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By midlandsmovies, Apr 20 2018 05:07PM

Atonement (2018)

Directed by Auzair Razak from Coventry

A Ribbontree Production

Atonement is a new 12-minute psychological thriller from Coventry writer-director Auzair Razak which tackles issues of bereavement, grief and blame.

Filmed in a Paul Greengrass handheld camera style we begin our journey with Daniel who we discover has lost his daughter and is battling to come to terms with her passing. Spiralling into alcohol-fused decline, he returns home one night and begins to see visions of a mysterious forest.

Daniel himself is played by actor George McCluskey (another Coventry talent whom we have spoken with before) and here he excellently conveys the awkward confusion and stress of this melancholic man as he attempts to deal with his demons.

Atonement sticks to its low-key realism with music that is kept to a minimum but when it does arrive it has an eerie elongated tonal quality which adds a touch of unexpectedness to the weird proceedings.

A piercing tinnitus inducing sound signals the arrival of his visions as his daughter Emily (Lamissah La-Shontae) appears then disappears into surrounding woods. The washed-out colour palette of these scenes help establish a dream-like quality whilst McCluskey manages to evoke a devasted father well with the few lines of dialogue he is given.

A date scene in a restaurant conveys Daniel’s frustrations and loneliness as he fails to engage with his guest and as he drifts in and out of his ghostly nightmares we are given hints upon what brought him to this state.

Deep within his trance, a shrine against a wooden log and a blood-red toy car leave clues as to the backstory and we’re soon within Daniel’s mindset as his fanciful dreams and miserable reality collide.

Atonement’s only real drawback is its slight unoriginality. The ghostly daughter and [SPOILERS] car crash denouement is one I’ve seen a lot of in local films. It may just be coincidence but as recent as last week I reviewed a film about a middle-aged bald man suffering nightmare visions that leave him “hanging” onto reality.

However, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to recommend this short too. The film’s technical aspects are rock solid with sound mixing being of particular note. Dialogue, music and audio effects have been well produced and it’s so easy to ruin a good short with bad sound. But not here. The performances are rugged but consistent and deliver the slightly-seen-it-too-many times before materal with believability and sensitivity.

A great introduction to a young filmmaker I haven’t heard of, Auzair Razak’s Atonement is a fantastic welcome of another gifted filmmaker onto the Midlands scene. One who I very much look forward to seeing more of – with a splash more originality I hope – in the coming months.

Midlands Movies Mike

Follow the short on Twitter at @Atonement_Short

By midlandsmovies, Apr 2 2018 08:08PM

I Kill Giants (2018) Dir. Anders Walter

Based upon the graphic novel I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly (writer) and Ken Niimura (artist), I Kill Giants was written in 2008 before A Monster Calls but has unfortunately been released as a movie a year after. This results in the tale having some familiarity but, for me, it didn’t harm the film one little bit given the quality on show.

In this film, a fantastic Madison Wolfe plays disturbed young girl Barbara Thorson who is a dungeons and dragons playing loner who escapes the troubles of her life by retreating into a world of fantasy. Sound familiar? Maybe so, but the film explores a great deal about growing up in an intelligent way through the eyes of children. Passionate for fantasy board games with multi-sided dice, Barbara lives with her disinterested video-game obsessed brother. Together they are both looked after by their put-upon sister Karen, in which Imogen Poots plays the stressed older sibling brilliantly.

Barbara is shown to be intelligent and witty but also boisterous and looks down on her family (and teachers) with scorn. This ensures she is friendless and spends most of her time creating homemade spells and potions out of random finds, which are then used to lure huge monsters. Wolfe is so convincing that from great character introductions at the start, I was unsure whether her creative world was in fact real or not. Her feisty Barbara is only ever seen alone with the monsters and although the question is rapidly cleared up, the film explores childhood creativity and frustrations in a way that patronises neither children nor the adults who have relationships with them.

