Category Archives: Film Review

Good Time

Rating: 5 out 5 (Classic)

Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie

Cast: Benny Safdie, Robert Pattinson, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Lason Leigh, Buddy Duress

Synopsis: Following a bank heist gone awry Connie (Robert Pattinson) resolves to free his disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie). From dodgy bail bondsmen to ex-cons and drug dealers, Connie traverses New York’s forgotten underbelly in a frantic spiral to bail out Nick.

Devoid of division between title and opening, Good Time pans across New York before swooping down onto Nick and his psychiatrist Peter (Peter Verby). The opening scene is a deceiving moment of calm, with the pulsating soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never foreshadowing events. Soaked in the grainy noise and neon colours of New York, Good Time engulfs the viewer as Connie commits a mesmerising display of self- destruction not seen since Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Connie does both the imaginable and the unthinkable as he bungles his way towards Nick, yet Pattinson humanises Connie. Bearing a tangible desperation in his eyes, Connie is detestable but understandable and even charming when his oddball personality shows. Pattinson again proves what is witnessed in The Rover and The Lost City of Z, that he is a great actor.

Amid Connie’s frantic spiral springs a manic strain of humour from both Connie and the rest of the cast, depicted by upcoming and untrained actors.A standout performance comes from Buddy Durress as Ray, a freshly released ex-convict who becomes Connie’s accomplice. Ray’s confusion when Connie finds him and later attempts to befriend Connie adds emotion and humour into the plot. Equally facing lengthy prison time if caught, Ray’s recollected 24 hours since leaving prison unveils a parallel life to Connie. A cautionary tale of mixing brandy and Xanax, Ray’s story before crossing Connie is the perfect prelude to Good Time’s tense final act.

Sporting a substantial budget of two million dollars compared to their earlier work, the Safdie brothers mingle their hallmark guerrilla style with sleek longer shots and intimate close ups. The use of lighting is one of Good Time’s visual strengths, with ambient sources leaving characters in a darkened haze or a neon glow, pervading the film with a documentary feel. Beyond visuals, Good Time mirrors The Florida Project in having a great story alongside untrained actors. The combination transforms Good Time from being another cathartic dip through a city’s underworld into a believable tale beyond society’s safety net.

In film there are moments of convergence. Works from different artists unconsciously overlap into an undercurrent like rivers meeting at the ocean, crystallising the hopes and fears of our society. In The Florida Project, Good Time and Buster’s Mal Heart which I aim to review soon, we see the ignored parts of America, desperate and angry. Interspersed between the bank heist and the mad turmoil of Connie’s spree are still moments focused upon Nick. Emanating a vulnerable loneliness, Nick’s frustration spews forth, revealing his and Connie’s troubled childhood and that the heist was Connie’s plan to give them a new life. During these scenes Good Time resembles Matthieu Kassowitz’s La Haine, depicting the lives of people trapped outside the middle-class bubble. Beginning and concluding with Nick being comforted by his psychiatrist Peter (Peter Verby) a fatalistic tragedy looms over the brothers. Peter later consoles Nick, saying;

‘Nick, you are where you are supposed to be, and Connie is where he is supposed to be’.

Peter’s words are an unwitting admission that Nick and Connie were bound to remain in the mad world which Good Time depicts, where people deal, scheme and scam to get by. Despite all that unfolds, Good Time concludes with a moving end as Iggy Pop rasps about love while Nick begins to open up to others. The contrasting narrative between Nick and Connie emphasises the very human urge to protect loved ones which compels Connie, shifting Good Time beyond a simple crime thriller.

Having waited three months for Good Time to release in the U.K. since its distribution in America, the film was worth the delay. Good Time has sadly received a limited release across Britain. I thank Home Manchester for actually showing Good Time. For those yet to see the film, a DVD or streaming platform might be the only option.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

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The Florida Project

Rating: 4 out 5 stars (excellent)

Director: Sean Baker

Cast: Bria Vinaite, Brooklyn Prince, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Willem Dafoe

Synopsis: Orlando’s Disneyland is the American Dream, a vivid mirage of luxury enticing people from every nation. Beyond that fleeting dream where tourists fail to look, are motels full of desperate people living week to week before they have to move on. 6 year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live outside the Disney fantasy. Through Moonee’s eyes, we see her fragile life break down over one long summer break.

