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By midlandsmovies, Oct 10 2017 09:26AM

Loving Vincent (2017) Dir. Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman

My own love for Vincent stemmed from a project on The Netherlands in primary school all the way to imitating his artwork (and others in the post-impressionist movement) for my A-Levels so I was excited to hear about the development of this unique film.

If you have yet to hear, Loving Vincent is a hybrid animation/real-life film in a similar vein to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Like those films drawings were placed on top of acted out and pre-recorded scenes – its inherent strange rotoscoping perfect for the latter’s Philip K. Dick source material. Here however each frame of the film (around 65,000 of them) is an oil painting. 100 plus artists used Van Gogh-style painting techniques to capture the feel and style of his varied body of work.

The film’s story is a mystery concerning the investigations of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), a distant friend of the Van Gogh’s whose father, Chris O'Dowd as Postman Roulin, sets him on a trail to deliver one of Van Gogh’s last letters. Arriving in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, he speaks to a number of people who interacted with the infamous painter who each describe their relationship with the artist during the last few weeks of his life.

The film flashes back from the colourful brushstrokes of his later portraits and rural landscapes to a more realistic black and white palette during the recollections of past events which is a brilliant nod to his developing styles from one stage of his life to another.

From an introduction at The Night Café (1888) and Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1841–1903) the film deliberately introduces locations and characters as exact replicas of their painted canvases, before moving to the drama of the scene itself. For Van Gogh lovers it’s very much a case of Spot-the-Painting but doesn’t detract from the artistry or drama for those less familiar.

The drama itself is mostly subtle and understated as the delivery of the letter turns into a noir detective narrative as Roulin begins to uncover some ambiguities regarding Vincent’s alleged suicide. With the few outbursts done in a swirling application of paint it was a delight to see both intimate conversations and volatile fist fights animated in oils. The music by Clint Mansell echoes some of his previous work and the string quartet ratchets up tension when needed and like the visuals, mixes a nice balance of intensity and gentleness across scenes.

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent van Gogh is really a fleeting player in the story as other characters describe his past, but he does a lot with his body and face rather than a string of dialogue scenes. This keeps the emphasis on his enigmatic legacy and how he was a quiet, yet completely ‘visual’ personality.

Great support comes in the form of Jerome Flynn as Dr. Gachet, Saoirse Ronan as his daughter Marguerite Gachet, Helen McCrory as the feisty Louise Chevalier and John Sessions as Père Tanguy – each one bringing depth and nuance to their roles and further fleshing out this historic world.

It’s great to see the detective story secure a strong driving narrative to what could be seen as simply a gimmick, however the visuals really are the big-top draw here. Unlike anything I’ve seen before, when the drama slows, the cinema felt like your favourite museum with the audience simply ruminating on the almost-static images. Yet when they moved, the glory of the brushwork and talented painters who recreated Van Gogh’s style is clear to see – and a joy to behold.

It’s all too easy to allude to this as a masterpiece but a masterpiece it is nonetheless. In the end, Loving Vincent provides a portrait of a conflicting and unknowable sequence of past events that maintains the celebrated artist’s place in the art world. The story, music, acting and, of course, the unique painted design combine perfectly to create a dazzling canvas to be studied over, and most of all enjoyed, like Vincent’s best works already are.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Sep 11 2017 05:43PM

2017 Movie Catch-Up Blog Part 4

Unlocked (2017) Dir. Michael Apted

After the awful ‘Rupture’ and the fantastic ‘What Happened To Monday’, Noomi Rapace is one of my favourite actresses but boy does she need a decent film (and some consistency) for her to attach her multiple talents to. Sadly, this action thriller falls way short of quality entertainment as Rapace’s ex-CIA interrogator is tricked into getting involved in a suspected terrorist chemical attack in London. The film is not short of talent with support coming from a sleazy Michael Douglas, a phone-in/hammy performance from John Malkovich (which this film needed much more of) and Toni Collette’s MI5 head who has more in common with Annie Lennox with her blonde buzz cut, than James Bond’s M. “Hey, that large nameless goon looks like Orlando Bloom” I screech before realising it is Orlando Bloom yet whose ‘acting’ and accent is so bad I almost stopped watching. Rapace’s thoughtful dark performance in ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' shows she can bring depth to characters, whilst her turn in ‘What Happened to Monday’ shows she can handle the lead in an action flick. So her involvement in two of the worst films of 2017 is much like this film – a huge HUGE disappointment. Avoid this dull, stilted and ponderous thriller like the biological plague. 4/10

Risk (2017) Dir. Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras new documentary is a solid if slightly amateur looking exposé on Wikileak’s founder Julian Assange. What is interesting is how it reveals the inherent conflicts of Assange’s work (and more fascinatingly his character) as the film flips from a behind the scenes look at the machinations of the organisation to the complexities of his impending extradition. The film contrasts the support for making public potential war crimes and surveillance with a critique of Assange and the shady sexual abuse claims. Sadly the brief-ish 91 minutes drags owing to a mix of constant shaky cam (which is less “intentional choice” than simply the only option and bad camerawork) in addition to the constant presence of Assange whose arrogance is unpalatable to say the least. Director Poitras wisely changes tack when she claims Assange sent her a message calling certain scenes a "threat to his freedom", with Assange missing the irony completely with this censorship request. Although his real-life escape to the Peruvian Embassy has a certain excitement to it, the film is unable to construct itself to create a meaningful narrative that’s more engaging. Difficult questions are approached, multi-sides of the story are presented and the work of Wikileaks analysed from various perspectives which is testament to Poitras’ investigations. Yet all the people involved are so inherently unpleasant that the interesting political and moral ramifications of these revelations are lost amongst the obnoxious posturing from insufferable people. 5/10

Hidden Figures (2017) Dir. Theodore Melfi

“If we keep labelling something 'a black film,' or 'a white film'— basically it's modern day segregation. We're all humans. Any human can tell any human’s story”. Theodore Melfi, Director.

Based on the real life 1960s story of African American female mathematicians working at NASA, Hidden Figures is a powerful drama about an important part in not just the history of the USA but for the work which helped build towards that “giant leap for Mankind”. With Soviet space supremacy on the horizon the internal pressure rises and genius mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is headhunted to assist the lead space team during a time of demeaning segregation.

From resolving issues about heat shields to solving equations about trajectories, Katherine fights objections, prejudices and her own anonymity in the reports she creates and it’s this conflict which gives the film its engaging power. Henson’s stoic performance channels a humble woman attempting to fulfil her role against a tide of narrow-mindedness. And there is also great support from Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan who is being denied a supervisor role and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson who has to go to court to attend a white-only night school to train as an engineer. Kevin Costner plays the director of the Space Task Group and he brings back his 60s ‘JFK’ Jim Garrison with similarly framed glasses and a focus on the injustices of the world, whilst Jim Parsons is simply his ‘Bing Bang Theory’ Sheldon Cooper with an added ignorance.

The trio of put-upon lead women are outstanding and portray a proud magnificence – and some warm light-heartedness in their car journeys together – as they all attempt to become first-rate workers in a world full of social barriers. It reminded me somewhat of Race (our 2016 review here) which I enjoyed immensely but here the narrative momentum replaces a track race with the space race. The film takes some liberties with facts from the era but a 2 hour run time is going to need to use composite characters, conflated timelines and a more simplistic explanation of NASA management structures but the importance of these ladies – both in their small steps and giant leaps – should not be underestimated. Well photographed and with enough cinematic flourishes, Hidden Figures utilises the multiple talents of its terrific cast to portray the efforts and toil that moved the world towards a more “human”-kind. 8/10

Bloodrunners (2017) Dir. Dan Lantz

A 1930s b-movie prohibition flick with Ice-T as a gangster vampire has to be a lot of fun, right? Er, sadly no as this schlock horror fails to love up to its ridiculous description. Clearly low budget, my low expectations were not even fulfilled as we follow a corrupt middle-aged cop trying to make sense of the visitors and owners of a whore house and speakeasy in his town. The film takes a vampire’s life-time to get going as the film promises blood and guns (it’s a vampire gangster flick after all) but it takes nearly 2/3rds of the film to get any real action. The high concept-low budget set up cries out for silly action yet takes itself far too seriously with nods to spousal abuse, class conflict and a soppy story of love between two youngsters from opposite sides. Some cool swing music cannot hide the TV-show style sets, awful stock characters (the “crazy” priest who isn’t believed) and hackneyed writing. Again, the concept isn’t the worse idea in the world and with (a lot of) tinkering, there is an enjoyable thrill-ride in here somewhere but unfortunately Bloodrunners will make your blood run cold with its amateur delivery. Absolutely toothless. 4/10

Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Mar 9 2017 03:32PM

Christine (2017) Dir. Antonio Campos

Tackling depression and career progression, Christine is a new biopic about real-life news reporter Christine Chubbock who toils with her demons in the 1970s as she aspires to bring a sense of authenticity to the scoop-driven tabloid TV show she works in.

A powerhouse performance that carries the whole film, Rebecca Hall keeps Antonio Campos’s third movie focused solely on the lead as she gets dispirited in her career fight to raise journalistic standards. As her manager lowers the bar to ever increasing “hack” stories, Chubbock tries to fight back but in doing so creates an unpleasant personality others find abrasive.

As health issues force her to consider the possibility of being unable to bear children, she hopes the station’s owner can see her drive and determination and give her a promotion to prime time in their new Baltimore office.

However, whilst lambasting her colleagues, her moods swing wildly and her mother, whom she shares a house with, is all too aware of her emotional problems from the past. As co-worker George (an intense Michael C. Hall) asks her out, her optimism turns to disillusionment as he whisks her off to a self-help group who advise he on dealing with the problems she faces.

The director lets the drama play out on screen and an almost constant presence of conflict keeps the narrative moving at pace. A solid group of actors help play the various roles but they are ultimately side-lined for the focus on Hall as Chubbock. Hall plays the title role with depth, subtlety and strength yet shows cracks in the hard-nosed Chubbock to reveal an inevitable vulnerability.

As Christine is snubbed for the possible promotion, her world heads towards ever-increasing bouts of volatility and risk before one final act of defiance and peace is achieved.


If you don’t know by now, this real-life story ended with Chubbock committing suicide by firearm live on air as she presented a new bulletin. The video of which has never officially made public since cutting to black after the event. A sad final act for someone who saw no other choice to escape her world.

Acting wise, Tracy Letts as the put-upon station manager Michael Nelson is a delight who tolerates Christine’s erratic behaviour yet seems to understand the clash of driving forces within. With a great soundtrack of 1970s music and simple but effective pacing and editing, Christine is an actor’s dream. Dialogue, body language and narrative come together with a good script that creates discord amongst the characters and allows both emotion and logic to shine through.

In addition, Hall does superb work with a complex character that could have easily been exploitative. It avoids focusing on the terrible incident that made her “famous” and attempts to explain what could have caused such a tragedy. Christine’s career-minded female juggling the demands of work, love and womanhood exposes the mental strain of life yet handles all of these difficult themes with compassion and without judgement.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Feb 25 2017 04:55PM

The Founder (2016)

Dir: John Lee Hancock

Based on the real life story of Ray Kroc, a travelling salesman who happened across the fast food store owned by the McDonald’s and turned it from a single location to perhaps the largest fast food outlet in the world thanks to one thing – persistence.

Keaton is terrific as the aforementioned Kroc and it is testament to his performance that we find ourselves buying into his portrayal so much so that as the film and circumstances progress so do our thoughts and feelings towards him. Additional praise has to go to Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the McDonald brothers who similarly put in strong performances.

However despite the synopsis I got more out of the drama surrounding the brand, the competing ideals (a family restaurant or a new American church?) than the internal drive of Kroc which while ably handled were a little less interesting and developed. Getting this balance is a fine line and at times The Founder strays into sales pitch territory for the chain, I even started craving some fries at one point. Thankfully however the writer Robert Siegel knows when to tone it down avoiding the territory of a company love in as suffered by The Internship and things always picked up.

Like all biographical drama’s this won’t be for everyone, suffering from a natural ebb and flow in engagement throughout its near two hour duration but for anyone with an interest in business, branding and drama it provides an interesting watch and regardless of any accuracy or embellishment it tells an fascinating story of a man chasing his American dream.


Midlands Movies Marek

By midlandsmovies, Jan 30 2017 04:52PM

Jackie (2017) Dir. Pablo Larraín

Covering the immediate 4 days in the aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, this new biographical drama stars Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy and the whirlwind of emotions directly affecting her in the wake of this national tragedy.

Clearly doing her homework, Portman does a great impression of the widowed first lady although her ‘breathy’ tones were so over the top I headed to view more footage of the real-life Kennedy who does in fact enunciate in such a way.

With the fashionista look and vocal imitations down, Portman infuses the protagonist with a sense of steely nerve yet troubled nervousness and apprehension when the ‘society’ mask slips.

The film is structured around an interview conducted by Billy Crudup who prods and probes in an attempt to find the real woman behind the public façade as Portman’s assured Jackie attempts to confirm her husband’s place in history whilst only letting her guard down in brief flashes of honesty. Supporting her throughout is Peter Sarsgaard as Robert F. Kennedy and her White House helper Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman but Jackie is resigned to fighting for herself against the machinations and intentions of the Government – who want a smooth transition to maintain US political stability. This occurs at the same time as JFK’s body is moved and autopsied and many scenes show clashes of emotion played against the blunt actions of the authoritarian administration

A couple of unlikely cameos from Richard E. Grant as William Walton and the late John Hurt as Father Richard McSorley are physical manifestations of Jackie’s turmoil and focus the audience on the questions of life, death and meaning in the wake of a tragedy. In this instance, one that is played out in front of a national audience.

With a constant shift from public to private, and back again, director Pablo Larraín films many of the scenes in a Kubrick-esque one-point-perspective which both signifies institutional structures but maintains the focus on the lead performance as the world spins around her.

Culminating in a hard-fought battle for a colossal state funeral, the film shows the lengths in which the Kennedy name was to be protected for the future and were still being struggled for even after JFK’s death.

With a shining central performance from Portman who, along with the obvious tics and mannerisms, delivers a dominant performance of Jackie’s innermost thoughts, the film follows a period of personal interest to me but will hopefully gain traction with others. As an important part of history, and even with my particular bias (JFK is one of my favourite movies of all time), Jackie is a rare insight into the private world of a very public figure.

Mica Levi’s amazing score only serves to highlight the themes of loss, family and bereavement and Jackie feels like a focused project whose plus points are extremely well earned.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Dec 4 2016 09:25PM

Sully (2016) Dir. Clint Eastwood

After recently reviewing Snowden, the current trend of turning VERY recent events into big budget biographical films seems to be the rage in 2016 with the “Hero of the Hudson” being analysed in this new movie from Clint Eastwood.

If you didn’t know already, Tom Hanks plays airline pilot Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger who in 2009 steered an out of control airline into the Hudson river in New York which resulted in all 155 passengers surviving with just minor injuries.

The film follows this exciting tale and the subsequent air crash investigation and Hanks gives a great performance as a skilled, intelligent and measured man who never once seems to consider himself a hero in the conventional sense. Harrowing fantasy scenes of Sully’s PTSD are recreated in nightmares as we are shown CGI-heavy shots of the plane taking a different path and crashing into New York’s high rise buildings. Echoing previous events in the city’s troubled history these images served to shock but at the same time clarifies to the audience the expertise of the pilot in guiding the plane out of harm’s way.

As the investigations continue to doubt Sully’s version of events, Eastwood takes the viewer on a heavy handed flight which despite his best attempts at creating drama only had one conclusion it was going to end with. A schmaltzy finale where the investigators say their findings have been wrong is followed by footage of the real crash as a montage of the survivors greet each other at a reunion which was the worst kind of syrupy gloop – and felt more part of a TV special than cinematic experience.

With the final act showing Sully’s assertion that the plane was downed by a bird strike, Hanks continues his understated performance with aplomb with great support from Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeffrey "Jeff" Skiles (who is nearly upstaged by his own ridiculous moustache).

Eastwood’s movie is pretty average on the whole and whilst he tries to extract drama from the investigator’s interviews with Sully and Skiles, it doesn’t quite work given that it was certainly clear from the outset this man was always going to be considered a hero no matter the why or how given the fact all survived.

With huge echoes of Robert Zemeckis’ fictional film “Flight”, Hanks is admittedly great but hasn’t got too much to work with and although I’ve enjoyed Eastwood’s simplicity in his previous works, I felt that aside from the tense plane crash scenes, the film’s outcome was pretty pre-determined. The need for additional drama was not attention grabbing enough and couldn’t overcome the inevitability of the well-known story. Therefore, Sully modestly sets the audience back down on a safe narrative landing in which you already know the conclusion.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Dec 4 2016 09:19PM

Snowden (2016) Dir. Oliver Stone

Based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena, director Oliver Stone turns his critical eye to Edward Snowden and the leaking of NSA files which uncovered American government surveillance on an unprecedented scale. Stone, who previous work includes JFK, Wall Street and Platoon, continues his analysis of the shady workings of US government.

Combining the conspiratorial, military and money men, Stone has all his favourite ingredients at his disposal in this topical tale. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a great Snowden being both brilliantly intelligent yet sceptical of the secret world he excels in. The film is framed around a flashback as we see Snowden meet Guardian and Wall Street journalists in a hotel room to provide them with the evidence he’s already taken which demonstrates government interference into ordinary Americans’ lives.

Excelling in cyber warfare, his technical life takes a toll on his personal life with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (played by an always watchable Shailene Woodley) and the story culminates in Snowden stealing data from the government and going on the run. Finally with the papers publishing the revelations, Snowden gets stuck in Russia after his passport is revoked and Stone ends his feature with a coda of comments from the real Snowden himself.

Stone shows us a personal journey of discovery – Snowden uncovers his own morals alongside the uncovering of wrongdoing – whilst Gordon-Levitt’s part-impersonation is a spot on turn from the experienced actor. The film is well-paced with Stone delivering the difficult technical aspects in a simplistic yet understandable way alongside the moral ambiguities he lets play out in dialogue heavy but dramatic scenes.

Is it a balanced portrait of the arguments? Certainly not and Stone wouldn’t have it any other way. With the infringement of rights during the George W Bush presidency (who Stone had already taken to task in W.) Stone is overtly critical of all government agencies as he spins out his favourite conspiracy themes and attempts to influence audiences to his way of thinking.

A solid tale of murky government practices, this film is Stone’s bread and butter and his examination of control, civil rights and espionage are a suitably appropriate topic with Stone portraying Snowden as a small-time hero getting “one over” on the Government. Political and pertinent, Snowden is far from perfect and Stone jettisons any argument from the other side but viewers would probably know this beforehand. Therefore, Snowden is an important subject, albeit not a massively important film from the director who values democracy against unchecked authority.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Aug 5 2016 11:50AM

Elvis & Nixon (2016) Dir. Liza Johnson

This film from director Liza Johnson (Return and Hateship, Loveship) is based upon the infamous Elvis and Nixon photo from 1970 (click here) which showed the notorious US President at the time shaking hands with the equally well known music legend in the Oval Office.

The movie states at the beginning that no recording was made of the meeting between two of the most famous people on the planet in the White House so combines fact with a splash of fiction. What is known is the surroundings before and after as Elvis heads from Graceland to L.A. then back to Washington DC in his attempts to become an undercover FBI agent. And yes, there’s plenty of real evidence to support this did indeed actually happen.

What is speculated is presented as a ‘what-if’ scenario based upon the infamous meeting where Tricky Dicky and The King chat back and forth about their respective requirements. The film suggests Nixon wanted to win over the public by associating himself with a popular celebrity whilst Presley has a goal to get an actual Governmental badge to pursue his plans of being a spy.

Strangely, in a week where I’ve re-watched Frost/Nixon, X-Men: DOFP & Watchmen (all who have their own takes on the fallen President), this film contains a stunning impersonation delivered by Kevin Spacey who plays the slimy and sleazy Nixon with panache. And thankfully, my initial reservations about Michael Shannon as Elvis wore off as he becomes more believable as the film goes along, playing him with a kind of arrogant innocence.

Nixon’s skulduggery plays on Elvis’ naivety (and increasing eccentricity) as the singer aspires to become a federal agent and the film gives a solid if underwritten role to Alex Pettyfer as Elvis’ aide, Jerry Schilling.

Pettyfer is part of a small sub-plot about Elvis’ inner circle of “friends” and the cast is rounded out by Johnny Knoxville as another part of the “Memphis Mafia” and Colin Hanks and Evan Peters (Quicksilver in X-Men) who play two of Nixon’s White House lackeys.

The film heightens reality as government security (as well as the general public) are shown to be in awe at Elvis’ presence before being quickly replaced with an inability to comprehend his requests to meet the President and J Edgar Hoover.

The soundtrack is a cool mix of bluesy rock from the period – wisely it avoids any inclusion of Elvis songs – and the quick editing ensures a fast pace as we whip back and forth across the US before slowing down for their private chat at the film’s conclusion.

Both performances are spot-on and I enjoyed the tone of the film as it focused on a very strange engagement from the past. Paranoid Presley is presented as an outlandish loner detached from reality, with Spacey’s Nixon is a parallel characterisation with a huge sense of self-importance. It is their interaction which is the crux of the film and although it takes a little while to get there, it is well worth sticking with given the fantastic efforts by two superb and engaging actors.


Midlands Movies Mike

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