FIRST MAN

Four Star Rating

“…Chazelle’s footage of these brave pioneers hurtling into space in what amounted back then to glorified reinforced tin cans, is an extraordinarily tense experience.” – Wayward Wolf.

It seems that director Damien Chazelle has prioritised realism over glossy sentiment in First Man, his ambitious take on the latter stages of the Great Space Race; more particularly, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon.

The film observes Armstrong and his family in the years preceding this monumental event; a time in which Neil’s single-minded dedication to the cause and an ability to remain focused in the face of innumerable setbacks and personal tragedies, saw him ultimately Captain Nasa’s historic space mission, himself.

Whilst First Man will doubtless appeal to the technologically minded engineers and rocket scientists amongst us, it is a film equally concerned with people; with life and relationships, family and friends.

Claire Foy is cast as Armstrong’s wife, Janet. She portrays a ‘typical mid-century American woman’. A home-maker. Bar the support and friendship of her fellow housewives, Janet frequently finds herself alone, yet she expertly keeps the home fires burning, performing the essential ‘life’ and family functions in her husband’s frequent absences.

But even when he is around, there is a level of detachment about Armstrong’s attitude to family life. Chazelle’s film seems to pin his rather aloof nature upon the family’s loss of their young daughter to illness at a very early age. This is something that Neil seems never to have fully recovered from and has rendered him unable (or unwilling?) to display the same levels of affection and devotion to his two remaining sons.

Ryan Gosling’s performance is the kind of brooding portrayal that we have come to expect from the two-time Oscar-nominated Hollywood heart-throb although this is not the sort of performance of repressed potentially explosive anger that we have witnessed in Nicholas Winding Refn movies, for example – think Drive or Only God Forgives – but of a calm, emotionally disengaged man, for whom the ability to express genuine emotion is in fact something akin to rocket science.

Whilst the family friction and tension is an engaging enough side story in itself, it largely plays second fiddle here to Chazelle’s brilliantly realised scenes of space exploration. From the gruelling astronaut preparation right through to the realisation of national and personal dreams, Chazelle’s footage of these brave pioneers hurtling into space in what amounted back then to glorified reinforced tin cans, is an extraordinarily tense experience. No brightly coloured tight nylon-clad space explorers being warp-sped into far off galaxies here, just a noisy, tooth-rattlingly disorientating, and overwhelmingly claustrophobic experience for all concerned.

It’s truly mesmerising and quite frankly terrifying stuff.

Although IMAX 70mm film is used for the moon landing footage itself – to gain maximum cinematic effect – the bulk of the film is shot on a combination of 16mm and 35mm film. Such a tactic sees Chazelle’s film adopt a sort of soft grainy finish which seems in keeping with its 1960’s feel and setting. That said, the direction is evidently very current with frequent use of jerky handheld camera techniques even during relatively calm scenes concerning simple domestic matters. Whilst in isolation this could be deemed a little unnecessary, within the context of the film as a whole, it is not nearly as jarring as it might have been.

The excellent Justin Hurwitz – he that would appear to be fast becoming what John Williams is/was to Steven Spielberg – once again teams up with Damien Chazelle to provide a subtly understated yet very beautiful theremin and harp-led score, lending the film an at times magical, timeless feel.

And talking of Spielberg, it would be interesting to know exactly what the full extent of his responsibilities were in his role as Executive Producer on this project. It’s undeniable that there’s definitely something of a Spielbergian ‘feel’ to this piece, if such a thing exists?

Considering the nature of Chazelle’s projects prior to this – the blistering Whiplash and the ever-so-enchanting La La Land – a certain degree of criticism from some quarters has been levelled at the director for both his choice of topic and his rather more ‘considered’ approach to film making this time around.

Far from being a regressive move though for this still remarkably young and prodigious talent, if anything, First Man should be considered one great step for Chazelle’s career, further cementing his well-earned place amongst Hollywood’s very biggest hitters.

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HALLOWEEN (1978) / HALLOWEEN (2018)

Three and a half Star Rating

“In many respects Green’s film is, to an extent, something of a loose re-imagining of Carpenter’s 1978 original.” – Wayward Wolf.

An introductory preamble preceded the 40th anniversary screening of Halloween (1978) in which legendary director, John Carpenter, made a particularly interesting point. Back in 1978 the world was not blessed with anything like the number of multi-screen cineplexes that we have become so used to today, and as a consequence most people would more than likely have viewed what was essentially a low budget, limited release ‘B’ Movie, on video, be that a legitimate or pirate copy.

And as with all things that are somewhat restricted from mass public consumption, an aura of mystery soon unavoidably built up around the film.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-1980’s that I would personally get to experience Carpenter’s seminal slasher classic, and like many before me, I too viewed this through the medium of VHS video cassette. I forget which friend’s house I watched it at, but I certainly remember the impact it had upon me.

Forward wind then if you will to 2018 and a rare opportunity to experience the birth of the whole Michael Myers phenomenon on the big screen.

For all of Carpenter’s gushing over his preferred medium of widescreen, the wonders of Panavision and an insistence that this was a movie that was absolutely made for the big screen, one cannot help but be struck by the frailties of his movie, exposed – at times cruelly – by the vastness of the big screen experience, not to mention the high-end, super-revealing Dolby surround sound system which highlights the unpolished rawness of Carpenter’s brilliant synthesized soundtrack. Audio technology has certainly taken large strides since then – although not always for the good, it is true.

That said, Halloween (1978), for all of its faults, and suspending our disbelief accordingly, retains much of the magic and menace that scared people witless on its release some forty years ago. Though hindered to some extent by a low budget, this also worked to its advantage in many respects. Without recourse to the funds or the CGi trickery that’s so prevalent and relied upon today, a lower budget would have equated directly to a lower head count when it came to casting, and the film’s general sparsity of actors and extras went a long way towards creating those eerie daylight scenes in and around the almost abandoned, windy Autumnal streets of Haddonfield, which, punctuated with the intermittent statuesque sightings of the boiler suit and mask-clad Michael Myers, were in many ways as big a contributory factor in creating just the right sort of sinister mood, as any of the latter night scenes of knife-wielding carnage.

With the notable exception of Halloween III (Season of the Witch) – a film rather unfairly maligned at the time for daring to abandon the whole Michael Myers narrative, but a film which I’ve admittedly always had a soft spot for – you’re on pretty firm footing to suggest that the atmosphere of Carpenter’s original has never been bettered or even matched since in the seven ‘sequels’ that have followed.

Which brings us on nicely to sequel number eight; David Gordon Green’s 2018 offering, the confusingly titled, Halloween.

In many respects, Green’s film is, to an extent, something of a loose re-imagining of Carpenter’s 1978 original. Indeed the film is absolutely teeming with similarities. Scenes from the ’78 movie are frequently and playfully revisited, often inverted or manipulated in some way so as to cleverly fit the 2018 narrative. It’s this tipping of the hat acknowledgement tactic that will no doubt please the die-hard Halloween fan base, and it undoubtedly helps to effectively bring the franchise back full circle to the true roots of its initial success. This, one suspects, has been a wholly deliberate ploy and would help to explain the apparent lack of imagination or should that be brilliance? – I’m undecided – of David Gordon Green’s film title.

Of course, bar a complete change of tack, there really is only so much that can be done to inject new life into an old and weary franchise, but the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis – revisiting her role as Laurie Strode – proves to be something of a masterstroke. Far from being just a token reappearance, the Halloween (2018) narrative is built strongly around her character’s damaged persona. As a direct consequence of her inability to ‘move on’ from the traumatic events of her past, Laurie has suffered two failed marriages and has a daughter resentful of the fact that her mother’s life and her own, have been so totally dominated for so long by the invisible spectre of Michael Myers. What should have been an upbringing of love and carefree happiness has been one of nothing but worry and foreboding.

Their relationship and Laurie’s all consuming infatuation with her past assailant, gives Green’s film some much needed substance and transforms a straight forward slasher movie into something a little more weighty.

Of course, this is a Halloween flick, and accordingly any number of fairly nondescript characters are dispatched as the fodder for Myers’ killing spree, helping to contribute to a very generous body count in the process. But gone are the fairly laboured fumblings that characterised Michael Myers’ murders of yesteryear. Instead, his victims are now dispatched efficiently and in brutal fashion. Time, if nothing else, appears to have honed Myers’ execution skills!

Accompanying the action is John Carpenter and his son, Cody’s update on the original Halloween (1978) soundtrack, embellishing the film’s famous piano / ticking main theme and sonic stabs here and there with a few new motifs and suspenseful synth pads. They’re good and they serve their purpose, but they’re nothing of the quality of John Carpenter’s majestic unnerving original score.

Whilst Halloween (2018) is in some ways guilty of milking the ’78 concept to a degree, it does so respectfully and tastefully, and more than this, it points us back in time in the direction of Carpenter’s original film, creating a fairly convincing bond between the pair in the process; crucially, lending Green’s film a certain gravitas that has been so sorely absent from previous sequels within the long running series.

Halloween (2018) may well be a film guilty to some extent of both sizeable plot holes and unlikely coincidences a-plenty, but we must of course consider one important fact here: The boogeyman. I’d suggest therefore that any such criticisms or incredulity really don’t apply in the circumstances.

The important conclusion is this: Halloween (2018) may well lack originality, but in all of its widescreen cinematic glory, it proves to be a slick, brutal, well realised, and above everything else worthy successor to Carpenter’s timeless late ’70’s classic.

And being the huge Halloween (1978) fan that I am, it’s as much a relief as anything to be able to tell you that.

 

 

 

 

FIRST REFORMED

Four Star Rating

“Schrader’s film takes a morally-conscious contemplative journey from climate and pollution concerns to the corruption and self-serving nature of man…” – Wayward Wolf.

A short but very intense friendship with a troubled environmental activist proves to be the catalyst for much self-reflection, introspection and upheaval in the life of Reverend Toller.

A short time prior to this, Toller had vowed to keep a diary for a year in which he would ponder the existential issues of life, love, death and religion.

And come the year’s end he has vowed to destroy the diary.

As a ‘man of the cloth’ much would understandably be expected of Toller, though the fact that he is somewhat squirrelled away as the Pastor of the under-performing, relatively insignificant First Reformed Church – essentially an historic tourist attraction of Dutch origin, and certainly nothing particularly high profile – is the first hint that the Church’s owners, Abundant Life, have only limited faith in Toller’s ability to carry out the sort of duties required of a Pastor at any sort of meaningful level.

That said, the church is fast approaching its 250th anniversary and Toller has been tasked with putting together a suitable celebration to mark the occasion.

This would be a straight forward enough task for someone of sane and rational mind, but as is gradually revealed in Paul Schrader’s challenging film, Toller is very much a man with a tragic and troubled past; one that very much impacts upon his mental state and approach to an equally troubling present. The undoubted weight of the responsibility required for the Church’s anniversary celebrations therefore hangs heavy on the already heavily distracted Pastor’s shoulders.

