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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 29 2019 02:54PM



At Eternity’s Gate (2019) Dir. Julian Schnabel


Enigmatic and underappreciated in his own lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh’s life – especially the last dramatic few years – have been ripe for television and film adaptation and we get one more here in this new biographical feature.


As a self-confessed Van Gogh “superfan”, I’ve enjoyed many of the takes on his passions, especially 2017’s Loving Vincent – the animated painting of a film – which ended being my favourite film of that year. So what can Willem Defoe as Vincent bring to this new film? Well, it covers a similar period following Vincent as he spends his days painting in the South of France before his infamous ear-cutting, sectioning and finally mysterious death just outside Paris at Auvers-sur-Oise.


Covered in dirt and wandering through wild landscapes, the film has echoes of Terence Malick as an all-seeing spinning camera dwells longingly around our protagonist as her pursues his dream of capturing pure nature in his canvases.


Thematically, static paintings contrast nicely with Schnabel’s cinema verité floating camera and the film, like Vincent’s work, is glorious to look at. The fantastic photography captures candlelit conversations and wild fields of dead sunflowers and the excellent colour grading echoes Van Gogh’s artwork to perfection. Blues, greens and yellows pop from the screen at times.


But for all its pretty sunflowers and sunsets, the film is beautiful but boring. The conversations are kept to a minimum with the (very unnatural) dialogue cribbed from Vincent’s infamous letters but these sequences are spread so thinly. We instead get scene-after-scene of long wordless walks in the wilderness. Definitely a “mood” piece, the high-art meditation on Van Gogh’s life is simply like watching paint dry. And at times it literally is.


The conversations though – when they do eventually occur – are the film’s real highlight. Dafoe’s expressive facial lines have all the worry, stress and doubts that encapsulated Vincent and are excellently filmed in close-up making his wrinkles seem like an expressionistic set of brush strokes. A key aspect for a man famous for his portraits.


Oscar Isaac showing up as Paul Gauguin to discuss the artist’s goals, dreams and plans is perhaps where the film should have focused its lens. Their discussions and disagreements had the most vibrancy and I longed for more drama during the movie’s infuriating slow pace. So, whilst At Eternity’s Gate does get somewhat under the skin of the troubled artist at times, it ended being a film I so wanted to love but it’s simply too slow a watch to be gripping despite Dafoe’s dedication to the role.


★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 16 2019 04:41PM



Border (2019) Dir. Ali Abbasi


Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi directs this new dark drama based on the short story of the same name by Ajvide Lindqvist. The film was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the 91st Academy Awards and stars Eva Melander as Tina who has a Neanderthal appearance and works in customs where she has the ability to smell guilt.


Melander gives an amazingly sensitive performance of a lady with severe facial disfigurement who lives in a secluded house with her partner Roland.


As she catches people with contraband at the border, one man is caught with child pornography which leads to a police investigation where Tina’s abilities may be able to assist. Alongside this, a man with a similar facial disfigurement (Eero Milonoff as Vore) comes through customs and Tina is intrigued into his past and strange demeanour.


The film builds slowly, allowing us to invest our time with Tina and her sorry life. Shot in a very realistic manner which makes Tina’s strange abilities seem entirely believable, Border sets up a series of mysteries – Tina’s skills, the awful detected crime, Vore’s backstory – which maintains the film’s forward momentum throughout.


As Vore is caught incubating, and then eating, maggots the mixture of nature and fairy tale imagery adds huge doses of surrealism to the documentary-like cinematography. Vore and Tina frolic naked in a lake and in the woods, and as their relationship develops Tina's reserved character is slowly revealed. And much more besides.


There are many, many revelations in the film which I really don’t want to spoil here however. The less you know the more you will get from this film as it twists and turns and even jumps genres to amazing effect. A shocking liaison in the the forest alongside some haunting imagery linking the various narrative threads were some of the most striking sequences I’ve seen in cinema in a long time.


Abassi uses themes of family and genetics to tackle the problems of being an outsider as he injects realism and history into his tall tale. And whilst Tina’s deformity sets her apart from those around her, the film explores not just her place in our society, but in other societies too, which creates a clash of identities.


A cracking drama with added fantasy elements, Border is both compassionate and shocking and comes hugely recommended as it combines amazing performances that go beyond the prosthetics with a host of disturbing images you simply won't forget.


★★★★½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 14 2019 02:18PM



The Girl in the Spider's Web (2018) Dir. Fede Álvarez


As a big fan of the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) – which had terrific introductory performances (to me anyways) from Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace – I was greatly looking forward to The Girl in the Spider's Web which is an adaptation of the 4th book in the Millennium series.


After the author of the first three books, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004 Swedish author and crime journalist David Lagercrantz was commissioned to continue the stories of Goth-hacker Lisbeth Salander and political investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.


This is an adaptation of the first of Lagercrantz's two books he has had published so far, and the film follows Salander as she hunts down a file that could access the world’s nuclear arsenal whilst protecting a young boy who is the key to accessing its precious secrets. Along the way we get a flashback to Salander’s abusive past and plenty of intrigue as multiple parties – from the State to terrorist goons – try to get their dirty mitts on the electronic bounty.


If that sounds a bit too far-fetched for what began as a drama-thriller then you’d be right. Fresh from an amazing performance in First Man, Claire Foy dons the dark leathers of the rebellious Salander and despite her multitude of talents cannot raise the sub-Mission Impossible material. Which is certainly a weird direction for the franchise to go in.


Gone are the dark machinations of political and family drama and in comes a Bond-pastiche of nuke codes, bike chases and villainous lairs. Combined with a series of sequences that has Foy tazering and brawling, by the end we are exhausted from the chaotic action as a team made up of a sniper and a computer hacker support Salander beat up a clan of henchman.


Also disappearing from view is the simplicity of the first novel – a whodunit in the main – and Sverrir Gudnason is monstrously miscast as a far-too-young Mikael Blomkvist. The father-figure/mentor character which operates as an antidote to Salander’s wayward impulses was a highlight of the Swedish originals – and Fincher’s US remake – and its absence here is sorely missing. Salander’s mysterious character too has been replaced with a spousal revenge superhero of sorts with her Bat-belt of tricks and black hoodie “cape”.


The Bond-lite developments continue with car chases, gadgets and codebreaking along with duplicitous double-agents and an albino-haired henchman. There was also not enough dialogue to flesh out the characters, their motivations or to create drama. And I yearned for the powerful verbal sparring of the earlier incarnations that would have punched up this bland screenplay.


So despite many of the great ingredients and with Claire Foy doing well as Salander, sadly it all just doesn’t gel. A passable time for a few hours, this ‘facsimile of Fincher’ means only (super) fans of the book should clear their diary and make time for this unremarkable, and highly disappointing, adaptation.


★★ ½


Michael Sales



By midlandsmovies, Mar 11 2019 04:26PM



GLASS (2019) Dir. M Night Shyamalan


A quick story - at the end of Split (2016) I was left slightly disappointed as I was informed there would be a twist and discovered one of the 23 multiple personalities of James McAvoy as Kevin Crumb was actually a true evil power known as the Beast. However, in that film’s very final moments director Shyamalan pans to Bruce Willis (as David Dunn) and was hugely shocked to find the film is revealed to be a sequel to Shyamalan’s down-to-earth superhero flick Unbreakable from 2000. Wow.


One of the better twists from the master of them, Glass is the final part of the trilogy and sees McAvoy, Willis and Samuel L Jackson locked up in a psychiatric ward, where their ‘superpowers’ are to be studied by Sarah Poulson’s Doctor Ellie Staple. We open with David and his son as vigilantes who free a group of kidnapped cheerleaders but in David’s fight with The Beast they are captured by the authorities. Incarcerated with both David and Kevin is Mr. Glass (Jackson) – the evil brains from Unbreakable – who is heavily sedated and all three are told their abilities are simply psychiatric disorders and little more than a fantasy.


The film links the characters and themes from the previous movies using colours, comic book tropes and a self-referential awareness of its own construction. Shyamalan uses every cinematic trick in the book – point of view, spinning cameras, static shots and much more to keep the film visually interesting in what, if you break it down, is a standard thriller tale. All three actors are stupendous though – Willis’ more recent cinematic outings have been dubious at best – but here his pensive, almost uninterested, facial blandness actually works as a man doubting his own experiences.


As Mr. Glass plays clever games within the hospital’s walls – he sets up an escape plan with Kevin whilst the film is full of surprises and shows Shyamalan’s expert use of pace and, more importantly, an unbearable amount of tension. In simple scenes of dialogue we feel every character motivation and the horror techniques he used so well in The Sixth Sense and The Visit are re-visited here to great effect. Shyamalan also provides a number of technical twists – fights are witnessed from the inside of a van, an important escape plan punch-up is shown in the background and with an opening that plays on what can’t be seen – he is an expert of what to show and what not to show. And where possible, to show the audience what they weren’t expecting at every turn.


The film rolls to a climax which is the most disappointing part of the movie. Without giving it away, the film tries to expand the super-human ideas into a worldwide issue, when the films up to this point have been very much about the small and personal acts of good and evil. By using themes of conspiracy and internet technology, the film loses the humanity and character-study work it had delivered so brilliantly beforehand. Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke (from Split) and Charlayne Woodard as Mrs. Price, Elijah's mother both provide good support roles to flesh out the story.


However, it is to Shyamalan’s credit he not only got to finish a trilogy started 19 years ago but to do so in such a satisfying manner. Ignore the naysayers who have unwisely projected their own expectations onto a film that never could have existed – which is always a hiding to nothing – as Glass surprises by being the kind of dark, tension-filled shattering success that are nowadays shuffled off to Netflix when they should be enjoyed on the big screen as it provides more than satisfying thrills from the beginning until the end.


★★★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Mar 8 2019 12:36PM



Can You Ever Forgive Me (2019) Dir. Marielle Heller


This biographical film stars Melissa McCarthy as real-life writer Lee Israel who in the 90s confessed to forging letters from famous authors as her own career was in the doldrums.


After the failure of her biography of Estée Lauder, Lee Israel is broke and turns to drink as she berates her agent (and everyone else) for the career struggles she is facing. After selling her possessions to make ends meet, she discovers a hidden letter by Fanny Brice which she sells for cash but is told that if the artefact wasn’t so bland she could receive even more money. This sparks an idea to Lee that using similar typewriters from the era she can use her writing skills to imitate the authors’ letters and sell them to collectors.


She is soon blacklisted as her deception is revealed but she uses local drug-dealing (and fellow drinker) Jack Hock – a flamboyant Richard E. Grant – to sell them on her behalf. Their love-hate relationship has unexpected consequences for Lee whilst the FBI begins an investigation into her shady dealings.


McCarthy and Grant earned nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for their roles and it’s easy to see why. Cards on the table here – I find McCarthy’s previous performances like sandpaper where I have winced at her condescending adlibs delivered in a continuous slew of unfunny comedies for the last decade.


However, this role showcases her dramatic ‘chops’ and I see, and hope, her career ends up heading far more into this category. Grant is channelling a bit of his legendary Withnail performance but is so much more likeable here – especially when pleading with McCarthy’s Lee about being her only friend.


The film starts slow but the characters are fully fleshed out as we warm to McCarthy who moves from spiteful and selfish to a much more vulnerable woman coping with her flaws and bad deeds. Unobtrusive directing helps focus on the characters and it really is the McCarthy and Grant show here.


Can I ever forgive her for those awful comedies? Well, based on this performance, I’d be a fool not to.


★★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 7 2019 01:10PM



The Hole in the Ground (2019) Dir. Lee Cronin


From The Shining-style opening where we see a God-shot of a car driving through a forest landscape, new horror-thriller The Hole in the Ground has plenty of classic genre references but does it add enough to the mix to set it apart amongst a whole host of other fear-filled films?


Well, the clichés begin as we get a mum and child (a trope becoming as common as teens in the woods) moving to a new home where they uncover a humungous crater in the woods. Mum (an excellent Seána Kerslake as Sarah) warns her son to not go near it but after noticing some very strange traits from her offspring, she begins to suspect something isn’t quite right.


The disturbing behaviour continues with his monotone speech and upsetting behaviour, before Sarah crosses paths with an excellent James Cosmo as local man Des Brady whose wife recently died after claiming her son was no longer the same boy as well. With some ideas akin to Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling, we begin to question Sarah’s sanity and the film focuses much more on dread and tension than it does jump scares.


Director Cronin uses great cinematography to add gravitas to the low-key film, from beautiful wide shots of nature to the torch-lit point-of-view shots which includes the film’s first scares. The visuals are complimented by a beautiful, but eerie, piano score and as the questions of possession continue we get a claustrophobic conclusion reminiscent of The Descent where a metaphorical haunted house (cave) holds the spooky secrets to the mystery.


A solid story, well-shot and delivered in a very matter-of-fact style, The Hole in the Ground goes beyond its b-movie title to provide an interesting film mixing the satisfying themes of psychological paranoia and the paranormal.


★★★½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Feb 21 2019 01:37PM

Overlord (2018) Dir. Julius Avery


Son of a Gun director Julies Avery returns with a mid-budget horror-tale where a platoon of soldiers are dropped into Nazi-occupied World War 2 France to destroy a radio tower to help the D-Day landings.


Opening with a character-building scene on an American bomber plane, the movie allows a little space to build up some empathy in Predator-style conversations using solider ‘bantz’ and some broody dialogue.


Here we are introduced to paratrooper Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) who was underperforming during training and whose fellow soldiers sure let him know it throughout. As the plane is shot down in an exciting and explosive sequence, only 5 soldiers survive the parachute drop including Wyatt Russell as Corporal Ford who only has the mission on his mind.


The small group seek refuge in the home of a French woman (Mathilde Ollivier as Chloe) as Nazi patrols roam the village. The group barely survives in the attic but there are hints throughout of disfigured villagers, and when an SS Officer (a fantastically brutal and evil Pilou Asbæk) attempts to rape their host, the American soldiers are forced to reveal themselves.


Dealing with the complications arising from their decision to save the locals or complete their mission, Boyce ends up in a secret laboratory where the Nazis are conducting sinister body-altering experiments. As a slice of b-movie action, the film excels with enough character development, some simple linear story-telling, a nasty villain and some tongue-in-cheek gore. A severed head pleading for help is a particular nasty but thoroughly effective visual spine-chiller.


Using such a dramatic historical situation, the film takes itself seriously enough for you to care, but allows the film to develop into a more monster-driven experience in its second half. But it has certainly earnt that right.


The body-horror is suitably nasty, the character choices are well established and the gun fights and violence will keep most action and fright audiences entertained. As the men discuss their mission, the film delivers a great sense of urgency to keep up a fast pace and overall, Overlord entertains with a delicious mix of dark horror and depraved history.


★★★★


Mike Sales

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