My review of WW1 drama Journey’s End is over at FilmINK and below.
The sheer horror of the first World War is captured in sobering detail in this quietly moving adaptation of a powerfully emotive play of the same name. First performed in 1928, just ten years after the end of the war, R.C. Sherriff’s drama brought the reality of the anxiety and claustrophobia of trench warfare to theatre-goers.
This film is the fourth cinematic outing for the story. Directed with intensity by Saul Dibb (The Duchess) and featuring a collection of memorable performances, Journey’s End is the story of a contingent of British soldiers in France waiting for a German attack.
The young and inexperienced officer Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) is keen to see the war for himself. He also wants to meet up with former school house-master and potential brother-in-law Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a leader with rapidly diminishing coping skills and a perspective overwhelmed by anger and alcohol.
Raleigh is soon introduced to the other members of the group, including the wise and peacefully dejected former school teacher Osbourne (Paul Bettany) and the no-nonsense plain speaking Trotter (Stephen Graham). Some brief moments of gallows humour are also provided by the less than 3 hat culinary offerings from the trench cook Private Mason (Toby Jones).
While the jumping off point for the story is undoubtedly Raleigh’s swift education in the ways of the war, and the blood, mud and scent of death that accompany it, it is as the film moves on to the unbearable wait for the attack that it really comes into its own. The mental unravelling of Stanhope is agonising to watch. Claflin does an excellent job in creating this eminently believable character of a man as close as can be to absolute breaking point.
The injustices of how soldiers were contemptuously treated as little more than statistics by the ruling elite is also strongly focused on. While the soldiers dine on tinned fruit and tea with bits of onion in it, the generals are served formal dinners and fine wine. Food and drink becomes an obsession with the men, as the torturous wait goes on with little to alleviate it but more alcohol.
The timeless story of conflict and assessing the value of life and death is shown in all its power. Asking all sorts of questions of nationality and patriotism 100 years after the culmination of World War One, Journey’s End provides a stark retelling of the grim truth of that most senseless of conflicts.
Review of A Prayer Before Dawn is over at FilmINK and below.
Based on the real-life accounts of boxer Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn delivers a powerful message on the dangers of drugs – and more importantly… getting caught with them in the wrong place.
The place in question is Thailand, where Moore – portrayed with vigour and sensitivity by Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) – has been working as a bodyguard in between boxing matches. He also spends time partaking in the smoking of local drug yaba, a crushing addiction that leads to him being busted and thrown behind bars.
Billy’s confusion in the prison is well brought out. The Thai spoken by guards and inmates is not subtitled, meaning the audience is in much the same position as Billy, relying on context and body language to discover what is being said. Luckily for us though, we don’t experience first hand the slaps and kicks.
The young Englishman’s rage at being imprisoned needs to have an outlet, and he begs to be allowed to train with the kickboxing team. His prowess is quickly recognised and a chance at survival and even release from prison hell is offered when he is allowed to compete in the inter-prison Muay Thai boxing tournament.
Billy is then packed off to another prison, where they swap subtitled stories of the grim deeds they did to end up there. Some of these conversations are delivered by real life ex-cons, so there is a provocative and alarming documentary quality about these scenes.
The fights themselves have a demonic circus atmosphere about them, with intensely maddening pipe music played over the speaker systems to accompany the blood and sweat. The close ups of whirling heads and flying fists (and feet) launch the spectator right into the heart of battle. It’s anything but a pretty sight.
The fights in the ring are gruelling enough, but the real challenge for the viewer is when the film details the violence in the prison itself. Painful and at points almost unwatchable, the film illustrates the suffering experienced by the prey of predators within a deeply flawed system.
Calling to mind something of the torment of ‘70s prison drama Midnight Express, but with the added confusion of blistering kickboxing bouts, A Prayer Before Dawnis a resolutely tough watch. But it’s also one that rewards, with the hope of redemption and rebirth.
My review of the haunting feature documentary film Three Identical Strangers is over at FilmInk and below.
The remarkable story of Three Identical Strangers presents an almost unbelievable tale of coincidence, family and scientific conduct. While it’s true that the compelling documentary has the age-old ‘nature vs nurture’ debate at its core, it also takes a wide-angled view of modern society in detail; bringing a clear focus to the world of media, advertising and science.
The film opens with a close-up of Robert Shafran, a man in his 50s, recounting his first day on campus at Community College as a 19 year old back in 1980. It was unusual, to say the least. Kids kept on coming up to him as if they knew him. Girls kissed him on the cheek. He was an all-round popular guy, not the kind of thing the slightly reserved Shafran would have expected at a new place where no one knew him.
Except they did know him, or at least someone who looked exactly like him. As it turned out Robert soon acquired some help from a fellow student named Michael Domnitz, who believed he had the answer. His best friend Eddy.
And from then on, it’s one explosive revelation after another, as the film takes in the fascinating story of Robert, Eddy, and a third identical brother, David. Told in a combination of narrative exposition to camera and recreated dramatic scenes, the film is a masterclass in how to tell a story that seems too strange to actually be true.
The film brilliantly takes the audience through what happened after the reunion of the three brothers and the media fame of the early 1980s that followed. Chat show appearances, a cameo in the Madonna starring Desperately Seeking Susan and a rock and roll New York lifestyle is all depicted energetically.
This first section of the film is jovial enough. The boys all seemed happy to be part of a triple set and loved living the high life of tabloid celebrity in the big city. They also tended to act in similar ways and have the same likes and preferences. Reality begins to set in after a while though, and things take a far darker twist.
Everything about the brothers is all captured in close-up and in sharp detail. Not only all of the similarities that they share, but also the differences. The expertly drawn film includes emotional accounts from everyone involved and has a journalistic thoroughness in going about every aspect of the background of how such an odd occurrence as this should happen. How did the boys get separated at the adoption stage, and why?
Director Wardle steers a film of emotional depth backwards and forwards on the central debate of whether an individual is shaped by upbringing and experience, or by genetic makeup. The film has a true crime detective story approach about it that maximises the tragic and alarming aspects of this deeply strange and ultimately perplexing story.
My review of The Insult is over at FilmInk and below…
The tension and resentments of opposing political and religious viewpoints are taken down to everyday street level in The Insult, an impressive overview of the political and religious arguments in Lebanon and the Middle East.
The film takes a petty argument between two men as its central starting point, an argument that becomes far greater and serves as a distillation of conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Lebanese and Palestinian, and pretty much everything in between.
The problems all start in Beirut, where Lebanese Christian garage owner Tony (Adel Karam) is watering his plants on his balcony garden. Some workmen, including the Palestinian refugee Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), happen to be nearby on the road below. When some water drips down onto Yasser, he demands that the drain is fixed straight away. When he sees that it hasn’t been, he calls in his team to fix it properly.
Tony lives in the apartment with his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) and does not want any work to be going on while she is there. The workmen are modifying the faulty guttering system on the building and claim every right to be there. Tony disagrees and smashes up the gutter in a fit of rage. Yasser calls him a ‘fucking prick’ (or words to that effect) to which Tony demands an official apology.
Yasser’s employers eventually manage to persuade him to go to Tony’s garage to apologise for the insult. But once he gets there, he finds a riled-up Tony listening to anti-Palestinian diatribe on his radio. Yasser grits his teeth and nearly gets the sorry out, but then Tony drops the verbal bombshell: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” And in that line, all of the animosity and ill-feeing of decades between opposing states and religions is boiled down to its core. The film in effect then asks the question, how did it get to be so?
Ziad Doueiri, a former camera assistant who worked in the US on movies including Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, gets the escalating threat and feel of the courtroom drama down perfectly.
Nominated for and just missing out on a Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Oscars, The Insult is a gripping drama that offers plenty of food for thought. While there are more questions than answers, the audience is at least left with the sense that, for better or worse, real individuals with their own motivations, prejudices and private histories will make the decisions that create or destroy peace and understanding.
Review of low-budget horror/crime film The Basement over at Flickering Myth and below…
Taking elements from crime and horror movies such as Silence of the Lambs, Hostel and Saw and putting them all together in a sickly grim stew, at first look The Basement doesn’t appear to be doing anything too original. Horror fans have seen a setup of character gets abducted by a lone nut and tortured in different ways countless times. However, with strong performances from its two leads and a collection of disturbingly entertaining scenes plus a strong resolution, the low-budget flick is worth sticking with.
Focusing on the interplay between imprisoned wealthy rock guitarist Craig (Cayleb Long) and serial killer Bill Anderson (Jackson Davis), most of the film is set in the basement of the title, where the two perform their bizarre psycho-therapy session.
The film has a good line in bleak humour, thanks to Long’s skill at bringing in different characters from his past and playing them out to Craig, who in turn is forced to perform the part of Bill. The ongoing session is alternately funny and tragic, with a few moments of close-up gross out torture.
The other sections of the film fare less well. Mischa Barton, the best known name in this film, is good as Kelly, but has less time to develop her role as the wife of the missing Craig. She does well with the scenes she is in, however, and is part of the wider story that elevates the film over a purely simplified shock and horror plot. Her scenes with best friend Bianca (Bailey Anne Borders) in the high luxury of her LA mansion are nicely put together and contrast well with the horrors that her partner is undergoing in the basement.
While the film is noticeably low-budget, it is put together professionally and features some good cinematography and edits. The pace mostly switches from extended scenes in the basement back to Kelly and Bianca trying to decide what to do next. Effective music and sound design also work in amping up the tension bit by bit.
Overall, given the pretty common start off for the movie, it turns out to be a surprisingly decent film. While baring some surface similarities with the M. Night Shyamalan movie Split, it turns out to be a very different beast, and is more in keeping with crime and suspense tales rather than anything more fantastical. What we have with The Basement is a horror designed to shock and surprise. It passes the test.
My review of French comedy C’est La Vie is over at FilmInk and below…
The high stress, anxiety and emotion of planning a wedding reception is explored in this French comedy of manners.
Nakache and Toledano’s (The Intouchables, Samba) film follows experienced caterer Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) as he attempts to throw a lavish wedding reception for Helena and Pierre in a grand 17th century chateau. He has delivered hundreds of wedding receptions in the past, all without a problem. What could possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything as it turns out. Max and his team have been tasked with creating an event that is ‘sober, chic and elegant’. But we wouldn’t be left with much of a story if that was the outcome. Instead, farcical moments keep coming thick and fast, as we go from one pratfall to another. Max’s face displays a fixed grin at times, with the tension of the night threatening to explode at any moment.
He constantly instructs the staff to ‘adapt’, even when there are power outages and the only way to stave off guests’ hunger is with pastries and sparkling water.
Although the film is humorous by nature, with elements of slapstick tied in, it also has a sensitive humanitarian value at its heart. The stories of the players allow for a good measure of social realism to tincture the laughs, with Vincent Macaigne’s nervous-breakdown recovering teacher, Alban Ivanov’s clueless cook and Jean-Pierre Rouve’s lost photographer all played with heartfelt compassion.
A key feature of the film is that all the characters are largely sympathetic. Even when they are lashing out at each other, there’s always a perceivable reason why. So, when the party entertainer James (Gilles Lellouche) and Max’s assistant Adele (Eye Hadira) are sniping at each other in ever more comic and snarky tones, we always know why and appreciate the characters of both.
The element of reality keeps even the more absurd comic scenes firmly grounded, with subtly deployed scripting and cinematography offering the audience an insight into the characters’ inner lives. Dramatic internal struggles are touched upon and artfully hinted at, and we are left with a story of believable people with realistic concerns and aims.
Ultimately though, it’s a roaring good comedy which does far more for French film than it does for the wedding reception industry, which looks like bloody hard work. Still, c’est la vie…
My review of ‘A Horrible Woman’, part of the Scandinavian Film Festival is over at Filmink now.
My review of new Brit flick Eaten by Lions is over at Flickering Myth and below:
Jason Wingard’s movie Eaten by Lions (written with David Isaac) is a sweetly funny movie with much to recommend about it. With its fast pace, likable characters and laugh per minute ratio, it scores highly in the entertainment stakes.
It also has the capacity to be emotionally engaging, which is a credit to the whole cast and writing team who bring the required personality to a story which always seems real and grounded, even in the most bizarre segments. It also keeps any cliched sitcom style elements at bay, and keeps a few surprises up its sleeve throughout the entire running time.
Following half-brothers Omar (Antonio Aakeel) and Pete (Jack Carroll) as they travel from Bradford to the bright lights of Blackpool to find Omar’s birth father, the film keeps their relationship at the forefront. The lead actors give tremendous, heartfelt performances, both amusing and warm. It is their interplay between each other and with the rest of the cast that propels the journey and the film onwards.
Johnny Vegas shows up in a hilarious role as Ray, a local hotel owner who lets the boys stay while they attempt to find out more. Tom Binns also brings plenty of laughs as a spaced out pier-side fortune-teller, who, with a little bit of mystic internet power, manages to let them know the address they need to visit.
When the boys visit Omar’s alleged blood relatives the main story really moves forward. The named father on the mysterious letter they found at their Gran’s is Malik Chaudhry (Nitin Ganatra ) but when they go to his house the response is not immediately overwhelmingly friendly. The facts soon become clear and the film continues on its lighthearted and often very funny way.
Matt North’s cinematography brings a vivid view of the seaside town of Blackpool, with a bright and clear look at the place. Music is used sparingly, but when it is it makes the right kind of impact – such as when one of the boys and their love interest goes on an unexpected joyride around the streets in the Choudhrys’s car, with music blaring out at top volume.
An entertaining film that is funny and heartwarming without being cheesy, Eaten by Lions is top fun for many different kinds of audiences.
My review of Jonas Carpignano’s The Ciambra is over at Flickering Myth and below.
In a small Romani community in Calabria, Italy, Pio Amato is desperate to grow up fast. Amidst a backdrop of tensions between the local Italians, recent arrivals from African countries and his fellow Romani, Pio must decide what route to go down in his quest to become an adult.
There is a wonderful moment in The Ciambra, Jonas Carpignano’s haunting depiction of a boy’s struggle with adolescence, where our lead character witnesses a vivid waking dream of a horse walking around the city streets. This vision of freedom beautifully juxtaposes Pio’s ideas of his community’s past with his own more tightly constrained present on the streets of Gioia Tauro, Calabria.
The film follows Pio (Pio Amato) as he tries to figure out how best to prove himself to his family as a responsible provider. This need only intensifies after his older brother and role model Cosimo is arrested by the local Carabinieri. We see Pio smoking, drinking and fooling around in nightclubs and taking on small-time hustles with little direction. His lack of motivation in life and problems with finding any kind of meaning are powerfully displayed and point towards a future that is not yet decided, but one that is, we suspect, potentially full of further sorrow and difficulty.
The film uses non-performers as its cast and the effect is an increase in the natural documentary style of the feature. The scenes featuring Pio and the whole extended Amato family have a tumultuous rhythm and flair that appear largely unscripted, as if the audience has just been admitted to a place at the chaotically boisterous dinner table.
The film’s writer and director Jonas Carpignano (Mediterranea, 2015) spent years based in Calabria, and his knowledge of the region has certainly paid off for this feature. There is an authenticity about the backdrop and the tense atmosphere of everyday life, as different communities of Italian, Romani and Africans live around each other with an abiding level of mistrust.
The film is specifically about Pio though. And taken purely on this level it is a successful and emotionally rich depiction of a boy growing up. The relationship between Pio and Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), a newcomer to Italy from Burkino Faso, is central to the story, which is less about plot and more about the turbulent emotions behind feelings of family loyalty and identity.
Ayiva is really the boy’s only true friend, and the film’s potent insight into how people from different cultures and backgrounds can understand each other- if only for a brief segment of time- provides some small piece of light in an otherwise bleak, yet compelling, outlook of a life on the fringes. The Ciambra is a difficult film to experience, but an important one, with much to say about desperation, hope and society.
THE CIAMBRA is released in UK cinemas on June 15th