WIND RIVER

“Jeremy Renner’s performance is one of his finest to date, portraying a man of few words, and of great experience and wisdom.”

Wayward Wolf.

In the grip of a cold snap, the Indian reservation of Wind River is the backdrop to this Taylor Sheridan murder mystery.

The body of a girl has been found. She lies bare-footed and bloodied in the snow. All signs point to her having been beaten and raped, though it seems the unforgiving sub-zero temperatures of a winter night are what ultimately claimed her life.

But why has this happened, and who are the perpetrators?

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), is an experienced tracker, who, knowing the terrain and considerable perils of the unforgiving Wyoming winter, is drafted in to aid young FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), with her murder enquiries.

Taylor Sheridan’s subtle icey thriller not only pieces together the parts of a murder case, but in doing so, offers a snapshot of the harsh socio-economic conditions afflicting a small under privileged community of native American folk, for whom drug addiction is rife, and an ingrained reluctance to cooperate with the white man is commonplace. No wonder, given the uneasy history between the two cultures.

Jeremy Renner’s performance is one of his finest to date, portraying a man of few words, and of great experience and wisdom. He is also a man nursing considerable personal pain from his past, for whom this case can prove to be something of a cathartic process. Crucially, he is a well respected figure amongst the Native American community. Elizabeth Olsen is perhaps initially a little underwhelming, yet steadily grows into the part to produce a performance that in fact perfectly captures a combination of raw enthusiasm, naivety and understandable trepidation, given her Las Vegas background, and the alien nature of both the environment in which she now finds herself, and the culture of the people for whom she must try to solve this case.

Sheridan’s tale is a beautifully paced affair, expertly revealing itself little by little. Such an approach should not come as any surprise for those familiar with the style and excellence of his two most recent acclaimed screenplays, Sicario and Hell or High Water.

The wind-swept, wintry backdrop sets the perfect mood here for a film that effortlessly marries moments of high tension with brooding melancholy and somber reflection in this highly affecting, and almost certainly enduring tale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE SNOWMAN

“The Snowman struggles under the weight of its own considerable budget and expectations, offering little or nothing of the mood and atmosphere that’s so synonymous with Scandinavian film and television.”

Wayward Wolf.

We all love a good Nordic crime thriller, don’t we? There’s just something captivating about those mysterious grey, snow-covered wintry settings, and the rather serious and at times aloof nature of the Nordic people. It just draws us in…

Unfortunately just basing a film upon a Norwegian novel and having it set in its correct location, is nowhere near enough to qualify it as being anything like a good Nordic crime thriller.

The Snowman, a case in point, is the handiwork of director, Tomas Alfredson, the man tasked with directing 2008’s excellent Låt den rätte komma in (Let the right one in). Such fine past credentials should surely have hinted at much better than this rather beige offering.

We could talk about under-cooked characterisation, or a general paucity of suspense created, but perhaps the film’s chief flaw is its mad combination of accents. A mixture of soft Norwegian, identity-neutral, soft American, and even cockney English, all seem hopelessly out of place given the film’s wintry Oslo setting, particularly when you consider that theoretically pretty much every one of the cast is supposed to be a Norwegian, living a Norwegian life.

It’s all just confusing, and detracts heavily from a story that whilst functional enough, is not particularly earth-shatteringly original in its concept, anyway.

Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), is the flawed detective who takes it upon himself to investigate a series of disappearances, aided by an accomplice, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), who is young and hungry for success and very much in awe of Hole’s reputation.

Passing cameos from Chloë Sevigny and Toby Jones, together with more significant parts from Charlotte Gainsbourg, J.K. Simmons – and not forgetting a particularly curious turn from Val Kilmer, playing a perma-pissed police detective who’s all ‘Dave Nice’ teeth and bad hair, certainly help to raise the film’s profile on paper, but again, they’re all rather out of place given the fundamentals of the setting and the story.

The Snowman struggles greatly under the weight of its own considerable budget and expectations, offering little or nothing of the mood and atmosphere that’s so synonymous with Scandinavian film and television.

Not entirely without its positives – it is at least visually beautiful – Alfredson’s film, on balance, is nothing more than a formulaic and fairly forgettable yarn. Were the story adapted for a U.S setting, or better still re-cast for native Norwegian speakers, perhaps The Snowman could have been an altogether different beast, but as it stands, it has to be chalked up as a significant missed opportunity.

 

 

FINAL PORTRAIT

“Giacometti – played with superb levels of gruff indifference, by Geoffrey Rush – is portrayed as an incommunicative, self-absorbed, chain-smoking enigma…”

Wayward Wolf.

There is a belief within the world of popular music that you never actually complete a record’s final mix, you simply abandon it.

I have to concur, whole-heartedly.

And if Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait is anything to go by, then there’s a strong argument that such a line of thinking also runs true through the world of fine art.

Not that that would necessarily come as a shock to anyone given that both disciplines are blessed and indeed cursed by the same common denominator – artistic temperament.

That inner-belief that it is in fact impossible to complete any ‘art’ to perfection – or even simply to a level that can sufficiently appease an artiste – very much forms the crux of Final Portrait, a film that observes, patiently, the perpetually chaotic and rudderless daily artistic struggles of the Swiss painter and sculptor, Alberto Giacometti.

Giacometti – played with superb levels of gruff indifference, by Geoffrey Rush – is portrayed as an incommunicative, self-absorbed, chain-smoking enigma, whose life seems anchored by just two ‘constants’: A need to create, and frequent rendezvous with a high-class prostitute for whose services he is happy to pay, handsomely, and from whom he seems to derive the necessary verve and vigour with which to tackle each and every day.

Tucci’s film focuses on one particular episode in Giacometti’s later years when he offers to paint a portrait of his friend, the American writer and art aficionado, James Lord (Armie Hammer). As the film’s title suggests, this will be Alberto’s final portrait.

Though a busy man, Lord is able to shuffle his schedule accordingly to afford Giacometti a few days in which to paint his portrait, something that Lord is both tremendously excited about and honoured to be a part of.

Excitement is one thing, but perhaps Ghandi-esque levels of patience may have been a better quality for Lord to have brought to the table when it quickly becomes apparent to him that Giacometti is caught in a sort of never-ending cyclical rut. Approaching the mythical point of portrait completion, he repeatedly chooses, in some sort of cathartic process, to deliberately sabotage his work and begin the entire process all over again. There would seem to be no end in sight.

As frustrating as this may be, it does enable the pair to build up a close, if rather off-beat friendship, introducing James Lord to the bizarre world of Alberto Giacometti, and to the poor unfortunates that must grin and bear his selfish, self-doubting nature and chaotic personality traits.

That said, no-one could say that time spent in the great man’s company was ever necessarily dull. On one notable occasion, Tucci illustrates Giacometti’s playfully devious darker side when conversation turns to, of all things, preferred methods of suicide. Giacometti understandably shocks Lord with his own particular preference – being burned alive. There really is no response to that.

Final Portrait is all about characters, and Geoffrey Rush – bearing an uncanny resemblance to the late artist himself – is wonderful as Giacometti, portraying the man as a rather bedraggled character shuffling about awkwardly through his daily disorganised existence.

Armie Hammer’s portrayal of Lord is both suave and charming, whilst Sylvie Testud plays the endlessly patient, long-suffering, Annette, whose life – against her better judgement – revolves around an ungrateful man who’d rather spend time with hookers than offer even the slightest sign of commitment to her.

It’s a fairly tragic spectacle, unlike Stanley Tucci’s film, which is a warm and playful character study – as highly intriguing as it is quietly endearing.

 

 

 

 

 

BORG vs MCENROE

 

“…don’t let Metz’s propensity for the obvious and the unashamedly Hollywood deter you. Borg vs McEnroe is most certainly a terrifically entertaining film.”

Wayward Wolf.

One of the many great things about the innocence of youth is that you create your own narrative to play alongside landmark events, even if it flies somewhat in the face of popular opinion or indeed what actually happened; a prime example of which being the Borg vs McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980.

I was aware that my dad was vehemently siding with the ice-cool Swede and that “McEnroe” was to him and many others, essentially a dirty word.

I suppose that John McEnroe and his propensity for ‘ripe’ language and poor sportsmanship wouldn’t have placed him particularly high in any well-meaning parent’s list of ideal role models for their kids.

In my mind, though, I somehow managed to position Mr McEnroe as the poor, misunderstood, put-upon underdog, up against the machine-like oppressor, Björn Borg. Even then, I was distrustful of ‘the man’ and of popular opinion, and never having been adverse to adopting a contrary stance, watching Janus Metz’ thoroughly entertaining (if rather titularly-uninspired) Borg vs McEnroe, it really brought into sharp focus just how contrary and potentially inaccurate in fact my particular take on events had been.

Borg was a hugely successful and universally loved tennis player whose cool exterior, it would seem, belied his true personality. Borg, unbeknownst to most, was in fact prone to histrionics, explosive outbursts and tantrums, ironically the same character traits that had earned John McEnroe (initially at least) the moniker of world’s most universally reviled sports personality – or words to that effect.

Of course, to the world of professional tennis, Borg was unrecognisable from this former volatile incarnation of himself. His coach and mentor, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), had seen to that, ensuring that Björn would internalise all of this rage and release it only through his tennis. This Borg did of course, to devastating effect, resulting in four straight Wimbledon titles, and the opportunity to notch up an unprecedented fifth against the fast-rising American star, John McEnroe.

Janus Metz’s film not only tracks the build up to this epic encounter, detailing the two players’ massively different approaches to big match preparation, but delves back in time by way of a number of flashback scenes, demonstrating how the players had made their way in the game and came to be two of sport’s most prominent characters of the 1980’s.

Sverrir Gudnason does a good job in demonstrating the cool, calm and collected nature of Borg, a perception that was only true, it seems, on a rather superficial level, masking well a man increasingly uncomfortable and at odds with his fame.

Shia LaBeouf, on the other hand – all punk rock, head bands and resplendent in a Ramones T-shirt – is superb as the hyper-active, twitchy, McEnroe; the Alex Higgins of the tennis world, if you will. His portrayal is that of a man on the defensive. Quick-to-anger, this coiled spring of a character, much like Borg, used his explosive tendencies for the benefit of his (if no-one else’s) tennis performances. Unlike Borg, however, McEnroe was obviously not one for internalising anything!

Metz’s film is not without its faults. One of a few particularly clunky moments occurs during the film’s re-enactment of the classic final. A cigar-smoking Swedish commentator up in the Centre Court’s gantry, enthuses about one of the sets going into a tie-break, and then proceeds to spell out to the watching / listening millions, kindergarten-style, exactly what a tie-break is, and how its point scoring system works. Whilst it’s of course important to acknowledge that not every one of your target audience is all-knowledgable with regards to the rules of the game, it’s this kind of pandering to an audience’s lowest common denominator that does tend to cheapen any claim that Borg Vs McEnroe may have to be anything other than a superficial glossy, token overview of the game of tennis.

Perhaps that was in fact the director’s intentions?

Either way, don’t let Metz’s propensity for the obvious and the unashamedly Hollywood deter you. Borg vs McEnroe is most certainly a terrifically entertaining film.

Living in an age as we do now in which sport is increasingly about the big business angle – and being happy to acknowledge that the 1980’s was far from a time of purity and innocence – Borg vs McEnroe nevertheless whisks its audience along on a refreshingly rose-tinted trip down memory lane, to a time when not just tennis, but sport in general, was inundated with engaging characters, and the notion of sport for sport’s sake was very much alive and well.

THE LEVELLING

“Ellie Kendrick’s performance is terrific – mature beyond her years – and absolutely pivotal to the film’s success.”

Wayward Wolf.

Following the suspected suicide of her younger brother Harry (Joe Blakemore), Clover (Ellie Kendrick), returns home to help with the funeral arrangements.

On her arrival, Clover’s father (played by David Troughton), or Aubrey as she chooses to refer to him, appears somewhat distracted, not to mention a little evasive with his daughter, brushing aside her understandable inquisitiveness as to her brother’s death, offering only a vague and wholly inadequate line in answering.

Aubrey is a dairy farmer, but with both his farmland and farmhouse all but ruined by the effects of the recent heavy rains and subsequent flooding – something which his insurers are refusing to compensate him for – it is clear that both his livelihood and general mental wellbeing now hang in the balance.

The failed insurance claim has caused Aubrey to drink heavily, and necessitates that he must live for now in a temporary porta-cabin until such time as he can afford to repair the flood-damaged farmhouse. Add to this, the family business, for a number of reasons, appears to be at the point of collapse.

There is a rather dysfunctional dynamic between Clover and Aubrey, much as there had apparently been between Aubrey and his now deceased son and heir to the farm. These rather strained relationships, the slow unravelling of the truth, and Clover’s growing awareness that only through personal sacrifice and the airing of grievances, can the wounds heal and the lingering resentment subside, are all meticulously explored in this unashamedly heavy-going drama.

A bleak and uneasy air of melancholy pervades throughout Hope Dixon Leach’s excellently-observed slow-burning character-driven piece.

Ellie Kendrick’s performance is terrific – mature beyond her years – and absolutely pivotal to the film’s success. Her on-going efforts to ensure that at least somebody remains strong and accountable in her family’s time of need, in spite of both her father’s unjust sniping and bitterness, and the general gathering gloom of the situation, are both noble and selfless.

Rich with symbolism and metaphors, The Levelling is a particularly impressive and rewarding piece to the patient viewer, and testimony to the old adage that blood is indeed thicker than water.

DETROIT

“…whilst I’m sure a fair amount of cinematic licence has been taken in parts to fill the occasional ‘blanks’ accordingly, as an historic account of the events that unfolded, it seems relatively faithful.”

Wayward Wolf. 

Back in 1993 I found myself wandering the streets near a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. The area was absolutely swarming with the media as it was the day of the announcement of a verdict pertaining to the infamous Rodney King trial. I was told by police in attendance that I should make myself scarce as the ‘wrong’ verdict could result in things getting nasty, as had been witnessed just one year earlier in the infamous L.A riots.

The verdict was delivered, deemed acceptable, and mercifully peace reigned.

For some time, the African American community of Los Angeles had felt aggrieved at its unfair treatment at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, but the sheer injustice of the original Rodney King trial verdict had finally tipped them over the edge, resulting in riots that lasted for six days, and caused many a death and much destruction to the city.

It was proof positive, and just one of  a number of more recent examples of the fact that some things just never change.

Some twenty-six years prior to that, a similar police-influenced grievance had caused already heightened racial tensions to finally explode in Detroit City, resulting in huge amounts of rioting. Within the confusion of such carnage, three African American men were murdered in the Algiers motel, and it is this tale and all of its troubling implications that forms the basis of Kathryn Bigelow’s ambitious, hard-hitting drama, Detroit.

The distrust between Detroit’s African American community and the almost entirely white Detroit PD is proven to be fully justified when, in attempting to shake up and force confessions from a number of black folk, as to the whereabouts of a firearm in a motel, three of its guests are shot dead.

This is an entirely avoidable scenario, and whilst essentially unintentional, its outcome has the police perpetrators frantically back-pedalling, re-writing events, desparately trying to cover their tracks. The truth, however, will not necessarily always out; for this is 1960’s America, and there is a certain dismal inevitability regarding the subsequent court case and verdict.

Bigelow’s Detroit provides substantial detailed background to the case in point, and brings together a number of personal accounts of the events of that night, whilst additionally expertly weaving original archive news footage into the piece, lending it historical significance, weight and credibility in the process.

Detroit is a film that draws decent performances across the board. John Boyega puts in a solid turn as security guard and witness to the crime, Misdukes. Will Poulter is an unusual, yet on balance, successful piece of casting as the baby-faced corrupt police officer Krauss, whilst Algee Smith convinces as fame-hungry soul singer and future star-in-the-making, Larry, whose insatiable appetite for the ladies has unfortunately positioned both he and his good friend in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

It’s all very well pieced together and whilst I’m sure a fair amount of cinematic licence has been taken in parts to fill the occasional ‘blanks’ accordingly, as an historic account of the events that unfolded, it seems relatively faithful.

I’m not sure whether its because Detroit covers such familiar ground, or whether our regular exposure to such grimly inevitable content tends to desensitise us to it, but Bigelow’s piece, whilst certainly lacking no sincerity in its account of the events that unfolded, seems to somehow lack a little impact.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, anticipating Detroit to be something more of a landmark piece, but the truth is that it is a very watchable and very well put together reminder of the age-old issues of racial injustice in the United States of America, and that in itself is of course no bad thing. It just seems to lack that certain something to elevate it above and beyond your commonplace crime and courtroom drama.

IT

“…our heroic nerd node, armed with nothing but bicycles and their sharp and consistently witty dialogue, embark upon filling their summer holidays with the most X-rated of Enid Blyton-esque adventures.”

Wayward Wolf.

As an unusually dark coming-of-age story, by and large, there’s a lot to like about IT. As an iconic horror movie for a new generation, on the other hand, I’m not so sure it really delivers.

Ultimately though, IT is, to all intents and purposes, a horror movie, and will surely therefore be judged primarily upon its ‘fright factor’. Whilst it contains a handful of genuinely creepy and slightly unsettling moments, they perhaps don’t have quite the impact required over the duration of a piece that really could have benefitted from being substantially shorter.

Part horror, part teen coming-of-age tale, IT, follows the exploits of a band of 1980’s nerdy misfits bound together largely by their collective ability to be relentlessly bullied by a gang whose leader is so beside himself with rage, I can only put this down to an air of disgruntlement regarding his bad 80’s mullet. Not only this, but each of the kids has also experienced their own rather unsavoury encounter with a demonic entity masquerading as a clown, named Pennywise, whose presence, when only fleeting and unexplored, is particularly well realised here. This most satanic of circus freaks is hell-bent on bumping off (whilst feeding off the fear of) many an unfortunate youngster in the small sleepy town of Derry.

Indeed, Derry has a worrying trend for disappearing children that stretches way back through the generations.

But who’d have thought it?

Belch Huggins (Jake Sim), that’s who’d have thought it.

The portly little loner has spent many a friendless hour in the local library researching this very thing, and his detective work has paid off handsomely, unearthing all manner of historical ghoulish goings on.

With their resolve strengthened, and united through their common goal, Derry’s answer to the Red Hand Gang will attempt once and for all to put paid to Pennywise’s clowning about, and seek to send him packing to the big top in the sky.

Or something.

If the fundamental staples and building blocks of what have constituted successful horror movies through the ages, are metal – (bear with me here) – then the film IT is one mother of a strong, indiscriminate horror magnet.

From old abandoned ‘Psycho-esque’ houses, sudden loud noises and high-pitched scraping glissando strings, to children singing sweet nursery rhymes to discordant accompaniments, Andy Muschietti has begged, borrowed and stolen from just about every conceivable classic horror source possible, as he absolutely hurls even the (presumably blood-splattered) kitchen sink at this movie.

And it sort of works – to a point.

It helps that surrounding, supporting and at times swamping the scary bits is a thoroughly charming little tale of teenage friendship and camaraderie in the face of the double onslaught of be-mulleted bullies and psychotic circus acts.

Indeed, very much the beating heart of this piece is the entertaining interplay between the film’s excellent and thoroughly engaging young cast whose depiction of young 1980’s teenagers is refreshingly spot on and cause for much unashamedly rose-tinted reminiscing.

With obvious tips of the hat to the classic teen flicks of yesteryear – Stand By Me and The Goonies spring to mind, amongst others – not to mention a very Spielberg-ian approach to the direction, our heroic nerd node, armed with nothing but bicycles and their sharp and consistently witty dialogue, embark upon filling their summer holidays with the most X-rated of Enid Blyton-esque adventures.

But herein lies a major problem. Once it becomes apparent that our gang of crusading crime-fighters is not in fact merely comprised of readily-dispensable units, ripe for the  slaughter at the massive feet of Pennywise, and is more a cohesive band of brothers (and sisters) on whose collective survival the film’s narrative rather depends, then all sense of foreboding and fear for their safety that has been carefully harnessed up until this point, takes something of a sharp left out of the nearest window. Sadly, this leaves the film to trundle predictably through the motions towards its underwhelming conclusion.

In terms of horror, it could be argued that IT is probably more Harry Potter than Hellraiser, for example, and there really is only so far that a tsunami of horror clichés, psychotic laughing and an unremitting, massively over-the-top soundtrack can take you when it comes to conjuring up the perfect, genuinely unnerving atmosphere.

As ever, less would have been so much more.

On balance, it should be stressed that IT does get an awful lot right though, and in many ways it makes for a highly entertaining couple of hours. But I suspect that Andy Muschietti’s vision for this film was to be a little less fantasy, and a lot more fear; and on that basis – and it could just be me – this has to be chalked up as a slightly disappointing re-make of this classic Stephen King novel.

 

 

 

TISZTA SZÍVVEL (Kills on Wheels)

“The chief success of Tiszta Svívvel is its ability to switch confidently and effectively between the thoughtful, the action-packed and the at times downright ridiculous…”

Wayward Wolf.

Tiszta Svívvel (re-badged for the UK market as: Kills on Wheels) is the latest offering from Hungarian writer and director, Attila Till.

Whilst, on one rather simplistic level, this is the story of a hit man and his two willing accomplices, it is on another far more nuanced level, the depiction of the daily ordeals experienced by those living with severe disabilities.

Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi), a young man with serious spinal issues, lives in a care home along with his best friend and Cerebral Palsy sufferer, Barba Papa (Ádám Fekete).

Barba Papa’s ability to walk, albeit in an ungainly fashion, makes him decidedly able-bodied compared to Zolika, whose back condition leaves him permanently confined to a wheelchair, and often to his bed.

There is a ray of light however for Zolika as his estranged father has agreed to fund corrective life-saving surgery for him, but Zolika harbours great anger towards the man who effectively abandoned him during his childhood, and whilst being in danger of cutting off his nose to spite his face, Zolika point-blank refuses to accept any such help, much to the chagrin of his concerned and doting mother. Zolika will need to raise the money himself, but how?

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Rupaszov, a man that has suffered a partial paralysis of his own. He too is wheelchair-bound. Previously a fireman, a work accident and its subsequent after effects have seen the poor man’s world and well-being fall apart, and he has descended into a dark state of bitterness, chaos and criminality.

Zolika and Barba Papa lack focus and drive in their lives, but a chance fractious encounter with Rupaszov leads to these two eager, wide-eyed innocents being taken under the ex-jailbird’s wing.

Though clearly an act of absent-minded madness to any right-thinking person, by teaming up with Rupaszov the young pair see an ideal opportunity to give some meaning to their lives which up until now have been very much defined by what they can’t do. They volunteer to aid Rupaszov in his work as a hired hit man for Serbian drug baron, Rados (Dusán Vitanovics). This decision alone would appear to be problematic enough, but Rados – with three decidedly tetchy Rottweilers for company – not only gives this collaborative idea the big thumbs-down, he then proceeds to administer Rupaszov with the most ruthless of ultimatums.

The chief success of Tiszta Svívvel is its ability to switch confidently and effectively between the thoughtful, the action-packed and the at times downright ridiculous, blending as it does a curious mixture of brutality with darkly humorous observational comedy. Underpinning all of this, however, there is a genuinely compassionate heart to this film which beats hard and true.

Zoltán Fenyvesi and Ádám Fekete put in commendable performances as Rupaszov’s helpers in what are perhaps, through no fault of their own, slightly limited roles, whilst Szabolcs Thuróczy’s performance as the embittered Rupaszov carries sufficient weight to convince as a man in the throes of a personal crisis; a man who can no longer find peace or any sense of meaning in his life.

Be it the challenge of pressing the correct buttons on a vending machine with a hand so severely affected by spasticity, being likened to the much loved Star Wars duo, R2D2 and C3PO, or Rupaszov simply watching with unaffected indifference as a knife is plunged into one of his paralysed legs, Attila Till’s script and direction never shies away from acknowledging the more comedic side and frequent absurdity of the trio’s daily plight as they lurch from one awkward scenario to another owing to their collective hampered physicality.

That said, for them to even attempt feats that would present a challenge to even the peak condition able-bodied amongst us, is testament to the group’s inner strength of belief and a refusal to give in – something that is very much a core theme of Till’s engaging film.

Tiszta Svívvel offers not just a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted and refreshingly original take on the gangster flick, but more importantly, provides a spirited and uplifting lens through which we can view disability, and its impact upon those who must live with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICAN MADE

“Tom Cruise is excellent as the perma-grinning, all-American charmer, Barry Seal, whose genial personality seems to combine elements of psychosis and death wish with an undeniable joie de vivre.”

Wayward Wolf.

Given its penchant for the big, bold and the frequently barmy, it’s fair to say that the United States of America never really does things by half, and rarely misses an opportunity to dumbfound and amaze.

“Only in America” they say, and how right they are.

On such a theme, American Made is Doug Liman’s superbly entertaining biopic of American anti-hero, Barry Seal, whose extraordinary life in the skies is a story that you just simply couldn’t make up, let alone believe actually happened.

Seal is a relatively young gifted TWA pilot flying commercial airliners in the 1970s. With a slightly left-field approach to his job, he’s not adverse to bending the rules a little. As a benefit of his particular flying route, he takes the odd back-hander smuggling Cuban cigars into his home country.

This being a time in which the U.S / Soviet cold war was in full swing and the perceived Communist ‘threat’ was foremost in the mind of Uncle Sam, when a CIA operative gets wise to Seal’s misdemeanours and obvious aviation talents, he wastes no time in recruiting him to fly reconnaissance missions over particularly volatile military bases in Central America.

Taking pictures of such strongholds, in-flight, whilst dodging sprays of gunfire may not be everybody’s idea of fun, but Seal positively thrives in his role, and soon finds himself smuggling guns into Nicaragua to support the efforts of the Contras.

Seal’s activities, whilst most irregular to say the least, are nonetheless part of a covert U.S mission and therefore deemed acceptable. What Seal hadn’t banked on, however, was the timely intervention of the Colombian Medellín drug cartel.

Blinded by the lure of megabucks, Seal soon finds himself doubling-up his workload and in the ludicrous situation of using gun-running for the U.S government as cover for the smuggling of kilos of cocaine for Pablo Escobar.

And that’s just the beginning of the madness!

Just how much artistic / creative licence has been taken with the truth here, I’m blissfully unaware of, but I imagine there’s been significant strategic embellishment to suit the big screen.

And why not?-  as a certain peerless, recently departed film critic was known to opine. If it makes for fun and games such as this, it can only be a good thing.

Tom Cruise is excellent as the perma-grinning, all-American charmer, Barry Seal, whose genial personality seems to combine elements of psychosis and death wish with an undeniable joie de vivre.

It’s quite some combination, and perfectly understandable considering the nature of Seal’s ‘career path’ not to mention the sheer volume of cash that he is eventually forced to bury in the grounds of his not-at-all small house, due to increasingly critical spatial constraints.

Domhnall Gleeson puts in a good turn as the slightly shifty CIA agent, Monty Schafer, and Sarah Wright, although in a limited role, doesn’t disappoint as Seal’s wife, Lucy.

Liman’s film is beautifully realised and above all, tremendous fun. Think The Wolf of Wall Street, airborne. A momentum-filled whirlwind of a tale that tips its hat to Martin Scorcese on more than a few occasions and boasts a cracking soundtrack placing the film slap bang in the era.

There’s no question that behind Seal’s charm offensive, there was a criminal life that most would understandably frown upon. Nevertheless, Liman’s film is so massively outrageous and entertaining, it really doesn’t matter.

American Made will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

BERLIN SYNDROME

“…the palpable sense of tension and desperation that builds so ominously, is expertly enhanced by Bryony Marks’ sparingly applied, rather eerie soundtrack.”

Wayward Wolf.

Almost all of the feedback that I’ve heard since seeing Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome (some weeks back now), has been in some way negative, and quite frankly I find that baffling.

Shortland’s film – based upon Melanie Joosten’s novel, with a screenplay by Shaun Grant – tells the tale of a young Australian photojournalist, Clare (Teresa Palmer), on holiday in Berlin. Here she falls for a quietly charming Berliner, Andi (Max Riemelt), and a holiday romance quickly blossoms.

As with all good holidays though, Clare’s quickly comes to an end, and having waved goodbye to her Berlin beau, she reluctantly prepares to move on. Unable to quite bring herself to leave, however, Clare performs a swift u-turn and surprises Andi by extending her stay a little longer, and they spend one final passionate night in Andi’s apartment.

The following morning, with Andi having gone to work, Clare gathers her things and prepares once again to leave. Only, she can’t. The apartment has been locked. With no spare key and having exhausted all other possibilities, Clare resigns herself to a further day in Andi’s apartment until he returns from work.

Clare will wait patiently until the evening. They will laugh about the unfortunate mix up, and she will then head off that evening.

Or so she thinks.

Berlin Syndrome is, more than anything, a refreshingly original take on the whole ‘kidnap’ film genre, exploring this concept from both the victim and the perpetrator’s point of view. What initially appears to be something of a mutually exciting rendezvous, quickly dissolves into something of a toxic partnership; a free spirit unfortunate to find herself seduced by a troubled man with a very genuine antisocial personality disorder.

From short-term lover to distressed prisoner, to resigned captive, Clare goes through the entire gamut of emotions, trying in vain not only to escape her imprisonment, but given  the hopelessness of her predicament, to also come to terms with her lot.

Andi on the other hand, far from being painted to be some sort of mysterious, one-dimensional Nosferatu type, is observed going about his daily business as a teacher and dutiful family member; a repetitive routine built upon an enormous lie which, on admitting to his work colleagues that he has a new girlfriend, becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Clare’s continued non-appearance at social functions sparks suspicions and doubts within the minds of Andi’s colleagues as to whether she even exists at all.

Andi’s assessment of his relationship – and indeed even what constitutes a relationship in the first place – is bordering on tunnel-visioned and autistic in its single-mindedness. Somehow justifying everything in his own mind, he ignores Clare’s repeated, somewhat peripheral (to him) cries for help and pleas for mercy.

Considering the remote location of Andi’s apartment and his attention to the very smallest of details when it comes to keeping his ‘prison’ secure, if Clare is to ever escape, it’s going to take something particularly imaginative.

Gradually, however, with the passing of time, Clare’s omnipresent hopes of escape gradually diminish, whilst her reliance upon and empathy towards her captor steadily intensifies.

Shortland’s piece is a fascinating glimpse at this most dysfunctional of ‘relationships’, built as it is upon distress, delusion, reluctant acceptance and outright fear. Rarely if ever does Shortland resort to sensationalism, adopting instead an approach that is subtle and thought-provoking, steering almost entirely away from the predictable or clichéd. And the palpable sense of tension and desperation that builds so ominously, is expertly enhanced by Bryony Marks’ sparingly-applied, rather eerie soundtrack.

Teresa Palmer is excellent portraying this particular damsel in distress, whilst Max Riemelt’s turn as the unpredictable, insecure, Andi, is cold, aloof and lacking in compassion – exactly what’s required.

Berlin Syndrome doesnt’ necessarily redefine the genre of ‘kidnap cinema’, but through its clever exploration of both the captor and the captive, and of the rather muddled grey area that constitutes the awkward ‘bond’ between them, it provides a refreshingly honest dose of bleak realism in this well-balanced, uber-tense and compelling tale.

 

 

 

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

“Andy Serkis… Hollywood’s least seen, green screen creature creator – is once again the man ‘behind the mask’, so to speak…”

Wayward Wolf.

Rife with political overtones, religious parallels and symbolism, War for the Planet of the Apes (WPA from hereon in), is the third and final instalment of this rebooted franchise, very loosely based upon 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

The leader, Caesar, and his legion of fellow apes, are living peacefully in a forest, though with the omnipresent threat of human attacks, they do so within a prevailing heightened sense of security.

One such raid on their ape stronghold leads to many fatalities on both sides, but Caesar’s troops drastically out number the raiders, defeating them comfortably. He elects to spare the lives of the remaining four human soldiers, sending them on their way with a stark message of warning for their Colonel, (Woody Harrelson).

But the Colonel is bloody-minded and hell-bent upon the destruction of all apes. Caesar’s warning therefore is predictably not heeded. Consequently a second raid takes place on the apes’ base by the cover of night, resulting in the tragic death of both Caesar’s wife and eldest child.

Fearing further turmoil and repercussions, this colony of apes decides to move on from their forest dwelling, en masse; all except Caesar that is. He is understandably unable to let go of the deep-seated hate that now burns within him, and he vows revenge upon the Colonel and his forces.

Though intent upon this being a solo mission, a reluctant Caesar is ultimately joined on his journey by a small band of strong-willed allies, and together they head off in search of justice.

The original Planet of the Apes franchise hasn’t aged well as a visual spectacle, and it takes a strong suspense of disbelief in order to be convinced by its assorted vaguely simian-faced protagonists. WPA, on the other hand, making full use of today’s CGi technology, is an altogether different beast. Whilst it would take a harsh audience indeed to pick upon the film’s visual aspect as being in any way worthy of criticism, I do however still struggle greatly with the general concept of talking apes riding horseback whilst spraying machine gun fire at their enemies. Call me old fashioned.

Of course, the entire film depends heavily upon the understanding that we take such things to be normal, and on that basis, it’s only fair to surmise that WPA is a pretty well put together piece that nicely rounds-off the franchise.

Andy Serkis in particular – Hollywood’s least seen, green screen creature creator – is once again the man ‘behind the mask’, so to speak, and the combination of his rubber-faced antics and a huge CGi team, the size of which would give any film’s accountancy department palpitations, produces admittedly impressive results in realising Director Matt Reeve’s vision.

Reeves of course has previous history in creature features, directing this film’s predecessor, the solid enough offering, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but arguably his finest piece was – and with good reason – the excellent, Cloverfield, a stripped back monster movie that left an awful lot to the imagination – unlike WPA which, though it touches upon a number of underlying issues, something that separates it from most Hollywood big budget fodder, is still crafted very much from the ‘in-your-face’ school of blockbusters.

That said, there are at least elements within WPA which hint at this being a little more than just a piece of mainstream buffoonery. Underlying political and social threads a-plenty run through the piece, but it’s arguable whether any of these really hit the mark in any sort of meaningful fashion, and leave any sort of thought-povoking lasting impression upon the audience.

