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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 30 2019 06:01PM



Review - Crucible of the Vampire


The reign of vampire movies has slowed down in recent years due to a new breed of superhumans on the block. It’s apparent though, that this genre has not been forgotten.


Crucible of the vampire grabbed my attention for three reasons.


The opening scene. To set the tone of the movie, we’re introduced to an elderly gentleman stirring a pot in the woods by a creek. The story quickly develops when a band of witch hunters suspect the gentleman of performing necromancy.


This whole sequence is done in stark black and white. It could have benefitted from a few reflectors on set, as the details in some faces were completely lost. However, one scene, only lasting a second, which struck with me with awe, was when the gentleman was branded with a hot poker. The embers flickered in colour. The excitement of something so visually unexpected in the first three minutes threw me right into the story and I was eager to continue.


Jump to present day and we’re introduced to Isabelle, a museum curator tasked with verifying a piece of cauldron in a remote Stately manor in Shropshire. The family within the house are seemingly inviting, except for Scarlet, the daughter.


In a let’s-break-the-ice kind of evening dinner, the family’s strange dynamic is revealed. The acting was cold and lacked fluidity and I couldn’t help but imagine these guys had only just met behind the camera earlier that day. This was both unsettling and noticeable; there was no real chemistry made between the main actors in the first place.


That’s not to say they didn’t try. Katie Goldfinch, who played Isabelle, completely blew me away in the third act when she’s tied up and held against her will. Therein lays my second reason as to why this film engrossed me.


This particular scene was shot with Isabelle in a frantic, animalistic panic over all that had happened. Not only did the fast paced editing induce hysteria and leave you just as off balance as Isabelle, but also the surreal colours and offset music inspired a quicker heart rate than usual. This was the scene I was waiting for in amongst this slow paced movie.


As for the interior of the house; whether it was made to look this way or it was simply how it originally was, the house gave you chills.


There is nothing warm about the place and even if the house looked clean, you could feel dust everywhere. It was genuinely a perfect place for such a story to flourish, and only later in the film do you see more hidden layers of it.


The characters, however, remained two-dimensional. It could have had something to do with the costumes, or lack thereof. Even though it was set in present day and the need for modern clothing was apparent, the counterpart historical scenes were rich in the outfit department.


I would’ve liked to have seen a more subtle connection to the past. Instead, the only thing that connected them to the history of events was the cauldron and the obviously ominous black robes. The music was unnecessary at times. Some scenes would have benefitted more from pure silence to further enhance the feeling of remoteness. Harsh violins and deep cellos became a distraction at the wrong time.


The film failed to allow the audience’s imagination to ascend and develop, but instead the story was served straight up with no satisfaction of conceptualising anything for ourselves. This was especially apparent when an important character known as the “dark lady” would appear. Full ghoulish makeup, big black wig and scary unblinking eyes. If there was supposed to be shock value, it wasn’t there.


This leads me to my third and final premise on why I advanced deeper into the movie. With the dark lady, there was a genuinely creepy moment. This scene was layered with only hints of light, shot at night of course. It worked because so much was left to the imagination. When the dark lady unnervingly walks down the stairs, your eyes are fixated on Isabelle playing the organ. With an unknown source of light, your eyes suddenly dart to the lady coming from the shadows and then disappear again. The effect of having less really did mean more.


With the film’s genre almost forgotten, it was nice to be reminded that vampires aren’t dead yet. A more minimalistic approach to the sound would’ve matched the visuals well, and a deeper connection between characters could’ve driven the story deeper. The film is worth watching for some excellent stand-alone scenes as they are spread out evenly across the movie.


★★ ½


Sammy

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



By midlandsmovies, Jan 17 2019 05:07PM



Suspiria (2018) Dir. Luca Guadagnino


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


★★★★ ½


Michael Sales



By midlandsmovies, Dec 17 2018 10:12AM



The Predator (2018) Dir. Shane Black


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


3/10


Michael Sales


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