to the basic storyline. Where the original Miss Bala had an ending that was deliberately ambiguous and suited what had gone before, here the ending is contrived and seems designed to pave the way for a TV series. It’s one of many disappointments that will frustrate viewers who have seen Gerardo Naranjo’s version and been impressed by its gritty, psychologically raw attitude. But even if you haven’t, it’s still unlikely that you’ll be singing the movie’s praises.
Part of the problem here is that Gloria is never treated badly enough for the audience to believe that she’s in any real danger. This robs the movie of any tension it may have been able to generate, and it makes Rodriguez’ job that much harder as she tries to sell the idea that Gloria is in real danger. Rodriguez does well to turn an ingenue into a bad ass by the movie’s end, but it’s a triumph that’s against the odds because everything comes so easily to the character, whether it’s learning how to shoot an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, lying convincingly to Lino (who is nowhere near as suspicious of her as he should be), or switching tracking devices in and out of mobile phones at the drop of a hat. There’s an awkward, one-sided romance between Gloria and Lino that seeks to explain the leniency with which he treats her, but it’s at odds with what else we know about the character, and just feels like a misguided attempt to provide the “bad guy” with “layers”. A handful of action scenes are dealt with in a way that could be described as “standard operating procedure” – all low angles, rapid-fire cutting, and the volume cranked up – and they offer some respite from the dreary nature of the overall plot, but they’re not enough to rescue yet another unnecessary English language remake of a much better foreign language original.
Rating: 5/10 – Rodriguez is pretty much the whole deal here, holding Miss Bala together through the sheer strength of her performance, and doing her best to make the viewer forget how homogenised and culturally indifferent it all is; with its sanitised version of a drug cartel not helping to fuel the drama, nor the idea that the DEA are more immoral and/or corrupt than said drug cartel, this isn’t a movie that has a foot in the real world, or anything to say that would make sense, or even be memorable.
Cast: Wu Jing, Qu Chuxiao, Zhao Jinmai, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Michael Kai Sui, Qu Jingjing, Zhang Yichi, Yang Haoyu, Arkady Sharogradsky, Lei Jiayin
In the future, the sun has become a threat to Earth, on the verge of becoming a red giant. All of Earth’s nations have combined to form the United Earth Government (UEG), and in an effort to save the planet, the UEG has devised a plan to use thousands upon thousands of fusion powered thrusters to push the Earth out of its orbit and away from the Sun, with the intention of reaching the Alpha Centauri star system. Planning to use Jupiter’s gravity as a way to sling shot the Earth out of the solar system, an unexpected spike in Jupiter’s gravitational pull causes Earth to be drawn onto a collision course with it. With the future of the planet, and mankind, seemingly doomed, it’s down to a group of disparate individuals, including cocky astronaut’s son, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his adopted sister, Han Duoduo (Zhao), to come up with a way of averting disaster that will restore Earth to its original course, and see them reunited with their father, Liu Peiqiang (Wu), who is based on the space station that is overseeing Earth’s journey…
Some facts about The Wandering Earth: it is China’s second highest grossing movie of all time; it’s already one of the top twenty highest grossing science fiction movies of all time; and right now it’s 2019’s highest grossing movie at the international box office, pulling in over $692 million. Based on the novella of the same name by Locus and Hugo award-winning author Liu Cixin, it’s an absolutely bonkers, over the top sci-fi movie that borrows freely from a host of other sci-fi movies, and never once lets its story get in the way of an(other) overblown special effects sequence. It’s a riot of destruction that soon becomes tedious, but it’s also fascinating to watch, just to see Chinese movie makers competing with Hollywood in terms of Armageddon (1998)/The Day After Tomorrow (2004) -style thrills and spills. As the stakes are raised every ten minutes or so, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles are routinely overcome, Gwo’s movie (which deviates from Liu’s original story, and is the work of eight(!) screenwriters) becomes as much a test of endurance for the characters as it is for the audience. It’s an exhausting exercise in extreme crisis management that batters the viewer more than it impresses, and which, thanks to a lack of character development across the board, makes it hard for anyone watching this to relate to anyone when Liu Qi et al spend most of their time dodging falling masonry.
And no matter how many scientific advisors were on board to guide Gwo and his production team, the narrative, sadly, makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever the merits of Liu’s original novella, it’s unlikely he could have written anything quite so unexpectedly daft as this, with Earth trailing across the heavens like an eyeball shot out of its socket, and a massive, revolving, circular space station that can be driven as easily as a Nissan Micra. It’s not much better on Earth, with surface temperatures in the minus eighties, but still we’ve managed to build an infrastructure across half the globe that appears to be better maintained and run than anything we have now… and that’s without the underground cities… To be fair, Gwo is focused on sci-fi as spectacle, and on that level he’s succeeded admirably, alongside production designer Gao Ang and DoP Michael Liu, who help make Earth’s misfortune that much more credible, even though it’s entirely incredible. But again, this is a romp, albeit a serious one with the usual comic overtones so beloved of Chinese movie makers, but a romp nevertheless, and one that perhaps knows how absurd it all is but which just doesn’t care enough to change its approach or attitude. The performances and direction never aspire to being anything more than perfunctory, and the dialogue ranges from ridiculous to specious (and sometimes in the same sentence), but over all this just goes to show that China is just as capable of making a hollow special effects-laden sci-fi thriller as dear old Hollywood is.