Resorting to the Jar jar Binks school of employing a ‘cute’ yet slightly irritating and inappropriate character that the cynic within me can only see as some form of  marketing ploy with which to shift merchandise, WPA, on balance, successfully serves up a concoction of big screen action and thoughtful drama which will please many and crucially put those all important bums onto seats.

That after all, above everything, was almost certainly the brief handed to Reeves before a single frame was shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A GHOST STORY

“…most impressive of all is the director’s attention to the timing and application of the smaller details and elements within the film…”

Wayward Wolf.

Whilst initially leaving me a little confused with regard to one or two of the slightly more complex elements of the narrative, David Lowrey’s A Ghost Story is nevertheless, a very fine film indeed.

Visually constrained into something akin to a photo slide format – a round-cornered slightly elongated square screen – this is an early hint (and subliminal pointer?) as to the sense of history, the past and of memories that this film skilfully evokes.

A Ghost Story is indeed a ghost story, but not in any sort of conventional sense. Instead, it is told from the perspective of the recently deceased, C (Casey Affleck), who returns, from the mortician’s slab, to the old, history-riddled house in which he and his girlfriend, M, (Rooney Mara) had been living together. Adorned in the sheet that had covered his dead body, two eye holes have been cut from this deathly shroud, revealing nothing but matt, jet blackness.

The ghost of C, unseen, will stand by, a passive reluctant spectator, as the future unfolds relentlessly in front of him, unable to offer comfort in the grieving process of M, and unable to despair when she finally finds someone new in her life and moves on. The ghost of C can merely turn its head to passively survey life from the beyond.

Indeed life continues to unfold unabated all around a spirit that is seemingly powerless to achieve ‘closure’ within its somewhat cursed afterlife, until finally, almost consciously, it takes control of its own ‘destiny’.

David Lowrey’s use of long drawn-out scenes of relative inactivity, whilst on the surface seems a little indulgent and potentially momentum-sapping, but is in fact integral to this film’s flow; a sort of mirroring for the viewer of the ghost’s own sense of frustrations at being a helpless onlooker, unable to offer any sort of meaningful influence over events. Not only this, but such a directorial style offers ample opportunity for the viewer to consider and contemplate not only the film’s poignant narrative and existential overtones, but their own particular history, place and space in time.

Daniel Hart’s wonderfully evocative soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment, wrapping the piece within its own sonically haunting cloak, and drawing maximum affect from A Ghost Story‘s overriding sense of melancholy.

There’s much to admire in Lowrey’s haunting tale, which, whilst admittedly drawing influences from elsewhere, is a piece nonetheless high on originality. But most impressive of all is the director’s attention to the timing and application of the smaller details and elements within the film – so as to knit and tie the increasingly complicated threads of this story together into some form of coherent whole.

With strong, brooding performances from Mara and Affleck, and a fine cameo from ‘Prognosticator’ (Will Oldham), the end result is a wonderfully poignant film that explores the nature of time, and the ongoing quest for resolution and meaning in our lives, and it’s all profoundly moving in a way that surprises as much as it ultimately impresses.

Stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GIFTED

“…Director, Marc Webb, uses his strongly-commercial touch to good effect here…”

Wayward Wolf.

 

On paper, Gifted offers nothing particularly new to the tug-of love emotional drama genre, but so well realised is this charming little film, that thankfully such a potential issue never really springs to mind, or if it does, it’s never really able to take root.

Frank Adler (Chris Evans), lives with his niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), in a modest, slightly dishevelled house in Florida. Mary, as the film’s title suggests, is a particularly gifted child, streets ahead of her peer group, academically-speaking.

Home-schooled for her entire life to date, the time has come – at her father’s insistence – for her to attend a conventional school. This however soon exposes her father’s worst fears, and indeed justifies his decision to enrol her there. Mary is severely lacking in social skills, unaware of how to properly integrate within her own age group.

With Mary’s best friend being a ‘sassy’ middle-aged neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), it’s clear that the youngster has had something of an unconventional upbringing, something that her father is keen to address by ensuring that she learns to socialise more with her own age group.

Of course, balancing this with the need to ensure that Mary’s remarkable gift for mathematics is suitably nurtured is the tricky part, but Frank is determined, for the good of his daughter, to make it work somehow.

Of course, nobody had banked on Frank’s now estranged mother in law, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), suddenly appearing out of nowhere, putting a spanner in Frank’s plans, insistent that her late daughter (Mary’s mother) would have wanted Mary to attend a special school for particularly gifted children. Her proposal that Mary uproots and comes to live with her, goes down like a lead balloon with Frank, but he is all the time wary of the need to do right by Mary, and thus, is faced with something of a major moral conundrum.

Ultimately, it is evident that all involved must not let their own emotional baggage dictate what is best for the child. Something that is always going to be easier said than done.

As mentioned previously, Gifted doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table, and whilst it may hint at some of the moral and emotional dilemmas explored so devastatingly in the likes of, say, Kramer vs Kramer, it does so on an altogether more superficial level.

That, however, is not necessarily a bad thing, and Director, Marc Webb, uses his strongly-commercial touch to good effect here, making this piece both emotionally affecting and accessible, not to mention genuinely amusing in places.

With an impressive cast with whom one can truly relate – McKenna Grace in particular excels as the precocious child prodigy – Gifted stands up well as a charming little drama conveying an overall sentiment that is sincere, reassuring and above all, convincing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DUNKIRK

“Nolan’s vision is rich in both feel and flow. A most visceral and enthralling effort…”

Wayward Wolf.

Hans Zimmer has a film soundtrack CV as long as your arm. For many years now he has been one of the go-to Hollywood composers – very much a Jerry Goldsmith of his time in that respect. Revered, and rightly so, for both the impact and the prolificacy of his work.

His soundtrack for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, is arguably his crowning achievement to date.

It’s a quite astonishing effort, in fact. Admirable for its simplicity, yet breathtakingly tense and evocative in its impact. An unremitting soundscape that compliments perfectly a film that is essentially one elongated action scene.

All too rare is it that a soundtrack forms the most prominent, pivotal aspect of a film, but Hans Zimmer’s repetitive score is absolutely integral here, forming an almost symbiotic relationship with Director, Christopher Nolan’s epic war film.

The sound of a ticking timepiece and the insistent chugging of outboard motors on a plethora of fishing boats, form something of a sonic metronomic device – the very crux of Zimmer’s score. These are then mimicked instrumentally through accelerating and decelerating orchestral tremolos and staccato passages of varying intensity. Eerie chromatic glissando string lines are then weaved in and out on top of this, morphing at times into the unsettling sound of German dive bombers and the like.

It’s breathtaking, sensational stuff.

But whilst Zimmer’s score no doubt enhances the entire cinematic experience greatly, it’s not to take away from the nuts and bolts of the film itself. Nolan’s vision is rich in both feel and flow. A most visceral and enthralling effort charting the progress (or rather lack of), of a desperate band of thousands of men and boys, stranded on the beaches of Northern France, embroiled in a desperate game of survival – sitting ducks to wave upon wave of enemy fire.

Whilst we can rightly point to the on-screen presence and qualities of Kenneth Brannagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and not to forget a particularly measured, yet heroic performance from spitfire pilot, Tom Hardy, Dunkirk is not a film of star names or star turns. There is little by way of character development here, and in this instance, that’s not a bad thing, almost as though to emphasise the point that all of these allied soldiers, no matter their rank or background, were mere numbers here facing the same grim uncertainty.

Nolan’s direction is both strong and purposeful but never overly-indulgent, and never distracts from the film’s core theme and message.

Once again though it’s Zimmer’s score which takes centre stage, having the last, glorious word when the tide of events finally turns in the Allies’ favour, with a stripped down, minimalistic interpretation of Elgar’s Nimrod.

It’ll have the hairs raised on the backs of even the most peace-loving of non-patriotic pacifists.

Dunkirk is a very fine war film indeed. A brilliant, big screen contemporary re-imagining of one of the most significant episodes of World War II, conveying, without the need for overly-gratuitous violence, a most harrowing vision of war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE RED TURTLE

“…a film with a big heart and a profound message…”

Wayward Wolf.

Whilst admittedly not my genre of choice, when one considers the vast number of hours it must surely have taken to piece together, The Red Turtle, it is a truly staggering achievement. Of course, the building blocks of this particular animation are probably no different to those employed in any number of other animations of its type, but for those of us that rarely stray into this territory, it’s a rare opportunity to ponder and marvel at such things.

Michael Dudok de Wit’s tale opens with a man in a desperate fight for his life, floundering among the storm waves, without recourse to any form of sea-faring vessel. Luckily the sea eventually deposits him, weary but still alive, on the shore of a remote tropical island from which he must attempt to escape if he is ever to return to ‘civilisation’ again.

This is however easier said than done, with each of his numerous attempts frustrated time and again by the meddling exploits of a giant red turtle. Every one of the man’s crudely assembled log rafts, once afloat, is quickly battered into pieces by the powerful ‘butting’ action of this crimson watery thwarter – a sort of vengeful turtle wrecking ball, if you will.

Try as he might to escape, it’s almost as though fate has other plans for our man.

Spotting the turtle on land one day, and beside himself with rage, the man seizes his opportunity, summoning all of his strength to flip the red menace onto its back, leaving it there to perish in the merciless rays of the tropical sun.

Pangs of remorse, however, begin to overcome him, and he attempts unsuccessfully to reverse his actions.

Much grief and shame is duly felt, but with the turtle’s passing comes a remarkable and unexpected opportunity for genuine fulfilment in the man’s life.

Michael Dudok de Wit’s charming piece places us all in the initially enviable scenario of paradise found, though quickly revealing the harsh realities of survival, not to mention the full force of mother nature’s unpredictability.

Whilst The Red Turtle is visually stunning and impressive in its simplicity, it is however so much more than an expertly-honed, visually sumptuous animation, it’s a film with a big heart and a profound message through its exploration of the cycle and core components of our lives: survival, freedom, love, loss, loneliness, and of course the unavoidable inevitability of death.

Almost entirely bereft of dialogue throughout – bar a few guttural grunts and squeaks of joy – the film’s direction offers the space and opportunity for our minds to contemplate and wander. Much emphasis is therefore placed upon Laurent Perez Del Mar’s emotive soundtrack, which, through its Morricone-esque use of soaring soprano lines, compliments the exquisite animation perfectly.

It’s evident that much love and attention – not to mention ‘man-hours’ – have been lavished upon The Red Turtle, resulting in a wonderfully poignant and truly rewarding film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BEGUILED

“Elle Fanning… delights with a performance of scheming flirtatiousness. Given the circumstances, it’s a catalyst for disaster.”

Wayward Wolf.

 

Director Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is a simple tale based upon Thomas Cullinan’s novel, set during the American Civil War, deep in the Confederate state of Virginia.

A young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is out picking mushrooms in the forest when she stumbles upon a fallen Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). Wounded by a gun shot to his leg, he is fast bleeding to death. The kindhearted Amy helps him to a ladies’ seminary where he can receive treatment and convalesce.

This seminary is also Amy’s home which she shares with four other young girls of varying ages, all of whom are tutored by their live-in teachers, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), and her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).

Whilst the unremitting sound of gun shots rumbles away somewhere in the distance, Miss Martha and Edwina do their best to ensure that some semblance of civilised normality is maintained at this well-to-do school, priding themselves upon producing well-mannered, well-educated young southern ladies.

Being also a school of deep-rooted Christian values presents Miss Martha with something of a dilemma. Should they now turn the Corporal in to the Confederate forces, or wait at least until he is fully recovered from his injuries?

The decision is made, but given the potentially problematic nature of this predicament, it could very easily be one that they will all live to regret.

