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By midlandsmovies, Aug 12 2018 07:00AM

Thoroughbreds (2018) Dir. Cory Finley

With a funky hipster trailer Thoroughbreds was sold as a modern knowing twist on something along the lines of Scream, when in fact it is a far darker exploration of revenge and bitterness away from slasher genre conventions.

We are first introduced to Olivia Cooke as Amanda (The Quiet Ones, Ouija) who joins fellow horror stalwart Lily, who is played terrifically by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) as friends who begin a dark alliance together.

Amanda states she feels little emotion and has been in trouble for animal cruelty after putting her injured horse out of misery with a knife. After being forced to meet Lily owing to a concerned parent, the pair soon rekindle their friendship and come across Lily’s cruel step-father Mark. Their smart teenager cynicism soon grows into far more creepy territory as they discuss the possibility of killing him.

Taylor-Joy as the prim puritan who slowly reveals her morbid aims is excellent and her steely persona contrasts with Cooke’s troubled and emotionally stunted Amanda who is a mix of disturbing unhappiness and dark sarcasm.

The late (and great) Anton Yelchin appears as a drifter druggie who duo try to lure into committing the crime as the girls twist and scheme to arrange their macabre proposal. His scatty and thoughtless criminal is a more humorous role and gives the film some space outside the claustrophobic confines of Lily’s oppressive house.

Thoroughbreds therefore sits with both Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker (2013) as brilliant left-field and artistic studies of evil teenage tearaways. And its intentionally slow and deliberate camera moves and suburban setting are akin to those found in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and allows audiences to both be drawn into the image whilst slowly building unbearable dread. This is especially true during the third act as their psychotic plans begin to play out.

New York composer Erik Friedlander delivers a beautifully eerie score which compliments the well-designed visuals and director Finley shows a masterful control and maturity in his debut feature.

With Taylor-Joy having success with a string of hit horror roles, she is also developing far beyond her “scream queen” tag and Thoroughbreds is another fantastic addition to her career. With Cooke’s sociopathic Amanda matching her every step along the way and Yelchin showing why he is a talent so sorely missed, the film delivers a wonderful atmospheric mix of themes.

Thoroughbreds is an accomplished exploration of both egotistical and conflicted morals with an exceptional cast working at the top of their game.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Aug 12 2018 07:00AM

A Quiet Place (2018) Dir. John Krasinski

Set in the year 2020 where the population has been decimated by an unknown but deadly foe, a family attempts to stay alive in A Quiet Place – the directorial debut of The Office’s John Krasinski.

The film introduces us to the Abbott family which comprises of Lee (Krasinki), his pregnant wife Evelyn (Krasinki’s real-life partner Emily Blunt) and their deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe). We are shown how youngest son Beau is killed by creatures which hunt by sound after he plays with a noisy toy given to him by his sister and, as we jump forward many years, the guilt still plays on her mind.

Very quickly establishing the rules of the world, the creatures are hyper-sensitive to noise yet the family are safe if a louder sounds masks their clamouring. All the while Lee attempts to contact potential survivors by radio but even the smallest clatter sends the family into a panic as they survive as pilgrims using what they can scavenge from abandoned shops and the surrounding forest.

Given sound plays such a prominent part in the film – or a lack of – the film is almost entirely without spoken dialogue and uses subtitles and a mix of sign-language to convey the expressive communication between the family members. Krasinski therefore demonstrates fantastic cinematic flair to create images, sequences and development all without verbal cues.

Action scenes are built to a crescendo of tension as the absence of sound focuses the audience on the tiniest of details. And in one particular scene, just an upturned nail on a stair. When a foot inevitably comes to stand on said rusty protrusion the slow accumulation of dread is what makes A Quiet Place so engaging. But the film doesn’t let up with all this pressure. The arrival of a nearby creature sees Blunt’s wife suddenly go into labour and we’re thrown into another life or death sequence.

Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in real life, is excellent as the troubled but resourceful youngster and is involved in another nerve-wracking scene atop a grain silo where noise, suffocation and nail-biting terror continue the remarkable twitchy sequences. Her scenes also have their sound removed which puts a greater focus on the visual elements whilst the alien creatures’ clicking mixes a bat’s echolocation with insectoid creepy crawly effectiveness.

With echoes of 2016’s horror-stalker film HUSH, A Quiet Place also uses sound brilliantly as we are sometimes thrust into the situation alongside our characters – whilst also being aware of sounds they are not. Krasinski brings his strong everyman persona to a father who risks everything to protect his children yet his technical expertise in managing diegetic sound with a cinematic score is masterfully balanced as to keep viewers right on the edge of their seat.

The unique creature design uses hard plates with muscular appendages and (mostly) avoids the bland Cloverfield-style computer game horde style of a Chitauri warrior. Which give them real menace even when finally revealed up close. But it’s the tremendous performances from the entire clan who give believability and emotion to what could be standard b-movie scares than really engages.

People have compared this to previous annual horror highlights The Witch and The Babadook but A Quiet Place’s style is far more accessible than those. It harks back to the visual language of early cinema so well it has an almost universal appeal.

Mostly avoiding jump scares, the real silent success is Krasinski himself who has taken an original idea and created a script and debut film with hugely entertaining results. Throwing in scenes of real anxiety, unease and boldness, Krasinski’s virtuoso film uses each of these elements to create a satisfying blend that delights but has more than its share of frights.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Aug 5 2018 07:00AM

Death Wish (2018) Dir. Eli Roth

Bruce Willis has the unenviable position of taking the top spot of our “worst of the year” 3 different times (Die Hard 5, Vice, Expendables 2) and with Eli Roth’s Death Wish, he’s doing a good job for being in contention for this year’s too.

A remake of the Charles Bronson 1974 revenge flick, Willis plays surgeon Paul Kersey who takes the law into his own hands after a home invasion sees his wife killed and his daughter end up in a coma. After getting hold of a gun, he prevents some low-level street crime which is captured on a camera phone.

The recorded video goes viral and he becomes a kind of national hero. Silly scenes of gratuitous violence and uninventive action sequences abound and, as always, Roth thinks he’s saying something about modern life.

Like his film Knock Knock (one of the worst films I’ve ever seen) Roth seems to believe he has the finger on the pulse of “youth” culture and its relationship to an older generation. But along with that film it’s a ham-fisted and low-quality attempt to pull this idea together.

After the 40-minute family drama opening, Death Wish turns 180 degrees to gross out torture porn by its end. And with his hoodie up and blank face, it’s as if Willis’ character David from Unbreakable used his powers for evil and went on a killing spree.

A waste of time that is perhaps trying to tap into the Taken crowd, Death Wish has a scene where a man actually gets hit on the head by a bowling ball which is a fine metaphor for this poor film itself.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Aug 5 2018 07:00AM

Isle of Dogs (2018) Dir. Wes Anderson

Pretentious. Hipster. Smug. You name it, I’ve said it about Wes Anderson films. His pop-up book aesthetic and cardboard characters have never done it for me sadly. Where there have been successes – my favourites being 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums and 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – the bold colourful stylistic choices from the director found fans from across the spectrum, but for me the hollow “model railway” compositions have often been a side-show nuisance. And with a similar look to all his output I’ve consistently struggled to discover much development beyond his first few movies.

But – and it is a real big but – his latest film Isle of Dogs is nothing short of a triumph. And I’m as surprised as anyone. This stop-motion animation has all the director’s usual norms, yet here they are in the service of a shaggy dog tale that works on many levels.

Loosely inspired by seeing a road sign for the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets (England), Anderson has set his film in a near-future Japan, where a canine-flu outbreak sees dogs banished to Trash Island by Mayor Kenji Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). 6 months later, the Mayor’s young nephew Atari then crash lands on the island as he searches for his exiled dog called Spots.

Saving Atari from a less-than-pleasant rescue team is a pack of hounds comprising Bryan Cranston as Chief, Edward Norton as Rex, Bob Balaban as King, Bill Murray as Boss and Jeff Goldblum as Duke. The group agree to help Atari in his search as a journey begins across the bizarre island.

Anderson’s “flat” shooting style works perfectly here and is reminiscent of Asian shadow puppetry seen using Kageboushi (silhouette). This ancient form of storytelling and entertainment uses back-lit cut out figures and although Anderson’s brilliantly animated scruffy dogs have more shape to them, his 2-D worlds sit nicely within this cultural look.

As a prelude to cinematography with use of slides, music and voice, Anderson’s film uses this influence to make his film simplistic but also cinematic. The voice work of established Anderson veterans is superb – with a world weariness coming across in each of their husky tones. Their gruff smarminess is complimented with real emotion and pathos whilst Anderson doesn’t scrimp on the silly comedy at times too.

A stylistic choice to avoid English subtitles on the Japanese speakers further emphasises the shared cultural understanding and far from appropriation, I saw the film’s focus on Asian ancestry as a love-letter to its many respected charms, beliefs and customs. The animation and design are also top-notch. Each dog has its own persona whilst their tribulations through garbage factories and fights with other packs are excellently conveyed in sequences filled with Anderson’s dry wit.

Another fine detail is the multi-faceted nature of the movie. One could read it as a cultural discussion, an auteur animation, a fight against power, a look at family units or just simply a tall children’s tale and all would be valid. Like the best of Pixar – Isle of Dogs takes universal ideas and delivers them back to a young and a mature audience to interpret without flagrantly pandering to either.

For someone who was incredibly indifferent about this director’s previous work, it has been more than a pleasant experience to find a film that satisfies me like most of them satisfy his fans. Cameos from Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton and even Yoko Ono round out the eclectic cast and provide some unique depth to the more basic story. So, the Isle of Dogs comes highly recommended from me and I found this surprising litter of canine characters and prevailing pedigree pups an absolute joy throughout their adventures on Trash Island.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Aug 5 2018 07:00AM

Ready Player One (2018) Dir. Steven Spielberg

Co-written by Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) and the novel’s author Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is a new film struggling hard to condense the pop-culture complexity of the book into a 2-hour action blockbuster from Steven Spielberg.

In 2045, the world’s decimated population is immersed in the OASIS – a virtual reality world where ‘anything goes’ – and whose creator James "Anorak" Halliday (Spielberg stalwart Mark Rylance) runs a contest to challenge players to uncover three hidden keys in the game to win full ownership of the pixelated world. A corporation run by Nolan Sorrento (the perennially evil Ben Mendelsohn) is out to use an army of players to find these treasures whilst teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his online friends try to get there first.

The beginning is everything I feared from the trailer. Figuratively and literally, the film’s opening is like watching a friend play a computer game – full of CGI, uncanny valley avatars and obvious pop culture references. The cool quirkiness of a Zombieland-esque voiceover filling in the backstory helps flesh the story out but the images are akin to the visual hell of Speed Racer (which is also referenced in the film itself). Its backwards in its introduction with a very quick ‘real-world’ segment before the likeable Sheridan has his amiable acting ditched for an elf-like cartoon avatar.

Ben Mendehlson is having some fun as he overacts his way through a very 80s inspired villain and whilst there are echoes of both Tron films, the quirky Mark Rylance as the OASIS’s creator channels South Park’s Matt Stone, Garth from Wayne’s World and (obviously) Steve Jobs in an eclectic performance.

The film sees Sheridan’s virtual character Parzival team up with Lena Waithe’s virtual mechanic Aech, Philip Zhao’s Sho, Win Morisaki’s Daito and Olivia Cooke’s feisty Art3mis as the "High Five", an informal group jumping from the game challenges to a virtual archive. The archive contains video clips reconstructing Halliday's life which provides clues to the game’s construction, history and to the concealed prizes too.

These historical sections are great and the scenes give a more human aspect to a film filled with so much spinning camera which, as a non-video game player, demonstrated how unattuned to this aesthetic I am. The film is so kinetic I struggled to focus on the action as the camera zipped from one millisecond shot to the next.

It’s not all bad however. I did find myself warming up to the (many) Back to the Future nods – from snippets of score, a ‘Zemeckis cube’ and the DeLorean itself. A section where the gang ‘visit’ The Shining is very good. Like Back to the Future 2, the characters actually go back into the movie in a phenomenal sequence that recreates the iconic hotel and visuals from Kubrick’s film flawlessly.

Whilst the tone varies between Wreck It Ralph and his own Minority Report, Spielberg becomes guilty of the teal/orange ending at the film’s finale making it look like every other blockbuster. The Michael Bay-ness of a huge CGI battle which although looks the business, uses stupidly quick editing and a constantly spinning camera that will give all but die-hard video game fans a migraine.

So I really just wished Ready Player One slowed down so I could savour the characters, story and action. It would really benefit from it as a movie but, again, feels like a real-life game delivering a style to satisfy gamers’ short attention spans.

But that leaves us the question as to who is the film for in the end? Whilst the style reflects modern gaming (MMRPGs and Metal Gear Solid aesthetics) the film references are pure 80s so what’s the audience here? At 38, I recognised most allusions to the trivia of the past but some will be aimed at kids who wouldn’t have a clue about Mad Balls, Chucky and Mecha Godzilla.

Fans of the book may find joy in seeing all their childhood pop-culture dreams come to life but the film feels a mish-mash of wildly varying tones and styles. The actors do the best they can with the material but by spending so long in the OASIS, the computer-generated ‘sprites’ left me cold without the human attachment so badly needed. A fun ride at times for sure, Ready Player One is an entertaining and sometimes dazzling blockbuster for the family. But bring your headache pills for the unfortunate messy action and endless trivia nods which are both at the expense of real character arcs.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Jul 29 2018 06:43PM

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018) Dir. Stefano Sollima

As a fan of Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario (review here), I described his cross-border drama as a “taut thriller with fantastic performances…with a tight and efficient script and a strong central showing from [Emily] Blunt”. With excellent Roger Deakins’ photography, it has to be said that the film wasn’t screaming out for any kind of sequel but here we are and with the director, Deakins and Blunt all missing, the film has direct-to-Netflix written all over it.

However, with stars Josh Brolin and Benico Del Toro returning alongside a strong support cast including Catherine Keener, Mathew Modine, Elijah Rodriguez and Isabela Moner, the film is far better than anyone could have predicted. More of a spin-off than a true sequel we begin with a suicide bombing caused by Islamic extremists coming across the Mexican border. Brolin’s Matt Grave is tasked by the FBI to start a war between rival drug cartels to try and divert their attention. So he hires Del Toro’s black operative to stage a kidnapping of a warlord’s daughter (Isabela) to pin on their rivals.

Another cross-border vehicle chase is again the central highlight and the first 30 minutes have a mix of story setting and character development. However, the drama is slow, almost stopping at times, and the representation(s) of America’s enemies haven’t been this broad since the Art Malik’s Middle East caricature in True Lies.

Almost Robocop levels of fascism abounds at the start – yet without the satire – but the film’s positives help dilute some of the more problematic cultural themes and more nuanced questions are asked in the third act. Brolin and Del Toro provide amoral masculinity to the proceedings – Blunt is sorely missed as an antidote to this machismo – but their changing allegiances keep the narrative unpredictable and story threads involving.

[Slight spoiler] After its proved the bombings were nothing to do with the Mexico gangs, the FBI plans to erase all ties to their horrid plan. With the young Isabela being the pawn to sacrifice, Del Toro’s change of conscience is a thorn in the authority’s sides and figures he and Isabela themselves need to illegally cross back over the border to the USA.

With scenes of shocking violence and a side story about a boy being drawn into gangs developing into a major plot point towards the film’s end, Sicario 2 more than delivers as a hard-hitting slice of uncompromising cinema.

Without the holy trinity of Villeneuve, Deakins and Blunt – not to mention the tragic loss of the original’s composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – the film had huge sandy shoes it needed to fill. However, whilst a little rough around the edges, a strong script, a cast of dedicated performances and a moody score from Hildur Guðnadóttir, Sicario 2 shoves its problematic politics right in the audience’s face. Simply telling them to deal with it. The ruthless scenes are a stark reminder that audiences should be challenged to get them thinking whilst the film does this alongside some unforgiving excitement and entertainment.


Mike Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jul 29 2018 04:00AM

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018) Dir. Steven S. DeKnight

From a director mainly known for his work on the Spartacus TV show comes a film of equal low-budget quality in the follow up to Guillermo Del Toro’s quirky sci-fi smash ‘em up between skyscraper-sized robots and huge monsters.

Star Wars’ John Boyega appears as Jake Pentecost, the son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) from the first film, who is an underground scavenger buying and selling parts for Jaegers which are now being built illegally.

He crosses paths with a young girl who has built her own from scrap (Cailee Spaeny as Amara Namani) and after a brief skirmish with the authorities, both are taken to a military academy to be trained on the next generation of robotic behemoths.

Boyega is his charismatic and likeable self but the whole cast are a selection of stereotypes and clichés to which no one can hang much characterisation on given their one-dimensional roles. Here we have the sarcastic kid, cocky pilot, mad tech guys and a training academy rival all present but definitely not welcome. Pentecost’s daughter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is also back alongside the two quirky (and annoying) scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman.

Although the first film was hardly known for its depth, the characters had a simplistic charm, whilst here they only appear as ciphers for the action.

And speaking of the action, the editing on the fights has moved into the super quick arena which echoes the Transformers films. As with those, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s happening and discern who is fighting who. In the original, each Jaeger and Kaiju were explained which clarified their skills and abilities and gave some breathing space that is desperately needed here. Therefore, what we get is mindless smashing between two, mostly anonymous, giants that we don’t know, or care, much about.

With a few additions to the franchise involving the development of new technology concerning Kaiju blood and the use of rockets and drones, the funky neon colours and night time visuals of the Far East seen in Del Toro’s vision have been replaced with stark (and boring) daylight – emphasising the cheap and nasty CGI.

And by the end, the look, style and tone of Pacific Rim: Uprising goes off the rails with buildings coming down like the conclusion of Man of Steel with not a member of the public in sight.

So sadly the film has little of its own personality to engage with and by its headache-inducing conclusion it unfortunately *wants* to be Transformers, which is bad in itself, but in reality can barely hit the heady heights of the Power Rangers. A sequel to avoid.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Jul 21 2018 07:00AM

Escape Plan 2: Hades (2018) Dir. Steven C. Miller

Sylvester Stallone’s Escape Plan (2013) was a straight-to-video b-movie where Sly’s ‘prison consultant’ was double-crossed and sent to a facility he needed to, well, escape from. With a cameo from Arnie during his post-Governor period, at best the movie was considered a guilty pleasure for the elderly comeback duo. More of the same here right? A resounding “no” actually.

Whatever that low budget film had going for it is lost here in an unbelievably bad (and unintentionally hilarious) mish mash of dull action, bad acting and sci-fi! Yes, sci-fi. The plot sees his colleague Shu Ren (Huang Xiaoming) end up in a prison that is more Tron: Legacy and Running Man than it is a modern prison.

Neon lights, smoky corridors and laser doors (!) replace any sense of even a semblance of reality and by the mid-way mark I half thought the ending would reveal them to be in space. The sets are small, badly lit and cheap looking and the lighting is abysmal.

It’s strange Stallone can arrange the production of a film as good as Creed and something as dreadful as this movie. The prison’s nickname is “the zoo” – a metaphor of caged animals so simple it’s something a child would come up with – and ex-wrestler Dave Bautista shows up but brings none of his great Guardians or Blade Runner 2049 charm.

Additionally, he and Stallone are barely in it – the two stars are support at best – and the ridiculousness continues with prison guards who look like Daft Punk. With the inclusion of lightning bolts that flow through prisoners like the three storms from Big Trouble in Little China and a robot doctor (seriously??!!) it’s perhaps one of the funniest films of the year. But no one’s laughing WITH it I can assure you.

“It’s bad to be back”, Sly says in an action one-liner which means nothing – yet summing up this film to perfection.


Midlands Movies Mike

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