Rating: 5/10 – though it is visually impressive (if more than a little repetitive), and chock full of cliffhanger moments to keep the viewer interested (and fitfully entertained), the sad truth is that The Wandering Earth is not as accomplished as its financial success would seem to indicate; with too many familiar sci-fi elements on display (and not always used to good effect), this is a popcorn movie best seen on the biggest screen possible and with as few expectations as possible.
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Gael García Bernal, Michael Chernus, Anna Baryshnikov, Rosa Salazar, Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules, Ajay Naidu, Samrat Chakrabarti
Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) has been a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. She has a family of her own – husband Grant (Chernus), and two teenage children, Josh (Jules) and Lainie (Tahan) – but seems more at ease with the children in her class. In her spare time she attends a weekly poetry class run by Simon (Bernal), but though she tries her best, her poems are regarded as derivative and uninspired. One day, one of her pupils, Jimmy (Sevak), recites a poem that Lisa notes down. Believing it to be both beautiful and profound, she uses it as her own at her next poetry class, where it is well received by everyone. Enjoying this new recognition, Lisa takes more of an interest in Jimmy and tries to ensure she doesn’t miss any more spontaneous poems he might come up with. Certain that he’s a child prodigy, Lisa encourages Jimmy to let her know when he has a new verse. Soon, she is attempting to insert herself more and more into his life in order to foster his talent, but it leads to her making some very unwise decisions…
A remake of the 2014 Israeli movie of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher is that rare remake that is just as good, if not better, than the original. Featuring a bravura performance from Gyllenhaal, the movie tackles its theme of intellectual obsession with a rigour and a complexity that ensures the material retains a number of layers for the viewer to explore even as more and more of Lisa’s motives are revealed. At first, she seems to be exploiting Jimmy’s talent for her own benefit, getting praise at her poetry class, and in time, receiving Simon’s lustful attentions. But as the story unfolds, and we learn more about her, we discover that Lisa is unhappy, with her life which seems to be stuck in a rut, with her marriage which has become stale, and with her children who are striking out on their own and lack any apparent need for intellectual stimulation, something that appals her deeply. Unable to take control of anything other than her standing in the poetry class (and only by deception), Lisa does her best to be the overseer of Jimmy’s talent, and by doing so, to find a new purpose in her life. And as she does so, she becomes more and more willing to take the kind of risks that will cause her downfall – and yet still be grateful to do so.
Of course, there are moral and ethical dilemmas to be addressed here, and Colangelo, who also wrote the screenplay, covers these issues astutely, and displays a keen awareness of Lisa’s emotional needs, and the maternal instincts that have been dulled by her children’s growing independence. In Jimmy she can see a redemptive opportunity, and by nurturing his talent and making sure it’s not squandered as he gets older, Lisa is able to validate her own sense of self-worth. Gyllenhaal is magnificent as Lisa, giving the kind of assured, dazzlingly authoritative performance that we haven’t seen from her in ages, and she dominates the movie from start to finish, expressing Lisa’s hopes and fears and initial lack of personal direction with a fierce intelligence that makes the character entirely credible throughout, and which makes a last reel admission all the more heartbreaking for its wrenching honesty. There are good supporting performances from Sevak and Chernus (though Bernal is under-utilised), and Colangelo makes good use of an often unsettling score courtesy of Asher Goldschmidt. Some viewers may be expecting a tragic ending to such a tale of obsession, and while there is one, it’s far more tragic for what it implies than what actually occurs, something that adds a chilling grace note to what’s gone before.
Rating: 8/10 – with a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and a storyline that embraces the emotional turmoil of someone who’s desperate to restore some meaning to their life – however they can – The Kindergarten Teacher is compelling and thought-provoking at the same time; as much about one woman’s skewed maternal instincts as it is about the path she takes to redeem herself in her own eyes, this is a movie that slowly and quietly grabs hold of the viewer and doesn’t let go until the final, haunting shot.
Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Denise Gough, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Genevieve O’Reilly
Alexander “Alex” Elliot (Serkis) and his best friend, Bedders (Chaumoo), are twelve year olds with a common problem: they’re being bullied by two older pupils, Lance (Taylor) and Kaye (Dorris), at their school. When Alex finds himself chased by them after school one day, he takes refuge in a nearby building site. There he discovers a sword lodged in a stone pedestal. Alex removes it, and takes it with him: later, he and Bedders learn that the sword is the legendary Excalibur. The next day, a strange new pupil calling himself Mertin (Imrie) arrives at the school and seems very interested in Alex. That night, Alex is attacked by a skeletal creature at his home, and is only saved by Mertin’s intervention. Revealed to be the ancient sorcerer Merlin, “Mertin” explains to Alex that his finding the sword wasn’t an accident, and that King Arthur’s malevolent half-sister, Morgana (Ferguson), long imprisoned within the earth, has grown strong enough to be on the verge of regaining her full powers; it’s down to Alex as Arthur’s true heir, to defeat her and save Britain once again from being plunged into irrevocable darkness…
The release of Joe Cornish’s first movie, Attack the Block (2011), seems like an Arthurian age ago now, and though he’s been busy with other projects in the meantime – most notably the script for Ant-Man (2015), and being in the running to direct Star Trek Beyond (2016) – the wait for his second feature has created a palpable sense of anticipation. Alas, the movie he’s devoted most of his time and energy to, isn’t as rewarding as his first. On the surface it’s a fun children’s movie, a modern day medieval romp replete with swords and chases on horseback, a wicked sorceress, and the fate of the world as we know it in the balance. There are further elements included: bullying, an absentee father for Alex, and the burdens of leadership, and though Cornish throws them all into the mix with the best of intentions, his modern fantasy never fizzes with the necessary invention needed to make it entirely successful. It’s a shame, as The Kid Who Would Be King is a terrific idea in theory, but in practice it stumbles too often, and there are too many narrative lulls that hamper the flow of the material. A trip to Tintagel is a strong case in point, an extended section of the movie that feels like it should be important to the overall story, but which, ultimately, only provides the solution to a minor plot point.
