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By midlandsmovies, Apr 18 2019 01:59PM



Mary Queen of Scots (2019) Dir. Josie Rourke


Based on John Guy's biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, this new historical drama stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as her cousin Queen Elizabeth I.


Covering the 1569 conflict between England and Scotland, the film opens with Mary returning to Scotland from France to take up her throne but she is immediately challenged by her inner circle and cleric John Knox (an incredibly bearded David Tennant) whilst Elizabeth, who is worried about Mary’s claim to her own throne, tries to arrange Mary’s marriage to an Englishman.


With both sides fearing a rebellion from each other and their own internal traitors, Mary’s marriage fails spectacularly and eventually she exiles herself in England. But the two queens’ devotion to their respective countries leads Mary to be sentenced to death.


Covering a tumultuous period, the film is quite timid in its drama but the two central leads are fantastic. The support cast are sadly just passable, and it’s unfortunate that a few admirable progressive themes stick out like a sore thumb in a film that, for the most part, is relatively historically accurate.


Two areas the film does excel in however is the cinematography and the costumes which is understandable given the director’s theatrical past. Glorious Scottish vistas are contrasted brilliantly with dark interiors where castle rooms are either candlelit or have striking streaks of sunlight beaming through thin windows.


At times reminiscent of a Holbein painting (as well as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright), these locations are spectacularly filmed and Mary’s amazingly-designed period blood-red and blue dresses add tremendous colour to a film often drenched in Tudor dirt.


An acceptable diversion, Mary Queen of Scots never really steps a foot wrong, but for some reason is as forgettable as it is expertly made. A respectable way to spend a couple of hours, its cinematic charms won’t take your head off but should leave you satisfied as it marries outstanding performances with a scrutinising look at British history.


★★★ ½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Apr 15 2019 04:03PM



The Wind (2019) Dir. Emma Tammi


Emma Tammi’s directorial debut is a western horror and although the title sounds like a sub-Blumhouse video on demand chiller (or an unwanted Shyamalan The Happening spin-off) the sombre tome makes this a scary trip to the West worth checking out.


Horror westerns are a small sub-genre – from direct-to-video sequels From Dusk Til Dawn 3 and Tremors 4 all the way to S. Craig Zahler’s excellent Bone Tomahawk via the slightly less-excellent Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966). John Carpenter’s Vampires also mixed the genres but here though, the film ditches any b-movie stylings and feels more in tune with the Coens’ Buster Scruggs.


The film stars Caitlin Gerard as Lizzy, a resourceful woman in a remote cabin on the American plains. She lives with just her husband, Ashley Zukerman as Isaac before being joined by Julia Goldani Telles as Emma Harper and Dylan McTee as Gideon Harper. With just 4 people, the women toil the crops as the men leave them for long stretches hunting and gathering.


Opening on a horrific scene of a pregnancy gone wrong, we know we’re not going to be in for an easy ride. The structure of the film flashes back and forth from the present, where Lizzy is surviving on her own, to the 4 people trying to settle in this harsh environment back in the past. The two intertwining narratives was a fantastic device to create mystery and leave questions unanswered. For some though, the lack of clarity between where we are in time could infuriate. And I have to admit myself, there were times of head-scratching to work out where we were in the story.


As Emma Harper gets pregnant, she begins to have visions and feelings of another presence in the area. Initially dismissive herself, Lizzy takes little notice of these until later when the wind – and whatever forces it is hiding – comes to her own door.


The dialogue is minimal but effective from scriptwriter Teresa Sutherland and Caitlin Gerard is great as the lonely woman battling supernatural entities and possibly her own sanity. The film is also beautifully shot and slowly allows the story to build before we get a shock scare or two.


With intrigue and violence, the film is ambitious yet doesn’t always hit its mark. The slow editing makes its 90 minutes seem longer, but in many ways the film is too short and the ending is a little rushed and offers little in the way of explanation. Although I suspect that was the point.


In conclusion, The Wind is an impressive and sporadically frightening first film which takes the large scale and uncharted American wild West and places its foreign nature into the cabin - and the mind - of a female pioneer. With heady themes of religion, redemption and the unfamiliar, you will be rewarded as you roam into this undiscovered and menacing windy wilderness.


★★★ ½


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Apr 15 2019 08:40AM



Lords of Chaos (2019) Dir. Jonas Åkerlund


Adapted from the book of the same name, Lords of Chaos is directed by notable Swedish music video filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund and his knowledge of the music industry has turned from Madonna’s upbeat Ray of Light video to a much more sinister story here in this dark musical journey.


The director has made concert films of Beyoncé and Jay Z, Taylor Swift, Roxette and much more recently, and apt, German heavy-metallers Rammstein. In Lords of Chaos we follow Rory Culkin as guitarist Euronymous, the co-founder of real-life Norwegian black metal band Mayhem.


Recruiting a new Swedish vocalist called Dead, the new singer takes their dark persona to extreme measures including self-harm before the band meets a super-fan named Kristian (Emory Cohen) who is dismissed by the group. One day, in a scene of horrific mutilation, Dead cuts his arms and then his throat before killing himself with a shotgun to the head. The gruesome scene is one of many disgusting sequences of body mutilation and nihilistic violence and be aware, Lords of Chaos caters for those with the strongest of stomachs.


Maybe darker than the hideous death itself, Euronymous takes a photo of the scene – which is eventually used as an album cover (!) – before opening a shop that becomes the focus of their underground music scene.


With members becoming known as the "Black Circle", fan Kristian renames himself as Varg Vikernes and his strong anti-Christian views leads him join the band and then burn down churches. Whilst another member, Faust, kills a gay man in a park and their crimes are brought to the attention of the police.


A power struggle between Euronymous and Varg emerges – with each retreating into their own reality where Euronymous reveals his persona to be mostly a bluff whilst Varg’s increasing erratic and extreme behaviour leads him to arm himself for a confrontation.


Rory Culkin as Euronymous is fantastic and although its been said that the film uses a mixture of American accents, with ever-so-slight Scandinavian twangs, the choice merely seems to be one of commercial accessibility. Emory Cohen as Varg Vikernes matches Culkin beat for beat with a menacing and threatening portrayal of an unhinged extremist.


The support cast tackle the dark themes well and the film has a reality to its traumatising images. Shockingly the story has a morbid ending and many of the themes are somewhat contradictory. Culkin seems both sympathetic yet often unappealing at times and the movie explores themes of life-threatening hobbies, the occult and, more simply, the notion of celebrity and authenticity.


In my review of Vox Lux I stated that one problem of that film was the inclusion of music (pop) that I don’t have a large interest in. Here, black metal is not hugely my thing either, but I definitely sway towards the darker aspects of rock and its associated imagery which the film goes to the furthest extremities of.


Whilst band members dispute the historical accuracy of some of the events in the film, it is then somewhat ironic the film concerns itself with character dualism, surface personality and the clashing view points of each member. And Lords of Chaos dramatizes a bleak story with a great combination of multi-layered performances and grave scenes of violence. Although not for everyone, Lords of Chaos will satisfy metal and horror fans but goes beyond both is musical and genre origins for a much more intense experience. Ghastly but gratifying.


★★★★


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 29 2019 02:54PM



At Eternity’s Gate (2019) Dir. Julian Schnabel


Enigmatic and underappreciated in his own lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh’s life – especially the last dramatic few years – have been ripe for television and film adaptation and we get one more here in this new biographical feature.


As a self-confessed Van Gogh “superfan”, I’ve enjoyed many of the takes on his passions, especially 2017’s Loving Vincent – the animated painting of a film – which ended being my favourite film of that year. So what can Willem Defoe as Vincent bring to this new film? Well, it covers a similar period following Vincent as he spends his days painting in the South of France before his infamous ear-cutting, sectioning and finally mysterious death just outside Paris at Auvers-sur-Oise.


Covered in dirt and wandering through wild landscapes, the film has echoes of Terence Malick as an all-seeing spinning camera dwells longingly around our protagonist as her pursues his dream of capturing pure nature in his canvases.


Thematically, static paintings contrast nicely with Schnabel’s cinema verité floating camera and the film, like Vincent’s work, is glorious to look at. The fantastic photography captures candlelit conversations and wild fields of dead sunflowers and the excellent colour grading echoes Van Gogh’s artwork to perfection. Blues, greens and yellows pop from the screen at times.


But for all its pretty sunflowers and sunsets, the film is beautiful but boring. The conversations are kept to a minimum with the (very unnatural) dialogue cribbed from Vincent’s infamous letters but these sequences are spread so thinly. We instead get scene-after-scene of long wordless walks in the wilderness. Definitely a “mood” piece, the high-art meditation on Van Gogh’s life is simply like watching paint dry. And at times it literally is.


The conversations though – when they do eventually occur – are the film’s real highlight. Dafoe’s expressive facial lines have all the worry, stress and doubts that encapsulated Vincent and are excellently filmed in close-up making his wrinkles seem like an expressionistic set of brush strokes. A key aspect for a man famous for his portraits.


Oscar Isaac showing up as Paul Gauguin to discuss the artist’s goals, dreams and plans is perhaps where the film should have focused its lens. Their discussions and disagreements had the most vibrancy and I longed for more drama during the movie’s infuriating slow pace. So, whilst At Eternity’s Gate does get somewhat under the skin of the troubled artist at times, it ended being a film I so wanted to love but it’s simply too slow a watch to be gripping despite Dafoe’s dedication to the role.


★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 29 2019 02:46PM



Vox Lux (2019) Dir. Brady Corbet


Opening with a shocking scene of a school shooting that has to be seen to be believed, Brady Corbet’s new film Vox Lux tackles the pop music industry, crime, terrorism and the American dream in a film stuffed to the brim with ideas.


Too stuffed? Well, perhaps. We open in 1999 where sisters Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and Ellie (Stacy Martin) survive the massacre but during the memorial, Celeste showcases a poignant song about the incident which pushes her towards stardom in the USA. And she is soon head-hunted by a music mogul (a terrifically gruff Jude Law) and rises to fame in the industry.


Raffey Cassidy is a great lead and one of her most-famous scenes to date is from her previous outing in The Killing of a Sacred Deer where she delivers a darkly honest performance of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn”. Here she channels a similar tone and is one of many exciting aspects from the film’s first half. The striking school opening combined with the entire film credits at the start provides a violently dynamic beginning before the director throws in some home-video style footage of Raffey and her entourage on tour in Stockholm.


There is a lot of intensity and energy in its opening which is slightly at odds with its Willem Defoe narration and chapter titles (“Genesis”) which feel like a student facsimile of a cliché even Lars Von Trier would think twice about. Act 2 gets worse with the shockingly titled and awful “Re-genesis”. Quite.


However, as the young Celeste moves from tours, studio recording and on to videos the film is interspersed with iconic imagery reflecting media coverage of worldwide events and their effects. First is a terrorist beach atrocity featuring more guns and death as well as images of the World Trade Centre towers and then later the Freedom Tower.


And then the film takes a sharp turn. We jump to the modern day and Celeste is now played by Natalie Portman. Put through the mill of the music industry she now has a history of drink, drugs and more. Portman veers from her subdued and excellent performance in Jackie to a wayward pop-star jaded by the destructive capabilities of fame and money.


Celeste is now older, tiresome and somewhat of a cliché in this second half and unfortunately this is reflected in the film’s delivery too. Gone is the potency of Raffey’s rise to fame and in come some broad swipes at Western values, celebrity culture and the trappings of wealth. And for some unearthly reason – serving only to confuse - Raffey Cassidy is now playing Portman’s daughter. And much like most superhero films, learning the ropes is often a far more interesting story than when the hero is established and the same goes here.


As a musical drama, another problem is simply my personal taste in the music. Original songs by current pop star Sia are incorporated – although the 1999 music video is highly anachronistic with pitch-shifted vocals definitely not from that era – but I didn’t care much for its Bohemian Rhapsody-like 15-minute stage show ending.


In conclusion, and sounding fat too much like a football pundit, Vox Lux is the epitome of a film of two halves. It’s second half looking at how the music industry corrupts, Portman’s selfish alcoholic and extended concert finale just removed all the momentum the first half so successfully delivers. No doubt those with more than a passing interest in modern pop will also be moved by the musical hits more so than myself. Certainly containing huge amounts of filmmaking dexterity and Raffey Cassidy’s performance certainly should have taken centre stage, Vox Lux ultimately doesn’t so much as burn out as it does fade away.


★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 16 2019 04:41PM



Border (2019) Dir. Ali Abbasi


Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi directs this new dark drama based on the short story of the same name by Ajvide Lindqvist. The film was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the 91st Academy Awards and stars Eva Melander as Tina who has a Neanderthal appearance and works in customs where she has the ability to smell guilt.


Melander gives an amazingly sensitive performance of a lady with severe facial disfigurement who lives in a secluded house with her partner Roland.


As she catches people with contraband at the border, one man is caught with child pornography which leads to a police investigation where Tina’s abilities may be able to assist. Alongside this, a man with a similar facial disfigurement (Eero Milonoff as Vore) comes through customs and Tina is intrigued into his past and strange demeanour.


The film builds slowly, allowing us to invest our time with Tina and her sorry life. Shot in a very realistic manner which makes Tina’s strange abilities seem entirely believable, Border sets up a series of mysteries – Tina’s skills, the awful detected crime, Vore’s backstory – which maintains the film’s forward momentum throughout.


As Vore is caught incubating, and then eating, maggots the mixture of nature and fairy tale imagery adds huge doses of surrealism to the documentary-like cinematography. Vore and Tina frolic naked in a lake and in the woods, and as their relationship develops Tina's reserved character is slowly revealed. And much more besides.


There are many, many revelations in the film which I really don’t want to spoil here however. The less you know the more you will get from this film as it twists and turns and even jumps genres to amazing effect. A shocking liaison in the the forest alongside some haunting imagery linking the various narrative threads were some of the most striking sequences I’ve seen in cinema in a long time.


Abassi uses themes of family and genetics to tackle the problems of being an outsider as he injects realism and history into his tall tale. And whilst Tina’s deformity sets her apart from those around her, the film explores not just her place in our society, but in other societies too, which creates a clash of identities.


A cracking drama with added fantasy elements, Border is both compassionate and shocking and comes hugely recommended as it combines amazing performances that go beyond the prosthetics with a host of disturbing images you simply won't forget.


★★★★½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Mar 14 2019 02:18PM



The Girl in the Spider's Web (2018) Dir. Fede Álvarez


As a big fan of the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) – which had terrific introductory performances (to me anyways) from Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace – I was greatly looking forward to The Girl in the Spider's Web which is an adaptation of the 4th book in the Millennium series.


After the author of the first three books, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004 Swedish author and crime journalist David Lagercrantz was commissioned to continue the stories of Goth-hacker Lisbeth Salander and political investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.


This is an adaptation of the first of Lagercrantz's two books he has had published so far, and the film follows Salander as she hunts down a file that could access the world’s nuclear arsenal whilst protecting a young boy who is the key to accessing its precious secrets. Along the way we get a flashback to Salander’s abusive past and plenty of intrigue as multiple parties – from the State to terrorist goons – try to get their dirty mitts on the electronic bounty.


If that sounds a bit too far-fetched for what began as a drama-thriller then you’d be right. Fresh from an amazing performance in First Man, Claire Foy dons the dark leathers of the rebellious Salander and despite her multitude of talents cannot raise the sub-Mission Impossible material. Which is certainly a weird direction for the franchise to go in.


Gone are the dark machinations of political and family drama and in comes a Bond-pastiche of nuke codes, bike chases and villainous lairs. Combined with a series of sequences that has Foy tazering and brawling, by the end we are exhausted from the chaotic action as a team made up of a sniper and a computer hacker support Salander beat up a clan of henchman.


Also disappearing from view is the simplicity of the first novel – a whodunit in the main – and Sverrir Gudnason is monstrously miscast as a far-too-young Mikael Blomkvist. The father-figure/mentor character which operates as an antidote to Salander’s wayward impulses was a highlight of the Swedish originals – and Fincher’s US remake – and its absence here is sorely missing. Salander’s mysterious character too has been replaced with a spousal revenge superhero of sorts with her Bat-belt of tricks and black hoodie “cape”.


The Bond-lite developments continue with car chases, gadgets and codebreaking along with duplicitous double-agents and an albino-haired henchman. There was also not enough dialogue to flesh out the characters, their motivations or to create drama. And I yearned for the powerful verbal sparring of the earlier incarnations that would have punched up this bland screenplay.


So despite many of the great ingredients and with Claire Foy doing well as Salander, sadly it all just doesn’t gel. A passable time for a few hours, this ‘facsimile of Fincher’ means only (super) fans of the book should clear their diary and make time for this unremarkable, and highly disappointing, adaptation.


★★ ½


Michael Sales



By midlandsmovies, Mar 11 2019 04:26PM



GLASS (2019) Dir. M Night Shyamalan


A quick story - at the end of Split (2016) I was left slightly disappointed as I was informed there would be a twist and discovered one of the 23 multiple personalities of James McAvoy as Kevin Crumb was actually a true evil power known as the Beast. However, in that film’s very final moments director Shyamalan pans to Bruce Willis (as David Dunn) and was hugely shocked to find the film is revealed to be a sequel to Shyamalan’s down-to-earth superhero flick Unbreakable from 2000. Wow.


One of the better twists from the master of them, Glass is the final part of the trilogy and sees McAvoy, Willis and Samuel L Jackson locked up in a psychiatric ward, where their ‘superpowers’ are to be studied by Sarah Poulson’s Doctor Ellie Staple. We open with David and his son as vigilantes who free a group of kidnapped cheerleaders but in David’s fight with The Beast they are captured by the authorities. Incarcerated with both David and Kevin is Mr. Glass (Jackson) – the evil brains from Unbreakable – who is heavily sedated and all three are told their abilities are simply psychiatric disorders and little more than a fantasy.


The film links the characters and themes from the previous movies using colours, comic book tropes and a self-referential awareness of its own construction. Shyamalan uses every cinematic trick in the book – point of view, spinning cameras, static shots and much more to keep the film visually interesting in what, if you break it down, is a standard thriller tale. All three actors are stupendous though – Willis’ more recent cinematic outings have been dubious at best – but here his pensive, almost uninterested, facial blandness actually works as a man doubting his own experiences.


As Mr. Glass plays clever games within the hospital’s walls – he sets up an escape plan with Kevin whilst the film is full of surprises and shows Shyamalan’s expert use of pace and, more importantly, an unbearable amount of tension. In simple scenes of dialogue we feel every character motivation and the horror techniques he used so well in The Sixth Sense and The Visit are re-visited here to great effect. Shyamalan also provides a number of technical twists – fights are witnessed from the inside of a van, an important escape plan punch-up is shown in the background and with an opening that plays on what can’t be seen – he is an expert of what to show and what not to show. And where possible, to show the audience what they weren’t expecting at every turn.


The film rolls to a climax which is the most disappointing part of the movie. Without giving it away, the film tries to expand the super-human ideas into a worldwide issue, when the films up to this point have been very much about the small and personal acts of good and evil. By using themes of conspiracy and internet technology, the film loses the humanity and character-study work it had delivered so brilliantly beforehand. Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke (from Split) and Charlayne Woodard as Mrs. Price, Elijah's mother both provide good support roles to flesh out the story.


However, it is to Shyamalan’s credit he not only got to finish a trilogy started 19 years ago but to do so in such a satisfying manner. Ignore the naysayers who have unwisely projected their own expectations onto a film that never could have existed – which is always a hiding to nothing – as Glass surprises by being the kind of dark, tension-filled shattering success that are nowadays shuffled off to Netflix when they should be enjoyed on the big screen as it provides more than satisfying thrills from the beginning until the end.


★★★★


Michael Sales

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