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By midlandsmovies, Aug 16 2019 02:39PM



Review - Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019) Dir. Quentin Tarantino


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a new film fable from Quentin Tarantino which harks back to a Hollywood cinema golden age yet mixes the loss of 50s innocence with 60s counter culture in the pulp-way only he knows how to.


Tarantino launches us into his screen obsessions (and in this film in particular, his love for the small screen) with a 4:3 black and white interview of TV Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).


Jumping forward to 1969 L.A. Dalton is concerned about his less-than-stellar career as the up and coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) moves in next door to him with her director partner Roman Polanski. Whilst the paranoid Dalton meets with agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who encourages him to get into Italian Westerns, the laid-back Booth reminisces about a time he fought Bruce Lee whilst also meandering around town as a handyman seemingly without a care.


The Bruce Lee fight is one of the many comedic scenes and Tarantino’s fingerprints are all over the film which acts like a highlight reel of all his usual obsessions – Westerns (Django), martial arts (Kill Bill) and hippies and stunt-men (Death Proof) to mention just a few. But at 161 minutes oh boy is it long again, but at least it doesn’t take place in just one room like the disappointing chamber piece that was The Hateful Eight (our review).


As Rick Dalton tries his best to stake a claim in the movie world in Italy, Booth is enamoured by a hitchhiking hippie who takes him to the Spahn Ranch – the real-life desert commune location of the Manson Family cult. Radicalized by leader Charles Manson's teachings and unconventional lifestyle, Tarantino has brawly Brad searching for the ranch’s owner in one of the film’s best scenes. With tension and fear the director surprises the audience with the scene’s reveal whilst he returns with a violent ending typical of the director.


Tarantino also expertly plays with the medium of cinema too. We begin by watching the making-of a movie, but it literally becomes the movie in the absence of the film-crew and behind-the-scenes tech guys. But they are soon brought back in by Tarantino as he moves his camera back into place for a second take. And archive footage is mixed in with his usual eclectic soundtrack which feature classic hits from the era whilst almost 2 hours in, he decides to throw in a voiceover for good measure. Why not!


Perhaps the only director today to get away with such arrogant shifts in style, the film is so well made you can’t stop from watching – whether it be a slow-paced scene of Dalton reading a book, an elongated scene of Pitt making dinner for his narratively-important dog or the visually stunning shots of classic cars in the sun-drenched valleys.


And of course it is "about" the movies and history too. As Sharon Tate heads to a theatre to watch her own feature film, Margot Robbie is given few lines of dialogue but this gives power to her happy demeanour and innocent goldilocks which contrast with the audience expectations of the real-life tragedy that befalls her.


But as the film comes to its conclusion – Dalton has some mild success in Italy and returns with a new wife and Booth is let go as his odd-job man – four of the Manson Family members head to the Hollywood Hills preparing to murder these rich “piggies” of the motion pictures.


Tarantino plays upon the audience’s knowledge of the Sharon Tate case and yet like the best fairy tales of yore, he delivers a dream-like ending where the damsel in distress and wicked wolves (not Mr. Wolf) clichés are turned on their head.


The director throws everything into the flick where our focus on the real-life cursed heroine is actually sidelined by the enchanting performances of the fictional characters played by Pitt and DiCaprio.


Where fact and fiction blur, the film uses a terrific cameo by Damian Lewis as an uncanny Steve McQueen at the Playboy Mansion to continue with the real-life people in fictional set-ups. Excellent support also comes from Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern and the late Luke Perry as well as Tarantino regulars Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell (as stunt coordinators, what else) and Michael Madsen.


But does anyone live happily ever after? Well although there are no glass slippers, there are LOTS of shots of feet, Tarantino’s favourite fetish. But the film’s resolution is the really satisfying surprise here. Known for his love of violence it’s strange that although there is a very uncompromising finale, it may just be his most uplifting ending yet – providing a little bit of lost Hollywood hope.


