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By midlandsmovies, Jan 13 2018 09:13AM



Darkest Hour (2018) Dir. Joe Wright


There are problems at the heart of Darkest Hour, a film about how Winston Churchill navigated his first days as prime minister in 1940, much as there were with man himself. Namely, how to weave a suspenseful tale out of a story where the ending is known; and also how to make a human character from a man that has become a legend. Joe Wright’s film mostly tackles these problems well but it loses its way at the worst possible moment.


The strength of the film is that it never loses sight of the fact that Churchill, and here in particular his political rivals, are flawed people bumping up against each other in close confines — often the miniscule cabinet war room — in a struggle where the stakes could not be higher. This is more political thriller than biopic.


Hitler’s military is sweeping all before it in western Europe, the entire British army is encircled at Dunkirk and Calais, meanwhile, in closer quarters Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, his parliamentary party and even the king are opposed to his premiership. He only has the job, the film tells us, because he is the only senior Tory who the opposition will accept as a leader.


Hanging over him is the military disaster at Gallipoli in the First World War, and a reputation for an intense self-regard — indeed, an acknowledgement from family and colleagues that he has always prioritised his personal political ambition.


So now that Churchill has his chance — or as he puts it at the start of the film, his rivals have their chance of revenge by putting him in the hot seat — how can he cling on to power among with so little support, and with Chamberlain and Halifax scheming to have this delusional warmonger removed from power altogether.


That this film was made at all, and the review is being written in English, perhaps gives the clearest indication of why Halifax and Chamberlain are the villains of the piece, but one of the film’s triumphs is to have these characters seem as reasonable in their aims as Churchill is steadfast in his.


The film swoops in and pulls away from the tight knit circle around Churchill to show the consequences of all that fighting in the war room and bitter-sweet family moments. In fact, it does this quite literally on a number of occasions as overhead camera shots launch skywards to dwarf either Churchill, a French boy, a stranded English brigadier each during pivotal moments in the story.


But this film is a political thriller at heart, and taught and compelling one at that. And it is the drama at close quarters that captivates the most.


The pressure mounting on Churchill, superbly portrayed by Gary Oldman, increasingly alone as his rivals pressure him to consider a negotiated peace with Hitler, is thrilling. As is his wrestling with an awful decision about how best to save the British Expeditionary Force in France.


Malbrough man


But it is at Churchill’s own darkest hour, as he wrestles with what appears to be a bout of self doubt and his “black dog” of depression, that the film takes a nosedive. The only difference is the film’s own darkest hour seems born of hubris rather than lack of confidence.


From out of nowhere, King George V, previously a wet individual mulling over whether or not to bugger off to Canada and hoping his mate Halifax wins the prime ministership, appears from nowhere to give our hero a pep talk. It isn’t clear why but apparently he discovers his inner kingliness while standing about on the balcony one night at Buckingham Palace. Winnie and Georgie bond, and we can only be thankful the scene with a chest bump and a high five.


And so the toe curling begins in earnest.


A film this may be and it is right that it should not be a slave to historic detail. We are watching characters in a story, not real people. But what happens next is so out of character and so blatantly false that the tension falls slack immediately, like a sprinter pulling up with a dodgy hamstring. Unlike our protagonist, it never recovers and can only limp on.


Earlier in the film, when accepting the premiership from the king, Churchill tells a companion he has never taken a bus. But following the royal heart to heart, he leaves his chauffered car and takes the tube one stop between St. James’s Park and Westminster where he is to address parliament.


It is hard to know what the most unrealistic aspect of this scene is. That Churchill strikes up a conversation with a carriage full of Londoners? Or that it takes an inordinate amount of time for this train to travel a few hundred yards? Or is it that this aristocrat, direct descendent of the Dukes of Malbrough, born in Blenheim Palace in the age of empire is on the District Line at all? And that’s before we tackle into the excruciating dialogue.


Whichever it is, the overall effect is to rip the drama out of the film, all of the tension, and any sense of jeopardy. From here on in the whole thing becomes a victory parade, albeit done, as I said, with a limp. It does the story a disservice. Secure he may have been as leader having seen off Halifax, and with Chamberlain in terminal ill health, but he was still leader of a country all but on its knees in the face of overwhelming odds.


Darkest Hour is for the most part gripping and pacey, but just when it needed to step up a notch it pulls up short, only offering a lame attempt at a fist pump of an ending rather than what in real life must have been a far more intriguing story.


“Success is not final, failure is not fatal,” the film quotes Churchill as saying at the end. Both ideas apply to this film. The disappointing final furlong does not ruin the rest of it.


“… it is the courage to continue that counts,” ends that quotation. Whether audiences have the courage to persist with this film once it loses its way is a matter they will have to decide for themselves.


6/10


Ralph Sinclair



By midlandsmovies, Jan 12 2018 12:28PM



Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) Dir. Martin McDonagh


Is highlighting retribution as important as getting it yourself? Well, deep themes and jet-black comedy abound in this new low-key rural American drama from the British/Irish writer-director of In Bruges Martin McDonagh. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a put-upon mother who has lost a daughter in a violent rape and murder and, after the investigation stalls, rents three blood-red billboards on the outskirts of town. Not since Fargo has McDormand commanded a screen so fully but her foul-mouthed and impulsive renegade couldn’t be further from Marge Gunderson – although both have an intensity to see justice served.


With the billboards asking why local Sheriff Chief Willoughby (a fantastic supporting turn from Woody Harrelson) hasn’t made any arrests, not even his terminal illness breaks Mildred’s resolve to move her case forward. In addition, Sam Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon – an actor that against all popular opinion I’ve never particularly warmed to – gives the performance of a lifetime as a drunk, racist policeman trying to maintain some sort of order. Gaining her plenty of attention in the process, Mildred is a driving force in the narrative as she seeks retribution for the depraved death of her daughter whilst she continues to deal with flashes of extreme violence from her ex-husband (John Hawkes as Charlie Hayes) whose own response to the crisis is to date a 19-year old.


The humour comes from both McDormand’s quick and vulgar responses but also through more subtle and loving comedy in her relationship with her son (Lucas Hedges as Robbie Hayes). Extremely protective of him but also reflecting her own sass, the lighter dramatic moments are relief from the themes of passion and unthinking revenge which permeate the film.


[SPOILERS] When Sheriff Willoughby takes his own life owing to cancer, he communicates from beyond the grave in a very personal suicide letter both to his family and to Mildred about her case. In a film where characters seem stereotypical in their introductions, the nuanced screenplay and interesting threads and dramatic turns see characters developing across arcs that audiences will respond to. Sam Rockwell’s hot-headed and inexperienced police officer – who lives with his mum and was held back a year at police academy – takes his temper out on the locals before finding his own enlightenment through forgiveness and correcting mistakes of the past.


As Mildred goes to war with the whole town, her billboards create chaos but stir up strong emotions about redemption. Can we hold onto revenge or is there an inherent destructive force in our search for what’s right? When she attempts to stop her billboards burning – an arson attack sees Mildred battle huge flames with a tiny extinguisher – her small one-woman passions are at odds with the larger forces at work. Yet in both cases, despite the emotional drain, this does not stop her efforts and if anything stokes her fires further.


And it’s McDormand’s complete commitment to the role in every aspect – the tough-talking, the tear-jerking and the solemn reflecting – that centre the film and gives it a star attraction. Her struggles ensure the plot moves briskly and whilst the film’s conclusion feels like an audience can finally take a breather, the reality is simply a temporary calm rather than a newly established equilibrium.


Showing complex struggles from start to finish (including the police, ex-husband, strangers and even the dentist) “Three Billboards” fans the flames of passions and is a brilliant advertisement for the continued talent of McDonagh’s own dark interests. Delivered impeccably by a fantastic cast, the film provides no clear answers but continues the ideas set down within In Bruges. Like that movie, the idea that carrying the pain of past misdemeanours can not only be a detriment to others but mostly to one’s own soul.


9/10


Midlands Movies Mike


By midlandsmovies, Jan 9 2018 07:05PM



Good Time (2017) Dir. Ben and Josh Safdie


Robert Pattinson plays career criminal Constantine "Connie" Nikas who ropes his mentally disabled brother, Nick, into a bank heist in this new film from brothers Ben and Josh Safdie. Good Time was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and the film throws us straight into the brothers’ troublesome schemes. Their plans almost immediately go wrong as their ill-gotten gains from their robbery are tarnished when their bag explodes tainting the money (and them) in pink dye.


Whilst planning their getaway, Pattinson’s brother panics when confronted by cops and before long he is held in custody whilst Pattinson himself escapes leaving his brother to face jail. In prison, his brother is beaten and ends up in bandages in hospital.


Famed for Twilight and a stint in Harry Potter, both which I’m hardly a fan of, Pattinson has attempted to move away from those two infamous franchises with a choice of weird and wonderful indie flicks. Admirable though they may have been, I was no fan of fare such as Cosmopolis (2012, Cronenberg) but he is a great screen presence here and I’d go as far to say this is the most accessible of his post-Twilight films


Pattinson’s Connie then hatches a plan to break out his brother from the hospital but the slightly dull middle sequence is livened with a pulp-y twist straight from the pages of a ludicrous Dan Brown novel. Whilst the crime story has few unique elements – most of which are culled from better movies – the electronic score sounds akin to the eerie music from Stranger Things and is a great addition which provides far more atmosphere than most contemporary soundtracks.


More specifically, in this genre, there is a musical similarity to Drive (2011), whilst a long sequence in an amusement park to find a secret stash was visually inventive with its over-stylised Suspiria-esque lighting adding even more feeling. The ingenious use of the haunted house attraction allowed a fun night time chase to take place with Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips appearing as a brave security guard.


Stylistically, with the extreme lighting, the neon streets, the digital music and even Pattinson’s dyed blonde hair, it evokes some sense of Blade Runner. Stick with me on this. The Rutger Hauer hair and constant digital aural accompaniment gives the film a satisfying ambience and it’s worth noting the excellent performance of Ben Safdie in the supporting role of Connie’s brother Nick. He gives a tender and sympathetic performance in a film full of selfish thugs and his understated and quiet delivery is one of the film’s highlights and provides its much needed heart.


With that all said, is it much more than a good genre flick? Not particularly. Despite its soundtrack and gorgeous lighting, the film hits most of the brawny beats expected but with top performances and seedy sequences, you can do far worse than this movie. Bringing slick street cool to a standard thriller story, Good Time is solid without being stupendous but fans of dark crime flicks will find themselves having more of a great, rather than good, time.


7.5/10


Midlands Movies Mike



By midlandsmovies, Dec 17 2017 04:35PM



Brigsby Bear (2017) Dir. Dave McCary


Whatever your bug bears – Trump, Brexit, you name it – 2017 has already had its fair share of cynicism and with endless hostility in real life and on the internet, it’s easy to become pessimistic and bitter with the things around us. Which is why Brigsby Bear’s humanity is like a soothing tonic after wading through this year’s miseries!


Kyle Mooney plays James Pope, a man obsessed with a children’s show called Brigsby Bear which is akin to Barney the Dinosaur or Seasame Street. This one imaginative TV series is his sole focus before he is taken by the police from his bunker-like “home”. He is subsequently informed by the authorities that he was snatched as a baby, Ted and April Mitchum are not actually his real parents and that the Brigsby show was in fact creation by his ‘false-father’ Ted (a great support role from Mark Hamill).


As he is returned to live with his birth mum and dad, as well as his sister Aubrey, the awkward man-boy James struggles to integrate back into regular society. With a lifetime of obsession over the fictional Brigsby still bearing down on him, he fails to mix with the young partying adults around him but Mooney adds a great sympathy to what could be a cringe worthy character.


However, a newly formed friendship with Aubrey’s friend Spencer leads to a plan to complete the unfinished series using props from Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) who confiscated them during the arrest.


The film is full of life, passion and creativity and you can’t help but warm to James’ pure ambitions. Striving to overcome his social embarrassment, we root for the tongue-tied and self-conscious James as his untainted view on the world and love for the simpler things pull together those around him.


Some may find the film too saccharine or sentimental to truly achieve lofty cinematic heights but it is the simplicity of the tale, the characters and James’ aspiration that are its winning traits. As the fictional film they’re making spirals out of control, the low budget nature of their endeavours clearly reflect the filmmakers’ own passions and every positive ounce of that is on screen.


Good-natured without being drippy, Brigsby Bear invokes the best parts of child-like innocence and exalts the benefits of simplicity in order to find the simple joys in an ever confusing world. Brilliant.


8.5/10


Midlands Movies Mike


By midlandsmovies, Dec 15 2017 08:59AM



The Last Jedi (2017) Dir. Rian Johnson


WARNING: Contains spoilers


After the soft-reboot that was The Force Awakens and the misstep, for me, of the dull prequel Rogue One, with The Last Jedi comes Disney’s third foray into the galaxy far, far away with director Rian Johnson (Looper) stepping into the director’s chair.


We pick up where Force Awakens left us. Luke has banished himself on an island after failing to train Ben Solo, now Kylo Ren who is again played with evil ‘emo’ glee by Adam Driver. A courageous Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on a mission from the Resistance being tasked with coaxing the powerful Jedi back into action against the dastardly First Order. The internet was buzzing over what his (or her) first words would be. Two years in the making and every possible theory pored over and Johnson builds up tension with lingering shots on the two protagonists. And what are they? Well, essentially none. Cool-hand Luke slowly accepts his lightsaber in his robotic palm and then...simply chucks it over his shoulder and walks away.


And this favouring of the unexpected over the predictable is its winning formula and a metaphor for Johnson’s whole film. The moments an audience give assumed importance to are given little significance whilst the smaller details are given prominence throughout. Heck, Johnson provides an entire 10 minute battle sequence even before we return to the island and pick up the story JJ Abrams left us with.


Narrative wise, the film sticks to a basic plot where the resistance have been decimated to a few ships then go on the run tracked by huge star destroyers (now with a super-sized dreadnaught class version). Supreme Leader Snoke, another amazing Andy Serkis creation with pitch-perfect CGI, tasks Domnhall Gleeson’s pantomime Hux and Kylo Ren to continue their search for Rey in a bid to get her to turn to the dark side. The light-hearted family feel is there from the opening, the loveable rogue Poe Dameron, filling Harrison Ford’s shoes (AND clothes at times) delivers an overtly comedic exchange over a radio – again echoing Han in A New Hope. Despite its slightly awkward tone which made me fear “I have a bad feeling about this" it luckily settled down and Johnson balanced the light and dark with vigour.


As the resistance plans to infiltrate the First Order to stop their tracking device, John Boyega’s fantastic Finn gets a chance to shine as he joins feisty newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rose on a trip to Canto Bight and its wealthy casino patrons. Gambling on alien-horse races sees Johnson add a throwaway but thrilling CGI chase sequence which along with the city’s building design had the worrying look of the much maligned prequel trilogy. However, for me it felt as though it brought back the links between all trilogies which Johnson had fun in delivering. There’s also seeds sown of a wider universe with farm orphan slaves (“it’s like poetry, it rhymes”) being drawn into the events, perhaps helping to establish Johnson’s recently announced stand-alone trilogy. We’ll have to wait and see.


Rogue One’s fan-service appeared tokenistic but R2-D2’s playback of Star Wars’ original “you’re our only hope” message and a hugely surprising cameo from Yoda as a Force ghost were more than welcome. Context is everything and both served the story and I loved the fact the ghosts had returned for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.


However, at every turn the film swept me off my feet and pulled out something unexpected in each new scene. Expanding the myths of the force we see new powers including a resurrection and transcendence. Mark Hamill as Luke and the late Carrie Fisher as his sister Leia are both mesmerising in career defining performances and their coming together showed that amongst the battles, fights and comedy, the film’s tender emotional beats are what really draw you in.


Away from the nods, we get new creatures – the loveable puffin-like Porgs avoiding Jar Jar Binks levels of annoyance in the main – as well as new characters. Benicio Del Toro’s stuttering code-breaker and Laura Dern’s focused Vice Admiral are welcome additions with the latter’s sacrifice by flying a ship at lightspeed into another craft is one of the film’s visual highlights. With bombastic sounds being replaced with an eerie silence, the image is lingering and powerful. Alongside that, Snoke’s blood red throne room and a Kylo-Luke showdown showed the film’s cinematic ambitions were far more than space banter and franchise references.


In the end, this is epic blockbuster cinema at its very best. It would have been easy to follow the established pattern but the film sets up a precedent that anyone could be expendable which kept tension high. It also highlights how The Force Awakens, a film I hugely enjoyed, really didn’t tackle many new things yet this one twisted my expectations from the start.


With an expansion of its themes and both the classic and new characters finding their place The Last Jedi will hopefully satisfy super Star Wars nerds and general film audiences too. With such great filmmaking from Johnson, it’s a huge task to tackle the lore and the fan expectations of the infamous space opera, but the director more than comes through. Yet the main thing is the film is a lot of fun. Lots of unadulterated fun. And like the best cinema has to offer The Last Jedi leaves you both with a smile on your face and a lump in your throat.


10/10


Midlands Movies Mike



By midlandsmovies, Dec 6 2017 08:42PM



The Dark Tower (2017 film) Dir. Nikolaj Arcel


From the director of the critical hit Royal Affair (Danish: En kongelig affære) comes this adaptation, of sorts, of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Having only passing knowledge (and interest) in King’s opus, the film acts as a ‘continuation’ of the book’s story which sees gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) on a journey to protect the Dark Tower in a mythical world.


Matthew McConaughey sleepwalks through his performance as the Man in Black antagonist and the film encompasses a number of story threads from the 8-volume series in the hope to set up an ongoing franchise. However, we’ll be lucky to see even a second film in a movie filled with disappointing set pieces and to those unfamiliar with the work, like me, a whole host of fantasy gobbledegook about portals and reality-ending quests.


Much like my experience with Warcraft, the film struggles to explain its themes in a relatively short time (95 agonising minutes) – yet, on the other hand, I can also imagine fans screaming that the film’s length makes the long book far too simplistic at the same time. Therefore, satisfying neither audience it required to develop.


On the positive side, I enjoyed the set-up where a New York boy (Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers) has visions of another reality which subsequently come true, whilst McConaughey seeks a child with unsurpassable power for his evil ends, and their two paths intertwine.


However, I expect this Harry Potter-style discovery of a hidden magical world is hardly the depth the book’s fans needed or wanted. As the film drags towards its conclusion, a series of boring plot points are delivered in what appears to be a screenwriter’s nightmare to make sense of the book’s major scenes and it’s simply not engaging enough to stand on its own two feet.


The Dark Tower ends up being a boring stagnant journey that will struggle to entice new fans and no doubt fails to do justice to a complex novel series.


4/10


Midlands Movies Mike



By midlandsmovies, Dec 5 2017 08:17PM



Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos


From the director of The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos follows up that fantastical film with an allegorical journey plumbed from the depths of a Greek tragedy. A seemingly perfect American family (played by Irish, Australian & British actors and beginning the film’s unsettling traits) is headed by Colin Farrell’s surgeon whose life is interrupted regularly by an odd young boy called Martin, played by a fantastically freaky Barry Keoghan.


The boy hangs around the hospital and a local cafe where his presence haunts the surgeon on a near daily basis. Their unexplained relationship keeps the film’s strangeness at the forefront and with a stupendous set of orchestral songs from J.S Bach, Franz Schubert and Gyorgy Ligeti, there is a sense of classical Kubrick unease throughout. Slow tracking shots through long corridors and God-like aerial sequences capture the mythological tragedy and the presence of the “hands of the heavens” whilst again harking back to Kubrick-style mannerisms in tone.


The actors’ dialogue is in a stilted but poetic style which may grate on some audiences but here it felt perfect to focus on the discomforting feeling that haunts every moment. The director wrong-foots us time and again as characters are awkwardly, but purposely, filmed from low angles and sometimes placed at the far reaches of the frame. The story unfolds with the young boy’s presence causing a string of mysterious ailments to Farrell’s family. Is the boy possessed? A devil? A harbinger of doom? Fate itself? The film goes nowhere near answering this conundrum but focuses on the various natures of revenge, punishment and retribution.


With one of the best casts of the year, it is rounded out with Nicole Kidman who plays the idiosyncratic mother she’s so adept at (The Others and Stoker), Raffey Cassidy as the blossoming daughter and Sunny Suljic as the couple’s youngest and most innocent son. Maybe not for a passing cinema-goer, the film will find its fans in those willing to go to the darkest and most gruesome places and uses an antiquated literary device to help provide its metaphorical narrative.


Unlike Aronofsky’s mother! this film feels that it exists beyond its ancient allegory and with perfect performances, the movie will hopefully gain interest for its artistry alone but in fact leaves an audience with so much more to contemplate.


8/10


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Dec 1 2017 01:16PM



Atomic Blonde (2017) Dir. David Leitch


This action thriller film stars Charlize Theron as a spy uncovering double agents in Europe during the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.


Rather unoriginally, the film begins as a KGB agent steals a sensitive list of active-agents hidden in a wristwatch before cutting to a bruised and hurt Lorraine Broughton (Theron) as she proceeds to explain what happened in Berlin to her handlers. This flashback frames the story as the sarcastic agent recalls the events to the CIA (John Goodman) and her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and what unfolds is her experience to recover the list and uncover the identity of a double agent within the ranks.


All of this sets up a series of amazingly-filmed action sequences and the comparisons to this year’s John Wick: Chapter 2 are easy to see – no less obvious as director Leitch is also a producer on that film. With Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron showed she could handle punches, kicks and bone crushing fights and we get even more here with her central performance is key to the film’s charm.


Theron’s natural allure helps the audience get behind her mission but it’s the long one-take action scenes that are the film’s selling point. From bashing battles to bullets banging, the film mixes fantastic fight choreography with running, explosions and vehicle chases in a variety of exciting sequences that will keep you entertained, even though the clichéd story line hits familiar plot points.


The Berlin background is a nice change to the usual bland American cityscapes, but it is the 80s soundtrack and extreme lighting that really gives the film a different feel to its contemporaries. Like an action-filled Neon Demon, the colours pop from the screen whilst musical hits (and covers of hits) from Bowie, George Michael, The Clash and more help establish the historical context but also give the movie a soundtrack coolness not seen since the Guardians of the Galaxy films.


Support comes from a slightly bland and broad James McAvoy as an agent who is all, well, James McAvoy-like, whilst Sofia Boutella as Delphine plays an undercover French agent who is also Lorraine's lover. It’s great the film pays no attention to this seemingly edgy choice for a lead character's sexuality in a major release which is not only honourable, but fits well into the film’s narrative perfectly.


But in the end, like John Wick (with which there’s talk of possible a cross-over film), the movie is held together by the central show from Theron herself. She gives this exciting film a much-needed bout of sultriness, strength and poise alongside expertly handling the violent and bloody punch-ups.


7.5/10


Midlands Movies Mike



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