The Florida Project is a documentary wrapped inside a drama. The events are fictitious but the people who live in this forgotten corner of America are real enough. In 2014 I volunteered in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Every second weekend was spent in a roadside motel outside of Asheville. Besides the straggle of unfortunate tourists and Mexican workers, the motel’s patrons were people who had nowhere else to go and would wind up sleeping in the alcove of McDonald’s when their money disappeared. Poverty is an eternal and ubiquitous problem. In Europe, we have a smug disdain for America’s inequalities, forgetting that we had the same problem until 70 years ago and to some extent still do. In The Florida Project, director Sean Baker has created an unflinching portrait of America’s poor and forgotten which neither fetishises nor patronises its subjects. Through Sean Baker’s lens, the inhabitants of the Magic Castle and beyond are just people getting by.

Baker’s Tangerine is a film that I have ashamedly not watched. I do remember the film, shot on iphone 5s and with mainly ordinary people playing the roles, being lauded upon release for its realism. The Florida Project continues Tangerine’s legacy, dissolving the fourth wall into a blurred pulp of reality and performance. Bria Vinaite is an untrained actress headhunted through Instagram. The children in the film are actors with only a few previous credits between them. The intermingling of young talent, untrained actors and season performers creates surreal yet beautiful moments where events might be scripted, improvised or the actors just being themselves. It is charming to watch Halley and Magic Castle’s manager Bob (Willem Defoe) arguing until suddenly both begin to snicker like old friends.

Baker lets his performers be themselves, especially the children. The young stars behave before the camera with the unfettered confidence of youth, running off-script and simply speaking their minds like children do. Earlier this year, charming animated french film My Life as a Courgette  broached the dark adult world through a child’s eyes, and The Florida Project does much the same. Awash with incandescent violent and popping orange, the children’s summer is a frolic through mysterious new lands as they run past the neon signs and cartoon figures of motels and gift shops. Their innocence lends both warmth and poignancy to later events as Halley increasingly struggles to keep her and Moonee sheltered.

Willem Defoe may deliver his best performance as Bob. Defoe does not need words to show Bob’s conflict between his job and his desire to help the Magic Castle’s residents, especially the children. Caring and fatherly to Moonee and her friends, Bob becomes slowly crushed by an uncaring world, much like Halley.

The Florida Project’s pacing falters for the final twenty minutes but does not detract from the film’s engrossing story or social message.

Thanks to A24 for supporting the unusual and the innovative like Ghost Story and Good Time. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Wheelman

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Indebted to Boston’s West End mob, wheelman (Frank Grillo) serves as a getaway driver until a job turns sour at the hands of a mysterious caller. A small budget film picked up by Netflix, Wheelman carves a space for itself in a genre overshadowed by Drive, Baby Driver and Thief.  The film’s speed turns Wheelman into a giddy joyride, glancing attention away from the plot’s pastiche of generic crime thriller tropes.

Written and directed by Jeremy Rush, Wheelman is a crime thriller which tinkers with the genre. The confined world of wheelman’s car permeates claustrophobia like Phone Booth, while the camera’s fixed presence in the car borrows from Locke. Yet Wheelman provides its own take on both of these ideas. In Locke, the story is one man and a telephone. The car is the conference room where Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) makes his calls. In Wheelman, the car is put to better use, becoming both a stage and a lens into the world. Characters enter the car, causing the world to feel more inhabited than Phone Booth. The presence of other characters creates some great moments as friend or foe sit beside wheelman in this cramped space. In the opening shot and later, outside events are framed behind the car’s front seats, adding a voyeuristic sense that you are in the back seat watching all unfold.

Visually, the camera’s constraints add realism to wheelman’s panicked dash around night-time Boston, while zoomed shots of the car flash with neon colours from the streets. Music is sparingly used in Wheelman, with silence or the car’s roaring engine filling the scene. However, the pulsing soundtrack by Brooke Blair and Will Blair ratchets up the tension in the right moments.

The plot follows what is expected from a crime thriller, but distinguishes itself through great performances and some clever tricks. The editing style is a rapid burst of quick shots across the car as though the camera, just like wheelman, is beginning to panic under pressure. A loop of calm jazz, better suited to a hotel elevator, constantly plays in the background when the mystery caller telephones wheelman, projecting the villain’s menace and dominance. Bank robber ‘mother fucker’ (Shea Whigman) and wheelman’s criminal associate Clay (Garret Dilahunt) both spend time in the car, providing humourous dialogue and extra tension during their appearances. Although the plot quickly becomes chaotic,  Wheelman slowly builds suspense through terse conversations with the mystery caller, causing me to jump back when bullets pop through the car windshield 30 minutes into the film.

