Review in Brief: The Young Offenders (2016)

Two adorable scallywags on a pushbike road trip and demonstrating stupidity, heart and Gallic humour aplenty? I’m in. The dual leads (Alex Murphy and Chris Walley, sporting equally horrendous teen face fuzz and questionable fashion sense) could have great things on their horizon judging by their chemistry and charisma here. The problem with THE YOUNG OFFENDERS is that it never manages to top (or bunny hop) its hilarious and perfectly judged first half. It starts as a simple, no-nonsense teen road movie that wouldn’t feel out of place in the mid-to-late 80s. Unfortunately it drifts off track and tries to be too many things it really isn’t by the end. The choice of villain who appears late in the story left a bad taste in my mouth, but I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a black comedy, and nobody does black comedy better than the Irish. The charm, the honesty and warmth of this modest little venture more than makes up for them occasionally overreaching themselves.

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Review in Brief: Jackie (2016)

Natalie Portman is pretty near perfect as Jackie Kennedy. There’s nowhere to hide with her forever centre-frame and sometimes uncomfortably close up when she is at her most vulnerable. I would have preferred more scenes with the priest (sadly not possible with the terminally ill John Hurt in the role) to allow for a real contrast of Jackie’s personas. You could have had two juxtaposed versions of events with the First Lady’s public and private images dominating each telling of the day of the assassination. I was also a bit disappointed that they felt JFK’s shooting itself needed to be depicted, especially following Jackie’s earlier affronted query to Billy Crudup’s journalist, “I suppose you want a blow-by-blow?”. In the end that’s exactly what we get, and it just isn’t necessary. Far more interesting are the private scenes where Jackie obsessively crafts her image and tries to keep it all together with the world watching when all she really wants to do is let go and grieve. SSP

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Review: Jesus, Bro! (2017)

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Our Lord and Savior: Walkaway Entertainment

For the uninitiated, MIDNIGHT SCREENINGS is a popular web series of car seat film reviews. Often said screenings are of so-called “faith movies”, which are popular in certain quarters of American Society, and quite baffling to everyone else. JESUS, BRO! is Brad Jones and his regular gang’s first feature, and what else could it be but a spoof faith movie?

The film opens with the firing of the local church Easter Jesus for inappropriate behaviour. Of course witnessing this has an impact on young Rick (Dave Gobble), who makes it his life’s mission to become the world’s leading athiest Youtuber. All that changes when he has a religious epiphany brought about by drinking highly potent craft beer…

Doug Walker’s slimy promoter telling Rick that “Your intolerant and condescending Vlogs are just the kind of thing we’re looking for” and later, “Happy people don’t get the viewership that angry people do” and Rick’s own “I want to see videos that confirm my pre-conceived biases on the world” all sum up the potentially poisonous impact of social media reliance. Being a Youtuber can be extremely lucrative and has helped to get otherwise unknown content creators an audience they never could have reached, but there are just as many drawbacks. Said contributors have been increasingly exploited by larger outlets and advertisers,their revenue streams stoppered, leading to an increasing number asking for funding direct from their subscribers on services like Patreon. This very movie was made possible by fans’ crowdfunding. While watching favourite subscribed video series has brought joy to viewers the world over, discussion of said videos’ subject matter has bafflingly not resulted in an open floor for civilised debate but an increase in hate speech and threatening behaviour when opinions clash, all with the anonymity the internet provides.

As evidenced with his appearances on Midnight Screenings, Dave Gobble gets very angry about things he is passionate about. As perma-grouch Rick he comes out with such acerbic gems as “Why would anybody worship someone who can’t even take a good flogging?” and “Admit it, you hated Jim Caviezel too!”. Allison Pregler as Rick’s “Annoyingly specific” girlfriend stands in for every bad exposition dump ever committed to film, but is also the real heart of the film, finding herself as she does on the sharp end of Rick’s abrasive personality more often than most. Everyone from Jones’ usual team along with crossovers from NOSTALGIA CRITIC are in there somewhere in fun cameos or reprising long-running in-jokes.

If you compare this to the team’s usual output (especially something like CINEMA SNOB) it’s decidedly, and intentionally, un-sweary. The jabs against a particular kind of person can be cutting, but never unnecessarily cruel. It also promotes a far more Christian message than the usual media and entertainment output of the supposed true faithful. It’s a message of understanding, of live and let live, of tolerance.

There’s some very pleasing Pythonesque skits in there, like when Rick’s alcohol-induced religious hallucination breaks down to reveal a cheap soundstage, or proclaiming as an act of faith “I want to take you to a stoning”, or when someone recounts out-of-the-blue “falling down a mine shaft and getting attacked by a cave bear”. It’s a grab-bag of comic styles, but no more jarring or inconsistent than the religous movies being made fun of.

Though it’s parodying a very specific type of American film and the conventions of such, it everything from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS CAROL to TRADING PLACES. Jesus, Bro! is the kind of faith movie the YouTube generation needs; amusing, heartfelt and with all the slightly shambolic fun of a movie made with friends on a shoestring budget. Thank Santa Christ for Jesus, Bro! SSP

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Review in Brief: Split (2016)

SPLIT brings back every single one of M Night Shyamalan’s worst habits as a director with interest. After the briefest of returns to form with THE VISIT (it was a straight horror: he can do straight horror) now he thinks he’s Hitchcock again. Trivialising mental illness and sexual abuse all for the sake of plot, the film might be carefully styled with strong shadows, weird camera angles and invasive close-ups, but it’s not the least bit thought-provoking and completely lacking in tension. Anna Taylor-Joy is strong, but James McAvoy takes too many easy shortcuts with his character: every trope for acting out madness or mania is there (of course there’s a Travis Bickle/Gollum mirror scene) resulting in his scenes being simplistic, unconvincing and borderline insulting one-man shows. Then there’s the end which might have been transplanted from an entirely different screenplay, and judging by the final Earth-shattering (Shyamalan thinks) reveal, it was. SSP

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Review in Brief: Toni Erdmann (2016)

Pretty much every review I’ve seen of TONI ERDMANN has been focussed on how unexpectedly good a two-and-a-half hour German comedy turns out to be. I find that overly reductive and more than a little patronising. American comedies are often too long, humour from across the globe is just as likely to hit or to fall flat. Toni Erdmann is simply a leisurely-paced tale of unhealthy family relationships and the bosses of large European companies being ruthless monsters. The performances, especially Sandra Hüller, are excellent, the situations uniquely funny, so when and if the remake with Jack Nicholson happens they are going to have to transpose this story of a highly dysfuntional father-daughter relationship to a hard-hitting equivalent locale. Writer-director Maren Ade brings the film real heart and soul but also more than a little anger, both at the socio-political climate of the EU and at families who block off their emotions to be more formidable at work or perhaps just because they’ve forgotten how to talk. SSP

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Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

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Wunderkind: DC/Warner Bros/Atlas Entertainment

Through my own astonishing poor planning and lack of research, I’ve now seen WONDER WOMAN twice in the cinema, both times with subtitles. Luckily for me the film is compelling enough that I was drawn in and didn’t notice after a while. One unexpected bonus of having subtitles not only for the dialogue but also for all diagetic sound is that it provides a perfect summation of Wonder Woman’s cinematic debut: she roars.

Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves the island paradise of the Amazons to fight in the First World War, which she believes is being manipulated by the devious God of conflict, Ares. Together with American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and an unlikely gang of ne’er-do-wells, Diana’s experience of war, and of the horrors of the world, shapes her irrevocably.

Wonder Woman has moments that rank up there in the annals of superhero movies, and director Patty Jenkins should be admired for bringing freshness to the familiar. Diana’s smile of thrilled exhilaration as she first realises the extent of her powers; Wonder Woman showing just what thrilling and deadly miracles can be woven using a magical lasso in battle; WW casting aside her concealing cloak and striding out over No Man’s Land, the only splash of colour in a grey and desolate landscape.

Young Diana (Lilly Aspell) dreams if nothing more than following in the footsteps of a long line of warrior women. She wants to be a hero, to fight for everything good and moral. This ideology is brought into stark and thematically hard-hitting relief as she enters World War I, perhaps mankind’s most costly and pointless war. One of Diana’s first acts after arriving in the world of men is, thrillingly, storming into a cabinet committee to shame cowardly generals and politicians sending millions of men to die.

Wonder Woman is the second blockbuster of the year after ALIEN: COVENANT that is far stronger in terms of symbolism than it is with plot. Both films tread familiar ground and offer few storytelling surprises, but they are about so much more than the surface level. They are well-mounted retreads, but retreads nonetheless. They get away with it because of a handful of well-realised characters and a rich thematic seam that connects on another level.

In Gal Gadot, we get the most perfect casting of a comic book character since Robert Downey Jr in IRON MAN. She is Wonder Woman and brings with her some fascinating contradictions: she is naive but wise, both formidable and caring, strong of will but emotionally untested. She knows not what she is or quite where she fits into her world or ours, but she knows just what she has to do. Chris Pine is a charming foil who doesn’t over-do the comic relief, and in refreshingly progressive fashion, Steve and Diana’s relationship is, for the most part, based on mutual respect. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen make the most of small but crucial roles, Nielsen in particular as Diana’s mother Hippolyta brings a dignified anguish to a potentially naff goodbye to her daughter (“You have been my greatest love and today you are my greatest sorrow”).

The German voices are annoyingly inconsistent in their usage, with actual German dialogue for background characters and up close English-speaking actors with silly accents (the forever awful Danny Huston being the worst offender). Confusingly, some scenes featuring other languages than German are fully subtitled, so who knows what they were going for.

My main issues with the film come in the final act, where the big bad’s plan is revealed to work in the basis of some strange reverse logic, and when he does finally turn up for battle the poor actor’s face is very obviously, and badly, transplanted onto a stuntman’s body. I don’t see why action in Warner Bros superhero movies often pops so badly against the greenscreen. The early fight scenes of the film convince because, for all Diana and the Amazons’ balletic fight choreography and impossible physical movements, they have one foot in reality and you can tell that the beach, the trenches or the bombed out village were really there in the form of real sets. The final showdown was clearly manufactured after the fact, and at this level, this budget, you really shouldn’t be able to tell so easily.

Wonder Woman is greater than the sum of its parts, and far more important. There is no reason she should have had to wait 75 years to get her chance on the big screen. A mythical being crossing into our world like Thor, but pre-dating him and thrown into a far more brutal period of our history. A god and a saviour like Superman, but bringing with her far more hope and progressive thinking than any of his recent big screen outings. It’s so good to have a hero that is earnest, honest and good to her core, because that is who we deserve to fight our battles right now. She is shaken by the horrors she witnesses, but she stays straight and true on her path and refuses set aside her idealism. As she puts it herself, she is that man, and yes, she roars. SSP

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Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)

SWISS ARMY MAN is like one of those weird one-off dreams. It questions humankind’s fear of death by allowing one of us to have a (admittedly skewed) relationship with a symbol of that fear. Hank (Paul Dano) loses it in the wilderness after a near-death experience, and contemplates ending it for real until a farty corpse washes up beside him. Said cadaver “Manny” (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes Hank’s survival tool (it’s amazing how many uses there can be for stored gas and rigor mortis) and his confidante as they both take a long, hard look at their tragic lives and deaths. It’s an odd one to take Cannes by storm, but the jarring tone, creative slapstick and feelgood way it looks at mortality certainly makes it one to recommend. Radcliffe’ sheer physical control is impressive and Dano proves once more to be one of the most underrated talents in Hollywood. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I challenge you to sit through it and not at least crack a smile. You might be bewildered, disgusted, unimpressed, but you will smile. SSP

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Review in Brief: Seoul Station (2016)

SEOUL STATION brings back slapstick zombies and a good punch of dark satire in its final act, but as a companion piece to TRAIN TO BUSAN, it falls rather short in terms of character. None of the supposed protagonists are compelling or even particularly interesting: most of the characters are hurriedly sketched placeholders so annoying you can’t wait for them to be eaten, the only one holding any kind of surprise used as a plot twist and little more (no, I’m not saying which). The animation is decent, but nothing all that special. Recycled frames are obvious and you miss the energy and detail of Japanese anime or even contracted-out Korean animation houses’ work on American cartoons. You wonder how the film came about, whether writer-director Yeon Sang-ho had the ideas but not the budget for two feature films, but decided to do them both anyway. For whatever reason, this is an animated prequel you can miss. SSP

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Review in Brief: Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Do you need to have played the games to get something out of the ASSASSIN’S CREED movie? No, but it’ll certainly help. Anyone can enjoy the detailed costume designs, the well-mounted action and the moody atmosphere, and equally fans of the games and non-fans can be confused by the editing or bored by the exposition porridge. Who on Earth thought it would be a good idea to constantly jitter between time periods mid-action scene? You only need to establish that Cal (Michael Fassbender) is in a simulation the once, otherwise it seems like you don’t have faith in your audience’s attention span. You’re better than that, Justin Kurzel: if you’re going to commit to subtitling your moody historical action, you can at least trust in your audience to remember the general premise of the film. Plus Fassbender for some reason mentions he’s hungry twice on the same scene before another character repeats it back to him, and Charlotte Rampling – poor Charlotte Rampling – is unlucky to find herself in this. SSP

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Review: The Levelling (2016/17)

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Alone time: Wellington Films

THE LEVELLING is very much like farming soap opera THE ARCHERS, only bleaker, with better acting and real animals. If you’re American, or not middle-class enough know about The Archers, don’t worry about it.

Taking a forced sabbatical from her veterinary studies, Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns “home” to a flooded farmhouse, her father Aubrey (David Troughton) living in a caravan on bricks and a whole lot of grief to deal with following the sudden death of her brother Harry. Will this tragedy bring the estranged family back together or push them further apart?

The arguments between Clover and Aubrey are heated but calculating, cutting but coming out because deep down they care. They are father and daughter who don’t really know each other, attaching and counter-attacking, trying to figure the other out and coming to terms with the fact that it’s both their fault. On the farm it becomes clear that they make a good team, they work well together in an identical methodical way. This is probably why Aubrey resents his daughter so much for leaving home to pursue her own dreams: all he was left with was Harry, and he just didn’t have it with him. Clover was called back home by a neighbour, Aubrey may not have ever been able to tell her what happened himself. It might never have occurred to him that it should be a father telling his daughter about her brother’s sudden, tragic death.

On moving on from, dealing or not with grief: “You have to get up, get out of bed and milk the bloody cows”. At a key moment Clover comes out with one of the most heartbreaking and yet non-judgemental things possible to say to a grieving parent.

The film has an understated beauty to it. Emotionally and visually it’s grey but full of life. There’s a hint on the edge of the bleakness, the unplowed, rubbish strewn earth and the people keeping everything bottled up that something better must be around the corner. As well as being solidly grounded and naturalistic, there is also a strange eeriness to The Levelling. It’s something about the sound design, the out of place human-animal wooping and a very sprawl sense of something horribly sinister lurking below the surface. It’s almost a relief when the final revelations come and the answers are so mundane, so “that’s life”.

When there finally is an emotional release, when the characters are at their rawest, must vulnerable state, the heavens open and the film world cries with them. As a metaphor I loved that, though I can’t say I’m certain what the rabbit was meant to represent. Perhaps it’s intentionally ambiguous or maybe it just passed me by.

The Levelling reminded me a lot of one of my favourite films of last year, NINA FOREVER in its approach to grief. The presence of the again excellent David Troughton in a broken emotional state certainly helps. He has the showier role here, the biggest and most heartbreaking outbursts, but Aubrey only has emotional power because of the reasons he locks horns with Ellie Kendrick’s relatively dialled-down, vulnerable Clover. She is easily the strongest character in their family, and when she left things went South fast. Her dad couldn’t cope without his rock.

The Levelling is an intense experience that feels all too real to ever feel emotionally manipulative. Using very little more than two barnstorming central performances and the bleak beauty of untended rural landscapes, it sensitively explores grief, guilt and the inability of many families to communicate with each other. What a sublime, affecting feature debut from Hope Dickson Leach, a name to watch. SSP

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