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By midlandsmovies, Oct 16 2019 12:00PM

The Invitation (2016) Dir. Karyn Kusama


Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus, in case it drives you mad like it did me) plays Wil in this new thriller-drama set around a strange reunion dinner party in the Hollywood Hills.


We open with Wil and his girlfriend Kira driving to the home of Wil's ex-wife Eden and her husband David along with a host of friends for a long overdue catch up.


The hosts are a married couple who disappeared for two years at a grief support group abroad but have returned to reunite with their friends. Wil and Eden still have unresolved issues over the accidental death of their son, but this is put aside to enjoy the evening with a familiar group of friends - some old and a few new, including Sadie and Pruit, whom they met at the support retreat.


Despite the warm welcome, Wil relives his past angst throughout the house, remembering his ex-wife's attempted suicide whilst finding more pills and wondering why doors are locked. The film creates an immense atmosphere of dread and awkwardness, none more so when the happy couple share a video of a terminally ill woman passing away during their stay at the retreat.


The uncomfortableness continues as they play a game of "dare" which results in Pruitt (a fantastic turn by John Carroll Lynch of Zodiac fame) admiting to a past crime he's now forgiven himself for.


Despite their shock, Pruitt expresses regret and explains how the support group helped him deal with his pain whilst Wil's paranoia continues to increase. The film captures an atmosphere of intense claustrophobia as the guests are huddled together in rooms but whether this is out of choice or not is the question the movie poses.


Increasing irrational accusations from Wil about his hosts' intentions are excused as a result of his emotional fragility over the death of his son and the film keeps the audience guessing as to why the guests are here - something sinister, or is it to deal with unresolved issues from their pasts.


The film probes themes of mistrust, grief and loss and its achievement lies in not letting the viewer - as a guest themselves - get too comfortable within the house. A trail of circumstantial evidence - a bottle of pills, an unattended laptop, glasses of wine - are merely breadcrumbs to the film's subsequent thrilling reveal.


The final act turns the screws up for the viewer as secrets are exposed and a sudden twist of events leads to darkly tragic conclusions. Although the film is almost entirely filmed within the anxious environment of this lavish gathering, a final shot implicates the wider ramifications of the proceedings.


Sinister and slow-building, The Invitation is one of those films that rarely get made these days - a mid-budget thriller with a great premise and well-executed. It also reminded me of the thrills of the "unknown threat", covered in indie sci-fi flick Coherence (2013) which was similarly set around a middle-class American dinner party.


Director Karyn Kusama has got nearly everything right with the film, getting great performances out of a good mixed cast, as well as filling her dark shots with trepidation, terror and a fair amount of fear. One tiny flaw were the character motivations - at times I was shaking my head in disbelief about their choices - but this was a one-off and towards the end I inwardly cheered as a guest got what they deserved.


Expertly crafted by Kusama, The Invitation creates anxiety through a superb central performance by Logan Marshall-Green, and is an alarming achievement where nothing is what it seems. Filled with fear and a few frightful revelations, this is one party I recommend you RSVP to on its release.


9/10


Michael Sales


The Invitation arrives on BluRay on 4th November 2019


Special Features

Commentary with Director Karyn Kusama and Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

The Making of The Invitation

Going Back Home - an interview with Director Karyn Kusama

There is Nothing to be Afraid of - an interview with Producer Nick Spicer

Tonight's the Night - an interview with Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

Playing Sadie - an interview with Actor Lindsay Burdge

English Subtitles for the Hard of Hearing

By midlandsmovies, Oct 14 2019 07:51AM



The Irishman (2019) Dir. Martin Scorsese


Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, this epic flick from gangster maestro Martin Scorsese stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci as Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa and Russell Bufalino and tells of Sheeran’s rise in Bufalino’s crime family alongside his support to Union head honcho Hoffa.


The plot begins slow as a Scorsese staple voiceover and a rest-home based elderly Sheeran recounts his life over many decades. Sheeran is shown in flashback participating in the horrors of World War 2 alongside his rise as “muscle” for Jimmy Hoffa, the President of an American labour union. The honest goals of decent wages and workers’ rights are undermined with its links to organised crime which leads to Hoffa heading to prison for bribery and fraud.