Little about Cornish’s movie feels like it’s working in the way that he envisioned when he set out to make it. Too much feels perfunctory or blandly rendered, and it always feels like it’s having to work harder and harder as it progresses to maintain the audience’s attention. Cornish throws in the odd visual flourish – Morgana’s skeletal army is an asset, the Lady of the Bath, erm, Lake is another – but this is also a movie that betrays its modest studio budget by looking drab for most of the running time, and by allowing the work of its normally reliable DoP Dick Pope to look like it’s been deliberately underlit as a conscious directorial choice. And unfair as this may seem, the young cast aren’t very interesting to watch, their lack of experience leading to some uncomfortable moments when things need to get emotional. Only Imrie is able to inject any energy into his performance, and he does so by somehow managing to play his role both completely straight and with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek at the same time; when he’s not on screen he’s sorely missed. As a family movie it’s not without a certain degree of likeability, and Cornish adds some solid humour to leaven the serious fantasy aspects, but it’s likely that only children will submit to its charms, while adults may well find it something of a struggle to sit through.
Rating: 5/10 – already likely to lose the studios that bankrolled it around $50 million, The Kid Who Would Be King has a solid basic premise, and Cornish should have been able to use it as the springboard for a truly entertaining magical adventure, but instead it feels listless and inassertive; one to watch when The Goonies (1985) – or even Holes (2003) – isn’t available, this is the first major disappointment of 2019.
Cast: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Chanté Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Nicole Beharie, Rob Morgan, Cara Buono
Manuel “Manny” Ortega (Ramos) is a young man with a family who is trying to make a living in the Bed-Stuy area of New York. He skirts along the edges of the local criminal community, although in a very minor capacity. While out one night he witnesses six police officers attempting to detain an unarmed black man called Big D. As he films the incident on his mobile phone, the man is shot and killed by one of the officers. In the days that follow, Manny wavers between posting the incident online or keeping quiet. When his home is broken into, Manny suspects the police have done it, and so he uploads the footage. For local police officer Dennis Williams (Washington), his knowledge of the officer involved and the clearcut nature of the killing, causes him to have mixed feelings about the growing outcry at the death of Big D, and his own position as a black police officer. For promising teenage baseball player Zyrick Norris (Harrison Jr), the shooting prompts him into joining a local activist group headed by Zoe (Adams), while putting his professional future on the line…
The debut feature of noted short movie maker Reinaldo Marcus Green, Monsters and Men takes an all too familiar scenario, that of a potentially unlawful killing by police, and instead of focusing on the rights or wrongs of the act itself, examines the wider effects of such an incident on a handful of connected individuals. It’s a deceptively bold approach, and one that allows Green to give his movie a simple yet dramatically daring structure, one that doesn’t provide the viewer with any resolutions or permanent outcomes. Instead, each of the three main characters is left at a pivotal moment in their life, their futures undecided but influenced by the actions that have brought them to these moments. Manny has just started a new job and is in the process of putting his criminal past behind him; releasing the footage will bring him a notoriety he can’t afford. But he’s also proud, and he won’t be intimidated by the attentions of the police, so he posts the footage online, only to find that doing the right thing can come at a price. It’s a bittersweet victory, but one that, surprisingly, still offers hope for Manny and his family.
Dennis is a career police officer, aware that some of his fellow officers aren’t afraid to cross the line, but unwilling to do the same. This brings him into conflict with his friends and colleagues, and facing potential problems from Internal Affairs, but like Manny he has his own personal moral code, and he won’t submit to compromise, even if deep down, he knows he should. Perhaps the most interesting of the three is Zyrick, a teenager on the verge of a lucrative baseball career who discovers a willingness to be politicised when marches and protests are organised in the wake of Big D’s death. Zyrick has the fervour and the commitment of a neophyte, and it’s his nascent moral code that drives the movie’s final third, and finds the character making a choice between baseball and activism that is both powerful and galvanising. The three leads all give tremendous performances, their varied characters providing the viewer with different inroads to different aspects of the story, and their inner conflicts convincingly expressed and portrayed. Along the way, Green avoids any obvious preaching, and keeps things pleasingly realistic, an achievement that highlights just how intelligently handled it all is, and just how good Green is as a writer/director.
Rating: 9/10 – with a growing sense of urgency that’s allowed to unfold at a steady, yet engrossing pace, and photography to match it from DoP Patrick Scola, Monsters and Men is a gritty reminder that some racial tensions may never be resolved; persuasive and effective thanks to the decision to present differing, complex moral attitudes – and not judging any of them – this is a movie that creates its own narrative template, and is a terrific example of purposeful firebrand movie making.
