Tag Archives: Wayward Wolf Film Review

LEAVE NO TRACE

Four Star Rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, moving and thoroughly well realised.

 

 

 

Advertisements

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Three and a half Star Rating

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

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

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

First and foremost, a bold statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now, that is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

SICARIO 2: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Three and a half Star Rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MY FRIEND DAHMER

Three and a half Star Rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah… Probably not.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Two Star Rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change the record hey guys?

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

Chalk and cheese, and a damning indictment for sure.

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

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

Tyrannosaurus Rex?

Tricera-plops, more like.

 

 

 

 

BEAST

Three Star Rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CUSTODY (Jusqu’à la garde)

Three and a half Star Rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOURNEYMAN

Three and a half Star Rating

“Without doubt, Journeyman’s most impressive ingredient is Considine’s awe-inspiring portrayal of a man whose life has been absolutely obliterated virtually over night.” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s probably fair to say that boxing in film has been done. At least, to the extent that we’ve all seen Rocky and Raging Bull, and umpteen all-too-often pale imitations since. One can only therefore conclude that if such a genre is ever to be tackled, it needs to be done so from an altogether original and innovative angle.

Paddy Considine’s long awaited directorial follow-up to the powerful Tyrannosaur, is arguably such a film. Journeyman is the tale of world champion boxer, Matty Burton (Considine), for whom one last fight – the culmination of a hugely successful career – proves to be anything but.

Though it proves to be a successful defence of his belt, it’s a hollow victory that comes at a considerable price. Just a few short hours later, Burton collapses at his home with a crippling headache, a symptom of something far more serious, and by the time that his wife has returned from the kitchen with a cup of tea, Burton is sprawled out over the coffee table.

Life as he knew it will never be the same again.

Though we are indulged with a brief fight montage and passing reference to a hospital stay, Journeyman is surprisingly quick in cutting to the chase. The real flesh on the bones of this story, is its aftermath. The real fight if you like. Matty Burton, now considerably brain damaged, must attempt to somehow readjust to life once again.

Of course, this is not solely Burton’s struggle. This is an equally devastating and truly testing time for those who know him, in particular his doting wife, Emma (Jodie Whittaker), who remains life-affirmingly resolute in her support for her now disabled husband.

But with Burton suddenly becoming violent, in fear for both her own and their baby daughter’s safety, Emma makes the incredibly difficult decision to abandon Matty and move out.

Matty Burton may well have won the fight inside the ring, but now he’s fighting for his life… Or some other such hackneyed observation, presumably delivered in suitably gravelly tones. Just where is the Carlsberg trailer man when you need him?

In all seriousness though, hackneyed it may well be, but the fact that Considine unashamedly follows this most familiar of narrative paths yet the film remains eminently watchable and above all inspiring, is quite an achievement. Great credit therefore to the Director.

Without doubt, Journeyman‘s most impressive ingredient is Considine’s awe-inspiring portrayal of a man whose life has been absolutely obliterated virtually over night. Complete with vacant stare, his movements are very much those that would be associated with a Parkinson’s patient. Shuffling about awkwardly in his huge contemporary mansion, barely able to manage the simplest of tasks, he pauses occasionally to tap away absent mindedly at a punch bag, though he has little idea why, as muscle memory takes over.

It makes for a sorry spectacle and one which is brought to a head in the most heart-wrenchingly tragic scene in which Emma (a fine performance by Jodie Whittaker), finally gets back in touch by phone, and Matty tries desperately to recall everything that he and his speech therapist had rehearsed for this very scenario.

“Errrm, what else?” he mutters to himself, over and over again, desparately trying to recall the one thing he most wishes to tell his wife. Yet repeatedly, much to his increasing frustration, it evades him.

Emma, is the love of his life.

Though initially paralysed by their indecision and feelings of helplessness, there is a nice sense of symmetry in the fact that Matty’s corner team are ultimately once again the guys who will rally around their friend in his time of need and set him back on the way to some level of meaningful recovery by way of a patient but intensive training programme.

Journeyman is certainly a gritty film which pulls no punches in examining painful hardships, deep depression and suicidal tendencies. It’s therefore in some ways surprising that Considine’s film is quite as optimistic and uplifting as it ultimately proves to be. In its wider context, this is undoubtedly a good thing, but in the context of Journeyman‘s narrative, I’m still fairly undecided.

Additionally, although it’s addressed to an extent late on, it would have been interesting and perhaps might have provided a different angle and a little more depth to the story, to have known a bit more about the psychological impact felt by Burton’s final fight opponent.

On balance though, bearing in mind just how difficult it can prove to be to create anything truly meaningful or original within the sporting film genre, Journeyman is as impressive an attempt to do so as I can remember for quite some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UNSANE

Three and a half Star Rating

“Shooting a major motion picture using an iPhone may not be an entirely original concept… but rarely has it been done so effectively as this…” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s certainly unnerving to consider that a mental health clinic could be quite so morally bankrupt as to forcibly admit a patient on the strength of their rather ill-informed consent, and a legal loophole, only to insist that they must then remain effectively incarcerated there until their insurance company agrees to cough up.

At which point the patient is, needless to say, free to leave.

Such shady goings-on form the rather unethical crux of one particular clinic’s operating practices, and serve as the ominous backdrop for Steven Soderbergh’s latest uber tense stalker-thriller, Unsane.

Based upon the writing of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, it tells the tale of young professional, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a girl who has been plagued by an obsessive stalker, David Strine, for many long, harrowing years.

Consequently her life has become highly transient; one never ending logistical headache as she finds herself forever upping sticks and re-inventing her identity.

In yet another new job in yet another new town – a mildly lecherous boss-aside – Sawyer’s life for once seems to be mercifully settled and uneventful. But be it real or simply a figment of her tortured imagination, she once again glimpses what she believes to be the tell-tale beard and glasses ‘combination’ of her relentlessly obsessive stalker, and with nerves a-jangling, she reluctantly decides that enough is enough, and sets about seeking the help of mental health specialists.

Whilst being a good idea in theory, a combination of her chosen clinic’s unscrupulous working practices and the fact that unbelievably, yet perhaps not surprisingly, David Strine – employed here under yet another pseudonym – is going to be administering the patients’ daily suppressants.

And thus yet another round of painful torment begins.

Shooting a major motion picture using an iPhone may not be an entirely original concept – Sean Baker’s 2015 film, Tangerine, immediately springs to mind – but rarely has it been done so effectively as this, both from a technical and a psychological point of view.

The very fact that we witness the action unfold through what could very easily be imagined to be the lens of an iPhone-wielding stalker, adds an underlying sense of menace to Soderbergh’s film, not to mention a rawness to the footage that occasionally lends the piece a sort of 1970’s B-movie feel.

And that is meant in a genuinely complimentary way.

From the 4:3 screen aspect ratio to the occasional pronounced barrelling at either side of the screen, Unsane‘s look represents something of a departure from what one would expect from a standard motion picture, which will inevitably have relied upon far more cutting-edge technology to realise its final vision.

Whilst Unsane, on balance, is a very effective piece of film-making, it is however necessary for the viewer to make some pretty sizeable leaps of the imagination, almost as sizeable, I should add, as the films rather unlikely premise and numerous plot holes.

That said, there’s lots to like about Soderbergh’s psychological thriller. There’s a tremendous over-riding sense of helplessness and injustice that is well sustained throughout, and Sawyer’s own sense of psychological deterioration and despair is genuinely tangible.

Claire Foy is on top form as the feisty beleaguered ‘stalkee’. Joshua Leonard is well cast as Sawyer’s softly spoken yet ominously creepy stalker, whilst Juno Temple – almost unrecognisable in this instance – puts in a delightfully deranged turn as one of Foy’s hyper-antagonistic room mates.

One can perhaps, to a point, draw some parallels with the sinister autocratic overtones of Milos Forman’s enduring 1975 masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though these are largely peripheral in the grand scheme of Soderbergh’s film’s narrative.

Though I’m not entirely convinced that the piece plays out quite as effectively as it might have done, and that the film’s mildly cathartic Misery-esque conclusion is perhaps a little clumsy, these are but minor quibbles.

Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is a proper ‘what if’ thriller. Highly effective and utterly affecting.

GHOST STORIES

Three and a half Star Rating

“…it’s only once the third tale reaches it’s climactic ‘conclusion’ that events really start to take a peculiar twist, and Ghost Stories slips into an even more intriguing dimension altogether…” – Wayward Wolf.

Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Ghost Stories focuses on a certain Professor Goodman (portrayed by Andy Nyman himself), a man who has found some level of career fame in exposing and debunking the work of fraudulent so-called psychics. 

The arrival of a mysterious package one day from a famous TV psychic investigator from Goodman’s own childhood era, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) – a man thought to be long dead and whose own disappearance years before had been shrouded in mystery – soon changes the course of Goodman’s future work, dramatically.

It transpires that there are three ghostly mysteries that Cameron himself had wrestled with throughout his life, yet they remain unresolved to this day. It is Cameron’s wish, in his old age, that Goodman should now investigate them and bring some much needed resolution to proceedings.

Armed with each of the case files, Goodman sets about tracking down the three key proponents, upon whose testimony these apparent other-worldly happenings are based.

Though somewhat shaken by his findings, Goodman’s own innate scepticism leads him to believe that each of these cases can easily be explained away through the simple application of science and logic.

But sometimes it’s the psychological uncertainties of our own minds that can provide the biggest clues when we seek to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable.

Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories works effectively for much of its duration as an apparently straight forward, slightly hammed-up spook-fest, though there is little by way of conclusions that can be garnered on face value from any of the three tales.

But alarm bells should begin to ring for the viewer when one considers that the first two tales are told from the perspective of a couple of characters who, despite ultimately finding themselves cornered by forces of evil and in apparently terminally hopeless predicaments, both still somehow manage to live to tell the tale. And it’s only once the third tale reaches it’s climactic ‘conclusion’ that events really start to take a peculiar twist, and Ghost Stories slips into an even more intriguing dimension altogether; one whose narrative slips and slides between apparently random events of varied illogic, yet one which ultimately helps to tie the film’s pieces neatly and cleverly together.

There are a few passing parallels with landmark horror films of yesteryear. Elements of Poltergeist and The Blair Witch Project are apparent in places, but curiously it’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek, ‘hammer house’ atmosphere that is most prevalent here. And although admittedly bearing little resemblance, content-wise, Roy Ward Baker’s 1981 ghoulish and very British, twist-in-the-tale offering, The Monster Club, with its own lightly comical regaling of three haunting tales – is for me, somehow the film that I am most reminded of.