Far better than his last film, yet not quite hitting the heights of a Django Unchained or Jackie Brown, the film demonstrates that Tarantino truly is in a class of his own in a period where franchise building has mostly replaced the draw of the big-named actor. But this incredibly satisfying love letter to these fictional pulp princes and real-life silver screen starlets provides a brilliant fantasy romance steeped in the glow of an era long gone.


Helter Skelter in a summer swelter indeed.


★★★★ ½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Aug 11 2019 04:24PM



Sat-Nav


Directed by Lianne Moonraven


2019


Sat-Nav is a new short film which comes courtesy of Liane Moonraven, a West Midlands based director who tackles a problem that seemingly we’ve all have had with our Sat-Nav but there’s much more than bad directions in this dark drama.


Originally from America, Lianne has made the Midlands her home and apparently the short was brought back from the brink owing to complications in the production.


However, you wouldn’t notice it as the ominous music and digitised font of the title sets up excellently this mysterious short. Vicky Moloney plays Erica Bridges who grabs a coffee on the go whilst explaining to a friend on the phone how she’s not ready to date just yet after a failed relationship.


Entering her car she types in her friend’s Post Code into the Sat-Nav and heads off in her vehicle. More of the scary score accompanies her drive as the male voice on the Sat-Nav calmly gives her directions to her destination.


The technical aspects are more than solid whilst the sound is particularly well mixed and put-together given the various conversations, phone-calls and driving sounds as well as the recorded voice coming from the unit.


Functional without being flashy, Sat-Nav works best in its storytelling. After a phone call from her mum warning her of her ex-boyfriend, the film ratchets up tension as Erica tries to get the unit to recalculate but she gets lost and ends up far from where she thought.


As we continue the drive with her, her ex calls and finally she arrives at a deserted piece of land. The film’s denouement wasn’t too much of a surprise but all the threads that were set up pay off and the unanswered ringing telephone at the end was an eerie final calling card.


Sat-Nav therefore ends up being a laid-back but well executed short and is far superior to the director’s first film Assassins (review here). With a few rough edges to smooth off and if Moonraven can add a dash of cinematic sheen to the mix, then I’m excited for the filmmaker’s next short as unlike our protagonist in Sat-Nav, she’s more than headed in the right direction.


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Aug 11 2019 08:00AM



McKinley


Directed by Ben Bloore


2019


B Squared Films


After a bit of hiatus local Derby filmmaker Ben Bloore returns to the director’s chair for his new 7-minute short McKinley, an emotional police procedural containing many unfortunate consequences.


We open with a husband (Steve Wood as Craig) who arrives home late one Friday night to his wife (Tina Harris as Emma) who angrily shouts at his son (Rory McGuinness) to go to bed.


A violent row ensues with his wife pushed out the way as he heads upstairs to the boy’s room where he is unjustly punished by the whipping of a belt.


But there is a twist in this tale: a masked intruder enters from behind and attacks Emma before we are whisked away to the next day where a police officer is at the crime scene. A great introduction, Bloore switches focus (and our sympathies) with this narrative swap and immediately sets up an intriguing mystery just a few minutes in.


A dishevelled and unshaven detective turns up (Mark Tunstall as the eponymous McKinley) who is whisked around the house by a forensic scientist (Michelle Darkin Price) explaining how the previous night’s events unfolded.


Bloore again uses images to fill in the audience with the background as we cut back to see the final moments of the parents before their bodies were discovered now strewn on the floor. But again we are offered a plot surprise as we find out the son has in fact survived the attack.


McKinley appears haunted by a past case, especially one involving his family as he imagines their images in a broken photo frame and we again flashback to the incredibly traumatised detective at a different crime scene.


The film has a huge number of high points going for it. Bloore has assembled a crew who have created a quality short that looks as good as anything I’ve seen on TV. Director of Photography Jon O’Neill uses sharp images with great depth and the shot quality shows the professionalism and skill on screen.


Kudos should also go to editor Nick Archer who successfully cuts back and forth across many time narratives to ensure the audience can understand the multiple situations we are shown.


The acting is also a highlight with the whole cast delivering and getting across their characters in such a short space of time. This is probably due to the successful relationship the director has built up with the actors from their previous appearances in his earlier shorts 2015’s Hidden Truth (review here) and 2016’s Crossing Paths (review here).