Cast: Milo Gibson, Sylvia Hoeks, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Joseph Millson, Elliot Cowan, William Fichtner
Following a successful assassination attempt in Morocco, covert US operative Jack Collins (Gibson) just wants to go home and be with his wife and their first child (whom he hasn’t seen yet). But before that can happen he’s drafted into a CIA mission to track down and eliminate a rogue soldier turned arms dealer called Terry McKnight (Cowan), who is planning to acquire a Russian nuclear warhead on behalf of a suspected terrorist organisation. Intelligence has placed McKnight in London, and Collins, along with old friend and mentor, Bennett (Fichtner), and CIA hotshot Samuelson (Akinnagbe), head there to intercept McKnight’s deal with the Russians. They make contact with an old friend of Collins’ called Deighton (Millson), who is a known associate of McKnight’s, but though he is initially cooperative, he soon betrays them. It transpires that Deighton is helping McKnight to facilitate the warhead deal, and keeping him safe in the meantime. With Collins’ handler, Leigh (Hoeks), insisting that McKnight must be stopped at all costs (and having personal reasons for being in charge), Collins must find a way of first eliminating Deighton before he can get to McKnight, and then finally get home…
Eight years ago, writer/director Matthew Hope made the edgy and well received The Veteran. It featured Toby Kebbell as a soldier returning from Afghanistan and discovering a conspiracy between the intelligence services and a gang of local drug dealers. Kebbell spent much of the movie popping up in various out of the way London locations and putting a messy stop to it all. Now, in All the Devil’s Men we have Milo Gibson doing much the same thing, but to far less rewarding effect. Saddled with playing a character suffering from an unexplored and ill-defined form of PTSD, Gibson spends a lot of screen time staring at, or taking, little red pills (but called gold pills by everyone else for some reason), and grimacing in pain from time to time. This and Collins’ need to return home to his family is the entire extent of his character development, and though you’d expect his PTSD to come into play during any showdown between Collins and McKnight at the movie’s close, Hope lets the idea lapse in favour of an over-the-top, gung-ho, ultra-macho shootout. It’s not the only time Hope sets things up for a later payoff only to renege on the deal and leave the viewer wondering why a plot point was included in the first place.
Perhaps the problem lies in the paper-thin transparency of the plot, which attempts to create thrills out of a nebulous geo-political intrigue, and then populates it with characters who remain woefully one dimensional and lumbered witn the kind of dialogue that serves only to highlight that Hope has no idea just how real life covert operatives etc would talk (Samuelson describes himself as a “shadow warrior”, while McKnight continually spouts aphorisms about the nature of conflict). There are the requisite number of action scenes but these largely consist of everyone running around shooting at each other in those aforementioned out of the way London locations, while Hope tries his best with limited resources to make them as exciting as possible. Sadly, he doesn’t always succeed, and the scenes in between the shootouts are of the “let’s set up the next action scene” variety and not terribly interesting. It’s clear that the movie has ambition, but its reliance on action thriller clichés and lack of investment in the characters – there’s literally no one to root for – are problems it’s unable to overcome, and Gibson, whose career trajectory has so far been on a steady upward curve, is ill-used and under-served by the material and his character. All in all, it’s a movie that somehow got made, but waaaay before it was ready.
Rating: 4/10 – despite attempts at being atmospheric and brooding, and opening with a tense, well executed sequence set in Morocco, All the Devil’s Men betrays its generic, meaningless title, and offers little from then on for the viewer to connect with; a massive backward step for Hope, and one that the likes of Hoeks and Fichtner might conveniently erase from their resumés, this lacks pace and energy, and any sense that a coherent, fully developed movie was ever on the cards.
With: Lazarus Lake, Brett Maune, Jared Campbell, John Fegyveresi, Wouter Hamelinck, “Frozen” Ed Furtaw, Julian Jamison, Nick Hollon, Raw Dog
It’s billed as one of the most challenging ultramarathons in America, if not the world. Founded by Lazarus Lake (real name Gary Cantrell) and Raw Dog (real name Karl Henn), the Barkley Marathon was inspired by a remark made by Lake in relation to the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King, was on the run for fifty-five hours but only covered eight miles in that time. Lake thought he could do at least a hundred miles – and so, in 1986, the Barkley Marathon had its inaugural run. It’s a punishing race against time: the competitors have to complete five “loops”, a circular route through the Tennessee mountains that begins and ends at a yellow car park gate where the entrants’ assemble. The first three loops are referred to as the Fun Run, while the remaining two loops are more challenging. Each loop is twenty miles in distance, all five have to be completed within sixty hours, and there’s a maximum of forty runners. As of 2018, around 55% of the races have ended without anyone completing the course…
Though the Barkley Marathon is an endurance test for those who compete in it – and many runners come back year after year, pushing themselves to do better than last time – what The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young does best is to focus in on the little details associated with the race and how its managed. From the entrance fee of $1.60, to Lake’s never having completed the marathon himself, to the collection of pages from books with titles such as The Human Zoo (found near to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary – part of the loop goes under it), it’s the paraphernalia attached to the race that makes it all the more appealing. It’s also a marathon that isn’t widely advertised, or easy to apply for. Many of the competitiors hear about it through word of mouth. With all this adding a degree of mystery and intrigue to the event, what emerges is a sense that the Barkley Marathon isn’t about its being famous or recognised across the globe (though it is), or even the challenge of taking part, but instead it’s about its existence and what it means to Lake and everyone who does take part. In many ways the race is a symbol, a metaphor for self-awareness, and how each entrant learns something more about themselves.