Certainly, within their own film, Dyson and Nyman are unafraid to administer generous doses of gallows humour in just the right places, and the casting of two chiefly comic actors in Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse – both of whom are excellent here – in two of the film’s key roles, certainly helps with regard to this, whilst Nyman’s own rather more straight portrayal of a man with an emotionally-scarred past, is equally impressive.

Whether it’s to be considered a mysterious cognitive thriller or simply a ghostly shocker, either way, Ghost Stories is highly effective, lingering on in the memory the way all good cerebrally-challenging psychological horrors should.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I, TONYA

Four Star Rating

“…Tonya’s rise from ice skating-obsessed four-year-old to serious Olympic competitor and ultimately disgraced public persona, is examined here in all of its dysfunctional glory.” – Wayward Wolf.

The fact that I’d barely even heard of Tonya Harding prior to seeing this release is probably symptomatic of your typical British attitude towards all things winter sports-related.

“Why would I have possibly heard of her?” I enquired of a far more clued-up Central European friend of mine.

“It’s not as though Great Britain has ever really experienced success in any aspect of winter sports, let alone figure skating, is it?” I added.

Of course, no sooner had the words left my mouth did the names John Curry, Robin Cousins, and Torvill and Dean come flooding into my mind, like long forgotten memories of some glorious golden age of British winter sport domination at a time in which the sun seemingly never set upon The British Empire.

Add to this, not only were all four athletes victorious British figure skating Olympians, but they in fact all strutted their elegant stuff more or less within the same decade – give or take a few years here and there – that saw Tonya Harding come to the fore.

It’s a fair cop, and clearly, in the words of the late Andrew Sachs: “I know nooooothing.”

But what of Craig Gillespie’s film?

It’s probably fair to assume that a tough upbringing is always liable to nurture a tough individual, as was the case with Tonya Harding, whose remarkable story is regaled here by way of this splendidly entertaining biopic of the infamous U.S skater.

Told from a number of conflicting perspectives, Tonya’s rise from ice skating-obsessed four-year-old to serious Olympic competitor and ultimately disgraced public persona, is examined here in all of its dysfunctional glory.

The story of Tonya Harding is a very American tale in many ways.

The girl from the redneck family, living on the wrong side of the tracks, who, through a combination of hard work and a no-nonsense attitude, somehow managed to overcome all of the considerable odds set out before her to make it to the very top of her profession, albeit for just the briefest of glorious moments.

A resultant child of a problematic relationship, Tonya’s formative years appear to have been shaped through two highly contrasting parental approaches. Compassion and love from her father, and the rather poisonous and at times hateful approach of – so far as I can tell – Roseanne Barr and Dot Cotton’s evil love child… her rather ‘unique’ mother, LaVona (Allison Janney).

It’s LaVona’s relentlessly cantankerous attitude that finally compels Tonya’s father to jump in his car one day and never return, leaving LaVona to raise and support her talented daughter through her many years of intense figure skating training. For a waitress in a diner this is naturally the cause of much financial strain, a point that LaVona is never shy to impress upon Tonya, be that through verbal guilt trips, or in more extreme cases, through the use of physical violence – a sadly recurring theme in Tonya’s life.

No matter her dedication and commitment, Tonya’s rather athletic approach to her sport is constantly at odds with the more elegant and demure image that U.S ice skating seeks to portray. It seems that no matter what marvels she achieves out there on the ice – Harding is the first figure skater ever to successfully pull-off the daunting triple axel, for example – it’s never going to be enough for the closed shop of an agenda-driven U.S skating governing body.

Never fear though. Tonya’s husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and his bungling best friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), with one massively misjudged act of misplaced support and loyalty, are about to clear the way for Tonya to reach the very top of her profession.

And completely destroy her career in the process.

I, Tonya is an absolute romp from start to finish. A marvellously skewed interpretation of the American dream – gone spectacularly wrong.

Directed with both energy and precision and with a major focus upon entertainment, it  brings to mind those momentum-filled Scorcese classics: Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street.

And it’s this insistence upon momentum that serves the director so well here. Even the frequent occurrences of physical violence perpetrated against Tonya – whilst clearly grave subject matter – are not dwelt upon for any significant length of time or allowed to sap the film’s amassed energy. Instead Gillespie’s film flows with tremendous purpose, and the bigger picture is rightly allowed to take precedence.

Further enhancing I, Tonya’s over all sense of vitality is a rollicking good soundtrack made up of choice tracks from the era. From early Chicago, Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp, to the brilliant use of Laura Branigan’s rendition of the Umberto Tozzi-penned classic, Gloria, it’s all tremendous fun.

Margot Robbie is on top-form as the aspiring U.S figure skater. Sebastian Stan is well cast as Jeff, the hugely-flawed love of Tonya’s life – a man that unfortunately (for Tonya’s own sake), she was never quite able to bid ‘adieu’ to. And Paul Walter Hauser is brilliantly comical as Jeff’s delusional best friend, Shawn.

But it’s probably fair to say that Allison Janney’s portrayal of Tonya’s chain-smoking mother, Lavona – acerbic put-downs and all – is the performance that steals the show here. A thoroughly deserving recipient of the 2018 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. I don’t think there can have been too many arguments about that.

I, Tonya offers a cautionary lesson in how even success built upon gargantuan levels of pain-staking effort can so easily implode in the face of poor decision making and the untrustworthiness of others.

Hugely entertaining stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WONDER WHEEL

Three Star Rating

“In the world of cinema not everything always has to be about change and innovation. The world will after all never be short of its fair share of boundary-pushing pioneers. Besides, it’s not as though Woody’s not played his part over the years.” – Wayward Wolf.

Whilst the same three stars may adorn both this review and that of our ‘old friends’ at Time Out, it is however hard not to take issue with the opening gambit of their somewhat dismissive take on Woody Allen’s latest film, Wonder Wheel.

“Feel like watching a new Woody Allen film?” they enquire, knowingly…

“Nobody does these days.” They continue…

“Currently languishing in movie jail, the controversial director soldiers on.”

In light of this and other such ‘glowing’ testimony, I think the term ‘soldiering on’ is probably highly appropriate here. It seems that poor old Woody can barely even buy a favourable review these days.

In some ways they do have a point though. But is it entirely fair?

Once again we are introduced to familiar concepts and scenarios within which an assortment of semi-neurotic characters experience the same kind of angst and existential headaches that we’ve become well accustomed to over the years.

But so what if that’s the case?

Since when did anyone watch the latter day films of Woody Allen expecting groundbreaking content or some sort of revolutionary approach to film-making?

I’d suggest that watching Allen’s films these days – and I mean this in a complimentary sense – is like putting on a favourite pair of comfortable shoes. Some will of course have long discarded these for more fashionable alternatives, but for many they’re simply indispensable. You know how they fit, exactly the type of journey they’ll provide you with, and that they’ll get you to where you both need and want to go.

And if that seems overly-safe or kind of uninspiring, then so be it. In the world of cinema, not everything always has to be about change and innovation. The world will after all never be short of its fair share of boundary-pushing pioneers. Besides, it’s not as though Woody’s not played his part over the years.

Wonder Wheel is a fictional tale with occasional narration from its author and one of its key characters, the aspiring writer and summer lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), whose story centres around a family of larger-than-life characters living in the shadow of the famous aforementioned big wheel in New York’s holiday resort of Coney Island. Here resides carousel ride operator and recovering alcoholic, Humpty (Jim Belushi), his second wife and local waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet), and her young son from another marriage, Richie (Jack Gore). The archetypal, hard-to-love, ginger step child.

It’s a fairly cramped set up thus causing a certain amount of friction within the family unit; a state of play not helped by the family’s ongoing financial difficulties and Richie’s compulsive pyromaniacal tendencies.

Nevertheless, things are just about holding together for Humpty’s clan.

But when the lives you live are built upon the unstable foundations of sand – almost literally in this instance – it’s never really going to take much to bring things tumbling down. And the cracks in the foundations soon begin to appear when the daughter that Humpty disowned some years back – Carolina (Juno Temple) – unexpectedly arrives back on the scene having run away from her no-good hoodlum husband.

Romance soon blossoms between Carolina and Mickey. This scenario in isolation is not necessarily problematic, but the fact Mickey is already involved in an illicit affair with Carolina’s step mother, Ginny, is.

This awkward tangled web of love and lies slowly drives Ginny out of her mind, and to add insult to injury, Carolina – having ‘sung like a canary’ to the authorities regarding her husband’s nefarious activities – now leaves everyone in a predicament, susceptible to the looming threat of a visit from the mob, and all that that would entail.

Chaos reigns.

But despite this pervading sense of unease, Allen’s Wonder Wheel takes a predominantly romanticised view of a Coney Island summer, embellished frequently by the oh so flattering orangey-golden hue of the summer dusk light, and the multi-coloured glow of the Wonder Wheel’s neon lights.

There’s a good collective chemistry between the cast members, and it’s great to see Jim Belushi back on the big screen again, producing a sort of John Goodman-esque depiction of his character, Humpty. Justin Timberlake and Juno Temple both convince in their respective roles, whereas Kate Winslet on the other hand, as good as she is in her portrayal of the emotionally tormented Ginny, tends to suffer a little from the fact that in certain scenes it’s almost impossible not to imagine a wild-haired Woody Allen himself playing this particular role of exponentially increasing neuroticism.

Ignore the naysayers, folks. Though I may be something of a lone voice here, all things considered, the much maligned Wonder Wheel – whilst admittedly not seeing Allen at the peak of his powers – is nonetheless pretty decent fare. To suggest otherwise I’d say is either a little harsh or perhaps indicates some kind of ulterior motive at play.

Can’t think what.

Hmmm.

Wonder Wheel. A cautionary lesson of what goes around comes around in a tale of forbidden love, vanity, jealousy, revenge and regret, all unfolding within one metaphorical 360 degree karma-infused turn of Coney Island’s most iconic leisure attraction.

 

RED SPARROW

Three Star Rating

“…being no particular expert in linguistics and dialects myself, the Russian-infused spoken English within Frances Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, does at least get a tentative pass from me.” – Wayward Wolf.

Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow affords Hollywood’s golden girl, Jennifer Lawrence, another good opportunity to demonstrate her considerable talents in films of a more serious nature. Those with keen memories will realise that this is a revival of the Lawrence / Lawrence partnership which was ultimately so successful through their work together in the Hunger Games franchise.

Whilst Jennifer Lawrence understandably remains a massive box office draw, and thus a staple of many a huge grossing popcorn flick, the last couple of years or so has seen a marked maturity not only in her choice of role, but in the performances that these roles have consequently produced.