McBurney’s wartime allegiances of course contravene the ‘values’ expected of a good Confederate household, but it’s simply his manly presence here that is unquestionably the cause of the competitiveness, jealousy and ultimately betrayal that soon develops between the ladies of the house.

It doesn’t help that McBurney in some ways encourages the situation. Fully aware that he is the only, and therefore Alpha male here, he begins to revel in his increasingly powerful status.

The Beguiled is a slow-burning yet expertly-paced affair, not to mention a fascinatingly taut experience from start to finish. A film of tightly bound layers poised to unravel spectacularly at any moment.

Developing moral and sexual tensions simmer away, guards are gradually lowered, alcohol flows, and it’s only a matter of time before lines are crossed and the pot well and truly boils over.

Farrell is excellent portraying a man mindful to remain sufficiently polite and charming in the face of the welcome steady encroachment of female interest – all the while, wary that he may still be turned in to the authorities at any moment.

Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Miss Martha is one of authoritative decorum, whilst Kirsten Dunst produces a nuanced performance of repressed longing. Elle Fanning (Alicia), on the other hand, delights with a performance of scheming flirtatiousness. Given the circumstances, it’s a catalyst for disaster.

Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is refreshingly conservative in its execution, but no less beautiful for this. An abundance of static shots and an almost ethereal use of light and delicate textures captures wonderfully the very essence of the hot and sticky natural beauty of the southern location.

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is darkly humorous on occasion, thoroughly entertaining and ever so seductive – almost beguiling one might say.

 

 

 

 

IT COMES AT NIGHT

“Unafraid to be ambiguous, and as open-ended as it is disturbing, It Comes at Night is a highly impressive piece…”

Wayward Wolf.

 

Each member of a family, wearing a gas mask and protective gloves, carry their grandfather a short way into the woods.

Multiple sores are strewn across his elderly face and body. This, together with a grey complexion and laboured breathing, is a sure indication that he is a very sick man and not long for this world.

One reluctant shot to his head, and the lowering of his body into a ready-prepared hole in the ground, is followed by a hurried cremation of sorts.

This is very much the way of things. An act of both mercy and self-preservation, for a contagious plague-like sickness has stricken mankind. Or so it would seem.

But we are observing only a rather claustrophobic microcosm of humanity here, with no real wider frame of reference or comparison. Who knows what’s already happened,  what’s really going on, and more importantly, what’s still to come?

This is the quandary facing Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a tight-knit family unit ensconced in their now boarded-up wooden family house, deep within a forest – doing their best to ride this whole thing out.

With Paul enforcing a set of strict rules with regard to what can and can’t be done given the extraordinary circumstances in hand, the three of them, along with their pet dog, Stanley, do their best to live some kind of structured life, rich in routine and consistency.

All of this, however, is put to the test one night when an armed intruder attempts to enter their secured home. Is this, as the intruder insists, the desperate action of a man innocently scavenging for supplies for his beleaguered family, from what would appear to be an abandoned building? Or, the uninvited arrival of something far more calculated and altogether more sinister?

More importantly, should Paul and his family take pity on this uninvited guest and offer him and his young family sanctum in their time of need?

A huge dilemma when so much is at a stake.

Refreshingly minimal in its approach, It Comes at Night is the work of director Trey Edward Shults, based upon his own screenplay. It’s very much a psychological horror / thriller bringing to mind 2015’s The Witch as well as The Blair Witch franchise, both stylistically speaking, and through its unnerving ability to generate a true sense of confused fear and foreboding.

Shults successfully manages to blur the line here between reality and imagination, raising significant confusion and doubt as to the true nature of whatever malevolent force is at work, and indeed whether this is all in fact nothing but a heightened sense of paranoia within the minds of Paul and his family, facing, as they do, an unexplainable, encroaching external menace from which they increasingly attempt to isolate and protect themselves.

Unafraid to be ambiguous, and as open-ended as it is disturbing, It Comes at Night is a highly impressive piece that provokes serious questions of trust and resolve, and one that will undoubtedly feed your fears of the unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BABY DRIVER

“Edgar Wright seeks to deliver a film that’s hip, cool, and intense, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek comedic overtones.”

Wayward Wolf.

Observing Baby (Ansel Elgort) tapping, nodding and air-drumming his way through life is in some ways like staring in a mirror. Granted, I certainly can’t do the quiff these days, and I’m probably double the lad’s age and should know better, but still to this day I find it physically almost impossible to rein in an array of rhythmic beats and drum-fills that I can’t help but perform on desks and dashboards – or any hard surfaces for that matter – when listening to my music of choice – much to the chagrin of those around me, I suspect.

Whilst I don’t imagine I was the primary influence for director Edgar Wright’s  entertaining Baby Driver, the film’s hero is similarly afflicted by such sonically-triggered ‘ticks’. With earphones permanently lodged in earholes, he taps and struts his way through each passing day, invigorated by his own diverse musical soundtrack of life.

Having been in a car accident as a child, and having lost both of his parents as a result, Baby’s decision to be ‘plugged-in’ permanently to his collection of i-Pods, is as much for medical reasons as anything else. An attempt to drown out the annoying tinnitus that has since plagued him.

Indebted financially to a rather sinister gang boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), Baby has been forced to drive getaway cars for him on a variety of bank heists. His skills behind the wheel are something to behold, and whilst Doc insists on changing the lineup for each job that he masterminds, the one constant every time is his driver, Baby.

Encouraged to do so by his deaf and crippled foster father, and with a newly-found sweetheart on the scene – Debora (Lily James) – Baby is determined to finally distance himself from this life of crime that he so reluctantly leads, but even once his debt to Doc has been repaid in full, it’s clear that his overlord is not willing to let him walk away that easily.

Drastic situations then, call for drastic measures…

As mentioned previously, Baby Driver is very definitely an entertaining piece. Edgar Wright seeks to deliver a film that’s hip, cool, and intense, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek comedic overtones. All of this he achieves, to an extent, through his use of a number of sweetly choreographed, intelligently-shot high-octane car chases and mass shoot-outs, not to mention a sharp and witty script to accompany. This is after all a director that knows comedy, both through his previous film work, and more historically having been involved with the show that spawned the marvellous Bobby Chariot – namely Alexei Sayle’s Merry-Go-Round – and the critically-acclaimed, and quite frankly tremendous, Spaced.

As for the casting, Baby Driver hits the mark. Elgort is great as something of a brooding James Dean-esque hero, Spacey is suitably menacing as the gang boss, whilst Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal and Jon Hamm each put in convincing turns as an assortment of grizzled, shotgun-wielding ne’er-do-wells.

If there are criticisms to be made, it’s perhaps noticeable that Baby Driver does have a tendency to flag a little in its second half, owing to its propensity for over-indulgence in fairly unnecessary dialogue. This comes at the expense of momentum, of which there is great abundance until that point. Not only this, but the film’s concluding chapter does feel a little forced and ill-thought-out; ultimately therefore a tad unconvincing.

In the grand scheme of things though, these are minor complaints, and shouldn’t detract too much from a film whose ability to entertain and thrill far outweighs any negatives we may choose to throw at it.

Whilst maybe not of the same vintage as some of his previous outings – think Shaun of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, or even World’s End for that matter – Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is however great fun, and another worthy feather in the cap for a director who continues to build up a quality and consistently enjoyable body of work.

Long may it continue.

 

ALONE IN BERLIN

“…director Vincent Perez – resisting the temptation to pad things out with dubious filler or the concoction of unnecessarily distracting back stories…”

Wayward Wolf.

The death of their only son in combat has driven a German couple to risk their own lives in defiance of the Führer himself.

Provoked by a combination of deep-set grief and simmering resentment, Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson), is determined to make a stand against what he perceives to be an unjust, brutal Nazi regime. His wife, Anna (Emma Thompson), refuses to allow Otto to do such a thing alone, and by association, therefore becomes the accomplice to his plans.

Painstakingly Otto begins the laborious task of disguising his handwriting in order to create almost 290 cards, each of which is emblazoned with a strong anti-authoritarian message of defiance, something he refers to as “Freie Presse” (free press). Each of these he then deposits in strategic public locations around the city of Berlin, hopeful that his anarchic messages will incite some form of radical response from a down-trodden German public.

No matter their impact on the psyche of the German people, it transpires that all but eighteen of these cards will ultimately be turned in to the authorities by a public too frightened not to do so.

Predictably, Otto and Anna’s actions soon prompt something of a manhunt in the City.

Brendan Gleeson and particularly Emma Thompson put in fine performances as a couple riddled with sorrow and driven to the point where they no longer have anything to lose, but it is arguably Daniel Brühl’s performance as the rather weasel-ish police detective, Escherich, that steals the limelight here. His persual of “the threat” posed by Otto and Anna becomes something of an obsession. Frequently out-thought or wrong-footed in his endeavours, he is willing to betray anyone, and do literally anything to solve a case which threatens to get away from him; particularly once the SS get involved, ramping up the pressure to close the net on the elusive pair of renegades.

Although nicely shot and well-paced, Alone in Berlin is a fairly straight forward premise, and judged on such criteria, there’s perhaps not enough to really make it stand out from an historically long and illustrious back catalogue of Second World War-themed film-making. That said, Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack is memorable and worthy of mention. Suitably evocative, it successfully conjures up a bleak mood of despair with its refreshingly traditional use of  both recurring themes and motifs, embellishing the film significantly and substantially.

On balance, Alone in Berlin delivers well. Both engaging and suspenseful, one can put this down to a number of factors, but primarily owing to director Vincent Perez resisting the temptation to pad things out with dubious filler or the concoction of unnecessarily distracting back stories, allowing instead a refreshingly concise and to-the-point retelling of Otto and Anna’s fraught, daring and ultimately fool-hardy act of resistance against a wicked ideology.

Well worth a watch.

 

 

 

HAMPSTEAD

“…there’s a ‘twee, trying too hard to be ever-so-British and charm our friends across the pond’ alarm that’s bleating incessantly in my head. And sadly, for good reason.”

Wayward Wolf.

The metaphorical curtain rises. An orchestra sets the mood with a little light, playful music. A young boy scampers enthusiastically across the grass, his kite flapping about above him. The camera tracks his eager progress, panning purposefully past an assortment of strategically-positioned extras going about their director-allotted activities, and the camera ultimately tilts upwards into the blue heavens above.

Lovely stuff.

The scene is set…

Only, there’s a twee, trying too hard to be ever-so-British and charm our friends across the pond alarm that’s bleating incessantly in my head. And sadly, for good reason. Sighing and blowing air out of my cheeks already, there’s a nagging inevitability about what’s to follow, and we’re only two minutes in.

Welcome to Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead. A little tale based to some extent upon true events, by all accounts.

Irishman Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), is a man living a life of subsistence in a ramshackle hut on Hampstead Heath. This has been his home for some seventeen years but he now faces the very real possibility of eviction, for there are real estate development plans earmarked for his particular plot of land. Unfortunately for Donald, this is land for which he has absolutely no legal claim, having effectively squatted there all these years.

And then there’s Emily (Diane Keaton), an American lady living in a flat just off the heath, opposite his plot. She’ s a good egg, but the same can’t necessarily be said of her superficial bunch of busy-body friends who share the building with her. Very much the twitching curtains brigade. Hyacinth Bucket – with money. Perhaps a little weak-willed, Emily is frequently manipulated into their petty, trivial fussing and scheming.

Since the death of her adulterous husband, Emily has found herself in dire financial straits, and can no longer afford to live here. With proactive decisiveness, however, she sets about addressing this issue. Rummaging around in her attic she looks for items that she may be able to sell and stumbles upon an old pair of binoculars, through which she spots Horner splashing about in the pond on the heath opposite.

