Tag Archives: Wayward Wolf Film Review

EN MAN SOM HETER OVE (A Man Called Ove)

“…just how did he become this petty harbinger of headaches, and what does the future hold for this archetypal grumpy old man?”

Wayward Wolf.

If Peter Bradshaw’s rather dismissive review in the Guardian is anything to go by, A Man Called Ove is, and I quote: “…not very funny, not very sad, not very believable, and not very interesting.”

That’s not very favourable really, now is it, Peter?

More pertinently, it’s a truly baffling point of view that’s had me scratching my head.

Fortunately, I was not party to Mr Bradshaw’s peculiar conclusions prior to viewing this particular piece of Swedish cinema – conclusions that appear to have been arrived at whilst simultaneously tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole, I should add.

Obviously it’s all subjective and there are no right or wrong answers here, but far from being the poor excuse for a film that Mr Bradshaw insinuates, Academy Award-nominated A Man Called Ove – based upon Fredrik Backman’s novel of the same name – is in fact, I’m delighted to inform you, a soulful, witty, wonderfully engaging piece. And whilst we’re in the business of overdosing on superlatives, let’s throw warm-hearted and life-affirming into the mix, too.

As for believable? Well, yes and no, but that’s hardly a critical factor when one considers that cinema is by its very nature a means of escape, frequently calling upon us to suspend our collective sense of disbelief. But let’s be clear here, A Man Called Ove is not in any way shape or form a film whose content defies belief in such a manner as to ultimately risk spoiling our enjoyment of it.

But enough with the tub-thumping and attempts at balance redressing.

Hannes Holm’s film – originally released in Sweden at the tail end of 2015, but only given its limited UK release this year – tells the story of Ove (a wonderful turn by Rolf Lassgård), a man who has always been socially awkward, bordering on the autistic in some ways. But over the years, owing to tragic circumstances, that awkwardness has since morphed into unconfined anger and misery.

Adhering to a strict daily routine, he patrols the grounds of the gated neighbourhood in which he lives, making note of any fool-hardy transgressors of the community regulations that he had helped to initiate during his time as Chairman of the neighbourhood committee. The fact that he no longer holds such a prestigious title and that the community tends to unwittingly flout his rules, is just one more trigger for multiple bouts of po-faced bitterness on his part. Regardless, Ove remains resolute, and continues to rigorously enforce ‘the law’ for what he perceives to be the good of the community.

But just how did he become this petty harbinger of headaches, and what does the future hold for this archetypal grumpy old man?

Ove’s back story is gradually revealed by way of a meandering narrative, initially through the series of flash-backs that he experiences during each of a number of unsuccessful suicide attempts, but latterly through the unlikely friendship that he develops with his Iranian-Swedish pregnant neighbour, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars). She, together with her boisterous family, are unknowingly the sole reason that Ove has yet to shuffle off this mortal coil, unable as he is to complete the ‘simple’ process of taking his own life without their unwelcome yet timely interruptions.

It is true that Hannes Holm’s touching tale, when broken down into its constituent parts, is probably a fairly routine and familiar one. A man, unable to cope with the accumulated sadness in his life and seeing little or no reason to go on, gradually, through a varied set of circumstances, manages to come to terms with the prospect of actually ‘living’ once again, thanks principally to the kindness of people that are able to recognise a good man with a good heart, even when it’s obscured by a particularly miserable demeanour.

For want of a better term, you would probably classify A Man Called Ove as something of a feel-good movie with stylistic parallels and general inspiration drawn from the sort of sentimental – bordering on slightly schmaltzy – Hollywood formulas that have unearthed such big screen favourites as Forest Gump; films that, if we’re deeply honest with ourselves, we probably love all the more for that very reason.

Rest assured though, Hannes Holm’s film, whilst certainly guilty of being whimsical at times, never comes close to achieving any sort of off-putting saccharine-overload.

Genuinely touching in places, A Man Called Ove is a witty, poignant and effortlessly charming tale.

One of the hidden gems of 2017 in fact.

 

 

 

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BLADE RUNNER 2049

“…airborne vehicles swoop in and out of the huge neon-lit monolithic tower blocks from which [these] holograms emanate, visually bringing to mind Rupert Saunders’ 2017 offering, Ghost in the Shell.”

Wayward Wolf.

There is a school of opinion that I’ve been made aware of a number of times since the release of Blade Runner 2049. It’s one that suggests the film is overlong and drawn-out, with a bloated sense of self-importance. Now, that’s a pretty harsh assessment in anyone’s book and not one that I necessarily agree with, yet it’s not entirely a mystery as to why such an exaggerated conclusion might have come about.

At getting on towards three hours in duration, Denis Villeneuve’s epic sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner, is certainly in no rush, and clearly not concerned with your average curtailed 2017 attention span, and other such modern phenomena.

There is also a propensity for Blade Runner 2049‘s early exchanges to veer towards technological overload at times with the director positively wallowing in gadget and technology porn, leaving us in no doubt whatsoever that this is a point in time in which there have been absolute quantum leaps beyond what would be considered high-tech in 2017.

Less prevalent is the incessant rain of Blade Runner, now largely replaced by an overcast, desolate and arid climate over which hangs a smog so thick you could cut it. Perhaps an indication of a planet whose raised mean temperature has ultimately led to water becoming something of a scarce resource?

The future Los Angeles cityscape that has been conjured up here is one in which holographic advertisements for everything from major corporations to virtual call girls reach out and interact with the public. And airborne vehicles swoop in and out of the huge neon-lit monolithic tower blocks from which these holograms emanate, visually bringing to mind Rupert Saunders’ 2017 offering, Ghost in the Shell.

In amongst this rather soulless, gloom-sodden backdrop we are introduced to the story of  ‘K’ (an appropriately dead-pan performance from Ryan Gosling), a replicant working for the LAPD, who, on successfully executing a mission to ‘retire’ one of the few remaining rogue replicants, stumbles upon the remains of a female replicant buried beneath a nearby dead tree. This in itself isn’t necessarily news-worthy, but the fact that the replicant appears to have died during caesarean childbirth having obviously been pregnant – an impossibility according to mainstream scientific thought – clearly is.

Such a scenario presents the possibility of a hugely volatile situation unfolding, deemed potentially explosive enough to cause great conflict between humans and replicants, and K is therefore instructed by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), to track down the replicant child that had been born and eliminate it and all evidence that it had ever existed.

Blade Runner 2049 is noticeably built around a strong narrative, the slow and considered execution of which is very much to the benefit of the piece, building an introspective, mood-heavy work that offers its viewer ample time to consider and reflect upon the film’s myriad themes, not to mention opportunities to grapple with the film’s finer, slightly more cerebrally-taxing plot points.

Perhaps most impressive is its ability to elevate itself above 90% of any science fiction that has ever been committed to celluloid, by demonstrating considerable heart. Nowhere is this better exemplified than by way of K’s touching, if slightly unconventional relationship with his holographic other half, Joi (making full use of the seductive charms of Ana de Armas). Essentially, we’re talking about an android dating a moving picture here, yet Villeneueve successfully convinces us that such a scenario can be considered to be much more than just that, painting a picture of trust, intimacy, and dare I say it, something bordering on love? Not just a sequence of high-tech mechanics.

Joi’s frequent appearances are heralded by strains of Peter’s theme, from Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Such a sonically beautiful interlude, no matter how brief, is a nice touch, and a refreshing reminder from within such a cold impersonal landscape, of the true essence of humanity and of genuine emotion; not to mention a nod no doubt to the enduring longevity of real works of art.

And talking of music: though lacking the soaring sonic themes of its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 – through the efforts of both Benjamin Wallfisch and the ever reliable Hans Zimmer – has at least tipped its hat to those sumptuous sensual swelling synth sounds of the magnificent Vangelis original, producing a soundtrack that, whilst unexceptional, at least offers some degree of continuity between the two films, and hence a reassuring familiarity.

Gosling, Wright and De Armas are joined in a strong cast by Jared Leto who puts in a powerful turn as Niander Wallace – a character that I felt a little more could have been made of – and naturally Harrison Ford is brought back in for a cameo role, reviving his portrayal of Rick Deckard, a move which thankfully proves to be far more than just a fleeting contractual obligation, with his character carefully and convincingly engrained into the film’s nuanced narrative.

It’s been 35 years now since Blade Runner first hit the big screen, and to even have attempted to create a sequel that does justice to the revered original was something of a bold move. The fact that Denis Villeneuve’s dystopian vision, whilst by no means perfect, not only doesn’t sour the lingering memory of one of the all time greats but proves to be a very fine film in its own right, is testament to the work of an excellent and courageous director.

 

 

 

 

 

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

“Yorgos Lanthimos’ psychological thriller is something of a fable, rich with metaphors and mythological parallels.”

Wayward Wolf.

For those of you that have seen Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous outing, The Lobster, the rather eery stylistic approach of his latest piece, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, will be all too familiar.

With unnaturally stilted delivery and distracted, truncated conversations, the characters go about their roles in the most ‘wooden’ manner that you could possibly imagine.

Of course, that’s actually all part of the set-up here, and considering Lanthimos’ film boasts the likes of Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell among its number, it’s highly unlikely that any such wooden aspersions could possibly relate to the actual acting ability of the excellent cast. But it certainly all makes for another odd, yet intriguing outing from the Lanthimos stable – one which takes care to examine such themes as guilt and responsibility, as well as the biblical concept of an eye for an eye.

Top surgeon, Stephen Murphy (Farrell), carries with him a terrible burden. A botched surgery some years earlier – whilst apparently under the influence of alcohol – had resulted in the unfortunate death of a man. With a wife and two lovely children to support, it’s important that Stephen does not allow the burdens of his past to drag him down and dictate his life. Yet every so often the guilt seems to eat him up. These pangs of remorse always seem to coincide with the frequent occasions that he spends in the company of a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan). Whilst it initially appears that Stephen may have taken the boy under his wing, adopting some kind of career mentor role, the truth, and rather unnerving reason for Martin’s virtual omnipresence in Stephen’s life gradually becomes apparent, and increasingly, by way of some rather strange and sinister goings on, it leaves the beleaguered surgeon to deal with a classic case of Hobson’s choice.

Whatever you might make of Lanthimos’ film – and the response that I’ve encountered has been varied – there’s no doubting that thanks to its unusual direction, a warped (in a good way) sense of fun, characters bordering on the robotic, and all-round levels of disturbing oddity, The Killing of a Sacred Deer effortlessly burns its way into the old grey matter, and stays there.

Arguably most memorable of all though is the film’s stunning cinematography; superbly strong enduring visual imagery that can probably best be described as minimal meets clinical. Scenes shot within the confines of the hospital walls are particularly visually arresting, making strong use of a restrictive almost monochrome palette, and little or no room is given to the relative comfort and reassuring warmth that bold colours would bring.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ psychological thriller is something of a fable, rich with metaphors and mythological parallels. A truly dystopian vision that devilishly pokes at our most deep-seated fears, and straddles the divide between dark, inappropriately jocular, and absurdly disturbing.

Above everything though, The Killing of a Sacred Deer offers a stark reminder that ‘true happiness’ is only ever a temporary state of events, and that we’re all never more than a brief moment of misfortune or negligence from having it, and everything that it represents, come crashing down around us.

In this case, the ultimate, self-inflicted souring of the American dream.

JIGSAW

“If I’m honest, the bar of expectation that I’d mentally set for Jigsaw was not exactly towering above me – the giddy height of a croquet hoop would be more apt…”

Wayward Wolf.

Back in 1999 I recall sitting po-faced through an utterly unremarkable film that seemed interminable in its apparent nothingness. Not one to write anything off easily, at least until a fat lady has sung or the credits have rolled – and considering some of the cinematic dives that I used to frequent, there was probably an equally high chance of the former occurring – I stuck to the task manfully, and was amply rewarded for having done so.

The film? The Sixth Sense. A movie that was ultimately knitted together brilliantly by way of a twist at its conclusion that every man and his dog – bar me of course – claimed to have seen coming from an absolute mile off.

But what does this have to do with the latest chapter in the Saw franchise, I hear you ask? Well, in case you need it spelling out for you… that’s right, there’s a twist at the end of Jigsaw. There, I’ve said it. Have I spoilt it for you?

Before you bemoan my lack of tact, I guarantee you this: When you’re sitting through the aforementioned formulaic gore-fest, feeling as though you can’t go on, just going through the motions, tallying up the body count of umpteen two dimensional characters that you give not one shiny shite about and whom in some grizzly manner or other, have met their untimely demise, there will come a point when you’ll actually thank me for bestowing that particular nugget of information upon you. For against all odds, there is actually a reason to stick with Jigsaw.

Don’t get me wrong, this is no Sixth Sense and far from a The Usual Suspects – and I unrepentently reference this most excellent of Kevin Spacey-led films. I’m on a roll you see, and let’s not be rewriting film history now – but the final ten minutes of Jigsaw at least prove that its writers, Pete Goldberg and Josh Stolberg, saw fit to attempt something beyond the sort of linear prosaic banality that so frequently accompanies first sequels, let alone the eighth outing of a tired old horror franchise.

Directors Michael and Peter Spierig, on the other hand, engage in what can only be termed as ‘flying by the seat of your pants direction’, as they absolutely rattle through proceedings at break-neck pace, eager to get to the conclusion it would seem, almost as though the bulk of the film’s content is something of a crushing inconvenience for them. In so doing, barely a moment is spent generating any worthwhile sense of suspense or terror, or indeed developing any of the characters and examining their varied back stories – which are, within context, in fact far more than just meaningless personal portraits, and rather integral as to why it is that they’ve come to find themselves entombed, bucket on head, at the business end of one of John Kramer’s (Jigsaw’s) warped games.

Still, in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not worth worrying about too much, a little like 80% of this film, and in all honesty, to examine the remaining 20% of it would be to give the game away. So I’ll just leave it at that.

If I’m honest, the bar of expectation that I’d mentally set for Jigsaw was not exactly towering above me – the giddy height of a croquet hoop would be more apt – but it’s only fair to say that the Spierig brothers’ film somehow digs deep, summons its inner Sergey Bubka, and hauls itself over this most minimal of hurdles…

…Just.

 

 

 

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

“Thanks to his parents’ considerable influence, Elio’s life is one full of art and culture, not to mention a liberal attitude towards life in general.”

Wayward Wolf.

Watching Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name instantly had me casting my mind back to Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 masterpiece, Blue is the Warmest Colour, and whilst the two films stand at polar opposite ends of the human sexuality spectrum, the similarities between them are nevertheless plentiful and obvious. Most notably, both films have rightly been lavished with much deserved praise since their respective releases.

Set in the dreamy tranquility of small village life in 1980’s Italian Lombardy, Call Me By Your Name – based upon an acclaimed André Aciman novel – tells of the sexual awakening of seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), whose leisurely summer spent engrossed in his favourite pastimes – namely reading, swimming and transcribing music – is disrupted by the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a confident and charming American intern who has travelled to Italy in order to spend the summer months helping Elio’s father – a Professor in Greco-Roman studies, played by Michael Stuhlbarg.

Thanks to his parents’ considerable influence, Elio’s life is one full of art and culture, not to mention a liberal attitude towards life in general. Though seemingly happy enough idling his holiday away flirting with local girl and good friend, Marzia (a sweet turn by Esther Garrel), the tall American’s arrival on the scene is something of a head turner for young Elio, in a manner that he has never experienced before, and it soon puts into perspective exactly what his dalliances with Marzia had been – nothing but the horny fumblings of an inexperienced teenager.

Before long Elio and Oliver are getting to know each other better through their shared appreciation of summer outdoor pursuits, and in doing so, Elio is soon awakened to the true nature of his own sexuality.

But such carefree unstructured halcyon days they never last, and come summer’s end, Elio may well have experienced the giddy rush of first love, but must also face the crushing inevitability of heartbreak.

In some ways, Call Me By Your Name seems to exist in a sort of dreamy alternative reality. Exquisitely shot, it captures quite beautifully those sun-drenched peaceful, seductive Northern Italian summers when time and schedule bend and flex indeterminately and are of little importance. For Elio these are the unforgettable times in which initial shy lingering glances magically transform into steamy embraces and where new ‘innovative’ uses are found for the ripest of low-hanging orchard fruits!

In Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, Guadagnino’s film boasts two actors demonstrating the most natural of on-screen chemistry, and whose burgeoning relationship develops into something intense and crucially, thoroughly believable.

Whether one connects fully with the subject matter of Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age drama or on just a fleetingly curious level, it is indisputable that Call me by your Name is a film whose soulful illustration of awakening love, passion and desire is one that effortlessly crosses all barriers and divides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GLASS CASTLE

“Sadly, Rex’s Glass Castle is merely symbolic of a fertile imagination, of wonderfully elaborate gestures, but ultimately represents nothing more than unfulfillment and crushing disappointment.”

Wayward Wolf.

Take a good glug of Captain Fantastic, add a dash of The Waltons, then sprinkle in something rather unsavoury, to taste. Give it a good old shake now, and what do you have?

The Glass Castle, that’s what.

OK, that’s a bit of a naff sweeping summary, and possibly a little unfair in insinuating a certain degree of unoriginality, but the influences are certainly there to be seen in Destin Daniel Cretton’s entertaining tale based upon a true story of alternative lifestyles and the perils of the bottle.

Rex (Woody Harrelson), is certainly a one-off. A righteous man and a dreamer, he fills his young family’s heads with fantastic tales and with a line of knowledge plucked straight from the University of Life’s main syllabus. Racked by poverty brought about through his (and his wife’s) insistence on living a non-conformist alternative lifestyle, the aforementioned University of Life is pretty much the only educational institution that any of their children are ever likely to attend.

Nevertheless, they are quite a happy troop, living free, and in doing so they all make a stand against a system that so appalls Rex and his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). That said, from time to time Rex swallows his considerable pride and takes employment where he can find it in order to provide for his family. These are undoubtedly the good times, full of fun, happiness and optimism for the future – a respite from the relentless hardship of self-sufficiency and the soul-sapping grind of poverty. But any such times prove to be unsustainable, relatively short-lived, and always finite.

Rex waxes lyrical about his grand plans to find the perfect plot of land and to then build his family a magnificent Glass Castle upon it, in which they can all live a wonderful life. Such lofty aspirations are all well and good and an easy sales pitch to sell to a young impressionable family, but with the passing of time and with his children becoming young adults, the difference between Rex’s dreams and cold reality are gradually laid bare. Even if the land can be found and the materials somehow acquired, Rex’s ongoing battles with alcohol addiction always seem to render any such plans redundant – a mere pipe dream. Sadly, Rex’s Glass Castle is merely symbolic of a fertile imagination, of wonderfully elaborate gestures, but ultimately represents nothing more than unfulfillment and crushing disappointment.

Amongst Rex and Rose Mary’s children is Jeannette (Brie Larsson), very much the  spokesperson amongst the siblings. She has listened for years to her father’s distracting tales of wonder, but has now finally reached breaking point. Sick of the alcoholism, threatening behaviour and constant broken promises, she vows to fly the nest against her father’s wishes. She is not the first to do so, and she will not be the last.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film, whilst being a very watchable piece, does however have an overriding feeling of being something that we’ve seen before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly shouldn’t take away from some fine performances. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Rex is both captivating and often visceral and raw (in a good way). Naomi Watts is assured in her portrayal of Rex’s loyal wife, Rose Mary, a lady who seems resigned to honour some sort of invisible contract of dutiful servitude to her man and his impossible fantasies, whilst Brie Larsson puts in a strong performance as Jeannette, a girl who is ultimately torn between the innate bonds that she has to her hopelessly idealistic bohemian family, and the life that she ultimately chooses to live beyond these shackles; one that is so completely contrary to her father’s deep-seated beliefs.

If there is fault to be picked in Cretton’s piece, it is the metamorphosis of Harrelson’s character from unorthodox, happy-go-lucky Dad, to alcohol-rinsed threatening monster. This may well have been the case, but this process of character deterioration is unconvincing here, and leaves one presuming that maybe there is in fact some missing segment of this film that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Even with the alcoholism, the occasional violent outbursts and the general downward spiral into despair, it still takes a big old leap for the imagination to consider Rex as being anything other than a bit of a hopeless case, down on his luck, and certainly not the sort of ogre that would ultimately have convinced every one of his poor hard-done-by children that they simply must flee his life-controlling tyranny, at all costs.

All things considered though, The Glass Castle gets far more right than wrong and serves to provide a perfectly watchable and emotionally engaging tale of family bonds and the disabling hold that they can so often have over us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

“Annette Bening is mesmerising as the enigmatic actress with the twinkle in her eye but whose star is now on the wane…”

Wayward Wolf.

Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (FSDDIL from here on in), is a proper weepy, chronicling the final years in the life of Oscar-winning actress, Gloria Grahame.

Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), is a young up-and-coming actor from Liverpool who lives in a boarding house in London. It just so happens that the actress, Gloria Grahame, is temporarily residing here too whilst she ‘treads the boards’ in the theatres of the capital and beyond, and when the two meet one day, an unlikely romance quickly blossoms.

Whilst Gloria is all flirtatious winks and alluring Hollywood magnetism, it’s clear that she is decidedly insecure in herself, as time will reveal. Whilst understandably enchanted by her considerably younger lover, she is ill-at-ease with the sizeable age difference that exists between them, and can be quick to anger with regard to this.

Nevertheless, theirs is a relationship built on far more than superficiality or shifting sands, and though it’s probably fair to surmise that Peter offers her both the adulation that she craves and the opportunity to wind back the clock and once again live in a bubble of self-congratulatory fantasy, it is a genuine bond of love that develops between them, and the two actors play out their romance cross two continents – the very stuff of Hollywood dreams.

But of course every great romantic story often gives way to tragedy, and it will be Grahame’s unmentioned recent flirtation with serious illness, that will soon come to determine the ultimate course of the couple’s union.

FSDDIL switches back and forth over a two or three year period in the late 70’s / early 80’s, and in doing so, is able to gradually fill in the detail of the couple’s time together. Most noticeable is that McGuigan’s piece feels very focused at the expense of any unnecessarily distracting peripheral events; focused that is upon its two chief protagonists, and a core supporting cast whose parts may, in some cases, be only fleeting, yet nonetheless always feel wholly integral to the story’s narrative.

Subsequently the film’s rather scrutinous approach to characterisation results in a thorough, satisfyingly rounded, three-dimensional examination of its actors, and in doing so, builds tremendous levels of emotional intensity and involvement for its audience.

Of course, you can relentlessly scrutinise your actors through a camera lens all you like, but without that necessary stardust, you’re on a hiding to nothing, and so it’s fortunate that FSDDIL boasts a cast at the very top of their game.

Annette Bening is mesmerising as the enigmatic actress with the twinkle in her eye but whose star is now on the wane, whilst Jamie Bell is all openly-emotive raw energy and enthusiasm, portraying Grahame’s considerably younger lover.

Julie Walters, needless to say, is reliably marvellous as Turner’s mother, Bella; the archetypal Northern, working class mum and the very glue that holds the Turner household together through trying times.

Bening will rightly receive many plaudits for her portrayal of Grahame’s final years, but it’s important that we recognise Jamie Bell’s part in it too. His is an emotionally engaging performance of some maturity and possibly his finest to date.

With a nicely curated soundtrack of sympathetic score and choice songs from the era, and a brave directorial decision to name check the better blue footballing half of Liverpool over the city’s unmentionable red namesake –  something that had me scrutinising the closing credits for evidence of some form of Bill Kenwright involvement – Paul McGuigan’s FSDDIL is a beautifully realised romantic drama of some weight and distinction.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

“Bewitching, hugely rewarding, and far more Minnie masterpiece than Mickey Mouse…”

Wayward Wolf.

It’s hard to impress upon you just how mesmerising a piece Sean Baker’s The Florida Project truly is.

With a fairly free and easy approach to scripted dialogue, it’s shot in a quasi-documentary style predominantly from the perspective of a six-year-old girl and her mischievous young scallywag friends, observing the various ins, outs and general goings-on at a budget motel during one hot Florida summer.

Just a short hop from Disney’s Magic Kingdom stands the Magic Castle motel. Inexplicably purple in colour and clearly cashing in on its neighbouring Disney namesake – as one unfortunate honeymooning couple will discover, much to the bride’s horror – this motel, partially suited to folk who are just passing through and priced out of staying in the main Disney resort area itself, but more pertinently, offering no-frills temporary housing to some of the very poorest families in the Kissimmee area.

One such ‘family’ is single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her precocious, ‘smart-mouthed’ daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince).

Financially-speaking, neither Halley nor any of the kids’ parents are able to even contemplate caving in to the considerable allure of nearby Disney World. Instead, the children swap Magic Kingdom for Magic Castle and the plethora of garish, vulgar eateries and stores that constitute its immediate surrounds, creating whole worlds of adventure for themselves in the process – the way kids do.

Very much left to their own devices each day by parents that are either unable or too busy to spend time with them, the kids have become cocky and a little feral, roaming about at will, causing havoc with the locals with their own line in bare-faced, yet rather endearing cheek. And if they’re not antagonising the locals, they’re bothering Bobby (Willem Dafoe), whose job it is to perform the daily fire-fighting act that is managing The Magic Castle motel.

A real little madam she may be, but Moonee is really the least of Bobby’s daily problems. From illegal soliciting, theft and violent altercations to predatory paedophiles, The Magic Castle is something of a magnet for society’s wrong ‘uns and their unsavoury behaviour. And though his guests may not always be fully aware of it, Bobby ensures all such potential crimes and misdemeanours are dealt with, but more importantly, that the little tearaway terrors – so often the bain of his life – are kept safe from harm; a fact that guests are quick to forget amidst the yelling and general ‘ball-busting’ that inevitably ensues when Bobby comes a-knockin’ on rent payment day.

The Florida Project illustrates not only the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots, but also between the hardships experienced by parents living on the breadline, and the carefree innocence of their offspring. Most crushing of all, however, are the moments when these two disparate states of being unavoidably collide; when fantasy must make way for harsh reality. Such predicaments are sadly never far away.

With Willem Dafoe as good as he’s been in years, and young Brooklynn Prince producing a performance of such joyful natural exuberance, Baker’s film positively brims with life-affirming goodness.

Bewitching, hugely rewarding, and far more Minnie masterpiece than Mickey Mouse, The Florida Project is as poignant and wonderful an observational slice-of-life tale as you’re ever likely to see.

Unmissable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PARTY

“…The Party is an absolute triumph, expertly blending the existential with the at times absurd, in a most thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining film.”

Wayward Wolf.

Sally Potter’s sharp and witty film, The Party – based upon her own screenplay – is a short and snappy affair, yet succeeds in packing all manner of comedic goings-on into its modest 72 minute running time.

Although undoubtedly covering familiar ground, namely, the party from hell – think Mike Leigh’s toe-curlingly marvellous Abigail’s Party for a starting point – The Party, shot in classic monochrome, is in many ways a darker piece than its predecessor .

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Janet. Celebrating a significant promotion within the world of politics, she, and the rock in her life – her apparently dour, distracted husband, Bill (Timothy Spall) – are hosting a get-together for their closest friends.

From Janet’s best friend and steadfast ally, April, (Patricia Clarkson), her husband, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), and Janet’s lesbian friends, Martha (Cherry Jones), and partner, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), to the super-agitated, Tom (Cillian Murphy); a more ill-matched assembly one couldn’t hope to coerce into a single London town house.

But this is the least of Janet’s worries, for very real trouble awaits. Bill, spinning his favourite LP’s with obsessive compulsion, is poised to drop the proverbial turd in the punch bowl with a shattering revelation, derailing Janet’s celebratory soirée, and indeed their relationship, in the process.

Over the ensuing couple of awkward hours, Bill’s untimely divulgement will however prove to be merely the tip of the iceberg. A most inconvenient hidden truth will slowly reveal itself, implicating directly or indirectly just about everybody in the house in some way.

Potter’s piece is initially something of a slow burner, but like a jigsaw, pieces that are initially disconnected and make little sense in isolation, in time begin to form something of a picture. And what a picture it is!

Each of Janet’s friends’ characters are gradually unveiled, and their roles in the unfolding mess soon become clear, but in fairness, even without the fault line that runs precariously beneath these friendships, each individual’s personality alone might well be reason enough to trigger all sorts of fractious behaviour within the group.

The impatient sour-faced April can barely tolerate her incessantly optimistic cod-philosophising husband, Gottfried, and his insistence upon healing and life-coaching those around him, whilst Martha is proving far too calm and mature and not nearly ‘right-on’ enough for her often hysterical and naively idealistic, pregnant partner, Jinny, who is positively repulsed by the very thought that Martha might at some point in time have ever been with a man.

Even before his bombshell, Bill’s withdrawn, morose outlook is not helping matters, whilst Tom – the complete antithesis of this – is a powder keg, about to go off. Concealing a firearm beneath his jacket, and sweating with anxiety, he frantically paces up and down, stopping only for frequent visits to the bathroom to ‘powder his nose’.

And all the while, Janet attempts to be the perfect host. But even she is hiding something.

It’s very painful, it’s highly amusing and hugely farcical at times, with one crisis leading head-long into another, as Janet’s festivities descend into unmitigated chaos and disaster.

Shot entirely within Janet and Bill’s home, Potter’s dialogue-heavy film is the sort of piece that could very easily be adapted for the stage, and I dare say that it was written with that in mind. The cast is tremendous and the performances, right across the board, are unsurprisingly of the very highest calibre. With such a wealth of impressive talent on show, thankfully the temptation for the director to over-indulge any of them in any sort of extended soulful monologues is largely resisted, much to the benefit of the film’s overall feel and flow.

Whether examining our own mortality, the perils of materialism, the complexity of relationships, or our sinking moral values, The Party, is an absolute triumph, expertly blending the existential with the at times absurd, in a most thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BREATHE

“Garfield and Foy understandably steal the show demonstrating a solid and genuine on-screen chemistry… “

Wayward Wolf.

Considering the subject matter at hand, Andy Serkis’ directorial debut is actually something of an up-beat affair.

Set in the late 1950’s and based upon a true story, Breathe, tells the tale of newlyweds Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield and Clare Foy), whose active and adventurous lifestyle is suddenly turned on its head when Robin contracts Polio, leaving him paralysed from the neck down.

With Diana pregnant the timing could not have been any worse, but, with an impressively large and loyal network of well-to-do friends and family, they can at least call upon their support to help them navigate their way through what will prove to be a most remarkable life together.

Whilst revolving unavoidably around the catastrophic aftermath of such a terrible illness, Breathe is in essence a love story whose multitude of ups and downs are therefore somewhat exaggerated owing to the extreme circumstances in which the couple find themselves as they struggle to adapt.

“I want to truly live,” opines the resolutely optimistic Robin, having overcome an initial bout of depression. Easier said than done considering that his paralysis would effectively have been a life sentence back in the mid-1900’s, not only rendering a patient completely immobile, but confined to the four walls of a hospital ward on life support for the rest of a usually extremely shortened life. If anything, Robin’s hospital environment in England does at least represent some sort of quality of life when compared with the scenes of on-going cutting edge patient care witnessed by the couple on a later visit to a clinic facility in Germany. Rows of patients entombed in clinically stacked iron lungs in a windowless laboratory is a genuinely terrifying site.

Perhaps this immobilised fate would have been too much for Robin to bear had he not been married to Diana, a young lady who proves unequivocally that behind every great man, there really is a truly great woman. Holding their newborn child in her arms, she will not entertain Robin’s initial pleas to be allowed to die, instructing him instead to live.

But it’s clear that being left to whither away in a hospital is no way to exist, and breaking all regulations, not to mention flying in the face of the accepted medical advice and logic of the times, the couple choose to relocate Robin to their new home in the country. Here, he will at least be in a home environment. This incredibly bold move was without parallel in the history of global Polio-related aftercare, but unsurprisingly, fraught with danger.

Serkis’ film adopts a directorial style that swiftly and neatly brushes over the salient points of this tale with little time spent dwelling on what is perhaps perceived to be unnecessary or overly sentimental. One can almost make parallels between this brisk no-nonsense directorial style and the rather stiff-upper-lip attitude and all-round Englishness of the film’s cast.

Almost in contradiction to this, however, Nitin Sawhney’s omnipresent luscious and syrupy score at times positively wallows in the sentimentality of it all, lending the piece a suitably emotional glow.

Decent performances are in evidence across the board. Garfield and Foy understandably steal the show demonstrating a solid and genuine on-screen chemistry, whereas the supporting cast, as good as they may well be, are never more than peripheral to events, and struggle therefore to make any sort of long-lasting impression on the memory.

Breathe is an undeniably poignant film, and though it often treads that precarious line between being emotionally effective and cloyingly mawkish, Serkis’ purposeful direction ensures that it strikes just about the right balance to deliver effectively this sweet and inspiring story of love, patience and devotion between two indefatigable spirits.

MOTHER

“…Mother is a veritable whirlwind that grows relentlessly in intensity, launching a devilishly wicked assault on the senses…”

Wayward Wolf.

Someone said to me recently that they no longer went to the cinema because everything had been done already, and no-one was bringing anything particularly new to the table.

There’s certainly a partial argument in there, and there’s no doubt that we’re all on the receiving end of more than our fair share of formulaic drivel that comes spewing forth from ‘the machine’ with depressing regularity.

But that’s why it’s such a joy when films as original and utterly enthralling as Mother, hit the big screen, and by all accounts this one has been dividing audiences the length and breadth of the country.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, it tells the tale of a couple. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem), live in a huge house in the middle of the countryside. Impressively, Mother has taken it upon herself to completely refurbish this previously fire-damaged property, and her considerable handiwork – of which she is rightly very proud – is now nearing the point of completion.

Him is a renowned poet and author and much older than his beautiful partner. Much to his frustration he is suffering from writer’s block. Mother is nothing if not wonderfully empathetic to his plight and supportive to the last, ensuring that she attends to his every need. Despite the occasionally aloof, slightly distracted nature of her man, the couple nonetheless seem well enough matched and in love.

Events, however, start to get a little interesting following an unexpected visit one night from a doctor, (Ed Harris), and a little later, from his wife, (Michelle Pfeiffer); two apparent strangers, whose erratic behaviour begins to ring alarm bells in Mother’s head.

But they are merely the tip of the iceberg for what is to come.

A catalogue of progressively bizarre happenings is set to break apart – with increasing regularity – the carefully assembled pieces of the home that Mother has built, throwing her well ordered life into almost unimaginable turmoil.

From fairly innocuous beginnings, Aronofsky is unafraid to completely change the film’s trajectory, something that he implements skilfully, ramping up the intensity as he goes. And like the curve on a hockey stick, the impending madness of the couple’s situation increases exponentially until such a point that you’d swear that you were in fact watching something totally different by the film’s end. Yet, everything is very closely and cleverly connected throughout, with the smallest, most subtle of clues dropped strategically here and there throughout the piece, hinting at the hellish events that await.

Mother is enormously entertaining. A film that positively whisks its viewer along, wide-eyed and slack jawed, to its crazy conclusion, challenging one’s perceptions of what constitutes unacceptably bad taste, in the process. One hell of a ‘marmite movie’, if ever there was one.

In much the same way that László Nemes chose to almost exclusively use medium close-up shots of his chief protagonist’s face in the superb, Son of SaulAronofsky here, elects to employ a similar, if slightly less relentless and claustrophobic technique, on his leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence. Her facial expressions convey the anguish of Mother quite brilliantly, as she is dragged mercilessly through the wringer, experiencing the entire gamut of emotions in the process. Her initial expression of sweetness and innocence quickly switches to one of troubled confusion, then disdain, exasperation and ultimately outright unadulterated fear. By all accounts Lawrence was prone to hyperventilating during the making of this film, and it’s certainly easy to see why.

Javier Bardem is mesmerising as Mother’s apparently caring partner whose penchant for generosity, helping others and sharing everything is gradually exposed for what it really is. Harris and Pfeiffer, amongst others, are wonderful in their wholly sinister cameo roles, flagrantly disrespecting both Mother and the home that she has so lovingly created. And all the while, Him insists upon Mother’s patience and trust in the unfolding melee, as things go rapidly from bad to worse.

In much the same way that Damien Chazelle‘s marvellous Whiplash generated such complete and utter emotional engagement from its audience, Darren Aronofsky’s film demands and very much receives a similar response.

Engaging, seductive, confusing, shocking and at times terrifying, Mother is a veritable whirlwind that grows relentlessly in intensity, launching a devilishly wicked assault on the senses in the process.

See it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE RITUAL

“…going with the concept of it’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see, [The Ritual] sustains a fairly decent level of suspense for the most part.”

Wayward Wolf.

The Ritual tells the tale of four close friends who find themselves hiking through the hills of Sweden.

Curiously, this is not actually even their idea – far from it in fact – but a trip organised in memoriam, Robert (Paul Reid), a recently departed friend, tragically killed when caught up in the middle of a violent robbery.

Amsterdam, Ibiza and Berlin. These were the more realistic ideas mooted by the collective on an evening when Robert’s suggestion of hiking had gone down like a lead balloon.

Still, here they are, traipsing across the Swedish countryside on a trip that is particularly poignant for Luke (Rafe Spall). He too had been caught up in the robbery, but hidden behind a stack of shelves and frozen with fear, he had failed to summon up the courage to intervene. Consequently, Luke had watched his friend be bludgeoned to death by an assailant armed with a baseball bat.

This level of guilt, and an inner paranoia that his close friends all blame him for Robert’s demise, play heavily upon Luke’s mind.

It’s an interesting back story, and offers The Ritual a little more depth than your average horror / thriller. That said, if this initial premise had in any way mislead you into believing that what was to follow would be high on originality, you are sadly mistaken.

When you boil it all down, The Ritual is a fairly formulaic piece, and it’s therefore no surprise when Dom (Sam Troughton) – the slightly portly moaning one – having twisted his knee during the hike, forces the group to re-think their plans and take a shortcut through rather ominous looking dense woodland.

Now that’s just asking for trouble.

And so it proves to be.

Stumbling upon a freshly gutted moose carcass suspended high up in a tree, and hopelessly lost with no chance of reaching their target destination, the pioneering foursome take refuge from a particularly heavy rainy deluge, in an apparently abandoned wooden hut. Discovering a part moose, part human straw effigy erected in the hut’s loft space does nothing to put anyone’s mind at ease. Regardless, in this instance, in is better than out, and the lads hunker down for the night around the security of a lit stove, vowing to push on out first thing in the morning.

That’s the plan at least, but the morning is going offer all manner of unwelcome surprises…

With obvious influence taken from some of the better horror films of the not so distant past – think Blair Witch, Wrong Turn, The Witch, and The Whicker Man – The Ritual does at least approach things from a cinematically successful angle, and going with the concept of it’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see, sustains a fairly decent level of suspense for the most part.

However, once the gang finally realise exactly what they’re up against, this tale of hunter and hunted fast descends into an all too familiar state of predictability, and sadly succumbs to the temptation for ‘the big reveal’, diffusing most of the tension that’s been carefully nurtured to this point.

Whilst Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Phil (Arsher Ali), are portrayed well enough, they are in many ways fairly dispensable characters, and it’s Sam Troughton and in particular, Rafe Spall, that really steal the show, dragging this OK-ish piece through to its conclusion thanks to their all-round Englishness, a generous smattering of dry humour, and a petty disrespect for one another.

At times witty and irreverent, and always leaning heavily on the use of metaphors, it’s hard to dislike this David Bruckner horror, and it’s only fair to say that through excellent casting and some occasionally disturbing set pieces, he’s created a film that’s certainly very watchable; it might even get under your skin a bit, but more likely, will leave its audience just a little underwhelmed.

WIND RIVER

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SNOWMAN

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

FINAL PORTRAIT

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

I have to concur, whole-heartedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

BORG vs MCENROE

 

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps that was in fact the director’s intentions?

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

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

THE LEVELLING

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

But who’d have thought it?

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

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

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

Or something.

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

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

And it sort of works – to a point.

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, less would have been so much more.

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

 

 

 

TISZTA SZÍVVEL (Kills on Wheels)

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICAN MADE

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s just the beginning of the madness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Made will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

BERLIN SYNDROME

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

Or so she thinks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A GHOST STORY

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GIFTED

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

Wayward Wolf.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DUNKIRK

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s breathtaking, sensational stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE RED TURTLE

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BEGUILED

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

Wayward Wolf.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

IT COMES AT NIGHT

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

Wayward Wolf.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A huge dilemma when so much is at a stake.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BABY DRIVER

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

Drastic situations then, call for drastic measures…

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

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

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

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

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

Long may it continue.

 

ALONE IN BERLIN

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well worth a watch.

 

 

 

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

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

Wayward Wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, the scene is set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only they were all like this.