FILM REVIEW: Mississippi Grind

The subject of addiction has been covered on many occasions throughout the history of cinema. One thinks back to Nicholas Cage’s fine turn in Leaving Las Vegas or maybe Jared Leto’s descent from ‘respectability’ into despair, in the harrowing Requiem For A Dream. There are many…

Of course addiction can take a number of different forms and Mississippi Grind, whilst not a tale of addiction per se, uses the life-ruining affects of such an affliction as a backdrop to what is essentially a road movie, with ‘addictive tendencies.’

Curtis and the Mick Jagger /Dustin Hoffman-alike, Gerry, are a couple of loners who, on the surface at least, couldn’t be any more different. Smooth charmer and all round people person Curtis is quick to introduce himself to Gerry (and everyone else present for that matter), around a low-stakes card table, somewhere inconsequential in small town USA.

Two kindred spirits spark up some sort of instantaneous camaraderie, apparently delighting in the non-judgemental nature of each other’s company.

With each sharing the same fervent desire and more precisely need to hit the road, they set off on a road trip through the underbelly of America’s deep south. Their aim? Well, it’s hard to put your finger on with any degree of certainty, but that golden ticket mentality of striking it rich is never far from the forefront of their minds. It’s a common thread that binds them together through the manifold scrapes and tribulations of their journey. Needless to say, it’s a rather unstable rock upon which to build their new found friendship.

Both men seem driven, however, by more than just aspirations of wealth and the high life.

Gerry is a man with significant personal carnage left trailing in his wake, having used and abused those closest and dearest to him once too often. Addiction has taken hold over the years and wreaked its inevitable havoc.

Curtis on the other hand is a little trickier to pin down.

Whilst he seems to have it all together and crucially, is more than able to walk away from the dealers table no matter the circumstance; the good looking guy with the gift of the gab and a twinkle in his eye is clearly running from or should that be searching for, something?

Curtis and Gerry, like many road trip companions before them, are restless souls.

Its an intriguing film that reveals Gerry and Curtis in their best and worst moments, but crucially, never judges them.

Very natural but above all convincing turns from both Ryan Nelson and Ben Mendelsohn in their respective roles, along with excellent direction from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who gauge just the right level of emotion throughout without veering into mawkishness or over sentimentality, makes Mississippi Grind a low key yet highly valuable addition to this year’s best offerings.




The Palio is the oldest horse race in the world, run in the central piazza of the beautiful Italian city of Siena. Preceded by much pageantry, it is a full throttle affair, encapsulating Italian society and the ‘system’ in which it operates, in a microcosm.
Run twice a year, every summer, it offers the residents of Siena’s various districts a chance to claim bragging rights in the city.
Palio is a  documentary which focuses on the 2013 and 2014 Palios and the intense rivalry between both rival districts and race jockeys, alike.
Gigi Bruschelli is the corrupt veteran of the race and the prime scalp that all others seek to dislodge. Giovanni Atzeni is his once trainee; a gifted, twenty-eight year old, level-headed prodigy and pretender to Bruschelli’s throne.
These two, amongst others, go head to head in a bid to be crowned champion, pitting experienced know-how against youthful determination.
If rivalries between two legendary, retired champions of yesteryear are anything to go by, there’s certainly no love loss between the Palio’s jockeys. With their outspoken re-writing of history, tensions continue to simmer between them in largely comedic fashion, many years after they’ve hung up their caps and whips. Their passion for the Palio, like everyone else’s, seems undimmed by the passage of time.
It’s a very well put together account, which, much like recent documentaries Amy and Senna, steers away from the conventional talking heads type of delivery, opting instead for largely incidental commentary, giving the film a free, less  structured feel to it and a strong sense of authenticity.
Sadly,  the saying: “and don’t spare the horses” has never been more appropriate, with eleven or twelve of them careering around the perilous piazza track, jockey whips flailing about wildly as both horses and jockeys are subjected to their leathery justice in ferocious fashion.
We only have to think of the Spanish Running of the Bulls or the Shearing of the Beasts to realise that human beings, the world over, seem only too willing to hold dear to archaic traditions that have scant regard for the well being of animals and The Palio, admittedly to a lesser extent, is no exception.
This whip-cracking, thunderous romp around a sharp-cornered, dusty track, preceded by the vociferous chanting of proud inhabitants of Lupa, Eagle, Porcupine and other assorted districts, whilst being an admittedly impressive spectacle, is just another example of disregard for animal life and the fact that the tone of the film is so overwhelmingly reverential, just leaves me cold.
‘Rocky on horseback’ they say?
Well, perhaps, but the prevailing sentiment remains.
On another level, The Palio is essentially silly little boys games taken way too seriously, never summed up more than when the church gets involved, going so far as to bless the winning horse and rider in the Cathedral itself; all the while, surrounded by a massed, frenzied crowd.
If we can manage to disassociate ourselves for a moment from any such negativity that surrounds Palio (and I do appreciate that that is in itself a subjective thing), as a pure spectacle of raw human passion and tub-thumping pride, it takes some beating and it’s understandable how locals and tourists alike can get swept up in its frenzy of thrills and spills each summer.

It also says a lot that a really well crafted film, beautifully shot and edited and awash with a glorious, sumptuous 1960s era Ennio Morricone soundtrack, can leave one with such a feeling of indifference, bordering on disapproval.

FILM REVIEW: The Lobster

The Lobster is a love story. Kind of.

Perhaps not the kind you and I would be particularly familiar with, but even so, an against all odds tale of devotion, played out with a comical awkwardness, bordering on the uncomfortable.

The film portrays a society in which coupledom is the natural order of things and where being single, no matter the circumstances, is not only discouraged by society but infact considered a crime; grounds for arrest and rehabilitation.

No conventional love stories are going to blossom in such an environment.

David (Colin Farrell) is single having split from his girlfriend of twelve years and is consequently whisked away, together with his dog (his brother – all will be explained), by the authorities, to an idyllic hotel retreat in the countryside where he will join a number of other singles in seeing out a 45 day period in which each must ‘find love’ or suffer the ignominy of being turned into an animal, (of their own choosing).

Each prisoner (for that is what they are in essence), can increase the length of their stay at the hotel , accumulating credits (additional days) by being successful in the daily man-hunt, a procedure in which loners who lurk in the nearby woods – ostracized from society, are tracked down, sedated by way of a tranquiliser dart and brought back to the hotel where they too shall begin a 45 day stint of their own, if lucky…

There’s an essence of Big Brother that pervades throughout The Lobster and it’s hard to know whether it’s this fear of authority that has resulted in the array of social misfits that seem to populate Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s world, or whether this is just the natural way of things.

Whether it be the lisping inadequacies of John C Reilly’s character, the coniving, stoney-faced delivery of the limping man (Ben Whishaw), or the cold-hearted psychopathic tendencies of the heartless woman (Angeliki Papoulia), David is undoubtedly surrounded by similarly dysfunctional folk that, it has to be said, would probably benefit more from being turned into dogs, ponies or whichever species they have resigned themselves to being, than continuing their droid like existences as ‘humans’.

It’s only when finally seizing an opportunity to run away, hiding out with Lea Seydoux’s gang of loners in the woods, (a group as militant in their staunch defence of all things single, as their polar opposites are of ‘togetherness’ in the hotel), that David finally has a chance to discover love with the short sighted woman, (Rachel Weisz). However, this being The Lobster , naturally it’s an outlawed love (by Seydoux’s own loner rules), which opens up a whole new set of issues and circumstances for David to contend with.

Be it the hotel’s daily indoctrination via propaganda shows of ‘together is good, alone is bad,’ the occasional random appearance of a camel or peacock gate-crashing an inapproriate scene (presumably loners whose 45 days had expired), or the loners’ own insistence that only electronic music should be danced to – a sort of woodland silent disco – as this would not encourage any human interaction and potential flirting, The Lobster is steeped in the darkest of humour.

There’s also a rather unsettling and sinister undercurrent that underpins the film; a fear of stepping out of line, by saying or doing the wrong thing and an assortment of characters whose extreme reticence would seem to reflect this.

As the old Japanese saying states: “never be the nail that stands up above the others…”

I did feel that the concept or perhaps more accurately, its delivery, was on the wane a little in the film’s latter stages. The stilted, almost robotic delivery of the characters started to become a little tiresome. That said, the final scene is as tense and riveting as anything I’ve seen all year and is a fitting finale.

Not a classic by any means, but a weird and wonderful idea, well acted and well executed.



Action thrillers are ten a penny out there in movie land and it takes something a little different not to mention a little special to stand out from the ever bloated crowd of contenders.

Sicario is one such film.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s tense thriller focuses on the ongoing, somewhat futile struggle faced by the American authorities to at least keep in check the murky world of drug deals and the ruthless cartels that make them their business.
Emily Blunt plays Kate, an FBI agent, who, whilst leading a mission into suburban Phoenix, Arizona, to free hostages from their cartel captors, stumbles upon a gruesome scene of death and mutilation by which she is suitably repulsed.
On the recommendation of top brass, she is encouraged to join a task force to bring those responsible to justice for which she volunteers without hesitation.
Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro, (a fine turn by Benicio Del Toro), head up this group tasked with rooting out the key figures in this atrocity, or so the official line reads anyway.
It’s a whole new world for Kate, exposing her to the lawlessness of not just Mexican border towns like Suarez, where bodies hang from bridges, mutilated, the victims of ruthless gang retribution, but of her own colleagues who appear to have thrown the rule book out of the window when going about their pursuit of justice.
“…we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto…”
Kate, like a frightened rabbit in the headlights, remains utterly bewildered by events unfolding around her, and little by little, with Alejandro taking centre stage and the true sinister nature of both his motives and those of the task force’s sorties into the Mexican badlands, revealed, the reason for Kate’s own inclusion on this mission bit by bit becomes clear.
Director Villeneuve’s use of long, atmospheric, sustained overviews of the U.S / Mexican border landscape, coupled with both the inspired notion of by and large never truly revealing a tangible enemy, combine devastatingly with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s raw and gritty soundtrack, to create a really unnerving sense of base fear.
At two hours long, Sicario is certainly not a short film and there could be a temptation to suggest that the subject matter might have been trimmed down without risk of sacrificing any of the key subject matter; but to do so would have been a big mistake.
It’s after all Villeneuve’s indulgence with time here and more importantly the protracted spaces in between the film’s key events that really make Sicario so effective. It’s a film that’s able to breathe, both allowing the viewer to wallow in and contemplate the air of trepidation that abounds, but more importantly, making the viewer experience the protracted discomfort and sense of foreboding that builds throughout.
Slick, stylish and beautifully shot, Villneuve has created an environment in which we’d most certainly never want to find ourselves and unsettling though it may be, in doing so, has created a film that stands up as one of the finest thrillers of recent times.


“Don’t get too emotionally attached to real estate Nash. They’re just boxes. It’s not which one you have, it’s how many you’ got”

All his relatively short life, Dennis Nash (the excellent Alex Garfield), has ‘busted his hump’ doing the right thing, working hard in construction, building houses in order to support his young son.
When recession hits and the bottom falls out of the real estate market, the work dries up, as do the mortgage payments, putting the family home that he shares with his mother, Lynn (a supporting role, but as ever an assured performance from Laura Dern), at risk of foreclosure.
We’re always good to find the money to make that elusive payment. We’ve all got a plan, but we’ve all got a sob story too, to justify just how we’ve found ourselves in such an unfortunate financial predicament in the first place; We’ve also all got an excellent lawyer on the case to save us, but unsurprisingly, that counts for very little in the eyes of the financial institutions, and more to the point,  those that enforce their unsympathetic rules and regulations.
It’s one such ‘enforcer’ who, whilst poised to turn Nash and his family’s  world upside down, will also provide an unexpected lifeline, but at a considerable cost.
The irony of the man who will break him, being the man that will also ‘make’ him, is not lost on Nash.
99 Homes traces Nash’s apparent rise from the financial dead men to his subsequent, rapid descent into the murky world of ill-gotten wealth on the back of the property repossessions market. He’s aided and abetted by his sinister mentor, the Larry Hagman / JR Ewing-esque, Rick Carver, (a stunning performance from Michael Shannon); he of the rather dubious, Carver Realty.
Carver has made a fortune on the back of the 2008 U.S. recession, but more pertinently, on the back of the misery of others. An individual driven by a determination never to be the man that his father was; cash poor and a victim of the system.
Can Nash justify his new found wealth and job stability to his family and more importantly, to himself? Or is the deep down realisation of what he’s got himself into going to torment him, in spite of the considerable financial benefits it brings to the table?
There are shades of Boiler Room and Wall Street in what is a quite excellently realised fable of moral dilemmas and a sort of warped, reversed American Dream that plays out with an unfussy direction and convincing performances across the board.
Much like the superb Whiplash earlier this year, 99 Homes is low-budget, relatively short, snappy and to the point. It’s tense, emotionally intense and thought-provoking and even a few dubious dubbing and syncing issues early on can’t detract from a powerful piece that lives long in the mind.
Director Ramin Bahrani, take a bow. 99 Homes sneaks in under the radar, yet it’s comfortably one of the highlights of 2015, so far.


FILM REVIEW: The Martian

Consider outer space…

If 2013 was the year that brought us the science -light, yet impressive Gravity and 2014 the hit and miss but highly commendable Interstellar, then 2015 is the year that will be remembered, in sci-fi circles at least, for Ridley Scott’s Martian (The), crash landing into cinema land.

A director like Ridley Scott can boast an impressive back catalogue of films too numerous to mention and can therefore be forgiven the occasional downturn in form (Prometheus) and rightly still generates a sense of expectancy and excitement, particularly when he’s back in his element, exploring outer space…

Why then has watching The Martian left me with such an overwhelming sense of disappointment?

Let’s get this straight, right from the off: The Martian is one great big missed opportunity.

Mark Watney (the always very watchable and here, very well cast, Matt Damon), is separated from his fellow crew members and left for dead on Mars when a major storm disorientates them whilst out exploring, putting their lives in great peril.

