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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




By midlandsmovies, May 5 2018 09:47AM



The Post (2018) Dir. Steven Spielberg


Is there anything worse than the comment “oh, it’s so the film we need right now”? I think not, and Spielberg doubles down on this statement and runs with it in his ‘analysis’ of the politics of 1970s newspaper journalists and their attempts to expose corruption, in his new flick The Post. In short, what we get is a few Oscar-worthy actors (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks) idly going through their high-quality motions as they discuss the repercussions of the Washington Post publishing Vietnam secrets buried in the Pentagon Papers.


With Spielberg’s track record, you’d expect nothing less than a well-constructed film but I found its constant pandering to topical issues so heavy-handed that the obvious parallels with current concerns about the US administration were undermined by a rather obvious delivery.


Spielberg’s floating camera and long takes are noticeable as we follow the newspaper’s owner (Streep as Katharine Graham) who is shown having her words literally taken from her mouth by male colleagues at board meetings even though the newspaper is in her hands. Spielberg tackles sexual politics as well as governmental politics, as she is shown physically placed behind groups of males and pushed out of the picture. But once they get hold of these confidential papers, she rises to take a stand and prepares to defy the newspaper's lawyers and publish the damning documents.


Early on, the Washington Post are banned from covering the wedding of Richard Nixon’s daughter' which parallels Trump – who is another grandiose self-obsessed and ugly White House figure much like Nixon himself. A clever highlight for me was showing Nixon from a distance – literally spying on him – like he did on others, and was a great way to foreshadow Watergate along with the constant shady phone-calls throughout.


Alongside this, the actors are often framed in silhouette – with illumination coming from windows (a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel) – whilst Spielberg also uses slow zooms to echo the surveillance style of The Conversation and other political thrillers from the time. A 4-way telephone conversation hints at crossed-wires and the soundtrack has a mix of John Williams echoing his own JFK melodramatic strings with some of his Catch Me If You Can retro style.


Spielberg’s masterful control of the medium is without peer and his close-ups of the intricacies of the printing press were a beautifully staged montage of a technology long-gone. And the endless piles of paper the journalists sift through are here today in an aternative electronic format as seen on Wikileaks. Old fashioned but still powerful.


It’s just that my personal taste is predisposed to be wary of “topical” films like this obvious attempt. And The Post feels very by-the-book. The movie comes along with a well-respected filmmaker choosing the most blatant of tropes – “Hey, Nixon is like Trump! These secret papers are like Wikileaks! Journalists are being oppressed today!” Relevent? Yes. Rather tedious and obvious to all? Sadly I’d argue yes again. And hugely to its detriment.


For me, it is so representative of his two-trick pony current output – political allegories like Bridge of Spies, Lincoln and War Horse and his sub-par CGI heavy flicks like Tintin, BFG and Ready Player One - as films that haven't touched me in the way his past classics have. The Post therefore ends up going through the motions like a well organised print of a newspaper and this rag is ultimately disposable at the end of the day.


6.5/10


Midlands Movies Mike


By midlandsmovies, Apr 20 2018 05:07PM



Atonement (2018)


Directed by Auzair Razak from Coventry


A Ribbontree Production


Atonement is a new 12-minute psychological thriller from Coventry writer-director Auzair Razak which tackles issues of bereavement, grief and blame.


Filmed in a Paul Greengrass handheld camera style we begin our journey with Daniel who we discover has lost his daughter and is battling to come to terms with her passing. Spiralling into alcohol-fused decline, he returns home one night and begins to see visions of a mysterious forest.


Daniel himself is played by actor George McCluskey (another Coventry talent whom we have spoken with before) and here he excellently conveys the awkward confusion and stress of this melancholic man as he attempts to deal with his demons.


Atonement sticks to its low-key realism with music that is kept to a minimum but when it does arrive it has an eerie elongated tonal quality which adds a touch of unexpectedness to the weird proceedings.


A piercing tinnitus inducing sound signals the arrival of his visions as his daughter Emily (Lamissah La-Shontae) appears then disappears into surrounding woods. The washed-out colour palette of these scenes help establish a dream-like quality whilst McCluskey manages to evoke a devasted father well with the few lines of dialogue he is given.


A date scene in a restaurant conveys Daniel’s frustrations and loneliness as he fails to engage with his guest and as he drifts in and out of his ghostly nightmares we are given hints upon what brought him to this state.


Deep within his trance, a shrine against a wooden log and a blood-red toy car leave clues as to the backstory and we’re soon within Daniel’s mindset as his fanciful dreams and miserable reality collide.


Atonement’s only real drawback is its slight unoriginality. The ghostly daughter and [SPOILERS] car crash denouement is one I’ve seen a lot of in local films. It may just be coincidence but as recent as last week I reviewed a film about a middle-aged bald man suffering nightmare visions that leave him “hanging” onto reality.


However, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to recommend this short too. The film’s technical aspects are rock solid with sound mixing being of particular note. Dialogue, music and audio effects have been well produced and it’s so easy to ruin a good short with bad sound. But not here. The performances are rugged but consistent and deliver the slightly-seen-it-too-many times before materal with believability and sensitivity.


A great introduction to a young filmmaker I haven’t heard of, Auzair Razak’s Atonement is a fantastic welcome of another gifted filmmaker onto the Midlands scene. One who I very much look forward to seeing more of – with a splash more originality I hope – in the coming months.


Midlands Movies Mike


Follow the short on Twitter at @Atonement_Short

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