Ethan Hawke is in excellent form with a strong, nuanced performance portraying the fundamentally flawed Pastor, Toller, a man who has deliberately created a life for himself shorn entirely of all unnecessary accoutrements. Such an absence of possessions in many ways reflects the increasing emptiness within his own soul; a void that he repeatedly fills with a growing dependency on alcohol.

Schrader’s film takes a morally-conscious contemplative journey from climate and pollution concerns to the corruption and self-serving nature of man, digging deep to get to the real heart of the Reverend Toller’s troubles, and it is therefore an understandably bleak affair.

It’s only really the burgeoning friendship between the Pastor and Mary (Amanda Seyfried), that in any way breaks through an at times seemingly all-pervading hopeless gloom that engulfs Toller as he wrestles manfully with the moral concerns of both his own life and those of others.

Straight forward and refreshingly conservative in its direction, First Reformed is a weighty, thought-provoking and at times unashamedly desperate film, though one not entirely bereft of the promise of salvation.

THE RIDER

Three Star Rating

“The Rider… presents its audience with something of a conundrum: What is more important in a performance? Authenticity or technical acting ability?” – Wayward Wolf.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), is firmly of the opinion that his career as a rodeo rider is merely on hold whilst he recuperates from the fall and severe head injury that he recently sustained in action.

And though inundated with the encouragement and well wishes of others, it quickly becomes clear to all that any sort of come back from this would be both short-lived and eminently foolhardy.

With this realisation in mind, Brady must now somehow try to find renewed meaning in an existence that has for his entire life been intrinsically linked to the life of a cowboy. But living in a remote rural location bereft of any real employment opportunities and with little by way of alternative education and skill sets to call upon, the odds are somewhat stacked against him.

Even his efforts to use the highly impressive skills he possesses as a horse trainer – passed down to him by his father – seem doomed to failure as the neurological impact of his injury begins to manifest itself physically, hampering his ability to properly carry out even this somewhat less physically demanding work. Indeed, Brady is informed that if he ever attempts to ride again, it could very well kill him.

It’s only then through the relationship that he has with his developmentally-disabled sister Lilly, and severely disabled friend, Lane Scott – himself an ex-rodeo rider – that Brady can then take stock of his life and begin to see beyond everything that he has ever been and ever thought he would be.

It’s a thoughtful and atmospheric film that’s ever so beautifully shot, making full use of the raw, wind-swept beauty of the South Dakota badlands. And through Zhao’s gritty, visceral and highly textural approach to the direction, one can almost feel the creaking well-worn leather of Brady’s saddle, and the cold steel of the stirrups that hang securely from it.

Given their real-life talents and abilities with horses, through taking the risk of casting Brady Jandreau and his co-actors in the film’s leading roles, Chloe Zhao’s film positively brims with vigour, energy and above all authenticity.

But The Rider then presents its audience with something of a conundrum:

What is more important in a performance? Authenticity or technical acting ability?

For all of the honest, earthy qualities that the cast undoubtedly bring to the table, it is ultimately the limitations of their ability as actors – failing at times to fully convey the necessary emotions and conviction required – that frequently hamper the film’s best intentions.

And what a very great shame that is.

It’s really not out of all proportion to suggest that given the right choice of cast, The Rider would have had all of the necessary ingredients to be considered something bordering on a masterpiece.

As it is, Zhao’s film fails to convince as a whole, and falls frustratingly short of what it might have been.

Harsh? Perhaps. But one cannot tip-toe around the truth here.

The Rider is as authentic, thoughtful, heartfelt and soulful as the day is long, but ultimately it’s what would appear to be the film’s greatest assets that ultimately prove to be its unfortunate undoing.

KING OF THIEVES

Three and a half Star Rating

“Though it arguably lacks a little ‘oomph’, in certain places, King of Thieves is nevertheless tremendous fun…” – Wayward Wolf.

Compare and contrast, if you will, two 2018 cinematic releases that are based upon actual events.

Bart Layton’s American Animals, is a tale of young impressionable college students who, by way of an attempted heist at their own University library, aimed to get rich quick whilst simultaneously making a name for themselves, whereas James Marsh’s King of Thieves, chronicles the still relatively fresh-in-the-memory events of the jewellery heist that transpired down on London’s Hatton Garden, back in 2015.

Whilst both films are similar in their subject matter, it’s the manner in which the respective protagonists go about their nefarious deeds that couldn’t be any more different.

In Layton’s American Animals, a combination of anxiety, lack of experience and a general naivety ultimately prove to be the boys’ undoing, whereas Michael Caine and his grizzly cohorts couldn’t really have been any more lackadaisical in their approach if they’d tried.

At least that’s how they’re depicted.

Just how close to the truth such a depiction actually is, only Brian, Basil, Billy, Terry, Danny and John will know. And that is of course assuming that they’ve somehow managed to watch Marsh’s film from behind the bars of their respective prison cells.

One would suspect that they probably have.

Authentic depiction or not, one thing is certain, King of Thieves is high on entertainment, and in Michael Caine, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone and Tom Courtenay, Marsh’s film boasts a stella cast portraying masterfully this long-in-the-tooth gang of career criminals. Lock Stock and Six Smoking Pensioners…. And Charlie Cox… if you will.

Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Admittedly it is possibly a little harsh to lump Paul Whitehouse into that pensioner bracket together with the rest of Dad’s Army. Mr Whitehouse, at a mere sixty tender years of age, is after all a good decade or so younger than the majority of his fellow cast members here. Then again, he does now officially qualify for a free bus pass. So, let’s just say he’s in on a technicality.

We digress…

Perhaps it’s down to the casting of so many recognisable ‘national treasures’ in Marsh’s film, but there’s definitely a generous sense of empathy that’s generated towards this ‘loveable’ gang of rogues as they go about their business with their collective carefree, bordering on languid approach to the task.

Been there, seen it, done it.

Oh, but how things change when the cracks begin to appear and the problems mount up, laying bare the rather ugly traits of greed, power and duplicity for all to see.

Indeed, it’s quite the transformation watching the likes of serial nice guy Jim Broadbent morph from a cuddly old bugger into something of a devious back stabber, though this is not exactly new territory for Broadbent if one casts one’s mind back far enough. His tremendous portrayal of uber-snide Detective Chief Inspector Roy Slater in John Sullivan‘s timeless sitcom, Only Fools and Horses, remains to this day one of his most convincing and memorable roles.

Though it arguably lacks a little ‘oomph’, in certain places, King of Thieves is nevertheless tremendous fun, with a strong emphasis on the comedic element of what, presumably, would have actually been a very serious undertaking for all involved.

What King of Thieves may lack in pace and energy it more than makes up for by way of the on-screen chemistry between the cast members who, it’s unimaginable to consider, weren’t having an absolute blast in making this film.

Not a classic by any means, but one that will probably sufficiently please both fans of the heist movie genre and nostalgia buffs, alike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A SIMPLE FAVOUR

Two and a half Star Rating

“…it’s left to Blake Lively – portraying the mysterious Emily – to produce the one performance of any particular weight or substance.” – Wayward Wolf.

Stylistically very much of its time, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favour is an easily palatable glossy thriller which it could be argued would be far better suited to a Netflix serialisation, than any sort of major cinematic release.

And considering the vast popularity of the aforementioned streaming platform, that’s in no way as damning an indictment as once it might have been.

Anna Kendrick in particular is perfect for these sort of televisual films and roles. Wholesome, cutesy and borderline irritating in this instance, she portrays Stephanie Smothers, a young single mother whose path happens to cross that of the glamorous and rather ruthless, Emily. Their sons go to the same school, and through this everyday tenuous connection – and in spite of the girls’ very disparate personalities – they strike up an unlikely friendship based largely around play dates and strong Martinis, and plenty of them.

But when things suddenly take a rather mysterious turn, Stephanie is left holding the baby (almost literally), desperately scrambling around to make sense of an increasingly disturbing scenario. More disturbing than anything this well-meaning lifestyle-blogging mother could possibly have imagined, in fact.

All ‘made-for-TV’ jibes-aside, A Simple Favour is actually, in it’s own way, a perfectly watchable film, though one which one can feel reasonably assured will never spring anything too ghastly or distasteful upon its unsuspecting viewers.

Though based upon nefarious dark deeds and wrong-doings, Feig’s film is far more concerned with its sassy style and slick delivery than developing any sort of deep-seated menace or suspenseful atmosphere. And the entire thing plays out with just the sort of slightly superficial style and vacuous air that you’d probably associate with Sex In The City and the like.

That said, given the film’s deliberate stylistic approach it’s hard to fault any of the performances, but it’s left to Blake Lively – portraying the mysterious Emily – to produce the one performance of any particular weight or substance. This alone, however, is not enough to transform A Simple Favour from admittedly well devised Hollywood schtick into something altogether more memorable and affecting.

Not a bad offering, and as mentioned before, perfectly watchable. But if ever there was a film to keep one eye on in the background without ever needing to get too emotionally invested in its content, then this is probably it.

 

AMERICAN ANIMALS

Four Star Rating

“…what sets Bart Layton’s film apart from the plethora of heist movies that have made it to the big screen over the years, is the brutal honesty with which it is told.” – Wayward Wolf.

Spencer Reinhard was an art student at a Kentucky University, and it was there that he would meet the guy that would profoundly change his life, Warren Lipka; a free-spirit, and all-round loose cannon.

Predictable college-related shenanigans aside, the pair shared a deep-seated need to make a name for themselves in life away from the binds of convention and conformity.

Whilst Lipka was a hot-headed, disruptive influence, prone to making bad decisions, this in many ways appealed greatly to the impressionable Reinhard, who, like many of the great artists that he so admired, felt, himself, compelled to a life of sufferance.

On viewing an assortment of prized rare books in their University’s library, first Warren and then with minimal persuasion, Spencer, decided to hatch a far-fetched plan to steal the aforementioned valuables in what they believed would be the perfect heist.

And having, soon after, persuaded an additional two friends to join them, the conspiring quartet then went about piecing together the constituent parts of what appeared on the surface at least to be a suspiciously straight forward job.

And American Animals is the fascinating and unfortunate tale of how all of these best laid plans unravelled, spectacularly.

Essentially a quasi-documentary of sorts, what sets Bart Layton’s film apart from the plethora of heist movies that have made it to the big screen over the years, is the brutal honesty with which it is told. By frequently (and strategically) interjecting the main body of the film with the real life recollections of the heist’s actual perpetrators, we are constantly reminded that this is, as the film makes very clear from the outset, a true story. Not just one based loosely upon real events.

Unfortunately for them, what becomes abundantly clear is that the scheming foursome possessed next to none of the guile, nous or cojones required to pull off what would ultimately prove to be a very ambitious plan indeed. Far too ambitious for four college freshmen, it goes without saying. And it’s this element of inevitable failure when combined with the surprisingly large amounts of empathy that one feels for these mis-guided characters, that makes Layton’s film an at times excruciatingly tense experience. This was, after all, a plan as idiotic in its inception, as it proved to be shambolic in its execution.

Some fine, nuanced performances from Evan Peters (Warren) and Barry Keoghan (Spencer) in particular, ensure that American Animals is both an engaging and impactful experience, but it’s the cut-aways to the heist’s real-life perpetrators that provide the real soul and emotional depth to this story.