Unable to launch a rescue and left with no choice, the remaining crew members are forced to flee the planet, abandoning Watney in the process.

Mark Watney however, is not dead.

Alone, many millions of miles from home on a desolate planet, he’s now got one hell of a situation on his hands.

This is where the film has a massive, great big, gilt-edged opportunity to cement a status as one of the great solo performance films of all time; a one man show; the monologue to end all monologues.

I don’t know whether it’s a sense of distrust in the ability of the average cinema- going punter to appreciate a different direction or whether the director simply felt that the ‘lonely man in outer space, figuring things out with a considered approach’ angle only had so much mileage in it before the natives would get restless, so, despite a promising start, the film’s gradual descent into predictable mediocrity feels like a real kick in the teeth.

Yes, a fair amount of time is spent observing Damon in his quest to ‘science the shit out of it’ (just a snippet from the film’s unfortunate, sound bite-heavy dialogue), by cultivating a food source, attempting to contact NASA through ingenious means and generally putting in place a system of survival whilst so far from home, that any potential rescue possibility remains a mind numbing four years away, at best.

To a point, Scott does capture an element of the loneliness and futility of the predicament that Watney would surely have felt so resigned to, and it’s this core aspect of the film that makes the early scenes intriguing enough, but it takes a strong director to stick to his guns when steering the enormous financial beast and burden that The Martian must surely have been – It’s not 12A rated for nothing –  and sure enough, any early signs of promise are soon vanquished as the film turns about face, transitioning quickly into predictable, mainstream, contrived fodder; each plot manoeuvre playing out with heart-aching predictability.

As Damon and NASA between them attempt to come up with a rescue plan, the action switches back and forth rapidly between Earth and Mars, and an array of poorly drawn characters, natter away with badly conceived, plot-explanatory, cringe-inducing dialogue, a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ as they go with self congratulatory glee.

Any positives the film had managed to muster to this point, are quickly expelled like the rush of pressured air escaping from a punctured spacesuit.

Why oh why Hollywood?!

The Martian is classic what if territory. It’s not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, that would be an overly harsh summation, but it’s hugely erratic and any positives that it threatens to deliver are simply overpowered in a sea of cliches, contrivances, play-it-safe direction and ropey dialogue bordering on the insulting at times, in a film that is way too long and ultimately tedious.

…And it’s a real shame because without doubt, The Martian is an excellent concept left in the hands of an innovative and above all brave director.

Those were not the hands of Ridley Scott on this occasion.

FILM REVIEW: An Irrational Man

When Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) rolls into town to take up a position as professor of philosophy, he does so on a wave of reputation, infamy and false rumour.

Abe is a man with a lot to live up to, only, as so often is the case, the truth is far from the myth; he’s some way from being the gallivanting lothario he’s marked out to be. Instead, he cuts a forlorn figure, down on himself with a life that’s become firmly wedged in the familiar and predictable. He desperately seeks the spark that evades him in everything that he does.

Two women will enter Abe’s life going some way to shaping the events that follow, both of whom have desires on him – (Jill, played by the excellent Emma Stone and Rita, the archetypal bored, middle-aged housewife, played nicely by Parker Posey) – but it’s the chance overhearing of a conversation in a diner that is to finally reignite Abe’s flame.

With that, he sets about hatching the perfect plan to address the great injustice he’s inadvertently witnessed and no amount of good sense is going to dissuade him from reconsidering his actions.

More importantly, Abe is finally a man and a life reborn, filled with a surge of intent, adopting a position of power that only those ‘in the know’ can confidently adopt; a position he greatly relishes. It’s all simply too good not to pursue.

An Irrational Man, underpinned throughout by the groovy, mid-60s cool of The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s ‘The In Crowd,’ continues Woody Allen’s recent run of good form with a tale exploring familiar existential themes that have become such a hallmark of his work over the years.

There are good performances across the board, but on reflection it’s Emma Stone, as Jill, that steals the show.

Initially eager to unearth the dark, brooding mystery that surrounds the elusive Abe, Jill is happy to sacrifice her secure, mapped-out existence with ‘straight as a die’ boyfriend Roy, but it’s quite another story when Abe ultimately reveals his wrong-doings, rendering his once magnetic allure, all of a sudden, not nearly so attractive.

Did Abe’s plan arise from a well intended, albeit misinformed plan to make the world a fairer place, or was it simply a selfish need to reignite an existence that had become humdrum, by exploring the realm of the forbidden?

This is the question!

Whilst it’s easy to suggest that the answer could well lie in the film’s title, Allen, to his credit, doesn’t make things quite as clear-cut as that.

An Irrational Man is not a classic, but it’s another fine piece of work from the ever prolific Woody Allen.