Wheelman’s strength is Frank Grillo’s performance as the anonymous wheelman. Grillo’s rugged demeanour and animated toughness lends a credibility to the character, even when the plot predictably devolves into showing wheelman’s softer side. Having starred in The Purge sequels and been a brief character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Wheelman is Frank Grillo’s star vehicle.

For a film I downloaded on a whim for a long train ride, Wheelman was a pleasant surprise. I recommend it for anyone looking for a good, uncomplicated thriller to fill a lull in the weekend.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Thor: Ragnarok

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis:  Subversively self-aware and willingly self-deprecating, Thor: Ragnarok is for those who are bored or dismissive of superhero films. A Taika Waititi film throughout, Thor: Ragnarok bristles with a dry New Zealand sarcasm which caused my laughter to fill a dead multiplex on a Tuesday afternoon.

Under the cartel of Marvel, Disney, D.C and Warner Brothers, the superhero genre has become the soap opera of cinema. Throwaway stories whose heroes, villains, and dangers are interchangeable parts to be switched around. Each story is a predictable, comfortable clone of what came before and what will come next in the sequence. Seeing the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, these companies have tried to emulate the Nolan brothers’ work. Deprived of any finality, the frame of endless sequels fails to match the empathy or sense of attachment which The Dark Knight trilogy invoked, instead becoming garbled trains of self induced seriousness robbed of any pathos or realism.

Thor: Ragnarok harks back to the despicably underrated Mystery Men starring Ben Stiller, William. H. Macy and one of the best ever attacks on a villain’s limo. For both films, superheroes are just fantasies to be enjoyed as such, beings which would be completely alien to the rest of us if they existed.

Despite still having to clunkily tromp to Marvel’s beat of secret, revelation and post-credit teaser like a chained circus bear, Thor: Ragnarok did not care whether I became invested or attached. Instead, the film presents itself as a good time, a head spinning adventure full of gags, fuelled by the mad vibrancy of Jack Kirby’s comic books. The approach makes Thor: Ragnarok the best Marvel film so far, a colourful trip to be enjoyed for all its jokes, adventures, neon vividness, and thrilling synth soundtrack.

Waititi’s brand of zany humour pervades the film, delving into a meta narrative prodding fun at the seriousness of superhero films today. Much of the humour comes from ‘The Master’ (Jeff Goldblum), ruler of a borderland planet caught between wormholes, and in particular Korg. Voiced by director Taika Waititi himself, Korg’s calm demeanour of a ‘South Auckland Maori bouncer’ clashes with his towering pastel blue rock body and revolutionist tendencies. Poking through the fourth wall, Korg’s naivete leads to comments of both deep insight and awkwardness, garnering him laughs whenever present. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) benefit from changes to their characters. The film plays up their detachment from the real world, giving them a bumbling almost child-like approach to problems when they arise. Thor is a meathead with a heart of gold, with Hemsworth’s deadpan delivery of lines causing a lot of laughs both with and at Thor himself.

Mark Ruffalo excels as ever in his role as the Hulk and Cate Blanchett develops a funny bone as villain Helas. It is always great to see Karl Urban, an actor who remains underrated despite his roles in The Lord of the Rings, The Bourne Supremacy and his lead in Dredd. The real surprise character was Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), she is strong yet goofy like the rest of the cast but also has a moving back story.

Waititi and company are hopefully being thanked by Marvel for reviving a dead segment of their franchise. The last Thor film, Thor: The Dark World is a plane movie as defined by Tom Waits, where the film could only ever find an audience in a trapped container speeding at high altitude. That is how I watched the previous Thor film, while on a creaking Boeing 747 transatlantic flight to North Carolina squished between snoring businessmen and howling babies. The four year wait for Thor: Ragnarok was well used. Not since Anchorman 2 has a film caused me to uncontrollably laugh in the cinema.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

P.S: Tom Waits is also in Mystery Men, another reason to watch the trailer below:

 

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Film Score: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Synopsis: Following a botched drug deal, former mechanic and boxer turned drug runner Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) lands in jail and must fight to survive. Brawl in Cell Block 99 misdirects expectations until erupting into a hyper violent tale akin to 1970’s exploitation films seared by a John Carpenter-esque synth score. After watching the film, I never want to be in a confined space near Vince Vaughn.

Director S.Craig Zahler has sprinkled the grit of Westerns onto New York City. Absent are the desert plains and cannibals of Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, but the brooding and savagery remain. Litter, the modern day tumbleweed, rustles across the street in an early scene as Bradley waits to drive home when two gang bangers stop alongside him. The two sides silently weigh each other up with the focus of duellists as silence fills the inner-city ghost town.

 

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Bradley squares up

Bradley is an old gunslinger reincarnated. He quietly lives as a mechanic yet is cloaked in an enigmatic past and bristles with restrained violence, symbolised by the distinguishing tattooed crucifix atop his head. Zahler’s use of perspective causes Vince Vaughn’s physicality to fill every scene. Bradley keeps a facade of control but is most interesting when tottering between calm and his inner rage such as angrily throwing his former locker keys. I was unable to consistently watch True Detective’s second season, but in glimpsed snippets Vince Vaughn’s character of mobster Frank Seymon was arresting. The season and Vaughn were not well praised, but in Brawl in Cell Block 99 Vaughn proves that he can embody an antihero. Vaughn channels into Bradley a quiet seriousness dovetailed by the deadpan delivery I loved in Dodgeball. The mix adds an intense urge to cower and laugh in Bradley’s presence, especially in one scene where he calmly commands another prisoner to; ‘ talk proper, or get raped’. To tread such a role and remain engaging is not a second chance for Vaughn, but a public reminder of his acting prowess. Physically, Vaughn fits the role of Bradley. His stature imposes on the screen like Richard Kiel’s Jaws in James Bond. Unlike most actors where disbelief in what they have done settles in after the film, I willingly accept that Vince Vaughn can break another’s limbs with the effort most men place in opening unyielding jars.

Jennifer Carpenter, of Dexter and White Chicks fame, excels as Lauren, Bradley’s wife. Carpenter has always been lithe but in Brawl in Cell Block 99 she is painfully thin, with sinew bunching at her shoulders. Like Vaughn, Carpenter’s physicality attests to her character, her struggle overcoming the loss of their child and remaining sober. Lauren can be vulnerable but matches Bradley’s strength with a toughness which flares in the film.

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The rift between Bradley and Lauren

The relationship between Bradley and Lauren is told through the space of a scene. The initial rift between them is literally present as the visible gap between the two characters in their living room. This emptiness returned when Lauren, alone in their bedroom, clearly fears for Bradley’s safety. For a film mainly staged in the cramped confines of prison, Brawl in Cell Block 99 uses space to great effect. Wide camera angles accentuate Bradley’s menacing build and strength, while the camera switches focus from intimate close ups to distant shots mirroring Bradley’s emotional state. The technique is simple and effective. When Bradley finally arrives in cell block 99, the camera retreats towards the ceiling. Taking on a bird’s eye view, the camera observes Bradley now powerless and small in the darkened cell.

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Bradley isolated

Once Bradley is incarcerated his reality warps into a brutal exploitation film. Brief segments of the outside world are divorced from Bradley’s new reality, hued by a glacial blue filter. Red Leaf’s prison guards clad in jet black uniforms, lead by surly Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), ape the military police in Escape From New York March accompanied by a pulsating electronic score. A collection of old stone passageways, inhuman cells and forbidden torture devices, Red Leaf is a monster’s lair rather than a prison. Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes on the tone of a horror film upon arrival to Red Leaf. Time in Red Leaf becomes marked by the humming of caged bulbs while both prisoner and guard become increasingly violent.  Despite its delightful twists Brawl in Cell Block 99 feels real thanks to a great plot by S.Craig Zahler and even better casting. The minor roles, especially Fred Melamed as eloquently passive aggressive requisitions officer Mr. Irving, enliven Brawl in Cell Block 99, adding both humanity and comedy to a brutal tale.

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Bradley meets the guards of Red Leaf

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a masterful prison story flitting between the grind house tropes of horror, violence and revenge with consistent performances. Tragically for the film’s setting, Brawl in Cell Block 99 has been locked away. Receiving no presence in U.K. cinemas despite rave reviews at the Venice film festival, the film is exiled to the iTunes video store. The price to rent Brawl in Cell Block 99 was reasonable. I did enjoy being able to repeat my viewing over the 48 hour activation period and analyse scenes. However as I said in my Christopher Nolan and Netflix piece here, digital release will unlikely match the public attention cinematic distribution brings. After all, adverts online are useful but nothing matches a physical poster on the street, or a sign at the cinema. In the wake of a summer box office draught, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the type of film that needs to be shown in cinemas right now.

By Saul Shimmin

P.S: R&B band the O’Jays performed an excellent song for Brawl in Cell Block 99, composed by the polymath himself S.Craig Zahler. The song can be listened to here.