Considering none of them are actors by trade, the ‘performances’ and emotions conveyed to the camera by the real Spencer, Warren, Chas and Eric are refreshingly unstilted, and remarkably genuine and heartfelt in their delivery. Clearly to re-live these life-changing events has forced each of them into a very painful place in their souls in which guilt and shame seem both abundant and unrelenting.

American Animals is a film that on one hand may well wag a finger of disapproval, but on balance, it remains surprisingly non-judgemental in its outlook. Perhaps the fact that four fools who, effectively hung by their own petard, chose then to lay bare their crimes, on camera, to the wider world, is considered to be judgement enough.

And that’s probably fair enough.

Instead, Layton’s film offers out an olive branch and wraps a consoling arm around the wrong-doers, choosing to look forward to the future rather than to dwell on the unfortunate misdemeanours of the past.

 

 

 

 

LUCKY

 

Four Star Rating

“Suitably slow paced and considered in its approach, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut is a wonderfully poignant piece…” – Wayward Wolf.

Lucky is a man marking time.

An insular, yoga-practicing, game show-watching, diner and bar-frequenting grumpy old man, holding strong to the sort of routines, long-held opinions and unshakeable habits that one would expect of a man his age.

Watching this doddery old timer make his way methodically around the small town in which he lives is a somewhat sobering experience. One can’t help but ponder the fact that none of us are getting any younger, and that it all only ever ends one way.

And it’s Ed Begley Jr, portraying Dr. Christian Kneedler – invoking nostalgic memories of a much loved Begley character of yesteryear, the smart-mouthed Dr. Victor Ehrlich of St. Elsewhere fame – who hammers this point home.

Having fallen and hit his head following an uncharacteristic dizzy spell, Lucky undergoes a number of medical tests and is naturally curious to hear Dr. Kneedler’s diagnosis:

“You’re old and you’re getting older…”

“That’s it?”

“That’s all I’ve got.”

It’s quite a favourable diagnosis really considering both Lucky’s age and chain smoking habit.

This does however mark something of a turning point in the old man’s life. Suddenly confronted by his own mortality, through the interactions with those around him, Lucky begins to experience something of a late life spiritual awakening. Begrudgingly he loosens his grip on the things that have come to define him, and little by little, he begins to live again.

Essentially, Lucky is a tale of learning to let go, of dealing with our inner emotional pain and loneliness, and achieving some degree of inner peace in the process.

In David Lynch, Tom Skerritt, Barry Shabaka Henley, Ron Livingston and Beth Grant, there is a supporting cast of some note that not only produce perfectly understated performances fitting of the film’s unassuming small town setting, but additionally provide the perfect pillars of worldly experience and wisdom with whom Lucky will mentally and verbally spar on his own personal Road to Damascus.

Suitably slow paced and considered in its approach, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut is a wonderfully poignant piece, made doubly so considering of course it proved to be the very final outing for the late great Harry Dean Stanton, whose performance here it should be said is right up there with his very best work.

A fittingly fine way to bow out for one of the true greats of cinema.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLD WAR

Four and a half Star Rating

“Artistically creative and texturally sumptuous, Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is quite simply breathtaking…” – Wayward Wolf.

Reading a bit of the blurb surrounding Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, it would seem that this is a film based loosely not on his own experiences, but on those of his mother and father.

Not only were they hopelessly in love, but they were, to all intents and purposes, a bit rubbish at it. Pawlikowski refers to the fact that they seemed all too able to create chaos out of order by way of their poor decision making and general impetuosity; thereby frequently courting romantic disaster.

Set to the backdrop of post-war Poland, Pawlikowski’s film traces the ups and downs of a highly passionate and volatile relationship between two somewhat mismatched lovers: musical impresario, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), and the singer / dancer and all-round apple of his eye, Zula (Joanna Kulig).

Zula is one of the star turns of the Mazurek Ensemble, a musical collective created by Wiktor and his musical business partner, Irena (Agata Kulesza), which seeks, above everything, to preserve the purity of the traditional music of Poland.

This purity is however soon to be compromised by political forces and it’s not long before the ensemble is obliged to espouse all manner of Stalin-esque Soviet propaganda to the wider world, much to the chagrin of Wiktor whose own personal Western ideals and values are in direct opposition to this.

While on tour in East Germany, Wiktor sees an opportunity to escape this autocratic nightmare and conjures up a plan for he and Zula to flee across the border from East to West Berlin. This he believes will allow the couple the best possible opportunity to live a creative life free from the shackles of repressive Communism.

But while Zula is apparently receptive to Wiktor’s idea, to what extent exactly? And what place and role – she secretly ponders – could a young Polish country girl possibly have in such a brave new world?

Pawel Pawlikowski effortlessly combines elements of romance, politics and art here to form an absolutely mesmerising piece, helped in no small way by two wonderful lead performances of quite some stature from Kot and Kulig.

Artistically creative and texturally sumptuous, Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is quite simply breathtaking, and enhanced no end by the decision to shoot in monochrome. This is a choice which accentuates not only the dank unrelenting greyness of a Communist-era Poland, but the brooding smokey cool of the hip 1950’s Parisian jazz scene which Wiktor embraces following his ultimately lone defection from East to West.

Perhaps most impressive of all though is the film’s exquisite soundtrack. From a selection of luscious traditional and jazz arrangements of Polish folk tunes, to an expertly curated selection of classical pieces and rock and roll hits of the time, this is as overwhelming a cinematic sonic experience as I have had in many a year.

Pawlikowski’s film somehow creates the feel of a sprawling three hour epic yet at just 88 minutes in length, this is a lesson to all film makers in achieving maximum impact from what is almost bordering on short-form film making –  in the context of Oscar-nominated major motion pictures, that is.

Above all, Cold War is a wonderfully memorable and immersive tale of promised yet untenable, ill-fated love in unforgiving times, and undoubtedly an award-winner in the making.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT

Three and a half Star Rating

“…in a larger-than-life tale of espionage and counter espionage, it’s once again our vertically-challenged shiny-toothed hero that steals the show.” – Wayward Wolf.

Unlike James Bond, the Mission Impossible films seem to have that uncanny habit of consistently getting their recipe just about right. You’ll doubtless have your own favourite from this long-running re-booted franchise, but it’s hard to deny the quality of each and every chapter that unfolds.

And according to many, Mission Impossible: Fallout is in fact the pick of the bunch.

Not that it’s in any way ground-breaking or indeed some sort of game changer. It’s evidently not. But through a few well-placed tweaks to a familiar, tried and trusted story line, Mission Impossible: Fallout succeeds in being both entertaining and suspenseful enough to keep the old grey matter sufficiently engaged over the film’s two-and-a-half hour duration.

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie, Mission Impossible:Fallout continues Hollywood’s current trend of acknowledging the ageing process in our big screen heroes, depicting them as getting a little long-in-the-tooth for the extra-ordinary feats that continue to be asked of them. They are of course, by and large, human after all.

This has been very evident in the closing chapters of Daniel Craig’s residency as James Bond, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s increasingly arthritic attempts to keep up with the machines that threaten both him and those that he attempts to protect within the Terminator franchise. Granted, Schwarzenegger’s character is not exactly human, but the point still stands. Old age will eventually make us all obsolete.

Accordingly, there are one or two “Christ, not again… really?” withered looks of despair that flash across the face of our resident Mission Impossible hero, Ethan Hunt, during certain more physically demanding scenes. A small yet tell-tale sign of an action hero who is fast becoming aware that old man time is finally beginning to catch up with him.

Never is this more evident than when Ethan Hunt is paired up with a Government-appointed somewhat younger sidekick, August Walker (Henry Cavill), who, resplendent with 1980’s moustache could ably be passed off as being Freddie Mercury’s man-mountain Cyborg love child, were he to have had one.

I’d imagine.

The threat of terrorism-induced nuclear armageddon provides sufficient motivation for Cruise and his merry band of foe-foilers to dig deep, pull out all of the stops and once again achieve the truly extraordinary under nigh on impossible circumstances.

Some things never change.

Simon Pegg, whilst adopting his usual role of light-relief-bringer in otherwise super-intense circumstances, is however noticeably less jester-like during this particular outing. Ving Rhames once again portrays the dependably tech-savvy Luther. Rebecca Ferguson is all seductive glamour, beauty and know-how as agent Isla Faust, whilst Sean Harris is probably more weaselly than sinister portraying ideologue and all-round enemy of the state, Solomon Lane.

But in a larger-than-life tale of espionage and counter espionage, it’s once again our vertically-challenged shiny-toothed hero that steals the show.

As he always does.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise the high-ranking Scientologist and fully paid-up member of the Hollywood aristocracy. This is a man seemingly impervious to any and all attempts by media hacks to publicly assassinate his character by repeatedly calling into question his most private of private lives. But one thing remains undeniable:

He’s simply superb at playing these kinds of roles, in fact I’d go so far as to say that Tom Cruise is very possibly the finest exponent of our time of playing the Action Hero.

The cracks may well be just starting to appear, but whilst there’s still life in Tom Cruise, there’s still life in Ethan Hunt, and that can only be good news for the innumerable fans of this most unfailing of film franchises.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANT MAN & THE WASP

Two and a half Star Rating

“It’s all fairly entertaining stuff on a strictly superficial level…” – Wayward Wolf.

 

Apparently Ant-Man and the Wasp follows on from where Captain America: Civil War left off? Well that’s me out of the picture then.

Our hero – or that should probably be one of our heroes – Scott Lang, a.k.a Ant-Man (played here by the eminently likeable Paul Rudd), is under home arrest, ankle-tagged and unable to leave the confines of his San Francisco home. This by all accounts is the result of something that happened in the previous film.?

God knows.

I’m really not the target audience for these comic book capers, as you can probably tell.

Ant-Man and the Wasp comes across as one big flurry of admittedly very impressive special effects, all knitted together by way of a rather far-fetched and convoluted story line. Littered with fight scenes and car chases galore, it’s all delivered with metaphorical tongue planted firmly in cheek. As you’d probably expect.

Michael Douglas portrays Dr. Hank Pym. Evangeline Lilly plays Hope Van Dyne, a.k.a Wasp, whilst Michelle Pfeiffer plays Douglas’s wife and Lilly’s mother, Janet Van Dyne. She seems to have got hopelessly lost in some parallel dimension / quantum thingy whatnot as a result of, once again, something that happened in Captain America: Civil War.

There are minor roles for Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Bill Foster, Walton Goggins as the dastardly Sonny Burch, and there’s a somewhat irritating turn (though perhaps it’s just me?), from Hannah Dominique E. John-Kamen, in her portrayal of Ava, a.k.a Ghost.

And talking of irritating, Michael Peña runs John-Kamen close in the ‘annoying git’ stakes with his trying-way-too-hard to-be-funny flamboyant portrayal of Luis.

That said, it’s all fairly entertaining stuff on a strictly superficial level, jam-packed with plenty of thrills and spills, and no small amount of humour thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the film’s biggest laugh, however, is reserved for a Stan Lee one-liner during his inevitable five second cameo.

