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By midlandsmovies, Dec 11 2018 01:29PM



The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) Dir. The Coen Brothers


A 6-part anthology film that quickly ended up on Netflix, the award-winning Coen brothers are not immune to the modern day perils of the straight-to-streaming phenomena. However, like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, cinematic quality is there from the outset and this easily could have been more widely released in cinemas.


And given its quality it is a huge shame it wasn't.


The multiple, and magnificent, stories themselves are framed within the pages of a book and contain a range of tonally different shorts all set in the Wild West. The Coens’ dark humour and splashes of violence are well and present and the stories include a cocky outlaw played brilliantly by Tim Blake Nelson who sings (and floats) his way to heaven (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), James Franco’s bank-robber hanging by a noose (Near Algodones) and Liam Neeson’s impresario riding through towns with his actor Harrison who has no arms and legs (Meal Ticket).


The eclectic situations continue with Tom Waits’s grizzled prospector searching for riches in the wilderness (All Gold Canyon), a wagon train being attacked by natives (The Gal Who Got Rattled) and finally five people in a stagecoach that refuses to stop as it carries a dead body (The Mortal Remains).


With something for everyone, the yarns each have their own unique style and death and misery appear in all the tales. But the Coens haven’t scrimped on the comedy from annoying dogs, witty songs and characters trapped within their situations to humorous effect.


My personal favourite was The Gal Who Got Rattled with an excellent Zoe Kazan as innocent Alice Longabaugh and Bill Heck as the kindly and gruff Billy Knapp. That story could happily have been part of a longer film and the mixture of deadly attacks and sharp conversation was a highlight.


That said, each story has its own charms and for someone not keen on anthology flicks (see my Ghost Stories review here) the Coens have managed to weave 6 amazing stories into a cohesive and thematic whole.


Where Hail Caesar tackled Roman epics (and musical numbers) amongst its Hollywood setting, the Coens' influences here come from the American love of frontier films - another classic genre linking their modern takes within established cinematic history.


Not diverging greatly from their usual style, the death-obsessed duo deliver another historical romp with a great cast and amazing outdoor locations.


8/10


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Dec 11 2018 01:07PM



BlacKkKlansman (2018) Dir. Spike Lee


With a tight screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman is adapted from the 2014 book of the same name by Ron Stallworth – a real-life detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s.


The plot sees African-American Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) join the Colorado police force only to be faced with racism from his own colleagues at every turn. After rising through the ranks through sheer determination, Stallworth attempts to join the KKK by answering an advertisement via phone. Setting up a meeting with clan elders, Stallworth then enlists the help of Adam Driver’s Detective (and Jewish) Flip Zimmerman who acts as Stallworth at the rendezvous.


As the KKK plan violent attacks, the two policemen work in tandem to take the group down whilst all the while hiding their intentions (and each other’s personas) from the members. Stallworth goes on to connect with the KKK Grand Wizard (a sleazy and naïve Topher Grace as David Duke) whilst he also dates Laura Harrier’s Patrice Dumas – a black student passionate about civil rights issues – which complicates things further as he witholds his police background from her.


A fantastic drama that expertly balances the ludicrous situation with the injustices of racism, Lee links the story to both horrors of the past - Harry Belafonte recounts the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 – as well as the film’s future – the movie ends with the disturbing footage of the 2017 Charlottesville protests and President Trump.


However, unlike The Post, which tries similarly to tie in past politics with modern concerns, the film’s metaphors are less heavy-handed and all the more powerful because of it. Stating its concerns as matter-of-fact and contextualising the historical significance of those events is Lee’s trump card.


Despite having to dramatise more than its fair share of the book, the film is entertaining away from its politics to keep audience’s engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of undercover officers and their methods to avoid detection.


Powerful and political, the film succeeds owing to the amazing delivery from all its cast but it’s the commanding performances of Washington, Driver and Harrier who make this a formidable criticism on the continued structural racism plaguing the USA.


8/10


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Dec 6 2018 08:25PM



Midlands Review - Climbing Trees (2018)


Directed by Matthew R. Ford


Midlands Movies writer Sam Kurd takes a look at a new 33-minute short "Climbing Trees".


Climbing Trees is a short drama film written and directed by Birmingham-based writer/director Matthew M. Ford. It’s the story of a guilt-ridden father, tormented by dreams 12 years on from the murder of an 8-year old girl, who is trying to come to terms with the event and his inability to move on.


It starts slowly, almost lazily, as Kris meets 8-year-old Eliza at the scene of her murder. The mood quickly turns dark as he slips from dream into nightmare, though, and it’s immediately clear that this isn’t going to be a happy tale. Kris is a man divorced from society, seemingly living on the fringes even while passing among the crowds around him.


