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Film Review: The Little Stranger

“There Is Something Inside This House That Hates Us…”

Based upon Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel of the same name, The Little Stranger sees the return of critically acclaimed Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, a filmmaker whose previous venture in the form of Room garnered universal praise, including here at Black Ribbon, alongside a fully deserved Oscar win for Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson. With Abrahamson already being renowned for layered, thematic works of cinema which cut across a wide range of differing genres with ease, the same can be said for his latest venture, a dark, gloomy and overly Gothic portrayal of one man’s venture into the life of a secretive family burdened with privilege and wealth, yet one haunted by the faint echo of death which seems to have canvassed inside their once prestigious home. Reuniting with Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) after their work together on the comedic oddity which was 2014’s Frank, The Little Stranger does ultimately fail to live up to the excellence of Abrahamson’s previous two ventures, with a sluggish pace and lack of real narrative push surprisingly making the Irish director’s latest a real struggle for the most part, but with some rousing central performances and a fleeting number of creepy set pieces, The Little Stranger is still interesting enough to be seen.

Whilst gothic cinema is always seeped in inspiration from timeless genre classics including the likes of The Haunting and The Fall of the House of Usher from the central macabre figure of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe, Abrahamson’s movie utilises the genre conventions as a somewhat secondary device, with focus primarily on Gleeson’s Doctor Faraday, a well-spoken and educated middle class local go-to whose envy of the Ayres family and their inherited fame and fortune has troubled and haunted him since childhood. With the movie latching onto Faraday’s point of view, his attempts to embed himself into the life and love of Ruth Wilson’s (Luther) Caroline leads him to unravel secrets and mysteries gently hidden within the confines of the Ayres family home, and whilst the movie only briefly contains elements of pure, spine-tingling horror, including a brilliantly constructed final act, these moments are undoubtedly the strongest of the piece, with the familial dramas and attempts at elongated character studies which make up the bulk of the run time agonisingly dull. With Wilson the standout performer of the piece, following on from her similarly creepy performance in the little seen Netflix chiller, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Abrahamson clearly knows how to get the best out of his performers but fails, this time at least, in managing to fine tune both the pacing and tonal inconsistencies of a piece which deserved to be more rewarding.

Overall Score: 6/10

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Film Review: King of Thieves

“It’s So Disappointing When People Stoop To Backstabbing…”

Based upon the extraordinary Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary which occurred over the Easter Bank Holiday of 2015, a contemporary infamous act of criminality which has been labelled as the “largest burglary in English legal history”, King of Thieves, the latest feature by The Theory of Everything and The Mercy director, James Marsh, is the third adaptation of the events onto film after a couple of low-budget attempts including The Hatton Garden Job featuring the likes of Larry Lamb and Matthew Goode, but the first to hit the big screen, aided undoubtedly by a joyously star-studded cast which features the likes of Michael Caine (The Dark Knight), Ray Winstone (The Departed) and Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2) as the aged crooks who are determined to seal off their careers with one last job. With cocky attitudes, an abundance of cockney accents and enough chemistry between the cast to keep the enjoyment levels flowing, King of Thieves is a flawed but enjoyable, overly cliched heist movie which primarily suffers due to a inability to harness the film’s wildly inconsistent tones as it sways between comedy, drama and an overbearing sense that maybe at times, we’re having too much fun with what are essentially murderers and thieves.

With Caine’s Brian Reader acting as the central focus of the opening act of the movie in which we see an early loss act as a catalyst for his return to crime, the film’s opening forty five minutes is wildly entertaining as we are introduced to an eclectic herd of aged bad boys as they banter themselves to death whilst the central heist is planned, perfected and then carried out with eye-watering rewards. With the cast clearly enjoying themselves with seemingly ad-libbed sweary dialogue and particular members not exactly trying hard to be anything other than themselves, Mr. Winstone, I’m looking at you, it’s a particular shame that the second half of the movie completely bombs as Marsh attempts to juggle the seriousness of the effect the central crime has on those around it with a crow-barred notion of how our leading characters are actually violent murderers who are happy to off Police officers without an echo of remorse, and whilst the movie ultimately overstays its’ welcome by at least twenty minutes, King of Thieves is an odd little movie, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: Yardie

“I Sent You To London So You Wouldn’t Start A War In Kingston…”

With hot rumours surfacing of him taking the role of the next James Bond and the return of BBC’s hit crime drama, Luther, in the near future, it’s fair to say that Idris Elba is indeed a busy, busy man, and with a fundamental warmth and undeniable likeability, Elba’s career seems to be going from strength to strength even when the steely-eyed few still remember Elba’s superb performance as Stringer Bell in the greatest television programme of all time, The Wire. It comes with a particularly heavy heart therefore that Elba’s directorial debut, a hazy adaptation of Victor Headley’s 1992 cult novel, Yardie, is unfortunately a plodding, strangely dull and overly cliched crime drama which fails to ignite the touchpaper of Elba’s switch from in front of the camera to behind it. With dedicated performances from many newcomers within the cast, an eclectic mix of groovy musical accompaniments and an obvious love for the source material from Elba, Yardie isn’t exactly terrible, but its’ major flaws are so crushingly obvious that it’s hard to paint over the cracks in order to make the film better than it really is.

Focusing on Aml Ameen’s (Kidulthood) Dennis “D” Campbell and his rise within the criminal underworld of a poverty stricken Kingston, Jamaica, the early exposition of the movie is recalled through the age-old use of voice-over, and whilst my own personal preference for storytelling undoubtedly favours a “show me, not tell me” format, Elba’s particular narrative technique does quickly become overly cheap and relatively boring as every single movement is described when the audience is already ten steps ahead.  With the movie primarily suffering from an utter lack of effective characterisation which results in the film simply being observed than truly being sucked into the drama, the overly familiar gangster set-up fails to carry any fresh ideas, even when its’ key characters on the surface are interesting but are unfortunately let down by poor writing and dialogue which is as hokey as it is sometimes undecipherable. With a groovy soundtrack and some smokey, 70’s era London cinematography, Elba’s vision for the movie is admirable but with the whole much weaker than the sum of its’ parts, Yardie is a yawn-inducing disappointment.

Overall Score: 4/10

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman

“We Think You Might Be The Man To Open Up Things Around Here…”

With a staggeringly eclectic back catalogue which ranges back a whopping thirty five years, director Spike Lee knows a thing or two about film-making, and whilst recent projects from the influential American haven’t exactly been front and centre of the cinematic spotlight, the release of BlacKkKlansman opens to a wide audience bearing high expectations after reported critical acclaim and the prestigious honour of winning the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Based upon former police officer and detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 novel “Black Klansman”, a written account of Stallworth’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan during the late 1970’s, Lee’s movie undoubtedly lives up to expectations, a staggeringly powerful and entertaining multi-layered drama which sees John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington, as the cocky, undenaibly likeable, Afro-wearing Stallworth who persuades his superiors within the Colorado Springs Police Department to be placed undercover alongside Adam Driver’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) Detective Flip Zimmerman in order to gain access into the secretive local Klan led by Topher Grace’s (Interstellar) unbelievably racist and anti-Semitic, Grand Wizard, David Duke.

Mixing comedy with police procedural drama alongside an overarching political cornerstone which not only emphasises the race-relations issues of the 1970’s period setting but the state of the United States political spectrum today, BlacKkKlansman combines the harsh, dangerous perils of undercover policing seen in the likes of The Departed and Eastern Promises with a constant stream of rib-tickling satirical gags as it moves deftly through its’ two hour plus runtime with considerable ease and a gloriously well-mannered pace. With Lee relishing the chance to emphasise the racial undertones to alarming degrees, the movie’s obscenely vile character’s are as hateful as the heroes of the piece are joyful to be around, with Washington, Driver and Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming) as Patrice all on the top of their game in their attempts to create three dimensional, believable personalities each with their own personal sufferings and crusades, and with Lee’s skilful eye orchestrating a number of superb set pieces, including a heartbreaking juxtaposition between an old man’s tale of murder and the KKK applauding to a screening of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 controversial picture, The Birth of a Nation, BlacKkKlansman is undoubtedly Lee’s best movie for over a decade, a stunning work of blended drama which barely puts a foot wrong.

Overall Score: 8/10

Film Review: Journeyman

“When I Come Back Through That Door I’m Still Gonna Be Champion Of The World…”

With boxing continuing to be the most visceral and cinematic sport to be successfully transferred onto the big screen in favour of others who have valiantly tried and failed, sometimes rather woefully in fact, that’s right Goal!, I’m looking at you, Paddy Considine’s second swing at directing after the critically acclaimed Tyrannosaur in 2011 in the form of Journeyman takes a rather well-worn format within the tradition of boxing movies whilst attempting to add a sense of genuine realism to proceedings which can be somewhat absent from the bigger, flashier Hollywood examples that audiences have been treated to in the past. Mixing together the cruel, life-changing risk of the sport seen in the likes of Bleed For This and Million Dollar Baby with an independent, Ken Loach-esque sensibility, Journeyman works best when the film pulls on the heartstrings in a way which fails to feel either saccharin sweet or cheap, and whilst the pacing and drawn-out nature of the movie does ultimately weaken the film as a whole even with a ninety minute runtime, Considine’s second feature is a solid example of character acting at its’ most dedicated.

With Considine himself taking the lead role of Matty Burton, the recently titled middleweight champion of the world, a victory secured via default after his opponent was forced to back out of the fight, a chance for redemption and a true shot at retaining the title comes in the form of Anthony Welsh’s (Black Mirror) youthful yet arrogant Andre Bryte. With the first twenty or so minutes wonderfully low-key and engaging as we our embraced in the film’s attempt to juggle the relationship between Burton’s relationship with his job and the personal life he has with the brilliant Jodie Whittaker (Doctor Who) as wife Emma and their newborn baby, the horrifying result of Burton’s fight with Bryte sets up the remaining hour in which we see Burton’s transformation from joyous, caring husband and father to the unrecognisable shell which has been put in his place. With outbursts of violence, mental incapacity and a terrifying “hide and seek” game within its’ brightest points, Journeyman does include the raw, realistic sensibility you’d expect from a British independent film, but with not enough push and a lack of real development come the crucial change half way through, Considine’s movie is a likeable but flawed second feature.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: A Prayer Before Dawn

“I Got No Family, No Money, Just Give Me This One Chance, I Wanna Fight…”

Based on “A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand’s Prisons” by ex-con and former drug addict, Billy Moore, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s debut, high profile release elbows its’ way into cinemas this week, dragging along with it a bruising sense of harsh realism and the full-blooded nightmare of Moore’s journey as he is incarcerated within the confines of a Thailand prison for drug dealing and is forced to fight for his survival in a sense both literal and dangerous. Shot on location at Nakhon Pathom Prison, a staggeringly un-hygienic mosh pit of overpopulated prisoners, both dead and alive, where violence is mandatory for staying alive and gang rape is part and parcel of being proclaimed as the weakest in the populous, Sauvaire’s movie is a grueling, non-stop and overly horrific portrayal of survival which incorporates a menacing backdrop to iron over the cliches of the plot, even when the fundamental story is that of reality and not fiction, and with a standout central performance and an editing pace which works particularly well considering a complete lack of meaningful dialogue, A Prayer Before Dawn is a successful and daring directorial debut from a filmmaker unafraid to tackle the darkest tales of man and the instinct to survive, no matter the cost.

With Joe Cole of Peaky Blinders and Green Room fame playing the younger incarnation of Moore, his journey from angst-ridden junkie to dedicated fighter brings with it a frighteningly authentic physical performance, one which rivals Tom Hardy’s Bronson in Winding-Refn’s spectacular movie of the same name for levels of incarcerated danger, aside from the pantomime sensibility of the latter which is strikingly absent, and in its place, a much more humane and regretful character arc which develops as Moore becomes used to the ways and means of his newly found incarceration. With Cole’s powerful performance resulting in every jab, bruise and serious injury being well and truly felt, it’s a crying shame that the screenplay for the movie doesn’t entirely hold up to similarly spectacular levels, with the path of the narrative funneling through from a run-of-the-mill prison drama in the vein of Animal Factory or David Mackenzie’s equally gritty Starred Up, to a bog-standard boxing conclusion, all wrapped up within a thematic sensibility which reeks of a combination between The Raid 2: Berandal and Warrior, and as amazing as that ultimately sounds, Sauvaire’s debut doesn’t stamp its’ foot on the equal quality of its’ predeceasing familiars and is ultimately a movie saved by his stellar direction of a leading performance which demands to be visualized and lauded.

Overall Score: 7/10

Film Review: Adrift

“I Sailed Halfway Around The World To Find You…”

With Icelandic filmmaker, Baltasar Kormákur, having a recent cinematic back catalogue which can arguably be regarded as somewhat patchy, the 2 Guns and Everest director returns this week with Adrift, a romantic survival drama based on the true story of reckless adventurers, Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp, as they venture into the Pacific Ocean in order to sail a luxury sail boat from Tahiti to San Diego and end up coming face to face with a destructive and dangerous hurricane. Based on Tami Oldham’s own memoir “Red Sky in Mourning”, co-written with Susea McGearhart and published in 1998, Kormákur’s latest follows a familiar “lost-at-sea” narrative as it attempts to juggle the central relationship between Oldham and Sharp, played on-screen by Shailene Woodley (Snowden) and Sam Claflin (My Cousin Rachel) respectively, with a hard-edged tale of survival, and whilst the performances of the central duo are pleasantly believable and committed, particularly Woodley who gives her best on-screen performance since Snowden, Adrift is annoyingly a middling, overly mediocre affair which features zero sense of peril and an overriding sense that we have been here many, many times before.

With a time-jumping narrative which continually switches between the past and the present, the historical scenes sees the core relationship between Sharp and Oldham begin to blossom in the most cringey, overly saccharin way possible, with even Oldham’s character in one scene apologising for being too “cheesy”, but even with a screenplay which feels very much the typeface template for approaching on-screen Hollywood depictions of love, it’s to the leading duo’s credit that you still successfully believe in the pair as a genuine couple hunger for exploration and excitement on the rough seas. Cue the scenes of the present and it is here where Adrift ultimately and strangely becomes ever-so cliched, with the movie somewhat sitting between the all-out physicality of All is Lost and the ripe sentimentality of Titanic, but all-the-while feeling incredibly boring and wholly un-engaging even when Woodley gives it her all, peanut butter covered fingers and all. With a concluding twist which not only feels convoluted, cheap and utterly ridiculous, such a black hole of jarring inconsistency raises questions about whether the majority of the film was ultimately needed, but with a resounding sense that both Claflin and Woodley somewhat save the day, Adrift sort of gets past the finish line, albeit struggling and hanging on for dear life.

Overall Score: 5/10

Film Review: Sicario 2: Soldado

“You Wanna See This Thing Through? I’m Gonna Have To Get, Dirty…”

With Denis Villeneuve showing a wider audience what was to come of his expert film-making prowess back in 2015 with Sicario, a expertly crafted, white-knuckle thriller which laid the basis for the similarly masterful Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 in terms of what the French-Canadian could achieve with the right backing, arguably the more impressive element of the feature was Taylor Sheridan, an American most famous at the time for his stint on Sons of Anarchy but whose screenplay for Sicario was both smart and compelling, one swiftly followed by equally impressive screenplays for both Hell or High Water and Wind River, capping off a trio of superbly written movies. each with a dedicated lust for heavy doses of substance and style in equal measure. Returning to writing duties again for the eagerly anticipated Sicario sequel, subtitled Soldado, the absence of Villeneuve means Italian director Stefano Sollima (Suburra) takes charge of a movie which continues the oppressive, ominous tone of the original whilst working through a genuinely thrilling narrative, one which sees the return of Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) and Benicio del Toro (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick as they attempt to orchestrate a war between the Mexican cartels after they are seen to be aiding agents of ISIS cross the border in order to carry out their destructive message, and whilst Soldado doesn’t entirely hit the heavy heights of its’ near-perfect predecessor come the end credits, Sollima’s movie is still an unnerving, powerful work of war at its’ most darkest and lawless.

Beginning with a catalogue of terrorist related events, including a jaw-dropping and horrific supermarket explosion in which the camera lingers closely from outside through every familiar step of contemporary terror, Soldado quickly re-introduces the reunion of Graver and Gillick as they are handed the freedom to do as they please in order to combat the ever-increasing Mexican cartel presence on the US-border which has now taken extra precedence due their involvement in potential terror activities. With a central narrative which sees the kidnapping of the young, spoiled daughter of a renowned Mexican cartel boss, one which ultimately results in in-house allegiances being put to the test, Sheridan’s screenplay also follows closely the exploits of newcomer Elijah Rodriguez’s Miguel as he crawls up the ranks of the cartel’s people smuggling operation, and whilst the sequel doesn’t entirely hit the brooding, ambiguity which drove through the entirety of its’ predecessor up until the very end, the tight-knit, unbearable tension does manage to completely follow over, rearing its’ head throughout a high proportion of a movie which aside from one sarcastic aside, primarily holds its’ tone as completely and utterly serious. With a Michael Mann-esque, militaristic sensibility which sees countless shots of rampaging army vehicles cruising across the vacant, perilous landscapes of the US/Mexican border, Soldado is wickedly spectacular in its’ approach to action set pieces, with the piercing sound of bullets echoing the overripe mixing of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk merging spectacularly with endless cinematic screenshots of whirring helicopters, over-head drones and enough firepower to start and end a small coup.

With the inclusion of much more lusciously orchestrated action scenes second time around, the question remains whether the overall screenplay deserves such luxuries, and even as an overall body of work Soldado doesn’t piece together as tightly or rigidly as Sicario, with particular crucial plot threads concluding rather suddenly without any real sense of full-blooded purpose, the avenues which Sheridan’s writing takes us undoubtedly suits the bleak mould of the series, particularly in the movies’ penchant for gut-wrenching murder sequences and a concluding near-death experience which undeniably ranks up there with one of the more brutal character arcs in recent history. With Brolin and del Toro on superb, angst-ridden, macho-growling form, with the latter having much more space for a deeper layer of examination this time around as his character’s uncertain, ambiguous nature is slowly scraped at and given light, young Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Knight) as the similarly tough Isabela Reyes gives an equally impressive performance as the daughter of the cartel boss responsible for the death of Alejandro’s wife and daughter. With a bruising, battling, war torn sensibility which is as tough at times as it is riotously engaging and enjoyable, Soldado is a sequel success story which both pays homage to its’ predecessor with utmost respect whilst developing its’ characters in fascinating ways, and with the possibility of a third film coming to nicely round the series off as a trilogy, one can only query how much further Sheridan can continue his winning scripture streak.

Overall Score: 8/10

Film Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

“I’d Like Very Much To Write About You. Your Society…”

Winning the award for most convoluted title of the year so far, Four Weddings and a Funeral director, Mike Newell, returns with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a big screen adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ 2008 novel of the same name which sees Lily James’ (Cinderella) awfully well-spoken but deliriously likeable Julie Ashton, a well-to-do and moderately successful English writer, venture over to post-war Guernsey in order to embed herself into the titular organisation as research for her next literary project. With a cinematic sensibility which reeks of similarity when it comes to moderately successful contemporary Second World War dramas including Their Finest and Churchill, Newell’s latest is a ridiculously twee and wickedly harmless romantic drama which revels in its’ overt Britishness and an unbelievably predictable and paint-by-numbers screenplay, one which seems to be primarily designed to please audiences admiring the film with a slice of cake and cup of Earl Grey on a light and breezy Sunday afternoon.

With an opening twenty minutes which introduces James’ Ashton, the audience is made privy to her recent literary successes and close separate relationships of professional and personal boundaries with both the attentive, publisher figure of Matthew Goode’s (Stoker) Sidney and the charming American soldier, Mark Reynolds, as played by Everybody Wants Some!! highlight, Glen Powell. After receiving a letter from Michiel Huisman’s (Game of Thrones) farmer type, Dawsey Adams, under the umbrella of the titular gang of Guernsey residents however, Ashton swaps war torn central London to the rural heart of post occupied Guernsey where she attempts to unravel the mystery of Jessica Brown Findlay’s (Black Mirror) missing society founder, Elizabeth McKenna whilst slowly falling for the rough and rugged winner of most attractive cinematic farmer ever in the form of Huisman’s Adams. With a supporting band of merry well versed actors including Penelope Wilton (Doctor Who) and Tom Courtenay (45 Years), Newell’s movie never alleviates from being anything other than perfectly fine, and whilst at times the predictability weakens the film’s final product, the film forever linked with one of the worst titles ever just about ticks over.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: Mary Magdalene

“Are We So Different From Men You Must Teach Us Different Things…”

With 2016’s Lion a solid and warm-hearted Oscar nominated directorial debut for Australian filmmaker, Garth Davis, expectations remained high for a cinematic second coming, no pun intended, and with the Easter holiday’s swiftly approaching, a time in which kids devour chocolate coated eggs with less and less of an understanding each year regarding its’ figurative meaning, the release of Mary Magdalene seems naturally apt. Featuring Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story) as the titular follower of Jesus Christ, whose religious and historical actions tend to primarily focus on her bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion by the hands of the Roman Empire, Davis’ movie unfortunately conforms to the curse of the follow-up album by being a body of work much weaker than its’ predecessor, a staggeringly dull and uninspiring let-down which works much more effectively as a medicinal cure for insomniacs rather than a religious spiritual mediation, and whilst I am all for movies which opt for a slow and ponderous sensibility over choppily edited spectacle in the ilk of Blade Runner 2049 and Mara’s own strangely hypnotically strange, A Ghost Story, a film famous for a ten minute continuous shot of a character eating pie, Mary Magdalene is unfortunately an example of a film which uses the strategy and fails miserably.

With an underwritten screenplay which seems to have been typefaced onto the back of a postage stamp, the lack of real adventure or push results in the on-screen transfer from paper to film one which is tortuously painful to endure, with the film lacking both a simple element of life and a substantial capacity for the audience to not only believe that any of the characters are believable but more importantly, interesting enough to care for. With Joaquin Phoenix (Her) cast as the prophetic figure of Jesus, his whispering tone and shaggy-dog hair demeanour results in a performance which manages to come across as the lovechild of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending and Phoenix himself in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and whilst Phoenix normally manages to pull off decent performances regardless of the overall quality of the movie, his performance is poorly directed and staggeringly dull. With two hours of film to burn through, Davis’ movie just doesn’t offer up a sizeable reason for why it exists in the first place, and even with a slightly interesting concluding contemplation, Mary Magdalene is the cinematic equivalent of a Tesco saver Easter egg; unequivocally bland.

Overall Score: 3/10