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By midlandsmovies, Aug 12 2018 07:50AM

Midlands Review - God’s Lonely Man

Directed by Waheed Iqbal (2018)

God’s Lonely Man is a 25-minute short film written and directed by Waheed Iqbal, starring Faraz Beg and Nina Johnston. It’s about faith, isolation and the internal struggle to choose the right path and resist evil.

Beg plays Noman, a young Muslim man in Birmingham who is isolated and disconnected from his peers. He faces the external pressures of racism and islamophobia while battling his own conscience and second-guessing his decision to be a righteous man given certain actions taken in his past. He’s confronted by The Whisperer, played by Nina Johnston, as she attempts to lead him astray by appealing to his ‘true’ nature. When push comes to shove and it’s time to make a moral decision, will he choose wisely?

I’m not sure what I expected going in, but God’s Lonely Man is certainly slower and more abstract than I was prepared for. There are long scenes of Noman walking alone in the dark, and a few scenes that are a blur of colours and shapes. It’s very dark visually, which may have been a conscious decision on the director’s part but does make it a bit hard to make out what’s happening at times. When the image is clear, though, some of the shots are superb – Noman framed against the window, the deadly closeups of the hammer, the fresh bright blood on the poor assaulted woman’s face as she stands under a streetlamp.

The use of colour is excellent, with the dark red light of desire and violence cropping up again and again. Iqbal knows how to use sound effectively too, accentuating the action on screen well and distorting it occasionally to help the blurry visuals disorient the audience. The music is a bit of a low point, sadly, as it’s often over the top and inappropriately dramatic.

I think more could have been made of the relationship between Noman and his peers (we have one scene where they ridicule him, but the moment is brief despite the scene being long) as it would have been interesting to explore that aspect of his struggle and its effect on his inner turmoil, especially given how the climax goes.

It’s unclear who he’s calling on the phone - symbolically, perhaps he is calling the good man he hopes to find within himself? It’s also a little unclear what actions he took in his past that makes him believe he is a bad man – because of the red light’s usage to symbolise desire in a previous scene, the violent red-lit scene in the shop could be an unfulfilled desire rather than an actual action he took. It would have been nice to have explored his past a little more, but that’s more of a personal preference here!

However, Beg gives a good performance as a conflicted loner, with his emotive expressions being the high point. His delivery is a little flat, but that matches the character as he’s overwhelmed by his choice and the lonely life he’s leading. Johnston is superb as his foil, all smiles and delicious glee as she pours poison in his ear to try and lead him astray. The scenes they share are among the best in the film, as is the climax itself. These are the moments the film shines.

All in all though, God's Lonely Man is a great short on a topic that seems to be rarely discussed, and it’s well worth checking out.

Sam Kurd

Twitter @Splend

By midlandsmovies, Aug 12 2018 07:00AM

Thoroughbreds (2018) Dir. Cory Finley

With a funky hipster trailer Thoroughbreds was sold as a modern knowing twist on something along the lines of Scream, when in fact it is a far darker exploration of revenge and bitterness away from slasher genre conventions.

We are first introduced to Olivia Cooke as Amanda (The Quiet Ones, Ouija) who joins fellow horror stalwart Lily, who is played terrifically by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) as friends who begin a dark alliance together.

Amanda states she feels little emotion and has been in trouble for animal cruelty after putting her injured horse out of misery with a knife. After being forced to meet Lily owing to a concerned parent, the pair soon rekindle their friendship and come across Lily’s cruel step-father Mark. Their smart teenager cynicism soon grows into far more creepy territory as they discuss the possibility of killing him.

Taylor-Joy as the prim puritan who slowly reveals her morbid aims is excellent and her steely persona contrasts with Cooke’s troubled and emotionally stunted Amanda who is a mix of disturbing unhappiness and dark sarcasm.

The late (and great) Anton Yelchin appears as a drifter druggie who duo try to lure into committing the crime as the girls twist and scheme to arrange their macabre proposal. His scatty and thoughtless criminal is a more humorous role and gives the film some space outside the claustrophobic confines of Lily’s oppressive house.

Thoroughbreds therefore sits with both Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker (2013) as brilliant left-field and artistic studies of evil teenage tearaways. And its intentionally slow and deliberate camera moves and suburban setting are akin to those found in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and allows audiences to both be drawn into the image whilst slowly building unbearable dread. This is especially true during the third act as their psychotic plans begin to play out.

