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By midlandsmovies, Jun 11 2019 07:23PM



All Is True (2019) Dir. Kenneth Branagh


In a text prelude, we are told of a cannon accident which sees the infamous Globe theatre burn to the ground in 1613 and as Shakespeare watches it burn, we are brought back to the 17th century in this new film from director-star Kenneth Branagh.


Branagh’s fascination with Shakespeare began with Henry V (1989), followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love's Labour's Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006) and now in 2019, he’s not just content with adapting his work but playing the very man himself.


After the scene setting intro we return with Will to his family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon and thus begins an unhurried character study about the latter years of The Bard’s life. The film explores his family relationships with wife Anne Hathaway, played with staunch pride by Judi Dench - no stranger herself to Shakespeare (In Love) – and his two daughters. And at the same time, he also mourns the loss of his young son Hamnet.


Like Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) and this year’s The Favourite, Branagh has favoured chiaroscuro cinematography for the night scenes where small and wooded Tudor houses are lit by candles and fireplaces using strong contrasts of light and dark. The bright scenic daytime scenes see an elder Shakespeare leave his literary ways to focus on his garden. And again, the locations and lighting are fantastically cinematic – and with Mary Queen of Scots and this, fans of the Tudor period (like myself) are getting spoilt this year.


The picturesque and quaint countryside scenes, whilst admirably filmed, don’t host a particularly strong narrative and the drama contained within claustrophobic dimly-lit rooms is small in nature itself. Although probably intentionally so. Written by Ben Elton, the film’s narrative drive focuses on Shakespeare’s doubts and concerns about his family, specifically his son.


Dench as his wife cannot read and laments Shakespeare’s absence from her in his heyday, and his constant digging in the garden serves to show him digging up parts of his offspring’s past. And at times, the film seems to find its voice in the silence between words rather than lots of dialogue or exposition.


As doubt is cast on his son’s poems and the circumstances of his death, the issue of not being able to write at all poses larger questions about authorship in general – a subject of much controversy and debate regarding Shakespeare’s own work over the years. Thus, as he is haunted by the loss of Hamnet, Branagh is stately and stalwart as Shakespeare but the script isn’t afraid to shove a few lewd and crude lines his way during his family spats. Also thrown a bone is Sir Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton who gets his chance to shine with a stellar recounting of Shakespeare’s verse in the middle of the film.


The movie really is much more about a person’s legacy and the “bosom of his family” rather than any analysis of the plays, poems and sonnets of his folio themselves. For that you need to watch Ben Elton’s parody Upstart Crow which pulls apart the myths surrounding the great writer. Here we simply focus on the introspection undertaken by Branagh's brooding Bard.


The aforementioned slow pace may put passing fans off but like the Bard’s greatest hits, Branagh’s All is True includes history, comedy and tragedy – and measure for measure, is an old-fashioned, amiable and uncomplicated chamber-piece with much to recommend. ★★★½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, May 26 2019 03:39PM

Stan & Ollie (2019) Dir. Jon S. Baird


Beginning in 1937, a tremendously long one-take shot pulls us into the Hollywood world of one of comedy’s most iconic duos where Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy move through a studio backlot to a film set during their heyday. However, as Stan is on a different contract to Ollie, a rift is borne which continues to 1953 where the more mature duo embark on a gruelling UK-wide tour as part of a planned comeback.


Composed of Englishman Stan Laurel & American Oliver Hardy, their slapstick comedy was a hit with war-time audiences and they went on to star in over 100 films together. John C. Reilly is covered in prosthetics to play the portly Oliver Hardy, whilst comedian Steve Coogan is a spitting image for the “confused” persona of Stan Laurel. However, despite Stan and Ollie's well-known on-screen traits, the creative partnership begin to struggle with a music hall tour of the UK in the hopes of getting another film made.


Checking-in to rough hotels and playing to a run of empty theatres, Reilly and Coogan give magnetic performances as the two elderly men coming to terms with some of their glamour slipping away. Coogan especially, whose legendary Alan Partridge alter-ego I am a huge fan of, finally (for me) ditches Alan’s mannerisms and this films contains probably Coogan’s best movie screen performance to date.


As the duo begin to fill up more theatres owing to a string of publicity events, their past catches up to them and whilst their wives come to visit from Los Angeles (another fantastic double act from Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel), the tension boils over into a public spat.


Filmed right here in the Midlands, some scenes were shot in Dudley as well as The Old Rep theatre in Birmingham and also along the Great Central Railway in Leicestershire. We get old-fashioned and charming set-ups in a loving homage to both the duo and their trade. Baird’s direction is unfussy and straightforward, which allows the actors to shine. But it’s delightfulness of tone does sometimes push the film towards being a tad artless and plain.


