From big budget special effects films like Roland Emmerich’s Midway (2019) to star vehicles like Tom Hanks in Aaron Schneider’s submarine drama, Greyhound (2020) or Paul Rudd in Ben Lewin’s thriller The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) or Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s espionage drama Red Joan (2018) or Benedict Cumberbatch in Dominic Cooke’s thriller The Courier (2020) or even Taika Waititi’s comic spin on Hitler; Jojo Rabbit (2019) – the prosecution of World War Two on screen continues unabated (you get the picture).
The latest story to be told is WAITING FOR ANYA, a second outing for writer/director Ben Cookson who adapts his screenplay (with co-writer Toby Torlesse) from the 1990 children’s book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo (and if that name seems familiar, you might have twigged that he’s also the author of Warhorse, which itself was adapted for Steven Spielberg’s 2011 World War One movie).
Here, it’s 1942 and Anya is a Jewish child who, as the film opens, is being herded by German soldiers into the familiar sight of a waiting train’s cattle-cars along with her father Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt) and hundreds of others all marked with a yellow star. In the confusion and panic, Benjamin (somewhat implausibly) manages to convince a passenger in a regular train on the adjacent track to take his daughter and then, himself, escapes.
Sometime later, in the small Pyrenees village of Lescun not far from France’s border with Spain we meet Jo (Noah Schnapp) a young shepherd who lives with his mother (Elsa Zylberstein) and his grandfather (Jean Reno). Jo’s father (Gilles Marini) is a soldier who’s been captured and held prisoner by the Germans. One day, in the woods, Jo encounters Benjamin who he soon discovers is hiding out with his mother, known locally as the Widow Horcada (Anjelica Houston). Benjamin tells Jo that he and his daughter Anya had an agreement that as soon as she could, she would meet him here at grandma’s place – hence the title of the film. But when Jo stumbles upon a small child, Leah (Enola Izquierdo Cicuendez) in the barn, he finds himself the keeper of Benjamin and the Widow’s secret – they are helping Jewish children escape across the mountains and into Spain. For Jo, keeping the secret becomes harder and riskier when the Germans post a garrison in the village to close off the possibility of such escapes. The garrison is led by a young, arrogant Lieutenant (Tomas Lemarquis) and his older, war-weary Corporal (Thomas Kretschmann). In order to protect both Benjamin and the children from being discovered, Jo becomes the go-between, ferrying food and supplies from the village to the Widow’s farm some distance away (strangely, no-one thinks to question the rather huge amount of food the Widow seems to consume each week). But his task is made more difficult when the Corporal takes an interest in birdwatching with Jo and his intellectually disabled friend Hubert (Declan Cole).
This is a complex and potentially compelling story with all the right elements to make its telling by a cast of excellent actors the likes of Huston, Reno and Schnapp both thrilling and poignant. Yet, somehow, the performances, the themes and the narrative never quite connect in a way that allows us to engage beyond the surface. The best scenes are those between Jo and the Corporal where the boy is able to understand that the nationality and the uniform of the man don’t automatically tar him with the same Nazi brush and that the two surrogate father figures in his life – Jewish Benjamin and the German Corporal – are not the stereotypes that their respective ‘sides’ choose to characterise each other. These scenes reach a level of emotion and authenticity that is sadly lacking in most of the rest of the film and Kretschmann in particular finds a depth of performance that sets him apart from the rest of the cast. Conversely, the scenes between Huston and Reno which you would hope might crackle (especially when there’s a bit of romance involved) are mostly flat and by the numbers.
Is it the writing? Is it the direction? Is it the source material? It’s probably a combination of all three but however that formula plays it, it makes for a plodding and unsubtle narrative where the characters are more likely to speak in obvious ways that should be subtext, rather than in more well crafted and subtle dialogue. For the audience, there is little need for reading between the lines – the lines tend to say exactly what each character is thinking or feeling.
This might also account for why there are very few surprises in this film; we see all the moments of intensity coming a mile off and can pretty much predict what key characters will do when their arcs hit their key moments. There is also the curiosity of choosing to deliver all the dialogue in accented English (with the exception of a few common key words – bonjour, tres bien etc for the French, nein, Schnell etc for the German). It’s just one more element that undermines the authenticity of the film. It’s a shame, because in surer more experienced hands it’s easy to see how this could have been a much more compelling and suspenseful film. In some ways it’s reminiscent of yet another recent World War Two film; last year’s Resistance (written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz) which also told a tale of French citizens attempting to confound the German invaders by smuggling children across the Alps, this time into Switzerland. (in that film, the focus is Marcel Marceau played by Jesse Eisenberg who fought with the Resistance before turning to mime) Both films have all the ingredients they need for much better outcomes, but both end up underdone. In the end, Waiting for Anya is interesting enough as a story and makes good use of some spectacular scenery nicely photographed by Gerry Vasbenter, but it travels very familiar roads in ways that offer nothing new to a trope that’s been presented to us again and again.
Sadly I admit that when I saw the name and poster of this film I did not know who Cousteau was. Sitting down to watch it, I was fascinated and ready to learn everything about him and why they spent time creating this documentary. As soon as I heard a British interviewer say, “Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau”, a lightbulb turned on.
Being a young child in the 90s when Cousteau passed away (1997), I had heard his name spoken frequently and remember his trademark red woollen cap and blue shirt. However, I never had the full experience of seeing his immense work of capturing the ocean on film, inventing diving equipment, and most importantly the environmental work during throughout his later years.
BECOMING COUSTEAU provides the audience with all the incredible visual footage of Cousteau’s experiences from early black and white film of free-diving and spearfishing in France to the early iteration of his invention the ‘Aqualung’. In such pristine condition, the footage shows in detail the highs and lows of the life he built on the sea with his family and crew. Giving the illusion of intimacy, many of the films he produced and footage he captured were all on his boat, the Calypso.
This sense of intimacy is in most part to his love for cinema, which he started filming alongside his brother at the age of 13. This lead to Cousteau directing 23 films and producing 45 films and television programs in his 87 years. Like the fascination of space travel, underwater exploration was just as exciting for young children of the 60s and 70s who followed Cousteau’s adventures – literally bringing the depths of the ocean to millions of people.
With the story's narration and interviews all recorded from moments in Cousteau’s life, this beautifully produced documentary lets the footage shine and shows the dedication to centring Cousteau as the hero of this story. While he is shown as an incredible man, his acceptance of his own flaws allows for the documentary to reveal the hardships he and his family went through mentally and physically; the early accident that led him to discover free-diving, the guilt he had for his work with oil companies in his youth and their treatment of the coral reefs, all lead to his tenacity to protect the oceans.
While BECOMING COUSTEAU will bring back the magic to people who grew up watching his films, in a way, the perfect audience of this documentary are children of the late 90s and beyond. Experiencing Jacques Cousteau’s incredible work, which is collated within this film feels as close as you could have to have seen it at the time of these films' release.
Becoming Cousteau is in selected cinemas now.
Annabelle Angel (Scout Taylor-Compton) is a big-city reporter venturing out into frontier territory to illuminate a way of life that’s foreign to her readers. Arriving in the titular outpost of Apache Junction, Arizona, Annabelle quickly learns that the town’s reputation as a safe haven for outlaws doesn’t paint the whole picture. The local army regiment led by Captain Hensley (Trace Adkins) - dispatched years ago to control the chaos - turns a blind eye to crime in exchange for profit, which has fomented a widespread apathy towards black and white morality in the face of people’s struggle to survive.
APACHE JUNCTION sees Lee experiment with the Revisionist Western subgenre, contrasting the more traditional, ‘good guy catches bad guys’ narrative of Badland with a slower and ensemble-driven approach. The other members of the main cast: local bar owner Al (Thomas Jane), prostitute Mary (Danielle Gross) and infamous outlaw Jericho Ford (Stuart Townsend), each provide a different perspective to the idea of hardship wearing one down; it’s difficult to follow the rules when they go against your own self-interest, and the people around you have given up anyway.
Overall, the film tends to tell without showing when it comes to this idea, but it shines in one early scene of Jericho and another man fighting in Al’s bar as a crowd watches and gambles. During my first viewing I found it jarring without knowing exactly why beyond there being no music and the tone feeling muddled. However, once the fight is over the viewer discovers that Al always fixes the outcome, and the pieces click into place: the whole sequence is designed to remind viewers of a raucous Wild West bar brawl but ultimately feel disingenuous. Similarly, when Jericho finds himself pursued by Captain Hensley, Al is quick to put his desire to stay alive ahead of his years of camaraderie with the former, not so much choosing a side as doing the bare minimum to acquiesce to each man.
It’s clear that Jericho, Mary and Al are intended to serve as foils for one another, with each being at different points on the scale between a classic Western hero and villain. Unfortunately, APACHE JUNCTION is simply too short to fully elaborate on this, I suspect since it also has to juggle Annabelle’s audience surrogate perspective. As mentioned above, the result is that details such as how Jericho’s oft-mentioned criminal past compares to the good deeds we see here are left frustratingly unclear, merely alluded to in conversation between characters. Using the Jericho example, have his motivations changed over time? I don’t know, but I would’ve liked to.
Nevertheless, APACHE JUNCTION’s cast make the most of the material, delivering consistently engaging performances on par with Badland’s memorable ensemble. Taylor-Compton is perfectly endearing as the fish out of water Annabelle, who always wants to believe the best in her new acquaintances despite her surroundings. Gross is pitch-perfect in some of the film’s most thoughtful (and pivotal) moments as she reveals Mary’s yearning for a new beginning. Townsend brings such a world-weariness to Jericho that it made me even more interested in learning about the character’s history. And finally, Adkins imbues Hensley with a deviousness that steals every one of his short scenes. Coupled with Lee’s admirable (if uneven) genre experimentation, these actors make APACHE JUNCTION an easy recommendation for any Western fan.
IT CAME FROM BELOW gives us a new spin to an old favourite, the swamp creature. When Jesse (Purvis) and Sam’s (Watkins) father dies, they decide to find answers about a creature that their father believed lived in the caves. With two friends, Joanna (Banks) and Marty (Taplin), the group set about learning the truth.
Our hero of the story, Jesse, is conflicted about the creature her father saw but is dedicated to proving him right. Sam and Joanna, however, are not convinced while Marty is open to the possibility. What they ultimately confront is a monstrous creature which sounds like a T-Rex crossed with Godzilla.
The acting from the main cast is relatable and their adventure is believable, Each character has their own motivation for following Jesse and Sam into the cave and when they venture deep into the darkness the claustrophobic atmosphere elevates their irritation, causing the group to split up,
IT CAME FROM BELOW has a simple story with a complicated world behind it. Written by Dan Allen and Sam Ashurst, the screenplay builds the tension well but lets the viewer down with the lack of answers. While we do follow Jesse, who only knows what her father has told her, the creature in the cave’s origins is only alluded to despite her father surviving with a diary of information. The teasing of an answer is shown through flashbacks of him on his deathbed, but the payoff is more emotional and psychological than the film alludes.
The strength of the film is the quality of the visuals and sound designs. Allen definitely has a style and a voice within the genre. Through his use of sound, light, and editing the he offers a classic and effective horror film. The use of the echo of drips and reverb while the four friends hike through the open woods gives an ominous and unsettling atmosphere.
IT CAME FROM BELOW is better than Allen’s first feature, but still has some story elements that need improving. While I don’t subscribe to ‘babying’ the audience, we are given very little information aside from the character's personal conviction that her father was right. This may be enough for some, but I could not help but wanting (or needing) more.
It Came From Below is available digitally from Sep 7, 2021.
Focussing on family for many years after, the video of his defeat goes viral when it is shared through forums in the late ’90s. When the public demands a re-match his chance at redemption comes knocking on his door.
Like many of these films, family is as important as the sport is itself. The love of this sport is shown through Flanery, as he is himself a black belt in karate and Brazilian jujitsu. But it’s the small but impressive cast that provides relatability in the film. Wife Layla (Bowden), their son Kyd (Charlie T Flanery), and best friend Rosco (Compte) are Kelly’s drive and support throughout the film. The heart-warming aspect of a man with impressive talent within jujitsu, feeling as though he can’t provide for his family, is Kelley’s main drive.
Set during the 1990s the film uses the interview style of narration well. It feels like a mixture between a sports documentary and a fictional film. It adds to the amazing cast's humble and loving nature, mirroring Kelley’s character. This clever writing and visual style add to the emotion you feel for Kelley and his needs as the film goes on. Finally, in the end, it’s the attachment to Kelley that brings the story home.
Not only is Flanery amazing in his portrayal of Mickey Kelley, but his part in writing the screenplay is commendable. It is a well-paced film that brings highs and lows in what feels like Kelley’s life story. The themes of resilience and purpose are strong throughout and maintain the idea that Kelley is not only good at jujitsu but also a good person. A ‘hero’ you want to see do well.
While at times it can come across too strong that he is a good person, such as the beginnings of his relationship with Layla, the encounter between Kelley and Mason (Quaid), or the story of how he became friends with Rosco. It does still feel necessary to explain why Kelley is the way he is. His motivations and ideals are just as important as the story itself. And as the supporting cast mirrors our hero, the subtle transformation of Mason’s opinion of Kelley, solidifies him as a true champion. To put himself through what he has needs to be explained to understand him better. And ultimately, they achieved that.
Overall, BORN A CHAMPION finds itself up there with some of the great sport-action dramas. It proves itself by mixing the love of the sport with family, hardship, and resilience. Alex Ranarivelo and Sean Patrick Flanery are a great team and bring this simple yet heart-warming story to our screen.
Born a Champion is available on DVD through Eagle Entertainment on September 9, 2021.
2021 | DIR: ILANTHIRAYAN ALAN ARUMUGAM | STARS: KABIR SINGH, ALBERT FISHER, PENNYANNE LACE, OZZIE DEVRISH, MARCO SINIGAGLIA, KOREY WILLIAMS, VINOD MOHANA SUNDARAM, TAHLIA JADE HOLT and CRAIG INGHAM | REVIEW BY SAMANTHA HOWSON
Kiran (Singh), our protagonist, gets a maintenance job working at the cemetery and funeral home when one day he is possessed by a vengeful soul. The mystery of the events is slowly revealed as we find out more about what links all these people together.
The acting by Kabir Singh was brilliant and really showcased his ability to switch between the relatable Kiran to the possessed spirit. The other actors were also considerable in their roles such as Ozzie Devrish, Marco Sinigaglia, Korey Williams, Vinod Mohana Sundaram, and Tahlia Jade Holt; but played characters within the story that were unnecessary. While others were underutilized, such as Pennyanne Lace and Craig Ingham.
The non-linear storytelling, involving flashbacks to fill the gaps in the story, made it disjointed and created confusing elements that then needed to be established. It felt a lot like a murder mystery television show where the flashbacks are revealed as the suspect finally tells his side of the story. But in this case, it was more of an attempt to feel empathy for Kiran and his unfortunate predicament. Because of this, the scenes with his girlfriend, unfortunately, didn’t land. The flashbacks also stunted the momentum and was unbalanced. Some scenes went too quickly to establish emotion, and other scenes went too long for no addition to the story.
The cinematography was really well done, and it had great elements of show don’t tell throughout. The supernatural effects were also visually exciting and really added to the overall tone of the film. The wrathful soul itself wasn’t shown too much and it worked in the story's favour. In particular, the crematorium scenes were exciting, and would have been great to see more of the fire and ash element.
I wouldn’t call AIYAI: WRATHFUL SOUL a horror film; it is more of a supernatural thriller. The suspense and visual anxiety of the film add to the slow reveal of the mystery at its core. It has some great visuals and story elements throughout but is unfortunately stunted due to the complicated and unbalanced editing. For a directorial debut, Ilanthirayan Alan Arumugam mixes genres of thriller, mystery, and drama to create a very solid first film.
In a nowhere space between life and death Will (Winston Duke) watches through old television sets the lives of souls he has chosen to experience life. From the young boy who is constantly bullied at school, to a young bride-to-be, through to a disabled ex-policeman he takes notes on their everyday experiences and files them with recorded video cassettes. Of particular interest to him is the young music prodigy Amanda who kills herself on the way to a major recital. For Will, Amanda’s death is a failure on his behalf. How could he have sent a soul that wasn’t strong enough to survive? Furthermore how could he not see that Amanda was suicidal?
To fill the gap left by Amanda Will has to interview a series of new souls over a nine-day period to determine which of them will be given the chance of life. If they are not chosen they cease to exist even in the liminal space between his reality and the human reality. Each soul will remain themselves if chosen to live but they will have no memory of Will and the before time.
Bringing together a collection of diverse personalities Will sets them questions and tasks to assess their suitability. The questions range from the kind of first-year philosophy conundrums often set to establish ideas like choosing for the greater good to simply asking the souls to watch the lives of the living on television and telling Will what they do and don’t like about what they see.
Assisting will in his choice is Kyo (Benedict Wong) who can only help Will and not interview subjects. Only a soul who has lived can be an interviewer. Kyo is a mysterious presence but in many ways the audience’s de facto window on Will. Who was Will when he was alive? Only Kyo knows and Will is utterly reticent to discuss his life with any of the curious candidates. Edo’s script suggests that Will lived a sad and lonely life on Earth and with the death of Amanda he’s particularly keen to avoid sending a soul that is too sensitive to live lest they are destroyed by the harshness of what life can offer.
Playing the roles of the souls are a number of actors including Zazie Beetz as Emma, Bill Skarsgård as Kane, Arianna Ortiz as Maria, and Tony Hale as Alexander. Each soul is defined and a fully formed person, yet they are confused by the rules that will possibly allow them to experience life. Of all the souls Emma is the only one who refuses to engage completely with Will. Emma knows that she possibly only has days to live so even in the before time she completely embraces the life that she has. Will is deeply challenged by her attitude which makes him assess both his position as an interviewer and to contemplate his own time on Earth.
By focusing the film mostly on Will, Edo crafts a character-based drama that doesn’t get as bogged down by the high-concept philosophical questions it elicits. Winston Duke is the beating heart of the film and his restrained and at times heartbreaking performance carries the piece where it could have easily faltered. Zazie Beetz and Benedict Wong are both sterling as supporting characters. Beetz’s Emma is a beacon of life within the confines of a non-life.
NINE DAYS opened to much acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and it is a festival film. For a general audience perhaps it is a little too ponderous is places. However Edo creates some stellar and beautiful moments which remind the viewer of why life is worth living – the feeling of the ocean, the wind in one’s hair when riding a bike, the gentle lover turning the light off so their partner can sleep. It’s easy to forget the simplicity of what it is to live when faced with so much despair, yet Oda reminds us that both can co-exist and it is worth risking the worst for even the most ephemeral times that are the best.