In my own very humble opinion, of course.

Coming on the back of both David O. Russell’s 2015 outing, Joy, and Darren Aronofsky’s breathtaking thriller, Mother, Red Sparrow sees Lawrence portraying a famous ballerina turned Russian Intelligence operative.

On sustaining a career-ending injury, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), is given no choice by her rather shady uncle but to enrol into ‘Sparrow School’, very much against her own volition. Here she will learn how to use her body and femininity to devastating effect in the pursuit of acquiring classified secrets and information for her country.

But Red Sparrow – based upon the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews – is by no means a straight forward piece, offering a very involved twisting narrative, and frequently wrong-footing us as it goes.

It’s a tense tale of espionage, surveillance, counter-surveillance and double agents, and for a high budget mainstream release, it has to be said, it’s surprisingly gruesome fare.

Amidst all of the cut-throat cloak and dagger skullduggery, Lawrence positively excels as the seductive femme fatale, tasked with targeting C.I.A agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), with whom she soon finds herself romantically involved, further muddying the film’s already narratively murky waters.

Kowtowing somewhat to the mainstream, most Russian-spoken dialogue is offered in English with a whole variety of takes on what constitutes this at times most brooding of accents. This has, by all accounts, been a bone of contention for many, but being no particular expert in linguistics and dialects myself, the Russian-infused spoken English within Frances Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, does at least get a tentative pass from me.

Certainly there were no moments of teeth-clenching, toe-curling cringe-worthiness that I was ever really aware of.

And I’m sure Mr Lawrence will sleep easy with that news.

Considering the genre, it’s safe to say that this is not a film of the calibre of some of the classic spy thrillers of yesteryear. Red Sparrow perhaps has most in common with the James Bond classic, From Russia with Love, only far more gritty in its realisation. But without doubt, it makes for an at times revivifying experience, not least because of the refreshingly female-centric angle that it takes on this oft-visited genre.

Possibly not a film that will live exceptionally long in the memory, but with a twist in its tail, Red Sparrow definitely achieves what it sets out to do, and gets a lot more right than wrong in the process.

An at times dark, but always entertaining thriller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A FANTASTIC WOMAN

 

Four Star Rating

“Daniela Vega Hernández produces a subtle performance conveying both hurt and inner strength – perfectly encapsulating her feelings of painful isolation.” – Wayward Wolf.

There has been a considerable raising in the profile of – and support for – transgender folk in recent times. A new wave of social justice / identity-driven politics has seen to that, resulting, in some parts of the world, in considerable debate and turmoil surrounding the implementation and mandatory use of new personal pronouns and the redefining of gender in general.

It has become a complex and somewhat tetchy issue for many.

In timely fashion comes Sebastián Lelio‘s critically acclaimed tale of unjust prejudice and enduring love, A Fantastic Woman – a film which deservedly took the Best Foreign Picture Oscar at the recent Academy Awards.

Transgender waitress and cocktail lounge singer, Marina (Daniela Vega Hernández), is living a fulfilled life with her lover, the significantly older, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), with whom she shares an apartment and a German Shepherd dog named Diabla.

Considering the propensity for Marina’s gender status to attract unwanted animosity, on balance life seems relatively good and secure for her.

Orlando’s sudden death, however, positively wrenches the carpet from beneath Marina’s feet, leaving her not only to mourn the loss of the man that genuinely seemed to love, understand and respect her, but to now tackle the future head on, shorn of the protective safety net and veil of ‘respectable normality’ that her relationship with Orlando afforded her – to some extent at least.

As far as Orlando’s close family and friends are concerned, now that he has gone, Marina is to be denounced. A persona non grata.

For Marina, this is to be a bleak and hurtful journey.

Indeed, Marina’s experience throughout Lelio’s film is frequently punctuated by examples of the prejudicial attitudes of people who are either disgusted by or too embarrassed at the very thought of having any sort of association with a transgender person, seeking to sweep the whole sorry affair under the carpet and airbrush it from memory in the process.

Such associations are, after all, not how they would choose to remember their ex-husband, brother, father or friend.

With only the support of her considerate work boss and a singing coach (Sergio Hernández), who truly believes in her – and a man in whom she clearly has great trust and respect – it’s difficult at times to watch such a lost soul gamely swimming against an overwhelming tidal wave of negativity. Increasingly, the hateful weight of this crushes Marina’s resolve, driving her ever deeper into a particularly dark place in her life.

Marina’s infrequent ‘visualised’ recollections of Orlando scattered throughout the film are at once both mournful and hopeful; reviving in her mind something that was beautiful, genuine and true and that serves as a reminder for her that happiness is possible, even for the most railed against of lives.

Daniela Vega Hernández produces a subtle performance conveying both hurt and inner strength – perfectly encapsulating her feelings of painful isolation. It’s a performance that positively insists upon (and gets) our collective empathy without ever resorting to melodramatics to do so.

Additionally, A Fantastic Woman boasts a soundtrack that is undoubtedly a major component of the film’s success.

Matthew Herbet’s understated score together with a choice selection of suitably emotive pieces perfectly support Lelio’s at times hard-hitting film. Perhaps most notably is the wonderfully evocative Pink Floyd-esque strains of The Alan Parsons Project’s Time, which exquisitely enhances one particularly tender scene of intimacy in the film’s early stages.

A Fantastic Woman is an ultimately hopeful film, beautifully realised and naked in its honesty. It lays bare the social and societal implications of what it means to be ‘different’ within a fearful and intolerant world, and more importantly the personal drive and determination that it then takes to overcome such oppression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LADY BIRD

 

Three Star Rating

“…based purely on the quality of its [Oscar] opposition, I suspect that multiple nominations will be as good as it gets for this quirky coming-of-age tale.” – Wayward Wolf.

Greta Gerwig’s first foray into directing, Lady Bird, has apparently attracted significant interest amongst the Oscar nominations committee.

Not for me.

That’s not to detract at all from what is undoubtedly a strong directorial debut, but based purely on the quality of its opposition, I suspect that multiple nominations will be as good as it gets for this quirky coming-of-age tale.

Then again, what do I know?

Perhaps predictably, the film’s leading lady, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is both strong-willed and a little bit ‘different’. Considering Gerwig’s own acting career to date, this should come as no surprise to anyone that’s familiar with her work.

Gerwig’s film is something of a tick list of teenage angst in all of its myriad forms, from losing your virginity, dating the guy that turns out to be gay, dating the guy that’s far too self-absorbed to notice you, ditching that penniless geeky best friend of yours for a richer more beautiful and popular model, to ‘flunking’ your school grades thus jeopardising your future career prospects – it’s all here folks.

But whilst on first inspection it may seem like the story board to a ropey piece of throw-away teen trash, Gerwig’s film manages to transcend the apparently disposable to produce an at times profoundly moving film which delves emotionally far deeper than it would at first appear. And it’s Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), and more latterly with her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), that truly adds meat to the bones of this piece.

Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother in particular is erratic and highly strained. Two strong-willed characters they most certainly are, constantly at loggerheads with one another.

In response to her daughter’s somewhat unrealistic lofty ambitions to attend a high-brow New York College, Marion quips that she’d be better off just leaving school, signing up for city college, going to jail and then signing up for city college again.

Marion is the mother that only wants the best for her daughter, determined that she should learn from her own mistakes in life, yet her well-meaning motives come across as distinctly lacking in compassion and seem to dismiss Lady Bird’s own feelings and ambitions out of hand.

Her father on the other hand is an open and caring parent in whom Lady Bird can confide and receive the affection that her mother is either unwilling or unable to give.

Saoirse Ronan puts in a tender performance as the confused teen lead. Timothée Chalamet continues his recent good work with his portrayal of book-bound wannabe libertarian, Kyle, but it’s the welcome return of the wonderful Laurie Metcalfe that possibly impresses most.

Lady Bird is a tale of umpteen trials and tribulations. Girl versus the world on a teenage voyage of discovery. But as much as anything, it’s a film examining just what it takes to achieve our goals in spite of at times overwhelming odds and negativity.

It’s engaging and amusing in places, and all perfectly likeable.

It’s just no Oscar winner, but there’s no shame in that.

 

 

 

DARKEST HOUR

 

Four Star Rating

“No less impressive is Bruno Delbonnel’s absolutely beautiful cinematography, which positively shimmers through its artistic use of silhouettes and subtle lighting techniques.” – Wayward Wolf.

Darkest Hour examines the rise to power and early Prime Ministry of Winston Churchill. Churchill (Gary Oldman), is portrayed as being far from an establishment line-toeing ‘yes man’ – unlike existing Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) – who, if the exaggerated handkerchief waving and heightened levels of vitriol emanating from the House of Commons are anything to go by, has clearly lost the confidence of both his own party and the entirety of the political opposition.

Chamberlain will resign and his party will then move quickly to choose a successor, in the interests of both the existing government, but more pressingly, to ensure that a strong level of leadership exists during war time.

Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) – the party’s unanimous choice to succeed Chamberlain – surprisingly declines the offer. Step forward then one Winston Churchill. A less popular choice within his own party, once couldn’t imagine. Perceived to be something of a renegade and a loose cannon, the government is loathe to appoint him, but appoint him they ultimately do, only to soon regret the folly of their decision.

Whereas Jonathan Teplitzky’s 2017 effort, Churchill – featuring a similarly commanding central performance from Brian Cox – paid greater attention to Churchill’s faltering psychological state and the relationship that he shared with his wife and all-round pillar of strength, Clemmie, Joe Wright is more concerned here with Churchill the politician, as he sets about his work like some kind of force of nature, ruffling feathers as he goes with his dogged determination that Britain should not compromise and surrender to a tyrant that threatens the long-term freedom of the peoples of Europe.

Joe Wright’s film is hugely impressive in many ways. Most striking of all – and every bit the headline-grabber – is Gary Oldman’s absolute tour-de-force performance as this mostly unshakeably single-minded of first ministers. It should be noted though that Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill’s less decisive quieter moments of self-doubt are as equally worthy of praise as his portrayal of the call-to-arms, rebel-rousing speeches for which Churchill is so well known and revered.

No less impressive is Bruno Delbonnel’s absolutely beautiful cinematography, which positively shimmers through its artistic use of silhouettes and subtle lighting techniques. Perhaps most notable of all though is the imaginative and innovative staging and choice of shots. It’s as clear as day here that this is truly the stuff of Oscar nominations.

If there’s to be one criticism it’s perhaps the inclusion of a scene in the film’s latter stages which I’m fairly confident is the stuff of fiction, in which Winston Churchill goes on something of a fact-finding / soul-searching mission.

Changing the habit of a lifetime, he rides the London Underground to Westminster rather than being ferried about by a personal driver. Whilst doing so he engages in a number of conversations with understandably shocked and bewildered passengers in an attempt to gauge the thoughts and feelings of the general public with regards to the increasingly desperate scenario confronting them all – the very real possibility that the allies will suffer defeat during the early exchanges of World War II.

No matter how heart-felt and useful a scene this may well be with which to portray Churchill as being ‘truly a man of the people’, I’d argue that it is also rather out of place within the context of the film as a whole. It all seems like something of an ill-fitting after thought, and threatens to undo some of the excellent work that has preceded it, though I appreciate that this will of course be entirely subjective.

Nevertheless, don’t let this minor quibble distract from what is otherwise an absolutely stupendous piece of film-making, beautifully and lovingly put together with direction that successfully blends the artistic with the popular.

Despite its dependance upon heavy dialogue and weighty subject matter, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour nonetheless remains easily accessible and absolutely simmers with emotion.

One of the finest biopics for many a long year.

 

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Three Star Rating

“A grisly fable come watery fairy tale. A sort of E.T for adults if you like, just not as good…” – Wayward Wolf.

A strange aquatic entity has been captured in South America’s Amazon region and has been transported back to a top secret research laboratory in the U.S.

In this establishment works Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning girl assigned, along with her good friend Zelda (the predictably typecast Octavia Spencer), to maintain the cleanliness of the particular room in which the mystery Amazonian creature is housed, and it’s not long before a strong connection bordering on amorous devotion develops between Elisa and this watery web-foot.

But this is not exactly a petting zoo. The mysterious species has been brought there for scientific reasons. In a bid to gain some advantage over the Soviet space programme, the U.S government wishes to study this creature’s remarkable breathing mechanism.

Overseeing the logistics of this operation is cattle-prod wielding psychopath, Colonel Richard Strickland (another reliably villainous performance from the excellent Michael Shannon), a man severely lacking in empathy, a trait that he all too readily demonstrates through his constant ill-treatment of the aquatic subject.

But having lost two fingers – and subsequently having had them sewn back on again – in an altercation with the creature, Strickland then attempts to convince the powers-that-be to perform a vivisection on it.

And with the very real possibility that this amorous amphibian could be snatched from Elisa’s arms, it’s clear that an immediate plan of action is required.

But the clock is ticking…

The Shape of Water when boiled down is a surprisingly straight forward affair considering who’s sitting in the director’s chair. A grisly fable come watery fairy tale. A sort of E.T for adults if you like, just not as good, with a possible tip of the hat towards Beauty and the Beast, for good measure.

The narrative may be suspiciously simple, but the film serves as a visually pleasing vehicle through which to explore various themes of love, acceptance and tolerance, amongst others, and there are some fine performances, from Sally Hawkins in particular, lending the piece a high degree of credibility.

Though largely restricted to sign language, looks and gestures, it is Hawkins’ on-screen relationships with the most prominent people in her life, namely Zelda, Strickland, and most notably of all, her artistic gay next door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), which really bring this tale alive.

Giles, much like Elisa, seems to suffer from a crippling lack of self confidence, but their shared empathy and hopelessly romantic dreams help them both muddle through life’s struggles together.

Guillermo Del Toro’s film has a dark yet playful feel to it; a necessary approach considering the fairly preposterous premise of a physically romantic liaison between a mute girl and, what is essentially the creature from the black lagoon, which, visually-speaking at least, seems to have been Del Toro’s clear influence here.

It’s an interesting piece and not without its positives, but ultimately one that I couldn’t successfully engage with on any sort of meaningful level, and it wasn’t for the want of trying.

The Shape of Water fails to really make any significant waves – a pleasing enough ripple in a garden pond, more like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE MERCY

Three and a half Star Rating

​”It’s a poignant tale made additionally so given the recent untimely death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer whose score predictably beautifully embellishes James Marsh’s heart-felt piece…” – Wayward Wolf.

When I were but a wee slip of a lad I was whisked here and there all over the City of London by my quite frankly incredible Grandma. She seemed absolutely hell-bent on introducing me, my sister and two of my cousins to just about every last historical landmark on the map. Always one to stress the importance of history upon us.

One such landmark was The Gipsy Moth IV yacht. It stood land-locked for just over thirty years in Greenwich, London, alongside the Cutty Sark tea clipper – a lasting testament to Sir Francis Chichester who, aboard this fine vessel, had become the first ever yachtsman to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, stopping just once en route out of absolute necessity.

A year or so after his heroics, Sir Francis was to throw down the gauntlet to the next generation of yachtsmen. The challenge was simple. Was there anyone that could single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, but do so without stopping at all?

 

James Marsh’s film, The Mercy, paints a picture of Donald Crowhurst, the much loved husband of Clare, and the father of three children on whom he dotes. Quite why this man was so drawn to Chichester’s challenge is perhaps never truly revealed, but being a keen weekend sailor himself, and with a strong background in engineering, Crowhurst is confident enough that he’s up to the task. Afterall, as he himself suggests – albeit from the security of dry land: “if you know how to sail, then circumnavigating the globe just requires one to keep on sailing for an extended period of time…” – or words to that effect.

There is of course some logic to such an opinion, yet, whether this is just a show of bravado or not, in the context of his proposed voyage, it is undeniably something of a naive statement. Nonetheless, Crowhurst seems determined, and sets about not only building his own trimaran, but kitting it out with a number of gadgets and devices of his own invention.

Bringing financial sponsorship and press interest on board brings a greater degree of professionalism and realism to the project, but the unforeseen set backs are numerous and not only delay Crowhurst’s departure – and thus his chances of winning – but result in ever greater financial burdens. With his family’s house and possessions now in jeopardy should he fail, this amateur sailor’s predicament is becoming increasingly precarious.

With nagging doubts now racing through his mind, a boat that’s barely fit for purpose, and having painted himself into a corner through his considerable financial obligations, Donald Crowhurst nevertheless makes the bold decision to proceed regardless.

The Mercy, whilst at one point threatening to become some sort of heroic sea-faring yarn of derring do – bringing to mind Robert Redford’s dramatic 2013 solo vehicle, All Is Lost, in the process –  in fact takes an unexpected turn (unexpected that is for those that are unaware of the story).

A couple of months into his journey, Crowhurst becomes increasingly aware that, all considered, any attempts to continue would be akin to suicide. Drastic times so often call for drastic measures and against his better judgement and moral values he makes the unthinkable decision to fake his ‘progress’, relaying a sequence of impressive reports at strategic intervals back to HQ, all the while seeing out the days in relatively calm waters. A far cry from some of the perilous waters of the Southern Hemisphere.

James Marsh’s film does a fine job of contrasting the guilt, chaos and both physical and mental sufferance of Crowhurst’s doomed voyage with the rose-tinted perceptions – and therefore heightened expectations  – of his family, the community in which they live, and the local (and later national) press who positively lap up each and every false statement of achievement that Donald ashamedly wires across – digging himself further and further into an ever expanding hole in the process.

Firth’s portrayal of this desperate man is sincere and at times commanding. With the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and realising that he’s simply way too far out of his depth now to consider turning back, his ultimate descent into disgrace and madness borders on heartbreaking.

Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of his loyal suffering wife is sweet and tender yet quietly powerful, and David Thewlis and Ken Stott both weigh in with reliably solid, believable performances as a local press hack and Crowhurst’s chief financial sponsor, respectively.

It’s a poignant tale made additionally so given the recent untimely death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer whose score predictably beautifully embellishes James Marsh’s heart-felt piece, and whose score for the duo’s previous outing, The Theory of Everything, had in fact picked up a Golden Globe award. Just recognition of a brilliant composer whose passing is a massive loss both to cinema and the world of music in general.

The Mercy, as much as anything, conveys something of a moral message centring around the need to be true to oneself and the ones that we love, lest we suffer the psychological implications of straying too far from such a path.

Contrary to the conclusion that Crowhurst is ultimately believed to have arrived at, nothing is ever quite so bad or quite so irredeemable, that it can’t be forgiven or overcome.

At least that would be the conclusion most likely arrived at by the sane and the rational.

The hallucinatory mind of a man racked by guilt and having been alone at sea for way too long, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOVELESS (Nelyubov)

Four Star Rating

“…Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). A helpless pawn stuck in the middle, condemned to try and make some sense of the never ending spiteful bickering of the two people he most depends upon.” – Wayward Wolf.

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless starts as it means to go on. A sequence of stark lingering shots of a snow-covered unforgiving Russian winter.

These images are actually quite beautiful in isolation and arguably offer only a hint of the pervading mood of downbeat misery that is soon to follow.

Don’t be put-off however by such an apparently down-cast summary.

Zvyagintsev’s film is in fact a brilliantly observed study of the most negative aspects of a failed relationship, made all the more harrowing through the involvement of a child, the couple’s young son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). A helpless pawn stuck in the middle, condemned to try and make some sense of the never ending spiteful bickering of the two people he most depends upon.

Alyosha’s parents – two fine performances full of conviction by Maryana Spivak (Zhenya), and Aleksey Rozin (Boris) – have both found new partners and long to bring the curtain down on their sorry, loveless marriage, and ‘start again’ – as it were. They have become two eminently unlikeable characters. Zhenya, an angry (primarily at herself), highly irritable individual obsessed with the comforting distraction of her mobile phone, and Boris, who whilst frequently drawn into exchanges of vitriol with his wife, is a somewhat withdrawn man, distancing himself as much as possible from any contact with either Zhenya or Alyosha. 

It’s a relentlessly toxic environment, made worse still by the parents’ apparent lack of concern as to the affects of their self-absorbed sniping, upon their young son.

Unusually for such a predicament as this, neither parent makes any attempt to curry favour with the child; quite the opposite in fact. The fight, it would seem, is for who’s not going to take custody. Alyosha is seen as an inconvenience, a mistake that never should have happened, and his parents have absolutely no qualms about voicing such hurtful opinions in full earshot of the distressed youngster.

It’s no wonder therefore that the day soon arrives when the young lad grabs his school bag and makes a bolt for the door, never to return. And such is the self-centred attitude of his parents, neither of them even notices this for almost two days.

But is this actually genuine neglect of an impressionable youngster, or more likely the inevitable comeuppance from their high-stakes psychological games?

Two films sprung to mind whilst watching Loveless: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2015 Ukrainian film, The Tribe – a film similar in its mood and sense of helplessness that focuses on a run-down boarding school for the deaf in which harsh life lessons are dished out with depressing regularity. But perhaps of more direct relevance is Joachim Lafosse’s 2016 mournfully awkward relationship drama, After Love (L’Économie du couple), a film which whilst being almost exclusively – and excruciatingly for that matter – downbeat, does at least offer, for the most fleeting of moments, a rare olive branch of hope and potential redemption.

Zvyagintsev’s film on the other hand makes no such concessions. In fact, the Director seems determined to walk his audience, almost in real-time, through every last awkward moment of not only the couple’s frequent fights, but of their increasingly desperate and forlorn attempts to track down their absent son, whether that be through a vague lead offered up by Alyosha’s friend, or a visit to Zhenya’s appalling mother. “Stalin-in-a-skirt” indeed.

The outlook is grim, and there’s a lingering sense of just ‘knowing’ as rescue parties comb their way through surrounding woodland and derelict buildings, to no avail. All the while, the warring couple barely utter a word to one another. Certainly there’s no sense of galvanised togetherness, if only in the interests of the greater good.

Nothing.

Loveless is an open-ended, consistently powerful film with an underlying message suggesting that if we don’t address and learn from our own deficiencies, our troubles have a nasty habit of ultimately coming full circle.

It’s bleak, it’s brutal and it’s hard to watch, but it’s equally hard to ignore.

PHANTOM THREAD

Four and a half Star Rating

“Much will rightly be made of Daniel Day Lewis’s stupendous performance, which only serves to emphasise just what a massive loss he will be to the big screen.” – Wayward Wolf.

If this is indeed to be Daniel Day Lewis’s final foray into the world of cinema, then Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a fittingly fine piece in which to take his final bow.

Right from the off we are made aware that Reynolds Woodcock, a highly successful renowned maker of elegant, timeless dresses, is a rather fastidious man. A confirmed bachelor by his own admission he is instead married to his work, something that he lives and breathes in every waking moment of every day.

A brief but much needed escape to the coast introduces Reynolds to Alma (a nicely understated performance from Vicky Krieps), a young waitress in a local tea room. Reynolds, clearly smitten and keen to waste neither time nor opportunity, seizes the chance to not only invite Alma to dinner, but to have her model one of his dress designs. And Reynolds’ softly-spoken effusions are ultimately more than enough to convince the impressionable young lady to come and live with him in his elegant London abode.

And so begins Alma’s initiation into the some what self-centred, tunnel-visioned world of Reynolds Woodcock. But far from being yet another lackey destined only to dance to the beat of her master’s drum, Alma will come to be his muse, his lover and most interestingly of all, his greatest challenge.

Whilst on paper Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a slightly unsettling period piece infused with darkly comedic overtones, the overpowering impression is of a film that is both masterfully crafted and sublimely beautiful in every respect.

Much will rightly be made of Daniel Day Lewis’s stupendous performance, which only serves to emphasise just what a massive loss he will be to the big screen. Lewis’ nuanced portrayal of this critically demanding and fussbudgety – yes, that’s fussbudgety – character is intense to say the least, as are the relationships and interactions that he ‘builds’ with those around him.

Reynolds’ relationship with his omnipresent sour-faced assistant, Cyril (a superb performance by the wonderful Lesley Manville), is particularly revealing and built solidly around routine and dependability. For a man so independent of thought and action, Reynolds is surprisingly indecisive without Cyril’s much valued input and calm assurance on all matters, even having a tendency to slip into temporary states of insecurity and self-doubt in her absence.

Cyril on the other hand tolerates her employer and his rather trying idiosyncrasies, but no more than that, and Reynolds knows not to cross her. Years of service to this at times unreasonable dressmaker make her best placed to understand his numerous whims and demands; and she is all too sure to pass on the pearls of wisdom that she’s unearthed along the way with sage words of advice to an initially confused Alma, with whom she shares something of a strained relationship.

“There’s altogether too much movement for breakfast time,” opines a disgruntled Reynolds – or words to that affect – in reaction to Alma’s involuntary slurps, chomps and general noise making at the breakfast table, leading her partner to suffer yet another episode of chronic noise over-sensitivity, bordering on Hyperacusis.

But such an obvious achilles heel will be something that Alma comes to use to her advantage in response to Reynolds’ sometimes callous and hurtful remarks, and will lead the couple into a dysfunctional phase of their relationship based around an unhealthy cocktail of power, envy, control and sado-masochism.

 

It’s a constantly fascinating encounter.

Adorning Paul Thomas Anderson’s stunning work is Johnny Greenwood’s luscious and no less impressive score, the main theme from which being a recurring, highly memorable melodic contrary motion piece which creates a spell-binding mood of romanticism, refinement, and splendour. The perfect accompaniment.

Sadly, it’s also the type of score that is all too rare in modern film making.

Phantom Thread has been positively inundated with Oscar nominations in as many as six different categories. I’m certainly not going to argue with that sentiment.

Don’t be surprised to see this hugely impressive film amongst the eventual winners. It’s that good.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Four and a half Star Rating

“Sometimes it’s through having a total disregard for political correctness, and indeed not overly concerning oneself with the possibility of causing offence, that the most memorable cinema is created” – Wayward Wolf.

Sometimes it’s through having a total disregard for political correctness, and indeed not overly concerning oneself with the possibility of causing offence, that the most memorable cinema is created.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (Three Billboards from hereon in), is the work of writer and director Martin McDonagh, and is very much a case in point.

Never one to shy away from the controversial, McDonagh’s past work includes the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psycopaths. These two films alone should provide more than a hint of what to expect from this, McDonagh’s latest dark, warts-and-all tale.

Frances McDormand portrays Mildred, a woman consumed with bitterness, living with a prevailing sense of injustice, and understandably so. Her daughter had some time previously been raped, brutally murdered and her body burned, somewhere on the outskirts of town. In Mildred’s eyes the police have made little or no attempt since the incident to bring the perpetrator to justice – whoever that may be.

Driven by her ongoing frustrations, Mildred takes it upon herself to rent three disused billboards on a small stretch of road just outside of town. Emblazoned upon them is a series of hard-hitting provocative messages designed to induce some form of reaction from much respected local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man that Mildred, rightly or wrongly, perceives to have neglected his duties.

But this is small town America, and Mildred is fully aware that this is going to open one big can of worms. Not only do her actions agitate the local police force, but unwittingly she has targeted her frustrations at a dying man. It’s water off a duck’s back for thick skinned terminal Cancer patient, Willoughby, but the same cannot be said of his colleagues and the majority of the townsfolk who have been suitably irked by Mildred’s actions. There is a collective opinion that she has been overly callous towards a man that just so happens to be held in rather high esteem ’round them there parts’, and is considered to be the very glue that holds the Ebbing community together.

And so begins something of a war of attrition between Mildred, Willoughby and pretty much the entire town in which she lives.

Being made aware of Willoughby’s state of health you’d think would then be sufficient grounds for Mildred to reconsider her actions and back down gracefully, but it only serves to strengthen her resolve. If nothing else, she is one hell of a stubborn lady.

McDonaugh’s film excels on so many levels, most notably though through the richness and depth of its wonderful characterisation.

McDormand is full of no-nonsense bluster and attitude portraying the film’s splendidly cynical anti-hero, unafraid to give ‘both barrels’ to officers of the law and Catholic priests alike.

Sam Rockwell, whilst cast somewhat to type, is superb in his nuanced portrayal of Dixon, a work-shy, anger-filled bigoted small-town Police Officer, exhibiting all of the psychological traits one would surely associate with a forty-something still living at home with his red-neck mother. Yet despite all of this, Dixon’s life will come to be forever altered when he walks, quite literally, through the fire, on the way to his own Damascene conversion.

And then there’s Woody Harrelson. His portrayal of Willoughby is both weighty and full of charm. This is a man who not only rises to McDormand’s challenge, but more importantly, seems to enjoy the ensuing game that it brings.

The interplay between these and indeed all of the cast members is detailed and convincing, thanks to both the plethora of talent on show and the sheer quality of McDonagh’s writing. His multi-layered screenplay is gritty, witty, profoundly emotional, suitably inappropriate and thoroughly believable, with razor sharp dialogue to boot.

And it goes without saying that be it through deeply awkward scenarios or foul-mouthed rants, the blackest of humour abounds throughout in the director’s trademark style.

Three Billboards is a beautifully judged piece that takes time to consider emotional pain, the idea of retribution, anger, selflessness, sadness and to some extent at least, redemption. It’s also a film concerned very much with the here and now, resisting the temptation to gratuitously portray and dwell upon the heinous crimes of the past. Instead it brilliantly weaves the present day lives, needs, fears and aspirations of an entire community together into one engaging, complex whole.

Martin McDonagh has created a film here in which every act is as important as the last and indeed the next. Nothing here is peripheral. Everything is integral.

Wonderfully provocative, this is an instant classic.

THE POST

Four Star Rating

“Spielberg’s film is an absolute masterclass in tension and suspense” – Wayward Wolf.

“The press is for the benefit not of the governors, but of the governed…”

Never a truer word spoken, though a hugely debatable sentiment within today’s rather one-eyed, less than transparent media, I’d suggest.

I’m sure I’m not alone in welcoming the return of the master of popular story telling, Steven Spielberg.

His latest piece, The Post, chronicles the uber-tense set of circumstances leading up to the enormously brave decision by the ‘Free Press’ to publish a huge number of leaked documents revealing successive U.S Governments’ cover up of the truth behind the Vietnam War.

Daniel Ellsberg, an American military journalist stationed in the thick of the combat, returns to his homeland determined that the U.S Government’s on-going thirty year deception of its public should no longer be allowed to continue, and makes the bold decision to make available reams of classified national defence information to The New York Times, who in turn proceed to publish many of the files.

This is indeed a courageous move for both Ellsberg and The New York Times, but one which will soon be closed down by way of a court injunction.

Meanwhile, the new Editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (a slightly darker role for the usually squeaky clean Tom Hanks), is determined to make a splash for his paper, and despite the injunction hanging over all of the country’s press, when opportunity presents itself, he is undeterred and decides, against much legal advice, that The Washington Post will show no reluctance in publishing more of this classified content.

This is all well and good, but Bradlee’s decisions must be approved by not only a board of directors, but more importantly, by the paper’s slightly reluctant owner, Kay Graham (a top drawer performance from the ever reliable Meryl Streep).

Such a predicament will inevitably lead to much hand-wringing and soul searching.

Set to the backdrop of civil unrest and a rapidly swelling anti-war sentiment amongst the people, Spielberg’s film is an absolute masterclass in tension and suspense. Not only is this a race against the clock, but a test of nerve and one big collective wrestle with morality. Very much a case of the people versus the State.

We only have to look at the more recent actions of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden for their ‘so-called-treachery’ against their respective Governements, to know that anarchy, the distrust of authority and the quest for justice are very much alive and well in modern society, but the revelation of The Pentagon Papers (as the leaked Vietnam files were to become known), was, in 1970, a somewhat unprecedented action, and one that raised the moral dilemma: To whom must one be more dutiful? To the people, or to one’s own Government?

This painfully awkward scenario is quite brilliantly captured by the cast, but in particular through the performances of Hanks, and especially Meryl Streep.

Streep’s portrayal of Kay Graham is one of a woman who initially, despite being the Paper’s owner – albeit by default – seems to lack authority amongst her peers, and the courage of her own convictions in such a male-dominated environment. However, over the course of the film, she gradually grows into the role and the responsibility that it entails, and in the face of huge opposition by much of her paper’s board of directors, she wrestles gamely with her own conscience, all too aware of the potential implications, to ultimately come to what she feels to be the right decision.

It’s a superb, nuanced portrayal of a gradually empowered woman who never sacrifices principles to gain authority.

Spielberg once again teams up with legendary composer John Williams, whose score is bold and influential, yet never overpowering. Just another example of the pair’s perfectly complimentary partnership in film.

The Post is a piece that examines morality and just what it means to uphold the Constitution of the U.S.A in the face of potential severe national threat, and it’s all done with Spielberg’s trademark energy, heart and quite brilliant characterisation.

A must see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Four Star Rating

“Just when it seemed that Ridley Scott’s decline had become irreversible, along comes All the Money in the World” – Wayward Wolf.

The last five years or so have not exactly been what you’d call ‘vintage’ years for one of the big screen’s favourite directors. I’d even go so far as to suggest that it’s now in the public’s interest for his films to be preceded by some kind of warning:

CAUTION: RIDLEY SCOTT.

From the man that was bang on track with classics such as: Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, the last few years have seen the Ridley Scott Express somewhat derailed thanks to a succession of hugely disappointing offerings.

Prometheus, The Counsellor, Alien: Covenant and the admittedly half-decent The Martian (loved the first half, hated the second) – each, in its own way, has been as underwhelming as the next.

But as the old sport-related adage suggests: form is temporary but class is permanent, and you can’t keep a good man down. Just when it seemed that Ridley Scott’s decline had become irreversible, along comes All the Money in the World.

Based upon the extraordinary true story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, it tells of his mother’s bullish attempts to convince the boy’s billionaire Grandfather, John Paul Getty (the superb Christopher Plummer), to loosen his purse strings a little and stump up the $17 million ransom being demanded by John Paul Getty III’s Italian captors.

But John Paul Getty is stubborn and something of a complicated character, and prising the money from this man’s overly-tight grasp will prove to be much easier said than done.

Much as Governments will typically refuse to succumb to the demands of terrorists, John Paul Getty, whilst having no problem in publicly admitting to the deep love that he feels for his Grandson, seems suitably unperturbed by the young lad’s plight. Instead, time rolls on and even the grisly spectacle of a part of his Grandson’s ear materialising one day in the post, is insufficient to force the stubborn billionaire’s hand.

All the while, John Paul Getty III’s mother, Gail Harris (the excellent Michelle Williams), and Getty’s own head of security, Fletcher Chase (a nice turn from Mark Wahlberg), do everything within their power to not only track down the kidnappers, but more importantly, to attempt to convince John Paul Getty to part with what is after all, a very small fraction of his overall fortune. It soon becomes clear, however, that John Paul Getty will only ever consider adhering to Gail’s wishes upon a certain condition; one that would ultimately snatch Gail’s son away from her own parental control.

All the Money in the World is a prime example of Ridley Scott being a superb director for the big occasion. He’s never been one to shy away from the memorable, the dramatic, the tongue-in-cheek or the big show-stopping scenes. And in this latest big budget crime caper, one scene in particular will have you positively squirming in your seat. But such attention-grabbing antics only serve to positively enhance, not distract in any way from the film’s captivating narrative.

Whereas many of Scott’s recent outings have had the tendency to slide into the realm of the poorly-scripted and the cliché-riddled – in essence a tendency to sell out to the needs of the mainstream – All the Money in the World does no such thing.

With well judged attention paid to the psychology of the unfolding scenario, Ridley Scott succeeds in sustaining a high degree of intrigue, knowing exactly when to ramp up the suspense levels, and more importantly resisting – mercifully – the need to resort to any sort of naff Hollywood closing flourish.

This is a fine, captivating film which achieves that tricky balance between popcorn and fine story telling. In other words, this is every bit a Ridley Scott film – done well, and one, consequently, that should appeal right across the board.

 

 

 

 

The Wayward Wolf Annual Film Awards – 2017:

WWAFA Wolf Image 2017

Well, didn’t 2017 just fly by, folks?

And with the spectre of death looming ever larger over each and every one of us, the Wayward Wolf is here once again to make some sense of it all by picking over the bones of the year (just gone) in film, with the…

2017 Wayward Wolf Film Awards (The WWAFAS)!

76 (that’s SEVENTY-SIX) films were viewed on the big screen this year, one more than in 2016, and it has to be said that the standard was mind bogglingly good at times. So good in fact that there’s virtually nothing in it between the top ten entries. Indeed, picking the best film was harder this year than in any of the preceding four or five years that I’ve been doing all of this reviewing malarkey.

I should also acknowledge that there were a few choice films released in 2017 which seem to be have received all manner of rave reviews yet somehow slipped through my net for one reason or another, such as: God’s Own Country, Happy End, I am Not Your Negro, Good Time to name but four. Do bear this in mind then before bemoaning their lack of inclusion!

Lastly, you’ll notice that there is an absence of a Best Documentary category this year. Despite having seen any number of them on television during the year – including some magnificent serialised OJ Simpson and Vietnam documentaries, not to mention the brilliant Jim & Andy – unusually (for me), I’ve barely managed to see any on the big screen during 2017. Hopefully that’s something that can be rectified in 2018.

Don’t forget, it’s only films viewed in a cinema by yours truly – with a 2017 UK release date – that have been considered in the final reckoning.

And so, without anymore to-do, it’s on with the show…

 

This Year’s WWAFA Categories:

1. Best Soundtrack

2. Best Foreign Language Film

3. Best Actress (Lead or support)

4. Best Actor (Lead or support)

5. Worst Film

6. Best Film

dividing line

Best Original Soundtrack:

 

The Top Five: (in descending order):

5. It’s Only the End of the World  – Gabriel Yared

4. Jackie – Mica Levi

3. A Ghost Story – Daniel Hart

2. La La Land Justin Hurwitz

But the winner is…

1. Hans ZimmerDunkirk

As excellent as many other soundtracks have been in 2017, this year there was a clear winner. Hans Zimmer’s superb score is a precision piece of work complimenting magnificently Christopher Nolan’s epic vision of war. I’ve seen this relationship described as perfectly symbiotic, and truly it is. A superbly powerful emotionally charged soundtrack and a thoroughly deserving winner.

 dividing line

Best Foreign Language Film:

 

The Top Five: (in descending order):

5. It’s Only the End of the World

4. The Handmaiden

3. Raw

2. En Man Som Heter Ove (A Man Called Ove)

But the winner is…

1. Toni Erdmann

Sandra Hüller’s subtle performance is absolutely spot on in Maren Ade’s wonderful film which fuses “a mostly subtle strand of comedy with an underlying melancholia in this absorbing tale of a disfunctional father/daughter relationship.”

dividing line

Best Actress:

 

Narrowly missing out on the top five in 2017, it’s only fair that we acknowledge the following brilliant performances:

Florence Pugh and her gloriously conniving performance in Lady MacBeth.

Teresa Palmer’s excellent portrayal of a girl held captive against her will in Berlin Syndrome.

Jennifer Lawrence’s breathtaking adrenalin-charged performance in Mother.

Sandra Hüller’s splendid performance in Toni Erdmann.

And Clare Foy, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman for their roles in Breathe, Wonder and Jackie respectively.

 

The Top Five: (in descending order):

5. Tatiana Maslany – Stronger

4. Viola Davis Fences

3. Annette Bening Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

2. Ellie Kendrick – The Levelling

But the winner is…

1. Isabelle Huppert – Elle:

A reassuringly superb performance from Huppert as “a woman whose experiences earlier in life have resulted in something of a twisted psyche…”
 dividing line

Best Actor:

 

Some truly memorable performances in 2017, and it would be remiss of me not to mention the handful that narrowly missed the cut:

Andrew Garfield had quite the year when you consider that his superb performances in both Silence and Breathe weren’t even his best performances of the year!

Terrific performances also from:

Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, Michael Keaton in The Founder, Geoffrey Rush in Final Portrait, both Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name and Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, whilst Vincent Cassel’s rage-fuelled performance in It’s Only the End of the World was also a big highlight.

The Top Five: (in descending order):

5. Jim Broadbent – The Sense Of An Ending

4.  Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project

3. Casey AffleckManchester By the Sea

2. Andrew GarfieldHacksaw Ridge

But the winner is…

1. Denzel Washington – Fences:

An absolute masterclass from the ever impressive Denzel Washington, one part of a hugely impressive ensemble cast.

 dividing line

Worst Film:

 

As was the case in 2016, there were reassuringly few poor films this year (at least this was the case with regard to the films that I saw, personally), and so, as with last year, there are just the three worst film entries in this particular category…

The Top Three: (in descending order):

3. Hampstead

2. Alien Covenant

 

But the winner is…

1. Denial

There are almost certainly umpteen more ‘conventionally’ awful films from 2017 than Director Mick Jackson’s Denial – a film which may well boast the likes of Timothy Spall and Rachel Weisz amongst its impressive cast, but sometimes it’s simply a film’s totally one-eyed unbalanced approach to its subject matter that’s enough to infuriate sufficiently and earn it the ‘not so’ coveted, Worst Film WWAFA.

Denial is most definitely one such film.

 dividing line

Best Film:

 

Ten absolutely tremendous films, but there can be only one winner…

 

The Top Ten (in descending order):

10. The Handmaiden 

9. La La Land 

8. Fences

7. A Ghost Story

6. Raw

5. En Man Som Heter Ove (A Man Called Ove)

4. Toni Erdmann

3. Mother

2. Manchester By The Sea

 

But the winner, and Wayward Wolf Film Of The Year for 2017, is…

 

1. The Florida Project

It was always going to take something special to pip the rest to the post this year, and Sean Baker’s wonderful The Florida Project had all the right ingredients to do just that. Enchanting, moving and uplifting… “as poignant and wonderful an observational slice-of-life tale as you’re ever likely to see.”