Haunted by ghostly visions, McKinley finishes open-ended which again reflects the TV nature of the film with this short almost acting as the pilot episode of a longer drama series. As one door closes we are left to imagine another opening up as the film’s conclusion teases a bigger story and further investigation.


Although the short does contain some clichés of the genre – the troubled detective, a family murder etc – the film overcomes most of these. With high-quality professionalism and a well-written script, this allows the audience to discover the mysteries along with the characters in a fulfilling way. And from a satisfying set-up to an exceptional cast, McKinley is a first-rate detective tale with intriguing secrets that will leave an audience wanting much more.


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Aug 10 2019 07:24AM



Jungleland


Directed by Waheed Iqbal


2019


Dead in the City films


Written, directed and starring Waheed Iqbal, Jungleland is a new feature set amongst the seedy world of criminals in the West Midlands.


Waheed Iqbal stars as Tanha, a man with some seriously bad habits – drugs and gambling being just two of them – who gets in way over his head after a bet gone wrong. With just 5 days to pay off his debt, we get a countdown of days to a sports game that could help Tanha win a large amount of cash to resolve his situation.


He visits a number of criminal associates, prostitutes and shady dealers as he travels around the streets at night, trying to pull his wayward life together. The film also has an admirable support cast including Hannah-Lee Osborn, Magdalena Ziembla, Faraz Beg, Nav Iqbal and Haqi Ali who encapsulate the sordid aspects of their very unwholesome characters.


As the sparse story develops at an unrushed rate, the film seems to owe more than a debt to Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. Iqbal has been inspired to chose a stark colour scheme with shots drenched in neon purples and reds. At the same time, the similarities continue as he focuses solely on a single character’s point of view as the director attempts to draw the audience into his depraved and shadowy psyche.


Although some parts have the vibe of Refn’s Drive (2011) with a downbeat individual entering an immoral world, Jungleland felt more of a nod to God Only Forgives (2013) as a man moonlights his way around a city dealing with threats and iniquitous behaviour.


Sadly, this is slightly unfortunate as this film has inherited the incredibly slow pace and somewhat meandering narrative of that film as well.


Regretfully, the minimalist dialogue and some extremely time-consuming sequences have the effect of making Jungleland feel a bit of a slog at times. An example straight away is the opening 2 minutes of static Birmingham shots that feel redundant - especially when the subsequent red titles, pumping music and a car swerving through a city at night is a much more intriguing and exciting opening.


And there is a LOT of walking too. Everything is dragged out and so measured I found myself switching off which was a disappointment given its mysterious narrative and impressive electro-infused soundtrack.


But it keeps coming back to its snail’s pace. At a whopping 1 hour and 40minutes, Jungleland ends up being an ambitious attempt to deliver an exploration of wickedness and sin but the repetitive script needs tightening, the film could do with a quicker edit and the length doesn’t justify the narrative content.


That said, Iqbal no doubt has an impressive variety of skills and throws them all at the screen during its runtime. Steadicam-style tracking shots, black and white scenes and some impressive and very atmospheric lighting are the film’s finest aspects. And all of this gives the movie an aura of sleazy racketeering and deadly corruption which comes across of screen.


So definitely check out Jungleland if you’re a fan of Refn’s work – especially Only God Forgives whose tone is splashed all over the film – but for others, prepare for a long-drawn-out endeavour that may leave you either immensely fascinated or slightly fatigued.


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jul 28 2019 08:10AM



Thunder Road (2019) Dir. Jim Cummings


Written by Jim Cummings, based on Thunder Road by Jim Cummings, music by Jim Cummings, co-edited by Jim Cummings, visual effects by Jim Cummings and starring Jim Cummings playing a guy called Jim. A passion project you say?


Well, it’s been said that a single vision can be better than committee thinking and boy is that true in new indie drama Thunder Road. I say drama but there are lashings of dark comedy throughout this 90-minute movie extended from Cumming’s own short film of the same name.


Story wise, we get Cummings playing Jim Arnaud, a police officer and soon to be divorced father whose mother passes away which sets him on a downward spiral of frustration and rage.


We are introduced to his awkward – but incredibly sincere – persona at his mother’s funeral. In a 12-minute uncut shot, Jim forgets parts of his speech and embarrassingly dances at the front of a church in silence as a CD player he has brought fails to work. In a scene reminiscent of David Brent’s biggest gaffs, the one-shot forces the audience to share the experience in excruciating embarrassment.


Jim is then forced to take time off from his cop work after a disturbance and he tries, but fails, to bond with his daughter Rosalind (an excellent low-key role from Jocelyn DeBoer). Jim’s attempts to straighten his life fall flat and the film brilliantly mixes sympathy with his hot-headed reckless reactions as his life falls apart.


Through gritted teeth the audience will laugh at times but Cumming’s full break-down in front of his cop colleagues and is as powerful and passionate as anything I have seen in 2019. His friend Nate Lewis is played by Nican Robinson in a fantastic performance as a fellow officer, whose life is seemingly doing much better, desperately seeking ways in which to help his friend.


A scene at Rosalind’s school sees Jim again fly off the handle whilst a custody hearing again brings out our sympathies again when a misplaced word leads to disastrous consequences as he desperately tries to cling to the last remaining aspect of his once happy life.


Cummings explores areas of masculinity, loss, family and violence in a subtle and sensitive way that also never imposes on the film’s main narrative. Tackling these issues with a dark view, the audience won’t be able to stop themselves from slowing down to absorb every thoughtful detail of the fiery car wreck that is Jim’s life.


And so this self-destruction lies at the heart of the film. The discomfort we’d like to avoid is expressed as laughter at times and it's with relief Jim’s struggles build to a crescendo in a very satisfying pay-off.


Hooking the film on Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road, which is about a couple who have "one last chance to make it real”, is an apt metaphor but here the couple are no longer a romantic one but the twosomes around him: whether that be a close friend, his sister, ex-wife, and most influencing of all, his at rest mother from the past and the future bond with his daughter. And many of the scenes play out with just two people, framed with Jim desperately trying to make a connection in a rough world.


With a startling low micro-budget of just $200,000, Cummings has created a true masterpiece – with his talented self, rightly so, at the centre. Is it a dark comedy drama? Is it a reflection of contemporary American talking-points? Well, it’s all that and more but without doubt it comes hugely recommended as not just one of the best debut films of the year, but one of the best films period.


★★★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jul 26 2019 03:57PM



Midlands Review - Betrayal


Directed by French Director


NFX Films


2019


“I thought we were friends”.


A man awakens in a hotel room from an amnesiac slumber to call out the name “Jess” in this mysterious opening to a new drama film called Betrayal from local filmmaker ‘French Director’. An intriguing pseudonym to say the least!


However, it doesn’t take him too long to find who he was looking for as this missing girl is discovered dead in the main room. And from this small but significant incident, Betrayal sets up an intriguing enigma of what horrid things happened to get our characters to this moment.


Cutting to later that night, the man (Joshmaine Joseph) meets a friend (Mathias T André) in a dark underpass to discuss who could have possibly committed the act. But as these things often go, the man doesn’t want the authorities involved – in fact, he would prefer to take matters into his own hands. And what do we see in hands? A pistol. And it’s ready for action.


As the man enters a high-rise apartment (or what could pass as one on a limited budget), our vigilante incapacitates a burly security guard. He then confronts a well-dressed man (The Return of the Ring’s Dominic Thompson) by aiming the gun barrel to his head ready to enact some sort of murderous retribution. But is everything really as it seems? And doesn't this man seem a bit too keen to kill?


Well, the director moves us around the story with aplomb as a flashback takes us to the exact same characters in the same location. But this time the suited man shows our lead some very incriminating video evidence of his nearest and dearest.


On the technical side, the director deftly uses handheld camera to give the short gritty realism whilst the brief fight scene is well edited which provides it with a brutal edge.


The film also has all the strong elements of a thriller here too. A mystery set up. Criminals in dark alleys. A henchman fight. I suppose for me though there was nothing particularly new added to this mix of these often-seen genre staples. And although functional, the script could have been given one more pass to drop a few clichés (“we’re monsters”, “we had a deal”). However, given the run-time the lines may have been direct and to the point to keep its quick tempo.


The fast pace does keep the momentum up and we are pushed to a dramatic conclusion. The editing throughout is also strong so as to slowly reveal the layers of the secrets it sets up. Kudos should also go to the stark film noir lighting which can be difficult on a low budget but is more than successfully pulled off here.


Betrayal therefore ends up being a solid short crime story. The best thing for me was the dexterity of the director trying lots of cinematic techniques to further his skill. In just 8 minutes we get a well-constructed story, action, drama and sadness – all delivered with great technical capability from someone who knows the genre well.


So although this is the first film I’ve seen from “French Director” (actually West Midlands filmmaker Idi Assoumanou I believe), from the promising talent I’ve seen in Betrayal, I certainly don’t think it will be my last.


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jul 16 2019 04:15PM

Review - Movie catch up blog 2019 - Part 3


Here's another set of our shorter reviews for films we've caught up with in 2019 featuring A Vigiilante, The Curse of La Llorona, Alita: Battle Angel....


Scroll down to see what we thought of each of them...




A Vigilante (2019) Dir. Sarah Dagger-Nickson

A Vigilante is the debut of writer and director Sarah Dagger-Nickson and sees an abused woman (Olivia Wilde as Sadie) assisting other women victims who have had a similar experiences. The film’s explosive opening sees smartly-dressed Wilde enter a home of a woman suffering an injury – hinted to be from her spouse – and when he returns, Sadie inflicts punishment that will sees him reluctantly leaving and handing over half his savings to his wife. Surprisingly, but very powerfully, the director actually minimises the on-screen violence itself (this is definitely not in the realm of action-flicks like Atomic Blonde) but this has the effect of heightening the victim’s plight. With an audience’s projection of what violent acts may have occurred, we therefore imagine the worst – both in the perpetrators acts and the subsequent retribution of justice inflicted back. Great cinematography from Alan McIntyre Smith helps focus the story on a stellar performance from Wilde, who plays both a hard-nosed enactor of violence and, in a flashback explaining her backstory, a sensitive and emotional victim-turned-avenger. As we discover that she too was once a victim, losing a child to her ex-husband (a disgustingly dark turn by the excellent Morgan Spector), the film propels to a unshakeable climatic conclusion that sees her finally track down and face the hideous partner from her past. A Vigilante therefore has a smart and timely premise and is a quality movie tackling the issues surrounding domestic abuse. Olivia Wilde gives a career-best performance too as the woman fighting this head on, and this exciting debut is a successful revenge film that delivers more insight into the topic than similar movies of this kind. ★★★★




The Curse of La Llorona (2019) Dir. Michael Chaves

Produced by James Wan, The Curse of La Llorona is another (dull) entry into The Conjuring universe and is based on Mexican folklore where a supernatural entity attempts to steal children from their families. In echoes of Case 39 (2009), our lead Linda Cardellini is social worker Anna Tate-Garcia who investigates an abusive family situation that spirals out of control. Mixing silly superstitions with godawful jump scares, the film’s woman in a white dress begins hunting down Anna’s own two children. Filled to the brim with obvious 'quiet-then-loud' jump scares, La Lorona is the kind of PG-13 horror that is over-done and has been seen dozens of times before. A car-based stalking sequence was the one standout innovation but this was not developed at all and we’re soon back to the bland back-story involving stock priest and detective characters. I’m also sick of the clichéd dropped-mouthed white-skinned monster bride trope as well, which again, is now far too familiar to shock. But what did general audiences think? Well, with a budget of just $9 million (and boy can you tell), the film took $121.6 million (!) at the box office so prepare yourself for the inevitable slew of sequels or side-quels or whatever future dross they’ll end up knocking out. For the rest of us with higher standards, set your expectation level to “underwhelmed” and then still prepare yourself for a bit of a knock. ★★


Alita: Battle Angel (2019) Dir. Robert Rodriguez

The uncanny valley is ‘when humanoid objects appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings and elicit uncanny feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers’. I know friends who can’t even watch Pixar films owing the “rubbery” features of the human-like characters. I’ve never really experienced it myself. Until now. Forever in development hell with James Cameron, he serves as producer here, in an adaption of the 90’s manga series where a female cyborg is recreated by Dr. Dyson (Christoph Waltz) with no memory of her mysterious past. She learns to skate and take part in future-sport Motorball and later engages in brawls and visually ugly and confusing CGI fights which create absolutely zero intrigue. With a stellar support cast including Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Jackie Earle, the weird thing is, it’s not essentially the CGI that sticks out. There’s so much of it that the human characters inserted in the film feel almost unneeded and a distraction in themselves. But it's Alita's facial construction, whose eyes and face are computer-generated beyond all recognition which actually turned me off from the screen regularly. Somehow grossing over $405 million worldwide, with possible sequels now in the works, the film may have been better delivered as an animation as it’s already 90% there. And therefore sadly, as Alita is found amongst a big pile of junk and hastily put together, the film mirrors this in its themes, tone and dull execution. ★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jun 23 2019 02:19PM




Kobe


2019


Directed by A R Ugas


Kobe is a short crime thriller from West Midlands writer/director/producer AR Ugas, who you may remember from last year’s Return of the Ring.


Lead character Kobe (played by Mathias Andre) is a disillusioned and hungry young man. About to graduate University and pushed hard by a father he sees as overbearing, he’s seen what happens to those who fail to live up to society’s expectations afterwards. In his own words, he wants to work smart and get rich now, not work hard and get rich at 50 – or never.


So when childhood friend Mouse (Dominic Thompson) is released from prison, Kobe jumps at the chance to join him in a life of crime, as they’re hired by a mysterious man (Tee Morris) to knock off a warehouse full of cocaine. But when the address changes, the stakes shoot up and Kobe finds some very hard choices ahead indeed...


The film gives us some wonderful dilemmas, which I won’t go into in too much detail for fear of spoilers. There are two lines that, to me, embody the best parts of this story. “Lions don’t walk with hyenas,” Kobe’s dad says threateningly to Mouse. And later, not long afterwards, when Mouse cautions Kobe to “go to sleep and don’t wake up as the same person you went to sleep as”. Kobe sees himself as a class warrior, defying his father’s middle-class attitudes in favour of running with Mouse and taking on a life of violent crime.


But Mouse knows the truth of it, and is warning him that Kobe the 3rd-year student might not have what it takes to pull this crime off. Kobe the faceless masked criminal might.


Ugas brings his camera in close and handheld, eschewing glossy shots to bring a gritty low-tech feel to this gritty low-tech story. It’s a realistic story told in a no-frills way, which mostly works extremely well.


Some of the scenes felt a little flat and could have used more dynamic editing or movement (Mouse’s argument with his now-ex comes to mind), but once the story gets going there’s no stopping the flow. The only technical area that could use more attention is the sound; sound design is often the first casualty of a low budget, but it’s arguably one of the areas that needs the most attention. Clear, audible dialogue and effective use of soundtrack and sound effects are essential in grabbing and holding an audience’s attention and helping them stay immersed. Some of the dialogue towards the beginning is mumbly, and some of the silent scenes would benefit from music to help evoke emotion.


The cast is superb – Andre shines in moments of conflict where he wrestles with his conscience, and Thompson balances cocky chav with wounded victim of the life he leads. He’s trapped in his life, a bit more explicitly so as we see towards the end, but Kobe chooses to walk his path. No wonder Mouse seems almost frightened by Kobe’s willingness. Tee Morris is another standout, bringing the intensity he had in Climbing Trees and channelling it into the brief but memorable role of a man twisted by anger and hatred.


This is only AR Ugas’ second film, with a third in development (with a title like “We Have the President’s Daughter” it promises to be a slicker and faster-paced affair). It’s clear he has the talent and aptitude to take a tiny budget and deliver an entertaining and moving story. I suspect this is only the beginning of a career to keep an eye on!


Sam Kurd

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