Film

The Hole In the Ground

03/03/19

The myth of the changeling goes back to the earliest times and it’s around that conceit that writer/director Lee Cronin has based this effective, low-budget horror movie, which sees young mother, Sara (Seána Kerslake), recently separated from an apparently abusive spouse, attempting to settle into a new home with her young son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). The fact that the house in question is located in the wilds of Ireland, uncomfortably close to a vast and ancient forest, guarantees that viewers’ nerves are on edge from the vertiginous credit sequence onwards, an effect that’s cleverly accentuated by Stephen McKeon’s ominous score.

Sara and Chris soon encounter one of the neighbours, the seemingly mentally disturbed Noreen (Kati Utennan), who tells everyone that her young son was strangely transformed into somebody entirely different, shortly before he was killed in a mysterious ‘car accident.’ When Chris, after an argument with his mother, runs off into the forest, Sara pursues him and discovers the huge sinkhole of the title, an impressive creation that seems to serve as a metaphor for  ensuing events, as Sara’s realties begin to subside inexorably beneath her. Soon, Chris is exhibiting uncharacteristic behaviour… and Sara begins to come around to the idea that Nora’s ramblings might not be quite as crazy as they sound.

Cronin’s approach to the story is all the more powerful because he steadfastly refuses to fill in too many details. We never learn why Sara has been abandoned by her partner, nor what caused that mysterious scar on her forehead. Indeed, at times we begin to suspect that Chris’s changes might just be a product of Sarah’s own imagination. But the steadily mounting atmosphere of clinging dread is expertly handled and there are some knockout scenes along the way. A sequence where Sarah views her son’s bizarre nighttime antics from a gap under his bedroom door is particularly terrifying and actually has me holding my breath as it plays out. Kerslake is terrific in the lead role and young Quinn Markey somehow manages to switch effortlessly from angelic to demonic and back again, all in a heartbeat.

There’s a tendency, of course, for tense fright movies like this one to go completely off the rails in the final furlong – Hereditary, I’m looking at you – but, while the final confrontation here lacks the terror of earlier stretches and is perhaps a little too reminiscent of The Descent, it holds up pretty well if you’re prepared to turn a blind eye to a few loose ends. Furthermore, I love the slippery coda which amply demonstrates that Sara’s ordeal has had a lasting effect on her, one from which she may never escape.

This confident – and at times surprisingly original film – is the director’s feature-length debut. It will be fascinating to see where he goes next.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

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On the Basis of Sex

28/02/18

I really want to like On The Basis of Sex. Not just because Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is a truly inspirational woman who deserves a decent film, but also because we’re seeing this one with a couple of friends, and it’s much more fun to enthuse collectively than it is to disparage. I’ve read a few lacklustre reviews, so I’m far from certain I’ll get what I want. But the cinema-gods are smiling down on us tonight, and I’m pleased to report this is a cracking biopic.

Okay, so Daniel Stiepelman’s script isn’t especially innovative or radical; this is a traditional telling. But that’s no bad thing: the writing is tight and concise, intimate and focused. Given that Ginsburg’s activism is of the quiet variety – all research and paperwork and detailed knowledge of tax laws – and her marriage was harmonious and free from high drama, it’s no mean feat to have made such a compelling movie from her tale. The shocks are all in the blatant sexism; it’s hard to believe this is only (really) a few years ago. Thank goddess for RGB and other pioneers.

Mimi Leder’s subtle direction takes us with Ginsburg from her 1956 enrolment in Harvard Law School up to her landmark 1970 case, where she forces the court to concede that gender discrimination is actually a thing. In this instance, it’s a tax code penalising a man: he can’t claim tax relief for the nurse he employs to care for his mother while he’s at work; if he were a woman (or, indeed, married), he would however qualify. After years of suffering discrimination on the basis of sex – unable to get a job as a practising lawyer, lumbered with a professorship that isn’t what she really wants – this is Ginsburg’s chance to nudge the floodgates. Once gender discrimination has a legal precedent, other laws can be challenged.

Felicity Jones is made for this part, I think, effortlessly conveying a surface of dignity and composure but a core of steel and fire. Ginsburg must surely be delighted with the way she’s been portrayed. Armie Hammer is also disarming, as Ginsburg’s devoted husband, Martin, as supportive a partner as anyone could wish for. And Cailee Spaeny (last seen by B&B in the criminally overlooked Bad Times at the El Royale: not a single awards nomination – really?) as the Ginsburgs’ daughter, Jane, surely has a bright future ahead? She’s arresting, even in this small role.