On watching his car shrink to the size of a matchbox right in front of his very eyes whilst attempting to insert the key into the door, he remarks: “I had a great time in the 60’s, but I sure am paying for it now…”

Or words to that effect.

Perhaps you had to be there?

Perhaps you should actually have been there, instead of me, in fact?

It’s perfectly watchable if ultimately very disposable fare, but all a bit wasted on a confirmed Marvel philistine such as myself.

 

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APOSTASY

Three and a half Star Rating

“Played out under a grey Lancashire sky, Apostasy is never less than bleak in its outlook” – Wayward Wolf.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were very much the Scientologists of my childhood, in so much as they came across as both mysterious and a little ominous. From door to door they would traipse with calm but dogged determination, eager to share their literature, and impart their ‘answers’ to a wider audience.
Of course there was no mystery at all, just a devout set of believers with a rigidly defined set of life rules that anyone with a modicum of interest – or more pertinently ‘patience’ – could very easily have discovered more about should they, just for once, have chosen not to slam the door in their faces.
The odd couple of stalwarts outside shopping centres or train stations-aside, they seem to have slipped somewhat from public consciousness these days, displaced by a tidal wave of far more topical unsavoury pressing religious issues of our day, but that’s another story…
Refreshing it is then to be offered a glimpse into the curious world of Jehovah’s Witnesses by way of Daniel Kokotajlo’s excellent but rather austere tale, Apostasy.
Set in Oldham, Greater Manchester, it focuses upon a mother, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), and her two teenage daughters, Alex (Molly Wright), and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), for whom a zealous belief in the doctrines forms the rigid backbone of their day-to-day existence.
Although Ivanna and Alex are unwavering in their belief (at least outwardly), Luisa has, with age, developed doubts, and on becoming pregnant, her own faith as well as that of her immediate family is to be sorely tested.
But on whom can she rely to guide her on her path into motherhood? And can her predicament ever be endorsed within the strict parameters of her family’s staunch religious beliefs, and indeed those of the religion’s ‘elders’?
Director Kokotajlo was apparently keen that northern English acting talent should be afforded the limelight here, and in Siobhan Finneran, we are treated to a fine portrayal of a mother mentally conflicted between the iron grip of her religious devotion and her natural role as a caring mother. Molly Wright puts in a tender performance of both innocence and vulnerability as youngest daughter, Alex, whilst Sacha Parkinson is cast well as Molly’s wayward sister, Luisa.
Played out under a grey overcast Lancashire sky, Apostasy is never less than bleak in its outlook. Even the film’s fleeting romantic interest seems somewhat tainted given the rather stony ground on which it is being asked to take root and flourish.
Kokotajlo’s film seems as genuinely intrigued as it is disapproving of its subject matter, yet never is it damning or dismissive, instead it walks its viewer methodically through a succession of tough scenes that will doubtless dumbfound and frustrate through their pure indoctrinated illogic.
Blood may indeed be thicker than water, but it seems that it’s no match here for the sheer viscosity of the doctrines of Jehovah, and those who so single-mindedly adhere to them, as ultimately will become patently and tragically clear.

 

THE FIRST PURGE

Half Star Rating

“…being rattled by this film’s relentless and shameless ideological political jackhammer for 98 minutes, is not an experience I would recommend in any sort of a hurry.” – Wayward Wolf.

It goes without saying that we live in divisive times.

I’d wager that there’s a representative portion of society that would almost certainly argue that the idea of a Purge being imposed upon the population at this particular juncture in time might not be so fanciful an idea after all.

We are all tumbling helplessly into a neo-fascist far-right wing superstate after all, didn’t you hear?

Set on Staten Island, New York City, Gerard McMurray’s film tells of the build up to and events of the very first purge, upon whose experimental ‘successes’ all subsequent purges were to be based.

As ever, the whole notion of a human purge is an incredibly intriguing idea upon which to base a motion picture. and this probably explains why I have retained at least a cursory interest in this frequently misfiring franchise.

Sadly, The First Purge is not just a bad film, it’s by far and away the worst film I’ve had the misfortune to witness in quite some time. Its poisonous cocktail of B-Movie sensibilities and enormously contrived narrative, blend like out-of-date soya milk and cold coffee to produce a lumpen misshapen cliche-riddled pile of old bollocks.

To add insult to injury, the whole sorry episode plays out like an ill-informed simplistic brain-washed sixth form school project done on behalf of their class tutor, who just so happens to be a fully paid-up member of the Democratic Party of the United States of America.

Rabid Democratic political bias dominating the narrative of a Hollywood motion picture? Whatever next?!!

Now, whatever your political persuasion may be, being rattled by this film’s relentless and shameless ideological political jackhammer for 98 minutes, is not an experience I would recommend in any sort of a hurry.

To summarise: White men are all evil negro-lynching KKK-hooded Republicans intent upon suppressing ethnic minorities and installing some kind of totalitarian fascist super state upon us all. And everyone else – serial killers and drug-dealing gang bosses included – are simply victims of an unjust society, and just fine.

In these times of such fractious divisions in society, more than ever the arts have a real part to play in providing honesty. How good would it be if mainstream films like this made an effort to heal and encourage constructive dialogue between politically-divided people?

Unfortunately, sensationalist offerings such as The First Purge are evidently completely disinterested in offering any sort of olive branch of reconciliation, and do nothing but titillate and segregate the ‘them and us’ still further.

No matter what positives Gerard McMurray’s agenda-driven nonsense occasionally throws up – and there are admittedly a few ideas and set pieces strewn about the place which stick in the memory – The First Purge, on balance, is nothing more than poorly made propaganda-laced self-congratulatory virtuous twaddle that succeeds only in dragging an already patchy franchise kicking and screaming through the cinematic gutter.

Insulting drivel.

UNDIR TRÉNU : (Under The Tree)

Three and a half Star Rating

“Encroaching Conifers and comical capers-aside, Sigurðsson’s film is in fact something of a weighty affair” – Wayward Wolf.

By his own admission, film-maker Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, is drawn towards the mundane.

“Our lives are most of the time made up of the mundane,” he suggests. “This is what we know best and I believe this is one of the elements that connects our human existence, ” he goes on to say.

This is very true of Sigurðsson’s new Icelandic drama/comedy, Undir Trenu; a film which illustrates effectively how a petty squabble has the potential to escalate into something far more sinister altogether, if allowed to.

A beautiful old tree stands tall in Baldvin and Inga’s back garden. With trees being something of a rarity in Iceland, Baldvin is loathe to trim it down in size despite it clearly blocking out the sunlight – an equally rare commodity in this part of the world – from the neighbours’ garden.

These neighbours are understandably aggrieved and have requested umpteen times that something be done about it.

And thus has ensued a sort of tit-for-tat game of exponentially escalating juvenile pranks between these two ‘warring’ households, with each becoming increasingly embroiled in this pointless game of one-up-man-ship, in an attempt to force the others’ hand.

Encroaching Conifers and comical capers aside, Sigurðsson’s film is in fact something of a weighty affair, examining as it does the affects of depression, anxiety, despondency and regret.

Indeed, all is far from well in the lives of the film’s key protagonists.

Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) have a son, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), who has, unannounced, come to live with them until such time as his wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir), agrees to let him back into their home following her discovery of a sort of historic marital transgression; a situation made doubly awkward given the thorny issue of child custody. 

Inga suffers from depression fuelled by her inability and point-blank refusal to come to terms with the disappearance of her other son, and it has has left her a bitter and deeply unhappy woman. 

In an attempt to cope with all of this, her husband Baldvin frequently seeks sanctuary in the bottom of a bottle.

As for next door, neighbour Konrad, (Þorsteinn Bachmann), has taken up with the much younger (forty-something) Eyborg (Selma Björnsdóttir), with whom he will soon be having a baby. Whilst on the surface everything seems rosy between them, there is a strong suspicion that all such happy family-planning is more down to the last-chance-saloon desperate midlife desire of his lady, and that recent divorcee, Konrad, is in fact something of an unhappy and reluctant passenger on this particular ride, and now paying the price for his rebound fling.

With choice Rachmaninoff, Bach and the haunting mournful strains of an all-male Icelandic choir added to Daníel Bjarnason’s deeply affecting and unnerving synth and sample-heavy score, Undir Trenu is lent a real sense of gravitas, lifting it from the realms of straight forward comedy into something altogether more thoughtful and substantial.

Rich in metaphor and artistically shot, Undir Trenu may not always be entirely convincing on its journey from comic farce to tragedy, but it undoubtedly leaves an indelible imprint on the mind as it gathers pace, beckoning us towards its unexpected and unsettling conclusion.

HEREDITARY

Four Star Rating

“…a truly bizarre conclusion which will act as the perfect barometer with which to measure exactly what a film’s audience will have made of the preceding two hours or so.” – Wayward Wolf.

Hereditary is deemed to be this generation’s The Exorcist, and considering just how universally acclaimed William Friedkin’s seminal 1973 horror classic still is, that’s quite a billing.

But can Ari Aster’s occultic fable live up to this considerable hype?

With the death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette), observes some rather bizarre goings on within her family. What should have been a time of simple mourning proves to be anything but. Far from being laid to rest, Annie’s mother’s death is the catalyst for much upheaval within the family unit. Something, somehow is messing with the minds of Annie’s nearest and dearest. But what, why, and to what ends?

Annie’s peculiar introverted daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – she upon whose ‘look’ a million Chucky-esque dolls could be confidently manufactured and sold – had been the apple of her late Grandmother’s eye; taken under her wing in fact. And it is Charlie who seems most affected by her passing. This most unnerving of children is afforded a relatively short amount of screen time, yet her impact upon Aster’s film is both powerful and enduring.

To delve deep into the narrative of Aster’s horror is to give far too much away, for this is a film not pieced together by way of a sequence of complicated plot twists and devices, but rather a film built upon one effective premise. A simple unnerving tale. A mysterious metaphorical encroaching fog of doom and helplessness which will, given time, engulf everyone in its path, to some degree or other.

The casting is excellent. Alex Wolff continues his impressive run of form, once again playing a quirky character with his portrayal of Charlie’s stoner brother, Peter. Gabriel Byrne portrays the family’s traditional patriarch and backbone, Steve, with predictable assurance, whilst Toni Collette’s performance as Annie brings back memories of both Sissy Spacek in Carrie, and more pertinently Shelley Duvall’s increasingly hysterical turn as Wendy, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic, The Shining.

Littered with genuinely disturbing imagery and highly memorable set pieces, Hereditary conjures up the sort of bleak atmosphere fostered so effectively in Robert Eggers’ solid 2015 offering, The Witch. Indeed, the theme of unseen occultic malevolence forms, to some extent at least, the central core of both of these films.

Resisting the temptation for cheap shocks and the needlessly overly-dramatic, Aster’s film instead benefits greatly from taking an altogether more low-key approach – the consummate slow-burner – in which the sense of fear and enmity increases exponentially in both pace and intensity, leading to a truly bizarre conclusion which will act as the perfect barometer with which to measure exactly what a film’s audience will have made of the preceding two hours or so. The sense of serenity that befalls Aster’s film in its final chapter is somewhat unanticipated, and as truly peculiar as it is haunting.