Warnings and markings are scrawled by Barbara at home, on the beach and at school to protect herself and others from (an imagined?) harm but this brings her to the attention to Zoe Saldana’s school counsellor. Finding it hard to break into Barbara’s world, the sassy youngster equally infuriates and intrigues Saldana as she relentlessly keeps her guard up. Back home, Barbara meets an English girl Sophia (Sydney Wade) who is new to the area and slowly they form a bond. Barbara begins to trust her enough to show her a private sanctuary she has created as well as share details of the different types of giant she is aware of.

Far from a fantasy, the depiction of youngsters sharing secrets, having their own protective space and also passing paper messages between each other were entirely relatable aspects of growing up. Barbara creates her own “medicine” from unique items to stop the monsters she feels are going to attack her loved ones but the film ensures the relationships feel less fantastical and more authentic. And her strong smart exterior is used as protection against real bullies, teachers and the “giant” issues she faces.

The film’s tone had an ‘Amblin’ flavour at times which was no bad thing either. The music and bike-riding definitely had the young charm of The Goonies whilst the chirpy piano score felt more than reminiscent of 1980’s Spielberg and JJ Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). And finding out it was produced by Christopher Columbus was therefore of no surprise either. The CGI forest giants and the ominous presence of a Treebeard-esque shadow monster upstairs in Barbara’s home were well-rendered but, like last year’s Colossal, the little explored “women-against-giant-monsters” sub-genre is again much more than meets the eye.

Without spoiling the film, the giants represent far more than can be imagined and although this is explicitly stated, there always seemed to be a mystery until the final third of the movie. It’s a fantastic look at childhood fun, trauma and life-learning from blood oaths to the frustration of P.E. lessons and all this is done with the right balance of fun and seriousness.

A slightly predictable parable – although it gives far less away than the A Monster Calls trailer – I Kill Giants is a brilliant and inspired coming-of-age comedy drama that sits in the same space as that film. A strong cast of performers are led by Madison Wolfe who is front and centre, and deservedly so, from the start. Dealing with difficult issues and seen from the viewpoint of a bright but troubled young girl, the final twist in the tale tackles much heartbreak within its skilful narrative. But, as we are moved on this poignant journey, I Kill Giants becomes one fictional world you won’t want to escape from.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Apr 1 2018 09:24PM

Sweet Country (2017) Dir. Warwick Thornton

Sweet Country is a film that quite literally starts as it means to go on. The first images of the film have various unknown black and white substances being placed in a melting pot of sorts and over these shots we hear but don’t see two men fighting and racial slurs being hurled until the pot comes to a boil.

Warwick Thornton, the director and cinematographer of the film has a clear vision for Sweet Country, a sweeping Australian epic that takes place shortly after the First World War in the 1920’s. Within that period lies racial disparity, as several characters point out throughout the film, “whitefellas own the land” whilst the Indigenous Australians are nothing more than field hands and cheap labour. This feels more like slavery than Jim Crow, as the Indigenous are kept outside, poorly treated and threatened with death if they flee.

Thornton introduces Harry March (Ewen Leslie) into this framework, an unstable war veteran who has just acquired a cattle station close to town. He approaches a neighbouring station ran by Christian preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) to ask for help in establishing his land. An initially hesitant Smith agrees to send his Aboriginal farmer Sam (Hamilton Morris) and his family to help, however this swiftly deteriorates as the increasingly disturbed March ends the short working relationship by raping Sam’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber).

With Sam and his family returning to Smith’s homestead, March moves onto another neighbouring station to “borrow” another “blackfella” who like Sam struggles to maintain a working relationship with Harry and runs away. Thinking the runaway has taken refuge in Fred Smith’s station, March’s temper reaches boiling point resulting in brutal violence and Sam fleeing with his wife through the beautiful yet unforgiving outback.