 

So that’s it for another year!

It only remains to wish everyone an excellent 2018 and to leave you all with the full and final 76-strong, Wayward Wolf film list for 2017.

 

Ciao for now.

The Full 2017 Wayward Wolf Film List (in order of preference):

1. The Florida Project

2. Manchester By the Sea

3. Mother

4. Toni Erdmann

5. En Man Som Heter Ove (A Man Called Ove)

6. Raw

7. A Ghost Story

8. Fences

9. La La Land

10. The Handmaiden

11. Lion

12. The Sense of an Ending

13. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

14. Certain Women

15. It Comes at Night

16. The Founder

17. Lady MacBeth

18. American Made

19. The Party

20. A Monster Calls

21. Dunkirk

22. Get Out

23. The Red Turtle

24. It’s Only the End of the World

25. Elle

26. Moonlight

27. Call Me By Your Name

28. The Levelling

29. Blade Runner 2049

30. Berlin Syndrome

31. The Lost City of Z

32. The Beguiled

33. Gifted

34. Wind River

35. Stronger

36. T2 Trainspotting

37. Breathe

38. Hacksaw Ridge

39. Baby Driver

40. Wonder

41. Churchill

42. Alone in Berlin

43. Hidden Figures

44. Mountain

45. The Glass Castle

46. Mindhorn

47. Final Portrait

48. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

49. The Death of Stalin

50. Hell on Earth

51. The Ritual

52. Murder on the Orient Express

53. Detroit

54. Logan (Noir)

55. The Belko Experiment

56. Jackie

57. Their Finest

58. Life

59. War for the Planet of the Apes

60. Silence

61. Borg vs McEnroe

62. IT

63. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

64. Kong – Skull Island

65. Tiszta Szívvel (Kills on Wheels)

66. The Secret Scripture

67. Ghost in the Shell

68. Suburbicon

69. Jigsaw

70. Colossal

71. The Snowman

72. Power Rangers

73. Fai Bei Sogni (Sweet Dreams)

74. Hampstead

75. Alien Covenant

76. Denial

STRONGER

“…Tatiana Maslany’s depiction of Erin Hurley is one of genuine sentiment and a warm almost tangible sense of goodness.”

Wayward Wolf.

In many ways, Stronger is one of those ten-a-penny ‘triumph over adversity’ films that have been such a mainstay of cinema over the years.

However, what separates David Gordon Green’s tale from most are the superbly powerful performances of the film’s principal characters.

Owing to Jeff Bauman’s erratic nature and inability to turn up when he’s meant to, his relationship with Erin Hurley is something of an on and off affair. At the time in which Erin is due to run the Boston Marathon, their relationship is firmly in the off position, yet Jeff is clearly still obsessed with ‘his’ girl-next-door, Erin, and in a chance meeting at their local bar, Jeff, in a grand gesture aimed at winning her back, not only encourages the bar’s many patrons to sponsor Erin, but vows himself to cheer her on at the finish line.

Home-made banner in hand, for once Jeff just about sticks to his word, but it’s a decision that will dramatically change his life forever as he falls victim to the cowardly bombings of April 2013.

Surrounded by many well-meaning friends and family, in theory Jeff has the support network in place to help him overcome his disability. But with his alcoholic mother and good-time friends’ better judgement so frequently blighted by the bottle – not to mention having to live in a tiny room in his mother’s pokey apartment that is entirely unsuitable for the needs of a a disabled person – it soon becomes apparent that if Jeff is going to have any chance of coming to terms and indeed being at peace with his now drastically changed existence, it’s going to have to be down to him.

If it weren’t for Erin, that is.

Erin, a girl so sweet and caring, will prove over time to be an absolute rock of dependability, ensuring that Jeff’s road to some form of recovery may not be quite so fraught with problems after all.

Little is made of the actual bombings themselves in Green’s film, with only a hint of politicising events or finger pointing at suspects. Instead, the focus turns to Bauman’s psychological struggles in coming to terms not only with his disability, but with the expectation of a city positively tripping over itself to laud him as being some kind of hero, to be wheeled out in public at every given opportunity.

“Boston Strong” is the mantra of the city’s people as its population closes ranks and comes together in the face of adversity.

But Jeff’s life fast descends into a circus of celebrity revolving around rather anodyne acts of flag waving at Bruins matches or tossing first pitches at Red Sox games, not to mention a proposed visit to Jeff’s home from the TV Queen of all-American sentiment, Oprah Winfrey.

It’s understandably all too much.

The one ray of light throughout though is the wonderful Erin. But Jeff’s innate unreliable nature combined with the psychological scarring of recent events threatens to undermine everything good that this girl undoubtedly brings into his life.

Stronger boasts decent support performances most notably from Miranda Richardson who is a good piece of casting as Jeff’s well-meaning but troubled alcoholic mother, Patty, but it is the film’s leading pair who predictably steal the show.

Jake Gyllenhaal is tremendously visceral in his portrayal of Jeff Bauman whilst Tatiana Maslany’s depiction of Erin Hurley is one of genuine sentiment and a warm almost tangible sense of goodness. Together the couple demonstrate the most solidly believable on-screen chemistry as they attempt to navigate their way through the most harrowing scenes of tension and heartbreak.

Just how much of David Gordon Green’s film has been embellished for cinematic purposes only Jeff and Erin themselves will know, but as a cinematic spectacle, Stronger stands alone well as an engaging, thought-provoking film absolutely brought alive by way of some truly memorable performances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

“…if we’re judging Murder on the Orient Express upon pure entertainment value alone, it’s only fair to say that this Kenneth Branagh adaptation is something of a success.”

Wayward Wolf.

This 2017 version of the Agatha Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express (MOTOE from hereon in), seems to have received a rather mixed bag of reviews since its release. Certainly having on board (literally in this case), such a who’s who of acting royalty, demonstrates a certain confidence by Twentieth Century Fox that this weighty cast of A-listers would be sufficiently alluring to transform this well known who dunnit from being merely potential TV fodder into something of a big screen epic.

And if we’re judging MOTOE upon pure entertainment value alone, it’s only fair to say that this Kenneth Branagh adaptation is something of a success.

Branagh himself heads the cast, portraying famous Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Like many of Agatha Christie’s heroic lead characters, Poirot proves yet again to be something of a jinx; his very presence unsurprisingly coinciding with a murder. In this instance it occurs aboard the luxurious Orient Express train en route from Turkey to Paris.

Only a limited number of passengers are booked to travel on this particular journey, however, all of whom instantly become suspects in the murder of one Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), found dead in his sleeping quarters having been stabbed repeatedly.

Ratchett’s shady past is then slowly revealed by those that knew him, a past that more than justifies such a potentially retaliatory action; something that he had in fact made known to Poirot himself, that he was rather fearful of.

With Ratchett’s grave fears proven correct, and with all suspects aboard the train unable to flee the scene of the crime, it is once again down to Belgian’s famous bloodhound to sniff out the truth in this particularly gruesome case of murder.

When one thinks of Poirot, one probably thinks of David Suchet’s long running portrayal on the small screen. Whether that is to be considered the pinnacle of all things Poirot-related is of course open to debate, and there are many far better qualified than I to cast their judgement. Regardless of this, Branagh, it should be said, is excellent in his own portrayal, depicting Poirot as a fastidious stickler for both detail and equilibrium in all things; personal traits that will come to be severely tested in the course of time.

In support, Judi Dench plays the sour-faced Princess Dragomiroff, with Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt) – a lady of few words – her companion and dog carer.

Johnny Depp is decent enough as Ratchett, though his mumbled American drawl gets a little lost amidst the ambient din of a chugging steam train.

Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer more or less complete an all-star line-up of egos, something that Director Branagh will have been tasked with containing during the film’s shoot. Though given his admirable thespian credentials, there would arguably have been no-one better suited to that particular task.

Blessed with Haris Zambarloukos’s stunning cinematography, a quality cast, an overall keen eye for the small details, and a healthy dose of humour thrown in to boot, Branagh’s adaptation of MOTOE, whilst not necessarily adding anything particularly new or revolutionary in its vision, is nevertheless one worthy of both its place on the big screen and more importantly, of the Agatha Christie novel itself.

 

 

WONDER

“…thanks to some genuinely excellent performances and a director’s unashamed mission to absolutely yank upon our collective heart strings, Wonder is an absolute lip-wobbler of a feel good film.”

Wayward Wolf.

Earlier this year, Marc Webb’s sassy, touching drama, Gifted, told the story of a highly intelligent precocious young child who had been home schooled up until a certain age. Her father was then adamant that she should be ‘unleashed’ into the real world in order to improve her social skills and to learn how to integrate with other children.

A child so intellectually advanced yet socially inept was always going to struggle to fit in and it’s therefore no surprise when her integration proves to be fraught with complications.

The similarities between Webb’s film and Stephen Chbosky’s latest offering, Wonder, are obvious and plentiful.

Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), is a young lad with severe facial disfiguration. He too is somewhat gifted – in the field of science – and has been home schooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts). She has made the brave decision to now enrol Auggie in school in order that he too may have the opportunity to assimilate with others of his own age.

It’s a courageous step for all concerned given Auggie’s special circumstances and knowing how cruel children can be at that young, impressionable age, and one that Auggie’s father, Nate (Owen Wilson), is understandably unsure about.

Nevertheless, the young boy, shielded within the security of his favourite astronaut helmet, is encouraged to take the plunge. Predictably, life’s lessons come thick and fast for the poor wee thing, weighing heavily not only upon Auggie’s vulnerable young shoulders, but upon those that love and look out for him too.

If we’re being brutally honest, there’s very little by way of originality in Stephen Chbosky’s film. This is a familiar story of not fitting in, and all of the assorted trials and tribulations that go along with that. Lessons, however, will be learned and ultimately the director is keen to relay an entirely positive message, and to say that, is really not to give away anything that you wouldn’t already have suspected.

Far from being a predictable cliché-ridden waste of everyone’s time, however, thanks to some genuinely excellent performances and a director’s unashamed mission to absolutely yank upon our collective heart strings, Wonder is an absolute lip-wobbler of a feel good film.

Naturally, Auggie’s story is very much at the forefront of things, but Chbosky also weaves in a number of the support characters’ own stories into proceedings as explanation for why they have come to be how they are, and act like they act. This is a nice idea in theory, adding a little depth to the characterisation, though it should be said that it only partially works here, and one or two of these character biographies are so short and unrevealing that they might as well have not been included at all.

It is the side story of Auggie’s older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), however, that is most pertinent. A young, well-adjusted girl whose life has understandably been one of constantly having to play second fiddle to her brother. Auggie’s many years of surgery and continual need for attention and reassurance has left Via feeling as though she is a bit of an after thought for her parents. A simmering resentment is therefore never far from the surface whenever she and her mother are together, and even any shared plans that they may have to spend dedicated quality time together are never more than one Auggie-related phone call away from being unceremoniously aborted.

But such is life in the Pullman household.

Original it may well not be, but thanks to some beautifully played key roles, Wonder cannot help but hit the mark. Julia Roberts in particular blends both strength and tender maternal concern quite beautifully and with great sensitivity. Jacob Tremblay – so convincing in 2016’s Room –  demonstrates that the trajectory arc of his career continues to rise in one direction only, and a special mention should be made for Izabela Vidovic, whose portrayal of Auggie’s sister, Via, is one of subtle depth and know how.

With films like Wonder, and Gifted before it, there is aways a danger that they may slip on the treacly mess of their own over-sentimentality. But whilst there is no doubt that Stephen Chbosky is unafraid to slap on his own brand of emotional emulsion, thick, and with numerous coats, the end result is a film so finely glossed and beautiful, it’ll bring a lump to your throat.

Though admittedly that may just be the paint fumes.

 

 

 

 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

“It’s big, it’s bold, fairly nonsensical in places, but crucially pretty faithful to the requirements of the franchise.”

Wayward Wolf.

From informative wording rising up shakily over a star-speckled screen (you’d have thought they might have sorted all such text-related jitters by now considering today’s super slick digital technology), to the triumphant opening fanfare of John Williams’ seminal theme, it can only mean one thing, folks. That’s right, it’s time for another thinly-veiled religiously over-toned lesson in good and evil by way of everybody’s favourite intergalactic science fiction box-ticking franchise.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (SW:TLJ from hereon in), is upon us, and receiving a considerable amount of thumbs-up activity it would appear.

But is this Rian Johnson-directed two-and-a-half-hour epic fully deserving of all such lavish praise being bestowed upon it?

First and foremost, it’s important to establish one simple truth: directing any Star Wars film is akin to wearing a strait jacket, such are the restrictions under which any director must surely operate. There is a certain level of expectancy amongst your typical Star Wars-viewing public, a formula away from which one can not veer significantly, and a check list containing  any number of core requirements that must be met before any level of personal influence and input can be injected into or stamped upon proceedings.

I’d imagine.

In fairness to Rian Johnson, his Star Wars directorial debut probably ticks enough boxes and sufficiently grooms enough executive egos to keep those that matter sufficiently happy.

There are return outings for the franchise’s two newest stars, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and  Finn (John Boyega), along with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who, in spite of his undoubtedly wonderful abilities as an actor, remains the worst piece of villainous casting in living memory. Just what were the Star Wars powers-that-be thinking?

We are also treated to a reclusive, grizzlier and somewhat wiser Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and an inexplicably large amount of computer generated Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) imagery, including an amusing incident in which, following an attack on her ship – in scenes reminiscent of the opening credit sequence of the 1960’s science fiction classic, Lost In Space – she tumbles arse-over-tit out of a spaceship into the great black beyond before being fished back in once again like some sort of cosmic carp.

Whilst it’s a nice homage to the late Carrie Fisher’s memory, quite what such an excessive amount of this CGi wizardry actually adds to the film as a whole, is debatable to say the least.

There are very limited and fairly forgettable roles for Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro, and a predictable smattering of bizarre mechanical and other worldly entities and critters – both new and old, including an unexpected cameo from Yoda himself – to keep everyone happy.

Certainly no expense has been spared in fully furnishing this latest instalment with a wide variety and excellent quality of characters, yet once again I arrive at the conclusion that there is still yet to be a Star Wars movie that succeeds in creating and developing characters of any sufficient depth or substance, and certainly none that one can fully engage or empathise with – perhaps with the exception of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo character. Talking of which, Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of pilot Poe Dameron evokes welcome memories of Solo, and it’s no surprise therefore that Poe is easily the most convincing character in SW:TLJ.

As for the plot, it’s a fairly simple affair. Aren’t they all? Essentially it’s a tale of rebels on the run. “Tom & Jerry in Space” is one particularly harsh summary that I’ve heard, which, give or take a side story or two, is actually probably a fair assessment.

It’s big, it’s bold, fairly nonsensical in places, but crucially pretty faithful to the requirements of the franchise, and if the blue light sabre-wielding fella sat behind me – hyper-ventilating with joy like an over excited spaniel on glimpsing its favourite squeaky toy – is the measuring stick here, then it’s fair to say that SW:TLJ is nothing short of a triumph. Then again, listening to the opinions of those attending a screening on Star Wars opening night probably doesn’t guarantee the most impartial of reviews.

Balance this against my own predictable apathy towards all things Star Wars and subsequent conservative assessment of them, and the true measure of Rian Johnson’s big budget blockbuster almost certainly lies somewhere in-between.

 

 

 

 

MOUNTAIN

“…the film boasts some impressive height-perspective shots of wide-eyed lunatics free-climbing their way up hundreds of metres of sheer rock face.”

Wayward Wolf.

Director Jennifer Peedom’s documentary, Mountain, is an impressive piece. An unassuming film embellished with only a very sparse smattering of voice-over supplied through the husky tones of one Willem Dafoe.

That said, to label Mountain a documentary is perhaps stretching the truth somewhat. A ‘meditation’ or ‘appreciation’ would perhaps be more appropriate.

It’s a fine combination of sweeping footage of various mountainous vistas taken from all over the globe, set to the stunning music of Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Additionally, a masterfully curated selection of some of history’s most powerful orchestral music is used to great effect here, culminating most fittingly with the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.

Beautifully shot throughout, it’s hard not to be in total awe and reverence of the sheer scale and imposing nature of these sprawling ranges – the results of millions of years of plate tectonic and volcanic activity.

Peedom’s film, whilst never preachy or particularly intrusive, touches upon the affect that these colossal masses of rock have had upon the human psyche over time. Initially believed to be the domain of either Gods or Monsters, life at the foot of these gigantic monoliths was considered hard enough without people ever feeling any need to tempt fate by exploring their giddy, perilous heights.

The confirmation of Mount Everest as being the world’s highest peak, however, lay down the gauntlet to many an intrepid explorer, and once finally ‘conquered’ by Hillary and Norgay in 1953, the floodgates positively ruptured with regard to man pitting his wits against not only nature’s highest challenge, but indeed against every mountain range the world over.

Mountaineering suddenly became something of an obsession, no longer to be considered the past-time of the foolhardy or clinically insane.

Talking of insane, the film boasts some impressive height-perspective shots of wide-eyed lunatics free-climbing their way up hundreds of metres of sheer rock face – footage that left me frozen to my seat in terror, questioning just exactly how much has really changed with regards to the perceived mental state of the climbing fraternity.

Perhaps most sweaty palm-inducing of all though was a section devoted to extreme sports, following a variety of thrill-seeking wack jobs in their assorted attempts to free dive / parachute / bike or off-piste ski themselves into certain oblivion, often simultaneously outrunning avalanches in the process.

Madness! Yet utterly enthralling.

Whilst those of us that have had any sort of fascination with mountains and mountaineering over the years may not necessarily learn anything new from Jennifer Peedom’s film, Mountain is however a stunning, heart felt ode to their breathtaking majestic beauty, and a stark reminder of humanity’s sheer insignificance; dwarfed in their very presence.

 

 

SUBURBICON

“Suburbicon is a rather disjointed hotchpotch of ideas and concepts, like a mis-matched outfit thrown together by an owner racked by indecision whilst going through something of an identity crisis.”

Wayward Wolf.

I’d love to wax lyrical about the merits of a George Clooney-directed film based upon an original Coen Brothers script with all of the sort of gushing praise that those particular ingredients should probably warrant.

But I can’t. It’s just not possible. And considering that I was entirely convinced by the film’s superbly enticing trailer, this therefore represents something of a significant disappointment.

Suburbicon is a tale of dark deeds and whole-scale unrest that occurs on an idyllic housing development in 1960’s America. It follows the exploits of up-standing pillar of society and middle-class family man, Gardner Lodge (a fine performance from Matt Damon it should be said), whose life is suddenly rocked by the death of his disabled wife; an event instigated by a couple of ne’er-do-well hoodlums whilst carrying out a bungled burglary / hostage scenario at Gardner’s family home.

Friends and relatives understandably all rally around during such troubled times, and Gardner decides that in the interest of maintaining some sort of home-life stability, his wife’s identical twin sister, Margaret, should move into the family home for a while.

But things are not quite what they seem in this land of neatly-kempt lawns, white picket fences and twitching curtains, and with the cat threatening to bolt clean out of the bag, Gardner’s life begins to unravel, descending ultimately into outright chaos.

The basic premise of Clooney’s film is a fairly simple one – a tale of dodgy insurance claims and bungling mafiosi, and whilst it’s perhaps not a tale representing any great sense of originality, it certainly contains sufficient substance and intrigue from which to fashion something perfectly watchable.

Certainly Suburbicon‘s cast all put in dependably solid performances. Damon, as mentioned already, is excellent and is ably supported by Julianne Moore in her twin roles as both Gardner’s wife (Rose), and her twin sister (Margaret). Credit too to Oscar Isaac and his portrayal of wily insurance claim investigator, Bud Cooper, which is something of a highlight.

Yet, in spite of such a stellar cast, mysteriously, Clooney’s Suburbicon succeeds only in underwhelming, bringing to mind Ridley Scott’s 2013 hugely disappointing, The Counsellor. It too was a film boasting an impressive who’s-who of top acting talent with a big name director on board, yet ultimately absolutely stank the gaff out.

Suburbicon is a rather disjointed hotchpotch of ideas and concepts, like a mis-matched outfit thrown together by an owner that’s racked by indecision whilst simultaneously experiencing something of an identity crisis. And I’m still trying to work out the true relevance of the the story’s race-related sub-plot which felt both peripheral and largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Add in the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat’s dreary omnipresent score splashed lavishly and unnecessarily all over the place, and Clooney’s film – one which threatened to be something of a devilishly dark comic romp, on paper – is one that’s probably worth giving something of a wide berth.