Review in Brief: Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

WILLY’S WONDERLAND is proof positive that nobody needs to make a FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S movie now. Nicolas Cage is a silent janitor with borderline superhuman capabilities seemingly imbued by energy drinks fighting animatronic mascots possessed by a cannibal cult. The innate entertainment value of that schlocky premise is boosted by slick execution of the gnarly action scenes and the impressive realisation of the twisted animatronic characters, but is dragged down somewhat whenever the film has to focus on anyone who isn’t Cage. Inevitably a group of teenagers join Cage in the nightmare, seemingly just to act like typical dumb characters in a horror movie and to up the body count. This is a fun little tongue-in-cheek horror that may not do a whole lot that’s new but what it does do it does well and long before it outstays its welcome. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Reckoning (2020)

It’s hard to put your finger exactly on what went wrong with THE RECKONING. It’s director Neil Marshall firmly back in his comfort zone, hybridising horror with another well-trod genre (in this case a historical witchfinder film) and he still makes the most of practical effects and prosthetic creature design (here with the realisation of Lucifer). But whatever the original intention, this ends up a woodenly performed and clumsily executed exploitation film that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Marshall perhaps imagined this was feminist, but seeing Grace (Charlotte Kirk) go through this much punishment just so she can get her own back in the end has been done with more impact elsewhere. The film’s inconsistency is its most annoying aspect: sometimes characters talk in archaic dialect, sometimes they don’t; sometimes people look dirty and uncomfortable in authentic smocks and tunics, sometimes they look like they’ve just got back from LARPing. Cool final shot, though. SSP

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Review in Brief: Palm Springs (2020)

PALM SPRINGS is a GROUNDHOG DAY-alike that actually manages to surpass Harold Raimis’ classic in many ways. It’s raucously hilarious with some incredibly dark passages but what really makes it special is its unexpected philosophical profoundness and completely earnest sweetness. Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) get stuck in a time loop and have to re-live Sarah’s sister’s unbearable wedding day for all eternity. We ping back and forth to various loops over an indeterminate amount of time, keeping track of where we are in Nyles’ story by whether he’s in a suit, Hawaiian shirt or some alarming combination of the two. The gags come at you almost too fast to process and you’ll only be rewarded with a pounding headache if you try and apply real-world logic to the central premise, but what you’ll remember most is these two wonderful characters, lost souls given eternity to find their place and to notice each other. SSP

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Where to Start with Bong Joon-ho SSP

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Review in Brief: Black Bear (2020/21)

There have been plenty of meta, reality-bending films about writing a screenplay, many from this century made by Charlie Kaufman. BLACK BEAR boasts a wonderful performance from Aubrey Plaza as an actor turned-writer-director looking for inspiration, but asks you to spend a storyline twice over with awful and not especially interesting characters. It doesn’t seem to have a lot new to say about the writing process beyond your perception of what is real getting blurred, hence why Allison is writing a screenplay in the first half of the film and starring in the resulting film being directed by someone else (played by one of the actors from the first in a different role) in the second. The film also features Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon, two of the most interesting young character actors working today, but performances aside Lawrence Michael Levine’s film just isn’t all that compelling and tries your patience long before it starts to intrigue. SSP

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Review in Brief: Mortal Kombat (2021)

Maybe rather than trying to stumble upon the secret formula for a successful game-to-film adaptation, it should be agreed that the answer remains “don’t”. MORTAL KOMBAT looks visually impressive for the most part, and fans of the games will doubtless spot plenty of pleasing references to characters and mythology. The infamously gory fatality finishing moves have survived transfer to the screen intact (unlike the targets of these splattery killing blows) and the film at least has a rather wonderful opening action sequence. Unfortunately every character is just there, waiting their turn to do or say what MK every fan expects them to do or say, and the much built-up dimension-straddling fighting tournament that is supposedly the reason for all the plot gubbins happening never actually takes place in this movie. Save something for the sequel, sure, but maybe don’t hold out on the combat of Mortal Kombat, especially when this is far from a sure franchise-starter. SSP

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Back There in the Dark: A Cinema Poem by Sam Sewell-Peterson SSP

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Review in Brief: I Care a Lot (2020/21)

You can easily see why I CARE A LOT has been a divisive film. One ever-reliable truism to fall back on when talking about what makes a compelling film is that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable but they do have to be interesting. Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is awful, but she is fascinating. She has an evil-genius hustle of taking advantage of rich elderly people without relatives, until she makes the costly mistake of targeting Mrs Peterson (Dianne Wiest) and in doing so attracts the attention of a Russian mobster (Peter Dinklage). The film moves at a pace, is crisply directed and J Blakeson’s screenplay provides plenty of acerbic exchanges that make the most of Pike’s strengths, particularly in a delicious battle of wits and veiled threats between Marla and Chris Messina’s mob lawyer. When the plot goes for broke any kind of dark social commentary is lost in the chaos, but Pike still sells the whole thing admirably. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021)

Between INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE and now THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES, Sony Pictures Animation are in a league of their own. Nobody else is creating animated features with this energy, emotion and visual uniqueness quite like them. Aspiring filmmaker Katie’s (Abbie Jacobson) plans to start college and “find her people” are scuppered by her dad’s (Danny McBride) insistence that they bond as a family one last time on a road trip. Oh, and there’s the small matter of a worldwide robot uprising as well. Writer-directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe and their animation team bring to life a vivid and beautiful CG/hand-drawn hybrid world and a story that’ll leave you crying with laughter and just plain crying, especially if you’re from a family of weirdos yourself. This is one of the great dysfunctional family films about parents and children who mean well but continually fail to communicate, who are ultimately both helped and hindered by modern technology along the way. SSP

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Review in Brief: Nomadland (2020)

Arguably no filmmaker since Agnés Varda has blended elements of documentary and fiction together as effectively as Chloé Zhao. NOMADLAND’s narrative is loose and meandering, but only to reflect the Nomad on-the-move, purposeful and yet purposeless lifestyle. Following industrial collapse and personal bereavement, Fern (Frances McDormand) sets out across the USA living in a van, taking on seasonal work as she goes and forming unbreakable bonds with fellow members of the Nomad community. Like Zhao’s previous films it’s all about living an unconventional life to the fullest off-grid, and the strongest and most memorable scenes simply place the camera to capture real Nomads recounting their journey and experiences and exploring their connection to the planet. Add to this an unadorned, stripped back and honest central performance from McDormand and stunning, massive American landscapes bathed in magical light delicately captured by DP Joshua James Richards and before you know it you’re having your own spiritual experience while watching. SSP

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