Sweet Country at its core is a simple story. A simple yet shocking depiction of Australia’s jaded past. As a storyteller Thornton excels here, nothing feels forced or self-righteous, the simplistic premise of Sam being a fugitive in the outback does not make the more complex themes less important. If anything the violence, racism and injustice that flows throughout the film has a greater stage because the story is so easy to follow and understand.

Because of this Sweet Country gives off a classic Western feel. And not just because of its sandy exterior. One example being the introduction of Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) of the local police as he forms a small band of men in the search for Sam, including preacher Fred Smith who disagrees with his methods frequently.

The film's strongest attribute is easily Warwick Thornton’s direction. As mentioned before, his decision to not tackle heavy themes with a rough hand is not only admired but successful. Also there is a pattern throughout the two hour running time where several characters’ fates are teased in flash forward shots throughout the film. Not only original but an interesting way to keep the audience guessing as to how the character has ended up at that point. This form of non-linear storytelling is not one I’ve seen before but left me wholly impressed.

Partially funded by Screen Australia, which is the Australian Government's funding body for the Australian Film Industry, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country accomplishes what it sets out to do, to bring attention to Australia’s past, no matter how brutal.

Most Western civilisations have a shameful past when it comes to racial divide and the racism that is a result of that. There have been many films in recent years from different countries that tell the tragic stories of those difficult periods, Sweet Country can take its place as one of the better films in that regard. This needed to be made for the people of Australia, to educate them of the battles the indigenous Australians faced daily and the scars the Australians bore when returning home from the Western front.


Guy Russell

Twitter @BudGuyer

By midlandsmovies, Apr 1 2018 01:41PM

You, Me and Him (2018) Dir. Daisy Aitkens

You, Me and Him is a brand new comedy drama from writer/director Daisy Aitkens and follows the story of lesbian couple Olivia (Lucy Punch from Bad Teacher & Hot Fuzz) and Alex (Faye Marsay from Game of Thrones & Pride) and the trials of their complicated relationship.

They bond over mocking the idiotic hedonism of their recently divorced next-door neighbour John (a bearded David Tennant) but before long, their age-gap leads to the awkward question of pregnancy. Nearing 40, Olivia secretly becomes pregnant via artificial insemination and when Alex finds out, she drowns her sorrows at John’s divorce party and wakes up in his arms. And despite her regrets Alex too becomes pregnant owing to this one-night liaison.

Thus the film sets in motion a clash of situations none particularly planned for. You, Me and Him is set in the Midlands around Stratford-Upon-Avon which gives it a local flavour and with a strong cast of film and TV stars, the movie gets off to a likeable start from the outset. Punch’s Olivia is all hilarious noise and sniffly tears whilst Marsay brings a sensitivity to her more eclectic boho cynic.

Marsay is particularly effective as what could be an annoying hippie stereotype is given much more depth by her compassionate take on the role. Tennant too is having huge fun with his debauched Casanova. His support for a chauvinist “Manimist” help-group later makes way for a sympathetic character who is struggling to deal with expectant-father difficulties.

In support, Sarah Parish as Mrs. Jones throws in an OTT performance which is equal parts prejudice combined with a number of sharp-barbed insults. And Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips is hilarious as an Australian antenatal class teacher bouncing around on fitness balls.

Although the actors are all top notch, the film slightly lacked a cinematic presence and the performers weren’t flattered by the TV lighting. But this was a minor flaw and disappeared when the well edited jokes were pushed to the forefront.

As the narrative develops, Tennant’s flamboyant father-to-be clashes with Olivia’s emotional (and flatulent) mother-to-be for the attention of Alex whose previous life of drink and drugs is calmed by her newly glowing predicament. The comedy (and the drama) almost solely come from this triumvirate. And their dialogue – some of which seemed brilliantly improvised – is slick, well-written and had the me chuckling throughout.

You, Me and Him therefore aims for comedy in the main. With sight gags, cutaways, slapstick and plenty of body and adult humour all thrown in, it was surprising then to find that the film’s highlight is a tonal swing in the third act. A shift from the previous broad comedy to an incredibly sincere sequence is both thoughtful, honest and exceptionally moving. The pratfalls and hilarity make way for heart-breaking moments that are all the more powerful with the removal of dialogue. The trio of main actors will make you weep as their pain, caring and tender embraces emote from the screen without so much as a word.

