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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 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, Nov 23 2018 01:08PM



Calibre (2018) Dir. Matt Palmer


In the last 2 years Netflix has been the home of interesting independent film that allows the platform to champion smaller films and lesser known filmmakers and has, please see my best of the year lists from 2016 & 2017, created many more satisfying movies in the process.


During the same period, a number of Midlands filmmakers have seen their productions gain bigger budgets and with access to more resources and developing talents, Calibre is a film that bridges these two exciting areas – especially with a focus such as ours.


Here, Nottingham’s Wellington Films have created a thriller set in Scotland where two friends embark on a hunting excursion in the Highlands. Marcus (Martin McCann) is a confident businessman who invites childhood friend Vaughn (Jack Lowden) to a shoot in the woods and after entering a small village plagued by economic woes, settle down in a bar before their hunt the next morning. That evening they meet two girls and Marcus leaves the pub with one despite receiving a warning from a local.


The next morning and with heavy hangovers the duo head to the woods and Vaughn, shooting for the first time, accidentally kills a young boy in a fluke shot. The boy’s father appears and raises his gun but Marcus shoots him dead before convincing Vaughn no one will believe it was an accident. They bury the bodies at night and then do their best to exit town.


The film sets up its simple premise with thoughtful and engaging character work, small details are symbolically presented throughout and the location is equally the great outdoors and the oppressive indoors. This sense of inescapability – both physically and from the terrible past act – is the film’s driving force. A knife in the tyres from the brother of one of the girls they were warned away from means the two lads’ car becomes incapacitated. And this in surmounting pressure of the town becomes more and more unbearable with the audience unable to escape their own feelings of unpreventable pressure.


Unable to fix their vehicle quickly and with the local taxi driver drunk, the locals set out in search of the missing boy after their suspicions become aroused. And as the reality starts to hit home, the film heads into dark territory as the secrets become a scary reality for everyone involved.


Both leads hold the film together – Jack Lowden is excellent as the wide-eyed hunt virgin whose expression of innocence slowly turns to physical sickness – whilst Martin McCann’s performance is a fantastic mixture of loud-mouth cockiness and sinister self-assurance.


The direction captures the Scottish area well and each location is brilliantly filmed and perfectly establishes the setting and scene. From cosy but awkward local pubs to dirty farm buildings, they sit well alongside photography of forests which show beauty, but also horror, as they hide mysteries (and bodies) within the confines of stifling trees.


A great support cast play a host of residents, none of which you can be entirely sure are kindly residents or lethal locals, but it’s this guessing game that maintains Calibre’s invigorating narrative. With a hint of Kill List, a dashing of Wicker Man and splash of In Bruges, Calibre’s thematic influences are varied but it carves out its own unique position as a tremendously tight and tense thriller.


7.5/10


Mike Sales


By midlandsmovies, Sep 28 2018 02:31PM



Midlands Review – Voice of Belief


Voice of Belief (2018)


Directed by Alastair Railton


Fresh AIR Films and Media


“Good evening. An attack in Central London tonight has claimed the lives of seven”.


And so opens new film Voice of Belief from Grantham born Alastair Railton who directs and writes this new political thriller about freedom, oppression and belief.


Inspired by Charlie Chaplin's speech in the Great Dictator, the film attempts to create a modern take on the subject matter and give it a more relevant and up-to-date context.


The story follows anarchist revolutionary Jason Argyll (Simon Crudgington) who captures negotiator Ellen Turner (played by Astrid Bellamy) before his planned political speech to be broadcast around the globe.


The film sets up its world with Matrix-esque electronic codes alongside images of wealth in the form of wine and dollar bills. Voices in a variety of languages show this is a global issue as we are told of terrorist atrocities against the "1%ers" on the streets in a violent campaign from the “Argyle” movement and its network of followers.

Argyll’s hostage is tied to a chair which is an image ripe for the local film scene right now – see Sheikh Shahnawaz’s Witness and GM Finney’s Thursday – before they engage in a war of words over the group’s global goals.


As they discuss the world’s infection by “corporate elites”, we get an update on Chaplin’s speech including nods to modern technology such as the hacking of government databases, alluding to the recent tactics of groups such as Wikileaks.


The great cinematography from Adam Hudson uses cinematic colour grading and extensive silhouette work which gave the film a sheen of quality. However, the beige warehouse exterior needed some more texture and depth.


The above wouldn’t be as much of an issue but the film has an awful lot of dialogue. And I do mean a lot. Ditching the old adage about showing not telling, almost the entire first half of the film’s 28-minutes is expositional conversation as the two leads discuss their ideologies back and forth.


Unfortunately then, it begins to tie itself up in some cod-philosophical platitudes which dance around vague concepts. “Every society needs leadership”. “I agree”. Maybe it’s my own political leanings but it’s difficult to get on board as many of the themes are far too widely drawn.


The second half feels much more coherent though. The back and forth diatribe and talk of political machinations are ditched for a more intriguing tone featuring gun standoffs, tension building and heightened passions.


As well as this, we get some new visuals in the form of a day-dream and the dialogue shows more variation in what is being talked about.


Here it could be said Railton is figuratively depicting Chaplin’s speech when it references the “Kingdom of God is within man”. Although technically a woman in this case, Ellen Turner imagines the green rolling fields of her own Eden as she contemplates her future.


As the film builds to its crescendo, the balaclava-wearing supporters get their guns at the ready as an attack on their compound is imminent. Argyll starts to deliver his sermon direct to camera in a scene eerily akin to today’s terrorist messages.


And a sermon it is. Here the dialogue came across a little preachy and you could argue that this man sounded like every other hate preacher. With the two extreme viewpoints in opposition throughout – violence for getting what you want or blindly accept the status quo – the film doesn’t exactly sit in the grey area it alludes to.


Simon Crudgington does his best to raise some sympathy with his impassioned delivery and ends his vocal calling with a wry smile suggesting a glimmer of hope.


It has been said that bad men often come along promising easy solutions to complex problems. The lead here does somewhat the same and the film would have benefited from some more self-awareness. “I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier”, someone once said. As so it goes.


Despite all this, I can’t help but recommend the film. With two performers busting under the weight of lofty dialogue the film at least attempts to tackle complex subject matter whilst not always hitting its mark. And although you have to wade through the first half to get to the drama, the film will certainly make audiences think about wider issues. Taking international themes, Railton uses a local cast to create a new adaptation of a cinematic classic that will have you questioning your own beliefs. Which is no bad thing at all.


Mike Sales


Voice of Belief will be showing in Grantham at the Guildhall Arts Centre on Saturday the 13th of October from 2:30pm


Check out the film’s Facebook page to follow the latest updates and screenings

https://www.facebook.com/Voice-of-Belief-1591952617567805/


By midlandsmovies, Jul 29 2018 06:43PM



Sicario 2: Soldado (2018) Dir. Stefano Sollima


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


8/10


Mike Sales



By midlandsmovies, Jul 19 2018 07:33AM



Unsane (2018) Dir. Steven Soderbergh


Infamously filmed on an iPhone 7 Plus in 4K using the FiLMiC Pro app, director Soderbergh shows again that he’s an exciting and experimental filmmaker jumping from project to project with both blockbusters (Ocean’s 11, Logan Lucky) sitting alongside indie fare like The Girlfriend Experience.


Here we get more of the latter rather than the former as Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a distressed and anxious woman who visits a counsellor but unwittingly commits herself to a mental institution. Once inside, she struggles chaotically to get herself out, whilst also claiming a man who once stalked her is now working there as a staff member. But is he just a figment of her imagination?


Well, Soderbergh uses the handheld anamorphic lens to visually stretch reality and her believability, as she is tormented either by her mind, the hospital and/or her stalker. A fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharoah) shares an insurance company conspiracy with her whilst Juno Temple’s Violet is a sassy inmate with gossip and brainwaves of her own.


The director keeps each scene off-kilter by throwing the audience into a world of confusion, sedition and (sometimes) sedation. The knotty narrative helps keep the intriguing premise up, questioning who or who may not be the nutty players in this secure unit, but at times it simply feels jumbled and disorganised.


The home-made ambience owing to the technology used would have been great if used sparingly but had me going mad by the film’s rather preposterous and baffling conclusion.


Certainly made with bold and creative passion, Unsane is a solid and quirky thriller looking at enduring psychological torment. But if nothing else, by using a format that is so often seen as a last resort for aspiring filmmakers, Soderbergh has demonstrated that high quality and interesting work can be more than achieved for a low budget.


6.5/10


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Jul 7 2018 07:46AM

Trentside (2018)


Directed by Charlie Delaney


Trentside is a 30 minute short written and directed by Charlie Delaney. It tells the story of Sterling (Josh Barrett), a troubled teen who happens upon a disturbing Super 8 reel in an abandoned building. After watching the footage, he has strange visions and dreams, finding it hard to distinguish reality from fantasy.


As a directorial debut, this film is pretty damned fantastic. Delaney has a great eye and there are some great shots and sequences here. Spencer’s foray into the darker areas of the abandoned building is a particular standout, with the use of light and shadow joining the superb sound design and eerie soundtrack to produce an incredibly creepy sequence.


‘Creepy’ is the operative word here; Trentside is a mood piece, my favourite type of horror film. The emphasis is on creepy visuals and, especially, sound to unsettle the viewer and Trentside delivers in spades. The opening scenes set the tone, with the flickering fire and the long shot of people arriving and standing in near-silence around it. I hate jumpscares but the ones here are used well, breaking the tension as needed rather than just thrown in now and then for a cheap shock. In fact, there’s one moment in the abandoned building that many would have used a jumpscare for, but the fact that they chose not to really drives the horror home.


A good horror filmmaker should know when it’s more effective to avoid the jumpscare, so kudos to Delaney for making this excellent choice here. The film-reel footage also feels genuine (perhaps filmed on Super 8 for authenticity?) and is evocative of the cursed VHS tape in The Ring.


At first I wasn’t sure what to make of Barrett’s performance as the lead – he seemed a little monotone and his lines were often mumbled and a little hard to make out. It quickly became clear that that was the point, though; Spencer is a moody teen with troubles on his mind, sent to therapy for violent outbursts in class. Barrett’s performance is completely genuine for a troubled teenager, and we’ve all sat behind kids like Sterling on the tram. Barrett’s performance gives him nuance and vulnerability.


Trentside was made for a budget of around £2000 and so was shot ‘guerrilla’ style, ensuring they made the most of the settings available. And boy did they make the most of them! From the skatepark to the Savoy Cinema to Sterling’s meditative moment on Trent Bridge, this film bleeds Nottingham (despite having been partially filmed in Yorkshire). As a Nottingham resident it was nice to see these little touches popping up and giving it a sense of authenticity. The budget is put to good use as this film certainly doesn’t look or sound cheap. The rave scene especially comes off well as it’s clear that there’s only a small group present, but the use of smoke and the barrage of sound makes it feel much much bigger than it is.


If I have any criticisms it’s that a couple of the supporting actors’ line deliveries are a little wobbly and that the therapy scenes slow the film down to a crawl (just a pacing thing, not at all the fault of Anita Dashwood who does an excellent job in the dual role of therapist and ghost), but these are merely niggles and the film overcomes them with great ease.


It’s not the most original premise, perhaps, but horror is one of those genres where that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Horror fans expect certain tropes, and as long as the production values and creep factor are high, a plot that’s slightly derivative is very easy to forgive.


This is a solid debut and a very strong foundation to build a career on – good luck, Charlie, I have a suspicion you’re going to go far!


Sam Kurd

https://twitter.com/splend

By midlandsmovies, May 23 2018 02:01PM



Midlands Review - Blackmail


Directed by Shahnawaz


Blackmail is a short thriller by Birmingham-based filmmaker Sheikh Shahnawaz, who you may remember from our review of his other recent short 'Witness'.


In this tightly-paced short, Nisaro Karim plays a teacher who finds himself blackmailed by a mysterious stranger who has taken pictures of him with his 15 year old lover. At the mercy of his blackmailer, he has no choice but to comply with their demands… or does he?


Karim gives a fantastic performance, really selling his character's distress at being stuck in this situation. Make no mistake, his character is reprehensible and you don't root for him to get off scot-free, but this isn't one of those stories that needs a likeable protagonist. It's a gritty backstreet brawl of a story and you know that no one in this will come out smelling of roses.


The film looks very slick and you can tell Shahnawaz has great talent and a good eye for the technical side of directing. He keeps the pace up and the tension taut throughout, which is no mean feat with such a small story as this. His shots are simple, smooth and uncomplicated, exactly what this film needs to remain grounded and do justice to the intimate nature of the story.


I'm afraid I did see the twist coming, but I think that's probably more my fault than the film's as there was nothing to give it away and I have a bad habit of expecting and guessing twists beforehand (I blame Mr. Shyamalan). The dialogue is a little on the clichéd side, but it serves the story well and is pretty much what you would expect in this situation.


In all, Blackmail is an excellent way to spend 10 minutes and is further proof that both Shahnawaz and Karim are rising stars to watch closely.


Sam Kurd


Twitter @Splend




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