It’s not immediately obvious, but when each runner is given a number, the one to avoid is Number 1. Lake explains it all casually, and with a tinge of regret that he has to do it, but Number 1 is given to the runner who is expected to call it quits during the first loop. At first this seems unnecessarily cruel, to single out the weakest competitor (it’s even explained to them before they begin), but when it happens, that person somehow finds it easier to acknowledge that this isn’t for them. The message is clear: there’s no harm in trying, and there’s no shame in quitting, no matter how far you get; it’s about discovering and recognising the extent of your own strengths, and being comfortable with that. As the runners drop out, and the impact it’s having on them physically is shown, it’s hard not to admire these people for their perseverance and determination (and you may find yourself questioning your own limits as well). By focusing on the runners and the reasons they take part, Iltis and Kane have made their documentary about the human will to overcome – not the course and its numerous hazards, but each individual’s perception of their own limits. It all makes for an engaging, appealing movie that has a streak of mordaunt humour running through it, and a solid appreciation for the absurdities connected with a race that’s begun by the lighting of a cigarette.
Rating: 8/10 – with Lake acting as a casual but friendly commentator on the history and the background of the race, and the willingness of the runners to reveal their motives for taking part, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is a low-key yet quietly compelling documentary that both surprises and delights; when a movie, fictional or otherwise, has you rooting for the runner who’s going to come in third, then you know it’s got its priorities right, and is doing justice to the material.
Cast: Noël Wells, Ben Schwartz, Rahul Kohli, Joe Pantoliano, Annie Potts, Kristin Bauer van Straten, David Walton, Leonardo Nam, Kate Berlant, Sanchita Malik, Isidora Goreshter
Mollie (Wells) and Sam (Schwartz) have been together for three years. On the morning of their third anniversary, Sam treats Mollie to a special breakfast in bed, which soon leads to their starting to make love, and then Mollie’s blurted admission that she’s not happy. What follows is an argument where the couple pick out each other’s faults, and generally explain why they shouldn’t be together. This continues as Sam drops off Mollie at her parents’ home, where she reveals that she’ll be staying there while she sorts out her feelings. Sam is in the process of starting up an online clothing business, and he and his business partner, Ed (Kohli), are due to make a pitch that day to a supplier, Willa (van Straten). While they prepare, Mollie spends time with her parents, and tries to decide if her relationship with Sam is worth saving, while also encountering an old flame, Arik (Walton), who helps put things into perspective. Later, though, an emergency involving their dog brings them together again. But it proves to be temporary – thanks to a message Mollie receives from Arik, and which Sam sees…
You could argue that the romantic comedy is something of a spent force as far as genres go these days. Sure they still get made, and some even show up in cinemas, but when was the last time you saw a truly satisfying romantic comedy? And particularly one that was actually about how romance can endure, and not the standard boy-meets-girl scenario? That’s where Happy Anniversary comes in, the debut feature of screenwriter Jared Stern – Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) – a bright, appealing look at how we determine if we’re happy in a relationship, and what things convince us that we are (or we’re not, or we might be). When Mollie announces that she’s not happy, Sam calls time on her “bullshit” and accuses her of never being happy unless she’s feeling unhappy. And though this leads to the kind of recriminations we’ve all seen before, Stern is canny enough to make those recriminations more relatable because they’re exactly the kind of things that most of us have probably brought up at times in our own relationships. Mollie wants Sam to be the same romantic guy he was when they first got together, and Sam wants Mollie to acknowledge that she doesn’t know what she wants (sound familiar?).
As Stern explores the couple’s feelings about love and romance, the movie addresses further relationship issues such as getting married and having children, but thankfully not in a way that sounds pedantic or contrived, and Stern’s screenplay finds time for subtle, pithy moments such as when Mollie’s mother (Potts) tells her that marrying her father wasn’t a mistake, but not leaving him was. The movie makes the obvious point that relationships are difficult (possibly the hardest work you never get paid for), and that knowing the person you’re with is Mr or Miss Right isn’t always easy to work out, but it does all this with an easy charm, and a lightweight, comedic approach that will keep viewers smiling throughout even if there aren’t any real belly laughs to be had. Wells and Schwartz make for an appealing couple, and they share a slightly off-kilter chemistry that benefits their characters’ predicament, while there’s solid support from Kohli as the friend who does his best to help but can only do so as inappropriately as possible. There’s a bright, sunny feel to the movie thanks to DoP Nicholas Wiesnet’s use of space and light, and editor David Egan knows just when to focus on Sam or Mollie to get the most emotion out of a scene, while Stern provides us with the requisite happy ending – though one that’s tinged, for once, with a remaining sense of unresolved issues that feels in keeping with Sam and Mollie’s journey.