A combination of Emily’s intrigue, and a couple of convenient plot devices leads to the pair eventually meeting up. Observing Donald’s ‘alternative’ lifestyle’ induces something of an epiphanal moment in Emily. Not only does she then resolve to change herself, but the pair soon begin something of a romance.

But of course this is well-to-do leafy Hampstead, and dating the village ‘tramp’ – as it were – is somewhat frowned upon, particularly by Emily’s gaggle of well-healed friends who are appalled and rather perturbed by Donald’s appearance in the building one day.

With Donald’s impending eviction, Emily’s potential financial ruin, and the prospect of them both becoming social pariahs, it’s fair to say that these are testing times for our unlikely couple.

Fear not though folks, for this is rose-tinted, slightly sickly British rom-com territory.

You can see what Hampstead is striving to achieve, but there’s a pervading, overriding sense that everything that it brings to the table has been done before, and crucially, better.

Arguably it ‘s a mildly charming piece in places, and though occasionally slightly amusing, it is only fleetingly so; very much in that gentle inoffensive manner exemplified by the likes of long-running British comedy ‘institution’ The Last of the Summer Wine. Comedy for people that have had heart attacks, if you will. As a full-length feature film, Hampstead, humour-wise, is very much an extrapolation of this concept.

It’s not terrible. That should be said. It’s actually perfectly watchable in that ‘not much else on, on a rainy Sunday afternoon’ manner, and in Brendan Gleason and Diane Keaton, the lead roles are in safe and capable hands, with the pair making the most of what’s on offer. Indeed, if truth be told, it’s very much their input alone that truly holds this lightweight piece together.

Ultimately though, there’s a flimsiness about the narrative, a tiresome inevitability regarding the outcome, and Joel Hopkins’ tendency to overly stereotype both characters and setting is both clumsy and off-putting.

I suspect that the aim of the game here was to turn the wider world on to yet another quirky, charming British enclave of society – as was so successfully achieved with the likes of Notting Hill.

Whilst Hampstead may well appeal to those in far-flung lands whose perception of British comedic drama is based solely upon an imported diet of Benny Hill and Are You Being Served re-runs – perpetuating the unshakeable identity of quirky Brits and their endearingly quaint ways – Hopkins’ efforts to engrain Hampstead into the hearts of the many unfortunately bears more similarities with Alan Partridge’s failed attempts to “really put Norwich on the map” via the still yet to be commissioned, and almost certainly naff detective drama, Swallow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOGAN (Noir) – London Picturehouse Central 2nd Anniversary Birthday Screening.

“Caliban… a splendidly gawkish and surprisingly credible portrayal from the excellent Stephen Merchant”

Wayward Wolf.

It’s true, some of the best surprises do come in all shapes and sizes. In this instance, on the occasion of London Picturehouse Central’s second birthday anniversary weekend, this beautifully refurbished central London cinema played host to a mystery film screening. Logan (noir).

A rare opportunity – and a welcome surprise, even for a notoriously comic book hero-phobic sort, such as myself – to watch the final chapter in the travails of Wolverine, in a wonderfully evocative black and white cut, towering impressively above its audience on Picture House Central’s enormous main screen.

Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of Logan (Noir) is the brutal levels of violence which are as surprising as they are enthralling. We have perhaps become accustomed over the years to the concept of ‘the long good punch-up’ – as exemplified so brilliantly in that Fast Show sketch of yesteryear. Highly choreographed, tedious punching for punching’s sake, with very little discernible outcome.

Not so here. The fights are rapid, vicious and to the point. In this respect, Logan (Noir) is not a film that messes about, riding high as it does on the wave of one massive adrenalin rush, right from the off…

Some collateral shotgun damage to Logan’s Chrysler during a scuffle in the film’s opening exchanges, proves to be something of a red rag to everyone’s favourite machete-fingered maniac, and he proceeds to unleash ten tonnes of torment on a gang of ill-advised assailants, carving them up like a Christmas turkey.

Of course, had someone informed our hero there and then of the fate that would ultimately befall his beloved set of wheels, he may have been a little less ‘Toby Carvery’ on their sorry souls.

Still, the scene is set.

Logan (Noir) – part action flick, part dolorous lament – portrays Logan (a most visceral performance from Hugh Jackman), as something of an anti-hero, who, it’s fair to say, has seen better days. A grizzled, cantankerous alcoholic, keen for nothing more than solitude, he hides out in a remote outpost of the desert. Joining him there are his elderly father, Charles (Patrick Stewart), Caliban (a splendidly gawkish yet surprisingly credible portrayal from the excellent Stephen Merchant), and latterly, a young mutant girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who gives as convincing a portrayal of savage youthful mania as I can remember on-screen.

In essence this is a traditional Hollywood road movie; fugitives on the run from a relentless foe.

Having been forced from their hideout, hot on their trail are those whose mission is to arrest their progress at all costs. Laura, and a number of other young mutant ‘ex-in mates’, have escaped the experimental laboratory that was their home. Now fleeing from their creators (now oppressors, who wish them harm), theirs is a desperate bid to reach the sanctuary of the border.

Through a succession of plot twists, it has now become a rather reluctant Logan’s responsibility to help Laura and her friends to safety. All considered, this is an impossibly difficult task at the best of times.

James Mangold’s direction is fast, slick and installs an omnipresent sense of menace to proceedings. No matter where the fugitives run to, there is seldom a moment’s rest, and one can only pity those kind souls that offer to help along the way, inadvertently becoming embroiled in Logan’s problems. No matter how good their intentions; chances are they’re going to end up corpses in this film’s all too generous body count.

A visually achingly beautiful piece at times, this wonderful monochrome edition thunders along with only occasional respite from the sense of impending, encroaching doom.

With a certain tip of the hat to the Terminator movies, this is a film that may well lack a little in originality, yet more than makes up for it with its sheer cut, thrust and tension.

James Mangold has got this one very right. Logan (Noir) is not simply an enthralling action movie, but a thoughtful, memorable one at that.

If only they were all like this.

 

 

CHURCHILL

“…David Higgs has worked some magic here, conjuring  up some of the stand-out cinematography of the year to date.”

Wayward Wolf.

A few years back a statue of Winston Churchill that stands outside the Houses of Parliament in London, was desecrated by protestors. I forget why. It was nothing personal against him if memory serves sufficiently, and the perpetrators were swiftly rounded upon by most of British society.

Let’s face it, whether you concur or not, it’s a very sticky wicket that you’ll bat upon if you decide to disparage anything relating to that particular period of British political history, let alone the seemingly Teflon wartime Prime Minister himself.

But this protective attitude, or rather a slight reversal of it, is what makes Churchill such an intriguing biopic.

The film focuses on the tail end of World War II, a time in which Churchill’s usefulness as a military tactician was fast being called into question. It was after all the minds of General Bernard Montgomery of the Allied forces and General Dwight D. Eisenhower of the U.S army that were overseeing the implementation of the impending pivotal Operation Overlord.

Churchill, in comparison, whilst undoubtedly committed to the last, was perceived now as something of a dinosaur; increasingly out of touch with the technology and methods of modern warfare, despite his insistence that there was much that could be learned from the lessons of World War I.

At least that is how he is portrayed in Jonathan Teplitzky’s piece.

A stubborn, sometimes belligerent old man, he is portrayed wonderfully well by Brian Cox. Rarely without twin props of cigar and tumbler of Scotch in hand, he shuffles about from here to there, insistent upon being at the centre of everything and having a decisive say in all matters. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that owing to his age, this can no longer be the case. He is depicted as a proud man struggling to accept that he is nearing the time when perhaps he has outstayed his usefulness as a fully hands-on Prime Minister. Instead, with King George VI in agreement (James Purefoy), a new era is ushered in; an era of Winston Churchill ‘The Statesman’ – whether he likes it or not.

His long-suffering wife, Clementine (the excellent Miranda Richardson), is portrayed as a woman somewhat battle-hardened from a life duelling with an unshakeably headstrong husband. Theirs seems to be a union of respectful support and dependability above anything else.

Although Teplitzky’s film veers away from any temptation to depict the conflict itself, the heightened emotions and sense of trepidation of impending battle are brilliantly captured through the interplay between Churchill (Cox), Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham). We are left in no doubt of the sheer gravitas of the situation that confronts the three men, all of whom acknowledge – to varying degrees – a duty of care to minimise potential troop fatalities, whilst still appreciative of the need for strong, single-minded decision making for ‘the greater good’.

It’s visually a most seductive film that leans heavily on the use of sweeping vistas, some beautiful staged ‘stills’ and the use of striking silhouetted imagery. Certainly David Higgs has worked some magic here, conjuring  up some of the stand-out cinematography of the year to date.

Quite how historically accurate a portrayal of Winston Churchill this is, might well be open to debate, but it makes for an intriguing study of a much revered historical figure in a guise that perhaps won’t be entirely familiar to all.

HELL ON EARTH

“Religion after all has a habit of bypassing all avenues of logic, insisting instead upon both giant leaps of faith and the defence of the utterly unprovable.”

Wayward Wolf.

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS – Hell on Earth from hereon in – is a Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested-directed National Geographic documentary chronicling the tragic events that have befallen the people of Syria (and indeed the country in general), and the knock-on Global effects that have unavoidably followed over the past decade or so.

You can tell that this is an American, National Geographic production. In amongst uncensored gratuitous scenes of dead bodies, scattered limbs, and general carnage, a small boy, out of his mind with grief and anger following another devastating bombing raid on his city, has his somewhat ‘expressive’ disapproval of the Syrian president edited – for swearing.

One can’t help but smile at the ludicrosity of it. Moments of levity such as this however are few and far between in this most harrowing account of what can only be described as an utter on-going nightmare.

The film analyses, in a very linear fashion, the events that led to the on-going civil war in Syria and how ultimately the fallout from that and International military intervention both there and in Iraq and Afghanistan has given rise to radical groups of Muslims hell-bent on imposing, through fear and force, their particularly unsavoury interpretation of Islam upon large swathes of the Middle East.

Watching this bleak but powerful film, one can’t help but be hugely affected by its devastating message, on a worryingly personal level. Previous generations in ‘The West’ have of course had their own set of explosive political issues to contend with. One thinks back to the 1980s and the fear of the Irish Republican Army, and of the cold war and its seemingly omnipresent threat of nuclear armageddon. Never though was it quite on the same sort of hysterical level that we see in the world today with the threat of ISIS and religion-influenced terrorism in general, very much a global concern.

However, unlike obstacles and threats to peace that were faced in the not too distant past, and for which there was at least some scope for negotiation, there is perhaps no negotiating with religious fanaticism. Religion after all has a habit of bypassing all avenues of logic, insisting instead upon both giant leaps of faith and the defence of the utterly unprovable.

A heady cocktail of corrupt regimes, the actions of insurgents, disenchanted and opportunistic religious fanaticism, and the meddling military intervention of Western super powers has not only brought the likes of Syria and Iraq to their knees, but heavily implicated much of the rest of the world into these troubles too both through subsequent unsustainable levels of mass immigration, and through vengeful terrorism in Allah’s name.

Indeed, regardless of who is doing the fighting, and whoever happens to be on the receiving end of it, Hell on Earth is awash with one constantly recurring sentiment: “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greater).

I should hope so too.

Mercilessly executing their fellow man as they go, some of those fighting in the prophet’s name are not exactly setting the bar very high.

It’s a big mess, that’s for sure, and one that’s very effectively and powerfully captured in Junger and Quested’s hard-hitting film. If there is a criticism to be made it is that a combination of information overload and the film’s very quick-fire pace and delivery make it rather difficult to absorb all content, effectively. Subsequent viewings may prove to be beneficial. On a similar note, the film’s brisk pace leaves little space and time to contemplate and ponder some of the more emotionally-charged and unsettling content – but perhaps that’s a good thing?

Benefiting from innumerable sources of both official and amateur video footage, as far as slick, informative, and relatively impartial documentaries go, Hell on Earth, though at times difficult viewing, successfully manages to capture this most troubling period in human history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colossal

“By the end, even the director seems to have given up the ghost if the clumsy, half-baked final chapter is anything to go by. “

Wayward Wolf.

Colossal falls into the category of ‘quirky’ cinema. Quirky cinema then tends to divide into one of two categories: ‘well written, surprisingly deep and meaningful beneath the quirkiness’ or ‘quirky for quirky’s sake’.

This Nacho Vigalondo directed piece is entrenched firmly in the latter camp.

Politely yet firmly nudged out of her (her boyfriend’s) New York apartment, unemployed party girl, Gloria, (Anne Hathaway), returns to her home town. There, she stays in an empty, furniture-less house that presumably belongs to her, though this is not established. Here in small town America she intends to get her life back on track again.

A chance meeting with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) – an old acquaintance whom she vaguely recalls from their primary school days together – is initially a positive thing. Oscar owns a bar and invites Gloria to work there, at least until she’s settled back in the area again.

Gloria accepts and she, Oscar and a couple of other regulars strike up a sort of ‘after hours’ friendship, and her life soon drifts back into an all too familiar routine of late nights and alcohol.

It’s only when news comes from South Korea that a giant monster has begun to terrorise residents of Seoul, that Gloria’s unspectacular small town existence begins to liven up through a quite astonishing discovery. She is somehow connected directly to these herculean happenings that are playing out on the other side of the world.

It seems that at 8.05 am each morning, whatever physical movements that Gloria makes within the bounds of a local kids playground, are replicated exactly by the Godzilla-esque beast so many thousands of miles away. But whereas Gloria’s footsteps are merely innocent shuffles through the Autumn leaves, the monster’s are huge destructive hammer blows to both Seoul’s buildings and to its people in the streets below.

It’s certainly a ludicrous not to mention hugely ambitious narrative that director Vigalondo must sell to his audience, and one that consequently requires a massive suspension of disbelief on their part, to put it mildly.

Unfortunately, the whole shebang suffers badly from a combination of poor writing, ill-explained phenomena and plot holes as large as the monster’s considerable footprints. Despite Hathaway and Sudeikis putting in convincing turns in the film’s key roles, Colossal sadly comes across as little more than an incoherent, mad adrenalin rush of overblown ideas. By the end, even the director seems to have given up the ghost if the clumsy, half-baked final chapter is anything to go by.

Yes, there are clearly metaphors at play here, and there’s something of a back story to consider which should help to make better sense of things, but all such subtle devices seem so hopelessly lost within the film’s bungling storyline.

To some extent, Colossal masquerades as innovative film-making, hiding as it does  behind a certain level of deceptive quirkiness. It may well have been Vigalondo’s noble intention to swerve all things cliched and unoriginal, and full marks for that, but ultimately, like so many before him, the allure of Hollywood proves to be too seductive. In a flurry of contrived nonsense, and amidst a tidal wave of mildly motivated Korean extras, Colossal trundles haphazardly towards its inevitable conclusion.

THE SECRET SCRIPTURE

“Rooney Mara… effortlessly seducing each and every man that crosses her path, much to her ultimate detriment.”
Wayward Wolf.
The Secret Scripture is Jim Sheridan’s realisation of the Sebastian Barry novel of the same name.
It tells the story of Rose McNulty, an elderly lady incarcerated for most of her life in a mental asylum. With the asylum due to be demolished, Rose must leave the place that has been her home for over forty years. Either she will be transferred to another unit, or released into the community. This is still to be determined, and it represents something of a quandary for the asylum’s owner whose attempts to ascertain Rose’s current state of mental health have been blunt and tactless, and predictably therefore, fruitless.
Rose insists that she will only ever leave when her long lost son returns in person to take her away from the place.
This is the same son that she killed when he was just an infant – or so the story goes.
Be it amicably or through sedation, Rose has no choice but to leave, and it’s only when psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) agrees to re-assess her himself, that she is granted a brief stay of execution at the facility.
She proceeds then to open up and reveal the contents of her hidden, make-shift diary which has been scrawled upon the pages of an old bible. It is a diary whose content spans much of her considerable life.
With a memory ravaged by time – not to mention multiple electroconvulsive therapies – Rose still manages to recall a fascinating life in which the jealousy, prejudices and vehement political leanings of others have all led to her being locked away from society so unjustly, and for so many years.
It soon becomes clear that the official version of events that led to such a life of hardship for Mrs McNulty, is anything but the real truth.
A narrative that oozes forbidden love, a large dose of injustice and the perils of poisoned political influence, should realistically set The Secret Scripture up to be something of a grand, unforgettable, sweeping, romantic epic, and in some ways it is.
But for a film with such lofty ambitions, it also fails to deliver as it could and probably should.
There’s a general clunkiness about The Secret Scripture, and it’s not for want of decent performances. Rooney Mara in particular convinces as the young Rose, a girl who seems somehow to be not in control of her own sexuality; effortlessly seducing each and every man that crosses her path, much to her ultimate detriment.
No, the clunkiness seems to stem rather from a failure to fully examine and emotionally connect with any sense of depth, the more weighty components of the tale, namely:
A young, tormented Catholic Priest whose jealous infatuation with young Rose can never be anything more than that.
A forbidden relationship between a Catholic girl from County Sligo and a young lad who chooses to ‘betray’ his Irish roots and join the RAF to help with the war effort.
The ‘imprisonment’ – for that is effectively what it was – of a pregnant Rose, in a mental asylum, and the significant ill treatment that she would receive there.
And perhaps more than anything, the realisation that she would never be allowed to keep her child, who, when the time came, would be taken from her, destined to join some invisible wealthy family on the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States of America.
All of these story lines and more, instead, pass us by without us ever truly appreciating what the enormity of their impact would have been. And that’s disappointing considering other films have focused upon similar themes, and done so with far greater impact. The 2013 drama, Philomena, immediately springs to mind.
There’s been a rather negative press surrounding this Jim Sheridan piece and I think on balance that that’s perhaps a little unfair, although conversely, also understandable to some degree. It’s all just a little too neat and tidy and a tad ‘convenient’ and predictable in places.
But that said, this is a film which proves that by employing a directorial approach that is above all honest, whilst exhibiting both a little goodwill and a certain warmth of spirit, you can sometimes cover a multitude of sins.
In spite of its faults and inadequacies – and there are many – The Secret Scripture still manages to tick enough boxes to entertain, delivering a certain level of poignancy and glossy sentiment as it does so, which just about carries it through.

THE HANDMAIDEN

“Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked…”

Wayward Wolf.

The Handmaiden is a deeply-sensual adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith.

But unlike Fingersmith, director Chan-wook Park’s version is staged not in Victorian Britain, but in 1930’s Korea, where a seemingly impressionable young girl, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), takes on the role of handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives with her uncle on a huge estate in the country, and Sook-Hee will be at her beck and call, both morning and night.

Sook-Hee arrives highly recommended and with glowing references; seemingly the perfect fit for the job. A more than satisfactory scenario for all concerned.

But, as sweet and obedient as Sook-Hee may well appear on the surface, there’s foul-play afoot, for Sook-Hee’s ‘master,’ – posing as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and a prospective suitor for Lady Hideko’s attentions – has a special set of instructions for the young handmaiden to abide by. She is to sing the Count’s praises at every opportunity whilst in Lady Hideko’s company, so as to convince her that she should be with him.

For The Count is a confidence trickster, intent only on getting his hands on Lady Hideko’s considerable impending wealth. Sook-Hee, fearful of the consequences should she disobey him, is just one of a number of young, impressionable girls that The Count holds under his considerable, wicked, dictatorial influence.

This in itself lays the foundations for a straight forward, but nevertheless intriguing tale. The Handmaiden, however, is anything but straight forward. This is in fact a story of subterfuge, whose plot twists and turns, deceives and frequently wrong-foots its viewer, as the distinction between hero and villain become blurred and confused, and any initial assumptions are turned on their head.

Chan-wook Park certainly doesn’t shy away from the gratuitous. Indeed, there are any number of moments when you may choose to avert your eyes, recoil or wince in equal measure. Added to this are the surprisingly long, drawn-out erotic scenes that unfold as the sexual tension builds relentlessly throughout the piece, making The Handmaiden a film to rival even the steamiest of mainstream cinematic offerings. The likes of Mulholland Drive, and more recently, Blue is the Warmest Colour, immediately spring to mind.

Far from being a mere vehicle for generous titillation, however, The Handmaiden is every bit a fully-captivating thriller in its own right, occasionally bringing to my mind at least, Peter Greenaway’s excellent The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover – but as I say, that could just be me, in fairness.

It’s a film that has that certain something about it. Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked, all combining to elevate The Handmaiden high above the many lesser offerings within this genre.

One can only hope that quality Korean thrillers that are unleashed in the Spring, are not long-forgotten come Oscar time.

RAW

“…Garance Marillier’s on-screen transformation from doe-eyed virginal innocent, into an almost demonic lustful deviant is both powerful and highly convincing.”

Wayward Wolf.

“It’s a family affair” enthused Sly & The Family Stone in their 1971 soulful classic, though I’m not entirely convinced that any such genealogical affirmations were pertaining to a generational compulsion to nibble on human flesh!

But I could be wrong.

All contrived cultural references aside for a moment, Raw is director Julia Ducournau’s splendidly squirm-inducing cannibalistic shocker, trumpeting the merits of the deceased as a feast. A film which by all accounts has caused all manner of repulsion and outrage at screenings since its launch.

Good. More of this please.

To be honest, if you boil the film’s plot and key components down into its simplest form, it will probably raise an eyebrow or two of the sceptics amongst us, but so well is Ducournau’s warped vision realised, and so convincingly is it portrayed by all concerned, you can’t help but be drawn into this most peculiar of tales.

There is a scene early on in Raw when a mother almost loses her mind over the fact that a roadside cafe’s lackadaisical approach to food serving technique results in a meatball being inadvertently secreted within a big pile of mashed potatoes and then served to the woman’s daughter. No big deal you may surmise, but so puritanical is this particular family in its dogged devotion to vegetarianism, you’d  assume something far more sinister had occurred given the song and dance that she proceeds to make of it all.

But such a hullabaloo is not without good reason, as will ultimately be revealed.

Her daughter, Justine (Garance Marillier), is being driven to veterinary school. There, she will hook up once again with her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) – also pursuing a career in veterinary science – who is a year or two ahead of her, in her studies. This is no ordinary vet school, however – or perhaps it is? I never studied veterinary science, after all – and in a fashion that we’d sooner probably associate with the likes of an Eton or Oxbridge, all manner of bizarre inductions and initiation rituals are thrust upon the first year students.

One such trial involves the scoffing down of raw rabbit kidneys. This would be insane enough for a non-questioning omnivore, let alone a devout vegetarian such as Justine, for whom the entire notion is preposterous. But against her will, and shall we say ‘encouraged’ by her older sister, despite much protestation and considerable gagging, she sees the ordeal through.

For most, this could probably be chalked off as extreme high jinx, but for Justine, it proves to be the catalyst for something altogether more disturbing as she awakens a deep-seated, almost compulsive craving for flesh.

