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By midlandsmovies, Jul 28 2019 08:10AM



Thunder Road (2019) Dir. Jim Cummings


Written by Jim Cummings, based on Thunder Road by Jim Cummings, music by Jim Cummings, co-edited by Jim Cummings, visual effects by Jim Cummings and starring Jim Cummings playing a guy called Jim. A passion project you say?


Well, it’s been said that a single vision can be better than committee thinking and boy is that true in new indie drama Thunder Road. I say drama but there are lashings of dark comedy throughout this 90-minute movie extended from Cumming’s own short film of the same name.


Story wise, we get Cummings playing Jim Arnaud, a police officer and soon to be divorced father whose mother passes away which sets him on a downward spiral of frustration and rage.


We are introduced to his awkward – but incredibly sincere – persona at his mother’s funeral. In a 12-minute uncut shot, Jim forgets parts of his speech and embarrassingly dances at the front of a church in silence as a CD player he has brought fails to work. In a scene reminiscent of David Brent’s biggest gaffs, the one-shot forces the audience to share the experience in excruciating embarrassment.


Jim is then forced to take time off from his cop work after a disturbance and he tries, but fails, to bond with his daughter Rosalind (an excellent low-key role from Jocelyn DeBoer). Jim’s attempts to straighten his life fall flat and the film brilliantly mixes sympathy with his hot-headed reckless reactions as his life falls apart.


Through gritted teeth the audience will laugh at times but Cumming’s full break-down in front of his cop colleagues and is as powerful and passionate as anything I have seen in 2019. His friend Nate Lewis is played by Nican Robinson in a fantastic performance as a fellow officer, whose life is seemingly doing much better, desperately seeking ways in which to help his friend.


A scene at Rosalind’s school sees Jim again fly off the handle whilst a custody hearing again brings out our sympathies again when a misplaced word leads to disastrous consequences as he desperately tries to cling to the last remaining aspect of his once happy life.


Cummings explores areas of masculinity, loss, family and violence in a subtle and sensitive way that also never imposes on the film’s main narrative. Tackling these issues with a dark view, the audience won’t be able to stop themselves from slowing down to absorb every thoughtful detail of the fiery car wreck that is Jim’s life.


And so this self-destruction lies at the heart of the film. The discomfort we’d like to avoid is expressed as laughter at times and it's with relief Jim’s struggles build to a crescendo in a very satisfying pay-off.


Hooking the film on Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road, which is about a couple who have "one last chance to make it real”, is an apt metaphor but here the couple are no longer a romantic one but the twosomes around him: whether that be a close friend, his sister, ex-wife, and most influencing of all, his at rest mother from the past and the future bond with his daughter. And many of the scenes play out with just two people, framed with Jim desperately trying to make a connection in a rough world.


With a startling low micro-budget of just $200,000, Cummings has created a true masterpiece – with his talented self, rightly so, at the centre. Is it a dark comedy drama? Is it a reflection of contemporary American talking-points? Well, it’s all that and more but without doubt it comes hugely recommended as not just one of the best debut films of the year, but one of the best films period.


★★★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jul 22 2019 09:58AM



Us (2019) Dir. Jordan Peele


After the amazing success of 2017 horror Get Out (our review here) director Jordan Peele returns with another fright flick that goes deep below the surface of American society. We open on Santa Cruz beach front where a young girl, Adelaide Thomas, enters a hall of mirror funhouse and discovers her doppelganger before returning to her family unable to speak.


Long since recovered we catch up with the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Zora (Evan Alex). Despite her worries the family heads back to the beach where she encounters their rich friends and becomes scared after her son briefly disappears.


Returning home that night, a family of four in red overalls break in and the family realise these intruders are in fact doppelgängers called the Tethered. Director Peele throws in some solid character building at the beginning, filling his film with mysteries and concepts to be ‘untethered’ before the explosive home-invasion sequences kick in. Is it scary? Not really. For me, Get Out is the superior “horror” film, making me feel unease and dread whilst here the first-half jump scares and silly scissor slashing was more reminiscent of 80s video nasties that have never really done much for me.


However, Lupita Nyong'o is brilliant as a protective parent, the paranoid mother AND as a vulnerable victim dealing with her dual past and present. And duality is a strong theme throughout as is the notion of “class”. The literal ‘lower’ class below ground become a danger to the happy lives above and Peele uses dialogue, props, symbolism and thematic sequences to delve into the deeper and darker side of “America” today.


A great use of Luniz’s “5 on It” becomes slower and more orchestral (and therefore creepier) as the movie progresses and the cast excel in their physical portrayal of their ‘other’ selves. Mixing slasher and home-invasion tropes with a Twilight Zone episode, Us is another frightful look at the current politics and issues facing the United States/U.S./‘Us’.


And Peele’s masterful handling of a wide range of deeper meanings, along with a love for horror staples, sees Us continuing his spectacular cinema successes.


★★★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jul 16 2019 04:15PM

Review - Movie catch up blog 2019 - Part 3


Here's another set of our shorter reviews for films we've caught up with in 2019 featuring A Vigiilante, The Curse of La Llorona, Alita: Battle Angel....


Scroll down to see what we thought of each of them...




A Vigilante (2019) Dir. Sarah Dagger-Nickson

A Vigilante is the debut of writer and director Sarah Dagger-Nickson and sees an abused woman (Olivia Wilde as Sadie) assisting other women victims who have had a similar experiences. The film’s explosive opening sees smartly-dressed Wilde enter a home of a woman suffering an injury – hinted to be from her spouse – and when he returns, Sadie inflicts punishment that will sees him reluctantly leaving and handing over half his savings to his wife. Surprisingly, but very powerfully, the director actually minimises the on-screen violence itself (this is definitely not in the realm of action-flicks like Atomic Blonde) but this has the effect of heightening the victim’s plight. With an audience’s projection of what violent acts may have occurred, we therefore imagine the worst – both in the perpetrators acts and the subsequent retribution of justice inflicted back. Great cinematography from Alan McIntyre Smith helps focus the story on a stellar performance from Wilde, who plays both a hard-nosed enactor of violence and, in a flashback explaining her backstory, a sensitive and emotional victim-turned-avenger. As we discover that she too was once a victim, losing a child to her ex-husband (a disgustingly dark turn by the excellent Morgan Spector), the film propels to a unshakeable climatic conclusion that sees her finally track down and face the hideous partner from her past. A Vigilante therefore has a smart and timely premise and is a quality movie tackling the issues surrounding domestic abuse. Olivia Wilde gives a career-best performance too as the woman fighting this head on, and this exciting debut is a successful revenge film that delivers more insight into the topic than similar movies of this kind. ★★★★




The Curse of La Llorona (2019) Dir. Michael Chaves

Produced by James Wan, The Curse of La Llorona is another (dull) entry into The Conjuring universe and is based on Mexican folklore where a supernatural entity attempts to steal children from their families. In echoes of Case 39 (2009), our lead Linda Cardellini is social worker Anna Tate-Garcia who investigates an abusive family situation that spirals out of control. Mixing silly superstitions with godawful jump scares, the film’s woman in a white dress begins hunting down Anna’s own two children. Filled to the brim with obvious 'quiet-then-loud' jump scares, La Lorona is the kind of PG-13 horror that is over-done and has been seen dozens of times before. A car-based stalking sequence was the one standout innovation but this was not developed at all and we’re soon back to the bland back-story involving stock priest and detective characters. I’m also sick of the clichéd dropped-mouthed white-skinned monster bride trope as well, which again, is now far too familiar to shock. But what did general audiences think? Well, with a budget of just $9 million (and boy can you tell), the film took $121.6 million (!) at the box office so prepare yourself for the inevitable slew of sequels or side-quels or whatever future dross they’ll end up knocking out. For the rest of us with higher standards, set your expectation level to “underwhelmed” and then still prepare yourself for a bit of a knock. ★★


Alita: Battle Angel (2019) Dir. Robert Rodriguez

The uncanny valley is ‘when humanoid objects appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings and elicit uncanny feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers’. I know friends who can’t even watch Pixar films owing the “rubbery” features of the human-like characters. I’ve never really experienced it myself. Until now. Forever in development hell with James Cameron, he serves as producer here, in an adaption of the 90’s manga series where a female cyborg is recreated by Dr. Dyson (Christoph Waltz) with no memory of her mysterious past. She learns to skate and take part in future-sport Motorball and later engages in brawls and visually ugly and confusing CGI fights which create absolutely zero intrigue. With a stellar support cast including Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Jackie Earle, the weird thing is, it’s not essentially the CGI that sticks out. There’s so much of it that the human characters inserted in the film feel almost unneeded and a distraction in themselves. But it's Alita's facial construction, whose eyes and face are computer-generated beyond all recognition which actually turned me off from the screen regularly. Somehow grossing over $405 million worldwide, with possible sequels now in the works, the film may have been better delivered as an animation as it’s already 90% there. And therefore sadly, as Alita is found amongst a big pile of junk and hastily put together, the film mirrors this in its themes, tone and dull execution. ★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jun 30 2019 09:17PM



