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By midlandsmovies, Jun 11 2019 07:23PM



All Is True (2019) Dir. Kenneth Branagh


In a text prelude, we are told of a cannon accident which sees the infamous Globe theatre burn to the ground in 1613 and as Shakespeare watches it burn, we are brought back to the 17th century in this new film from director-star Kenneth Branagh.


Branagh’s fascination with Shakespeare began with Henry V (1989), followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love's Labour's Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006) and now in 2019, he’s not just content with adapting his work but playing the very man himself.


After the scene setting intro we return with Will to his family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon and thus begins an unhurried character study about the latter years of The Bard’s life. The film explores his family relationships with wife Anne Hathaway, played with staunch pride by Judi Dench - no stranger herself to Shakespeare (In Love) – and his two daughters. And at the same time, he also mourns the loss of his young son Hamnet.


Like Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) and this year’s The Favourite, Branagh has favoured chiaroscuro cinematography for the night scenes where small and wooded Tudor houses are lit by candles and fireplaces using strong contrasts of light and dark. The bright scenic daytime scenes see an elder Shakespeare leave his literary ways to focus on his garden. And again, the locations and lighting are fantastically cinematic – and with Mary Queen of Scots and this, fans of the Tudor period (like myself) are getting spoilt this year.


The picturesque and quaint countryside scenes, whilst admirably filmed, don’t host a particularly strong narrative and the drama contained within claustrophobic dimly-lit rooms is small in nature itself. Although probably intentionally so. Written by Ben Elton, the film’s narrative drive focuses on Shakespeare’s doubts and concerns about his family, specifically his son.


Dench as his wife cannot read and laments Shakespeare’s absence from her in his heyday, and his constant digging in the garden serves to show him digging up parts of his offspring’s past. And at times, the film seems to find its voice in the silence between words rather than lots of dialogue or exposition.


As doubt is cast on his son’s poems and the circumstances of his death, the issue of not being able to write at all poses larger questions about authorship in general – a subject of much controversy and debate regarding Shakespeare’s own work over the years. Thus, as he is haunted by the loss of Hamnet, Branagh is stately and stalwart as Shakespeare but the script isn’t afraid to shove a few lewd and crude lines his way during his family spats. Also thrown a bone is Sir Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton who gets his chance to shine with a stellar recounting of Shakespeare’s verse in the middle of the film.


The movie really is much more about a person’s legacy and the “bosom of his family” rather than any analysis of the plays, poems and sonnets of his folio themselves. For that you need to watch Ben Elton’s parody Upstart Crow which pulls apart the myths surrounding the great writer. Here we simply focus on the introspection undertaken by Branagh's brooding Bard.


The aforementioned slow pace may put passing fans off but like the Bard’s greatest hits, Branagh’s All is True includes history, comedy and tragedy – and measure for measure, is an old-fashioned, amiable and uncomplicated chamber-piece with much to recommend. ★★★½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, May 26 2019 03:39PM

Stan & Ollie (2019) Dir. Jon S. Baird


Beginning in 1937, a tremendously long one-take shot pulls us into the Hollywood world of one of comedy’s most iconic duos where Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy move through a studio backlot to a film set during their heyday. However, as Stan is on a different contract to Ollie, a rift is borne which continues to 1953 where the more mature duo embark on a gruelling UK-wide tour as part of a planned comeback.


Composed of Englishman Stan Laurel & American Oliver Hardy, their slapstick comedy was a hit with war-time audiences and they went on to star in over 100 films together. John C. Reilly is covered in prosthetics to play the portly Oliver Hardy, whilst comedian Steve Coogan is a spitting image for the “confused” persona of Stan Laurel. However, despite Stan and Ollie's well-known on-screen traits, the creative partnership begin to struggle with a music hall tour of the UK in the hopes of getting another film made.


Checking-in to rough hotels and playing to a run of empty theatres, Reilly and Coogan give magnetic performances as the two elderly men coming to terms with some of their glamour slipping away. Coogan especially, whose legendary Alan Partridge alter-ego I am a huge fan of, finally (for me) ditches Alan’s mannerisms and this films contains probably Coogan’s best movie screen performance to date.


As the duo begin to fill up more theatres owing to a string of publicity events, their past catches up to them and whilst their wives come to visit from Los Angeles (another fantastic double act from Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel), the tension boils over into a public spat.


Filmed right here in the Midlands, some scenes were shot in Dudley as well as The Old Rep theatre in Birmingham and also along the Great Central Railway in Leicestershire. We get old-fashioned and charming set-ups in a loving homage to both the duo and their trade. Baird’s direction is unfussy and straightforward, which allows the actors to shine. But it’s delightfulness of tone does sometimes push the film towards being a tad artless and plain.


As their past feelings of reciprocated betrayal are revealed, the film's amiable drama does moves into a slightly more interesting take on resentment, creativity and mutual respect.


When Ollie has a heart-attack, it marks the beginning of a reconciliation and the pleasantness is re-established. And the film shows great fondness and respect for the two great men and reveals a little about their motivations and inspirations.


However, as humble as it is, the film at times slips into mawkishness and some of the curious simplicity results in some underdeveloped sequences. That said, the movie made me want to watch many more of the duo’s finest celluloid moments and the two leads pull off more than just a great imitation. Although at times a bit wishy-washy, Stan and Ollie is a humble and uncomplicated look at two mesmerising legends in a quaint tribute piece.


★★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, May 26 2019 03:37PM



A Private War (2018) Dir. Matthew Heineman

This new biographical drama comes from Matthew Heineman and is his first dramatic movie after his success with 2017’s documentary City of Ghosts about anonymous activists in Syria as it was taken over by ISIS. Staying with similar subject matter, A Private War follows the real and recent war story of American journalist Marie Colvin. Colvin is played brilliantly and with depth by Rosamund Pike, who captures Colvin’s determination to uncover stories in the most dangerous of war zones. Losing an eye in Sri Lanka whilst documenting the country’s civil war, Pike wears an eye-patch but her ability to see, and uncover, a story is not diminished. Her mental stability is diminished however as post-traumatic stress, alcoholism and broken relationships begin to take their toll. Her anguish doesn’t stop her continuing her desire to expose the evils of the world as she crosses the globe.


Jamie Dornan is solid as her photographer Paul Conroy, whom she recruits to document the stories, whilst she consistently antagonises her boss Sean Ryan (a rather sympathetic Tom Hollander as The Sunday Times' foreign editor) in her search for tortuous truths. The film uses a countdown technique as we are shown various war zones from 2001 to the more recent battle of Homs. Some subtly impressive recreations of war zones, realistic shooting locations and the dramatic back-and-forths back in London all add to the realism. But it’s the central performance of a woman torn between the truth and the terror that is the real praiseworthy aspect. Pike gives her best performance since Gone Girl and brings to life the tragic story of Colvin and her demons. An impressive debut feature, Heineman delivers a whole host of remarkable technical aspects and Pike’s exciting central performance makes A Private War a dramatic and satisfying movie covering global conflicts and personal battles. ★★★★





Arctic (2019) Dir. Joe Penna

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgård, a stranded man who is trying to stay alive after his plane crashed in the snowy tundra of the arctic wasteland. As he fishes for food to stay alive, he carves out S.O.S in the snow whilst trying to map his bleak and (almost) inhospitable surroundings. Filmed in Iceland, the great cinematography from Tómas Örn Tómasson captures frozen vistas, landscapes and the snow-peaked mountains and it’s this beauty that contrasts with Mikkelsen’s desperation to survive. As a rescue helicopter spots him, it gets caught in a storm and crash lands itself with only a young woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) surviving but severely injured. The wreckage contains a map and Overgård discovers a lodge that is 2-days away so decides to secure the woman to a sledge and head out into the wilderness. Filmed almost entirely without dialogue, Mikkelsen is excellent portraying a man in a precarious and pressured situation but understanding that a clear head and logical thinking is the only way to survive. Fighting the elements and himself, and overcome with emotion at times, “mute” Mads has done a similar non-speaking turn in Valhalla Rising but this is far the superior film. With elements of Alive and The Martian as Mads faces risky dangers, Arctic ends up being a well-crafted 90-minute survival flick that is simple yet emotional, and life-affirming without being overly fussy. ★★★½



Shazam! (2019) Dir. David F. Sandberg

From the director who brought sub-par horrors Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation to the big screen, it’s incredibly surprising – in a good way – to see the fright fan tackle a child-friendly family blockbuster in the much-maligned DC Extended Universe. How this fits in with the tone of Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad is anybody’s guess - heads up, it doesn’t - but that’s a huge bonus for a film with low expectations to fulfil. In short, what we get is a tearaway, Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) who gets placed in foster care but is given a magical power by a wizard (!) that can transform him into an adult superhero. As the man-version, Zachary Levi does a great job a la Tom Hanks in Big (and to a lesser extent Judge Reinhold in Vice Versa). Mark Strong as the villain simply dusts off his Kick Ass persona and although as bland as they come, has an interesting power that sees the “7 Sins” demons emanating from his body to attack. Some cornball family themes are expectedly delivered but mostly inoffensive, yet as Billy learns to use his super speed and strength – and how to take responsibility for his powers – the film gets by with a lot of heart and plenty of laughs. And for the first time (since Wonder Woman I guess), a DC comic book movie is finally fun, has a great tongue-in-cheek tone and some actually likeable and relatable characters. Shazam is a super success! ★★★ ½



Greta (2019) Dir. Neil Jordan

What happened between 1991-1992 that filmmakers seemed to make every thriller about stalking? Cape Fear (1991), Single White Female (1992), The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Basic Instinct (1992) and Unlawful Entry (1992) are amongst a host of dramas where obsessed individuals terrorise their victims in a variety of dark and unique ways. And with Greta, we’re thrust back into that world with Neil Jordan’s latest psychological drama. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Frances, a waitress in New York who returns a lost purse to its owner (Isabelle Huppert as Greta Hideg) and becomes close with the lonely piano-playing widow. However, before you can say “bunny boiler”, Huppert’s Greta is calling, texting and eventually stalking Frances and her flat mate. Moving from a nuisance to full-on disturbingly obsessed, Huppert is having a lot of fun as the lurker and she gives gravitas to a pantomime role – similar to SIr Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, itself a 1991 release! It nails the knowing (and at times silly) tone of those 90s thrillers and at 98 minutes it doesn’t stay around too long for audiences to question all its holes, nonsensical narrative strands and ludicrousness. However, for those who are missing the glory days of crime, betrayal and emotional nut-bags – and no, it doesn’t treat psychological disorders with anything close to seriousness – then Greta is a guilty, if slight, return to the clichéd, outrageous, preposterous - but often highly entertaining - suspense genre from 30 years ago. ★★★ ½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, May 15 2019 02:06PM



Loro (2018) Dir: Paolo Sorrentino


Stylish. Decadent. Captivating. Loro, the latest film from Paolo Sorrentino see’s the Italian director reunite with Toni Servillo, with whom he collaborated with on The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty, in a satirical take of Silvio Berlusconi.


Now to describe Loro as a biopic is perhaps a little misleading as the film itself is a fictional account of what might or might not have happened behind closed doors during this period of his return to politics and the breakdown of his marriage, although Sorrentino covers much more than that in this layered yet somewhat confused societal and political comedy. However the fact that the film was released in two parts in its native land, with the UK receiving a combined version lacking an hours worth of material may perhaps explain this.


The film itself is imbued with symbology, for instance at the very beginning a lamb dies in a villa, no doubt a reference to rival Agnelli, which is balanced out by the more explicit, quite literally in some cases, visual excesses which may or may not work on several levels depending on your knowledge of the characters, Italian politics and culture. This unfortunately, like many other foreign releases that do not cover universal themes, means that Loro suffers from a lack of transferability and that layers of meaning are lost.


To further complicate matters, a significant portion of the first act focuses on Sergio, a small-time and unscrupulous business man who seeks to win favour with old Silvio. However as compelling as this story is, Sorrentino appears to lose interest part way through and poor Sergio is relegated to barely even being a supporting player.


If some storylines are seemingly tossed aside in the UK version thankfully the visuals remain consistent in their beauty and alongside Servillo’s perhaps too-charming performance, there is enough for the rest of us to enjoy.


Sorrentino once again delivers excess and style in a high-brow and artistic manner, some of which is certainly questionable but perhaps apt, and while entertaining for the most part, Loro is one perhaps only for his committed fans, Italophiles or those who want an overly sympathetic story of partying Silvio.


★★½


Midlands Movies Marek

@CinemaEuropa



By midlandsmovies, Apr 15 2019 08:40AM



Lords of Chaos (2019) Dir. Jonas Åkerlund


Adapted from the book of the same name, Lords of Chaos is directed by notable Swedish music video filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund and his knowledge of the music industry has turned from Madonna’s upbeat Ray of Light video to a much more sinister story here in this dark musical journey.


The director has made concert films of Beyoncé and Jay Z, Taylor Swift, Roxette and much more recently, and apt, German heavy-metallers Rammstein. In Lords of Chaos we follow Rory Culkin as guitarist Euronymous, the co-founder of real-life Norwegian black metal band Mayhem.


Recruiting a new Swedish vocalist called Dead, the new singer takes their dark persona to extreme measures including self-harm before the band meets a super-fan named Kristian (Emory Cohen) who is dismissed by the group. One day, in a scene of horrific mutilation, Dead cuts his arms and then his throat before killing himself with a shotgun to the head. The gruesome scene is one of many disgusting sequences of body mutilation and nihilistic violence and be aware, Lords of Chaos caters for those with the strongest of stomachs.


Maybe darker than the hideous death itself, Euronymous takes a photo of the scene – which is eventually used as an album cover (!) – before opening a shop that becomes the focus of their underground music scene.


With members becoming known as the "Black Circle", fan Kristian renames himself as Varg Vikernes and his strong anti-Christian views leads him join the band and then burn down churches. Whilst another member, Faust, kills a gay man in a park and their crimes are brought to the attention of the police.


A power struggle between Euronymous and Varg emerges – with each retreating into their own reality where Euronymous reveals his persona to be mostly a bluff whilst Varg’s increasing erratic and extreme behaviour leads him to arm himself for a confrontation.


Rory Culkin as Euronymous is fantastic and although its been said that the film uses a mixture of American accents, with ever-so-slight Scandinavian twangs, the choice merely seems to be one of commercial accessibility. Emory Cohen as Varg Vikernes matches Culkin beat for beat with a menacing and threatening portrayal of an unhinged extremist.


The support cast tackle the dark themes well and the film has a reality to its traumatising images. Shockingly the story has a morbid ending and many of the themes are somewhat contradictory. Culkin seems both sympathetic yet often unappealing at times and the movie explores themes of life-threatening hobbies, the occult and, more simply, the notion of celebrity and authenticity.


In my review of Vox Lux I stated that one problem of that film was the inclusion of music (pop) that I don’t have a large interest in. Here, black metal is not hugely my thing either, but I definitely sway towards the darker aspects of rock and its associated imagery which the film goes to the furthest extremities of.


Whilst band members dispute the historical accuracy of some of the events in the film, it is then somewhat ironic the film concerns itself with character dualism, surface personality and the clashing view points of each member. And Lords of Chaos dramatizes a bleak story with a great combination of multi-layered performances and grave scenes of violence. Although not for everyone, Lords of Chaos will satisfy metal and horror fans but goes beyond both is musical and genre origins for a much more intense experience. Ghastly but gratifying.


★★★★


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 29 2019 02:54PM



At Eternity’s Gate (2019) Dir. Julian Schnabel


Enigmatic and underappreciated in his own lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh’s life – especially the last dramatic few years – have been ripe for television and film adaptation and we get one more here in this new biographical feature.


As a self-confessed Van Gogh “superfan”, I’ve enjoyed many of the takes on his passions, especially 2017’s Loving Vincent – the animated painting of a film – which ended being my favourite film of that year. So what can Willem Defoe as Vincent bring to this new film? Well, it covers a similar period following Vincent as he spends his days painting in the South of France before his infamous ear-cutting, sectioning and finally mysterious death just outside Paris at Auvers-sur-Oise.


Covered in dirt and wandering through wild landscapes, the film has echoes of Terence Malick as an all-seeing spinning camera dwells longingly around our protagonist as her pursues his dream of capturing pure nature in his canvases.


Thematically, static paintings contrast nicely with Schnabel’s cinema verité floating camera and the film, like Vincent’s work, is glorious to look at. The fantastic photography captures candlelit conversations and wild fields of dead sunflowers and the excellent colour grading echoes Van Gogh’s artwork to perfection. Blues, greens and yellows pop from the screen at times.


But for all its pretty sunflowers and sunsets, the film is beautiful but boring. The conversations are kept to a minimum with the (very unnatural) dialogue cribbed from Vincent’s infamous letters but these sequences are spread so thinly. We instead get scene-after-scene of long wordless walks in the wilderness. Definitely a “mood” piece, the high-art meditation on Van Gogh’s life is simply like watching paint dry. And at times it literally is.


The conversations though – when they do eventually occur – are the film’s real highlight. Dafoe’s expressive facial lines have all the worry, stress and doubts that encapsulated Vincent and are excellently filmed in close-up making his wrinkles seem like an expressionistic set of brush strokes. A key aspect for a man famous for his portraits.


Oscar Isaac showing up as Paul Gauguin to discuss the artist’s goals, dreams and plans is perhaps where the film should have focused its lens. Their discussions and disagreements had the most vibrancy and I longed for more drama during the movie’s infuriating slow pace. So, whilst At Eternity’s Gate does get somewhat under the skin of the troubled artist at times, it ended being a film I so wanted to love but it’s simply too slow a watch to be gripping despite Dafoe’s dedication to the role.


★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 8 2019 12:36PM



Can You Ever Forgive Me (2019) Dir. Marielle Heller


This biographical film stars Melissa McCarthy as real-life writer Lee Israel who in the 90s confessed to forging letters from famous authors as her own career was in the doldrums.


After the failure of her biography of Estée Lauder, Lee Israel is broke and turns to drink as she berates her agent (and everyone else) for the career struggles she is facing. After selling her possessions to make ends meet, she discovers a hidden letter by Fanny Brice which she sells for cash but is told that if the artefact wasn’t so bland she could receive even more money. This sparks an idea to Lee that using similar typewriters from the era she can use her writing skills to imitate the authors’ letters and sell them to collectors.


She is soon blacklisted as her deception is revealed but she uses local drug-dealing (and fellow drinker) Jack Hock – a flamboyant Richard E. Grant – to sell them on her behalf. Their love-hate relationship has unexpected consequences for Lee whilst the FBI begins an investigation into her shady dealings.


McCarthy and Grant earned nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for their roles and it’s easy to see why. Cards on the table here – I find McCarthy’s previous performances like sandpaper where I have winced at her condescending adlibs delivered in a continuous slew of unfunny comedies for the last decade.


However, this role showcases her dramatic ‘chops’ and I see, and hope, her career ends up heading far more into this category. Grant is channelling a bit of his legendary Withnail performance but is so much more likeable here – especially when pleading with McCarthy’s Lee about being her only friend.


The film starts slow but the characters are fully fleshed out as we warm to McCarthy who moves from spiteful and selfish to a much more vulnerable woman coping with her flaws and bad deeds. Unobtrusive directing helps focus on the characters and it really is the McCarthy and Grant show here.


Can I ever forgive her for those awful comedies? Well, based on this performance, I’d be a fool not to.


★★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jan 17 2019 05:09PM



Colette (2019) Dir. Wash Westmoreland


This biographical drama comes from Still Alice director Wash Westmoreland and is based upon the life of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature she is also famous for her 1944 novella Gigi which was the basis for the film of the same name.


Colette covers the early part of her life with Keira Knightley returning from an acting break as the lead woman whose first writings were published under the pen name of “Willy” – a nickname for her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). She writes a series of stories revolving around “Claudine”, a fictionalised version of her own life which is filled with avant-garde parties and lesbian liaisons.


However, much like in the film Big Eyes (Tim Burton), Colette soon demands her name be revealed as the real author of the stories which her husband resists and which subsequently causes riffs between them. The film is told in a linear fashion and for a film about writing, sadly has too few literary trappings and most reminded me of the standard fare of Merchant Ivory period dramas – but with added liberal and progressive flourishes.


Knightley is solid and Dominic West plays the uptight, sleazy type of macho husband that he often excels in – but is one actor I have never thought has much of a range and he does little to correct that here in Colette.


As Colette’s will becomes more determined, the film delves into notions of masculinity and femininity and whilst swanning into boisterous parties one night in extravagant dresses, she partakes in serious muscular exercise the following day. The cinematography is fascinating as it captures beautiful French scenery as well as bawdy get-togethers exploring both public and private spaces.


The film however concludes with her departure from literature into her mime and stage career displaying her fight for female independence at a time where female respectability was considered paramount and she moves from exercising her mind to the physicality of her body.


Therefore Colette is certainly progressive and honourable – telling a little-known tale of creative and wanton passions – but if I’m honest I found little “life” in the film. Also, there was a very palpable chemistry vacuum between the two leads, yet the excellent support from Eleanor Tomlinson, Aiysha Hart and Fiona Shaw helps ease these gaps.


A melodrama of women’s independence, I would recommend Colette for those interested in the film’s central historical subject matter but for many others, the film – as respectful as it is – dips into blandness, both technically and narratively.


★★★


Michael Sales



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