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By midlandsmovies, Apr 27 2019 07:20AM



Suspiria (2018) Dir. Luca Guadagnino


Having just discovered the original Suspiria 1977 two years ago (yeah, I know) I was impressed with the Giallo style and music of the cult classic but a tad underwhelmed – perhaps as a result of high expectations.


However, as stylish as Dario Argento’s film was, this film – which is “inspired” by that horror of the same name – goes to much more complex and dark places than Argento’s slasher.


The story is familiar as Dakota Johnson’s expert dancer heads to Berlin to enrol in a dance academy in the 70s but finds there are dark forces behind the façade of the respected school.


Stylistically Guadagnino avoids the extreme colours of the original – bar some fantastical dream sequences – and shows Berlin as an oppressive and grey city rocked by terrorist atrocities. And although these ideas aren’t fully formed – some going nowhere – the constant presence of outside public news is as oppressive as the oppressiveness featured within the mirrored walls of the school itself.


Despite her unquestionable talent Susie Bannion (Johnson) begins to exhibit traits of a missing student and a parallel story sees psychotherapist Josef Klemperer investigate the mystery. Sadly one of the biggest drawbacks is the decision to cast Tilda Swinton, an actress I love, as the very male doctor. Each of her appearances – in what has to be said is fantastic make-up – took me out of the movie and seems an excellent experiment in the wrong film for it.


Swinton does the best she can caked in prosthetics BUT also appears as stern matriarch Madame Blanc – the lead choreography teacher and away from the sex-swap role is much better in delivering a strict matron – but one with a layer of sensitivity and doubt by the film’s conclusion.


The film’s editing begins chaotically and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke provides a soundtrack that echoes some of the original’s melodies but in fact sets itself apart from it in the best way possible. From full songs that contain his inimitable falsetto, Yorke also seems to have delved into horror music’s past. With orchestral segments reminiscent of Bernard Herrman’s Psycho score to repeated piano refrains influenced by Halloween and The Exorcist, Yorke keeps the score diverse, layered and yet unobtrusive throughout. A phrase not echoed in the original’s bombastic and totally over-powering music.


One of the best scenes in the film occurs when a student threatens to leave but is locked in a rehearsal room and Johnson’s dance moves in another room are replicated – voodoo doll-style – by the trapped woman. Smashing her bones into the mirrored wall and with joints flying out of sockets, the beauty of the dance shapes are contrasted brilliantly with the nastiness of the injuries being inflicted.


Disgusting, shocking and bloody, it’s a masterclass of visual storytelling and horrific aesthetics, and is one of the best scenes of 2018 without question and has to be seen to be believed. Brace yourself people.


As the teachers are slowly revealed to be part of a witches coven, the film explores issues of motherhood as they try to “re-birth” the spirit of Markos – currently contained in the body of a disfigured corpse-like woman.


The dancing is fantastic and the dull-colour palette of the film is punctuated by the vivid reds of dance costumes, dresses and, of course, plenty of the red stuff as Johnson uncovers awful goings-on in the hidden catacombs of the academy building.


As the film comes to a physical crescendo the ending is a slight let down with a new twist on the original. And with the good work delivered to that point it becomes frustratingly unfortunate that clichéd operatic music and a seen-it-before ceremony brings the film to a slightly drab conclusion.


That said, despite a 2 and a half hour run time – which certainly doesn’t feel like it – Suspiria is a gory piece of art from start to finish. Themes of guilt, history and power are all thrown into a mix of dark passions and the body horror/beauty of contemporary choreography. Whilst not all of them gel together, the film dances to its own ritualistic chaos in a distorted orgy of cinematic pleasures.


★★★★ ½


Michael Sales



By midlandsmovies, Dec 17 2018 10:12AM



The Predator (2018) Dir. Shane Black


Wow! Just wow! To have seen The Predator is truly to have witnessed a tragedy. Why may you ask? Well, I’ve been reviewing films on and off for 10 years now and this movie left me flabbergasted in a way very few have.


The 4th instalment of The Predator series (discounting the AvP films), the film sees one of the original film’s stars and now noted director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys) return to the sci-fi stylings launched by Schwarzenegger and co back in 1987.


One of the flaws of the first Predator film was the late insertion of a Predator spaceship heading to Earth in the opening. Without this scene the glorious alien reveal half way through the movie would have been even more impactful.


So how does The Predator open? Well, much like the rest of the film it takes anything remotely enjoyable from the series and throws it in the bin with a poorly-rendered CGI spaceship crashing on our planet. Immediately The Predator – whose main skill in the previous films is its infamous cloaking device – is shown on screen in a gun fight with a group of soldiers. No mystery. No intrigue. Poor action. Here we go.


And you know what was missing from the classic 80s action film original? Well, you may not have known it, but what you were really clamouring for was a child star and some scenes of a school chess club.


Tackling autism so inappropriately not even the likeable young actor Jacob Tremblay can do anything with a script and characters that are so clunky, underdeveloped and clichéd. Characters may be too generous a term however and whilst the boy ends up with Predator armour that his military dad (Boyd Holbrook as Quinn McKenna) has mailed to him, the Predator has since been captured ready to be tested on in a lab.


And what a lab! Imagine if you will Dr. Evil’s lair from Austin Powers as brightly lit as the pure-white scenes from THX1138. Yet with the appearance of Jake Busey (a sly nod to his father’s appearance in 2) and a set seemingly made of cheap plastic, the film begins to have all the cinematic gloss of a jungle grub.


McKenna’s army “hero” ends up joining forces with a set of inept military captives and Black’s talent for witty scripting is nowhere to be seen as “yo momma” quips and Tourette syndrome expletives pepper the awful, no woeful, dialogue.


How could this get any worse? Well, there’s Predator dogs, a larger Predator antagonist (both badly CGI’d as well) and “action” scenes set amongst the corridors of a high school. Alien vs Predator: Requiem was rightly slated for its dark lighting rendering scenes unwatchable but the TV-level cinematography swings the opposite way here. Over-lit and under-cooked, the film’s focus on children, slapstick bro-dude “comedy” and the inane script gives that film some competition in its awfulness.


Even the little things annoy. A weapon prop so badly designed it looks like the SEGA Menacer video game light gun. A rubbery-suited Predator design from a Las Vegas fancy dress shop. A selection of 90s-level VFX sequences that look like outtakes from The Faculty.


Whatever this film set out to achieve it fails across every single one of them. The Predator is a dumb, badly-written and awfully constructed mess of a film whose one saving grace is that it makes all other Predator films seem better by its very existence. It’s almost beyond comprehension how any of this even passed the brainstorming phase and with a low box office take we can only hope no further sequels are in the works anytime soon.


3/10


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Dec 13 2018 03:28PM



Venom (2018) Dir. Ruben Fleischer


Upgrade (2018) Dir. Leigh Whannell


A two-for-one double review for films that have a two-for-one protagonist as we see Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy-lookalike Logan Marshall-Green both appearing in high-concept action films where they are fused with powers they end up speaking with.


First up, Venom sees Tom Hardy’s roving reporter Eddie Brock get ‘infected’ by an alien symbiote to create a powerful anti-hero who, violently, is trying to do the right thing against Riz Ahmed’s evil scientist. Broad strokes are the name of the game here as we get the superhero origin story with evil genius, concerned ex-girlfriend and transformation scenes so by-the-numbers the plot could have been designed on an abacus. Michelle Williams plays Brock’s girlfriend in a wasted role and the film is astonishing in how it can take three of the best actors working today and give them literally nothing to work with at all.


A selection of so-so action sequences are dotted throughout and the film improves immensely when Venom finally appears as a foul-mouthed monster that argues with his host Brock. But sadly this is far too late in the film and the CGI Venom design is only about 5% better than its 2007 iteration in Spider-Man 3. And, in all honesty, had me wishing I was watching that film at times instead. Sadly the director Fleischer has never been able to recreate that rush of fun and horror from his first film Zombieland, the tone of which is solely needed here in his latest film.


So moving on, earlier this year we also had another action body horror in the form of Upgrade. Logan Marshall-Green, who funnily enough is already in the MCU Spidey-verse with a brief appearance in Spider-Man: Home-Coming, stars as Grey Trace (which sounds a bit like Topher Grace who was Venom in Raimi's three-quel) who after being paralysed in a brutal attack – which also sees his girlfriend killed – is implanted with a bionic chip. This AI called STEM is designed by Elon Musk, no wait, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) and is surgically inserted into Trace’s body which allows him to regain control of his limbs.


STEM then “speaks” into his mind directly and the two (?) go on a revenge spree to serve justice to those who attacked him. The AI quickly learns vicious fighting techniques and before long, the duo are picking off the assailants. The film however takes its ridiculous premise far too serious at times. In the hands of a sci-fi auteur like Paul Verhoeven Upgrade could have mixed the balance better by giving the whole film a satirical bite. As it is, the fight scenes are fun but sparse and the dramatic sequences dull and bland. With the film spiralling into a confusing high-tech plot, the narrative “discoveries” can be seen from a mile away and frankly any time when the film begins its exploration into society/tech-fears it lost momentum.


So, with Venom’s (frankly unbelievable) $852.7 million box office takings and Upgrade’s innovative but flawed genre goals, somewhere between the two films a good movie may have emerged from the Hardy/Marshall-Green soup. If I was forced to pick I slightly preferred the originality of Upgrade’s idea but with that worldwide gross, I know which flick we’ll be seeing more of in the inevitable sequel which is a shame.


Venom 6/10


Upgrade 6.5/10


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Dec 12 2018 12:00PM



Stronger (2018) Dir. David Gordon Green


David Gordon Green has a varied CV with misfiring comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness sitting with more dramatic fare like 2013’s Joe with Nicholas Cage. My recommendation is to avoid comedy, Sir, for your more serious takes a far better.


Like Joe, we get a great central performance, this time from Jake Gyllenhall. Here he plays Jeff Bauman who in real life lost both his legs during the terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon. Unlike Patriot Day, a film which I hugely enjoyed (see review here), the film avoids the police investigation into the perpetrators and focuses on one of the victims maimed on that fateful day.


Adjusting to his new life, Gyllenhaal gives an unbelievably good performance as man plagued by demons and alcoholism but injects enough vulnerability that the audience sympathise with him given the difficulties he faces. Surprisingly there’s a fair amount of comedy had here too. Bauman is shown to make light of his injury at times and there is a dark sub-plot of exploitation of the media which fleshed out the background to his journey.


The film also doesn’t scrimp on the awfulness of the injuries – with blood, limbs and body parts strewn in the bombing recreation flashbacks - and a scene where Bauman has his bandages removed for the first time may be one of the hardest things to watch in 2018.


Dealing with the subject sensitively, yet exploring the trauma and frustrations of the aftermath, Stronger has a fine support cast with Tatiana Maslany as Jeff's girlfriend and Miranda Richardson as Jeff's mother. Carlos Sanz as Carlos Arredondo – the man who saved Jeff at the scene gives a brief but powerful turn as well.


Although Stronger isn’t a game changer, it provides a fascinating insight into the rehabilitation process and shows an audience how difficult it is to deal with both physical and mental scars – all grounded by Gyllenhaal’s mesmerising central role.


7/10


Mike Sales



By midlandsmovies, Dec 11 2018 01:29PM



The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) Dir. The Coen Brothers


A 6-part anthology film that quickly ended up on Netflix, the award-winning Coen brothers are not immune to the modern day perils of the straight-to-streaming phenomena. However, like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, cinematic quality is there from the outset and this easily could have been more widely released in cinemas.


And given its quality it is a huge shame it wasn't.


The multiple, and magnificent, stories themselves are framed within the pages of a book and contain a range of tonally different shorts all set in the Wild West. The Coens’ dark humour and splashes of violence are well and present and the stories include a cocky outlaw played brilliantly by Tim Blake Nelson who sings (and floats) his way to heaven (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), James Franco’s bank-robber hanging by a noose (Near Algodones) and Liam Neeson’s impresario riding through towns with his actor Harrison who has no arms and legs (Meal Ticket).


The eclectic situations continue with Tom Waits’s grizzled prospector searching for riches in the wilderness (All Gold Canyon), a wagon train being attacked by natives (The Gal Who Got Rattled) and finally five people in a stagecoach that refuses to stop as it carries a dead body (The Mortal Remains).


With something for everyone, the yarns each have their own unique style and death and misery appear in all the tales. But the Coens haven’t scrimped on the comedy from annoying dogs, witty songs and characters trapped within their situations to humorous effect.


My personal favourite was The Gal Who Got Rattled with an excellent Zoe Kazan as innocent Alice Longabaugh and Bill Heck as the kindly and gruff Billy Knapp. That story could happily have been part of a longer film and the mixture of deadly attacks and sharp conversation was a highlight.


That said, each story has its own charms and for someone not keen on anthology flicks (see my Ghost Stories review here) the Coens have managed to weave 6 amazing stories into a cohesive and thematic whole.


Where Hail Caesar tackled Roman epics (and musical numbers) amongst its Hollywood setting, the Coens' influences here come from the American love of frontier films - another classic genre linking their modern takes within established cinematic history.


Not diverging greatly from their usual style, the death-obsessed duo deliver another historical romp with a great cast and amazing outdoor locations.


8/10


Mike 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


By midlandsmovies, Dec 11 2018 01:04PM



The Night Comes for Us (2018) Dir. Timo Tjahjanto


It would be easy to compare this film to 2011’s The Raid given the two main actors Joe Taslim as and Iko Uwais are major players in both films, yet it’s that film I cannot reference here with its similar mix of Indonesian gangs and corrupt cops fighting for honour and power using the most violent means possible.


And violent it is! Extremely.


When Ito (Taslim) saves a young girl and goes rogue from lethal Triad enforcers the Six Seas, he is immediately hunted down by the gang and thus begins a film that is almost entirely action-orientated throughout. Iko Uwaisis as Arian is called up to kill the traitor and Taslim returns to an old friend’s apartment for refuge.


It’s at this apartment where the best scenes occur. Forced into a tight situation, the character set up is fleshed out before the martial arts kick in and flesh of another kind is strewn around the room. Fantastic brawling action is brilliantly filmed with the character development helping us care about each person’s fate. Arms are blown off, necks are broken and if you don’t like stabbings or gunshots then don’t even think about watching this film. Oceans of blood are spilled and the bone-crunching punches and killings soon leave bodies piling up.


If there was one thing missing, it is that the film quickly ditches its character motivations for more endless fights. As well as they are filmed, the movie needed some space to give the audience the chance to take a breath. It also plays its best hands far too early. The aforementioned early apartment fight is followed by a great battle in a police van but soon repetition kicks in and, like The Raid, once you get down to one-on-one fights, the film all but loses its momentum.


That said, action and martial arts fans will lap up the phenomenal fight choreography and Zack Lee as "White Boy" Bobby is a minor character who steals any scene he is in. Stylish and frenetically chaotic, The Night Comes for Us is not for the queasy but its wild action and furious violence results in an intense experience that you won’t forget in a hurry.


The fight comes to you!


8/10


Mike Sales





By midlandsmovies, Dec 7 2018 12:36PM



Three Identical Strangers (2018) Dir. Tim Wardle


[Spoilers – please be aware this review reveals the film's main story]


This excellent new 96-minute documentary comes from Tim Wardle who re-discovers one of the more bizarre stories from the early 80s and re-positions it as a far more complex and dark tale than initially thought.


An outstanding opening tells the story of a young man, Robert Shaffran, who heads to college only to be mistaken by random strangers as their friend Edward Galland. After establishing that Robert isn’t Edward – who dropped out of the same college the previous year – fellow student Michael Domnitz encourages Robert to contact Edward and they drive cross-country to go meet him the very same day.


Amazingly, the tale unfolds to reveal that the two mistaken men are in fact twins, separated at birth through adoption yet who grew up in the same area.


The documentary uses talking head interviews to explain their incredibly wild story in simple terms which makes the tale all the more fascinating when the coincidences occur. And what coincidences!


As only a short time later – with the brothers’ story and photos making national newspapers – they are contacted by another man, David Kellman, who questions why he is looking at a picture of two of himself.


And so, the three men come to realise that far from twins, they are in fact a set of triplets who were raised in different households by loving families, unaware of each others existence.


Splicing in footage from the time across interviews, panel shows and question and answer TV appearances, the trio come across as likeable, fun and eerily similar siblings who make the most of their new found fame and fortune.


However, in a search for some answers to their adoptive pasts the families uncover a sinister reason for their separation involving a science experiment by psychiatrists Viola W. Bernard and Peter B. Neubauer. Without care or diligence, the two set a terrible scheme in motion to try and answer the age-old question of what has the most influence in our lives – nature or nuture?


The “scientific” study is given ominous context and with the full results sealed in a locked vault at Harvard University the brothers struggle to come to terms with their predicament. Grappling with their world, and their inner demons, one of them eventually commits suicide and the painful reality of their topsy-turvy lives is underscored in this honest yet fascinating documentary.


As with many of the best documentaries, it is the story itself that is the real enticement for audiences but the filmmaker’s change of tact to delve into the murky past and shady machinations is to its benefit and depth, with the film contrasting the happy reunion with the fatal outcomes.


Chilling, thrilling and fulfilling the documentary serves up a triple whammy of satisfying characteristics and combined with the revealing and candid interviews with the put-upon and exploited participants, it ends up being one of the best documentaries of 2018.


8.5/10


Mike Sales



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