One thing is overwhelmingly apparent though. This is a film that makes a damn good job of genuinely disturbing its audience throughout. And it’s a safe bet that it will continue to do so for quite some time beyond that.

Hereditary is a film that will make you think, think again, and then rethink as it lingers like a bad dream in your mind. Furthermore, it will burrow itself effortlessly beneath your skin, heightening your senses, and feeding your primal fears in the process.

A sort of slow drip-feed of unease dispensed emphatically, deep into your very core.

A modern horror classic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HAPPY PRINCE

Four Star Rating

“Everett’s stupendous performance as Wilde is both arresting and heartfelt…” – Wayward Wolf.

Oscar Wilde cuts something of a forlorn tragic figure in Rupert Everett’s excellent biopic, The Happy Prince.

Personal treatment that Wilde deems to have been hugely unjust has built up much resentment in the heart of this once so carefree flamboyant wordsmith.

Consequently exiled to the shores of France and then further afield, he lives out his final years begging for handouts and favours from those he knows and loves. Those, that is, that haven’t turned their back on the now disgraced writer.

Everett’s film focuses upon a man whose incarceration and subsequent humiliation on charges of sodomy and gross indecency – following his lewd bordering on nefarious behaviour (in the eyes of the law) – have left him near destitute; a far cry from the opulent lifestyle that once he had led.

The Happy Prince is built loosely around Wilde reciting his fairy tale of the same name to both his own biological sons – during happier married times – and latterly on his death bed to the rag tag ‘family’ of young urchins that he had befriended.

Wilde – under his newly acquired guise of Melmoth – has a kind of morbidly humorous fascination with both the hopelessness of the predicament in which he now finds himself, and with the plethora of men that continue to fawn over him.

A period piece The Happy Prince may essentially be, but there’s a strongly contemporary feel to the film’s at times bewitching cinematography, switching neatly and expertly by way of multiple rapid cross fades between Wilde’s past and present in an effort to build a picture of – and emphasise the massive disparity between – ‘now’ and then.

Everett’s stupendous performance as Wilde is both arresting and heartfelt, whilst there are meaningful contributions from Colin Firth as Wilde’s good friend Reggie, and from Colin Morgan and Edwin Thomas as Bosie and Robbie, respectively, the two mainstays in Wilde’s love life who continue to compete fiercely for his attentions, and between whom there is absolutely no love lost.

As for Emily Watson’s portrayal of Constance, as solid as it is, one can’t help but think that it remains a little peripheral to the film’s narrative at times. Perhaps Everett could have made a little more of the clearly strained relationship that had existed between the two, and the impact that this had had upon their children?

It seems that Wilde was indeed harshly dealt with, and laws or no laws, would have had rightful justification to feel aggrieved at his treatment at the hands of the rather puritanical overreaching government of the time.

That said, Everett’s film seems intent to paint Wilde not as some sort of saintly martyr, but as a charming but deeply flawed man with a propensity for making poor life decisions. A man who had flown too close to the sun, and who perhaps had been more than a little guilty of using and abusing those that knew and loved him so much for his own personal gain.

The Happy Prince, whilst at times cheeky and playful in its outlook, never strays too far from its melancholic roots in its elegantly crafted, poignant regaling of the final days of the late great Oscar Wilde.

 

 

 

 

 

LEAVE NO TRACE

Four Star Rating

“Leave No Trace is a highly impressive, refreshingly understated coming-of-age tale” – Wayward Wolf.

A father and daughter enjoy a grass roots subsistence existence, living off the land in some Oregon woodland. This land, however, is part of a huge public park, and the setting up of a home in such a location is expressly forbidden by law.

Regardless, they mean no bother or harm, and refuse to impose their chosen lifestyle upon anyone else. Not only is their camp thoroughly well camouflaged, but the father is at pains to ensure that by way of frequent ‘drills’, the pair are able to scamper off at a moment’s notice, into the undergrowth, out of sight of the prying eyes of park rangers and the like.

Such an existence has worked well for many years, but a chance sighting of the girl one day – by a passing member of the public – swiftly leads to the pair being evicted from their woodland dwellings, and forced to live back in society once again.

For the young girl and her father who know little else but the outdoor life, such a transition is always going to prove to be problematic.

Debra Granik’s film skilfully builds an intricate picture of the unusual bond between PTSD suffering ex-military man, Will (Ben Foster – he of Hell or High Water fame), and his mature-beyond-her-years teenage daughter, Tom (a superbly impressive performance from Thomasin McKenzie), shining the light on their increasingly strained relationship, as Will’s inability to cope with the ‘real world’ begins to seriously conflict with his daughter’s ever growing need to discover herself and integrate more into ‘normal’ society.

Leave No Trace is a highly impressive, refreshingly understated coming-of-age tale, told with neither fuss nor melodramatics, and in whose characters one can truly believe and emotionally invest. A story of courage in adversity, of emotional family bonds, and of learning to let go of the ones we love.

Simple, moving and thoroughly well realised.

 

 

 

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Three and a half Star Rating

Solo: A Star Wars Story is, all faults-aside, arguably the best Star Wars-related film since The Return of the Jedi.” – Wayward Wolf.

Even given Hollywood’s current tiresome obsession with playing the identity politics and female empowerment cards, (something that continues unabated in Solo: A Star Wars Story), this latest instalment of Disney’s increasingly bloated Star Wars franchise, has to go down as something of a hit.

Ron Howard takes the Director’s chair on this occasion, regaling to us the backstory of just how it was that Han Solo came to be such a loveable rogue, and iconic film character of the 1980’s.

First and foremost, a bold statement:

Solo: A Star Wars Story is, all faults-aside, arguably the best Star Wars-related film since The Return of the Jedi.

But before you strike me down with your light sabre and throw me into the Great Pit of Carkoon, I insist that you hear me out.

The loose ends were all tied up in 1983 with Return of the Jedi‘s feel-good conclusion, waving goodbye in the process to the concept of Star Wars as we knew it, and for what we presumed would be the final time. One of the great cinematic trilogies – unquestionably – was at an end.

Though taking something of a lengthy sabbatical, the whole notion of Star Wars, it turns out, was very much not at an end, and has since spawned any number of additional chapters. But I’d say it’s fairly inarguable that the franchise has continued to find itself in something of a rut, weighed down by the huge expectation of its own making that has been almost entirely impossible to fulfil.

Interminable musings regarding ‘the dark side’, ‘the force’ and the nigh on impossible quest to reach Jedi status, has become enormously tiresome and produced a whole raft of inferior sequels that lack both originality and any sort of impact; each almost duty bound to adopt both painfully predictable story lines and tried and trusted character sets, something that has, to a large extent, mired the Star Wars franchise in a sort of cosmic quicksand of its own making.

With the release of every new (yet painfully old) film, the franchise’s faithful, bordering on obsessed fan base is provided with its bi-yearly fix of Star Wars-related morphine to keep them ticking over until the next time, or until such point as they can finally admit to themselves that Star Wars ‘just ain’t what it used to be.’

No matter the director, the screenwriter or indeed any significant advancements in technology, nothing ever really seems to change. There’s been a real sense of Groundhog day when it comes to all things Star Wars.

Until now, that is…

Don’t get me wrong, Solo: A Star Wars Story does not exactly redefine the whole concept of Science Fiction. Far from it. And it too owes much to what has preceded it.

But there definitely is something that feels a little fresher, less predictable and laborious about Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. This is a film that puts aside the Star-Wars-by-numbers narrative guide, setting this film free – to some extent at least – from the shackles of Star Wars expectation.

Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and the big Wookie himself, Chewbacca, aside, Solo: A Star Wars Story resists the temptation to shoehorn in pointless cameo appearances of the established Star Wars characters of yore, though we are treated to the usual smattering of bizarre weird and wonderful life forms congregated, as ever, in seedy drinking and gambling dens.

Bar the understandable intrigue as to how Han Solo initially hooked up with his furry friend, Chewbacca, Solo: A Star Wars Story, thankfully has the feel of a film that’s not actually dependent upon the over-riding Star Wars narrative.

This is an effective, simple tale of smugglers, scheming rogues and villains, enhanced through some fun performances from the likes of Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Paul Bettany and in particular Alden Ehrenreich, whose lead performance is loaded with a convincing blend of both cheek and charm, something that Harrison Ford himself would no doubt be proud of.

Solo: A Star Wars Story may be but a small piece of the ever expanding intergalactic Star Wars jigsaw, but unlike so many pieces before it, this one more than ably stands alone.

A thoroughly entertaining high energy romp, and something for which Ron Howard should be roundly applauded.

 

 

 

 

SICARIO 2: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Three and a half Star Rating

“Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is that rarest of beasts, a sequel that stands ably on its own two feet” – Wayward Wolf.

A series of suicide bombings in various U.S cities is growing evidence that the Mexican drug cartels have expanded their operations beyond just Class A. Their focus is now fixed upon trafficking Islamic terrorists across the U.S / Mexican border. In a risky attempt to stem this flow, the U.S government launches a sequence of covert false flag activities on Mexican soil designed to both distract and induce cartel infighting. This particular game plan will culminate with the kidnapping of the daughter of the head of one of the cartels.

The margin for error, however, is perilously thin, and sure enough it’s not long before all best laid plans turn sour. With the task complete, the U.S Government, fearing the unthinkable possibility of culpability, quickly decides that it is left with no other choice than to backtrack and ‘clean up’ all traces of its involvement.

Be they Government operatives, civilians or cartel members, regardless of their allegiances, this will not be good news for any number of the pawns involved in this particular messy game.

Call me naive, but I was actually quite surprised to see that Sicario had spawned a sequel. As excellent as it undoubtedly was, it just didn’t seem like that kind of film.

Of course, the world of big budget mainstream movie-making won’t hesitate to hang its hat off anything if sufficient moolah is waved seductively in front of its fat green-eyed face. That’s a given, Business is business after all.

Certainly any fears that an inferior second instalment would serve only to tarnish the memory of Denis Villeneuve’s gripping original, are thankfully quickly allayed.

Based once again upon a Taylor Sheridan screenplay, Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is that rarest of beasts, a sequel that stands ably on its own two feet, confidently doing more than enough in just over two hours to be considered a worthy successor to a much respected original.

And you can pretty much count all such films on one hand.

The performances are nicely understated across the board. Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin revive their roles as Alejandro and Matt Graver, respectively. Isabella Moner puts in a nice turn as the sassy young abductee, Isabel Reyes, whilst Matthew Modine, in a rare big-screen appearance, portrays the U.S Secretary of Defence.

Perhaps it’s just me but try as I might to identify the man by way of something a little more current, I perpetually resign myself to that fact I will forever envisage Modine, perched on the end of a bed, Birdy-style.

Stefano Sollima’s matter-of-fact direction is visually striking, graphically brutal, and mercifully devoid of unnecessary clichés and sensationalism.

