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By midlandsmovies, Feb 21 2019 01:37PM

Overlord (2018) Dir. Julius Avery


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


★★★★


Mike Sales

By midlandsmovies, Feb 18 2019 09:43PM


The House that Jack Built (2018) Dir. Lars von Trier


Polarising director Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Antichrist) returns with another controversial film that follows a serial murderer’s 12-year killing spree with all the subtlety the filmmaker is known for.


It begins with middle-aged Jack killing a woman whose car has broken down and taking her body to be hidden in a freezer. He later pretends to be an insurance salesman in a leafy suburb to enter another woman’s home whom he awkwardly strangles. This time Jack is unable to flee the scene owing to his obsessive cleaning but soon manages to escape. More incidents pile up with the murder of a family on a hunting expedition, a woman whom he confesses to and lining up a group of kidnapped victims to kill them with one bullet.


Jack is played excellently by a dark, and sometimes darkly comic, Matt Dillon and the expected pretentiousness begins with auteur chapter headings – yawn. However, at times the film is far more conventional for large portions of its runtime, although this being von Trier, he intersperses the splatter gore with his own essay on the nature of man and violence.


Provocative von Trier doesn’t hold back with scenes of child murders, female mutilation and ruthless attacks yet he “justifies” these sickening incidents with a voiceover throughout (Bruno Ganz as ‘Verge’).


This "conscience" pontificates on a number of quasi-religious themes and primal fears in essay form. Does this literary motif bring von Trier’s work up to the status of art? Not really. The gruesome deaths could be from any b-movie horror but for me it was Dillon’s mesmerising performance that sees this one through.


As the film conclusion rolls around, von Trier dives off the deep end as we enter a literal Dante’s Inferno. Far too long and with a kind of hollow-seriousness, the mixture of dark subject matter, visceral filmmaking and attempts to say something about human nature are all typical fare for the director.


That said, there’s enough here to maintain interest (just) but clear a bit of time - it's 155 minutes long - as well as headspace, for all the horrific ideas von Trier throws at the wall. Although ugly, these will mostly stick in your mind as the director delivers his trademark nihilistic world view using grotesque visuals.


★★★


Mike Sales

By midlandsmovies, Feb 18 2019 09:32PM



Possum (2018) Dir. Matthew Holness


As a huge fan of the director’s comedy alter-ego Garth Marenghi, an inspired riff on Stephen King mixed with Alan Partridge of sorts, the humorous Holness has moved away from horror laughs into darker territory with his debut film Possum.


Expanded from his own short story published in horror anthology The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease (which sounds hugely like a Garth Marenghi compendium novel itself), Holness delivers a dark tale of psychological trauma. Sean Harris plays a puppeteer who returns to the home he grew up in and is forced to confront repressed memories from his childhood.


The film’s visual style was apparently inspired by British public information films and the opening is a spot-on homage to the matter-of-fact grimness of those short adverts – which scared children and adults alike. As the story starts with the man facing his stepfather and their unsaid secrets, Harris’ character Phillip is haunted by a spider-like marionette called Possum and his mental stability is tested throughout as he deals with its constant presence.


Early on it’s easy to guess what the puppet represents, and the arrival of Alun Armstrong’s disgustingly good stepfather will almost certainly confirm these suspicions for most audiences. Holness however has also said he was influenced by the tone of silent horrors, but with the film’s snail-pace , it could really do with a big shot of dialogue.


Despite the over-reliance of mood over speech, the score is fantastic though, with an experimental soundtrack provided by The Radiophonic Workshop. It’s most effective during a sequence in a disused building where the eight-legged entity stalks our protagonist, yet the film was crying out for more scenes like this one.


Having played with horror clichés and genre tropes/structure with his Marenghi character, Holness ditches them all in Possum but unfortunately this has the effect of creating somewhat of a form-less mess. So serious and surreal as to be unengaging this is one for fans of unconventional horror but would be too sparse for many audiences.


It’s weird how a film with great actors (Harris & Armstrong are superb but almost the only characters), superbly unsettling score, a horrific monster and a great design aesthetic are all undone with an incredibly slow, and ultimately unfulfilling pace. Possum has all the right ingredients but simply undercooks the whole thing. It’s like putting eggs, flour and milk in a bowl and shoving them in the toaster for 6 hours hoping to get a tasty cake.