As their past feelings of reciprocated betrayal are revealed, the film's amiable drama does moves into a slightly more interesting take on resentment, creativity and mutual respect.


When Ollie has a heart-attack, it marks the beginning of a reconciliation and the pleasantness is re-established. And the film shows great fondness and respect for the two great men and reveals a little about their motivations and inspirations.


However, as humble as it is, the film at times slips into mawkishness and some of the curious simplicity results in some underdeveloped sequences. That said, the movie made me want to watch many more of the duo’s finest celluloid moments and the two leads pull off more than just a great imitation. Although at times a bit wishy-washy, Stan and Ollie is a humble and uncomplicated look at two mesmerising legends in a quaint tribute piece.


★★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Apr 30 2019 09:17AM



Replicas (2019) Dir. Jeffrey Nachmanoff


What is up with Keanu Reeves career making decisions? For every critical and commercial success he then opts to star in something so awful it beggars belief. As far back as Speed (followed by the woeful Johnny Mnemonic), all the way to The Matrix (followed by the unwatchable The Watcher), Keanu has moved from stone cold classics to utter drivel within months. So with John Wick being followed by the awful Knock Knock (see our review) he now moves from the excellent John Wick: Chapter 2 to new sci-fi film Replicas. And guess what? A $30 million dollar failure, the film sees Reeves as William Foster, a scientist who breaks the law to clone his family members after they perish in a vehicle accident. Sadly the film contains every plot cliché you can imagine and, whether it’s the script (likely) or the direction, Alice Eve as his wife gives a simply atrocious performance. Film fans will notice all the scenes hawked out of previous, and better, sci-fi movies including an I-Robot car crash (and Sonny-looking droid), an obsessed scientist and some Minority Report interfaces. And despite its attempts to tackle deeper issues of loss, humanity and family, the film is mostly reminiscent of the bold boringness of Transcendence. Avoid. ★★




The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019) Dir. Alex Gibney


This new documentary film tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her technology company Theranos, a now defunct business which was claiming to have revolutionised blood testing in the United States. Using just a small amount of blood from a finger prick, the company was testing machines that could return results of certain conditions in minutes. With their stupendous, and world-changing claims, Forbes named Holmes the youngest and wealthiest self-made female billionaire in America. However, just one year later her value was reassessed at zero dollars. What happened? Well Gibney’s documentary builds upon investigations at the time that uncovered there were significant problems with the company’s medical claims despite the endorsement of some high-flying business leaders. As a fan of Gibney’s past work – Zero Days being one of our top films of 2016 – it’s a shame to see such a lacklustre delivery of what is clearly an interesting subject. Unsure if it wants to be a study of manipulative characters like the delusional Holmes, or a take-down of Silicon Valley’s empty capitalism, the documentary sits in a sort of no man’s land of so-so interviews, archive footage and analysis. With a few tweaks and a tighter edit (it runs at 2 hours) this could have been a fantastic look at a modern-day conspiracy but despite Gibney making the complex subject matter understandable, it’s ultimately a dry recounting of the facts at hand. ★★★



The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot (2019) Dir. Robert D. Krzykowski


Directed, produced and written by Robert D. Krzykowski, the film’s title has “solo passion project” written all over it in this new adventure drama starring Sam Elliott. The story sees old man Elliott as Calvin Barr who is shacked up in his home reminiscing about his past. On a covert operation to kill Hitler, Barr does the deed but his actions are swept under the carpet by seedy government forces and the public never find out. Later on in the present and after getting in fights around town, two new government agents explain that the world is at risk of destruction owing to a virus caused by, you’ve guessed it, Bigfoot. Aidan Turner plays the young Barr whilst Mark Steger has the enviable IMDB listing as “Bigfoot” himself. All this sounds lots of b-movie fun, right? Well, sadly, categorically no. Despite having the ridiculous title of a grindhouse film, the cinematography and pacing is that of an earnest character study. Sadly this results in an inherent dull-ness and it massively fails to live up to its ludicrous premise. In hindsight that could (and should) have been a semi-serious romp in the vain of another recent historical horror, Overlord – which combined similar genres far more effectively. A wasted opportunity. ★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Apr 18 2019 01:59PM



Mary Queen of Scots (2019) Dir. Josie Rourke


Based on John Guy's biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, this new historical drama stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as her cousin Queen Elizabeth I.


Covering the 1569 conflict between England and Scotland, the film opens with Mary returning to Scotland from France to take up her throne but she is immediately challenged by her inner circle and cleric John Knox (an incredibly bearded David Tennant) whilst Elizabeth, who is worried about Mary’s claim to her own throne, tries to arrange Mary’s marriage to an Englishman.


With both sides fearing a rebellion from each other and their own internal traitors, Mary’s marriage fails spectacularly and eventually she exiles herself in England. But the two queens’ devotion to their respective countries leads Mary to be sentenced to death.


Covering a tumultuous period, the film is quite timid in its drama but the two central leads are fantastic. The support cast are sadly just passable, and it’s unfortunate that a few admirable progressive themes stick out like a sore thumb in a film that, for the most part, is relatively historically accurate.


Two areas the film does excel in however is the cinematography and the costumes which is understandable given the director’s theatrical past. Glorious Scottish vistas are contrasted brilliantly with dark interiors where castle rooms are either candlelit or have striking streaks of sunlight beaming through thin windows.


At times reminiscent of a Holbein painting (as well as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright), these locations are spectacularly filmed and Mary’s amazingly-designed period blood-red and blue dresses add tremendous colour to a film often drenched in Tudor dirt.


An acceptable diversion, Mary Queen of Scots never really steps a foot wrong, but for some reason is as forgettable as it is expertly made. A respectable way to spend a couple of hours, its cinematic charms won’t take your head off but should leave you satisfied as it marries outstanding performances with a scrutinising look at British history.


★★★ ½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 24 2019 08:08AM



Midlands Review - Deeds Not Words


Directed by Coralie Hudson


2018


Well... It looks like the Midlands has produced yet another solid little film.


This time, it comes in the form of Deeds Not Words, a short that takes a look at the Suffragette movement on a more local scale than perhaps most of us learnt about at school. The film is divided into three parts, focusing in on three different women who all got involved in the movement at some point.


I really love the thought that has gone into the structure of the film before we even get into any of the nitty gritty stuff. The chapter headings for each part of the film are colour-coded to match the Suffragette flag, and the themes of each part represent the values that the movement held as it fought for women to gain the right to vote.


I thought this attention to detail by director Coralie Kate Hudson was wonderful, and displayed a true passion and dedication to the story that she was telling through the film. When filmmakers feel this way about anything they decide to make the subject of a project, it truly works wonders in elevating a film to another level entirely.


The first third of the film centres around the theme of dignity, and I thought this to be the best of the three acts. The speech that we see being rehearsed is well written and tremendously delivered by Lisa Blissitt, who played Sarah E. Woodward in the film. I think it perfectly encapsulated this first theme, and was definitely my favourite part.


A lot of planning seems to have gone into the presentation of this film. Obviously as this is a period piece, I was expecting to see costumes, hair and make-up to fit the time period, although one always fears - or at least, I do - that really a big budget is a necessity in order to create a look that is convincing enough to transport viewers back to the time in which a story is set. It would seem, however, that those fears were entirely unfounded because the costumes put together here were fantastic, and when paired with some of the locations where the film was shot, absolutely smacked of the early 1900s.


The final touches that just added an extra little something to this film came during the post-production stages, and more specifically, the colour grading process. The faded film look that was added gives a sense of times gone by, but there’s a touch of warmth that reminds us that this movement was one of the better things to have happened throughout history. Again, it’s a little attention to small details that has added masses to the final product.


Overall, I think Deeds Not Words is a splendid short film that deserves to be seen by many. So much work has gone into making sure this could turn out as well as it has for it to be missed. It’s a true reflection of how every element and stage of the filmmaking process can come together to produce magnificent results regardless of budget, and that is the only reason anyone should need to watch it.


Kira Comerford

Twitter @FilmAndTV101


By midlandsmovies, Mar 10 2019 09:53AM



Enemies


Directed by Oliver Griffiths


2018


We open on Bluestone Lake, West Virginia in 1864 where a deserted soldier sits staring out at the water in new Midlands film Enemies from local director Oliver Griffiths.


With a voiceover hinting at a distressing incident from the past the man pauses at a torn Confederate flag representing his doubts about fighting on their side during the American Civil War.


Stranded in the wilderness the distressed soldier (Jonathan Butler as Joseph Barrow) crosses sides (literally traversing a symbolic river) and uses the flowing water to wash his face – and perhaps the sins from his past.


The reason for this is explained as we flashback to the man in a military tent being accosted by a superior (Jonny Parlett) after apparently showing mercy to slaves. It is revealed this man is not only his fellow soldier but his brother Robert Barrow.


After refusing to lie about the army’s horrendous treatment of slaves we return to the present, but the man is haunted by dreams of he and his brother not only punishing slaves but killing them.


Voiceovers help fill in the story and the film does well with its editing which flips from the past to the present without ever confusing the audience.


Director Griffiths began making films at the age of 13 and studied at the University of Derby where he directed multiple short films. His aim to make Enemies “unlike any film I had directed previously” shows in the finished product which aims high in the Hollywood sense.


Whilst some filmmakers are happy to shoot on the local streets, Griffiths and his team do a fantastic job of bringing 19th century America alive right here in the Midlands. The wilderness is faithfully captured and the two leads do well with the appropriate Southern accents.


Parlett as the evil brother justifying his actions through the horrors of war is the standout and his small but intense performance helps keep the drama high. As his character catches up with his wandering brother, the two fight and pistols are draw heightening the film’s tension.


Enemies biggest draw is a good recreation of a turbulent period of history. It’s great to see local filmmakers demonstrate the breadth of filming locations in the area – which can stand in from castles to cities. But here the woods of the region become a gateway into another country altogether.


As the film builds to a violent confrontation of fists and fighting, Enemies shows how some excellent editing, cleverly chosen set ups and two admirable actors committing to their performances can take you away from the region into a different world and time. Griffiths also adds depth to a solid script and captures a host of difficult issues in this dramatic and well-filmed picture about the past.


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jan 17 2019 09:02PM



The Favourite (2019) Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos


Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne in this bawdy black comedy-drama that sees the eccentric and frail head of state avoid her kingdom’s woes as she gets caught up in a tit-for-tat but serious squabble between her confidante Sarah and Sarah’s poorer cousin Abigail.


La La Land’s Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, a fallen woman who arrives caked in mud and is soon to set to work as a maid amongst the luxurious palace rooms. Despite undertaking menial labour she has her sights set on bigger things and begins a surreptitious plan to move up society’s ladder by usurping Sarah (Rachel Weisz) in the Queen’s affections.


Abigail begins by assisting the Queen with her ailments before planting more sinister seeds to curry favour with the throne. Once it is revealed that Sarah is in fact involved in a lesbian affair with the monarch, Abigail discovers another way into the Queen’s good books – via her bed.


Lanthimos shoots his film with glorious cinematography using wide angle and fisheye lenses to show the vast spaces in the stately house, and the sumptuous chequered floors provide a metaphorical board for the chess pieces to play out their game. The pawns of Weisz and Stone try to checkmate the Queen but their false appearance of power is not quite the same as the actual divine power of royalty.


There’s plenty of humour to be had as well and the three leads are nothing short of phenomenal on screen. Funny when needed, whilst also showing vulnerability and empathy, the trio of amazing actresses fully come into their own with their vicious put downs and deliciously devilsome dialogue.


A (very small) hint of Trading Places occurs as Stone’s lowly serf becomes a lady in waiting whilst Weisz’s influential lover is brought to her knees when she is drugged and almost killed after falling from her horse.


The fine female cast are pushed to the forefront whilst the men in court definitely take second fiddle. And as the women fire guns, slap each other and drink heartily, the males are caked in make-up and wigs and pushed behind in an interesting twist on the period drama formula.


Nicholas Hault as Robert Harley is the best of the background bunch where he gets to act like a total arse throughout and is given some of the best and most profane dialogue, playing his own games in parliament and beyond.


But it really is Colman, Stone and Weisz’s show. The power games, the flip-flopping and the sparring of physical and verbal humour are delivered impeccably by all three and allow the actresses to create fully-rounded characters we can sympathise with. Yet the audience can just as easily hate when the trio’s primal and nasty game-playing comes to prominence. But either way, their conniving deceits provide plenty of juicy drama to enjoy.


Stylistically it couldn’t be further from the director’s previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer (review here) which appeared in our Top 20 of 2017 which was far slower, slightly meandering (in a good way) and conceptually abstract. Whilst this is far more accessible, similar mythical and classical themes are explored where power, retribution and revenge all come in to play throughout the narrative.


The lighting is natural and adds to the period realism where night time scenes are lit by candle flame echoing a similar technique seen in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon whilst the score utilises the classic music of composers like Handel and Bach.


Whilst its historical accuracy can be hotly debated, like Tarantino’s take on history I don’t see this as some quasi-realistic portrait and it sure has far more in common with a Carry On film than period-precise documentation. That said, with Anne keeping 17 rabbits to represent each of her child-bearing tragedies, Lanthimos doesn’t let the humorous aspects stop him from exploring the morbid issues of motherhood, dominance and sovereignty in all its forms.


However, with its added darkness and the Machiavellian machinations of the three protagonists, the film is full to the brim with incredible performances alongside some eccentricities in its technical aspects, plus we mustn’t forget its terrific quip-filled script. The Favourite therefore is a formidable film from a director who takes weighty themes and provides a theatre for three mighty actresses to deliver some of the best performances of the year and possibly of their career.


★★★★ ½


Michael 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


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