And a tip of the hat too, to the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose low growling glissando sonic motif – used to such stunning effect in Sicario and seemingly ubiquitous within any number of dark Hollywood thrillers since – lives on through the sequel’s composer of choice, Hildur Guðnadóttir, once again underpinning the action with its pervading tone of menace.

As for any credence behind the notion that ‘two is enough’ – this is well and truly put to bed by way of the film’s conclusion, which, whilst being a bit of a bolted-on clunky after thought, undoubtedly leaves the door open to the prospect of a part three of this gritty franchise in which no one ever seem to come up smelling of roses.

Sequel-phobic though I may well generally be, a third instalment – whilst clearly tempting fate – in this instance I’d be so bold to suggest, is actually probably no bad thing.

 

MY FRIEND DAHMER

Three and a half Star Rating

Meyers‘ engaging film is therefore bold in its ambition, choosing to focus the lens of inquiry not upon Dahmer’s eventual macabre practices, but on his formative high school years. Before the killing had even begun.” – Wayward Wolf.

If the events chronicled in My Friend Dahmer, are in any way an accurate representation of the late teen years of Jeffrey Dahmer, then it would surely have come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone that knew him, of the awful scenes that were soon to follow.

Of course, the life and times of Jeffrey Dahmer are the stuff of infamy now and Marc Meyersengaging film is therefore bold in its ambition, choosing to focus the lens of inquiry not upon Dahmer’s eventual macabre practices, but on his formative high school years. Before the killing had even begun.

The obvious question that this therefore raises is whether such an approach in any way offers sufficient enough material with which to keep engaged a cinema-going audience – beyond the morbidly curious, wannabe mass murderers and trainee clinical psychologists, that is.

And the answer, on balance, is a resounding…yes.

Meyers’ film is a sort of dark coming-of-age drama, with an implied gruesome twist.

Painted as an awkward and dysfunctional youth with something of a lumbering gait, the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer (portrayed convincingly here by Ross Lynch), is every bit the social misfit. Wishing to ‘belong’, but having little idea of how to do so, he is offered something of a lifeline in this regard when a handful of his classmates become first amused, then quickly obsessed by some of Dahmer’s impromptu clowning about.

Dahmer is only too happy to perform one particular ‘spazz’ routine – as it comes to be known – on command, much to the mirth of his new found set of ‘friends’, who proceed to egg him on enthusiastically to greater and greater lengths.

But with a private life spent either dissolving and dissecting roadkill or drinking heavily – even at school – it is clear that such social interaction with his peers is but a thin mask on the face of the truth. Jeffrey Dahmer is an incredibly troubled soul, and any new-found ‘popularity’ gained proves to be short lived. It is not long, therefore, before he resumes his role of general recluse and social leper.

Behind every twisted serial killer there is usually some form of dysfunctional background, and Dahmer’s – whilst perhaps less pronounced than other multiple murdering maniacs that we may choose to mention – is one which certainly will have played some sort of role in shaping the nature of the man that he was to become.

Anne Heche is quirky in her portrayal of Dahmer’s depressed, anxiety-riddled, pill-popping mother, Joyce, whilst Dallas Roberts portrays Dahmer’s father, Lionel, as a man often absent from the family home, who quietly despairs of both his eldest son, and his increasingly untenable marriage to Joyce, medicating himself with alcohol, accordingly.

Collectively the couple seem to have paid very little attention to Jeffrey, instead focusing the bulk of their love and devotion upon Dahmer’s younger brother, Dave (Liam Koeth), even to the extent of fighting fiercely for post-divorce custody of this younger sibling, yet effectively abandoning a by then eighteen-year-old Jeffrey altogether to live alone in the family home.

If he was feeling unloved prior to that, this therefore would surely have been the tipping point. As it pretty much proved to be.

All credit then to Marc Meyers on what proves to be a fascinating piece.

My Friend Dahmer – based upon John Backderf’s book of the same name – is an important and effectively realised insight into the mind and motives of a disturbed soon-to-be serial killer.

Maybe if Jeffrey had just had that ‘best friend’ that he is heard at one point tragically bemoaning the absence of in his life, it could all have ended up so differently for this real life Hannibal Lecter?

Yeah… Probably not.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Two Star Rating

“…the living embodiment of the idea that if you throw enough shit at a screen, some of it MAY just stick…” – Wayward Wolf.

Way back in 1993, Steven Spielberg directed – in his own inimitable way – a film which quickly entrenched itself in our hearts.

Taking advantage of great leaps in technology and making good use of his own brilliant sense of story and character, he tickled our collective fancy for all things scarily prehistoric by unleashing Jurassic Park upon the world.

It was not only tremendous, but also groundbreaking, much in the way that Star Wars, for example, had been when it positively blew people’s minds back in the late 1970’s.

Unsurprisingly, just like Star Wars, Jurassic Park has not only spawned sequels, but many years on, has experienced a complete re-boot of its franchise.

The alarm bells were ringing during 2015’s ultra-formulaic re-visit, Jurassic World, a film which I must confess to actually having quite enjoyed, and in fairness, despite its massively predictable plot and mountains of excessive corporate product placement, it’s a film which more or less pulled off that hardest of tricks: pleasing both newbies and die-hard fans alike.

And so to 2018 and J.A. Bayona’s follow-up: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the living embodiment of the idea that if you throw enough shit at a screen, some of it may just stick.

Indeed, vast numbers of rampaging dinosaurs are positively hurled in our direction, be they fleeing from an encroaching lava stream, escaping from an evil human captor, or relentlessly hunting down their human prey.

In amidst these waves of Triassic trouble, a convoluted yet contrived narrative is woven, haphazardly, in which a well-meaning bid to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from the threat of an erupting volcano in the now abandoned Jurassic World, turns out to have been nothing more than a ruse, with the captured animals then shipped off to be sold by nasty evil types to rich people with more money than sense.

Cue various attempts to thwart the wrong-doers, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid being eaten by assorted carnivores, whilst mulling over the morality of both cloning and the captivity of living things.

It’s loud, it’s screechy, it’s overbearing and seemingly never ending. Or at least that’s how it feels.

There are some not very subliminal messages about environmentalism churned out by the Hollywood democratic propaganda machine, and even the mandatory thinly-veiled dig at the ‘stupidity’ of the president and his denial of the existence of dinosaurs in the first place.

Change the record hey guys?

Perhaps most tellingly of all though is the fact that one brief poignant scene on the volcanic island-aside, I barely felt a moment’s empathy for anyone or anything for the film’s duration. Try as it might not to be, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a pretty soulless affair. And compare that once again if you will to Spielberg’s seminal original.

Chalk and cheese, and a damning indictment for sure.

On a positive note, the CGi is predictably excellent, and there are admittedly thrills and spills in patches, but given the subject matter, how could there not be? The cast too is both stellar and in good form, but given what they have to work with, there’s only so far the likes of Toby Jones, Jeff Goldblum, Rafe Spall et al can take Bayona’s messy, painfully predictable effects-fest.

From the Director of such excellent work as: The Orphanage, The Impossible and A Monster Calls, it’s all a bit perplexing. I really did expect better. Much better.

Tyrannosaurus Rex?

Tricera-plops, more like.

 

 

 

 

ENTEBBE

Two Star Rating

“…the word ‘unconvincing’ is probably the choice adjective to describe pretty much all of the constituent parts of Padilha‘s piece.” – WaywardWolf.

Considering its potentially inflammatory  subject matter, director José Padilha adopts a surprisingly balanced political approach to this 1970’s era thriller, Entebbe.

Based to some degree upon actual events, Entebbe depicts the story of the hijacking of Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris, by a handful of politically motivated freedom fighters.

Forcing the flight to land at a small airfield in Entebbe, Uganda, the hostages are then moved into the decrepit airport terminal where they are separated into two rooms. Jews and non-Jews. The proposed end game from here – should Israel then fail to release a number of captive terrorists, according to the hijackers’ demands – probably needs no further explanation.

Such tales of hijacking we have of course seen umpteen times before. Sadly, Entebbe, the film – aside from informing those of us that weren’t as yet clued up with regards to this particular hijack scenario – offers very little by way of originality, though it could be argued that Padilha does at least attempt to tap into the psychological quandaries faced by two of the German hijackers, Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) and Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl), who are both seen to be wrestling with the morality of their actions, fearful of being portrayed as some sort of neo-Nazis.

But it’s all rather unconvincing.

Indeed, the word ‘unconvincing’ is probably the choice adjective to describe pretty much all of the constituent parts of Padilha‘s piece. A film which, sadly, barely hits the mark on any sort of level. Dare I even make reference to Entebbe being something of a fatally grounded movie? One that fails to ever really take off. Hijacked by a poor script and under-cooked characters, as it is.

You get the picture.

Cheap gags, one and all.

Harsh but fair.

Even the film’s ‘climactic’ conclusion centring around counter-terrorism operation Thunderbolt, is clumsy and breathtakingly limp in its reenactment of events, barely raising the pulse level.

Entebbe is effectively floored by a fatal combination of unconvincing characters, a rather walked and talked through narrative, an almost complete absence of either menace or suspense, and hundreds of bewildered looking half-arsed extras being regularly shuffled around from pillar to post to little or no dramatic effect.

Even acknowledging the impact of an initially apparently inconsequential interpretive dance routine which is then used to reasonable effect in enhancing the film’s latter stages, such effective devices are few and far between, and offered nowhere near enough to leave this particular viewer feeling anything other than significantly underwhelmed.

On the plus side, hats off to the Israeli Commandos on somehow successfully turning an initial few ham-fisted brush strokes into an immaculate spray-painted body job,  converting a brown Mercedes car into a black one in the process.

Hmmm. Miraculous, yet… unconvincing.

There’s that word again.

 

 

THE LEISURE SEEKER

Three Star Rating

“…Leisure Seeker is in fact rather good fun, highlighting as it does the myriad ‘laugh or you’ll surely cry’ trials and tribulations brought about by the unrelenting onset of old age.” – Wayward Wolf.

Some bafflingly irrelevant, not-so-subliminal anti-Trump / pro-the wonders of diversity propaganda-aside, The Leisure Seeker is a rather entertaining – if slightly contrived – road movie – with a big heart.

Donald Sutherland portrays John Spencer, a retired English teacher with severe dementia, who, along with his beloved wife, Ella (Helen Mirren), decides to dust-off the old Winnebago Recreational Vehicle, which Ella affectionately refers to as The Leisure Seeker. Together, the couple head off on an impromptu road trip from their home in Massachusetts, right the way down to Ernest Hemingway’s house on Florida’s Key West, much to the despair of their concerned children, Will and Jane.

The trip is littered with incidents ranging from the lightly amusing to the highly improbable as the pair encounter all manner of shenanigans en route to the sunny south. All the while their grown up children fret over their whereabouts and well being, as one surely would considering the elderly couple’s respective precarious states of health.

If you can remain undistracted by the rather formulaic and at times forced narrative, Leisure Seeker is in fact rather good fun, highlighting as it does the myriad ‘laugh or you’ll surely cry’ trials and tribulations brought about by the unrelenting onset of old age. Powerless to halt this relentless march of time they may well be, but for John and Ella nothing ever seems quite so bad when contemplated over a shared bottle of Canadian Club whilst sat on the edge of a beautiful lake, miles from anywhere, at the end of a long day of driving.

Laughs-aside, The Leisure Seeker also offers an all too often painful insight into the debilitating havoc that the onset of dementia can inflict upon those affected by it, both directly and indirectly.

It is clear that John’s deteriorating memory is proving to be increasingly burdensome for Ella, not to mention cruel, both through the fluctuating nature of its manifestation, and with its propensity to lay bare some harsh and unwelcome truths of yesteryear.

All too fleetingly now John is still the effortlessly charming man that Ella married, only to revert in the blink of an eye to the confused incontinent stranger that she has more recently come to know, and for whom she must now care – morning, noon and night.

Undoubtedly it is the highly believable and impressive on-screen chemistry of the film’s leading pair that focuses the mind fully on the The Leisure Seeker‘s numerous plus points, and sufficiently away from its handful of prominent failings.

Though Paolo Virzì‘s film is ultimately a little wistful, it nevertheless casts an optimistic light, choosing to regard John and Ella’s story not as one of unremitting struggle, but of two lives well lived, and in spite of everything, done so without any lasting regrets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES

Three and a half Star Rating

“Day’s film primarily concerns itself… with a number of increasingly weary Faroese fishermen and sea bird hunters on whose shoulders the gathering issues and pressures of modern life are weighing heavier than ever” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s fair to say that the Faroe Islands (Føroyar to the locals), will probably always remain close to the hearts of the majority of folk that are ever lucky enough to visit them.

I’ve been enormously lucky to have paid a visit on two separate occasions, and whilst each of these trips produced enough thrills, spills, entertainment and incomparable beauty to fill ten separate holidays, I’ve always been aware that a visitor’s impression of Føroyar – as privileged as it may well be – is probably still a million miles from the reality of living, and more importantly making a living within these stunning islands.

Mike Day’s thought-provoking documentary The Islands and the Whales takes a very topical look at the Faroe Islands and its people.

As far back as anyone can remember, the Faroese people have relied upon the sea and the delicate food chain that it nurtures, for their survival. But studies which have been ongoing now since 1986 reveal increasing concentrations of mercury within this chain, with particularly high concentrations discovered in sea birds and more prominently in the pilot whales whose yearly migratory route, unfortunately for them, passes close by.

With the gravity of this revelation being keenly impressed upon the locals by health professionals, and with the inconvenient truth and implications of what this therefore means slowly dawning upon them all, the proud traditions of hunting and harvesting that are so deeply engrained within the Faorese, are now under serious threat.

This of course will be music to the ears of a whole multitude of pressure groups and environmental campaigners – most notably the activists of Sea Shepherd – whose whole-hearted loathing of the Faroese tradition of whale herding and hunting (grindadráp), is well known.

Day’s documentary not only illustrates the activists’ attempts to sabotage these hunts, but  also the levels of hypocrisy and ill-thought-out logic that they then seem to display when proposing that the Faroese people import their food instead; apparently blind to the environmental impact of such actions.

Interestingly, though I’d argue inaccurately, as the grindadráp has gained increasing notoriety, it has been rather unfairly maligned as being the Faroese equivalent of the ritual Japanese combined slaughter and capture of dolphins for the benefit of Sea World and the like, as exposed in Louie Psihoyos’s harrowing 2009 documentary, The Cove.  Such comparisons are dismissed by the Faroese who are keen to insist that the killing of pilot whales is a far quicker and more humane process than the ham-fisted butchering experienced by schools of dolphins off the coast of Japan.

There will of course always be exceptions to the rule, but having witnessed them both to some extent, even for a fairly devout vegetarian / occasional Pescetarian such as myself, I struggle to equate the two events beyond their mutual harvesting of Cetaceans.

Day’s film primarily concerns itself, however, with a number of increasingly weary Faroese fishermen and sea bird hunters on whose shoulders the gathering issues and pressures of modern life are weighing heavier than ever.

Indeed, Føroyar is feeling the pinch of encroaching Globalisation and many of the ills that it so often brings, more keenly than most these days. Some even go so far as to suggest that their country and way of life is coming under attack and they display an understandable bitterness about it, especially considering that the increasing prevalance of mercury in the food chain is down to large-scale industrial pollution and very much an issue not of their own making.

But this is a quietly spoken, fairly placid people, and it’s therefore often difficult to gauge the true levels of disenchantment that they feel with regard to such prickly subject matter.

The Islands and the Whales documentary is a very matter-of-fact piece which takes a fairly sympathetic, yet essentially politically-neutral stance on the plight of these fishermen and their families.

The characters are filmed going about their day-to-day activities, engaged in conversations pertaining to the increasing hardships that they now face in their lives. It’s particularly interesting to note that it’s not only the older generation that choose to bury their heads in the sand with regards to the very real health risks of consuming mercury-infected bird and whale meat, but this sense of denial seems to pervade the psyche of the younger generations too. It’s a proud and stubborn stance, but it not only places their own health at risk, but that of their young families too.

Inhabited by a people that are quietly, yet firmly nationalistic, and unafraid to show pride in their heritage – take note please, United Kingdom – there are few places on earth quite so arrestingly beautiful, and awe inspiring as Føroyar.

Traditionally such a self-sufficient nation, the impinging and intrusive effects of Globalisation increasingly prove to be very much to the detriment of the Faroese people. It threatens their very way of life and has the potential to irreparably change the nature of these wonderful islands, forever.

And take it from me, Ladies and Gentlemen, that would be unthinkable.

 

 

 

 

 

BEAST

Three Star Rating

Jessie Buckley is a tremendous piece of casting. All curly bobbed red hair, unworthiness and self-loathing, her sense of not belonging is palpable.” – Wayward Wolf.

There’s something a little peculiar about the Channel Island of Jersey. Unless you’ve visited there, its hard to properly convey its unique combination of oddity and charm, a curious blend that serves perfectly as the backdrop to Michael Pearce’s atmospheric thriller, Beast.

Moll lives with her parents in their large house within a small community on the island. Her questionable past and apparent lack of real direction in life is in stark contrast to her squeaky clean sister, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), who lives a picture-perfect lifestyle with her pilot husband, much to the delight of the girls’ rather judgemental mother. Whereas Polly has moved away from the shackles of the family home, Moll remains, under the protective – bordering on oppressive – watch of her mother who expects at the very least for Moll to toe the family line and help out with caring for her dementia-afflicted father.

Not entirely unreasonable requests you’d agree, though Moll’s erratic nature proves to be frequently at odds with her Mother’s simple demands.

A bizarre, fractious encounter on a night out, however, leads to the beginnings of a passionate fling between Moll and a mysterious local lad, Pascal. But Pascal harbours a criminal past, and with an as yet unidentified killer at large on the island, the eyes of the law are now firmly trained upon this somewhat shady Channel Islander; and through her association with him, Moll soon finds herself also under unwanted scrutiny.

Moll and Pascal are two kindred spirits, with dark pasts and inner demons. Together they share a passionate union based upon unconditional support and trust, which only serves to increasingly ostracise them from the island’s polite society.

Brutal re-imaginings of Moll’s own particular unsavoury past are illustrated by way of graphic dream-like sequences in which she becomes not the perpetrator, but the victim. A sort of guilt-ridden interpretation of her own enduring shame, perhaps?

Beast is a sort of tense and alluring coming-of-age affair. Whilst by strict definition it would probably be considered a murder mystery, it rarely ever feels like any sort of conventional whodunit, but more like a psychological probing and evaluation of confused minds.

Jessie Buckley is a tremendous piece of casting. All curly bobbed red hair, unworthiness and self-loathing, her sense of not belonging is palpable. Johnny Flynn’s rather visceral portrayal of the wiry scruff, Pascal, is simultaneously mysterious, devious and charming, whilst Geraldine James puts in a perfectly judged performance as Moll’s cold and controlling mother, Hilary.

In slight criticism, I’m left in two minds as to whether the increasingly visceral nature of Buckley’s performance as the piece develops – particularly in relation to her mind’s own descent into a very dark place – is artistically inspired or in fact rather overly self-indulgent. And the whole ‘re-invigorated, independent powerful woman in film’ routine, which seems to accompany just about every film narrative at present, is perhaps losing its impact now through over-saturation.

Two small points to consider, but no matter, Michael Pearce’s Beast is undeniably a most impressive debut feature, whetting the appetite, we hope, for more to come.

A QUIET PLACE

Two and a half Star Rating

The case of the mysterious disappearing review.

Apologies. I’ve searched high and low for it, but my review of John Krasinski’s promising yet ultimately rather overrated horror / thriller has strangely vanished into thin air.

Maybe if time allows I’ll pen some words at a later stage.

Don’t hold your breath…

 

CUSTODY (Jusqu’à la garde)

Three and a half Star Rating

“…an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.” – Wayward Wolf.

Custody is, for want of a better term, bleak. Unrelentingly so for that matter.

Right from the off we are dropped into an arduous legal meeting between the two parents, their lawyers and an overseeing judge, in which each side outlines their personal wishes with regard to the guardianship of their youngest son, Julien. It’s a tedious, drawn-out affair which more than anything feels like a pre-determined i-dotting/ T-crossing exercise for all concerned.

Such extended, scarcely edited scenes are a dominant feature of Xavier Legrand‘s direction. He also elects to dispense with the need for any kind of incidental music score, bar one or two key scenes; a tactic which by and large is very effective.

Legrand’s approach hints at this film being something of a slow burner, which it very much is. Indeed, though there is an underlying sense of unease that lingers throughout, it really is only once we reach the final act that all of the tension that’s built up finally boils over giving way to an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.

Whilst one could perhaps spot similarities between Legrand’s film and, most notably, Robert Benton’s 1979 classic Kramer vs Kramer – but also with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s unbearably bleak Loveless, and Joachim Lafosse’s After Love Custody approaches this harrowing subject matter from a slightly different angle.

It’s clear from the start that this is not just a troubled marriage but one that is irredeemably broken to the point of virtual loathing. Though, as so often can be the case, such a sentiment is not necessarily equally shared on both sides.

It is very clear however that both Miriam (Léa Drucker) and her two children, Julien (Thomas Gioria), and Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), are all sick of the site of their husband and father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet). Each wishes dearly for him to play no further part in their lives citing as yet unsubstantiated accusations of Antoine’s physical violence against them as their primary motivating factor behind this decision. 

Despite clearly being persona non grata, Antoine has not however given up the fantasy of reuniting the family unit once again. But with no-one else buying into his vision and with his delusions being repeatedly crushed at every turn, this proud man is slowly but surely pushed to the very brink.

Custody is a film that never offers so much as the smallest island of respite from the pervading black cloud that hovers over the film’s protagonists. Even Josephine’s birthday celebration, despite the flowing alcohol and apparently jovial guests, has a suspenseful feel to it. It’s as though Miriam and her family unit is somehow on borrowed time, anticipating with dread the unwelcome yet almost inevitable spectre of Antoine to make a sudden appearance.