Rating: 7/10 – though much of Happy Anniversary follows established romantic comedy tropes, and its tone is breezily upbeat while it explores the downside of having “second thoughts”, it’s nevertheless an engaging, enjoyable movie that avoids any hint of cynicism and roots for its main characters throughout; a minor gem that has just enough dramatic heft to make it look and sound like more than just an average rom-com, it’s quietly perceptive, and just as quietly effective.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott, Logan Riley Bruner, Maria Dizzia, Willem Dafoe
In 1999, teenager Celeste Montgomery (Cassidy) is seriously wounded in a school shooting that leaves the rest of her classmates dead. Along with her sister, Ellie (Martin), she writes a song about the experience that is first played at a memorial service for the victims, and which draws the attention of an influential manager (Law). He takes the sisters under his wing, and gets them signed to a record company. Using their song as the launchpad for an album, their manager takes them to Stockholm, where they record new songs, while experiencing the kind of lifestyle that is both attractive and dangerous. In 2017, Celeste (Portman) is on the verge of releasing her sixth album – and making something of a comeback – when terrorists kill a number of tourists at a beach resort in Croatia, and wear masks that are similar to ones used in a music video Celeste made when her career was just starting. Faced with probing questions from the press about any possible links to the terrorists, Celeste also has to cope with the needs of her teenage daughter, Albertine (Cassidy), and her now fractured relationship with Ellie…
With The Childhood of a Leader (2015), actor turned director Brady Corbet established himself in one fell swoop as a movie maker to watch out for. With Vox Lux, Corbet has chosen to explore a familiar narrative – the perils of achieving stardom at a young age and how that same stardom can be both empowering and corruptive – but in an unfamiliar, avant-garde way that frequently stretches the narrative out of shape (and sometimes out of context as well), and presents viewers with two versions of the same character: the naïve, impressionable Celeste, and the jaundiced, disillusioned Celeste. Corbet allows the former version to be likeable and appealing and someone you can sympathise with, an ingenue whisked away from her parents and her small town life and exposed to the “real world” at a bewildering speed, and despite the best intentions of her manager, to the harsh truths of that world. But the latter version is the opposite, jaded and bored and prone to flying off the handle because she’s the one with the talent – Ellie has been all but forgotten in 2017 – and she’s the one carrying everyone else. She wants to connect with her daughter, but has never developed the skills to do so. All she knows is her career.
By showing Celeste at the beginning of her career, and then where she is now, Corbet makes some damning comments about the nature of fame and celebrity, but though the movie is visually fresh and exciting, his narrative isn’t, and Portman’s Celeste is prone to saying things like, “The business model relies on the consumer’s unshakable stupidity” as if this is a) profound, or b) something we didn’t know already. It’s the flaw in Corbet’s screenplay: none of what he’s showing or telling us is new; there are no great revelations here, merely reiterations of ideas that we’ve heard many times before. This makes the movie visually arresting – Corbet isn’t one to shy away from experimenting with an excess of style – but less than intriguing, and though Portman and Cassidy are terrific as Celeste, the character doesn’t get under the viewer’s skin in a way that would allow an emotional response to what she’s going through. Corbet puts Celeste in the midst of tragedy time and again, but how all this actually affects her remains something of an unexplored mystery, and by the end, and an extended sequence that sees Portman strutting her stuff on stage to a buoyant electropop song medley, whatever message Corbet has been trying to get across is lost amongst all the bright lights and the glamour. Or maybe that is the message…
Rating: 6/10 – with narration from Willem Dafoe that feels like it should be attached to an adaptation of a classic novel, and inventive approaches to both its tone and content, Vox Lux is a mixed bag that has the ability to frustrate and reward at the same time; not as compelling a tale of burdensome fame and fortune as it wants to be, but fascinating nevertheless for Corbet’s confidence behind the camera, this is one movie whose merits are likely to be debated for some time to come.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schümann, Fionn O’Shea, Alexander Scheer
In the winter of 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) comes to Hamburg to be with her husband, Lewis (Clarke), who is a colonel in the British Forces. They are to live in a requisitioned house on the outskirts of the city, the home of an architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Thiemann). Though Lewis has a great deal of respect for Lubert – and for the ordinary German people – Rachael is less than friendly. She has a reason: their son, Michael, was killed in a bombing raid when he was eleven. But as Lewis spends more and more time trying to track down the members of a group of fanatical Nazis called the 88’s, Rachael becomes more and more reliant on Lubert’s company, and while Lewis is away for a few days, she and Lubert become much closer. The pair make plans to leave Hamburg together, and when Lewis returns Rachael determines to tell him their marriage is over. But danger lurks in the wings: Freda has unwittingly aided a member of the 88’s, Albert (Schümann), in targeting Lewis for assassination…
Put Keira Knightley in a period costume, and she shines. It’s as much a cinematic given as Tom Cruise doing a dangerous stunt (though without the broken ankle). With a gift for interpreting closeted emotions and their eventual impassioned expression, Knightley is always the best thing about the movies she makes, and The Aftermath is no exception. Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie takes full advantage of Knightley’s skills as an actress, and provides viewers with a central character whose sense of morality, and her sense of loyalty, is challenged by the (somewhat staid) attentions of a man she sets out to hate, but who, in time honoured romantic fashion, she later falls in love with. That this happens at all is predictable enough, and there are many clues to tick off along the way, from the less than convincing reunion between Rachael and Lewis at the train station, to Lewis’s inability to talk about the death of their son, to the meaningful stares Rachael and Lubert exchange whenever anyone isn’t looking. With Lewis playing the absent, work-focused husband, it’s left to Rachael to occupy her time by having an affair and hoping for a better life. It’s the crux of a movie that feels as familiar, and therefore as empty, as many before it.
And so, it’s left to Knightley to rescue the movie from its self-imposed doldrums and minor soap opera theatrics. In many ways the movie doesn’t deserve her, because she seems to be the only one who’s trying. There’s a scene where Rachael breaks down and talks about her son that is truly heartbreaking for the depth of the despair and the grief that Knightley expresses. And that scene sticks out like a sore thumb because there’s no other scene to match it for its emotion, and its power, and its impact. Likewise, Skarsgård and Clarke are left in her wake, playing monotone versions of characters we’ve seen a hundred times over, and unable to make them look or sound like anything other than broad stereotypes. With the narrative offering nothing new, and Kent maintaining a steady but too respectful pace, the movie fails to excite, and remains a placid affair about a – well, placid affair. The wintry locations at least add some visual flair to proceedings, and the recreation of bomb-ravaged Hamburg is effectively realised, but these aspects aren’t enough when the main storyline should be passionate and convincing, instead of moderate and benign. Thank heaven then for Knightley, and a performance that elevates the material whenever she’s on screen.
Rating: 6/10 – a movie that means well, but which starts off slowly and stays that way (and despite an attempt at adding thriller elements towards the end), The Aftermath is rescued from terminal dullness by the force and intensity of Keira Knightley’s performance; a period romantic drama that at least gets the “period” right, this is a cautious, overly restrained tale that allows the odd flourish to shine through from time to time, but which in the end, doesn’t offer enough in the way of rewards to make it more than occasionally memorable.
Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford, Alan Reddy, Derrick Janis
Following an accident at a bull riding event, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) has a metal plate in his head and recurring moments when the motor function in his right hand seizes up. Living with his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), and younger sister, Lilly (Jandreau), who has autism, Brady knows he has to take it easy, and that a return to the rodeo circuit isn’t going to happen any time soon, but being a cowboy is the only thing he knows how to do. His friends all seem to think his return to bull riding is a foregone conclusion, and Brady hopes they’re right, but as time goes on, and his motor seizures don’t improve, he takes to breaking in wild horses instead. Inevitably, Brady starts to ride again, but this proves to be a problem as well, and he collapses while out on a horse he’s bought after breaking it in. Still wanting to live the life he wants to lead, and on his terms (and despite medical advice and his father’s counsel), Brady decides to enter the next rodeo event, and return to doing the one thing he’s good at…
In her follow up to Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), writer/director Chloé Zhao returns to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (and some of the same non-professional actors she used before), and again uses real life incidents – Jandreau suffered the head injury depicted in the movie – as the basis for a story that examines and explores what it’s like to have your livelihood taken away from you when your personal situation is already pretty bleak. Brady and his family live on the edge of poverty, with his father wasting much of his wages on gambling and alcohol, and along with many others on the reservation, opportunities that would enable Brady to start again are slim to non-existent. Having nothing else that can motivate him as much, Brady clings on to the idea that he can continue to be a cowboy, but he’s somehow forgotten that being a cowboy isn’t just about staying on a bull for eight seconds, it’s a way of life – and he’s already living it. Zhao highlights Brady’s pride and resilience, and his determination to resume the life he’s used to, but she also shows how this isn’t as good for him as he thinks. Sometimes, Zhao makes clear, letting go of our dreams is better for us than trying to live them.
Once again, Zhao uses the backdrop of the South Dakota Badlands to reflect the mood and tone of the material, its sprawling vistas and huge skies providing a sense of freedom that can’t be achieved through the characters’ daily lives. And once again the movie is beautifully photographed by DoP Joshua James Richards, his trenchant eye for intimate compositions amidst the rolling hills and grassy plains offering an elegiac feel to the narrative, and underlining the mythology of the cowboy. There’s sadness and pessimism here, and disillusionment too, but there’s also hope, and in the unlikeliest of places, such as the brain-damaged form of Brady’s friend, Lane (Scott), and the relationships Brady is able to form with horses. As with Songs…, Zhao focuses on the good things in her main characters’ life, the things that truly matter, but which we often don’t recognise, or worse, take for granted. She’s rewarded (again) by a number of terrific performances from her non-professional cast; the realism they bring adds to the sincerity and honesty of Brady’s story. Though necessarily downbeat because of the declining social structure of reservation life, this is ultimately an intelligent, thought-provoking, and above all, moving, portrait of an important turning point in a young man’s life.
Rating: 9/10 – directed with confidence and skill by Zhao, and offering a pensive yet richly detailed examination of a way of life that still holds meaning for many living in the American Midwest, The Rider is a beautifully realised movie about loss and hope that is simply breathtaking; simply told but with a scope that puts it in a league all its own, Zhao’s sophomore feature is an immersive, exceptional movie that, like its predecessor, shines a light on a corner of America that rarely recieves such illuminating attention.
Cast: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard, Taysha Fuller, Eléonore Hendricks, Travis Lone Hill, George Dull Knife, Cat Clifford, Kevin Hunter, Justin Reddy, Alan Reddy, Derrick Janis, Dakota Brown
Johnny Winters (Reddy) and his younger sister, Jashaun (St. John), live with their mother, Lisa (Bedard), on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Although he’s in high school and on the verge of graduating, Johnny sells illegal alcohol to other residents on the reservation in order to help support his immediate family (his father, Carl, has had many wives and children in the past, and now lives with another of his families). But even though he’s doing what he can to care for Jashaun and his mother, Johnny is planning to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Aurelia (Fuller), when she begins college there. When his father dies in a house fire, Johnny begins to find that his life isn’t quite as clear cut as he’d like: he runs afoul of the organised bootleggers on the reservation, Jashaun discovers his plan to move to L.A., Aurelia appears reluctant to tell her family about their being together, while his older brother, Cody (Justin Reddy), who’s in prison, pushes him to leave with or without her…
A perceptive and convincing look at the trials and obstacles that can obstruct young Native Americans from finding their place in the world – either on a reservation or away from one – Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a melancholy, and largely pessimistic debut feature from writer/director Zhao, and one that paints a sad portrait of life in general at Pine Ridge. Zhao, who spent four years making the movie, and who got to know the residents of Pine Ridge (many of whom appear in the movie as fictionalised versions of themselves), focuses on the age-old question: why stay in a place that offers so little? Johnny wants a better life for himself, but has no clear idea of how he’s going to achieve this. Going to L.A. with Aurelia seems like the perfect choice, but Johnny hasn’t thought about where he’ll live, or what he’ll do for money. And his relationship with Aurelia doesn’t feel as if it’s strong enough to survive away from the reservation. Distributing alcohol gives him something to do, as well as an income, but the cruel dependency it has created amongst his fellow Lakota tribespeople only adds to his determination to leave.
