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.
His first disappointment comes when, having successfully kidnapped Charlie (Anton Gillis-Adelman), the grandson of his old business partner who screwed him over, his boys botch the job of collecting the ransom from Charlie’s mother, Clair (Gina Carano). To be fair, they probably didn’t count on her being ex-military and quite handy both behind the wheel of an SUV, and the stock of a rifle. Father’s second disappointment comes when Clair captures one of the boys, Larsen (Brendan Fehr) and forces him to lead her to the old man and her son. What follows, for the main part of the film, is her pursuit of the mean who kidnapped her son through the snowbound wilderness of the Yukon which, just to make things more interesting, is the hunting ground of a pack of hungry wolves.
Director, David Hackl, got his start as a Production Designer, working in the Saw franchise (on Saw II, III and IV) before making the leap to the Director’s chair for Saw V. Obviously he learned a few things about tension and pace along the way, because he tells this story with an assured and steady hand with a bit of help from a pretty good screenplay by Nika Agiahvili. What elevates this from a run-of-the-mill shoot-’em-up chase story is the way two relationships are developed as the story unfolds. The first is between Claire and Larsen who, in between her beating the crap out of him and him saving her life, start to reveal themselves to each other in a way that helps us care about him just as much as we do about her. The second relationship is a bit more unexpected; it’s between Father and Charlie and, like Claire’s relationship with Larsen, it serves to humanise Father and saves him from just being a two-dimension cookie cutter villain. We may not exactly care about him, but we do come to understand him and maybe even sympathise with him (especially when we get the feeling he’d much rather have had Charlie as a son instead of the dopes he’s surrounded himself with).
And then there’s the wolves. Well, one wolf in particular: a black pelted wolf that is clearly the leader of the pack and, as the title tells us, takes a shine to Clair. Sadly, the weakest part of this movie is the lack of explanation for the relationship between Clair and the black wolf. It’s a shame, because it’s a crucial part of the story and it requires us to suspend a bit of disbelief in order to make it work. If the film was so strong in its other aspects, this might be a deal breaker but, for me at least, I went with it. And the wolf is terrific, which helps. I hasten to add that this film never achieves what a film like The Grey does in terms of stories about wolves, but it’s pretty good just the same.
The action is well directed and Carano (whose pedigree includes Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool) creates a great character that is believable both as a mother and as a kick-arse action gal and manages to avoid that common pitfall of falling back on playing the female hero like a man. The snowy, mountainous location is beautifully photographed by Mark Dobrescu and his shooting of the wolf scenes is tense and gripping (and hats off to the wolf-wranglers whoever you were!).
Inevitably, of course, the film has to climax with a lot of shooting and blood being spilled (and a few wounds that seem like they should have been far more debilitating for those characters than their actions would suggest) but for all its well-staged and choreographed action and gunplay, this is not a gratuitous or mindlessly violent film. There is thoughtfulness here as well, and characters that are driven by believable emotions and desires. As satisfying as DAUGHTER OF THE WOLF is as an action thriller, it also scores on the human drama scale.
Daughter of the Wolf is available on home-entertainment through Eagle Entertainment on August 14, 2019