Body horror, satire and coming of age themes aren’t usually ingredients mixed together in cinema, let alone mentioned in the same sentence. However, HATCHING, the new creature-feature from Finnish director Hanna Bergholm, does just that - and a lot, lot more.
Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) is a young member of a seemingly picture perfect family. She lives with her domineering influencer mother, (Sophia Heikkilä), passive father (Jani Volanen) and little brother (Oiva Ollila). Tinja and the rest of her family are accessories to her mother’s social media blog, where she films and shares their daily routine to an online audience - including Tinja’s gymnastics training. Tinja says very little, but is obviously unhappy and tries desperately to please her. To make matters worse, her mother is also having an affair.
With pressure on Tinja to keep up her mother’s illusion, she finds an egg in the forest and hides it in her room. Over time, the egg grows larger and larger, and what hatches from it is a monstrous and grotesque creature. Tinja bonds with the hatchling, naming it Alli. Having a physical connection with the creature, she is able to express the parts of herself that have been suppressed by her mother, as it evolves into something no one could have imagined.
The film’s opening scene perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. The family, all dressed in pristine white, smile for the camera amongst the pastel pink and floral aesthetic of their house. A crow suddenly flies inside and smashes everything in its path. While Tinja tends to the injured bird afterward, her mother kindly asks to take it and calmly snaps its neck. It might not be subtle, but this is the kind of contrast that reverberates throughout HATCHING. Behind the facade the mother puts up - a perfect marriage, athletically gifted daughter, beautiful house - is a sad and broken home. Amongst the blonde hair, makeup, painted walls and polished online presence is the dread, ick and violent presence of Alli. The juxtaposition is undeniably effective, and also makes for some stunning imagery and unique commentary on social media lifestyle.
While Bergholm’s film travels down many avenues, it is at its core a horror film. There is a constant sense of dread after the key opening scene, and an unsettling atmosphere washes over each frame. A Finnish lullaby with a simple yet creepy melody recurs throughout the film. There are some genuinely great scares and heart-pounding buildups of tension. However, what remains most horrific is the creature that is hatched. The abomination is an eerily lifelike presence and incredible display of VFX and character design. It’s of a standard that could easily appear in a Star Wars film, which makes all the more sense upon discovering that animatronics supervisor Gustav Hoegen has worked with Lucasfilm, and brought his talents to this smaller-scale film. The creature is unnatural on all fronts, even more so as it evolves and becomes more revolting, making for some stomach-churning yet impressive body horror. There’s plenty of goo, blood and dismembered body parts for your liking.
Even though the film is understandably far-fetched, sometimes Bergholm pushes the limit on what the audience will buy. That’s not necessarily in relation to the fantasy elements, but rather human characters and decisions. We know Tanja’s mother has more than a few screws loose, but it’s hard to believe that she would take her daughter to meet the man she’s having an affair with, or be more worried about a torn costume than her daughter literally just having had a seizure. These moments will have you scratching your head, but they aren’t detrimental to the overall story.
HATCHING is a lot of things - a coming of age tale of a girl finding her voice through her new monstrous pet, a commentary on social media and the damage caused by a lack of parental love, and an all out gore-fest. Sometimes it’s not sure what it wants to be, and audiences might not know what to take away from it. But the ride itself is an engrossing experience, and cements Bergholm as a fresh and exciting voice in horror with a lot to offer.
The Hatching is in selected cinemas from May 26. 2022.
Eddie Cotter (Fionn O’Shea) is a small-town teenage boy in mid-nineties County Kildare, Ireland. Like a lot of teenage boys, sex is a bit of a mystery to him and the tougher kids who claim firsthand knowledge always like to pick on kids like Eddie. But Eddie’s wrestling with more than just his sexual innocence. He desperately wants the approval of his father, Ian (Barry Ward) but that means following in his footsteps and enlisting in the army. He's giving Cadets his best shot but seems to achieve little more than embarrassment for his dad and this doesn’t help the tensions between Ian and Eddie’s mother Hannah (Sharon Horgan). He’s also desperately trying to hide the fact that he’s gay from his family, his schoolmates and, probably, even himself. To deflect the taunts from other boys, he makes an awkward and not very successful attempt to ‘go with’ the girl he’s meant to have a crush on; Tracey Brennan (Emma Willis) but, if anything, that only makes matters worse.
Meanwhile, Amber Keenan (Lola Petticrew), a brash, self-assured, in-your-face kind of girl from Eddie’s class whose extra-curricular activities include renting out the empty caravans at her mother’s caravan park to those kids at school who are, in fact, having sex, and pocketing the money towards her eventual escape to London. Like Eddie, she’s picked on at school. The kids call her ‘lezzer’ as an insult but, unlike Eddie, she’s not in any doubt about her sexuality. She knows she’s gay. What’s more, she knows Eddie’s gay. So, she comes up with a simple plan – they can avoid all the taunts and teasing by convincing the bullies that they’re both straight; by pretending to be girlfriend and boyfriend.
This idea could have gone wrong, but in the hands of second-time writer/director David Freyne (his first outing was 2017’s zombie flick, The Cured), this story navigates a steady and endearing course. It’s a sweet film that keeps its hard edges at a distance and somewhat in the shadows but still manages to ensure that you know they’re there. In a sequence that sees Eddie and Amber sneak away to Dublin where they can encounter a genuine gay scene, Amber meets Sarah (Lauryn Canny) and embraces the opportunity to be her true self and to even contemplate having a relationship. For Eddie, this hiatus from the closeted oppression of home opens his eyes to the world and the life he could have if he could get out from under the macho expectations of his dad. But it’s also confusing to him and when he’s spotted by a fellow student who comes into the same gay club it sparks shame and fear and a violent outburst.
Both O’Shea and Petticrew are well cast and deliver strong and empathetic performances as do the rest of the cast, most notably Simone Kirby as Amber’s struggling single mum and Evan O’Connor as Eddie’s quirky brother Jack. The story is populated by engaging characters and is nicely shot by Ruairi O’Brien and Emma Lowney’s Production Design along with Joan O’Clery’s costumes remind us that although 1995 might not seem that long ago, it still allows a film like this to qualify as a period piece.
It’s been a bit of a purple patch for Ireland and portrayals of teenage life, at least on streaming platforms, with two seasons of Lisa McGee’s excellent and hilarious Derry Girls and, to a lesser extent, the first half of the highly popular but flawed Normal People. Dating Amber may not be as confronting, dark or edgy as something like Jonathan Entwhistle’s The End of the Fucking World, but it shares some of that series’ insights into the sometimes troubling interior worlds of young people and the fact that it’s set twenty-five years ago does not make it any less relevant to a 21st-century audience.
In some ways, Dating Amber put me in mind of two favourite teenage coming-of-age films from the 80’s – Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Michael Apted’s P’tang Yang Kipperbang (1982). Whilst both those films were very ‘white bread’ and heterosexual ‘teenage-boy-lusts-after-teenage-girl’ stories, they both found a sweetness and an offbeat humour in the pain of their situations that is echoed in Dating Amber and, whilst the issues at heart are very different, took us inside the teenage mind in ways that were as revealing to audiences then, as Dating Amber is to audiences now. This is not a film that will shock, provoke controversy, or even change the world. But it will make you laugh (at least it made me laugh) and it will make you think (ditto on that for me too).
Children who possess supernatural powers are not new to the horror genre - just ask Stephen King. Whether it’s possession, telekinetic abilities or communication with the dead, there’s always something unsettling about seeing a child detach from their innocence and embrace their unnatural darker side. THE INNOCENTS - the new film from Academy Award winning Norwegian writer-director Eskil Vogt - does this in a way we haven’t quite seen before. It’s subtle and thoughtful, yet equally disturbing.
Set during a bright Nordic summer, the film follows young Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), who moves into an apartment complex with her parents and mute autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Ida seems resentful of Anna, and can’t really play with her because of her condition. While exploring their new neighborhood, she meets Ben (Sam Ashraf), a bullied boy who can move objects with his mind, and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a sweet girl who can hear other people’s thoughts. While their parents aren’t watching, the children play and experiment with their new powers. There are some fun and even miraculous results - Aisha seems to have a physical connection with Anna, and even helps her find her voice again. Things soon take a dark turn as Ben, who is neglected by his mother and has a taste for cruelty, develops his powers further and becomes violent.
Vogt has crafted an understated yet relentlessly haunting film. There are no high-tech visual effects or any extravagances of the sort, but every frame is rich with feeling and atmosphere. All the child actors are first time performers, which is simply unbelievable as they carry the film with such confidence, charm and grit. Fløttum is particularly compelling with her wise yet curious eyes. The cinematography is both stunning and purposeful, wrapping its audience up in its wonderful and sinister world, and the gripping score, coming and going amongst the eerie silence, adds to this sentiment.