New York composer Erik Friedlander delivers a beautifully eerie score which compliments the well-designed visuals and director Finley shows a masterful control and maturity in his debut feature.

With Taylor-Joy having success with a string of hit horror roles, she is also developing far beyond her “scream queen” tag and Thoroughbreds is another fantastic addition to her career. With Cooke’s sociopathic Amanda matching her every step along the way and Yelchin showing why he is a talent so sorely missed, the film delivers a wonderful atmospheric mix of themes.

Thoroughbreds is an accomplished exploration of both egotistical and conflicted morals with an exceptional cast working at the top of their game.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Jul 29 2018 06:43PM

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018) Dir. Stefano Sollima

As a fan of Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario (review here), I described his cross-border drama as a “taut thriller with fantastic performances…with a tight and efficient script and a strong central showing from [Emily] Blunt”. With excellent Roger Deakins’ photography, it has to be said that the film wasn’t screaming out for any kind of sequel but here we are and with the director, Deakins and Blunt all missing, the film has direct-to-Netflix written all over it.

However, with stars Josh Brolin and Benico Del Toro returning alongside a strong support cast including Catherine Keener, Mathew Modine, Elijah Rodriguez and Isabela Moner, the film is far better than anyone could have predicted. More of a spin-off than a true sequel we begin with a suicide bombing caused by Islamic extremists coming across the Mexican border. Brolin’s Matt Grave is tasked by the FBI to start a war between rival drug cartels to try and divert their attention. So he hires Del Toro’s black operative to stage a kidnapping of a warlord’s daughter (Isabela) to pin on their rivals.

Another cross-border vehicle chase is again the central highlight and the first 30 minutes have a mix of story setting and character development. However, the drama is slow, almost stopping at times, and the representation(s) of America’s enemies haven’t been this broad since the Art Malik’s Middle East caricature in True Lies.

Almost Robocop levels of fascism abounds at the start – yet without the satire – but the film’s positives help dilute some of the more problematic cultural themes and more nuanced questions are asked in the third act. Brolin and Del Toro provide amoral masculinity to the proceedings – Blunt is sorely missed as an antidote to this machismo – but their changing allegiances keep the narrative unpredictable and story threads involving.

[Slight spoiler] After its proved the bombings were nothing to do with the Mexico gangs, the FBI plans to erase all ties to their horrid plan. With the young Isabela being the pawn to sacrifice, Del Toro’s change of conscience is a thorn in the authority’s sides and figures he and Isabela themselves need to illegally cross back over the border to the USA.

With scenes of shocking violence and a side story about a boy being drawn into gangs developing into a major plot point towards the film’s end, Sicario 2 more than delivers as a hard-hitting slice of uncompromising cinema.

Without the holy trinity of Villeneuve, Deakins and Blunt – not to mention the tragic loss of the original’s composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – the film had huge sandy shoes it needed to fill. However, whilst a little rough around the edges, a strong script, a cast of dedicated performances and a moody score from Hildur Guðnadóttir, Sicario 2 shoves its problematic politics right in the audience’s face. Simply telling them to deal with it. The ruthless scenes are a stark reminder that audiences should be challenged to get them thinking whilst the film does this alongside some unforgiving excitement and entertainment.


Mike Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jul 27 2018 07:24AM

The Return of the Ring (2018)

Directed and written by AR Ugas

“Enough teaching about our history. It’s time to fight for our future”.

High fantasy and enduring myth reach the Midlands in a brand new 22-minute short from AR Ugas who brings Tolkien’s tales and epic themes into a contemporary setting with his new film The Return of the Ring.

Described as a fan-film with a title that could elicit groans, don’t let that fool you as the short shouldn’t be dismissed as an amateur production but one which condenses the novel’s rich themes and ideas into a uniquely local idea.

The story follows a young female Elf (Rhi Hardman as Illyandra) who sets out to reclaim the ring after it is told that it was never originally destroyed. This was followed by The Race of Man eradicating Middle-earth which ensured any trace of its history was to become a fairy tale.

Opening with a foot chase involving a mysterious hooded-man in black, the film wears its love of not just the novel but of Peter Jackson’s infamous trilogy on its sleeve. Illyandra escapes from this Nazgûl – the immortal beings bound to the power of the One Ring – and director Ugas, who also writes, scatters some archaic Tolkien language to his script too.

The ring ends up with a barman (Sam Malley as John) and Illyandra makes contact with him at a nightclub. And despite using “orc magic” to get her hand on the powerful item, the Ring Wraith is soon back on their tail. The film balances its extreme fantasy ideas with a suburban realism and the use of potions and pointy ears is subtly ingrained in the film’s modern narrative.

Technically the short suitably aims for the epic with drone shots over the city giving a cinematic feel to the proceedings. Director of photography James Alexander Barnett excellently mixes lens flare with well-chosen locations that give a sly wink to the source material. A conversation in a park against a tree harks to fantasy forests whilst a neon lit water feature in a nightclub echoes a mythic waterfall of sorts.

Sadly, the apartment location– acting as the characters’ main sanctuary – feels a little ‘flat’ but its cramped space seems to represent their confinement – hiding from their enemy in a metaphorical dungeon. But again, its low-budget roots don’t affect the great creativity at work. A clever panning shot, some suitably intense music and well composed colour grading gives the ‘other-worldly’ illusion of the ring-bearer’s scary visions.

Dominic Thompson portrays Alatar the Young (also credited as “The Wizard”) and unfortunately I felt the actor went a bit too far with a slightly pantomime performance. However, his well-delivered monologue to fill in backstory was effectively utilised and the actor nicely incorporated hints of Brad Dourif’s Wormtongue from Jackson’s movie.

Woven into the film was also some excellent, but subtle, updating of ancient costumes. The leather jacket clad Nazgûl, a hooded advisor and the earthy tones of a wood Elf were fantastic and heck, even a white t-shirt embodied John’s naïve innocence to the events unfolding.

Nisaro Karim as Amdir arrives towards the end and the film moves swiftly between locations and characters and flashes of humour keep it light-hearted at times as well. With the power of the ring continuing to corrupt the heart of men, the film shows expert dexterity in technique and cinema skill with its innovative spin of the traditions of Middle-earth whilst still making it accessible and understandable to a modern Midlands audience.

A perfect ending that has a literary nod to Tolkien was a brilliant surprise that will leave you wanting more and the story’s present-day setting blends tones well. With great craftmanship, AR Ugas’ film therefore ends up being not just token Tolkien, but a fully-fledged and ambitious homage that throws in its own satisfying twist on legends with amazing precision. There are some good films in this world and shorts like The Return of the Ring are worth fighting for.

Mike Sales

Watch the full short here:

By midlandsmovies, Jul 26 2018 07:31PM

Last Call (2018)

Directed by Harrington Day

Land Ahead Films

How people cope, or don’t, with the loss of a loved one is just one of the questions posed in new drama Last Call from Midlands writer-actor-director Harrington Day.

A proud Father (Harrington himself as Harry) takes his six-year old daughter Ellie shopping, but soon their touching tranquillity is brought to a horrific end by a young male driver called Ryan (played by David Kelly-Smith). With dance music hedonism and distracted by a ringing mobile phone, the man fails to pay full attention and the young girl is devastatingly killed.

Ending with a well-framed “God-shot”, the short jumps to the household of Ryan’s family as he ruminates on his mistakes. “Low life scum” quotes step-father David (David Leo McLaughlin) as he reads aloud from one of the many obnoxious scrawls posted through their letterbox by angry neighbours after Ryan receives a lenient court sentence.

The fantastic piano music score is a great accompaniment to the dark themes of the short as lonely melancholic notes reflect a family tearing itself apart. With little sympathy David throws accusations of selfishness at the boy who has escaped a prison sentence but hasn’t escaped a life mired in remorse. Protecting her son from further stigma, Ryan’s mother (a distressed Tracy Gabbitas as Kathy) says David should leave, knowing the demons already facing her loved one.

The bulk of the short however is an extended emotional scene as we return to the forlorn father – carrying a bottle of liquor and haunted by ghostly voices – when Harry meets with his upset wife in a church.

A great location, and well-filmed by Day, the church echoes the film’s mature themes focusing on our errors, regret and sin. The dialogue here begins by being a bit on the nose – “You’ve got your whole life to live”, “I’ve got nowhere else to go” – making the clichéd monologue feel a bit redundant owing to the great set-up work already delivered.

However, the scene soon rises above with two terrific performances from the couple. Harrington’s heart-broken father drowning his sorrows in drink (a metaphorical “last call” at the bar) is powerful in its rawness. Claire Lowrie (as Susan) gives a divine performance as a devout wife dealing with the harrowing outcomes of their loss.

The sacred truths that come out are tragic and painful, yet completely believable. Her sacrifice and honesty creates tension as Harry’s “call to prayer” (or call to arms?) ends with him cursing his predicament.

Kneeling at the altar of drink, Harry’s alcoholism is also echoed with Ryan’s mum as both individuals drug themselves into numbness to deal with the ramifications of the tragedy. However, with guilt on all sides, the film doesn’t attempt to lay blame, positioning its main players as all victims plagued by terrible mistakes.

With two of the best performances I have seen in a Midlands film in recent memory (and a great support cast too) the strong emotional beats will have audiences enthralled, making Last Call a captivating and gripping film.

The director’s devotion to getting great actors to deliver committed roles is the short’s highlight however. An emotional ride that could lead to self-destruction, audiences will see how a phone call can change life in a heartbeat. But can it save one? Well, with terrific storytelling and an emotional core, I highly recommend checking out the chilling Last Call to find out.

Mike Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jul 19 2018 07:49PM

Mary Magdalene (2018) Dir. Garth Davis

Garth Davis (Lion) directs this new biblical drama about Mary from a small town called Magdala who joins Jesus and his disciples in 33AD from his initial teachings through to the crucifixion and his eventual resurrection.

After defying her family she finds a connection with Jesus’s words but joining his group causes conflict with the male disciples. Mary is played admirably by Rooney Mara (Social Network) whilst Jesus Christ superstar sees Joaquin Phoenix delivering a strange mix of bland universal platitudes to hoodwink people into his way of thinking and, strangely, a Roman age stoner.

The film’s slow pace tries to take some interesting new angles. There are hints upon celebrity culture as Jesus is mobbed by those wanting to be healed as well as the role of an women in Christian history.

Not being a huge fan of religious films owing to my own personal scepticism, the film rather dully goes through the motions delivering Jesus Joaquin’s career highlights - from healing the blind to the crown of thorns with rather ponderous and monotonous inevitability.

As films like these attempt to humanise Jesus with added realism, for me that approach makes his teachings seem more like the hokey nonsense of a rambling huckster. Call it religion, call it cultism, call it simply human nature – we have an inherent natural desire to follow a leader who provides us with answers to a chaotic world. Imposing meaning where there is none. Saying there is a plan and order when it’s simply chaos. And with a white man saviour complex – it is as blatantly “problematic” as anything in media today – here it’s magnified by one that’s changed the course of history.

Back to the film however, it was difficult to break through my own preconceptions on the subject but the cast do an admirable job of fleshing out the characters beyond their Bible quoting. Although the snail’s pace and constant staring into the distance began to further grate, one huge positive was the stunning locations used. Shot in multiple areas in Italy the film contained an array of amazing coastal vistas showing the beauty of the world whilst capturing the simplicity of life from a time long ago.

For me however, my cynical doubts around the subject simply couldn’t be broken through on a narrative, aesthetic or even cinematic level. Granted this would be hard to do with any film but the lack of engagement and dreary recounting of Jesus’s life gave this film no chance. In fact, it’s simply as dull as a Sunday sermon and one that I couldn’t wait to end.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Jul 19 2018 07:33AM

Unsane (2018) Dir. Steven Soderbergh

Infamously filmed on an iPhone 7 Plus in 4K using the FiLMiC Pro app, director Soderbergh shows again that he’s an exciting and experimental filmmaker jumping from project to project with both blockbusters (Ocean’s 11, Logan Lucky) sitting alongside indie fare like The Girlfriend Experience.

Here we get more of the latter rather than the former as Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a distressed and anxious woman who visits a counsellor but unwittingly commits herself to a mental institution. Once inside, she struggles chaotically to get herself out, whilst also claiming a man who once stalked her is now working there as a staff member. But is he just a figment of her imagination?

Well, Soderbergh uses the handheld anamorphic lens to visually stretch reality and her believability, as she is tormented either by her mind, the hospital and/or her stalker. A fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharoah) shares an insurance company conspiracy with her whilst Juno Temple’s Violet is a sassy inmate with gossip and brainwaves of her own.

The director keeps each scene off-kilter by throwing the audience into a world of confusion, sedition and (sometimes) sedation. The knotty narrative helps keep the intriguing premise up, questioning who or who may not be the nutty players in this secure unit, but at times it simply feels jumbled and disorganised.

The home-made ambience owing to the technology used would have been great if used sparingly but had me going mad by the film’s rather preposterous and baffling conclusion.

Certainly made with bold and creative passion, Unsane is a solid and quirky thriller looking at enduring psychological torment. But if nothing else, by using a format that is so often seen as a last resort for aspiring filmmakers, Soderbergh has demonstrated that high quality and interesting work can be more than achieved for a low budget.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Jul 15 2018 08:06AM

Movie makers shine bright at Leicester charity film gala

Saturday 14th July saw a fantastic evening of films, fun and fundraising as Rajnish Sharma Films and Whatsername Productions presented a collection of some of the newest short films and local filmmakers at the Leicester Short Film Gala.

With red carpet glamour, all proceeds from the night would be donated to Leicester’s YMCA charity. The gala was hosted at their Y theatre which is the oldest and only surviving Victorian theatre in the city and the evening began with a reminder of the great work they do to help with homelessness in the area.

As well as the money raised tonight, they are currently running a Challenge 135 campaign where they are asking 135 local businesses to donate £135 in honour of their 135 year-old anniversary. (Find out more about this great cause on their site by clicking here).

However, the full film showcase quickly began and was hosted by Dean Presto. He stirringly introduced a night of five separate films which was followed by question and answer sessions after the screenings to discuss the productions with each of the films’ directors.

First up was Fabletown that was a black and white drama with a hint of fairy tale lore about it. With a Sin City-esque monochrome palette populated by flashes of bright colour, it mixed a dark film noir aesthetic with fantasy influences. With hints to the big bad wolf and Little Red Riding Hood via Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, the mix of light and dark was a great tonal choice and set the mood for the rest of the night.

Up next was Rajnish Sharma’s Ascension which we have covered on Midlands Movies in the past. This post-apocalyptic thriller shows a barricaded man who is haunted by past demons as he tries to save himself from a dangerous world outside.

Covering themes of selfishness, regret and survival the director explained the difficulties of filming with a low budget during his interview segment. But he also highly praised the hard work and passion of local film crews to get such fantastic projects finished at all.

Following this was comedy sketch Parenthood from Flip You Productions. We had also come across Parenthood before at The Short Cinema screening in 2016.

This story about the joys of taking your child to the park twisted a simple tale into something much darker and the audience responded to its short 2-minute runtime with howls of laughter. With a great atmosphere and appreciative crowd we headed into the interval on an entertaining high with people anxious for the final two films coming up.

At the break, the filmmakers and fans were encouraged to network and fellow organisers Kelly McCormack and Charlotte Roper showed no signs of nervousness given the strong audience reactions to the show’s first half.

Midlands Movies Mike, Charlotte Roper and Rajnish Sharma
Midlands Movies Mike, Charlotte Roper and Rajnish Sharma

After buying tickets to the event’s charity raffle and wetting our whistles, we returned to the auditorium and took our seats ready for the second half which started with dramatic mood-piece Thursday.

The longest of the evening, Thursday is from Leicester’s GM Finney Productions who won Best Special Effects for their film The Rockman at this year’s Midlands Movies Awards. Switching from their sci-fi success to a more sombre drama, the film told the story of a young woman who, after suffering a personal loss, finds herself in a life or death situation in order to keep her family legacy alive.

With an orchestral score, flashes of violence and some terrific performances, Thursday’s director Glenn McAllen-Finney described how the shooting was surprisingly easy. This was despite the frustrations of difficult weather and the ‘less-than-regular’ route to gain a suitable location for the film’s hostage sequences.

Last but certainly not least was Eve from Rajnish Sharma Films, a dark psychological horror showing a young woman getting ready for a night out to meet friends. Starring the talented Leicester actress Eve Harding, her character finds herself excitedly preparing for her evening, only to be caught in a metaphorical loop that is frustrating and frightening in equal measure.

With huge rounds of applause the screenings ended with all the filmmakers given credit for their hard work and the night properly concluded with the draw of the charity raffle. With exciting prizes to be won including tickets to Leicester’s well known The Short Cinema event coming up in August – and our very own Midlands Movies Mystery Box (!) – the night was a fantastic success for all those involved.

An evening of laughs and thought-provoking shorts, the night showcased not only some tremendously creative films but proudly demonstrated the strong film community prevalent in my home town. With strong support from cast and crews across all the productions, Leicester’s low-budget filmmakers showed a great level of cooperation and it was encouraging to witness an audience with an appetite for independent shorts.

Finally, with a good cause at its heart and a whole host of shared enthusiasm between the organisers and attendees, the adoring film fans meant that the Short Film Gala was a huge success from start to finish.

Midlands Movies Mike

Please check out more about the films on the links in the article

Midlands Movies Mike and Kelly McCormack
Midlands Movies Mike and Kelly McCormack

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