Holness himself has said the film should “force the audience to reflect upon the experience afterward” but the experience here is such an arduous and mostly unenjoyable one you’ll probably won’t want to recall much of it again at all. Bring on Skipper the Eye-Child 2 please.


★★


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Feb 5 2019 03:57PM



Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) Dir. Dan Gilroy


In a world of instant gratification and the need to be the first with any news and information about a movie, it’s a shame that new film Velvet Buzzsaw comes with such huge baggage. Humour me if you will, but it used to be the case that to find out the spoiler details of a film you had to dig-deep in some super-fan film forum. Later on you could find a lot of info just by scrolling through social media.


But in the case of drama-horror Velvet Buzzsaw, the film company – Netflix in this instance – has taken those out of the equation to spoil the entirety of the film with their own trailer.


Ironically, given director Dan Gilroy’s previous film Nightcrawler which had a news-hunting sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal) attempting to be the first with breaking stories he had a hand in, the unbelievable misstep of the film’s promo campaign has unfortunately bled into the movie itself.


Anyways, back to the film. Gilroy’s movie again sees him team up with Jake Gyllenhaal who stars as bisexual art critic Morf Vandewalt - who can make or break an artist’s career with just a few sentences.


Rene Russo plays hard-hitting gallery owner Rhodora Haze, but when her employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton) steals a number of paintings made by a deceased man from her apartment block, the two see an opportunity to profit from the works. But all is not as it seems as the artist’s dark past is infused into the chaotic canvases.


And later on we discover that the works have far more sinister entities captured within them, moving the film beyond its opening (and slightly campy) drama into a more overt horror genre. The film attempts and mostly succeeds in trying to balance some very black humour amongst the frightening set-pieces as the cursed paintings leave a trail of death in their wake.


The cast is largely excellent too – the main trio of Gyllenhaal, Russo and Ashton give quirky turns and are supported by a slightly-underused John Malkovich and a brief appearance by Toni Collette as Gretchen.


And speaking of her brief appearance. A trailer, for me, teases the audience with excitement to come. There’s always been the problem of trailers simply shortening the story, showing the film’s best bits or simply revealing too much. But oh boy, Velvet Buzzsaw's trailer shockingly delivers all three.


[SPOILERS] Maybe I have myself to blame. I chose to watch the trailer after all. That said, how anyone could get enjoyment from the film given the secrets the trailer gives away is a mystery to me. It shows the film’s main secret (the paintings are possessed and can move) and provides the film’s entire story in linear fashion. It also gives away some of the best scenes – paint literally “stalking” one of the protagonists – and finally, and by far the worst of all – it shows a death of one of the main characters.


I was hoping that the film's spoilerific trailer footage would be cleverly repositioned for the movie itself. Nope. Seen the trailer, seen the film. Absolute tension killer. Shame.


Gilroy is an excellent filmmaker and Velvet Buzzsaw has great set pieces and can be seen as an on-the-nose satire of the art world, contrasting elements of superficiality with deep destructive passions of art creators. But ultimately my recommendation has to be that audiences should DEFINITELY go into this one cold and avoid the trailer at all costs. If you don’t you’ll find what’s left behind is an absolute buzzkill.


★★★½


Mike Sales




By midlandsmovies, Jan 21 2019 03:08PM



Pledge (2019) Dir. Daniel Robbins


This 2019 horror satire has three friends, the rotund Justin (Zachery Byrd), geeky Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and the Woody Allen-alike David (Zach Weiner) attempt to join a fraternity in their first few weeks at college. The trio of socially awkward nerds try their best to join a number of party-centric houses but with little success before being invited to a get together where their wildest dreams come true – booze, birds and “bro” respect.


However, as these things play out they are asked to return to this mansion in the woods and pledge their allegiance during a hazing ceremony the following night. Hazing usually consists of a few embarrassing initiation trials to show your commitment to the club. Yet a much more sadistic version of this higher education rite of passage is forced upon them before they quickly realise they are facing potentially deadly consequences.


The film has a solid cast – the lead trio are believable as the studious losers – and Aaron Dalla Villa as one of the heads of the well-dressed frat house is as cocky and arrogant as needed – especially when shouting “Are you ready to be Kings of the campus?” at his potential new ‘recruits’. The film begins well with hints upon the darkness coming up and some neat character-driven conversations showing how desperate the boys are to be popular.


Unfortunately, the excellent candle-lit cinematography – which is one of many religious-infused images seen throughout – is almost entirely undone by characters that make such silly decisions and therefore Pledge begins to fail as soon as the situation takes a turn for the worse.


The three guys are portrayed as wimps – fine, but as pupils at a university was it intentional to have them make such dumb choices? As their trials get more violent and dangerous, their attempts to escape, if you can call them that, are straight out of the Scooby-Doo school of thought. Doors are open at random, the group splits up and they repeat the same actions with the expectation of a different outcome. With the boys up against the brutal jocks, the film could have portrayed a contrast between the power of the mind versus the strength of athleticism but fails to find appropriate fodder in the themes it (superficially) broaches.


Much like the boys, an audience will be tested mentally and emotionally to stick with them and as the characters’ opportunities to escape slipped away so did my interest. With Green Room (2015) showing clever youngsters caught in a building trying their clever best in an attempt to escape, there’s no excuse for having characters not making believable decisions. With a hint of the gruesome testing games of Would You Rather (2012) the film attempts to metaphorically explore the struggles of supremacy in American institutions but fails its initiation test owing to a thin plot and thick characters.


★★ ½ Stars


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jan 17 2019 09:02PM



The Favourite (2019) Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos


Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne in this bawdy black comedy-drama that sees the eccentric and frail head of state avoid her kingdom’s woes as she gets caught up in a tit-for-tat but serious squabble between her confidante Sarah and Sarah’s poorer cousin Abigail.


La La Land’s Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, a fallen woman who arrives caked in mud and is soon to set to work as a maid amongst the luxurious palace rooms. Despite undertaking menial labour she has her sights set on bigger things and begins a surreptitious plan to move up society’s ladder by usurping Sarah (Rachel Weisz) in the Queen’s affections.


Abigail begins by assisting the Queen with her ailments before planting more sinister seeds to curry favour with the throne. Once it is revealed that Sarah is in fact involved in a lesbian affair with the monarch, Abigail discovers another way into the Queen’s good books – via her bed.


Lanthimos shoots his film with glorious cinematography using wide angle and fisheye lenses to show the vast spaces in the stately house, and the sumptuous chequered floors provide a metaphorical board for the chess pieces to play out their game. The pawns of Weisz and Stone try to checkmate the Queen but their false appearance of power is not quite the same as the actual divine power of royalty.


There’s plenty of humour to be had as well and the three leads are nothing short of phenomenal on screen. Funny when needed, whilst also showing vulnerability and empathy, the trio of amazing actresses fully come into their own with their vicious put downs and deliciously devilsome dialogue.


A (very small) hint of Trading Places occurs as Stone’s lowly serf becomes a lady in waiting whilst Weisz’s influential lover is brought to her knees when she is drugged and almost killed after falling from her horse.


The fine female cast are pushed to the forefront whilst the men in court definitely take second fiddle. And as the women fire guns, slap each other and drink heartily, the males are caked in make-up and wigs and pushed behind in an interesting twist on the period drama formula.


Nicholas Hault as Robert Harley is the best of the background bunch where he gets to act like a total arse throughout and is given some of the best and most profane dialogue, playing his own games in parliament and beyond.


But it really is Colman, Stone and Weisz’s show. The power games, the flip-flopping and the sparring of physical and verbal humour are delivered impeccably by all three and allow the actresses to create fully-rounded characters we can sympathise with. Yet the audience can just as easily hate when the trio’s primal and nasty game-playing comes to prominence. But either way, their conniving deceits provide plenty of juicy drama to enjoy.


Stylistically it couldn’t be further from the director’s previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer (review here) which appeared in our Top 20 of 2017 which was far slower, slightly meandering (in a good way) and conceptually abstract. Whilst this is far more accessible, similar mythical and classical themes are explored where power, retribution and revenge all come in to play throughout the narrative.


The lighting is natural and adds to the period realism where night time scenes are lit by candle flame echoing a similar technique seen in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon whilst the score utilises the classic music of composers like Handel and Bach.


Whilst its historical accuracy can be hotly debated, like Tarantino’s take on history I don’t see this as some quasi-realistic portrait and it sure has far more in common with a Carry On film than period-precise documentation. That said, with Anne keeping 17 rabbits to represent each of her child-bearing tragedies, Lanthimos doesn’t let the humorous aspects stop him from exploring the morbid issues of motherhood, dominance and sovereignty in all its forms.


However, with its added darkness and the Machiavellian machinations of the three protagonists, the film is full to the brim with incredible performances alongside some eccentricities in its technical aspects, plus we mustn’t forget its terrific quip-filled script. The Favourite therefore is a formidable film from a director who takes weighty themes and provides a theatre for three mighty actresses to deliver some of the best performances of the year and possibly of their career.


★★★★ ½


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jan 17 2019 05:11PM



Backtrace (2018) Dir. Brian A. Miller


An unbelievably low (no?) budget ‘action’ film starring Sylvester Stallone, Backtrace does a great job of setting the standard for what to expect from the most terrible movies of the upcoming year.


With a filming style that can only be described as first-time-student-using-digital-phone-camera, Backtrace is phenomenally appalling from the outset. After Matthew Modine’s bank robber falls foul to a bout of amnesia he is sprung from his facility to help find the whereabouts of the stolen money he’s forgotten the location of using a “special drug”.


Cinematography is non-existent in shaky-cam shots that fail at even the CSI-level of quality and, as always, Stallone’s charisma is the only thing to stop you switching it off. Although I’d advise you take serious consideration in stopping this mess any time you like.


This Variety review somehow describes Backtrace as a workman-like b-movie. No, no, NO! With no style, substance or any flair whatsoever Backtrace seems to aim at the Cobra-crowd but in reality, that movie is Citizen Kane next to this awful amateur effort.


How does Stallone even get involved in films this bad? Sure, Nic Cage has made a ton of straight-to-VOD pish but at least they look like films. So, a January film already laying claim to the worst of 2019?


Well, one positive is that maybe Stallone can better himself by improving on his third place position for Escape Plan 2 on our least favourite films of 2018 list and claim the top spot this year instead. Good luck!


But, with 12 months to go, this film is so bad that Stallone is in with a VERY good chance of being the best of the worst.



Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jan 17 2019 05:09PM



Colette (2019) Dir. Wash Westmoreland


This biographical drama comes from Still Alice director Wash Westmoreland and is based upon the life of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature she is also famous for her 1944 novella Gigi which was the basis for the film of the same name.


Colette covers the early part of her life with Keira Knightley returning from an acting break as the lead woman whose first writings were published under the pen name of “Willy” – a nickname for her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). She writes a series of stories revolving around “Claudine”, a fictionalised version of her own life which is filled with avant-garde parties and lesbian liaisons.


However, much like in the film Big Eyes (Tim Burton), Colette soon demands her name be revealed as the real author of the stories which her husband resists and which subsequently causes riffs between them. The film is told in a linear fashion and for a film about writing, sadly has too few literary trappings and most reminded me of the standard fare of Merchant Ivory period dramas – but with added liberal and progressive flourishes.


Knightley is solid and Dominic West plays the uptight, sleazy type of macho husband that he often excels in – but is one actor I have never thought has much of a range and he does little to correct that here in Colette.


As Colette’s will becomes more determined, the film delves into notions of masculinity and femininity and whilst swanning into boisterous parties one night in extravagant dresses, she partakes in serious muscular exercise the following day. The cinematography is fascinating as it captures beautiful French scenery as well as bawdy get-togethers exploring both public and private spaces.


The film however concludes with her departure from literature into her mime and stage career displaying her fight for female independence at a time where female respectability was considered paramount and she moves from exercising her mind to the physicality of her body.


Therefore Colette is certainly progressive and honourable – telling a little-known tale of creative and wanton passions – but if I’m honest I found little “life” in the film. Also, there was a very palpable chemistry vacuum between the two leads, yet the excellent support from Eleanor Tomlinson, Aiysha Hart and Fiona Shaw helps ease these gaps.


A melodrama of women’s independence, I would recommend Colette for those interested in the film’s central historical subject matter but for many others, the film – as respectful as it is – dips into blandness, both technically and narratively.


★★★


Michael Sales



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