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By midlandsmovies, Oct 2 2019 12:30PM



Dark Phoenix (2019) Dir. Simon Kinberg


Oh, X-Men! * sigh * The inconsistent and frustrating franchise continues with its focus on making either cracking or crappy blockbusters and with the recent purchase of X-owners 20th Century Fox by Disney (Marvel) this is no doubt the last we’ll see of this incarnation. And what a poor effort to say goodbye with.


In his feature directorial debut, the inexperienced Kinberg attempts to deliver a new adaptation of Chris Claremont and John Byrne's "The Dark Phoenix Saga". As the writer of X-Men: The Last Stand, Kinberg has already had one shot at this story so he’s given it a more faithful spin, right?


Well, the story opens with a flashback (like Last Stand) and young Jean Grey’s powers are a source of frustration for her parents before we find that Professor X puts her in protective state to supress her abilities (like Last Stand).


After an accident in space sees her powers get stronger, an older Jean has a fight in suburbia with the X-gang soon arriving on the street to try and stop her (like Last Stand). And it’s not too long before the whole sequence finishes with the death of a major character passing away (like Last Stand). Get it yet? In fact it’s so familiar territory that it’s just short of a remake.


And although it’s essentially the same material, I wonder why it in fact is so much worse. But the performances are phoned it, the drama is underwhelming to the point of non-existence and Jessica Chastain’s pasty white non-villain Vuk is the blandest since Malekith the Dark Elf in Thor: The Dark World.


The underwhelming fiery ending with people turning to dust (like Last Stand) leads the film to sit comfortably alongside the first two Wolverine flicks as the most unmemorable in this universe. A few exciting scenes (Quicksilver and Nightcrawler’s powers during the shuttle accident being the best by far) were sadly not enough to keep my interest.


Gone are James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender’s morally ambiguous arcs, Jennifer Lawrence’s internal conflicts and Evan Peters’ quirky quips as Quicksilver. And sadly Sophie Turner is no Famke Janssen either. Any attempts to inject the dull A-to-B story with deeper themes and meanings fall flat at every turn too.


So what a sad way to go out really. With our fantastic responses to Logan and Days of Future Past, the X-Men world appeared to be rejuvenated but with this and Apocalypse (review), the miserable fact is that this is a terribly wretched way to end a series I've enjoyed immensely over the years.


★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Sep 11 2019 11:02AM



It Chapter Two (2019) Dir. Andy Muschietti


The success of the first IT film came as a bit of an industry surprise with the best opening of a horror movie at the box office ever. The inevitable sequel was not just because of that – the book is “essentially” two parts anyways – so now we follow the Losers Club as adults as they return to Derry to fulfil their promise to each other to stop Pennywise the (killer) Clown if he ever returned.


Director Andy Muschietti builds upon the good work of his first film which, for me, is by far the best of the recent glut of mainstream Hollywood horror. But this time we have a selection of adults embodying grown-up versions of the child actors from the previous film.


Jessica Chastain/Sophia Lillis star as the old and young versions of Bev respectively, James McAvoy/Jaeden Martell are Bill, Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard play Richie, Isaiah Mustafa and Chosen Jacobs are Mike, Jay Ryan and Jeremy Ray Taylor act as Ben, James Ransone and Jack Dylan Grazer are Eddie and finally Andy Bean and Wyatt Oleff play Stanley Uris.


As the gang reunite, the film sees their memory of past events slowly return and the success of the excellent young actors’ chemistry from the first film has led to the director inserting plenty of flashbacks to flesh out the story.


And of course, the fabulously malevolent Bill Skarsgård is Pennywise the Dancing Clown with his piercing eyes, child-like voice and drooling smile all coming back to scare the adults who are all dealing with their personal past demons too.


As well as the actors, the film is shot superbly and the glowing cinematography during the flashbacks harks back to the innocent past whilst the modern versions have a more contemporary look. And a smattering of humour, mainly built around the excellent Bill Hader helps keep the protagonists likeable.


However, despite some excellent work from the cast and filmmaker, there are some problems with that. The film is not really scary at all. A Thing-inspired spider-head and a tense meeting between an old lady and Jessica Chastain’s Bev are superb but an over-use of CGI and the humour is tonally a little off. There are also some “meta” moments with a film set location, a Stephen King cameo and constant references to McAvoy’s writer who is known for the bad endings of his published books. This makes the film feel more like the satirical Scream 2 and these self-references took me from the movie completely.


Also, we must talk about the runtime. At 169 minutes (!) it’s AT LEAST 30-minutes too long. The great drama played out by the gang works well but by the cataclysmic and over-the-top end confrontation, I was actually yearning for a conclusion. A Return of the Rings-style multi-ending added another 10 minutes on that and it soon became quite comically misjudged.


The cast (did I mention them at all?) really help the slightly ramshackle film from falling apart but with its aim to be “epic”, it falls flat at times despite the interesting dark themes of dealing with the past sitting nicely with some more positivity set within fun 80s retro references. In the end though, IT Chapter 2 is a more than solid 2 hour sequel with an added 50 unnecessary minutes that ideally could be wiped from your brain like a memory from Derry.


★★★½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jan 22 2018 01:24PM



Molly’s Game (2018) Dir. Aaron Sorkin


After her hugely entertaining and brilliant performance in last year’s underrated Miss Sloane (review here), Jessica Chastain returns as another feisty boss focused on a career that again contains many questionable practices. Based upon the real-life story of Molly Bloom who ran celebrity-attended back-room poker games, the film is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and he brings with him the snappy dialogue he is renowned for.


The film itself is framed around a series of flashbacks (like Miss Sloane) and an ongoing court case (like Miss Sloane) where her closest confidante is a strong-willed Brit playing an American (like Miss Sloane). In this instance it’s Idris Elba who stars as Charlie Jaffey, Molly's lawyer who although reluctant at first, attempts to acquit her of charges stemming from her time organising the underground poker meetings.


Comprising of Hollywood high rollers, businessmen and later various mobsters, her hotel gambling evenings originate from Molly’s drive during her younger days as an Olympic ski prodigy which push her towards success and a lucrative, if suspect, income.


A patriarchal Kevin Costner plays Larry Bloom, Molly's dad, and provides a beat-for-beat father figure as per his stint as Pa Kent in Man of Steel but Michael Cera as Player X has much more fun in his role. Poking fun at himself again (after This Is the End) his composite character is allegedly a mix of Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck amongst others. With a Hollywood income, and ego, he dares Molly to expand her business and provides a small but important role in the middle of the film as an arrogant antagonist once Molly double downs on her decisions to maintain control of what she has created.


Molly’s determination though has her creating new opportunities in New York and as we see her business develop, fail then re-emerge, her steely grit is played to perfection by Chastain. The actress throws in a smattering of trashy exuberance into the mix with low-cut tops and heavy make-up showing how out of her depth she is amongst the real life hoi polloi.


The fast back-and-forth dialogue from Sorkin is shown mostly in her interactions with Elba whose composed lawyer meets his match with Chastain’s ballsy businesswoman. Barbs are thrown both ways and Sorkin regular ups the ante with the two trading insults and information as Elba attempts to break through Chastain’s facade to uncover the truth. Chastain however keeps her cards close to her chest, not wanting, or unable, to clarify her position to avoid incriminating herself and even protecting, at times, her precious clients who trusted her.


The film’s narrative and subsequent editing serve to explain the complex story and glossary of gambling terms but the general cinematography of this biography/thriller is solid if underwhelming. However, dealing an audience both entertainment and raising some interesting questions of loyalty and opportunity, Molly’s Game bets its hand on Sorkin’s writing and two glorious performances from Chastain and Elba. An excellent, but somewhat forgettable, support cast fills the rest of the pack yet despite a few minor misgivings, the film delivers a jackpot payout for fans of the actors and director.


8/10


Midlands Movies Mike



By midlandsmovies, May 9 2017 01:48PM



Miss Sloane (2017) Dir. John Madden


Helmed by the very British Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel director, John Madden, Miss Sloane could not be further from the anglo-centric films of the director’s past. Focusing on American political lobbyists as it does, the movie rests squarely on the shoulders of a tour-de-force performance from Jessica Chastain as the title lead.


Chastain is ruthless lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane who is head-hunted by Mark Strong to support new gun law background checks. From media appearances to back-room meetings, Sloane is shown to be a duplicitous player of rumour, conjecture and debate. Using every piece of information at her disposal including campaign secrets, it is to Chastain’s skill that she manages to keep the audience on her side throughout.


However, the film is shown in parallel to a future trial where she is summoned to a committee who submits evidence that accuses her of breaking Senate laws.


Ballsy and brash, Chastain doesn’t play a one-dimensional character as there is an element of vulnerability at play as she seeks love (albeit of the clandestine sexual type) from a male gigolo. A strong supporting cast rounds out the fine acting talent on show and sees Mark Strong as her “boss” – although she never follows a word he says – and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as her media intern Esme Manucharian.


Despite sworn to secrecy, Sloane uses her intern's history to illuminate her arguments on TV and the constant conflict is not only between the rival lobby groups but within her own team who dislike her less-than-trustworthy ways.


Having already been won over by the central performance and the tight script, the film concludes with somewhat of a twist ending I didn’t even see coming. But all of the narrative – and almost all of the scenes throughout – squarely rests at the door of Chastain. Along with Rebecca Hall in Christine, it’s an intense single piece of acting that without which the movie would simply fall apart.


With the only criticisms being a slide towards melodrama in a few scenes and some un-cinematic set design, the film however is a well-made and brilliantly paced character study that covers both personal and political themes of fighting against establised norms.


8.5/10


Midlands Movies Mike

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