Zhao tackles all this on a micro-budget, but imbues her telling narrative with a brooding atmosphere that’s punctuated by the presence of far-off lightning storms, and in one startling moment, a line of fire crossing the Badlands that feels apocalyptic. It’s all beautifully shot by DoP Joshua James Richards, and the landscape acts as a potent backdrop to the narrative: austere and harsh in places, yet still offering both a respite and a promise of escape from the hardship and the adversity that hampers so many lives. The performances of Reddy and St. John are remarkable, with much of their combined story drawn from events in their real lives (the scene where Jashaun retrieves items from her father’s burnt-out house takes place on the site of her own childhood home, which burnt down during production). There’s an honesty about their portrayals that shines through as a result, and however rough and ready they may be at times when required to “act”, that self-same honesty makes those times all the more credible and affecting. Zhao’s debut is also remarkable for its intelligence and its commitment to telling its story with tenderness, sincerity, and a non-judgmental approach that gives the material an almost documentary feel to it. At times both poetic and heartbreaking, this is a movie that is quiet yet stirring, and reticent yet intensely emotional.
Rating: 8/10 – with its exploration of the problems affecting the Lakota people at Pine Ridge, and its portrait of a community in cultural and social crisis, Songs My Brothers Taught Me allows moments of hope to shine through amongst all the pessimism (which can’t be avoided); lyrical in places, and offering breathtaking views of the South Dakota Badlands, Zhao’s debut is important too, as it shines a light on a corner of America that rarely recieves such illuminating attention.
Cast: Cobie Smulders, Richard Elis, Jessica Hynes, Noel Clarke, Emily Atack, Laura Patch, Holli Dempsey, Mandeep Dhillon, Griffin Dunne
Twenty years after they were first successful, rock band The Filthy Dukes are reduced to playing working men’s clubs in small British towns. Their lead singer, Joanne Skye (Smulders), is still living the rock n’ roll life, partying hard and trading on past glories whenever she can. When her manager-cum-boyfriend, Larry (Clarke), calls it quits on their relationship, and the rest of the band call it quits too in the same evening, Joanne ends up in a pub where she meets Pete (Elis) – but it’s not the best first encounter. Afterwards, Joanne meets up with old friend, Sara (Hynes), and under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol, they decide to enrol in a marine biology course at the local university. The next day they decide to go through with their enrolment, and at the university Joanne discovers that Pete is the admissions officer. Blagging their way onto the course, they also get a dorm room, and find themselves surrounded by young women half their age. For Joanne, it’s a chance to continue being a rock chick, but a growing attachment to Pete has her re-thinking her priorities…
Sometimes, a movie maker makes enough of an impression to ensure that his other work is tracked down or taken advantage of when it surfaces. Such a movie maker is Jamie Adams, whose Black Mountain Poets (2015) showed promise even though it was uneven and inconsistent in its approach. Songbird is the second of two movies made by Adams and released in 2018, and at first it looks as if it’s going to be a spoof of a pretentious Nineties indie band, with excerpts from a dreadfully arch music video for a Filthy Dukes song that was number one for fourteen weeks(!). Alas, it’s not to be, as instead, Adams decides to concentrate on Joanne and her bullish, hyperactive behaviour. She’s a verbal bull in a china shop, a slave to the persona she created twenty years before, and perilously close to having no self-awareness at all. She’s also really, really, really difficult to connect with as a character. Thanks to Adams’ further decision to have Joanne behave like the most annoying person in a room full of annoying over-achievers, most of the movie’s first half is a chore to sit through as she displays the kind of childish, free-form expressions (both verbal and physical) that denote either someone suffering from arrested development or incipient mental health problems.
All this is – of course – meant to be funny, but thanks to Adams’ leaden direction and a script that feels largely improvised (and which, like Black Mountain Poets, Adams appears happy to go along with, no matter how laboured it is), the movie struggles through long periods of dramatic and comedic inertia before it finally begins to tease out the semblance of a crafted storyline, instead of the fractured narrative it’s adopted up until then. The jittery romance between Joanne and Pete comes to the fore, and the movie almost sighs with relief at having something more defined to focus on, and the performances improve as well, with Smulders and Elis at last able to flex their acting skills in the service of something more meaningful and emotive. It’s a long time coming, and some viewers may well have hit the Stop button, or decided to head for the pub (or anywhere) long before this, but the movie’s last half hour shows just how good it could have been if Adams had been more rigorous in his approach to the material. It’s still fairly rough around the edges, and it does seem as if everyone suddenly woke up to the fact that more effort needed to be made, but it’s the one section of the movie that succeeds by actually having something to say – and knowing, at last, how to say it.
Rating: 4/10 – shot in five days (and it shows), Songbird has a dire first hour that acts as a challenge to the viewer to keep watching, and a final half hour that rescues the movie from obtaining a much lower rating; ill-advised and sluggish, with occasional flashes of inspiration that are quickly snuffed out by the next woeful occurrence, it’s to be hoped that Adams’ next endeavour has more structure and attention to both characters and plot than this does.