Fighting with My Family (2019) Dir. Stephen Merchant


I am very much aware of WWE – who isn’t I guess – but let’s open this review with an acknowledgement of my lack of engagement with what I remember as a kid being called the WWF - before the wildlife fund got all litigious. But you know what? This brilliantly written and directed sports-comedy drama from The Office creator Stephen Merchant is so well-done, even a wrestling ignoramus like myself enjoyed so much of it.


In short, the film dramatizes the life of WWE professional wrestler Saraya "Paige" Knight and begins with her family’s wrestling passion which sees her and her brother compete in the local ring in their hometown of Norwich, England.


A fantastic Lena Headey and hilarious Nick Frost are the ex-wrestler parents who promote and train up-and-coming new prospects in their small gym. But soon Paige has the opportunity to try out for the big league in the USA. With her and her brother (Jack Lowden as Zak) fighting for a spot alongside a host of hopefuls, only Paige is chosen by professional coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) to head to America and pursue her dream.


It’s here the film nicely balances its signature move of the emotional turmoil of Paige’s feuding relationship with her brother whilst also hitting entertaining comedy beats as her outsider is tested ‘Rocky-style’ in a series of endurance events and training montages.


Paige is played by a dazzling Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Outlaw King & soon-to-be-released horror Midsommar) and she brings warmth, charm and feistiness to a well-rounded character in charge of her own destiny. With her alternative/goth-y looks, she battles all-American ex-models for the limelight and her go-getting attitude faces-off against an alliance of personal and professional struggles.


British family-issues and a theme of helping the local community sit comfortably with the glitz and glamour (and sweat) of the wrestling world stage. And Merchant gives each narrative point enough time to shine in his cinematic ring before pushing the fun story forward. A welcome, and very comical, cameo from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also brings some Hollywood gravitas to a slightly quaint overcoming-the-odds narrative but the film is always charming and appealing throughout.


Whilst doing nothing spectacularly new, it gets by on so much heart and has funny (and when needed, dramatic) scenes that mean audiences will empathise with the characters from the outset.


With crowd-pleasing humour, a tender heart and some affected drama, the film is brought to life with a simple and engaging directorial style from Merchant but the excellently delivered performance from the whole cast is the real contest winner here.


And with all that going for it, Fighting with My Family ends up winning the title belt for best comedy of 2019 so far.


★★★★


Michael Sales



By midlandsmovies, Jun 29 2019 03:43PM



Apollo 11 (2019) Dir. Todd Douglas Miller


Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the famous 1969 moon landings, Apollo 11 is a new documentary that revisits the familiar space-race story but with some very unfamiliar footage. Made up entirely of archive film, the documentary includes high quality 70mm sequences that have never been released publicly, which is a huge shame given their significance.


But thankfully, here they are now. With no narration and minimal dialogue dubbed over the NASA images, the film reminded me of the documentary 3 Shots The Changed America about JFK’s assassination. There, as with here, historical home-movie style sequences from the era gave an eerie realism little seen in more formally structured docs.


And coming from the President who promised the US public a man on the moon in the first place, both films use 60s film stock and snippets of conversational sounds to create a natural feel that thrusts you straight into their respective periods.


The amazing footage isn’t just used for the inevitable launch and landing however. Much of the joy comes from the mundane. If you feel overfamiliar with the subject then the exclusive backroom admin work, telephone calls and crowds waiting in anticipation give the audience an experience that they would not have seen before – short of being at Cape Kennedy on the day itself.


Swathes of thrilled Americans are edited alongside rare CCTV of a van transporting the astronauts to the launch site. This grainy intimate black and white footage is as fascinating as the glorious 70mm film as we get to view many little-seen aspects from the day that all lead to the countdown. The huge tracks of the Missile Crawler Transporter slowly moving the Saturn V rockets to the pad are shot in such high quality you’ll swear they were filmed last week.


The Southern accents certainly make it an all-American affair, whilst a leaking valve shows the reality of the situation and its risky difficulties. The sensational images continue with the launch itself and the excitement of that day comes across in every frame. But again, the matter-of-fact procedures show how “normal” much of this seems. And these also remind us of the hundreds of humans behind the momentous occasion.


And as I type this on a laptop that has 1,500 times more processing power than the lunar module, the reality is that this was a dangerous mission as Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are strapped into a claustrophobic metal box stuck to the world’s biggest firework.


Covering both the scientific detail and the strong patriotic emotions, Apollo 11 is a must-see for space enthusiasts and for the rest, you can bask in the jaw-dropping and immaculate footage which brings the electrifying lunar landing to life.


★★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jun 24 2019 07:19AM



Brightburn (2019) Dir.David Yarovesky


Written by Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn and produced by cousin James Gunn, Brightburn sure is a family affair. And family and growing up are two of the central themes in this new what-if-Superman-was-evil horror flick.


We begin with full-on Snyder-satire where the images from his disappointing Man of Steel are recreated so closely that I’m surprised DC haven’t filed a copyright claim. We get images of grain silos, barns and mailboxes as we discover a small town (ville?) called Brightburn located in Kansas (where else?).


What we have is mother Elizabeth Banks as Tori Breyer and David Denman as Kyle Breyer whose son Brandon (a nod to Superman Returns’ Brandon Routh?) was in fact discovered as a baby one night after a glowing spaceship crashed on their land. And so they take him under the wing unknowing that their child will soon develop super-powers.


Jackson A. Dunn as Brandon does well as we see an innocent boy uncovering his powers that make his school and personal life a misery. Parallels with the problems of growing up are echoed in his uncontrollable urges and difficult teen conversations. His mum and dad chalk this up to the perils of puberty but although his body is physically changing, he has an unnatural attraction to the spaceship he arrived in that is now hidden in their barn. And the red entity that lies within has him changing into a “super-brat” his parents struggle to control.


“Who am I?” asks Brandon, oblivious to his past and with his parents revealing the truth to him, his bad behaviour gets worse and the abuse of his powers increases. He breaks the wrist of a girl who doesn’t like him back, and in the most gruesome scene of the year (involving glass and a close-up on an eye) he brings awful revenge to her mother.


The film does well in setting up character, motivations and the plot and we uncover many truths along with the main players, first feeling sympathy and then disgust with Brandon’s strength. As he enacts punishment to seemingly petty situations, the film also explores the notion of maturity and masculity (his father gives him “the talk” and issues of gun ownership come up) whist Banks gives a great performance as the mum longing for, and protecting, a son no matter what flaws he has.


Brandon's blue pyjamas and red bed sheet outfit (!) morphs into a scary red-only costume he has drawn in a notebook and the film hints upon the 2013 Superman: Red Son comic mini-series which asks what would happen if Superman landed in Russia instead of the USA. Would he still do good?


Eventually Brandon flies up, up and away and with super-speed the film turns into a slasher of sorts as the authorities track him down after investigating a mysterious symbol Brandon leaves at the scene of his atrocities - and the movie's genre-homages were a pleasure to watch.


With an interesting idea and a surprising amount of gore and horror, Brightburn is a fantastic what-if fantasy film. With a mother desperate for a child to love, the film gives more depth to what could have been a throwaway fright flick and although firmly in the b-movie genre, I hope it gains enough of a cult following to deliver a sequel to its rather dark finale.


★★★★


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, Jun 11 2019 07:23PM



All Is True (2019) Dir. Kenneth Branagh


In a text prelude, we are told of a cannon accident which sees the infamous Globe theatre burn to the ground in 1613 and as Shakespeare watches it burn, we are brought back to the 17th century in this new film from director-star Kenneth Branagh.


Branagh’s fascination with Shakespeare began with Henry V (1989), followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love's Labour's Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006) and now in 2019, he’s not just content with adapting his work but playing the very man himself.


After the scene setting intro we return with Will to his family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon and thus begins an unhurried character study about the latter years of The Bard’s life. The film explores his family relationships with wife Anne Hathaway, played with staunch pride by Judi Dench - no stranger herself to Shakespeare (In Love) – and his two daughters. And at the same time, he also mourns the loss of his young son Hamnet.


Like Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) and this year’s The Favourite, Branagh has favoured chiaroscuro cinematography for the night scenes where small and wooded Tudor houses are lit by candles and fireplaces using strong contrasts of light and dark. The bright scenic daytime scenes see an elder Shakespeare leave his literary ways to focus on his garden. And again, the locations and lighting are fantastically cinematic – and with Mary Queen of Scots and this, fans of the Tudor period (like myself) are getting spoilt this year.


The picturesque and quaint countryside scenes, whilst admirably filmed, don’t host a particularly strong narrative and the drama contained within claustrophobic dimly-lit rooms is small in nature itself. Although probably intentionally so. Written by Ben Elton, the film’s narrative drive focuses on Shakespeare’s doubts and concerns about his family, specifically his son.


Dench as his wife cannot read and laments Shakespeare’s absence from her in his heyday, and his constant digging in the garden serves to show him digging up parts of his offspring’s past. And at times, the film seems to find its voice in the silence between words rather than lots of dialogue or exposition.


As doubt is cast on his son’s poems and the circumstances of his death, the issue of not being able to write at all poses larger questions about authorship in general – a subject of much controversy and debate regarding Shakespeare’s own work over the years. Thus, as he is haunted by the loss of Hamnet, Branagh is stately and stalwart as Shakespeare but the script isn’t afraid to shove a few lewd and crude lines his way during his family spats. Also thrown a bone is Sir Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton who gets his chance to shine with a stellar recounting of Shakespeare’s verse in the middle of the film.


The movie really is much more about a person’s legacy and the “bosom of his family” rather than any analysis of the plays, poems and sonnets of his folio themselves. For that you need to watch Ben Elton’s parody Upstart Crow which pulls apart the myths surrounding the great writer. Here we simply focus on the introspection undertaken by Branagh's brooding Bard.


The aforementioned slow pace may put passing fans off but like the Bard’s greatest hits, Branagh’s All is True includes history, comedy and tragedy – and measure for measure, is an old-fashioned, amiable and uncomplicated chamber-piece with much to recommend. ★★★½


Michael Sales


By midlandsmovies, May 31 2019 07:40AM



Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) Directed by Michael Dougherty


OH NO! THERE GOES TOKYO, GO GO GODZILLA!


When the 2014 Godzilla came out, audiences had two big criticisms: firstly, that Godzilla was chunkier than expected, and secondly that he wasn’t on-screen nearly long enough.


With this year’s Godzilla: King of Monsters, director Michael Doherty certainly can’t be accused of holding him back – there’s plenty of the big green guy on show as he smashes his way through buildings and throws down to show the roster of revived kaiju who’s boss. He’s also no less hench this time around, as his neck seems to have disappeared completely. I’m not body-shaming, he looks great!


Set five years after Godzilla duked it out with the MUTOs in San Francisco, the film follows estranged couple Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark (Kyle Chandler) along with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Emma is a scientist at Monarch, the global organisation introduced in the first film as the people charged with finding and researching Godzilla and the other Titans.


Mark left the organisation and retired after their son died at the hands (or feet) of Godzilla, but when a group of eco-terrorists (led by the always-great Charles Dance) kidnap Emma and Madison and threaten to unleash the Titans upon the world, he’s out of retirement to rescue them faster than you can say ‘that trope is so old it’s got false teeth in’.


Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins reprise their roles from the first film, but are relegated to side-kicks and exposition providers; one of the film’s most awkward moments has Chandler explaining Godzilla’s motives and how to handle him to Watanabe, who’s been established as having been researching and hunting for Godzilla for decades. Having the American man school the Japanese man on Godzilla of all things makes for uncomfortable viewing!


The actors all put in terrific performances, especially Farmiga and Brown, though I could have done with more Charles Dance because I love him very much. The film really hits it stride when all hell breaks loose and the Titans clash as the trailer promised that they would. The plot may have had some structural weaknesses, but it’s clear that this part of the film is what the filmmakers wanted to focus on; big monsters knocking the crap out of each other.


The effects are superb, as you would expect, with Godzilla and Rodan especially characterful. It’s easy to see these creatures as individuals with personalities rather than just dumb beasts with a penchant for stepping on people. I watched this in the IMAX and the film really makes use of that, especially in the battle scenes; make sure you see this on the biggest screen possible. The 3D feels tacked-on and unnecessary, though, as it was barely utilised at all; in fact it often set the actors apart from the action in a way that made me unconsciously aware of how the actors are acting against a green screen.


The film is far from perfect; certain characters deserved better treatment, the plot is hokey an predictable at times and there’s an alarming dynamic of White Heroes and Sidekicks of Colour (all the people of colour in the film are subordinate to the main heroes), but if you disengage your brain and go in expecting a fun spectacle where big monsters smash things up then you won’t leave disappointed. Plus it sets up next year’s Godzilla vs Kong quite neatly.


★★★½


Sam Kurd

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