But there’s hope amongst all this anguish and director Aitkens more than handles the complex balance of Richard Curtis-style droll laughs mixed with poignant compassion. The film is overall lightweight but takes a meaningful look at the serious issues of LGBT love (not a “large sandwich” as the film jokes) and the multifaceted intricacies of modern relationships. With three wonderful showings from Punch, Marsay and Tennant, the film is an enjoyable romp with plenty of laughs without forgetting the affectionate support needed for mothers, fathers and partners.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Mar 30 2018 07:14PM

Catharsis (2017) Dir. Jay Martin

The latest film from Midlands filmmaker Jay Martin follows a woman looking to escape from her grief following the loss of her child. It’s a very dark but not at all unreasonable take on how destructive personal loss can be, and also shows the lengths some people take in order to escape it for a short time. I for one love a grim storyline, so I was well in my element here.

Actress Olivia Newton takes centre stage here as Sandra. It’s a largely understated performance, but it is super effective in communicating everything that the audience needs to see. Before the film has even really started it is clear that she is very tormented by things that have gone on. After seeing one of the opening shots of her crying her eyes out in the shower, you’re immediately thinking about what could’ve happened, and everything else that could’ve led to this point.

Newton’s performance, combined with much of the writing in the film, is very thought-provoking, with later scenes indicating that it’s not only grief but loneliness that Sandra is feeling too. The scene where she returns home from work and just sits in silence with her husband is majorly indicative of this, and is definitely one of the more powerful moments of the film that I think will stick in the mind of anyone who watches it.

The story as I mentioned right at the start is very dark, and it maintains this approach for the film’s duration. It didn’t shy away from showing the main themes in their very worst light, and also didn’t offer so much as a silver lining in the form of a happy ending. I liked this decision taken by the writers a lot.

Something I wasn’t quite such a big fan of was how many questions I was left with once the very (presumably) unhappy ending had played out. It’s almost as if it provoked too many thoughts for me. I’m someone who likes closure when watching film, and so to be left with so many uncertainties doesn’t sit quite right with me. I need another film now to follow up on all the queries I was left with, but I won’t get into what those are for fear of spoiling the film for anyone else.

Probably what I liked so much about Catharsis though was the look of it. The aesthetics really worked for me. The low lighting used throughout so many of the shots properly complemented the overall tone of the film. The contrast between these scenes and those that showed the flashbacks also did a wonderful job of showing then and now, and the differences between those two times.

This is one of those films where the appearance completely fits the story it’s telling, which really enables the viewer to connect with it more.

Catharsis is a very good character study of someone going through possibly one of the worst times in their life. It casts everything in a very gloomy light, and never once makes the suggestion that things will get better for our main character who we have to see go through all of this.

I think it’s a take on grief, depression and a few other things that is very in touch with reality, and all the elements in the film come together to present this to its audience in the best way possible. And it’s because of all these things that you’re left wanting a number of answers at the end of the film. You are quite literally left wanting more, and that is never a bad thing when it happens.


Kira Comerford

Twitter: @FilmAndTV101

By midlandsmovies, Mar 30 2018 02:55PM

Witness (2018) Dir. Sheikh Shahnawaz

This 6-minute drama short comes courtesy of Midlands director, screenwriter & producer Sheikh Shahnawaz.

Co-founder of video production company Lacuna Video, Birmingham-based Sheikh has worked in the industry for a number of years producing not just corporate videos but a collection of drama shorts too.

In his latest film Witness, we are told a robbery has gone wrong and two crooks need to decide what to do with the remaining witness. Opening on a man in a warehouse we see that the witness is strapped and bound to a chair (very Reservoir Dogs) and my only hope in this first scene is that he keeps his ear!

On a more serious note, the technical aspects are well-crafted with hand-held camera work being a suitable stylistic choice giving a sense of realism to the piece. A simple black and white costume palette helps us quickly identify who the victim and tormentors are – which is an absolute key concept in short films when time is at a precious premium.

The story then moves along at pace as the duo discuss their proposed solutions before a phone call comes in from their boss who wants the desperate hoods to get rid of their hostage.

With bouts of explosive violence, the criminals consider their options knowing that their robbery would quickly become murder if they follow through with their boss's request. Shooting is off the table owing to noise, whilst a bloody knife attack is dismissed owing to the mess. They therefore feel strangulation is their final option.

The actors themselves do a lot with their short appearances. Nisaro Karim’s brooding stares work well against his partner in crime (Liam Millard) who shows concern and doubts with mere looks.

Sam Malley as the hostage doesn’t have a lot to do but the audience feels for him with his bloodied face and sweating tears.

Tarantino is the obvious parallel (Reservoir Dogs especially) but the filmmaker knows how to infuse the material with some Brummie flavour. Although I saw the twist in the tale coming from afar, it was delivered well by Sheikh in a quickly edited conclusion.

With high quality across the board the only down-side was the slight familiarity of the tale. However, with its compact run time I can see Witness doing fantastically well on the local festival circuit. And it comes as a great calling card for a director I’ve only just recently been introduced to. But one I will certainly be keeping an eye out for in future.

Midlands Movies Mike

Check out the entire short below on YouTube and let us know your thoughts as well.

Follow Sheikh on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cinesheikh

By midlandsmovies, Mar 30 2018 11:06AM

Brokenhead (2018) Dir. Steve Rainbow

79 mins

The Birmingham Film company

This new Midlands feature from director Steve Rainbow tells the story of a solitary man who begins to experience some very strange occurrences during his final few days of his lonely job maintaining a working lighthouse.

Sean Connolly plays Stefan, the lighthouse keeper, who amongst his old radios and model sailboats, single-handedly preserves the upkeep of the coastal building but is increasingly disturbed by his isolated existence.

Caricature faces are drawn on Post-It notes which adorn the walls and give him company in the absence of any companions and the film gives the audience plenty of context and history up front. Opening with the sound of crashing waves we see this quirky owner maintain the old lighthouse but when things start to break down we question why. Is it a technical failure of something much more sinister?

Therefore, Stefan’s relaxing final days before returning to the mainland sees him investigating these spooky issues with the ocean building. His only interactions are via radio where he plays chess one move at a time and the weird sounds of the score from Andy Garbi work well to invoke the ethereal rolling melody of the sea. Building a sense of unease, sound plays a crucial role throughout as static and mysterious pleas for help come across the wirelss to Stefan, confusing and bewildering him.

A lot of attention to detail has been employed by the filmmakers as the lighthouse and all its antiquities link the past to the present which is a crucial aspect – especially as the film later explores historical legends and myths as well as personal memories and circumstances.

During his time, Stefan does voiceover work and we hear a radio drama where he plays out a multitude of fictional roles. But does the drama bleed into the real world? As he is told that burying an albatross on land is bad luck, a mix of sea-faring stories combine with the lighthouse blacking out.

And the discovery of voices on the airwaves and a life-jacket floating in the sea muddy the waters even further. Is his mental health suffering? Is he experiencing delusions? The film takes us through an emotional journey in the search for answers.

If there are a few minor improvements to be made I would have liked to see some quicker editing to build narrative tension. Although the long shots echo the extended periods alone, making time seem endless, as the story progresses we could have seen some shots cut shorter. That said, they give a great sense of time and place and are well composed and reflect the leisurely life of the keeper.

The great cinematography of Ian Brow captures the brilliant sunshine and glistening sea but again I think some more variety in the shot choices (most are mid-range shots) could have helped engross the audience more. The radio conversations, whilst no doubt accurate, are a little slow to engage with but with that said, the monotony could be part of delivering the themes of a solitary life and the boredom Stefan faces.

Exploring dark themes about the past and tormenting loneliness, the film doesn’t shy from difficult ideas and although an element of confusion did come across at times, the film keeps its shadowy revelations at its forefront and delivers a satisfying and eerie finale.

In conclusion, the film’s sole focus on one man is a difficult narrative to hold, yet the film does its best with a few lashings of comedy to lighten the mood. Moments of introspection are also littered amongst the increasingly haunting story as well. As the character writes his memoir, “The Last Lighthouse Keeper”, Brokenhead becomes a fine study of self-inflicted loneliness and confronting one's demons. With the deconstruction of fiction and reality and a solid central performance from Connolly the film is a melancholy marine thriller of personal-ghosts from the dark depths.

Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Mar 22 2018 05:58PM

I Am God, And Severely Underqualified (2017)

Directed by Theo Gee

A sparse room, a man at a typewriter and a slowly delivered voiceover monologue may seem a rather basic premise for a film with such a grandiose title but don’t let the simple set up give you a false sense of security.

I Am God, And Severely Underqualified is a Nottingham made film that comes from local director Theo Gee and opens us up to “creation” in all senses of the word.

As described, the film is set entirely in one room and with actor Melvyn Rawlinson (whose white beard is god-like but who is never referred to as such) placed at a typewriter. As a voiceover begins we realise that the words we hear are the words being typed out onto the paper. But in a great twist the words (and voice) are also describing the short as it happens.

This self-referential idea harks back to Stranger than Fiction (2006) and Adaptation (2002) both of whom are concerned with the meta-idea of the process and presentation of creative writing. In the latter’s case Spike Jonze’s film uses an inspired Charlie Kaufman script which, in turn, represents Kaufman’s own struggles with writing.

On a technical side, this short uses perfect image compositions and great close-up camera work that are balanced whilst the minimalist set is dressed superbly with little touches including brain-storming Post-It notes and lonely cups of water. In addition, the ethereal sounds of the score are suitably angelic and combine well with the clacking of the typewriter at work. A gentle hum of the background noise of traffic barely registers but allows the audience to acknowledge the world but we are solely focused of the writer, as much as he is on his work.

As well the struggles of writing the film can be seen as a metaphor of creativity – and specifically filmmaking itself. Like Nolan’s Inception, where the actors represent various roles on a film production, this local short uses a similar concept. The doubts of a filmmaker can be summed up with the writing process our lead undertakes whilst the photography posters on the wall are symbolic of camera work. A coin falling to the floor which interrupts the scene harks to filmmaking “money men” – funding being a key to the production process – whilst puppets in the corner could demonstrate the later need for actors.

A fantastic performance from Melvyn helps sell the abstract concepts as his pauses and sighs elicit a lot of intrigue from just a few subtle expressions. From pacing around to taking a break for some coffee – we get a protagonist deep in thought. A shot of a bin full of discarded first drafts further establishes the problems of writer’s block and scriptwriting. The film physically personifies writer’s block as the typewriter’s letter “A” gets stuck. I felt it important that this is the first letter of alphabet with themes of “beginning” (and creationist symbolism too) being littered throughout. These allusions to the religious continue as Melvyn’s “God” (of writing) even looks up to the light mid-way through and the drip of water has a feeling of rain, life and floods. Perhaps a flood of ideas?

Anyone who has seen Aronofsky’s “mother!” will notice the similar use of a parable to tell a story and this exciting short is full of similar ideas of imagination, creation and compulsions. The doubts of a filmmaker (or any creative endeavour) and the forces at work to complete works of art are fully explored as well as the outside influences of pure luck in anyone’s success.

The film won the categories for Best Short & Best Editing (Leonard Garner) at our recent award ceremony and is not just a technical tour-de-force but a short many filmmakers would relate to given their struggles and journeys in getting ideas started (and finished).

Midlands Movies Mike

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