More taboo-busting art house picture than horror flick, though bordering on vampirical at times, Raw is unashamedly graphic and ghoulish in its presentation, closely tracking Justine’s rapid and seemingly unalterable descent from innocent beetroot-biter into what is gradually revealed to be both her genetic disposition and destiny, a full-on flesh-feeder – human flesh, at that. Indeed, Garance Marillier’s on-screen transformation from doe-eyed virginal innocent, into an almost demonic lustful deviant is both powerful and highly convincing; an inspired piece of casting from Director Ducournau.

Greatly enhanced by a pulsing and persuasive soundtrack – anchored by Jim Williams’ wonderful recurring, swirling, stately Baroque-tinged and menacing main theme – Raw is a macabre, frequently uncomfortable but darkly humorous film that successfully marries substantial helpings of toe-curling gore with beautifully vivid and seductive colour; an at times almost ethereal experience.

A highly original piece that certainly won’t be forgotten in a hurry, Raw can quite rightly claim its place in the ‘must-see’ list of 2017.

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ALIEN: COVENANT

“…a film that tries far too hard to be everything for everyone, and consequently, on balance, falls short in all departments.”

Wayward Wolf.

Oh how I long for simplicity.

There are a handful of set pieces within Alien: Covenant that hint at what a decent film it could have been, but so buried are they within an over-cooked, rambling backstory, that any impact they may lend the film is fleeting, to say the least.

It was Ridley Scott who took charge of the much-hyped, but ultimately quite frankly poor, Prometheus, and in Alien: Covenant, he once again looks to rediscover a bit of that old Alien magic in the latest chapter of this most patchy of franchises.

Sadly, long gone it seems are the days when we cowered in horror and bit our nails down to the bone in fearful awe of the most excellent Alien, not to mention it’s excellent James Cameron-directed sequel, Aliens. Whilst Alien: Covenant does have its moments, it’s a very pale imitation of what’s preceded it.

Another 2017 release, Life, made no pretence to be anything other than something of a homage to some of the great science fiction films of the last half century, yet despite its relatively unoriginal concept(s), it delivered a tight, neatly packaged and thoroughly entertaining finished product with both considerable impact and laser-sharp precision.

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, in contrast, struggles somewhat for identity. There’s clearly an ‘epic’ vision at play behind the scenes here. The director tries manfully to engage his audience on far more of an expansive scale and cerebral level than simply throwing rampaging aliens in numbers at unsuspecting space travellers (although there’s plenty of that to be getting on with), but the general impression is that this is a film that tries far too hard to be everything for everyone, and consequently, on balance, falls short in all departments.

Part thriller, part thought-provoking science fiction piece, part action-packed white knuckle ride, part philosophical lament, you name it, this is a film that struggles gamely yet ultimately fails to weave these and other disparate threads together into something resembling a coherent whole.

Alien: Covenant is not helped by both momentum-sapping, drawn-out scenes of unnecessary ponderous self-reflection, and by fairly weak characterisation.

Although Michael Fassbender (playing both David & Walter) and Katherine Waterston (Daniels) turn in strong performances, and as whole-heartedly as all other parts are played, there’s something of a disconnect here between viewer and character, and I doubt that there will have been too many tears shed by the viewing public as the cast are predictably whittled down in number via various grisly means, leaving the remaining few to battle it all out in overly exaggerated bloated fight sequences.

Where Alien: Covenant does however score highly, is in the ‘memorable, hard-hitting set pieces’ department. Indeed, never let it be said that Ridley Scott doesn’t know how to shock, or to sear disturbing imagery into our collective grey matter.

There are certain franchises that tend to garner a generous tidal wave of goodwill regardless of the true quality of their output, attracting something of a blinkered, head-in-the-sand devotion by the masses. The Alien franchise is one such example. But the truth is that there have been just two truly excellent Alien films in the series, and the rest, no matter how much you dress them up, or who’s been pulling the strings, have largely been regurgitated re-hashes of the original, admittedly excellent concept.

There’s no doubt that there were good and very grand intentions behind Alien: Covenant – this is a film not without its positives, rest assured – but it’s probably all  best summed up by the rather sign-posted ‘twist’ at the film’s conclusion. Well executed, but rather predictable and ultimately all a bit unnecessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MINDHORN

“…Clive Parnevik – a semi-naked man so laid-back Dutch, he’s visually virtually orange.”

Wayward Wolf.

The all too often ‘hiding to nothing’ that is stretching a simple comedy concept into a full-blown feature film continues unabated here with Sean Foley’s, Mindhorn.

Based upon Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby’s screenplay – both of whom have key roles in it – this is the story of Richard Thornton, a washed up has-been actor who briefly in the 1980’s had a taste of the high-life, portraying slick, on-screen, no-nonsense maverick Isle-of-Man detective, Mindhorn. A sort of naff Magnum P.I – light.

Resplendent in brown leather jacket, roll-neck sweater and grey brogues, our ‘action’ hero is also the proud wearer of a special eye patch through which his artificial eyeball can literally see the truth.

All faltering one-liners, thick head of hair and generous moustache, our bionic Bergerac (thank you Julian Barratt), goes about the task of solving the island’s assorted crimes and misdemeanours along with his glamorous sidekick and all-round ‘bit of totty,’ Patricia Deville (Essie Davis).

Fast forward twenty-five years and Richard Thornton, a now tubby, bald jobbing actor for corporate videos and adverts, receives a call out of the blue from the Isle of Man police. His presence is ‘urgently’ requested on the island to aid in solving an actual case of murder.

Delusional oddball ‘The Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey), is the chief suspect in the case. Refusing to give himself up to the police, he insists that he’ll only talk to detective Mindhorn, oblivious to the fact that the Isle of Man’s favourite corruption-correcter is of course nothing but a fictional character. Nevertheless, step forward Richard Thornton, a.k.a Mindhorn. Not quite the man he once was, but in reprising his semi-famous alter ego of yesteryear, Thornton is now duty bound to perform the role of his life…

Mindhorn follows that not so original, rather well-worn path of mixing comedy with farcical crime caper. Done to death? Sure, but when done well it always seems to provide a solidly reliable platform upon which decent comedians and actors can strut their stuff.

And strut, they do…

With Julian Barratt on board, Mindhorn is a film that need not worry too much about employing any tired concepts, nor concern itself with the struggle to adapt comedy for the big screen; Barratt absolutely steals the show from start to finish portraying a man of massive delusions and a toe-curling lack of self-awareness. Crucially though, Thornton, whilst being a fairly tragic character, is also one with whom one can’t help but empathise. This man was once Mindhorn, so just where did it all go wrong?

Simon Farnaby, on the other hand, plays Thornton’s one time stunt double and hugely smug love rival, Clive Parnevik – a semi-naked man so laid-back Dutch, he’s visually virtually orange. Both in the 80’s and still to the present day, the pair of them are unable to set aside an ongoing petty spat, as they continually spar in a game of one-upmanship for the lovely Patricia’s attentions.

In fairness, she’d probably be quite happy without either of them.

With Baby Cow Films on board, it’s no surprise that aspects of both The Mighty Boosh and various Alan Partridge-esque elements are very much in evidence. Shades of Alan Partridge’s mega-fan and stalker, Ged, in particular spring to mind. Indeed, Steve Coogan himself portrays successful, all-round pompous git, Peter Eastman, a sort of more glamorous Tony Hayers – type character, with the power to commission (or not) the Mindhorn box set re-issue that Thornton covets so greatly.

It’s all great fun, and consistently delivers the goods with a generous helping of genuinely funny, actual laugh-inducing spoken and visual gags. Yes, there are one or two lulls in it, and occasional moments when it all appears to be running out of puff, yet it always successfully manages to stay on course and hauls itself back from the brink.

By all accounts, Mindhorn – with frequent comedic references to Bergerac’s John Nettles, throughout –  was devised to be as much a heartfelt homage to 1980’s detective shows as it was to be a merciless send-up of the much-loved genre (something that it executes splendidly, I should add), and on balance it achieves both goals. It even goes so far as to incorporate that most mandatory of appendages to 80’s TV stardom, the hit record – all perms, guitar solos and rolled-up suit jacket sleeves on big-spectacled keyboard players.

“You can’t handcuff the wind” – indeed.

Absolutely destined for cult status amongst students, comedy aficionados and anoraks the length and breadth of this country, Mindhorn is by some distance the funniest film of both this and the last few years.

 

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

“…a wonderfully poignant, thought-provoking piece, guilty only of perhaps being a little too subtle at times in divulging the key components of Julian Barnes’ intricate narrative.”

Wayward Wolf.

Considering The Sense of an Ending is a film that contemplates past memories – and taking into account the often considerable amounts of time lapsed, our often rather muddled, incorrect recollection of them – it probably hasn’t been the wisest of ideas for me to have waited quite so many weeks to finally get around to reviewing it.

Additionally, if truth be told, there had been a few loose ends that I’d failed to connect within director Ritesh Batra’s excellent vision of Nick Payne’s adaptation of the Julian Barnes novel of the same name. Suffice it to say, the passing of time has not helped in this regard, rendering even more inadequate my already ropey grip on the film’s finer points of debate and uncertainty.

Nevertheless, fading memories or not, what I can quite confidently pronounce is that The Sense of an Ending is a superbly realised piece of work, with Jim Broadbent in particular, in fine form – although that will come as no shock to anyone familiar with his vast body of quality work.

Tony Webster (Broadbent), is a retired divorcee with a small Leica camera repair shop which keeps him busy in his twilight years. Curmudgeonly and rather intolerant by nature – christened ‘The Mudge’ by his pregnant daughter and ex-wife – Webster lives a simple life of routine, perhaps typical of a man his age?

Such quotidianness is however disturbed somewhat when Webster receives notification that he has been left the diary of an old deceased friend, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), in the will of the mother of an old-flame, Veronica (Veronica is played in her youth by Freya Mavor, and latterly by Charlotte Rampling).

This is a strange occurrence for a couple of reasons: Why would Adrian’s diary be in the hands of Tony’s old girlfriend’s mother in the first place? And what possible reason could there be for passing it on to Tony, in the event of her death?

The prospect of this gift from beyond the grave understandably piques Tony’s interest and his imagination is let loose on something of a trip down memory lane. He recounts very special times from his school and university days when he first met both Veronica and Adrian. One vivid memory stands out, that of a long weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in which Tony was introduced to her parents. Veronica’s winsome, effortlessly beguiling mother, Sarah, (portrayed by Emily Mortimer – an exceptional piece of casting) particularly captivates the young Tony.

Little however does he realise just how important a role Sarah will come to play in shaping the fate of so many people that he holds so dear.

Manouevering skilfully between Tony’s present, and the at times rose-tinted memories of his past, director Batra slowly cuts through the fog that has somewhat confused Tony’s recollections, to reveal a number of at times unwelcome truths; truths that until now, had remained largely out of sight and mind – partially buried in the ever-amassing sands of time.

Charlotte Rampling’s relatively brief role as the older Veronica, is powerful, yet sweetly understated, whilst Harriet Walter convinces entirely as Tony’s ex-wife, Margaret, who, whilst still being friends with him, wears that look of slight exasperation in his company; clearly possessing only limited tolerance for the silly old fool’s mildly obsessive later-life flights of fancy.

The Sense of an Ending truly is a wonderfully poignant, thought-provoking piece, guilty only of perhaps being a little too subtle at times in divulging the key components of Julian Barnes’ intricate narrative. But creating a little mystery and uncertainty in the minds of your viewers can never be a bad thing, in my experience at least.

Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the year to date.

 

 

FILM: REVIEWS & COMMENT