Legrand’s casting is strong with performances that are powerful yet nicely understated throughout. And there is a truly exceptional performance from young Thomas Giora, who displays huge emotional depth in his portrayal of Julien; one that defies his tender years.

Custody takes us to a dark, anxiety-inducing and at times troubling place. To some degree at least, it’s a film that can be deemed to be pretty hard work. Bear with it though, and the rewards for patience and an inquisitive mind are both ample and thoroughly worthwhile.

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY

Four Star Rating

“…it’s Katherine Parkinson’s comical yet wonderfully vulnerable and bitter-sweet portrayal of the gin-distilling lonely heart, Isola Pribby, that is possibly the film’s most surprising delight.” – Wayward Wolf.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society (and you can forget about it if you think I’m reeling that off repeatedly over the next few paragraphs! Let’s call it T-GLAPPPS from hereon in), is a film whose historic setting is the aftermath of the German occupation of the channel island of Guernsey – an island, like neighbouring Jersey, that suffered badly at the hands of the German army during the Second World War.

Incidentally, as a slight aside – the Military Museum – housed in an old German bunker on the island of Jersey – is a really excellent must-see not only for World Ward II aficionados, but for those that would benefit from gaining a more in-depth background to these troubled years of war time occupation.

But I digress…

The bizarrely named Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society was formed as something of an off-the-cuff cover story out of necessity during a routine German stop-and-search of a group of local friends who had been caught out at night after curfew. They’d been making their way home following a gathering at a friend’s house in which they’d all feasted hungrily upon roasted pork, a food source that was now strictly forbidden under the German rule.

Having come up with and duly registered their peculiarly-named society in order to fool their captors, they now had no choice but to continue with the charade, and thus, once a week, initially under the short-lived supervision of a bored German, the group would assemble to read and discuss literature with one another.

A few years on, and with Guernsey once again liberated, a letter sent by one of the society’s members, Dawsey (Michiel Huisman), to a London-based journalist and author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), leads to a rather intimate pen-friendship developing between the two. Juliet’s interest in this remarkable society is suitably piqued and soon enough she finds herself aboard a boat en route to Guernsey, temporarily abandoning her fiancee in the process, but determined to finally write an article of true substance and worth.

But as Juliet will soon discover, this society, though amusingly-titled and formed through an act of rebellious deception, in fact hides tragic and painful secrets for its members.

Whilst using the German occupation as an historical setting and a frequent reference point, Director Mike Newell’s film is in fact much less a gritty depiction of the horrors of war, and far more a conventional love story. The age old tale of the girl who apparently had it all, yet deep down realised that what she had did not provide her with sufficient emotional fulfilment.

With this point understood and acknowledged, Newell’s film can be considered as something of a charming triumph. Certainly it’s a career best performance from Lily James, whose nuanced depiction of the enthusiastic and head-strong Juliet, is full of warmth and sparkle.

There are predictably solid performances from the likes of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Milton, but it’s Katherine Parkinson’s comical yet wonderfully vulnerable and bitter-sweet portrayal of the gin-distilling lonely heart, Isola Pribby, that is possibly the film’s most surprising delight.

Indeed, the casting is well judged throughout with an array of well-formed characters in whom one can truly emotionally invest. This is perhaps not surprising considering that T-GLAPPPS benefits from the directorial involvement of the man behind everybody’s? perennial favourite, Four Weddings and a Funeral – a film whose feel and sense of formula is fairly evident here.

It’s true that there are one or two inconsistencies here and there and elements of the narrative at times feel a little ‘token’ in nature and might have benefited from some further exploration. But these are more suggestions than faults. What is undeniable here is that this is British film making done well and crucially, done with considerable commercial appeal, and not at the expense of its artistic integrity.

T-GLAPPPS is a film that’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in. A film that knows exactly what it’s doing as it sucks you in with its considerable well engineered charm. But above all, T-GLAPPPS is a film that’s almost impossible not to like.

FUNNY COW

Four Star Rating

Truth be told, this is probably not one for the easily offended or keen advocates of a more modern Sofie Hagen-esque safe-space type of comedy.” – Wayward Wolf.

“It’s always been too much for me… life… and not enough. All at the same time…”

Funny Cow is the tale of fictional female comic, Funny Cow (FC). It’s a piece whose narrative is loosely anchored around occasional footage of FC delivering some sort of ‘For TV’ career retrospective monologue in which she reflects upon her life and times to date. Going by this particular TV performance’s high production values, it would seem that this is at a point in her life when she’s clearly ‘made it’. Whatever that may really mean.

There’s a pervading air of melancholy about it all, something that is very much prevalent in this Adrian Shergold film which traces FC’s life from its poverty-stricken beginnings, through the frustrations of an abusive marriage, to her eventual breakthrough success (and beyond) as a female comedian.

The child of an alcoholic mother and abusive father, comedy had always been the perfect outlet for FC, but it’s only ultimately through a combination of perseverance and a bitter-sweet twist of fate that she finally gets a chance to prove her worth.

Though the backstory of Shergold’s film is to some extent one of developing the courage to shoot for the stars, Funny Cow is just as concerned with the concept of female empowerment, and examining life’s myriad struggles and the ties that so often bind us, whether we would choose them to or not.

“Confucius say: He who drop watch down toilet have shitty time…”

The 1970’s northern working class setting and brash sense of old fashioned humour lends Funny Cow something of a gritty backdrop, and whether it be racial stereotypes or ‘in-bad-taste’ one-liners, considering that we live today in such a timid and easily-offended nanny state, it’s actually rather surprising –  and refreshing – that so much of a nationally-released film’s shall we say, ‘questionable’ language and terminology has not been airbrushed from history. Undoubtedly this lends the piece a real sense of authenticity which could so easily have been stripped away, much to the film’s detriment.

That said, though the more controversial content is at most fleeting, truth be told, this is probably not one for the easily offended or keen advocates of a more modern Sofie Hagen-esque safe-space type of comedy. But that probably goes without saying.

Paddy Considine’s awkwardly circumspect portrayal of Angus, the arts-loving, book shop owner and FC’s woefully mismatched other half for a period of time, is reassuringly solid and understated. Lindsey Coulson’s performance as FC’s mother in later life, though not an extended role, is nonetheless arresting for its depth, range and conviction, whilst Alun Armstrong’s turn as the tragic, long-in-the-tooth jobbing morose comic, Lenny, is a highly impressive if excruciatingly mournful performance.

And then of course there’s Maxine Peake whose performance as FC wonderfully encapsulates the actions and emotions of a woman who is first to acknowledge that she has never really fitted in, and whose struggles and persistence – not to mention a thicker than average skin – have eventually paid off professionally-speaking.

Although there is evidently a part of her that remains unfulfilled and more than a little world-weary, the over-riding impression here is that FC is one life’s great survivors, who, having been through so much in her life is consequently an emboldened woman, steadfastly refusing to ever even entertain the notion of being considered a victim.

Aided by Richard Hawley’s sympathetic soundtrack, Adrian Shergold expertly straddles the line between good and bad taste, between tragedy and triumph, and between tears and substantial laughter, to produce not only a film that is genuinely funny, but one which is thoughtful and emotionally engaging too.

ISLE OF DOGS

Three and a half Star Rating

“…Anderson unsurprisingly adopts Hollywood’s de rigueur left-wing narrative, examining many of the issues that have become so highly relevant to the times in which we live…”  – Wayward Wolf.

Given that I live locally to it, viewing Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs on London’s own Isle of Dogs, E14, seemed like something of a ‘must do’. Unsurprisingly London’s purpose-built financial district overspill has notably fewer stray mutts running about, and its city-scape, whilst to some extent being overwhelmingly vulgar in its 1980’s faux-grandiose misadvised styling, is admittedly a lot more pleasing on the eye than the island wasteland setting of Anderson’s new stop-motion animated feature film.

An aesthetically-pleasing backdrop Anderson’s film may well lack in places, but there is something of an inherent beauty about this pain-stakingly detailed animation. Indeed, visually there is a huge amount to admire here.

Built upon a back story that tells of much historic conflict between cat and dog lovers, the city of Nagasaki is, according to its pro-cat leader, Mayor Ayasabi, now completely over-run with diseased dogs to such an extent that there is no other solution than to annex them all to a neighbouring waste island.

With this in mind the Mayor embarks upon a major mutt-move, and with it, what he hopes will be the complete eradication of the lingering threat of mutated human strains of both Dog Flu and Snout Fever.

As something of a symbolic gesture, Ayasabi decrees that the first dog to be re-located will be Spots, a handsome confident canine who just so happens to be the appointed guard dog of the Mayor’s own adopted son, Atari.

This, needless to say, does not go down too well with Atari who proceeds to somehow bravely fly a small one-seater plane across from the mainland to the waste island in a bid to rescue his beloved mutt.

Here he encounters one of the ragtag packs of hounds with whom he develops a strong and trusting bond, and together they set about attempting to locate Atari’s faithful best friend.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the pro-dog movement is painfully close to formulating an effective serum to combat these perilous doggy diseases, with a view to re-introducing the annexed dogs back into society. Yet it seems that the Mayor and his allies, with sinister motivations, will stop at nothing to shut them down.

But the Mayor hadn’t banked upon a small and very vocal minority of young Social Justice Warriors relentlessly pursuing him, determined to expose his crooked ways by lifting the blindfolds from the eyes of the hoodwinked masses and snapping them out of their docile subservience.

No matter which way you dress it up, Isle of Dogs, is a heavily political piece providing many layers of additional depth to this, literally, shaggy dog story.

And given that this is mainstream cinema, Anderson unsurprisingly adopts Hollywood’s de rigueur left-wing narrative, examining many of the issues that have become so highly relevant to the times in which we live.

Racial integration, environmental concerns, the prevalence of corruption within regimes, the blinkered dumbed-down nature of society, the growing political power and influence of the youth – particularly through technology, the championing of both the disadvantaged and minority groups, and through the film’s tightly-bound assortment of canine and human compadres, there is also a considerable tip of the hat towards the power of the collective, as they stand strong together against waves of unjust tyranny.

It’s all here.

There can perhaps be loose comparisons made – in tone at least – with Martin Rosen’s wonderful, oft-overlooked animated adaptation of the Richard Adams novel, Plague DogsVisually and stylistically-speaking, however, there are more obvious parallels to be made with Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman‘s more recent offering, Anomalisa

Anderson’s film, enhanced substantially by Alexandre Desplat’s strategically sympathetic score, positively oozes charm. And it’s thanks in no small part to an extremely fine set of vocal castings, with the likes of Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum – to name but a few – all breathing substantial life and vigour into this impressive animation. I really do lose count of the number of animated feature films that, for me at least, seem to fall so flat in this department.

A little morally and politically preachy Isle of Dogs may well be at times, but in fairness to the director, he never really labours the point, nor does he disappear in a cloud of self-generated ideological pretension.

Instead Anderson allows the film’s biggest assets – its considerable heart, comical interludes and jaw-dropping delicate beauty – to really shine through and be the star of the show.

An animated gem.

FILM: REVIEWS & COMMENT