It’s a charming film, and an important story. It’s scary to think how recent this all is, and how hard-won the rights we now enjoy. There were no women’s toilets at Harvard Law School when RBG went there; there were laws – actual laws – that stated women couldn’t e.g. fly aeroplanes.

How far we’ve come.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Fighting With My Family

24/02/19

I have to confess that my expectations for this are not particularly high. This may surprise you, but the world of WWE wrestling is not something that’s ever figured high on the list of things I enjoy – but a members’ screening of Fighting With My Family at The Cameo, coupled with a quiet Sunday afternoon, is enough to entice me along to give it the benefit of the doubt.

And against all the odds, I am thoroughly entertained.

Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (who seems to be making more credible inroads into the movie industry than his old compadre, Ricky Gervais), this is a ‘based on a true story’ account of the career of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), who, from her childhood, along with brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), is schooled in the ways of all-things-wrestling by her parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Heady).  They run a small wrestling club in the exotic locale of er… Norwich, where they regularly put on small-time bouts and train the local teenagers in the ways of unarmed combat.

Saraya and Zak have always dreamed of hitting the heights of the WWE so, when they are invited to go along to a tryout in London, they are of course wildly excited. But things become more complicated when Saraya is invited to head out to Florida to see if she has what it takes to become a wrestling superstar – while Zak is given a polite ‘no thanks.’ Now he has to watch as his sister has chance of achieving everything he’s ever dreamed of, while he’s stuck in Norwich, helping to care for his partner’s new baby and training the local teenagers. Bitter? Yes, pretty much.

Merchant does a terrific job of this, managing to steer  clear of the obvious and giving us a much more nuanced story than we might have expected. Just when we think we know where this is heading, he throws in the odd surprise – like the seemingly snooty model girls training alongside Saraya, who turn out to be perfectly decent people. Pugh, in a role I’d never have anticipated after Lady Macbeth, is appealing as a square peg trying desperately to fit into a round hole, and Lowden does an excellent job of conveying Zak’s inner torment as his sister’s star continues to rise. Vince Vaughan is terrific as the hard-assed coach who pushes Saraya to the edge of endurance and there’s even a nicely judged cameo by Dwayne Johnson, where the man’s inherent likability is allowed to shine through.

Look, this is never going to be anybody’s choice for film of the year, but if you’re looking for a slice of undemanding fun, and a genuinely heartwarming conclusion, you could do a lot worse. It may not convert you into a rabid fan off WrestleMania, but you’ll have some genuine laughs, something that’s in woefully short supply these days.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Kid Who Would Be King

20/02/19

When I was just a nipper and there was such a thing as ‘Saturday Morning Pictures,’ I would often watch features from the Children’s Film Foundation. These were stories about gangs of plucky kids, coming together to solve a crime or save a theatre or take on invading aliens – you name it. I mention this mostly because there’s something about The Kid Who Would Be King that rather reminds me of those films – albeit this time with the advantage of a sixty-million-dollar budget.

Joe Cornish made an impressive directorial debut with Attack the Block seven years ago and, after some messing about in Hollywood, he’s gone back to an idea he first came up with as a teenager, and which has been bubbling around in his head ever since.

This is the story of Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a mild mannered twelve-year-old, who, together with his best mate, Bedders (Dean Chambo), is the subject of bullying at his secondary school, mostly at the hands of Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris). (The bullying, by the way, is the unconvincing sort you only ever see in movies – holding somebody upside down to shake the coins from his pockets, etc.) One night, chased into a building site by his oppressors, Alex finds an old sword embedded in a stone and easily plucks it out. Pretty soon, he’s approached by Merlin (played by Angus Imrie and, occasionally Sir Patrick Stewart), who informs him that he is now ‘the once and future king,’ and that ‘divided Britain’ is at the mercy of evil witch, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and her armies of the undead. Only a hero of epic proportions can save the world from disaster. By the way, those who think they are spotting a Brexit allegory here should be aware that Cornish claims it’s just a coincidence. You decide.

The film has a pleasing, amiable feel about it with plenty of in-jokes mixed in with the admittedly impressive action sequences. For the most part, it works a treat. If there’s an occasional tendency towards mawkishness, well, those bits are mercifully brief and soon enough, we’re flung headlong back into the action.

However, though the legions of flaming skeleton knights are initially pretty impressive, they are perhaps somewhat overused. A final confrontation between a bunch of school kids and the forces of darkness feels unnecessarily protracted and I think TBWWBK could easily had shed thirty minutes in the telling to ensure it keeps a firmer grip on an audience’s attention. I also can’t help feeling a little bit sorry for Rebecca Ferguson, chained to a wall for half the movie and spending the rest of it morphing into a hideous lizard-like monster. Well, that’s show business.

But quibbles aside, this is a film that is squarely aimed at a young audience, who will surely enjoy its deft blend of thrills, chills and chuckles. So it’s somewhat disappointing to note that at the afternoon performance we attend, there are perhaps only two kids in the rather sparse crowd. The film has already had a disappointing showing at the American box office where Arthurian mythology doesn’t mean an awful lot to the average viewer. It would be nice to see this do a whole lot better here.

If you have youngsters in need of entertainment, get them to a screening of this before it turns into an owl and flies away.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

A Private War

17/02/19

Marie Colvin was an extraordinary woman, and Rosamund Pike, it turns out, is exactly the right actor to convey her strength and singularity. Her performance as the celebrated war reporter is gutsy and bold, nuanced and considered – quite possibly a career best.

A Private War is a biopic, detailing the last ten years of Colvin’s life, following her from war zone to war zone, highlighting the personal toll – both physical and mental – of uncovering and revealing so many unpalatable truths. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, but it doesn’t quite pay off.

Maybe it’s because Colvin is famous as an observer and interpreter of stories; as the central character, she seems misplaced. It’s as if the important stuff – the stuff she’d want to focus on – is happening off-screen, and we’re reduced to watching her reactions instead. Of course it matters what happens to those who chronicle events, but their narrative is inevitably secondary to the events themselves. Here, that order is subverted, and I don’t think it wholly succeeds. I feel curiously distanced, from the wars as well as Colvin, never emotionally engaged.

Still, there’s much to praise here too. Pike isn’t the only one to deliver a great performance: Jamie Dornan does a sterling job as Colvin’s sidekick, photographer Paul Conroy, and Tom Hollander injects warmth and like-ability into his portrayal of otherwise hard-headed newspaper editor Sean Ryan. Stanley Tucci provides the much-needed – both in the movie and, I imagine, in Colvin’s real life – light relief, as her London lover, the only person with whom we see her truly relax.

We are shown the horrors of war – a mass grave in Iraq, besieged towns in Syria – and the awful relentlessness of it all, the despair of those affected. But it never gets personal; we never learn enough about the individuals. ‘Find the people,’ Colvin tells rookie journalist, Kate Richardson (Faye Marsay), ‘and tell their stories.’

It’s a shame the movie doesn’t take its protagonist’s advice.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Alita: Battle Angel

17/02/18

This one has been a long time coming.

Back in the early 2000s, James Cameron had two pet projects he was planning to direct. The first was Alita: Battle Angel, based on Manga comic, Gunnm. The other was a little thing called Avatar. We all know what happened with the second option and (unless you’ve been living in a hole for a good while) we also know that, after much humming and hawing, Cameron has committed himself to filming four Avatar sequels. But clearly he wasn’t ready to give up on that other project. Enter Robert Rodriguez to take up the directorial reins as Cameron’s er… avatar… while he contents himself with co-writing and producing duties on Alita. What could go wrong?

Well, the word on the street is that the resulting film is a bit of a dog’s dinner and one that looks certain to lose an awful lot of money. But, if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that it’s unwise to underestimate Cameron, who has managed to confound expectations several times before. Most people predicted that Titanic would sink without a trace…

In the year 2563, the earth has been reduced to a devastated post-war shambles. Most people live in the ramshackle chaos of Iron City, while high above them, in a floating sky palace called Zalem, a mysterious ruling class look disdainfully down whilst quite literally dropping their trash on the less fortunate below them. A metaphor perhaps for the way in which the affluent West offloads it’s garbage on the poorer countries of the world? Quite probably.

Whilst searching through a rubbish dump, cyborg scientist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the head and spinal column of a young female cyborg. His scanners detect signs of life in it. So he whips it back to his laboratory, where he conveniently happens to have an artificial female body all primed and ready to go, the one he actually built for his wheelchair-bound daughter Alita, but which she never got to use.

The new version of Alita (played by a GGI augmented Rosa Salazar) wakes up with a powerful new body that works a treat but oddly, she has no memories of her previous existence. However, it isn’t long before she discovers that one thing she can do really well is fight, using an ancient martial art called Panzer Kunst… and fight she does. A lot.

Of course, given the genre, this is probably inevitable but it’s in the film’s early stretches that it is at its most accomplished. Alita is a genuinely exciting CGI creation (I hope to see Salazar in some less tweaked roles in the future) and the basic premise, with its shades of Frankenstein and even Pinocchio, is initially alluring. But why do so many action movies have such one-note lead characters? Think how refreshing it would be if Alita was good at music… or poetry… or… well, something other than kicking people repeatedly in the face. Rodriguez, by the way, somehow succeeds in giving us an ultra-violent movie that manages to hang on to its 12A certificate, mostly by virtue of lopping off artificial limbs and robotic heads rather than flesh and blood. A bit disingenuous, I think.

From this point the film is a decidedly mixed bag. We meet Ido’s ex wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), a fellow cyborg scientist who is desperately trying to earn her passage back to Zalem, mostly by buttering up the mysterious Vector (Mahershala Ali, proving that he’s not afraid to wallow in less hallowed projects than his recent Oscar-nominated films). There are some decent action sequences (the one where Alita is pursued by a murderous pack of weirdly constructed cyborg killers plays like a cross between Mad Max and The Wacky Races, but manages to generate some genuine thrills in the process). If there’s an overlying problem here it’s simply that the plot feels rather nebulous. I am never really sure why so many people are keen to kill Alita, nor quite what to make of the occasional flashbacks she encounters.

I do however like the fact that the mysterious overlord briefly glimpsed looking down on all the shennaningins from the safety of Zalem really looks like James Cameron himself – which would have been a brilliant idea. (Someone in the know assures me that it is actually Ed Norton, but I like my idea better.)

Alita isn’t the disaster that so many have predicted – but neither is it a triumph. It’s a curate’s egg of a film. Good in parts but, in others, indigestible.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

All Is True

09/01/19

All Is True is a gentle affair and, actually, a perfect Sunday afternoon film. You know what I mean: it’s one to settle down in front of when you’ve eaten too much dinner and you want to engage with something clever but not challenging, fun but not frenetic. It’s a quality piece; how could it not be with its fine pedigree? With Kenneth Branagh starring and directing; with Judi Dench supporting; with Ben Elton providing the script? (Okay, I know Elton has his naysayers, but there’s no denying he’s good at this historical comedy stuff. Blackadder is still up there, I think, and Upstart Crow is pretty decent too.)

It’s the tale of William Shakespeare’s latter years, back in Stratford with his family after living apart from them in London. But now his theatre – the Globe – has gone up in flames, destroyed by a misfired prop cannon; he’s lost his mojo and he needs somewhere quiet to lick his wounds. Returning home also gives him the belated chance to mourn his dead son, Hamnet, who died of the plague while his father was away, and to repair his fractured relationship with his daughters and his wife. But there is scandal in small towns as well as in cities, and Will’s no stranger to it. His own father was a thief, and now his daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is caught up in a lawsuit, accused of adultery.

Interestingly, this is the second fictional interpretation we’ve seen of this affair (the recorded facts are sparse, but we do know that her accuser was found guilty of slander and excommunicated for his lies) – the first, The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, was performed at The Lowry in 2016 – you can read our review of it here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2016/04/02/the-herbal-bed/.

But Elton’s scope is wider than Whelan’s, focusing too on the strange details of Hamnet’s death, and his twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder)’s reaction to it, as well as on Shakespeare’s own insecurities as a grammar-school educated merchant’s son, occasionally mocked by the upper-class university graduates he counts as his peers.  There’s a meandering quality to the movie that suits its Stratford setting; the light is gorgeous and the period is beautifully evoked. It’s funny too, and informative. There’s no denying it’s a slight piece of work, a little bit of whimsy to while away the hours, but it’s entertaining and engaging, and, provided you’re not in the mood for something more demanding, perfectly enjoyable.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield