Jeb’s team of new writers provides the story with a good balance of character types that we’re pretty sure (given the title) won’t all make it to the closing credits. There’s Raven (Persia White) a successful young adult fiction writer who has a touch of the ‘goth’ about her and on whom Jeb has a slightly obsessive crush. There’s Jeb’s old buddy Clark (Demitri Goritsas) who’s a bit of a hack and is dealing with both a drinking problem and marital troubles. In the ‘hunky pin up boy’ category, there’s Billy (Christopher Wolfe) who doesn’t seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer, and there’s Natalie (Caitlin Gerard) the privileged self-centred daughter of a network bigwig. And bringing up the rear is the sweet and motherly Joan (Melinda Lee).
We know from the outset that Jeb is a little unhinged, but the extent of his weirdness quickly escalates as he progressively plants cameras around the house to satisfy his voyeuristic intents and when he gets a call from the producer types that they’re losing confidence in his ability to deliver what they want, Jeb goes off the deep end. And it’s here that, for me, the film starts to go off the rails (or amps up into hysterical mayhem, depending upon your tastes).
Up until the half-way point, Matthew Ward’s screenplay has a taut and compelling tension to it with just the right amount of quirk to make us feel like we’re watching something more than a run-of-the-mill cabin-in-the-woods type of thriller. Peterson is compelling on screen and, in the first two acts, manages to elicit some sympathy to go along with our general abhorrence of his character. Likewise, the rest of the ensemble find genuinely interesting journeys through the screenplay and the direction from Ward and Justyn Ah Chong makes great use of the multi- level house and the multi-cam voyeuristic surveillance to keep us on our toes if not on the edge of our seats. For me, the last really enjoyable moments in this film are those that we get when Jeb goes home to his religiously fanatical mother, a nicely unbalanced performance from Sondra Kerr Blake whose television pedigree goes back to the sixties and the seventies with roles in shows like Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Mission Impossible, The Rockford Files and more. But then the gory violent stuff takes over and we find ourselves in a more meat-and-potatoes killing spree as Jeb decides to make a different movie with a bit more bite than Amy and the Aliens.
What we lose from this point until the end is that cleverer underlying understated threat that sits beneath almost every scene in acts one and two, replaced by more obvious and predictable fare in the third act. We also lose our connection with the great idea that these creative minds are here to crack the nut of the failing ratings for their cartoon series. The opportunity to tie the horror of the story’s end into some unexpected, bizarrely successful outcome for the show is completely missed. Having said all that, the end isn’t actually bad, it’s just not as enjoyable as the set up, so if you can live with the disappointment of its more mundane predictability, then the first half or so of the movie is well worth your time.
It’s interesting to note that American Killing started life with the title Wichita (the reference is unclear to me) for a 2016 release at the Santa Fe Film Festival but is about to resurface with its new name and a new release on DVD.
There is a plot to AVENGEMENT but it's altogether a little too mundane to highlight in much detail but the gist is that Adkins is an ex-boxer who gets himself into a spot of bother with local kingpin Craig Fairbrass (always nice to see the square-jawed one on screen) and ends up in the shovel and pick but comes out looking for bones to grind to make his bread. There's no elaborate heist, no convoluted plans, it all feels working-class. Homely, even. The action happens in your local pub, not a Wall Street penthouse. It happens in underpasses, not in elaborate villas on the Mexi-Cali border. Imagine Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrells meets Ken Loach. Kinda.
So, then, if the plot is a little rote what is it exactly that seperates what appears - from the outside anyway- to be just another British gangster piece peppered with flamboyant slang and grotesque claret-spilling? Well, mostly it's Adkins. With his gold-plated chompers, his scarred-up face and shaved head, let alone the catastrophe he wrecks on his victims, he has to work hard to get our sympathies on-side, but that's exactly what he does.
Keeping it's feet squarely on the ground by making AVENGEMENT feel home-grown it allows all the mayhem and the subsequent heart-string tuggy stuff seem more visceral, not least of all when it comes to Adkins growing thespian dexterity. Lumping all the credit on success squarely on Adkins doesn't give Johnson his dues though. Between his frightfully efficient penmanship of the script and his adept hand at building an action sequence he keeps things rattling along at quite the clip. Indeed, even though AVENGEMENT clocks in a super-lean 85-minutess it feels shorter still. More than that, however, Johnson knows that velocity alone does not a good movie make and he wisely buys time for Adkins to knead the dough of remorse and regret allowing the film to slow down and rise again when it's time to crack skulls. And before you read it again, yes, that is a bakery-themed metaphor.
All in all the ingredients are present, one or two efforts more in the calibre of AVENGEMENT and with any luck it'll throw Adkins and Johnson into the limelight, which is exactly where they should be. Now, Hollywood, stop messing around and sort it out.
A category 5 hurricane bears down on Florida with the entire state in evacuation mode. Fearing for her father, Hayley (Kaya Scodelario) ignores all warnings and drives beyond the road blocks to find him. He is trapped in his cellar with a broken leg and unbeknownst to her, he is surrounded by two enormous alligators. Now stranded together the father and daughter must outsmart an increasing number of vicious man-eaters as water levels rise and time is running out.
It is the familiar story that we've seen time and time again - whether it be people trapped in a supermarket with sharks (Bait) or tourists stuck on a boat surrounded by a crocodile (Rogue) – and yet while exploiting the rules CRAWL also ignores many, dishing up a terrifying 87-minutes of horror the likes of which have scarcely been seen since Jaws shocked us into submission over 40 years ago.
French director Alexandre Aja cements his place amongst the masters of horror with this latest creature feature, returning to the frivolity that he relished with Piranha 3D, while revelling in the riotous suspense that propelled him to fame in Haute Tension. He is fast becoming one of my favourite master-craftsmen and gives cause for celebration with each gnarly treat that he offers.
CRAWL immediately speaks to my love of classic sound-stage exterior set-ups, with the submerged neighbourhood being thrashed by gale force winds, torrential rain and raging waters. It is a glorious production design, which grants Aja complete control over his environment and allows for a larger than life backdrop of impending horror. With his story being mostly confined to the crawlspace beneath a house, he has crafted a terrifying tale of survival with little room to move.
Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper share top billing and give wholehearted performances under gruelling circumstances. Both of them understand the genre and what it takes to hold their audience by the throat. Their rapport is sincere, allowing them moments of dramatical depth during their desperate bid to overcome their prehistoric adversaries.
Director Aja refuses to keep his monsters hidden in the murky depths and he brings them to life with impressive CGI, augmented with practical design. His gators thrash, chomp and tear their way across the screen without pause, making for one of the year's most intense and thrilling movie-going experiences. Much can also be said for a music design that goes unnoticed, and I struggle to recall any of its cues. This is to the credit of Max Aruj and Steffen Thum, whose score is so integrated with the horror that it all blends into one horrific exercise of endurance.
See CRAWL on the big screen if you can, and hope for a large audience. To be in the clutch of a master is akin to being at the mercy of a rollercoaster. It is a scary, thrilling and entirely fun adventure of a movie that you will want to line up and ride again... and again!
Beginning with a wonderful animated opening sequence director Pamela B Green emphasises the significance of Guy-Blaché's story through a collage of filmmaking history. Green is a title-sequence animator by trade and she applies her craft with precision to rewind through the years, from today's big budget blockbusters back to the birth of Hollywood, the early years of Fort Lee and the birth of motion pictures. It is an effective and seemingly expensive introduction to her film, which then turns to talking heads from some of the industry's leading figures.
Alice Guy-Blaché was a pioneer and one of the first filmmakers to explore fiction and fantasy through celluloid. Working at the same time as the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès (amongst others) Guy-Blaché would turn over a staggering amount of films - exceeding 1000 - few of which survived (150 to be exact), and she made groundbreaking achievements that the history books attribute to men. She was the first female to own a major studio (The Solax Company), as well as being the first filmmaker to feature an entirely African American cast of players. Her achievements were insurmountable and informed cinema as we know it, and yet her place in history remains unknown to most.
Narrated by Jodie Foster, featuring notable Hollywood figures such as Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Deply, Diablo Cody, Peter Farrelly, Peter Bogdonovich, Ben Kingsly and Gale Anne Hurd amongst the many, BE NATURAL emphasises the lack of acknowledgement within the industry and attempts to reeducate with an abundance of archival footage, family accounts and investigation. Like a classic Hollywood mystery, the documentary is thrilling, captivating and entirely compelling. Pamela B Green's enthusiasm is ever present, albeit a little self indulgent. She has not unearthed some massive scandal, as the gist of the narrative would have you believe, but rather she has picked up the pieces from where others left off and reassembled them into a coherent modern document... to maximum effect.
The amount of footage, including so many scenes from Guy-Blaché's films, is incredible and Green takes us on a journey towards restoration and preservation. The talking head guests share insight into Guy-Blaché's techniques to highlight how they have informed modern cinema, and the process of tracking down her descendants makes for an entertaining point of intrigue.
BE NATURAL is a must-see for all self-respecting cinephiles and ought to be shown to every film student throughout the world. The history of cinema is full of forgotten legacies and Alice Guy-Blaché's story is possibly the most important of them all, which in turn, makes Pamela B Green's film obligatory by default. See it.
Of course, Ash is an inveterate phone-recorder of moments like these, hence we have this footage to establish the central character tension of the movie. It’s a device that was used (more effectively I’d have to say) in Cloverfield (2008) allowing us to ‘witness’ backstory to characters that has a bearing on the ‘present day’ story.
In this film, present day is a year later. The brothers haven’t spoken in all that time. Mark’s business has failed, their parents have lost most of their money and Ash isn’t happy about that at all. Still, Mark is about to marry his girlfriend Stephanie (Olivia Vadnais) who’s arranged for Ash to meet with his estranged brother in a Madison coffee shop. Joining Ash is his wingman, Donny Donovan (Andrew Yackel) a wannabe youtube hero which means he’s wielding a video camera the whole time. And the last member of what will become our band of heroes, is intrepid online reporter Tessa Monroe (Jennifer Andrada) who’s in Madison to cover a protest which is quite quickly quelled by the appearance of tanks and soldiers in force. As Tessa tells her viewers, free speech is under threat in Madison and what happens in this small town could soon be the fate of the entire country.
It seems that writer/director Aaron Garrett wants to give us more than just an urbanised shoot-‘em-up here. He clearly has some genuine political and social points to make, using an exaggerated, fictional situation to offer a cautionary tale about how easily our freedoms and liberties can be crushed by a reactionary government backed up by a powerful military force. Underscoring his story is a group of characters who have a complex set of emotional entanglements and personal desires that make them more than just pawns in the running gun battles as they look for a way out of town. At times, it’s reminiscent of the first act of Red Dawn (1984) except that here the enemy is their own people. The low budget makes it difficult for Garrett to stage more impressive citizen protests or military responses which often leaves scenes felling a bit empty but, for the most part, the film makes do with what it’s got and the human stories at its heart allow us to forgive the shortcomings in its action sequences.
The dilemma of the found footage film is always how to piece together the random bits of shakey-cam imagery into a coherent narrative. For the large part, this is achieved by taking advantage of the ‘news reporter’ character and, of course, the ‘selfie-driven’ generation, although the constant image of characters with one hand raised to hold up phones or video cameras wears a bit thin after a while. There’s an additional perspective introduced later in the film when Garrett himself pops up as a kind of citizen-guerrilla-soldier who joins forces with our heroes. His bodycam brings a new and refreshing camera style to the mix.
The performances are mostly strong, especially Andrada as the reporter, Yackel as the chaotic and self-centred Donny Donovan and Garrett himself as Roland, the citizen soldier, and there’s an interesting twist towards the end than means the final scenes don’t quite go where we think they will. It’s an ambitious project on a number of levels and whilst it might not succeed at every turn, it has a good crack at injecting a bit of social and political conscience into what could have easily been just another humdrum action flick.
It’s a pretty good premise for a horror movie and a quick Google search will back it up with lots of spooky details as to the dark happenings that have taken place on that lonely, wooded road. It’s the fourth title card, though – ‘inspired by real events’ – that gives co-directors Richard Grieco and Steve Stanulis and screenwriters Derek Ross Mackay and Noel Ashman the license to veer away from any actual investigation into the mystery and history of Clinton Road and, instead, deliver a more generic and by-the- numbers horror story with the infamous haunted carriageway as little more than a backdrop.
The story kicks off with a young woman fleeing through the woods, seemingly pursued by a slow-paced but relentless giant of a man with a bushy beard and welding goggles. We soon learn that the woman is Jessica (Sarah Pribis) and that this is her disappearance some time before we meet the real heroes of the story. It’s a pretty classic set up of characters, the kind that has you trying to work out the order in which they’ll get picked off when the inevitable horror starts to happen. We’ve got Jessica’s ex-boyfriend, Michael (Ace Young), and her grieving sister Isabella (Katie Morrison), along with Michael’s new girlfriend, the pouty and selfish Kayla (Lauren LaVera) as well as his blowhard mate Tyler (Cody Calafiore) and their friend Gianna (Erin O’Brien) who’s found a medium of sorts, the spooky one-eyed Begory (James DeBello) who believes he can use his paranormal sensitivities to locate the missing Jessica. So far so good.
But the story quickly gets diverted into a protracted scene in a nightclub owned by RJ (Ice-T) and his business partner (Sopranos alumnus Vincent Pastore) where we meet our intrepid band and establish the dynamics and
personalities that will play out in the woods. Ice T gets a nice little moment to relate his own frightening experience of being on Clinton Road that seems like it will become important later on, but never really does. Then there’s a lot of irrelevant storyline about the nightclub itself that involves a seemingly corrupt Mayor (Bo Dietl) and an odd little cameo from Eric Roberts (as himself) that seems to be more about celebrity cred than narrative. (check out IMDb and you’ll see his twenty second appearance somehow rates him top billing!?!)
Eventually, our seekers head out to the titular road itself and we finally get down to the spooky business. Begory performs a weird little ritual intended to locate Jessica but instead it seems to open a portal for all sorts of ghosty, deranged, phantasms and spirits to appear. There’s the obligatory argument that causes one character to stomp off alone into the woods and another character to ‘go after her’ and before you know it our band of six is split up and aimlessly wandering around the woods looking for... I’m not sure what.
The rich and eclectic abundance of horror stories associated with the real Clinton Road might seem to be a bonus for this kind of movie, but here it seems more like a curse. Without any direct focus on the how and why of the paranormal mysteries of this place the stories of lost children, phantom vehicles, a strange stone structure, a lonely house, a ghostly police officer and, of course, our bearded, goggle-wearing guy from the start of the film, all swirl around our characters who, as might be expected, start falling foul of their evil intentions. It’s all a bit loose and directionless and the part of the story that’s concerned with our band of six characters never really narratively connects with the part of the story that deals with the scary stuff in the woods. It’s more ‘guilt by association’ and that wears thin very quickly.
The six main actors do their best with the material they have. Calafiore as the belligerent and sceptical Tyler makes a good fist of it as does O’Brien as Gianna and DeBello as the ‘seer’ Begory but for the most part they’re all just a group of friends lost in the words falling victim to the horrors of the haunted road and seeming to be as confused about why all this is happening as we are.
This is such a good idea for an exploration of the power of great songs to bring joy and pleasure and to make a better world (or the way the absence of such works of art might diminish our world), as well as offering some insight into the ethics of appropriation (more popularly known by the weasel word, homage) involved in claiming originality off the back of someone else’s work. It’s disappointing, then, that the potential for this isn’t embraced as fully as it might be and that, instead, it spends much of its time focused on a fairly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy storyline (Ellie, of course, has always been in love with Jack, but Jack seems to be oblivious to her affections – why, she wonders, did she end up in the ‘friend’ column instead of the ‘And I love Her’ column?). If anyone was going to pull off a story that could do justice to both these ideas, it should be Richard Curtis who is well known for his gifts in crafting great romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually) and his forays into high concept science-fiction/fantasy devices (About Time) but here it feels like he and director Danny Boyle haven’t quite settled on what the film’s about.
It’s a strength of the story that they make no attempt to explain the blackout or how and why it resulted in the random disappearance of an odd collection of things in the world. Nor do they get bogged down in any attempt the reveal why Jack is immune to the thing that the rest of the world has succumbed to. This is just the way of the new world, and I go along with that wholeheartedly. What I find perplexing though is that the things that seem to have disappeared from the world have no real connection. They’re not all things, like the Beatles that we’d grieve for if we knew we’d lost them. Many of the things that are gone (and I don’t want to give away what they are, because there are some good jokes associated them) are things that we would probably generally agree the world is better without. And just when the story seems like it might be about to take a radical turn that could crack open its unexamined potential, we get the rug pulled out from under our feet with the worst of cop-outs… a Dorothy, wake up! moment where a great, unexpected development turns out to just be a dream. Here and in most of the rest of the film, the opportunity to use its sci-fi-fantasy device as a way of asking ourselves whether we’re consciously or unconsciously allowing or even enabling a world where we’re giving up the best of our creativity and originality, is largely missed.
In its place, is the other side of the story; a pale reflection of a romantic comedy that often feels like it’s recycling some of the best bits from Curtis’ great RomComs. For instance, as funny as he is, Jack’s hopeless friend and clumsy roadie Rocky (Joel Fry) is pretty much a lesser version of Spike (Rhys Ifans) from Notting Hill, complete with moments of weirdly wise insight. Likewise, there’s a Notting Hill style frantic dash through traffic (albeit on foot instead of in a car) when Jack realises that he’s let Ellie slip through his fingers and must get to her before her train leaves for London. None of these moments, of themselves, are bad… in fact, many of them are sweet and quite funny… but collectively it feels like we’ve seen it all before and that’s a great shame when these moments steal so much oxygen from the truly original concept that should be at the heart of the film.
Much of the rest of the cast provide solid support to the story. Kate McKinnon puts in a manic turn as Ed Sheeran’s Manager who takes over Jack’s career with a vengeance and Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jack’s semi-supportive parents give funny but familiar performances that could be lifted straight out of The Kumars at No. 42. The real surprise is Ed Sheeran who’s terrific in a self- deprecating and very meta portrayal of himself (having Shape of You as his ring tone is possibly the funniest moment in the film). And, on the upside, there are plenty of great Beatles songs to tap along to and Patel offers sweet if unremarkable renditions of them.
But just when I was ready to accept that my excited anticipations for this film were not going to be met, it almost redeems itself with a lovely, unexpected and even moving scene near the end that reframes the more interesting elements of the story in a way that could have elevated it into something more profound and more culturally meaningful. But that moment is short lived and the predictable ending is given over to the romantic comedy rather than to the deeper and more philosophical questions that could have been dealt with in its final moments.
Regardless of the franchise, number “4” sequels are rarely anticipated or celebrated, and with Toy Story 3‘s powerful closing it was a courageous decision to push forward with another chapter. We reunite with Woody, Buzz and their quirky cohorts as they adjust to their new home in Bonnie’s bedroom. She has no interest in playing with Woody and in a desperate bid to win her affection he sneaks into her schoolbag to keep her company at kindergarten. When Bonnie creates a new friend, Forky, out of plastic cutlery and pipe-cleaners, Woody sets about assimilating Forky into his new home. A family road trip leads to disaster, however, when Forky escapes. And with that an adventure ensues as Woody ventures out into the wide world to bring him home.
READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
The filmmakers seem to take the same approach to the way they construct this deceptively simple narrative. For a start, the central character played by Tom E Nicholson is never named and, in the credits, is simply identified as ‘Our Man’. The same is true for many other characters who we only know for what they do rather than who they are – police officer, therapist, postal clerk, burger shop owner – the effect is to compound the isolation that Our Man feels as he moves through his lonely world.
The story, as much as I feel I can reveal, revolves around Our Man, a morbidly obese, socially isolated loner who lives in a crummy little apartment where he has a mind-numbing job calling healthcare customers to verify details on their claim forms. He watches old black and white westerns on the television, sometimes whilst masturbating to porn on his laptop. His interaction with the world is largely functional – a trip to the post office, lunch at a burger joint, appointments with his therapist – all of which involve some level of anger and resentment against the world. And then, one day, he receives a package that was meant to be delivered to the post box next to his. Nevertheless, he opens it and what he finds inside simultaneously triggers painful memories of his own family life, and a series of extreme actions that result from a decision to take matters into his own hands.
As a result of the actions he takes, he meets Tilly (Danika Golombek) a young woman with whom he forms a highly unlikely and spikey relationship that slowly reveals deeply hidden sides of both characters. The development of their relationship is finely plotted and deftly handled and forms the most compelling part of the film. The performances by both actors are beautifully underplayed and understated in a way that makes their story both ordinary and extraordinary in the same breath. You simply can’t take your eyes off them.
The title of the film comes from a nineteenth century slave spiritual. It’s a song about Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from the oppression of the Pharaohs. It also has allusions to Christian Baptism and, for some, contains a coded message to those slaves who were escaping along the so-called Underground Railroad; the secret routes and safe places that delivered many from slavery to the free states in America. One lyric in the song tells us that God’s gonna trouble the waters, a reference to an angel that stirs up the calm waters of the Pool of Siloam and, as a result, releases healing powers to those who venture in. It’s a subtle connection, but in the context of the film, resonates in unexpected ways with the ideas of redemption and salvation and deliverance from the forms of oppression that pervades Our Man’s life.
The hallmark of this film is the very mundane and ordinary way in which the story unfolds and in how these two characters relate to each other. I hasten to add that their circumstances are anything but mundane; but it’s the use of the banal in the playing out of their story through those circumstances that makes this film so compelling.
I’d love to tell you more about the story of this film, but that would be to steal away the impact of its unfolding. Suffice to say it’s a sharply written and confidently directed film with two powerful performances at its heart, well supported by a cast of other players who provide just the right balance of engagement and distance to provide us with an understanding of the way Our Man is in the world. It’s a great example of how indie films so often get it right in allowing the focus to be on story and performance and fine filmmaking in order to remind us that as entertaining as big budgets and CGI can be, they never a substitute for the things that really matter in a human-scale story.
Set in Glasgow, WILD ROSE follows the story of Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), a troubled young mother who has spent the past 12-months in prison. Upon her release she returns home to her children, who have been living with her disapproving mother (Julie Walters), and rather than resuming motherhood, she follows her dream of becoming a famous country music singer. In turn, despite having a natural talent, she lacks social grace, responsibility and personal accountability, and she continues on a course of self-destruction.
This film damn near wrecked me as I hopscotched through a gauntlet of emotions. I had anticipated a character I could champion and cheer for, and one whose story would inspire. I had expected a straight forward tale of rags to riches, but Rose-Lynn was insufferable. I wanted to shake sense into her... to tell her to snap out of it... and no matter how talented she may have been, she didn't deserve the success she so desperately craved. My heart broke for her children as all hope for a better life crashed down before their eyes. To put it simply, Rose-Lynn destroyed me.
And how amazing is that? To feel so passionately about a character! To be wholeheartedly invested in their story! To feel such a strong resentment means to have been fully engaged in their tale, and I was in its grip from the get go. Director Tom Harper – whose previous work includes This Is England 86, War & Peace and The Woman In Black 2 – has delivered an excellent character-driven drama with an infectious infusion of country-twang. He understands that country music isn't for everyone and with help from Nicole Taylor's wonderful screenplay he allows Rose-Lynn's passion to project the genre beyond its divisive bounds. He places subtle moments of fantasy throughout the narrative, avoiding kitschiness, and doesn't overpower the story with musical numbers. The songs are carefully placed and entirely effective, and sung with absolute conviction.
Jessie Buckley is outstanding as Rose-Lynn, and offers an awe-inspiring (and agonising) performance that warrants whatever accolades befall her. Her character arc is a slow trajectory, and plays out contrarily to other similarly themed films. While there is an obvious formulaic structure beneath WILD ROSE (which it adheres to) it meanders along its path at its own pace, refusing to succumb to obvious conventions. Much like lyrics sung at a pivotal moment in the film, there ain't no yellow brick road running though Glasgow, and Rose-Lynn's self-destructive story echoes that sentiment. Buckley's turn recalls Bette Midler's gut-wrenching performance in The Rose, and reflects a similar tone.
Julie Walters is reliable as Rose-Lynn's worn out mother, an important authority in her daughter's messed up life. It's a fascinating performance from Walters, given that she is playing to type yet still able to leverage an unassuming nuance. It also marks another ironic counter-act to her legendary turn as the unrefined Liverpudlian in Educating Rita, a film not far removed from WILD ROSE. An added pleasure is Sophie Okenedo (Hellboy, Ace Ventura 2) whose infectious smile lights up the screen. She plays the wealthy employer who provides unconditional support to Rose-Lynn while oblivious to her true identity. Okenedo is lovely and contributes warmth in spades.
I do not enjoy country music and yet I was swept up by it. Like Crazy Heart, Nashville and Tender Mercies before it, the power of story transcends musical genres. WILD ROSE, in fact, plays out like a county song. It is a bitter-sweet serenade where reward doesn't come without hard work and pain, and that mantra applies to the movie-going experience itself. Frustration and anger pave the way to satisfaction and fulfilment, making WILD ROSE a highlight of the year's cinematic calendar.
And that’s what happens early on in this first feature from director Cuyle Carvin, and, on balance, he makes a pretty good fist of it. The premise of the story by Jeff Miller writing with Justin and Josh Hawkins is simple but effective. Robert Holbrook (Thomas Downey) is a man whose life is not going the way he wanted. He’s split up from his wife, Lynn (Elise Muller), he barely has a relationship with his seventeen year old daughter Sammey (Trinity Simpson), his career as a children’s book author and illustrator is on the skids and, to top things off, his mother has recently died. The solution? Hit the bottle and move into mum’s kind of spooky old house. And that’s where he first meets Tommy, one of three very creepy dolls (especially the one with the winking eye and the broken neck) who, when not appearing unexpectedly around the house, are kept in the attic. Of course, we know the dolls are evil because we saw the prologue which, as so often seems to be the case, weakens the story by giving things away too early, rather than whetting our appetite for the horrors that are to come.
Nevertheless, instead of being terrified by the dolls, Robert is inspired by them and sits down to write a new children’s picture book; The Dolls in the Attic. But we’ve seen The Babadook (2014) so we know that a picture book with a scary rhyme is going to take us into a dark place that we probably don’t want to go. What’s even scarier is the possibility that the dolls might be writing the story themselves.
Cue the entrance of Dee Wallace, a veteran of horror classics like The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), Critters (1986), The Frighteners (1996), Hallowe’en (2007) and more. Here she’s Margaret, a friend of Robert’s deceased mother who seems quite nice until the mention of ‘the dolls’ at which point she becomes terrified and warns Robert and his daughter Sammey to get rid of them before bad things start to happen. Either she’s giving them good advice or, as James (Bret Green) the yard boy suggests, she’s psycho and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Here’s a hint. Don’t listen to James the yard boy.
For most of its 84 minute running time, the story holds the viewer close to, if not all the way to the edge of the seat. Downey and Simpson are good together as a father and daughter trying to work out their damaged relationship. What better way to precipitate their healing than have them terrorised by three murderous dolls. Wallace provides just the right amount of melodramatic foreboding in her handful of scenes and James the yard boy and Lynn the estranged wife round out a strong cast in this tight little chamber piece. There’s a stretch in the third act where the wheels fall off for a while and the restraint that Carvin has shown for the bulk of the film seems to get away from him. At the same time, the logic of the storytelling suffers at the hands of the necessity to manufacture a couple of gruesome moments. But, to his credit, things mostly get back on track as we reach the neat if a bit predictable twist at the end that is followed by a coda that feels like it might be tipping its cap to the final scene in Psycho (1960). It’s not entirely successful in leaving us with that classic suspended ‘oh no’ moment, but it comes close.
For a scary doll-horror movie, Dolls has more than its fair share of good, creepy moments and few chilling scares to keep us engaged. For my money, if you’re flicking through the Netflix menu and you come across William Brent Bell’s The Boy (2016) and its trailer puts you in the mood for a bit of doll-inspired mayhem, think twice and go looking for Dolls instead. I reckon you might have a better time of it.
In the new aptly titled biographical film about Tolkien's life, those later years are ignored in favour of an exploration of his youth. With a somewhat frustrating narrative trope we are introduced to Tolkien in the midst of battle, when he served his country in the First World War, and from this moment the story ebbs and flows between timelines, recalling his childhood through to his adolescence, and chronicling his hardships and achievements.
Nicholas Hoult stars as Tolkien, giving a serviceable turn. With a handsome, stammering demeanour reminiscent of a young Hugh Grant, he gives as best a performance as the material allows. His physical attributes remain stagnant, however, throughout the course of the story, with very little dramatical arc between his youthful exuberance and his war-burdened adulthood. I would attribute this to the strongly marketed script, and wouldn't cast any fault towards him.
Lily Collins plays his childhood sweetheart, turned wife, and continues her upward trajectory with a sweet performance. She is quite lovely in the film and portrays her character of Edith Pratt as a level-headed, strong willed woman. I am not familiar with her place in Tolkien's story, but will assume that her role has been retrofitted to suit the current sociopolitical climate, which is fine. Derek Jacobi appears as Joseph Wright, a notable professor and linguist who was instrumental in Tolkien's development of new languages. He is quite good despite being underutilised. Other players include Colm Meaney and Pam Ferris, who help gloss the veneer of integrity.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Tolkien's family have not endorsed the film, and have – in fact - publicly distanced themselves from it. And while the film does celebrate Tolkien's work, it does so simplistically, in a contrived manner at odds with his own storytelling style. The on-screen narrative never reaches the point of The Hobbit's publication, however it does fabricate the evolution of Tolkien's process. Heavy-handed fantasy sequences during battle and bloodshed inform his creation, with German flame throwers being fantasised as fire-breathing dragons, and the over-looming theme of war itself being epitomised as Sauron (depicted as a giant shape overseeing all conflict). Scenes from his childhood reflect beloved moments from his books, such as a young Tolkien hiding from bullies beneath a raised pathway. These unsubtle moments may provide a fan service to some, but degrade the overall weight of the film significantly. There is even a moment when a character refers to Wagner's Das Rheingold (a famous opera, which inspired Lord of the Rings) by saying that it shouldn't take six hours to tell the story of a ring. It's a cringe-worthy moment that reminds us why Tolkien's family are not amused.
Average movie-goers may take a shining to TOLKIEN, and yet it's unlikely to endure a theatrical release beyond a week or two. It provides enough Middle Earth references to appease fans of Peter Jackson's films, but will likely irritate those adherent to the literature with its shallow depiction of his life, and an overall lack of exposition. Had it explored Tolkien's later years, including the publication of books, his appointment of the Order of the British Empire, and of course his tenure with The Inklings (as previously depicted from CS Lewis's perspective in Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands). As it stands TOLKIEN is a passable, albeit forgettable bio-pic that panders to short attention spans and illiterate minds (for lack of better word).
For a start, there are the sublime performances by Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jun playing the three key characters in this seemingly simple but ultimately complex psychological story. On the surface, it’s a story about Lee Jong-su (Ah-in) an aspiring writer who gets by as a delivery boy. On one such delivery he bumps into Hae-mi (Jong-seo) a girl from the neighbourhood he grew up in. She recognises him and strikes up a conversation that quickly leads to the beginnings of a relationship. But, just as things get going, Hae-mi tells Lee that she must go away on a trip to Africa for a while and asks him to mind her cat. When she returns, though, she’s accompanied by Ben (Jeun) an arrogant rich kid who Lee sees as a rival for Hae-mi’s affections and so begins this fraught three- way relationship laced with desire, deception and jealousy; all the right ingredients for an entanglement that is bound to end badly for one or more of the trio.
There’s a very dark undertone to this story reminiscent of films like Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Not that you’d really call Burning a thriller, but it’s the feeling that it might be heading down that path that is so compelling.
For many of us, Steven Yeun is well known as Glenn in The Walking Dead and whilst the character of Ben has some of the same charm, here he’s a colder more manipulative character. Or is he? Perhaps we (through the eyes of Lee) are misreading him; unfairly jumping to dark conclusions. It’s this ambiguity in how we understand the characters and Chang-dong’s skill at transferring the point-of-view from the character to the audience and back again that makes this film so effective. Nowhere is that aspect more powerful than in the key turning point scene of the story, when Ben and Hae-mi visit Lee at his rural farm. In a mesmerizing sequence, cinematographer Kyung- pyo Hong focuses his lens on Hae-mi as she dances, semi-naked, whilst the dusk falls before our eyes. What begins as Ben and Lee watching this innocent, erotic moment very quickly shifts to the audience as we watch the dance through their eyes and, as we do, are drawn into the emotional tension that lies between the two young men. It’s a beautiful scene, made all the more evocative by the use of Miles Davis’ melancholy tune, Générique.
As good as Yeun is in the role of Ben, though, it’s really Ah-in and Jong-seo that shine in performances that are simultaneously powerful and fragile in the seemingly effortless way they are played. And, in addition to the glorious use of Miles Davis, there’s a haunting soundtrack by Sung-hyun Lee (AKA Mowg) that infiltrates every delicate and violent moment of the film.
If there’s a weakness in this movie it’s that, at almost two and half hours, it doesn’t always sustain the tension, especially in the second act when we’re shifting from what we thought the film was to what it will soon become. But by the time we’ve reached the third act, the story has become so compelling and so tense that we’re willing to forgive a bit drag around the middle. Burning is a masterful work by a filmmaker at the top of his game. I’ll certainly be checking out his back catalogue whilst I wait to see what wonder he produces next.
Reader discretion: The review for this family film contains mild course language.
For older viewers, the most interesting thing about this film is likely to be the recasting controversy surrounding the first instalment’s central character, Max. Louis C.K., Max’s original voice actor, admitted to sexual misconduct in 2017 and was subsequently replaced by Patton Oswalt. However, THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 suffers from a bad case of what I call ‘Cars 2 Syndrome’, that is, when a sequel lazily staples a story with ties to the original to one focused on a popular character, expecting the audience to either figure out the connection for themselves or not care. As a result, Max’s semblance of an arc is underdeveloped and forgettable; I’m not defending C.K.’s actions, but rather believe that the character simply could’ve gone unseen or unheard instead of wasting Oswalt’s talent.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 basically has two main plots: Max learning to face his fears and use this knowledge to be a better friend and family member, and some bullshit where a rabbit rescues a tiger from a circus. The latter stars Snowball (Kevin Hart), who is perhaps the franchise’s most recognisable face and voice, so it’s easy to see why he’s front and centre this time around. Unfortunately, the film can’t decide which story to prioritise and compromises by cutting between them constantly, which is not only distracting, but causes each to lack balance.
Although Snowball’s antics are colourful, fast-paced and have the advantage of featuring Tiffany Haddish as a co-lead, everything from the action to the (admittedly kid-friendly) humour is utter nonsense, taking a ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ approach. For instance, a tiger and a pack of wolves walk down the streets of New York in separate scenes set in broad daylight, yet we’re never shown any of the city’s inhabitants reacting to this. Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, Max’s story is more grounded at the cost of being almost inescapably boring. Essentially, a sheepdog named Rooster (Harrison Ford) looks down on Max for being scared of everything around him until the latter realises Rooster has a point and changes. Ford is as excellent as you’d expect despite this being his first role in an animated feature, with the veteran actor’s instinctual gruffness first used to cast Rooster as an enigma before revealing his deeper wisdom. Even just playing a canine version of himself, Ford is the clear cast MVP.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 is more bland than outright bad, with enough bright visuals and exaggerated jokes to keep young kids entertained throughout its mercifully brief runtime. Instead of serving an ambitious script or technical achievement, it’s a safe follow-up which exists for the sake of it. Ultimately, I suspect that this film will not only be forgotten by its target audience, but indifferently remembered by adults as ‘the first time Han Solo did a cartoon’.
I guess you’re way ahead of me here, which is pretty much how it’s most likely to be for the audience with regard to the predictable narrative of this very slow paced film. Vera understands and respects the seriousness of the situation, what with being an anthropologist and all, but her ‘cheatin’ wife’ Alice has no respect for the ways of the Native American spirits that are keeping the Barhams at bay so, of course, she is the one to transgress. (in fact, it’s not really that much of a transgression... she drops her watch while they’re out walking and reaches over the fence to retrieve it... still, in the eyes of the red-necked Barham family, a trespass is a trespass!)
But the scene isn’t quite set yet. Sleazy Thatcher Vance turns up unexpectedly (of course) to try and convince Alice to ditch Vera and resume their affair, and there’s also that strange old caretaker, Sandy (Ritchie Montgomery) who keeps popping up at the most inopportune times with his homespun, southern drawl philosophy and thinly veiled warnings. Cue the appearance of the Barham family patriarch, Bill (played with arch, evil enthusiasm by writer/director Miles Doleac). Turns out he’s also the local sheriff, so they won’t be getting any help from the cops in a hurry. Alice and Vera very quickly discover that the Barham family are some kind of weird, violent cult looking like a warped and bloody version of the KKK in their crimson robes and deer antler headdresses.
On the surface, this movie seems like it’s trying to address some of the issues to do with the portrayal of women and diversity in violent horror films; placing three women in key roles, including a gay marriage and a Native American story at the centre of the narrative, but all that quickly falls away and we’re soon back to stock standard ‘women as victims of nasty male violence’ with a bit of gratuitous nudity thrown in for good measure. It’s disappointing when the first act of this film seemed to be wanting to go another way.
Having said all that, the violence itself (if that’s what you’re looking for) is not especially shocking or thrilling or even suspenseful. Partly that’s to do with the snail’s pace at which the story travels and partly it’s to do with there not being very much of it (sound that that old joke in Annie Hall – the food’s terrible and such small portions).
Also missing in action (or lack thereof) is much in the way of ‘horror’. There’s a nice, creepy little scene with Bill’s boy Lonny (Scott Bolster) who’s the one that catches Alice reaching over the fence line. There’s a touch of Deliverance in the back-woods demeanour of the kid (especially when we find out what he’s holding – no spoilers here) but it’s really the only scene that raises the bar above all the other scenes that are both derivative and predictable.
Eakin is good as the moral centre of the film and Williams makes a good fist of being the more reckless of the two. Richie Montgomery finds a bit of humour in his cantankerous role (the kind of character that, if this was an old Western, would have been played by Slim Pickens or Chill Wills) but Sande and Doleac play the villainous melodrama of their characters much more than the threat they might otherwise present to our two heroes. All in all, Hallowed Ground is a film that starts out with some promising ideas that could well have taken us into fresh territory with some good scary stuff along the way but, sadly, doesn’t ever deliver on that initial promise.