People know him, know his story, know his 12-year-long tragedy, but no one can bring themselves to speak to him. He drinks hard and grieves hard, living in a blur of drugs and tears. Things come to a head when the news reports that Eliza’s killer is due to be released under an alias, leading him to his presumably-ex-wife Sarah for a spot of soul-searching on how things could have gone differently.


Lead actor Tee Morris does a fantastic job playing Kris, a man torn apart by the depression and guilt that’s wrecked his life for over a decade. It’s all in the eyes, the pain and the despair, all on show but never over the top. When he’s attacked outside a pub and challenging his assailant to kill him, it’s clear what depths this poor man has sunk to. Caroline Frewin is also great as Sarah, putting in a performance that does a lot of heavy emotional lifting with relatively few lines.


The film is shot well, with a good balance between the beautiful bright park where the dreams take place and the dinginess of places like Kris’ rundown apartment. The only real problem is that the pacing is quite slow, and as a result the film tends to drag in places. A few of the scenes would benefit from tighter editing to keep the story flowing smoothly; 30 minutes is quite long for this film, and the story could easily be effectively told in half that time. The dream sequences get a little repetitive towards the end too.


On the whole, though, the film is certainly excellent. The ending was a great resolution to the story, tragic and bittersweet in equal measure, and more than made up for the slow time it took to get there. It’s technically accomplished, wonderfully acted and very moving indeed.


Check it out as soon as you can!


Sam Kurd

Twitter @Splend


Find out more about the film over on IMDB by clicking here

By midlandsmovies, Oct 18 2018 07:58PM



Midlands Review - Breakdown


Directed by Michael Ellis


“You just spent last night in a police station”.


And so says one of two male characters in a car as they drive through the countryside and come across a stranded woman attempting to get a phone signal as she stands next to a broken-down vehicle.


This is the set up of new Midlands film Breakdown from Michael Ellis and from the outset we get the impression that something very dark could be on the horizon involving this naughty duo.


Despite these shady themes the film is shot in stark daylight – throwing a bit of oddness into what could have been a potentially clichéd picking up a stranger on the road dynamic – but the quirky performances help to sell the unpleasant awkwardness as it plays out.


As the men stop to "help", they explain how their phones cannot be used to call for assistance (battery’s dead, left at home) and how they also know nothing of how to fix cars. This sets a tone of jet black comedy amongst what started as a seedy set up to the film.


Whilst the man who spent the night in the cells (Paul Findlay as “Passenger”) spins a yarn about his kindly offer of a lift, the second man’s worried brow (Dominic Thompson) is shown in close-up – hinting upon a repulsive inevitability he may have seen before. Offering to take her to a nearby garage, she reluctantly agrees to get into their car and the men and their new passenger drive off down the road together as we await their fate.


But director Ellis jumps 6 minutes before the story starts in an ingenious flashback which turns the tale upon its head. Without spoiling too much, the lady in distress (admirably played by Tenisha White) may not be as unaware as the first half of the short makes her out to be. We also get to see her character become less victim and more intimidator with an hilarious delivery of “piss off” which had me laughing despite the more pressing serious matters.


A fantastic short that handles its different tones with expertise, the twist in narrative during the middle section completely changes the direction of the story. As we are given new information we are suddenly thrust into a more complex dilemma which is surprising yet satisfying. Paul Findlay in particular as a man with obnoxious intentions gives a believable yet frightening turn, with his staring eyes and superb deadpan delivery of the lies his character spins.


With the right balance of story and plot twists and a trio of great acting turns in the film's brief 7-minutes, Michael Ellis has delivered a great short film that I hope not only does well on the festival circuit but brings more attention to this exciting filmmaker.


Mike Sales


Follow Michael and find out more about his film projects at his Twitter page: https://twitter.com/MEFilmsUK



By midlandsmovies, Oct 18 2018 06:49PM



Midlands Review - Assassins


Written and directed by Liane Moonraven


Assassins is a new micro-short from filmmaker Liane Moonraven and is the first film the American director has completed since arriving in England. And she opens her film in the most English of settings – the good ol’ boozer – and it is here in the pub where her short crime story unfurls.


Liane also stars in the short herself and enters the pub with Midlands Movies favourite Nisaro Karim, star of many shorts from the region. As Nisaro’s unknown man lights a cigarette, the barman brings over some stiff drinks before Liane’s character expresses a stern “We’re expecting a call” to give the short a little mystery from the outset.


As the locals drink, laugh and text, the buzz of the pub is interrupted by the expectant call as the barman hands over a Post-It to the double act at their table.