For the trailer, see below:

 

Only the Brave

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis: In 2008, the town of Prescott, Arizona formed an elite team to combat any wildfires threatening the town. However, the crew, lead by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), did not start out as “Hot Shots,” the elite designation for wildfire fighters who can be requested by municipality within the United States. After their formation, they were only regular, Type-2 municipal firefighters who indirectly fight fires and had to take a backseat to the Type-1, “Hotshots,” who directly battle blazes. Through Prescott’s local fire chief and friend of the Marsh’s, Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), Marsh and his crew are finally able to get reviewed for Type-1 certification. Just as this process is getting under way, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a local stoner, discovers a past fling is pregnant with his child. Awoken by his impending responsibilities, McDonough interviews for an opening on the crack-shot crew, and because of Marsh’s own history, he decides to give McDonough an opportunity to prove his worth. However, by coming straight to the crew from the pipe, McDonough is the de facto weakest link as the team undergoes rigorous review for their long sought Type-1, “Hotshot” status.

It’s a slow time for movies right now in the United States. I needed a movie to see and Only the Brave was the highest reviewed movie out. I liked its cast, but the story sounded boring. Firefighting? That was just a job I wanted when I was four years old. Since then, its magic has faded making the movie have little appeal.

Please, don’t let such reasons discourage you from seeing this film. While the plot structure of an underdog team training to be great is overused, writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer fill it with rich details and small scenes replete with strong character development. These small asides allow the movie to be more than just an action/firefighter movie/underdog story. Instead, Only the Brave is also a movie about addiction, marriage, friendship, and bro-mance (seriously).

The last movie I remember striking such a delicate balance between creating small scenes that still utilize extraneous details to accelerate the plot was last year’s Hell or High Water. These small scenes could have just as easily torpedoed the movie by slowing the movie’s pace. My favorite of these scenes occurred after a rattlesnake bit McDonough sending him to the hospital. When he woke up from surgery, his roommate and best friend, Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), was in a chair next to McDonough’s bed, snoring so loud he sounded like a chainsaw. As the audience watches McDonough’s face as he struggles to decide on whether to wake up MacKenzie and stop the painful snoring or let him sleep, the camera slowly pans out revealing an assortment of donut related gifts (Donut is McDonough’s nickname on the crew): Donut balloons, a giant donut pillow, and donut cards. In these brief seconds, we learn through showing, not telling, the dedication of MacKenzie to their friendship and the crew’s love for Donut while maintaining a sense of humor.

“So what?” you might think, but what I didn’t tell you was the crew hated Donut when he arrived at their station for the interview, shaking from withdrawals. Yet Marsh, their respected chief, offered him a chance to fill a coveted spot on their crew. Mackenzie was the ringleader of the hate against McDonough, especially after the Marsh forced him to lend Donut a pair of limited edition sneakers so he could complete a training run, which ruined the shoes’ value. In this hospital scene, all it takes is just a few quick shots for the audience to see how far the relationship between the crew and Donut has grown without having a heavy-handed narration or even words exchanged amongst the crew. That takes skilled writing and excellent direction.

It takes even more expertise to make a serious drama humorous. I know I failed to do the above scene justice to its comedic elements, but, believe me, it was quite funny. Actually, the whole movie had an incredibly lighthearted air that was by far my favorite aspect of Only the Brave. 

If this movie is still on near you, go see it before Thor: RagnarokJustice League, or Pixar’s Coco kick it out of theaters. We’re in serious movie season now. I’ll try to keep  up the reviews. I’m sorry it’s taken me almost a week and a half to write this review, but I started a new job recently which has zapped my energy.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

 

The Death of Stalin

Film Score: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Synopsis: In the wake of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s sudden death, a power struggle begins in the upper echelons of Russia. Armando Iannucci brings his style of political satire from Veep and The Thick of It to his directorial debut.

To observe the interminable everyday evil under Stalin is to collide with farce. An orchestra collapses into a throng of panicked intellectuals when Stalin calls, while starving peasants arriving from the street listen obliviously to Mozart. Against the backdrop of the NKVD stealing people from their homes and causing son to denounce father, the soviet elite are tucked away in Stalin’s dacha, drinking, playing pranks and watching John Ford films. In modern times where ‘strongmen’ rule over Russia, America, China and elsewhere, The Death of Stalin forewarns the destruction such leaders and their followers can cause.

For a comedy, The Death of Stalin depicts life under Stalin with the fidelity of a documentary. Unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin has not been well received in Russia. The film unflinchingly gazes at a chapter of Russian history which Putin has slowly redacted into something twisted and sanitised. Officers enter prison cells followed by the pop of a pistol while their chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) takes another of his victims away.