The acting trio heavyweights not only bring their phenomenal talent to three well-defined roles, the film plays on their combined cinematic history and their previous performances. De Niro as the gangster on the rise dealing in dodgy goods in trucks echoes his Goodfellas scams (a meat truck specifically so) whilst Pacino is constantly about to burst with his legendary rants. Pesci however is far more subdued – perhaps his years in retirement have mellowed the actor – but he holds his own by playing against type as the stoic but scary mob boss whose softly-spoken delivery of dialogue hides his real, and deadly, intentions.


As Sheeran gains respect within the union (Scorsese has him blowing up a fleet of Taxis – nice!) he gets slowly drawn into a murky world of scumbags. It’s also the little details the director adds such as Sheeran explaining about beer-soaked hotdogs, which is similar to the garlic slicing in Goodfellas, and importantly inserts small aspects that make the world breathe.


Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel also makes a cameo appearance but it’s Liverpool-actor Stephen Graham who steals the show in some feisty (and funny scenes) with Al Pacino. Graham plays Anthony Provenzano who is allowed to bankroll his activities using Union Funds but has fiery conflicts with the notorious punctual Hoffa by showing up late (and in shorts) to important meetings. Pacino and Graham have some terrific dramatic back-and-forths before their characters end up in federal prison where their sentences overlap and further fighting occurs.


Another actor of note is an understated Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s daughter Peggy who disowns her father owing to his involvement in serious crime. An earlier scene in a bowling alley with the young Peggy and a restrained Pesci creates a tension that also delivers a satisfying pay-off later.


There’s no avoiding the extended runtime and, for me, there were few iconic and easily-identifiable memorable moments but the overall structure is fulfilling. It’s an intentionally slower paced movie with Scorsese and the actors reflecting on their respective film gravitas. And the use of flashback and narrative recollection represents a reassessment of a life of violence (and violent films) and family (the casts’ relationship to each other).


Speaking of age, the director’s use of de-aging CGI is very impressive with ILM subtly capturing the youthful looks of the main cast. This works especially well on De Niro who at times looks no different to when he played his last role for Scorsese as Casino boss Sam Rothstein 24 years beforehand.


A loving goodbye, age has mellowed them all and the film’s measured pace and phenomenal length, which in all honesty could have been trimmed quite significantly, will either put you off or draw you in. For me, it mostly brought me into a satisfying world of sleaze, bribery and immorality but be wary, the runtime is a hindrance at points as it expands scene times to the limit, and sometimes beyond their dramatic breaking point.


However, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is first-rate nonetheless. The movie is an extraordinary drama of historical importance and covers contemporary themes of authoritarian corruption and violence, but it is also a more than pleasurable and honest love letter to the group’s past creative endeavours together.


★★★★



Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Oct 10 2019 09:50AM



The Day Shall Come (2019) Dir. Chris Morris


As a huge fan of Chris Morris’ previous work, it’s great to see the director back after his successes of The Day Today, Brass Eye and the controversial suicide bomber film Four Lions.


Here Marchánt Davis plays Moses Al Shabaz who is an unstable preacher in a Miami commune who is investigated by a corrupt FBI. They are shown to undertake morally dubious undercover work in their attempts to convict potential terrorists.


Anna Kendrick is Kendra Glack, an operative whose conscience is tested by the bureaucratic game-playing of the FBI and police procedures she is forced to adhere to. And before long, the FBI is actively “encouraging” the group to take risks that they would not do otherwise.


Although this film is certainly a new project, the obvious surface parallels with Four Lions – a bungling religious group, the incompetent authorities – mean The Day Shall Come feels very familiar and it’s sad to say but Four Lions works better in almost every respect.


With its razor-sharp focus and balance of politics, drama and farce, Four Lions’ satirical targets are so precise that it’s a shame this film’s criticism of American security spirally wildly within the narrative. Also, Four Lions’ Riz Ahmed was essentially the “straight” guy to the foolish antics of his friends and this film was aching for a similar central character (either from Moses’ group or the FEDs) to ground the whole thing.


Sadly there isn’t and there’s nothing stopping it from sometimes twisting off into nonsense – especially in the third act. With this scattershot approach, the themes are not as insightfully critiqued as they need to be.


And from nuclear weapons to bank loans, The Day Shall Come wants to target every hot topic in the current climate and therefore loses further focus. The cast are ok but praise should be singled out for Marchánt Davis’ likeable and funny portrayal of the naïve Moses, but even his best efforts couldn’t keep the narrative on course.


With a concluding coda that is inevitable (and again, similarily ‘borrowed’ from his own Four Lions), it has to be said the movie is a rather large disappointment from someone I expected so much more from.


★★★


Michael Sales



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, Aug 27 2019 06:00PM



Stairs (2019)


Directed by Tom Paton


Mosley Productions


The very prolific Midlands-originating director Tom Paton who has tackled 5 features in as many years returns with new movie Stairs, an action flick with lashings of fights, drama and a dark splash of the supernatural.


Opening in Eastern Europe, a group of crack commando special mercenaries are privately hired on a mission to gather intel and kill anyone who stands in their way.


After completing their task, one woman survives but Commander Will Stanton (a bearded X-Factor winner Shayne Ward) demands one of his crew (Samantha Schnitzler as Kia Clarke) leave no one alive. In cold blood she reluctantly follows his orders. Also along for the ride is Toby Osmond (Game of Thrones), Sophie Austin (Call The Midwife), Alana Wallace (Black Site) and Bentley Kalu (Wonder Woman).


From the outset and despite the low budget, the film’s design looks suitably authentic – real automatic weapons, whole fleets of jeeps and military equipment give the army set-up a realistic tone. What isn’t so realistic sadly is an overly-saturated blue filter over the sequence to represent “dawn”. A day-time shoot would have been fine and the only change in the first 15 minutes is the addition of a green filter for a point-of-view scope of a rifle shot.


Once that goes however, we have a much better-looking film (although it returns in the form of a lot of red) and once back at their headquarters, the group head up some stairs for a debrief even though Kia is haunted by the atrocity of her actions in the field.


Yet as they ascend, the team find themselves stuck in the stairwell with no comms or support but is this a drill, an emergency or something altogether much more sinister? With a bit of a nod to Dredd and The Raid where an armed group are trapped in one building location, the claustrophobia gets to the audience but also to the characters who start pontificating on their lack of progress.


With a few monologues (bit of a genre cliché but expected nonetheless) giving some exposition – perhaps a bit too much at times – the strange environment turns even weirder as they begin hallucinating a bloodied woman amid ghostly noises and whispers. A spooky piano-played child lullaby adds a supernatural feel to the proceedings and eventually one unfortunate member falls to their death.


Much to my surprise however, when the unit finally find an exit on these endless Escher-like steps, the film takes an astonishing left turn. Stepping through the door, they find themselves transported back in time to the field from the opening scene. Well I wasn’t expecting that!


A kind of Groundhog Day/Back to the Future 2 situation occurs and now the team are forced to repeat endless loops (or video game levels) of violence to resolve their predicament – learning more each time they rerun. This “circle” of hell is hinted upon in the dialogue with allusions to purgatory, faith and guilt as the characters are trapped in their personal prisons.


These aren’t fully explored sadly, as the film decides to stick to its guns (literally in fact) and follows the rigid action beats of the genre. And it also reminded me at times (in a good way) of Edge of Tomorrow and 2018’s Overlord which mixed a similar military group dealing with an inexplicable other-worldly entity.


Without spoiling any ending, the film continues with more action scenes and a satisfying amount of gory and bloody wounds to boot. As an aside, unfortunately the film uses CGI muzzle flashes which does a sad disservice to the genuine stunts and accomplishments elsewhere.


But as the film clambers to its conclusion, Stairs provides the right amount of bangs and bust-ups. And it sits alongside Outlawed as a local British film bravely attempting to take on the bigger budget actioners of Hollywood. Whilst there are certainly a few minor flaws – many simply to do with a low budget (plus my colour filter pet peeve) - the film has a very unique idea which makes it far more interesting than the usual “Expendables” style flick. So in the end, Stairs sticks with what it knows best and is well worth a climb for any fans of supernatural-infused action.


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Aug 26 2019 07:49PM



Double Date


Directed by Benjamin Barfoot


After two years sitting in digital streaming no-man’s land, 2017 horror comedy Double Date finally comes to BluRay on September 9th courtesy of new British firm Sparky Pictures.


Written by and starring Danny Morgan, he plays Jim – a tongue-tied virgin whose arrogant wing-man friend (Michael Socha as Alex) tries to get him laid before his 30th birthday as his own personal goal.


A Sin City/Shaun of the Dead comic style opening with blood red titles against stark black backdrop sets the scene for this comedy-horror which has rude and crude dialogue but its fair share of blood and guts too.


As Alex tries to get Jim to use his ABCs of pulling - Act, Blag & Check-out – the two lads have the misfortune of running into two killer sisters (Georgia Groome and Kelly Wenham as Lulu and Kitty) who are looking for a virgin man to sacrifice as part of a cult ritual.


The cinematography is great for a low budget indie feature and the soundtrack is also a highlight with a cool collection of tracks & a tribal groove score from a band called Goat. Run to Your Mama is noticeably good even for an old rock-metaller like me!


Like the sirens of mythology, the two girls lure the two hapless geezers to a mansion ready for their “sacrifice”. They go via Jim’s embarrassing family who do the most mortifying quartet singing since Trading Places. The middle section in a club slows the narrative a little but as they go to Alex’s father living in a caravan, we get a more than welcome cameo from Dexter Fletcher.


For me though, the horror worked much better than the lad-culture comedy which I didn’t much care for. It seemed to want to subvert the machismo but it revels in it at the same time. The bloody violence, well-choreographed fights and the flickering candle lighting in the second half of the film gave it a creepy vibe I wanted to see much more of.


Not without its charms, lovers of the genre will lap it up and it is way better than average for this sort of movie. And although it’s not completely my cup of tea, fear fans could do a lot worse than set a date to see this frightful yet fun flick.


Michael Sales



By midlandsmovies, Aug 22 2019 11:06PM



Under the Silver Lake (2019) Dir. David Robert Mitchell


In 2001 indie chiller Donnie Darko became an underground runaway success and director Richard Kelly followed up that intelligent dark drama with a film so bad, indulgent and incomprehensible (2006’s Southland Tales) it pretty much killed his career. Well, in true Groundhog Day style, this L.A.-set neo-noir mystery film is a gigantic misfire on almost all counts, which is a shame as fans of David Robert Mitchell’s 80s-infused horror It Follows were no doubt anticipating something exciting for his second movie.


The plot, if you can decipher it, involves Andrew Garfield investigating the sudden disappearance of his neighbour Riley Keough, but during his escapades uncovers a large and complicated conspiracy. A great score clearly influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock is about the only positive to recommend the film, as low-brow discussions on masturbation and nudity crossed with comics and animated sequences fill a ridiculous incoherent narrative involving songwriters, a dog killer and some underground Pharaoh bunkers.


Influences range from Mulholland Drive, Raymond Chandler and Chinatown as we get dream sequences, the seedy underbelly of the city and some classic detective tropes but although it’s never really boring, it’s always awful.


There’s a scene midway through that so sums up this gigantic misfire that you must think that the director is trolling the audience into disliking his own film. “Do you like the movie?” asks one character to Sam (Garfield) as he stands in a cemetery next to a HITCHCOCK grave watching a film before 3 girls get into a limousine with a fancy-dressed pirate. What? How VERY clever of you.


The music is stupidly on the nose such as it is, including the “Behind movie scenes” line from Cornershop’s Brimful of Asha to REM’s What’s the Frequency, Kenneth. Ambitious, weird and bizarre but consistently terrible, Under the Silver Lake is what 2 stoner mates may think was a good idea at 4am but the film is baffling in construction and makes a terrible attempt to satire the movie industry and provides a lame and superficial commentary on female representation.


The only reason I watched right to the end of the credits was because I was hoping to get a fucking apology. I didn't.


★ ½


Michael Sales

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


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