Downing their drinks they reveal their target is in the car park and with the short’s title of Assassin, the audience may expect a brutal slaying from the pair.


The assassins exit the bar through a back corridor and the woman takes out her gun ready to engage in their next mission. However, a sting in the tale reverses the audience’s expectations and provides a explosive bullet to the narrative.


A micro-short can be difficult to review given the extremely condensed time frame but Liane Moonraven gets over a lot of information in a few shots and with minimal dialogue. With a solid foundation, the film creates a dash of tension yet I hope to see a few more artistic choices in the shots for her next film.


A good grounding, Assassins is the sort of film that a filmmaker can build upon as they develop, where the right balance of character, editing and narrative is delivered simply and with little fuss. Check out the short on the YouTube video embedded below and expect bigger and better things off the back of this level-headed debut.


Mike Sales





By midlandsmovies, Oct 17 2018 01:19PM



Apostle (2018) Dir. Gareth Evans


This period horror is another “straight-to-Netflix” film from a well-known cinematic director and whilst that term is often thrown around as an insult of sorts, it’s films like Apostle which prove that rule to be seriously flawed.


Written and directed by The Raid 1 & 2 creator Gareth Evans, the film moves away from his international martial arts flicks to a pastoral production with very British sensibilities and influences


Set at the turn of the 20th Century, the film stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty & the Beast, The Guest) as Thomas Richardson who travels to a Welsh island to find his sister who has been kidnapped by a cult. Sneaking onto a boat by swapping his ticket with a very unfortunate fellow he arrives with nothing but his clothes and begins an undercover search for his sibling.


The islanders are led by Prophet Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen), who claims his followers are free but is also currently aiming to quell frustration as the crops of the land fail to grow.


Thomas follows the working routine by day but at night uncovers mysterious goings on involving secret passageways and a clandestine couple in love but Sheen and his fellow “soldiers” suspect their group has been infiltrated. And so they begin a counter search for the conspirator in their midst.


Gareth Evans ditches the urban interiors he is known for and films his new movie in many lush tones. The rolling green clifftops hint at a prosperity that soon fades to the dusty browns and yellows as the reality of death – both the crops and islanders themselves – begins to take hold.


Sheen as a somewhat false antagonist delivers a perfectly unhinged performance of man undone by his own hubris. And Stevens gives a solid turn as the every-man character needed for an audience to discover the truths behind the story’s mysteries along with him.


Whilst avoiding the action of his earlier films, Evans doesn’t scrimp from the visceral visuals however. Bone-crunching sacrifices and bloody stabbings hint at the director’s roots but with his more naturalistic approach, the gore has much more effect coming as it does in intermittent flashes rather than extended battle sequences.


The film’s biggest influence is very much The Wicker Man (the original) although there were times – with their ‘worship’ of the female/feminine and man with what-looked-like-a-bee-hive on his head – where echoes of Nic Cage’s atrocious remake popped into my brain. But aside from these visual similarities, the films couldn’t be further from each other.


An eclectic score with spooky percussion and the scraping screech of a violin string amongst other eerie drones was more than a fine accompaniment to the dark ideas of the movie. And as the narrative twists and turns Evans introduces some mild supernatural elements in the third act to keep things interesting.


With dismembering, torture and a “grinding” rack, Apostle mixes its exploitation roots with far more heady themes of community, Christianity and corrupt power. But Evans has balanced these sometimes disparate influences so well that they gel together without any fuss.


A support cast of Mark Lewis Jones, Paul Higgins, Lucy Boynton and Bill Milner round out roles that at first seem supportive but are then key to unlocking the narrative later on in the tale, and the whole ensemble delivers gripping drama throughout.


As mentioned at the start, Apostle was released in the UK on Netflix. And like Brigsby Bear, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore and this year’s fantastic sci-fi Annihilation, Apostle is somewhat done a disservice with just a streaming release. Cinematic in style, production and themes, the movie is a dark and disturbing parable that is anchored by great performances. The actors, and Evans, help raise Apostle by infusing the movie with flavour, believability and a thematic depth rarely seen in your standard cult genre movie. A divine statement on spirituality and the supernatural.


8.5/10


Mike Sales



By midlandsmovies, Oct 13 2018 02:26PM



The Initiation (2018) Dir. Sheikh Shahnawaz


Local independent filmmaker Sheikh Shahnawaz is back with The Initiation, a short film about two childhood friends who have their relationship put to the test when they meet a local crime boss they are interested in working for.


The Initiation starts off in an underground multi-storey car park, quiet with no one around but Aaron and Neil (Sam Malley and Dominic Thompson) as they wait nervously. Their long friendship is clear as they fist bump and agree to stand by each other no matter what, ‘since day one’ Neil says with an anxious Aaron agreeing.


As a dark car creeps up to them it’s clear this is their ride. A window rolls down to reveal a mysterious figure smoking. “Get in” he calmly demands. Neil makes the mistake of getting into the front passenger seat which is quickly met with another demand from the man to get in the back.


As the car drives out of the underground and into the streets it is clear this is one of Sheikh Shahnawaz’s most ambitious films yet as he films in external locations and makes it look effortless.


As the three men pull up on a quiet industrial estate they enter a dilapidated building with just a chair and a small table next to it. It is revealed that the strange man is Vinnie (Nisaro Karim) a local crime boss and a man to be respected and feared within the area. He takes the only seat and sits before Aaron and Neil as he quizzes them over a vacant position in his crew.


Vinnie makes sure to mention however that with the sought after lifestyle he can provide, the money, cars, respect, the job also brings with it responsibilities, one of which is making “difficult decisions whilst in difficult situations”. The initiation has begun.


I really enjoyed The Initiation, the premise being one of the main reasons. It is an interesting dynamic to have two loyal friends have the opportunity to make something of themselves albeit illegally but have them be prepared to do something drastic to achieve this.


Another factor of this short film I really enjoyed was the menacing performance by Catharsis Films regular Nisaro Karim, he seemingly towers over the other two men physically and mentally. Karim brings that authenticity to the role and brings Vinnie to life.


I would have liked to have seen more of a build up as it gears towards the finale as their friendship is ultimately tested it feels a tad rushed. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact this is a strong, short film. It is great to see well-made, entertaining genre films being made in this region by what seems to be the busiest and most determined filmmaker Sheikh Shahnawaz.


What’s next Catharsis films? I can’t wait.


Guy Russell


Twitter @BudGuyer


Watch the full short below:




By midlandsmovies, Oct 5 2018 10:23AM



Hereditary (2018) Dir. Ari Aster


In his first film, director Ari Aster tackles sinister themes and mixes a slow-pace build up with horror frights in a mish-mash of tones in new film Hereditary. Opening with a zoom into a dollhouse, we are immediately pushed into a world controlled by bigger hands as Annie Graham (Toni Collette) mourns the death of her mother before sharing her family’s tragic history with a grief support group.


Her daughter Charlie (a disturbed Milly Shapiro) is a distant tongue-clucking junior who after joining her brother Peter (Alex Wolff) at a house party is decapitated in a car accident. In a haunting scene of shock, Peter heads straight to bed leaving his mother to uncover the horrid truth the next day. Splitting the family’s cohesion and plagued by visions, Annie is approached by Joan, a member of the support group, who promises Annie answers to the mysteries in her life.


It is here where the film will win you over or not. The intrigue, drama and deliberate pace take a turn and we enter – for want of a better comparison – “Sinister” territory. The previous tone is ditched in favour of some nonsense Ouija shenanigans and shifting glasses on tables akin to Elsie Partridge’s seance in Only Fools and Horses.


Some will see the change as a ramp up of the first half’s conundrums whilst I can imagine many feeling cheated about the bait and switch as we get the more standard genre tropes of spooky visions, nightmares made real and flaming bodies.


Collette gives an absolute star turn though as the wickedly wild woman of the story but shows restraint in more conflicted scenes to balance the hectic finale. Unlike her motherly turn in The Sixth Sense (1999), it is now her turn to see ghosts and visions.


Gabriel Byrne as her husband is sadly a little wasted, and as the realisation the film revolves around an ancient entity seeking a modern (and male) host, the final few scenes did illicit a few gaffaws – akin to my experience of The VVitch. However, despite some of its tonal inconsistencies I enjoyed the film far more than both aforementioned The VVitch and the similarly lauded The Babadook. Both of whom failed to engage me with their apparently “unsettling” but, to me, utter flat delivery.


The film’s themes of inescapable family failings are dissected throughout with a number of strange cult symbols and recurring images (heads are forever rolling in both ways) that are littered through the movie's narrative. And they hint upon and foreshadow the horrors soon to be arriving. Towards its conclusion, Collette’s Annie stalks rooms like a bird of prey – hiding in corners awaiting a chance to strike – and Aster delivers a string of scary sequences which are effective and genuinely unnerving.


Not without its flaws – and for me, certainly nowhere near the praise being thrown at it – Hereditary is a strong showing from a debut director which warrants multiple viewings to fully appreciate its complex domestic themes and doorway into the private (doll)house of a cursed family.


7.5/10


Mike Sales



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