The Death of Stalin shatters the slick oil portraits of Stalin and equally attacks the pedicured images of the entourage behind him: A ring of sycophants, vying for the leader’s attention, while longing for his death and an end to the terror which has loomed over them. They all arrive to Stalin’s dacha like bad actors in a worn Greek tragedy, boasting their grief rather than helping their still living leader. Once the power struggle begins, the film is a mix between Iannucci’s usual observations of hushed plans between politicians and an exquisite dance concocted by Laurel and Hardie. The surviving Soviet leadership each hunger for power, but jostle and bumble to maintain appearances, with each competition becoming sillier than the next. A darkly deadpan thread of humour pervades the film, reminiscent of how The Lobster stared at the sickening until it became funny.

The strength of the Anglo-American cast gathered for The Death of Stalin attests to Armando Iannucci’s work on both sides of the Atlantic. Alongside Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi are British actors who deserve greater global recognition, especially Paul Whitehouse who terrifically plays Anastas Mikoyan. Molotov (Michael Palin) is a true believer, tottering around like an embattled veteran and idolising Stalin despite all he has suffered. Unintentionally but rather comically, Paul Chahidi’s appearance as Nikolai Bulganin has an eerie physical resemblance to Colonel Sanders, albeit far from the safe lands and fried poultry of Kentucky. My favourite was General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Unlike the rest of the soviet elite who prance around seising power, Zhukov is honest about what he wants. Zhukov’s soldierly bluntness casts Khrushchev and company as the sheep they are, while netting him both attention and laughs.

The film’s arc begins and ends with the Moscow State orchestra. The musicians have marshalled and play Mozart once more, but only one pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) plays confidently. Maria alone denounces Stalin before his death. Maria’s constancy is contrasted against the charade of Beria’s and Kruschev’s reforms, which were attempts to seize power and stay alive. Maria’s presence amid the chaos and evil which unfolds in The Death of Stalin reminds us how men cast in all political systems can become so dangerously divorced from morality.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

 

1922

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis: Proud Nebraskan farmer Wilf James (Thomas Jane) is a man threatened by the modernity beyond his farm. When wife Arlette (Molly Parker) threatens to sell her share of the land and drag Wilf and their son Henry (Dylan Schmid) into the roaring 1920’s, Wilf murders her. Wilf’s sin taints him and everything he crosses as 1922 becomes a chilling ghost story.

October inaugurates my favourite time of year in England. A state of purgatory settles over the land, stalling the seasons between autumn and winter. Breath becomes visible and cold, tree trunks turn black from the rain and your day begins and ends in darkness. Surrounded by nature’s slow decay and enduring days that are never far from nightfall, it is easy to begin seeing specters reflected in window panes and faces lurking between branches. In 1922, Netflix has created a film befitting the Halloween season.

1922 harks back to the moral parable underneath the older style of ghost stories by M.R.  James and H.P. Lovecraft. I grew up on M.R. James’ cautionary tales of academics stumbling across hidden artifacts and whose curiosity incurs the wrath of supernatural forces. It is a style of story which seemed no longer wanted on the big screen or the small screen. Being a strange folk, we English used to tell ghost stories at Christmas Eve. The BBC upheld the tradition in the 1970’s and briefly in the 2000’s with A Ghost Story for Christmas. Yet like wraiths and ghouls, ghost stories vanished once again.  Hopefully, 1922 will mark a renaissance of ghost story adaptations based on crumbling morality and existential dread, rather than a paranormal sequence of jumps, bumps, and knocks on doors.

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Wilf, unable to escape his crimes

The slow canter of 1922’s plot renders the Jameses into a very human family. Wilf and Arlette are not simply a bickering couple but polar opposites trapped together. Strutting squarely across the land and tanned brown like a roasted turkey, Wilf embodies the land. Arlette, draped in a modern dress and sporting a flapper haircut, yearns to escape to the city. From the couple’s quiet staring contests, to the camera lurking behind Wilf’s shoulder when they talk, enmity oozes between the two characters. Shortly before the murder, Arlette drops her shield of bitterness and regrets her life choices which landed her with Wilf. Henry, like many children in a dysfunctional family is caught between husband and wife, with shot and counter-shot at the dinner table obscuring Henry against the outline of Wilf or Arlette. Once the deed is done, 1922 crumbles Wilf’s life away with dashes of dark humour nodding to his tragic fate while Thomas Jane’s narration prevents the plot from petering out.