The film is more nuanced compared to others of its genre, but is by no means short on dread and shock. The twisted acts the children commit are already frightening, but even more so by the fact they’re being committed by children. Unlike other films of the sort, THE INNOCENTS also poses a complex question through its horror - are children innocent because they are children, and where do we draw the line? Growing up is all about making mistakes and feeding curiosity. If these children cause damage with their powers, which they are still learning to use and control, is it their fault? Or should children clearly know the difference between right and wrong? It’s a thought-provoking discourse that perfectly fits the extreme, far-fetched circumstances these young characters find themselves.
However, Vogt seems to slightly push the limit on how far the audience will go to defend these children. The overt violence committed is obviously condemned by the characters and narrative, but it’s Ida’s initial actions towards Anna that are troubling. While Anna is oblivious to pain and Ida is frustrated with the attention she gets, pinching your sister is one thing. Putting broken glass into her shoes is another, and curiosity just might not be enough to defend that one.
The first half of THE INNOCENTS is arguably stronger than the second half, with an intriguing and creepy set-up that evolves into a slightly repetitive and drawn-out finale. For the majority of its runtime however, this dark fairytale will leave viewers transfixed. Its subversion of genre conventions and courage to question the audience and make them uncomfortable is highly impressive.
The Innocents is in selected cinemas from May 19.
There’s such a strong sense of the natural world in Aaron Wilson’s filmmaking, both the Australian bush around the Murray River near Tocumwal in his latest film, Little Tornadoes, and the dense, lush green jungle of Singapore in his previous first feature, Canopy (2014). It provides a sobering backdrop against which the human stories play out; whether it’s surviving the deadly pursuit by an enemy in World War II (Canopy), or surviving the loss, heartbreak and abandonment of being left by your wife and finding yourself sole parent to two small children (Little Tornadoes) – in both cases, the urgency and impact of the human stories are given scale by Stefan Duscio’s beautiful, evocative cinematography – as important as these events seem (and are) to the characters in the stories, the natural world is more or less oblivious to trials and tribulations of we humans scrabbling around on the planet’s surface. It’s an interesting context in which to explore these stories of men dealing with the after-effects of trauma and the crippling effects of the male’s all too common inability to talk about painful, personal and emotionally debilitating issues.
It's hard to talk about Little Tornadoes without talking about Canopy. Wilson has said that these two very personal films form two parts of a trilogy exploring the impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, interestingly they were both shot back to back in 2013 but the post production on Little Tornadoes has taken almost ten years. The two films are inextricably linked. Canopy ends with the downed fighter pilot, Jim (Khan Chittenden) being thrown into a truck by his captors and driven down a Singapore road which match-cuts to a shot of a different truck driving down a dusty Australian road and a view of an older man, presumably an older Jim (Robert Menzies) standing in a wheat field. Little Tornadoes begins with a similar shot of a car driving down the same dusty Australian road. This time, though, it’s Leo (Mark Leonard Winter) who we will soon discover is Jim’s son. 1942 has become 1971 and both father and son are struggling to come to terms with the emotional impacts on their lives – for Jim it’s the embedded trauma of the war he’s grappled with for thirty years; for Leo the trauma is fresh, sparked by a wife who, unable to bear her life in a small country town with her taciturn husband, has hopped a train to Melbourne.
For much of the first part of the film, it’s Leo’s story we’re focused on – how he deals with suddenly becoming a sole parent to Maudey (Minnie Liszukiewicz) and her younger brother (both on and off screen) Jack (Freddy Liszukiewicz); how he deals with a seemingly total lack of domestic skills, how he deals with the fact that his departed wife won’t even speak to him or her children on the phone, and how he deals with the entrenched racism in his workplace, aimed at Tony (Fabio Motta) who, it seems, is his only friend and support. It’s Tony who puts Leo onto his sister, Maria (Silvia Colloca) with the recommendation that she cooks really well. And she does! Bringing Maria into the house to help with meals and the children is the first step towards Leo accepting the change that has taken place in his life, and to opening up his family to new possibilities. Around this time, though, Jim’s story insinuates itself into the narrative and we see more clearly the generational inability and paralysis of these two stoic, isolated, uncommunicative men who gird themselves against dealing with the changes that have come into their respective lives.
It's in Jim’s story that the connections back to Canopy resonate so strongly. His home is the home we caught in glimpses during that first film and memories of his traumatic flight through the jungle are imposed into present day (70’s) scenes either through a literal flashback to a scene from that film or, much more effectively, through echoed images from the one that bleed themselves like ghosts into the other.
There’s an element of flashback in the Leo story as well, though this comes in the form of poetic voice over narration spoken by Maria and looking back on the tale that’s unfolding. In Canopy, Wilson took sole writing credit but here he shares that with novelist Christos Tsiolkas and, whilst the words are often beautiful, there are timeswhen the disembodied voice overstays its welcome.
Little Tornadoes is not an easy film. It’s slow pace and repetitive storytelling challenges you to enter this world on its own terms, and allow yourself to become immersed in the silences, the stillness, the repetition and the internalisation that characterises both Leo’s and Jim’s stories. For those that embrace these demands, the rewards are rich. For the less willing, I can imagine that the film will often frustrate. In either case, though, the sharply drawn and deeply authentic performances shine through as does Tim Burgin’s beautifully rendered and evocative 70’s period production design, Robert Mackenzie’s score and, as already mentioned, Stefan Duscio’s photography. I’d also highly recommend sticking around through the credits to hear Sal Kimber and Simon Lewis’ haunting title song.
For the most part, Little Tornadoes is a compelling and skilfully made film that sometimes over-eggs its pudding in the telling of its tale. In some cases (most notably the rapid wrap up of the narrative at the end) it relies too heavily on the narration but when it doesn’t, Wilson’s craft as a filmmaker becomes clear and the visual power of the film speaks louder than any words. As a second part of a trilogy, I must say I was glad that I had rewatched Canopy before seeing Little Tornadoes; the resonances between the two films were so much more powerful, I suspect, then if I’d relied on my memory from nearly a decade ago. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking that rather than the second in a trilogy, this film is more like the second half of the Canopy story. Wilson’s desire to explore the impacts of PTSD through these stories seems less apparent in Canopy than it does in Little Tornadoes, but the latter needs the former in order to make sense. Given the relatively short running times of both these films, I found myself wondering whether these two pretty good films might one day merge into an even more powerful and truly great film.
Little Tornadoes is in select cinemas from May 12, 2022.
When handled well, bridging the generations by paring an older actor with a younger actor can sometimes create a cinematic chemical reaction where the result is greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t mean creepy male- fantasy-Woody-Allan kinds of films – I mean films like Harold and Maude (young Bud Cort and old Ruth Gordon - Hal Ashby, 1971) or As Good As it Gets (old Jack Nicholson and young Helen Hunt – James L Brooks, 1998) or Lost in Translation (old Bill Murray and young Scarlett Johansen – Sophia Coppola, 2003); films where it’s not about sex, per se, but about differing perspectives on life and death and genuine ageless human connection.
So, casting two great actors; young Aubrey Plaza (so great on TV’s in Parks and Recreation and on the big screen in 2017’s Ingrid Goes West) up against old Michael Caine (so great in almost everything except 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge) has precedent that should give one cause for excited anticipation. Unfortunately, there are no sparks between the two, so the excitement never really gets ignited. This isn’t really the fault of the actors/ They both turn in quite watchable and engaging performances, it’s just that they seem to be in different movies. Partly this is a problem with a derivative and predictable screenplay from first time screenwriter Anthony Grieco and partly it’s down to Lina Roessler’s direction which allows the two actors to perform their characters in quite different, mismatched rhythms and tones.
The story, itself, certainly has promise. Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) is the daughter of well-respected publisher Joseph Stanbridge (Luc Morissette) who has left her the firm which, it seems, she’s run into near bankruptcy by putting all their eggs into a young adult fantasy novel that’s tanked. Sensing her desperation, slimy competitor (and Lucy’s ex) Jack Sinclair (Scott Speedman) is about to close the deal on buying the ailing business when Lucy stumbles across an old contract her father made with bestselling author Harris Shaw (Caine). Shaw hasn’t published in fifty years and his contract stipulates that he owes them a book which, of course, has just finished writing. It also stipulates that his work is not to be edited at all on the proviso that he participates in whatever publicity the publishing house has in mind. Shaw, of course, is a curmudgeonly self-centred, whisky-soaked misanthrope and the last person you’d want to be accompanying on a book tour, but Lucy holds him to the contract’s terms and Shaw needs the money so, off they go.
No doubt you can already see where this story is heading (and that’s exactly where it goes) and that would be fine if there was enough frisson between the two to distract us from the familiarity of the path we’re on. But there’s not. It’s like Lucy, Jack and Lucy’s kooky PA, Rachel (Ellen Wong) are all in a remake of You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998) or its superior predecessor The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) but then, where does Harris Shaw fit? He doesn’t. He’s in some other movie that, frankly, I’d prefer to see. Caine’s cantankerous take on Shaw is enjoyable enough but it’s chalk to the cheese of Plaza’s daffy, desperate Lucy.
There is some interesting social commentary sitting in the background here as Shaw’s indifference to his audience and general profanity is adopted as some kind of hipster chic on social media (after he brands everything as ‘bullshite’ the word becomes a trending hashtag and even appears on billboards) but any examination of the generational shift between his last novel being lauded for its content and his new novel being the catalyst for more ironic fandom from audiences that respond to the grumpy personality but are neither buying nor reading the book, is superficial at best.
The film gets quite bogged down in the middle and there are some implausibilities such as Shaw’s quite positive reaction to Lucy having gone ahead and edited Shaw’s novel without his knowledge – which seems pointless anyway, given they’re on a book tour with the published book. There are also some twists towards the end which are not all that twisty, and a final coda that really stretches the friendship.
Recently, Michael Caine made some statements which suggested that after Best Sellers he is ‘done with movies’. He followed that up quite quickly with a correction via twitter, saying ‘I haven’t retired’. When great actors reach a certain age (Caine’s 88) you can’t help but hope for one more great performance. For Michael Caine, Best Sellers isn’t it. Fingers crossed he has another crack before, as he says, he’s ‘done with movies’ for good.
There’s no doubt Nicolas Cage has had one of the most interesting careers of any acting A-lister. The Oscar winner was a box office magnet in the 90s, starring in some of the biggest blockbusters of the time, including Face/Off and Con-Air. More recently, he has been seen in more obscure VOD films such as Prisoners of the Ghostland, and independent films like Pig. The actor is clearly at a different stage in his life, and is taking the less conventional approach to Hollywood - which he can afford to do as the household name he is. The proof is in his new film, THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT, where he plays his wildest role to date - himself.
In this self-aware action comedy, a fictionalised version of Cage is at a standstill in his career and has a substantial amount of debt. His ex-wife (Sharon Hogan) is sick of his antics, and he has a strained relationship with his daughter (Lily Sheen). Cage is seriously considering retirement and reluctantly accepts a million dollar offer to appear at wealthy fan Javi’s (Pedro Pascal) birthday party in Spain.
However, Cage soon finds himself caught up in a plot reminiscent of one of his very own far-fetched films. Javi is the head of a dangerous cartel and has kidnapped the daughter of a presidential candidate. The CIA uses Cage as an informant, which sees him channel one of the many heroes he’s famous for playing, and indulge Javi’s filmmaking fantasies to get close to him.
On paper, this concept could come off as pretentious and simply an exercise in ego for Cage. It is anything but this. Cage isn’t afraid to take the mickey out of himself and poke fun at Hollywood and his movie star persona. The result is a laugh out loud, satirical and wildly entertaining romp, which at its heart is a straight-up buddy comedy and love letter to storytelling.
It’s obvious that director/writer Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Ettern have a lot of love for Cage. Fans will be delighted with references, throwbacks and Easter eggs associated with his iconic roles, from The Rock to Mandy. Cage also has visions and speaks to a de-aged Wild at Heart version of himself, which is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. One particularly memorable scene sees Javi proudly show the actor his excessive Nick Cage shrine, complete with a statue of Cage which he calls ‘grotesque’. It’s evident that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and the film is all the better for it. Even audiences who aren’t familiar with Cage’s body of work can find something to enjoy, specifically the film’s central bromance.
Cage and Pedro Pascal make for a brilliant comedic duo, and it's the relationship between Nick and Javi that is the heart of this film. Both are at a point where they’re stuck and unfulfilled - Cage in his career, and Javi in his crime family, when really he wants to fulfill his creativity. It’s natural that the two are drawn to each other, and Cage and Pascal’s chemistry radiates off the screen. They clearly had a blast making this, and Javi’s delight at spending time with Cage is endlessly charming. Pascal firmly holds his own on screen, even in Cage’s presence, and proves he has the comedic chops needed for a film like this.
Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, comedic actors in their own right, aren’t given as much to do as CIA agents Vivian and Martin, but deliver with the material they do have. One could also argue that the film could have pushed its meta commentary on Cage’s career even further, but perhaps that would have been a distraction from the film’s heart and made it less accessible to a wider audience.
THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT will remind audiences why Nicholas Cage remains such a beloved force in Hollywood, no matter what role he’s taking on. This is not simply a showcase for Cage, but a celebration of the craft he’s dedicated his life to. It is ridiculously fun thanks to the pairing of Cage and Pascal, and one of the funniest, and surprisingly heartwarming, films of the year so far.
In recent years, topics and conversations surrounding abortion have become more present and progressive in the mainstream media, specifically in cinema. Films such as Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant, while vastly different in tone, tackle the frustrating reality when it comes to women making choices about their own bodies - and the lengths they must go to in order to earn that choice. The latest addition to this category, and arguably the most harrowing depiction so far, is HAPPENING.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, who had her own experience with abortion, the film follows Anne, an academic 23-year-old student attending a conservative school in France in 1963. Pressure mounts on Anne with her final exams coming up, as her parents have high expectations and she intends to continue her studies. However, Anne’s world is turned upside down when she discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t want to keep the baby, but abortion is still illegal in France, and anyone who undergoes, executes or assists the procedure could go to jail. With no help from her family, friends, doctors or the baby’s father, Anne is alone and forced to take matters into her own hands.
Director Audrey Diwan has created a restrained yet brutal film. It is not groundbreaking in its subject matter or point of view, but in the way it delivers it. The conversation around abortion is seen as taboo by everyone around Anne - no one dares to even mention it, with fear of the consequences. Even Anne’s friends refuse to be associated with her situation the moment they find out she wants to have one. In one of the most stomach churning moments of the film, Anne learns that her doctor tricked her into taking embryo strengthening medication, saying it would make her menstruate.
It’s difficult at first to guess when the film is actually set. There are no phones or computers, and the girls’ outfits aren’t indicative of any particular time period, nor the way they speak. Little details slowly reveal its setting - the boys wearing suits and ties, the Elvis-inspired music playing at dances, and the revelation that our young protagonist was born in 1940. This can make the earlier parts of the film slightly jarring to watch, and challenging to contextualise. However, that may just be the point. This story is frighteningly timely and relevant to today’s society, with abortion still being condemed and banned in certain countries, including states in the U.S. Diwan wants to remind us that some women are still denied the choice almost sixty years after the film is set.
The narrative is cleverly structured through each week of Anne’s pregnancy, which creates a ticking time bomb and sense of unease. It plays out like a psychological thriller with the use of handheld and close-up shots, claustrophobic atmosphere and minimalistic but alarming music. The audience is very much in Anne’s mindset. The first half is definitely slower than the second, which could be on purpose, as she has time on her side before things become urgent. While mood is a significant vehicle to create discomfort for the audience, so are the film’s extremely graphic scenes. It’s not always easy to watch and can be quite hard to stomach at times. When Anne is unable to find someone to help her, she attempts to carry out her own abortion, and later have one illegally. Diwan isn’t afraid to show us the ugliness and brutality of it all, and it’s certainly a lot. While a portion of it does feel excessive, it also highlights the catastrophic consequences when abortions aren’t performed professionally and safely.
HAPPENING is an incredibly well made and important film that is simultaneously subtle and bold. Leading actress Anamaria Vartolomeni is stunning in this challenging role, and Diwan should be applauded for approaching this subject with such empathy and grit.
HAPPENING is playing in select cinemas from April 14, 2022.
The last few years have been slightly tumultuous for the Wizarding World franchise and its fans. Everyone’s favourite boy wizard departed with a bang in 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and Warner Bros. has tried everything in its power to keep the magic alive since. Their answer? The Fantastic Beasts series, now releasing its third instalment, FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE.
Debuting with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2016, fans joined magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in 1920s New York on the hunt for his lost magical creatures. The film received a positive reception but its 2018 sequel did not. The Crimes of Grindelwald focused primarily on the rise of evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), and was met with negativity from fans and critics alike. With the future of the series already tarnished, Warner Bros. was plagued with a publicity nightmare. Depp was in the middle of a public scandal and was fired from the series, and fans turned against author J.K. Rowling due to controversial remarks on Twitter.
One pandemic later, THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE hopes to get this once beloved franchise back on track, and thankfully does - for the most part. As suggested by the title, the film focuses on Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), as his former friend and lover Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to wage war against muggles. Dumbledore is unable to move against him, so he enlists Newt, muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner) and a host of new faces to join his motley crew and stop Grindelwald.
While the previous instalment lacked the whimsy so synonymous with the Potterverse, The Secrets of Dumbledore succeeds in making this franchise fun and enjoyable once more. This is largely due to utilising what made the first film a hit - its group dynamic. Eddie Redmayne reminds audiences why he was the perfect choice to play Newt. His awkward, quirky and good- hearted nature makes him the heart of this film and franchise. Dan Fogler is once again delightful as muggle Jacob, bringing warmth and relatability to the story. There are new additions also, the standout being Lally (Jessica Williams), a U.S. wizarding professor who steals each scene with her charisma and charm. The beasts in the film’s title also offer some terrific laughs, easily making this the funniest Beasts film. Newt’s Niffler and Bowtruckel make for an iconic duo.
As the title promises, we indeed uncover secrets to Jude Law’s Dumbledore. This is a very different Dumbledore compared to the long bearded, majestically robed and mysteriously wise version in the Potter films. However, as layers are peeled, we learn more about the man who became that old wizard. Now for the big question - how does Mads Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald shape up against Johnny Depp’s? Fans can rest easy, because Mikkelsen’s version is far superior to Depp’s. Grindelwald is cold and calculated, as Mikkelsen gives an understated yet chilling performance. It’s a shame he wasn’t initially cast from the beginning.
While THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE is a vast improvement over its predecessor, one can’t help but notice the overarching issues this series has. There is a disconnect between the two main storylines belonging to Newt and Dumbledore. Whose film is it really? Is this a Fantastic Beasts or a Harry Potter movie? It seems like the filmmakers aren’t so sure either. There’s a few Potter throwbacks and references in the film, and the characters even visit everyone’s favourite magical school. While it’s exciting and fun to return to Hogwarts, it’s not all that necessary, and is an obvious play on nostalgia that isn’t fully earned. The inevitable showdown between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is also teased, which might explain why it feels like the story is building up to something bigger. This is the third installment though, and that luxury can’t really be afforded at this point, making the film’s third act slightly anticlimactic. Fans will have to accept that the Fantastic Beasts series will never quite match up to the standard of the Potter films, and while flawed, THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE does recapture the magic once again.
The genre owes a lot to films like Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2001) in which Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtney, David Hemmings and Ray Winstone are the old friends who set out to fulfil Jack Dodds’ (Michael Caine) wish to end his days by the sea in Margate with his wife Amy (Helen Mirren) or to Emilio Estevez’s The Way (2010) in which Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen) sprinkles his son Daniel’s ashes along El Camino de Santiago where the boy met his end, or even Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) in which cantankerous Hector (Sam Neil) is on the run with recalcitrant foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) who, unbeknownst to Hec is carry the ashes of the old man’s wife to the place ‘...where the earth wets the cloak of the sky...’ where she wished to be laid to rest.
The reason to remind ourselves of these familiar patterns is that each new ‘cremains roadtrip’ movie should do more than simply employ the cookie-cutter by changing the identities of the deceased, the travellers and the destination. Two of the three films I’ve seen recently (both showing at the 2021 British Film Festival) don’t quite manage that – in Jules Williamson’s Off The Rails, Sally Phillips, Jenny Seagrove and Kelly Preston (in her final movie appearance) receive the news ‘Big Chill’ style, that their friend Anna has died and left them tickets to ride the European Interrail to the Festival of Light in Spain which the four of them had always promised they would do (yes, there’s no actual ashes in this film but the tropes are pretty much the same) – meanwhile in Gillies MacKinnon’s The Last Bus, Timothy Spall is the grieving widower who comes up with a plan to use his pensioner bus-pass to travel free of charge on local buses all the way from John O’Groats (the most northerly tip of England) to Land’s End (the most southerly tip) so he can scatter his wife’s ashes in the place where they first fell in love. Both these films play out in exactly the way we suspect they will, relying on the tropes of earlier, much better films to carry them on their long, plodding journeys full of no surprises to get where we all knew they were going from the start.
The third film, however, is the pick of the bunch and finds some freshness in the well-worn path underscored by some pretty good, nostalgic music (that is, if you’re a fan of ‘The Modfather’, Paul Weller).
THE PEBBLE AND THE BOY takes its title from the Paul Weller song of the same name (I’ll admit that I had to look that up – I’m afraid I wasn’t into The Jam nor the whole mod revival thing). It opens at the funeral of Phil Parker, a former ‘real’ mod from the English era of the mods and the rockers in the sixties and seventies. Phil’s less than glorious end seems to have come about when a bus knocked him off his Lambretta scooter. We soon understand that the scooter is emblematic of being a mod (along with sharp looking suits, stylish haircuts, parkers, RAF symbols, multiple rear-view mirrors and so on). There’s an impressive honour guard of old mods on scooters to see Phil off (no actors here, they’re the real thing if the end credits and the occasional sneaky glance at the camera are anything to go by). Soon after, we meet Phil’s son John (Patrick MacNamee) who, it seems, didn’t really know his dad that well, but he knows enough about the mods to protest at the idea that he might be one himself.
Nevertheless, when his dad’s Lambretta (complete with a dozen or more rear-view mirrors – enough to make one wonder how Phill didn’t see the bus coming) is returned to him (in pretty good nick, it has to be said, after losing out in that bus-versus-scooter incident) John gets it into his head that it would be a fitting tribute to scatter his dad’s ashes in Brighton, the spiritual home of the mods. The trip is made all the more significant by the discovery of two tickets concealed in his dad’s parker pocket – they are, of course, for a Paul Weller concert in Brighton on the coming weekend.
And so, John sets off on his ‘cremains roadtrip’ to the tune of a Paul Weller song or two. Along the way he encounters some of his dad’s old friends. First up is Deano (Jamie Lomas) who fixes the scooter when it breaks down. While his scooter’s being fixed, John meets Deano’s daughter Nicki (Sacha Parkinson) who rebels against her dad by joining John on his trip (she has her own scooter, but not quite as decked out as John’s). There’s a great scene soon after when John and Nicky pull up at a pub for lunch, only to find a group of bikers are already there. Of course, in his dad’s day, kids on motorbikes wearing leather jackets (aka rockers) were the mortal enemies of the mods and their ongoing conflicts were the cause of what became known as ‘the great moral panic’ about England’s teenagers. John realises that not only is he on his dad’s Lambretta, but he’s also wearing his dad’s parker, complete with union jacks and RAF insignia - all emblems of the mods. But this is John’s generation not Phil’s and the bikers led by Zack (Rick S Carr) are not the aggressive, confrontational rockers that John fears they might be. Quite the opposite. It’s the beginning of a motif throughout the film, embodied in a way by the music of Paul Weller; that the mod revivalists and the mods themselves are not only a generation apart, but the antagonism and violence that characterised the real mods is only of its time.
Later that day, they meet another of Phil’s old friends; Ronnie (Ricci Hartnett) and his wife Sonia (Patsy Kensit) who put him up overnight. Here they find themselves saddled with a third traveller, Ronnie and Sonia’s boy Logan (Max Boast) who’s a bit of an arrogant, loudmouthed liability. He’s also a threat to the potential of some sort of relationship between John and Nicky.
Of course, all these meetings with his dad’s old friends start to reveal the man that John never knew. Eventually, though, when they make it to Brighton, it’s one of those revelations that throws a spanner in the works.
The Pebble and the Boy is not just a ‘cremains roadtrip’, it’s a journey of discovery as an insecure son slowly comes to learn about the man his father was and, in the process, discovers himself. It’s also a fascinating glimpse back into the world of the mods and the rockers (the real ones not the revivalists). I’m sure that for aficionados of either generation of mods, this film will delight with its many references to The Jam, and to the imagery of the mods and to mod culture as represented by things like Franc Roddam’s film of The Who’s Quadrophenia (1979). But a film can’t sustain itself on Easter eggs and references to pop culture alone. It has to be a good story, and this is. In particular, the seemingly random threads of many of the encounters along the way are cleverly woven together at the end in a very satisfying way.
The performances are uniformly good, especially from our three heroes. Perhaps, MacNamee’s performance falls a bit short of the more confident and engaging turns by Parkinson and especially Boast, but then he’s meant to be a bit wet so maybe it’s just the ticket. The music is well used, the twists are nicely surprising and the Production Design by Helen Watson is, as you might expect of a story with such visual potential, terrific. Writer-Director Chris Green, who’s had a big year with two releases – this and Me Myself and Di (a Bridget Jonesque rom com written by Samantha Lloyd) – has created a film that is fresh, funny and entertaining. And if you like the music of Paul Weller and the iconic bands he was in - The Jam and Style Council - then you’ll be humming along the way. Even though the father-son connection between Phil and John was tenuous at the outset, the mod culture proves irresistible to John who, by film’s end, seems to have inherited more than just his dad’s house and motor-scooter. As we are reminded all throughout the film, ‘once a mod always a mod’ and, for John, that mantra might just be hereditary.
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.