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By midlandsmovies, May 21 2020 10:48AM

The Wretched (2020) Dir. Brett Pierce & Drew T. Pierce

Well it’s easy to call this film absolutely wretched but let’s see how we get there in a new horror from the Pierce brothers. John-Paul Howard plays Ben, a conflicted teenager involved in poorly constructed shenanigans involving a cursed witch who somewhat places people under a spell where they forget members of their own family.

Sadly for starters, American teenage boys are sometimes the biggest douches to watch on screen. You get the loveable nerd-ish type (played by our lead here and made popular by Shia LaBeouf) and the BBQ cooking jocks. Both are present. Both are cliched. And both are mostly ghastly. With shades of both Spielberg and Hitchcock (especially in Devin Burrows’ great score) the film reminds me of the original Fright Night in tone, whilst the ideas have been seen before, and better, in suburban horrors like Disturbia and The Woman. It does however provide some gross out blood and guts, but the dramatic sections feel much like soap opera Home and Away “down at the pier”.

Some arresting imagery and note-worthy visuals help and the good practical effects are definitely one of its saving graces. However, a few interesting ideas about memory never really fully coalesce and although these new directors show quite a bit of promise as filmmakers, I don’t believe this to be their breakout effort. ★★

Ophelia (2020) Dir. Claire McCarthy

I’ve been meaning to write my review of Ophelia for some time now, but the truth is that this reimagining of Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view is sadly a bit unremarkable resulting somewhat in very little to explore. A take on Hamlet by Shakespeare, it opens with a cinematic adaptation of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia painting - an image also replicated in Laurence Olivier’s more faithful take on the Bard’s tale from his 1948 Hamlet film.

Protagonist Daisy Ridley is clearly the best thing about the film delivering a performance with much wider range than her Star Wars Rey character. The beats from the play are all present – murder, succession & deceit - but these are truncated in favour of scenes from Ophelia’s perspective. Prince Hamlet is played well by George MacKay who is having a stunning year with a solid performance here as well as his excellent appearances in 1917 and True History of the Kelly Gang already on his 2020 CV. Moving from historical tragedy to a more straight drama at times, it's an interesting take on the material with the saturated greens of nature, innocence and life slightly ironic given the tragic tale of death. The great cinematography is let down by a turgid script though and it has to be said Clive Owen’s wig is nauseatingly distracting. The sumptuous costumes and the delightful performance from Ridley are not quite enough to drag this beyond the realms of a “valiant effort” with a reimagined twist ending stuck on for good measure. Solid but uninspiring. ★★★

VFW (2020) Dir. Joe Begos

I’d love someone to correct me here, but this retro action flick opens in the antagonist’s lair with the title that it’s “12.30pm”. That’s afternoon, right? He heads outside and it’s the middle of the night. Also, there’s a coda explaining that the town has gone downhill and become a war zone because of drugs. This is immediately repeated in the first conversation between our introductory two characters. It’s that kind of attention to detail that doesn’t bode well for Joe Bego’s new film VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars).

It stars a host of grizzled faces including Stephen Lang (Avatar), William Sadler (Die Hard 2), Fred Williamson (From Dusk Til Dawn), Martin Kove (The Karate Kid), David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors) and the ultimate bar-fly George Wendt (from TV’s Cheers). This bunch of geriatrics end up in a John Carpenter-style situation stuck in their local drinkery whilst a gang of drug-crazed heavies tries to get in. And that’s about it. The character actors are in fact great and the conversations between them are actually not half bad but the boring action and sample dialogue “An army of braindead animals is still an army” is inane. Here, it’s more like a film of braindead actors is still a film, I guess (just). A fair bit of gore and violence combined with neon lighting harks to the 80s but it doesn’t do what the best 80s-influenced films do (e.g. It Follows & The Guest) which give their own modern spin on their retro roots. The boring VFW therefore sadly ends by being a bit embarrassing for everyone involved. ★½

Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Dec 19 2019 06:20PM

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) Dir. JJ Abrams

Retcon or narrative development? Do you want story risks and surprises or a reprise of the best of SW? Well, The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams returns with a bit of both to helm a sequel to both his first film of the new trilogy plus also Rian Johnson’s controversial (but far superior) second instalment.

Does JJ manage to bridge the gap or jump the shark? In fact, it’s mostly a success – a bit disorderly throughout but filled with a great (force) spirit of adventure with only a few missteps along the way.

The film begins by wasting no time with the narrative and rather than a slow reveal, it’s shown within the first 5 minutes that the Emperor is resurrected. On a secret planet called Exegol he now hopes to create a new Galactic Empire with an armada of Star Destroyers using Kylo as a pawn to rule the galaxy.

Rey still trains as a Jedi and in order to confront Emperor Palpatine, she rejoins the resistance efforts and with Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, BB-8, and C-3PO attempts to search for Sith artefacts that will lead them to the big bad.

The film throws action constantly at the screen, sometimes at the detriment of characters' development and boy are there a lot of them. The group cross with Lando Calrissian (a rather effective cameo from old-timer Billy Dee Williams) but there’s also a host of alien and humans welcomed to the fold, some more interesting than others. Keri Russell is underused as a space criminal yet new droid-mechanic Babu Frik could easily have been annoying but is mostly a fun addition.

As they continue their travels, Rey’s parentage is revealed during a Force-bond fight (projections can now interact with each other – and so much more later) and Abrams simply cannot resist curtailing to some fan’s need for Rey’s lineage being somehow tied into the saga.

It’s the need for a do-over that are the worst parts of this final episode of the nine-part "Skywalker saga". Adapting unused Carrie Fisher footage is hugely impactful though and her story has an amazing emotional resonance. And whilst C3PO is very funny, his goodbye to his “friends” as his memory is wiped hits the heart strings hard and references the audiences’ own goodbye to familiar faces.

Therefore, whilst Johnson’s film was about throwing away the past, JJ’s film is definitely more about goodbyes but there is a lack of finality at times and the death “fake-outs” are an overused trope that undermine the film’s weighty ambitions.

The resurrection of previous threads and the nods to the two previous sagas were somewhat expected but again, more than satisfying in the main. Rey and Kylo’s overblown lightsabre battle on a water-logged Death Star is the aquatic equivalent of the fiery battle between Obi-Wan and Annakin on the volcanic lava trails of Mustafar. And huge chunks of Return of the Jedi (visually and musically) are echoed on a visit to the rubble of the Death Star.

Other standouts include Richard E Grant who is so fantastic as a First Order general that I almost wished for him to have been in this trilogy from the start. But the focus on Kylo and Rey has always been the best part of this series and wisely, the film works best when focused on them. From heated battles and horrific visions to quieter more tender moments, the trilogy has consistently been watchable anytime stars Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are on screen. Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe are window dressing at times but them taking a back-seat to let the conflicting couple slice and dice wasn’t unwelcome at all.

A bit overstuffed with characters – old, current and new ones get mere minutes at times – The Rise of Skywalker ends with an appropriate space battle alongside a darker duel of differing fates for Kylo, Rey and the Emperor. It’s not the stunning success surprise that was The Last Jedi nor the easy re-tread of a New Hope that was The Force Awakens yet it works as a glorious and worthy, albeit messy, send-off to the saga.

We’ll no doubt get all the YouTube hate reactions, ‘10 things wrong with’ and “fan” criticism over on Reddit in the coming days but with so many people to please, JJ has stuck safely to familiar beats. And although too familiar at times, The Rise of Skywalker is a fitting tribute to this trilogy and may just bring a bit of hope, and certainly a tear to your eye, knowing we’ve finally left this galaxy far, far behind.


Michael Sales

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