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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



By midlandsmovies, Dec 12 2018 12:00PM



Stronger (2018) Dir. David Gordon Green


David Gordon Green has a varied CV with misfiring comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness sitting with more dramatic fare like 2013’s Joe with Nicholas Cage. My recommendation is to avoid comedy, Sir, for your more serious takes a far better.


Like Joe, we get a great central performance, this time from Jake Gyllenhall. Here he plays Jeff Bauman who in real life lost both his legs during the terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon. Unlike Patriot Day, a film which I hugely enjoyed (see review here), the film avoids the police investigation into the perpetrators and focuses on one of the victims maimed on that fateful day.


Adjusting to his new life, Gyllenhaal gives an unbelievably good performance as man plagued by demons and alcoholism but injects enough vulnerability that the audience sympathise with him given the difficulties he faces. Surprisingly there’s a fair amount of comedy had here too. Bauman is shown to make light of his injury at times and there is a dark sub-plot of exploitation of the media which fleshed out the background to his journey.


The film also doesn’t scrimp on the awfulness of the injuries – with blood, limbs and body parts strewn in the bombing recreation flashbacks - and a scene where Bauman has his bandages removed for the first time may be one of the hardest things to watch in 2018.


Dealing with the subject sensitively, yet exploring the trauma and frustrations of the aftermath, Stronger has a fine support cast with Tatiana Maslany as Jeff's girlfriend and Miranda Richardson as Jeff's mother. Carlos Sanz as Carlos Arredondo – the man who saved Jeff at the scene gives a brief but powerful turn as well.


Although Stronger isn’t a game changer, it provides a fascinating insight into the rehabilitation process and shows an audience how difficult it is to deal with both physical and mental scars – all grounded by Gyllenhaal’s mesmerising central role.


7/10


Mike Sales



By midlandsmovies, Nov 23 2018 12:57PM



Chappaquiddick (film) Dir. John Curran


This film highlights an historical incident from 1969 when US Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car into Poucha Pond killing a girl called Mary Jo Kopechne and then focuses on the subsequent media fallout.


The main facts from the case make for dark inspection as Kennedy drives from a beach party and crashes into water before returning to the house where he asks 2 friends to assist. But after failing to rescue her they advise him to go to the police that night. But for some reason he doesn’t. He goes back to his hotel and back to bed. A man in shock or an act of political protection? Well, the film definitely portrays the latter.


So let’s be honest here, the film doesn’t make the Senator look in any way sympathetic. The car is subsequently found by members of the public and Kennedy returns to his family’s estate to instigate some serious media damage control.


Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy is fantastic and the film’s supporting cast is solid throughout. At the film’s conclusion we are told Ted continued in the U.S. Senate for 40 years – highlighting how that even when causing a death, nothing can really stop your career when you come from American royalty like the Kennedys.


Ed Helms, looking strangely like the manager from The Incredibles and Clancy Brown are the best of the rest whilst Bruce Dern is as cantankerous as ever as Kennedy senior. Kate Mara is strong but given the story, she is"offed" early in the movie - although her sympathetic portrayal makes Kennedy's actions all the more unfathomable.


The film is a solid biopic and if anything made me feel slightly disgusted by the actions on screen but doesn’t truly hold as much weight as it should other than Clarke’s captivating central performance.


The Kennedy family and their powerful friends have unsurprisingly called the film a “fabrication” but the film rightly sticks to its guns in order to remind us all of the political machinations of a country slowly falling away from its morals in a way that maintains the sleazy status quo. A passable political potboiler.


6/10


Mike Sales



By midlandsmovies, Oct 25 2018 02:43PM



Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) Dir. Bryan Singer


Let’s get the Queen song puns out of the way from the start. Is Bohemian Rhapsody “guaranteed to blow your mind”? Well, it’s a glossy, Queen-approved biopic that had some tremendous moments but unfortunately the sum is less than its parts as we follow the glam-infused rock-opera band from their early beginnings to their Live Aid performance of 1985.


We open backstage at that world-broadcast concert but are soon thrust back in time to 1970 where flamboyant singer Farrokh Bulsara (soon to be Freddie Mercury) meets up with Gwilym Lee as Brian May and Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor after their band ‘Smile’ loses their frontman.


Mercury is encapsulated, and then some, by a beyond-terrific performance from Rami Malek and although the film covers various aspects of the band’s career, Malek is thrust centre stage and like Freddie, all eyes are on him throughout the duration.


After securing bassist John Deacon the film stops off at varying points of the group’s milestones as we get to see the greatest hits of Mercury's life from his Zanzibar roots, Bombay originating parents, his meeting and engagement to lifelong companion Mary Austin, the band on tour and the subsequent falling outs.


Fun and harmless it is but sometimes borders on the bland with shot choices that were less than cinematic. This lack of consistency may have come from the removal of the film’s original director Bryan Singer. The irony of behind-the-scenes (or backstage if you will) creative differences isn’t lost on this reviewer.


Also losing a singer are Queen. The film sees Freddie’s ego get the better of him as his wild lifestyle lead him to a drug and sex-fuelled hedonism which culminates in him pursuing solo project without his band mates. Or his “family” as they are repeatedly referred to.


As a 12A film, the movie doesn’t go into Mercury’s debauched depths (Movie Marker’s Darryl Griffiths sums up the issue brilliantly here) and although it’s not a warts and all exploration, the film doesn’t shy from his sexuality and his subsequent discovery that he contracted AIDS.


The film therefore feels like its trying to cover far too much ground (around 15 years) and doesn’t give adequate space for all its plot and character ambitions. The wayward frontman scenes combine nicely with the studio sequences however. The repetition of Roger Taylor’s falsetto delivery of “Galileo” is a great nod to the band’s recording methods as seen on BBC2s’ “Making Of” documentary where hundreds of takes were attempted to achieve Freddie’s legendary perfectionism.


It gave the impression at times that the film (produced and approved by May and Taylor) was also attempting to force their contributions in which made it feel a bit "try-hard". The whole band were brilliant of course and each member essential but it was definitely the Freddie show that made the best cinema here.


And although a cameo from Mike Myers was a nice nod to the song’s influence, like far too much of the script, he delivers lines from Anthony McCarten's screenplay that are simply too on the nose. "We get it. It’s Wayne’s World! You don’t need to say it!"


One of the most talked-about, and lauded, scenes is the recreation of the band’s Live Aid show at Wembley Stadium. A fantastic realisation of the day, it is somewhat spoiled by a Return of the King (or should that be Queen) style ending that felt like it went on for days. Rami struts the stage in a way that is less than just a good impression and more of a total embodiment but after 15 minutes the film easily could have wrapped itself up after the first track.


As a huge fan of the band I enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody but it's all a bit like Queen themselves – slightly indulgent, sometimes overlong and contains an unhealthy obsession with its own importance BUUUUUT you can't take your eyes off that man at the front. And Rami Malek is without doubt stunning as Freddie Mercury.


A shed-load of hits from Queen’s back catalogue are obviously interspersed throughout and the most moving moment was Malek’s delivery as he reveals his AIDS diagnosis to his weeping band mates. A heart-breaking and jolting sequence in a film that had been mostly surface throughout.


But I couldn’t dislike the film for its broad strokes. It aimed high and unfortunately fell a little flat yet I enjoyed much of the film’s approach, its likeable depictions of the band (and their hangers-on) as well as the shooting star of the show that is Rami Malek.


Broken into three parts – the film shows Freddie’s killing of his past persona growing up, then the campy frolics and hedonism of operatic orgies and a final head-banging ending with pulsating riffs and joyous rock – if only there was a Queen song that encapsulated all this.


8/10


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Oct 21 2018 08:28AM


First Man (2018) Dir. Damien Chazelle


For a man who is probably one of the most famous who ever lived, Neil Armstrong was sure a modest guy. Shunning the spotlight after his infamous trip to the moon and back, the human who took one small step decided to take a step back from the limelight after his legendary voyage. And it is that low-key confidence that director Damien Chazelle (of La La Land and Whiplash fame) tries to tap into in his new film First Man.


We are thrown into the cockpit in Chazelle’s opening scene as Armstrong’s pilot comes unstuck during a test flight of an experimental X-15 rocket which he struggles to gain control of during a re-entry. Chazelle’s tone throughout combines two recurring themes – the cool-as-a-cucumber Armstrong and the technical feats of NASA during the 60s. The opening is a claustrophobic and exciting action sequence where buzzing alarms, broken throttles and life-threatening science all go hand in hand.


After successfully getting back to earth, although Armstrong is not entirely seen as successful, the film begins to expose how Armstrong however was viewed as extremelt dependable in times of crisis. Ryan Gosling’s slightly one-trick “moody wanderer” shtick (see also Blade Runner 2049 and Only God Forgives) works here to show Armstrong as a contemplative and serious man whose one goal is the success of any challenge placed in front of him.


Attempting to get more emotion from him is Armstrong’s wife played by an excellent Claire Foy. After the loss of their young daughter, Armstrong adds a metaphorical distance in their relationship. Burying his emotions deep, the film follows Armstrong in times of solace – again, reiterating his lonesome and contemplative nature. Foy brings depth to what could be a “caring wife” cliché – giving her some real toughness which was also seen in Unsane and no doubt in the future Dragon Tattoo spin off.


As their family stresses adds to Neil’s woes, Chazelle uses the “space” between words to explore the difficulties they are both facing. As the Apollo missions gain pace, more and more fellow Astronauts are killed during tests and flights which constantly plays on the couple’s fragile minds.


Whilst Chazelle uses the quiet moments to say so much the film really has two sound modes: Bombastic noise with a symphonic score (excellently composed by Justin Hurwitz) but in contrast stark silence. The audience is reminded of the omission of sound in space but space is both the empty void between the stars AND the gap between husband and wife.


Chazelle’s involvement in such “sound films” like Grand Piano, La La Land and Whiplash has given him huge dexterity in using sound as another character – one that comes to the forefront when it is there and also when it isn’t. Alongside this, the acting of the support cast is great and the whole film is shot very naturally, and at times with an improvisational style especially with the child actors.Filmed on both very grainy and authentic 16mm and 35mm film stock., further authenticity is added the inclusion of real footage from the era in 3:4 ratio which alongside the subtle but well used wardrobe, further adds to its time period credentials.


As the film edges closes to the infamous Apollo 11 launch, the constant presence of death – loss of young child, loss of colleagues, loss of friends – continues to permeate throughout. In many ways, as this occurs, Armstrong experiences an increased loss of emotion. With Chazelle’s almost point-of-view shots from the astronaut’s positions in their spacecraft, their confined position is an apt coffin itself.


The film returns to his daughter’s death as Armstrong avoids people at a colleague's funeral and he tracks his daughter’s illness in a log book and is as meticulous about his work as his family – sometimes to both their detriment.


As we enter the final third, Chazelle’s great film even raises the stakes despite us all knowing the expected outcome. The noise of creaking metal and shots of shaking rivets show how these men are simply in a controlled but very dangerous explosion. The risk to life is very real and the long pauses throughout the movie create a tension that sticks during its moon landing ending – spectacularly filmed in IMAX sequences. And as the eagle lands on the surface, one of the most well-known parts of our shared history is given new life and we rediscovers its importance – to us all and to this one humble man.


First Man therefore is a fantastic voyage of both a mythical yet somewhat conventional man. Ever the reluctant hero and considering he completed one of the most, if not the most, infamous achievements in human history, his commitment to science, family and getting the job done comes across in Chazelle’s portrayal. A uniquely earnest and simple man, Armstrong may have sought a low profile later in life, but I hope First Man reignites interest in this hugely exciting period.


And Chazelle has no need to bow down to the audience to ensure everything is a projection of their experience. This is Neil’s experience. And First Man is a first-rate biography mixing an amazing directorial confidence in cinematic techniques to explore what drives us all to unimaginable personal and public feats of endeavour.


9/10


Mike Sales



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