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The unloving couple, Wilf and Arlette.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s short snaps of detail add a sense of brooding to 1922. Eyes wander between Wilf and Artlette as they talk or observe each other from afar. Objects and locations across the farm flash before the screen while Wilf diligently plans his wife’s execution like harvesting another bushel of the corn we see shadowed against the dawn. Richardson uses suggestion to convey a Hitchockian level of detail, with snippets of the house’s increasing dilapidation reflecting Wilf’s own mental strain and guilt. Overall 1922 is visually stunning. The plains of Nebraska are swathed in colour with pearl white banks of snow clashing against the crayola yellow of a neighbour’s house. The richness of Richardson’s work is complimented by the taught plucking of violin strings in Mike Patton’s score, which will prickle goosebumps as Wilf becomes haunted by his guilt and something else.

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A murder in the planning.

Having given a good performance in The Mist which I reviewed here, it is in Thomas Jane’s third appearance in a Stephen King film that he really shines. Affecting both the mannerisms and accent of a contemporary Nebraskan farmer, Jane is unrecognisable as Wilf. Jane speaks more through the roll of his green eyes than his lips like many hard men found on the plains. Despite all that Wilf does he remains a sympathetic character, a man who desperately clings to the life he knows, even when there is no reason to carry on. Again Jane’s narration of events helps to maintain sympathy as Wilf suffers a litany of misfortune. Molly Parker gives a great but sadly brief performance as Arlette. Following her work in 1922 and another Netflix production, Small Crimesshe will hopefully soon receive larger roles. Dylan Schmid is a delightful surprise as Henry James, balancing the conflict and guilt he feels over his mother’s death with the angst and rebelliousness of a young man.

For a spooky tale in time for Halloween, 1922 is a great addition to Netflix’s repertoire. Compared to Netflix’s previous adaptation of Gerald’s Game1922 does not scare as strongly but retains the eeriness of Stephen King’s stories.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Gerald’s Game

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, kind hearted Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino)  and her older husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), retreat to their isolated holiday home on the Alabama coast. A sudden heart attack leaves Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie cuffed to the bed with no escape.

Released nine months apart, Gerald’s Game and Split tread across the same tropes. There is the terror of dying trapped in a locked room with a monster prowling just beyond. Against such fatalistic backdrops, women confront and use their past trauma of abuse to become stronger. Split is a thriller with dashes of horror, while Gerald’s Game is a pure horror film that uses the simple scene of a single inescapable room. Gerald’s Game is scarier, but Split is the better film.

Trapped in her bedroom, it is the monsters Jessie conjures up which frighten the audience. Gerald soon rises from the tiled floor. Back from the dead and full of venom towards his wife, Gerald constantly criticises Jessie, goading her to give up and maliciously articulating her death. Yet Gerald is a mere imp compared to the ‘Moon Man’, a pale deformed wraith appearing in the dead of night. Personifying death, Carel Struycken is far from the gentle giant he plays in Twin Peaks. Struycken is a Nosferatu figure that caused me to stop the film repeatedly when his misshapen face emerged on the screen. Director Mike Flanagan uses the Moon Man to great effect. The monster appears like the twins from The Shining, sparsely present on the edges of the frame and far away down corridors until it finally invades the screen.

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 Channeling Stanley Kubrik, The Moon Man observes Jessie from down the corridor

The bravest, and most unnerving part of Gerald’s Game was its commitment to showing Jessie’s abuse as a child. Naturally, the scene of abuse is not outrightly explicit, but there pervades a disgustingly churning level of detail. Most films, Split included, build up to the abuse through suggestion and then cease. By committing to the scene, Gerald’s Game reinforces that these acts can unfortunately be committed by anyone, not simply the opportunistic stranger. The film also layers an inkling of mystery about who the abuser is, with Jessie obtusely referring to the perpetrator. Flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood maintain the ambiguity until it is too late. I am surprised that another scene in Gerald’s Game instead of the abuse has garnered public attention.

Overall, Gerald’s Game lets Carla Gugino shine. As an actress who I have often seen in minor roles and cameos, it is nice to see Gugino’s character change from a timid wife into a strong woman. Bruce Greenwood is good as the infuriating Gerald but Struycken is the stronger villain. A physical actor, Struckyen’s use of body language provides an ethereal sense of menace as he observes Jessie and waits to snatch her away.

Sadly, the ending sours Gerald’s Game. Continuing ten minutes after a fitting cliffhanger, the story delves into an epilogue that turns Gerald’s Game into a made for T.V8. film. Yet at other points Gerald’s Game has the feel of a television film. The humour, dark or otherwise, which I expect from Stephen King films flared intermittently, while both Gerald and Jessie were quite flat characters. Occasionally I was simply watching a bad situation suffered by another, rather than willing for Jessie to live.

The drawbacks of Gerald’s Game probably stem from the source material. Prolific authors do have hidden masterpieces but I was unaware of the Stephen King novel. Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard did their best adapting the story to film and watching Gerald’s Game on Netflix did hamper its delivery. Being a coward, I paused the film when the tension rose too much during my first viewing. My cowardliness does underline something ignored by Netflix, that the public still perceive the service as ersatz television. Despite watching on a laptop I still leave the room and return to films, Netflix originals or otherwise, like a television. Netflix’s approach to its original films does not help the public’s perception. Only Okja received an advertising campaign nearing the attention afforded to a film created by the traditional film companies. Instead Netflix originals appear on the site, just like another television series. If Netflix wants to ‘disrupt’ the film industry, it needs to treat its original films like films.

I will try not to pause next time.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Mother!

 

Film Score: 3.5 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and him, a famous poet (Javier Bardem) live in seclusion at their country home until a stranger, simply called man (Ed Harris) arrives. Mother! twists biblical allegories into a horrifying condemnation of religion and humanity.

Mother! is an ordeal to watch. Following a viewing of the film last week, I remained slumped in my seat once the credits began, drained and disgusted by what had unfolded. The closest work to Mother! that I have experienced is F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Reaching the novel’s conclusion, I felt so enraged at the characters that I began to hate the story itself, and that was the point. Fitzgerald wanted the reader to hate the people and the system that Great Gatsby focused upon. Mother! like The Great Gatsby, is a statement spread through shock. Mother! evokes such a visceral emotional reaction that the disgust it gleefully creates reflects towards the film itself. A week after viewing, I am not eager to ever see Mother! again.

Director and writer Darren Aronofsky’s surrealist style takes a harrowingly Hitchcockian turn in Mother!  When the film begins, the world of Mother! is two steps away from reality. An appearance of normalcy exists but a strangeness is always present. The house appears modern but every implement from the refrigerator to mother’s medication are approaching one hundred years old. Before the walls begin to bleed, Aronofsky flags that nothing is right in Mother! The camera nauseatingly spins between rooms and strangers gaze at mother like fixated alligators sizing up their prey. A menace looms over mother but it is never quantified, letting imagination shape the abstract threat and causing Mother! to become deeply terrifying. Nearing the film’s final act I averted my gaze when mother was alone in a room and slices of white noise began to play.

The dutiful and besotted mother rebuilds the house and tends to her husband, him, played by Javier Bardem, an actor known for playing villains since his role as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Although not a traditional villain, ‘him’ is Bardem at his most unsettling. Complacent towards his wife, he deflects mother’s questions about the strangers arriving at their home. Bardem reveals no emotions despite mother’s despair, suggesting that he has orchestrated these events while Aronofsky’s focus on Bardem in these scenes morphs him into a devilish figure.

Jennifer Lawrence is commendable as mother but the role stops being a performance and becomes a feat of endurance in the second act. Similar to Leonardo Dicaprio’s role as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, character development is replaced by a series of ordeals which mother goes through. Personally, the real star of Mother! was Michelle Pfeiffer as the ‘woman’, the wife of man, played by Ed Harris. Appearing unexpectedly, Pfeiffer relishes in woman’s Eve-esque demeanour of temptation and manipulation as she toys with mother through feigned warmth and outright prying. Domhnall Gleeson alongside his brother Brian Gleeson both have a brief but memorable role as the two sons of man. Domhnall dominates the screen during his appearance as the black sheep of the family, incarnating the biblical character his role is based on.

Mother! is an ordeal to watch, and that is both its strength and weakness. Over halfway into the film my tolerance was completely spent. Persistence and my wristwatch is what got me through the remaining fifty minutes while others in the screen quietly departed. Cinema can and should push viewers, but personally Aronofsky overran my limit in terms of length, not content. Enough had happened by over halfway that I was ready for the ending to arrive. Mother! shares the same problem as A Ghost Story albeit more pronounced. Both films, ensconced by the themes they pursue, are addled with moments of dead time where little, if anything, makes sense. Mother! is more afflicted by this problem, at times feeling like a student theatre play plugging holes in the plot with provocation.

Mother! will be picked apart in the ensuing decades by film student and film critic alike, it is a rewarding film but often not an enjoyable one.

If I had to recommend one film in cinemas currently, it would still be Blade Runner 2049.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below: