Fantana’s Film Roundup – May 2017

A horror-heavy month with monsters both fantastic and all too real getting in on the terrifying action… oh, and Scoot McNairy pops up a bit.

Sleepless (2017)

Lazy, lazy work abounds from the ground up in this phoned-in actioner that sees Jamie Foxx’s questionable policeman scouring a Vegas nightspot for his snatched son, who has been caught up in some sinister drug-running business. Where to begin? The script is clichéd, clunky, convoluted and chock full of holes, the direction uninspired, editing a choppy god awful mess. I mean characters appear out of nowhere if for no other reason than to randomly shoot other characters for whom the writer/director had no further use! Of the cast only Michelle Monaghan and Scoot McNairy come out unscathed, but should still be cross-examined for their roles in this faff. It was great to see Dermot Mulroney for the first time in what seems ages, but his character was so badly written (when would a casino-owning Mafioso display such a lack of balls, let alone pride?), I fear it will be a while before he graces my screen again. And god knows what Foxx was doing here, never revving past second gear, it really had me looking back to find the last real performance he put in… my how long ago Django seems now. Here’s hoping Baby Driver has the Foxx we all know and love. But for now, avoid.



War Machine (2017)

The second of two Netflix Originals to focus on the Middle Eastern conflict. Where Sand Castle zeroed-in on the war-is-hell dynamic, War Machine centres around the politics and propaganda of it all, depicting an unrecognisable Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, the caricature-like C.O. of a U.S. command unit called in to clean up the Afghanistan mess. In a departure from his usual sombre fare, Animal Kingdom’s director David Michôd stirs in a strong heap of satirical comedy, which resonates the most in the first hour before the drama slowly absorbs and overpowers as McMahon negotiates Afghan President, Karzai (Ben Kingsley), Rolling stone reporter, Cullen (Scoot McNairy), and various other colourful stakeholders along the way.

Of the stellar ensemble cast, Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) shined the brightest as a jaded, emotionally wrought marine, a couple of patrols away from a breakdown, but overall performances are strong and War Machine certainly reaches a little higher than Sand Castle manages. That said there is something still lacking from the end product, whether that is something to do with the misbalance of satire and drama I’m not sure. There is certainly something watchable here, but also something a little unsatisying.


War Machine

The White King (2016)

Set in a dystopian dictatorship society, 12 year-old Djata’s life is thrown out of balance when his father is imprisoned and he and his mother are labelled traitors. The White King begins as an intriguing sci-fi/drama (no explanation or backstory as to how this world has come about is given, nor any clear indication of exactly when in time the film takes place), meandering through a number of interesting themes, sequences and visuals along the way (the arrival at Gen. Meade’s home is a jarring moment), but ultimately the narrative is too weak and leads nowhere. Speaking of leads, Djata himself, overacted by Lorenzo Allchurch, is an unimpressive focal point; had he been better delivered, perhaps some issues might have gone away. Character developments are never resolved, scenes and characters come and go with no reason nor reward and the ending is so unfulfilling it detracts from all the positives that can be pulled out of a film so deeply depressed within an Autocratic dystopia. As a result this plays out as a snapshot of a day in the life of an oppressed society rather than a linear, evolving narrative.



The Devil’s Candy (2015)

Supernatural horror given a heavy metal spin to decent effect here, all delivered under the deft hand of one-to-watch writer/director, Sean Byrne (any horror fans that haven’t seen previous effort, The Loved Ones, should check it out), who captures a desolate Midwestern landscape with a verve not seen since 2014’s The Guest. After moving his family into their new farmhouse abode, Ethan Embry’s rocker-painter-father moves is overcome by malicious, otherworldly forces, the fallout of which affects his paternal relationship with daughter, Zooey (played impressively by Kiara Glasco) and his own artistic outputs amongst other things. To add further menace to the proceedings comes Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the quiet, ambling behemoth son of the former residents, who has clearly been (and perhaps still) influenced by the same satanic forces and would like very much to return home. Is it original? Not overly so, but what it lacks in that department is a whole bucket of atmosphere, likeable characters and lashings of style. And at 89mins, it’s a quick hit.



Before I Fall (2017)

If Groundhog Day, Mean Girls and 13 Reasons Why had a ménage à trois, it’s a safe bet Before I Fall would be the resultant offspring. Doomed to relive her last day on repeat, high schooler Sam (Everybody Wants Some’s Zoey Deutch) sets about trying to prevent her own death but discovers more about herself and those around her than she ever realised. Difficult not to compare this to the Bill Murray masterpiece – they really shouldn’t allow this idea to be mimicked any longer – Before I Fall certainly has moments of touch and charm but often feels a bit forced and obvious. Ultimately it falls short, always sitting a half dozen rungs below each of the above influences that constitute its lineage.


The Devil’s Candy

Inside (2007)

I had heard that French cinema had an unflinching hand for gore and violence but only previously had Irreversible to go on, however in the last 12 months I have been privy to Cache (Hidden), Martyrs and Frontier(s), all of which live up to that modus operandi with aplomb. But none of them, none of them, come close to the absolute bloodbath that is Inside (À l’intérieur in its native tongue), utterly terrifying not only in its visceral violence but even more so in the way it’s horrors are completely plausible. After being tormented at door and window by a sadistic stranger, pregnant Sarah wakes in the night to find said aggressor straddled atop her, tailoring shears having already slashed (and woken) her once already and about to come down for another strike. An unlikely but very real threat that could (albeit unlikely) happen to anyone. This being a French horror/thriller, of course, there is more to the story than mere chance and this is well worth any horror fans’ time.



Hounds of Love (2016)

From its opening sequence, Hounds of Love is a difficult watch, but by virtue of its inspiration (the film is loosely based on the Moorhouse Murders that took place in Perth, Australia in 1986), this has to be exactly what first time director Ben Young was going for, displaying a deft hand in restraint where others might blaze gung-ho into torture porn territory. The real terror goes, for the most part, unseen, merely hinted at by way of a slowly closing door or the minute flecks of blood on a shirt or the gut-dropping screams of a drugged house guest who has suddenly realised she won’t be leaving anytime soon. The three central characters play it to perfection, Emma Booth and Stephen Curry as sadistic couple, John and Evelyn White, while their terrified-yet-resourceful captive, Vicki, is channelled excellently through one-to-watch, Ashleigh Cummings. Young utilises period and setting as powerful tools, (re)creating unspeakable atrocities in an age where we took our own safety for granted and the result is something truly dreadful in the literal sense and well worth a watch. Albeit only once.



Sand Castle (2017)

Despite Netflix picking up its game in the last 12 months (if you haven’t seen I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore, go do that now) Sand Castle is a reminder they might be focussing too much on quantity over quality. Nothing new abounds in this war-is-horrible chronicle that sees Nicholas Hoult’s low-in-manpower squad defend a small Iraqi town from the horrors of war. Performances are solid, as you would expect from a cast including Hoult, Henry Cavill and (of note) Logan Marshall-Green, but direction and tension is generally quite light, making this a decent background movie for a Sunday afternoon but nothing more. Roll on War Machine.


Hounds of Love

Alien Covenant (2017)

Back in February Ridley Scott’s latest addition to the Alien franchise ranked no. 6 in my ten most anticipated movies of 2017. At that point I cited an understated cast, a simpler plot and “a simmering sense of dread” as aspects to get excited about and, for half the runtime, Scott didn’t disappoint. The first half of Covenant easily merits a 9 out of 10.

Besides a few choice names over-emphasized in the PR build-up (Fassbender, Waterston and McBride were way over exposed prior to release – come on, Fox, we don’t need to be led by the hand!), the cast is largely little-to-unknowns, very low key creating a sense of who’s next, even when you’re sure they’re all likely toast; the plot is very akin to the original it it’s simplicity, with the titular craft’s crew awoken from hyper-sleep in time to receive a distress call from a nearby planet, only to investigate and… you know; also like the original, Scott brings the big guns to tone and photography to deliver some of the most gorgeous scenes and shots he’s ever produced, really gifting the movie a sense of identity. In addition, the use of original score is a masterstroke.

However around the mid-way point the film transitions drastically in tone and pace, becoming almost entirely a completely different movie. This is where the problems arise.

Following an amazing first half, Covenant suddenly becomes just another B-movie monster mash, albeit a very well-made one, and with it all the usual criticisms that accompany such. Common sense largely goes out the window to the point the second half becomes a who’s who of obvious questions: What’s the rationale for that decision? Why are you heading off on your own? Do you really want to be having a nosey at that big old sinister-looking egg thing, mate? Yeah? Oh alright then, go on, get your snout right in about it… nonce!

Silly stuff consistently permeates the latter scenes.

Technically I’ve seen better and would even cite some of the special effects on display here as some of the worst CG aliens committed to celluloid since Alien 3. The layering and modelling is so off at times it’s difficult to believe this film came out this year. On top of that the alien behaviour is often so out of synch with that which has come before, it’s difficult to imagine how Scott and his team will paper over those cracks in time to tie it all up. Which leads me to my final criticism…

The biggest problem I have with Covenant, and it’s the same issue I had with Prometheus, is although I love the way it has been constructed, shot and edited… I never felt the original movie needed an origin story. The origin they have chosen to give has become so preachy and philosophic it is simply too difficult to stomach what we’re being force-fed at times. And finally, and this is a problem with Hollywood as a whole, not just Scott, but why does every prequel of this ilk have to link round in some uncertain way to the events of the original movies? Why the constant desire to foreshadow? All of this Covenant suffers from, which really detracts from the houses that Scott, Cameron and Fincher built, adding complexity and convolution neither needed nor wanted.



City of Tiny Lights (2016)

Riz Ahmed searches London for a missing prostitute in this neon-steeped noir, all the while striving to reconcile the sins of his youth as an old flame (Billie Piper) reappear in his life. Made charming by an effective supporting cast and benefitting from some cracking photography at times, the premise is nothing new but the film remains watchable all the same. Is it slightly predictable? Uh-huh. Could I have done without the noir-esque voiceover? Oh yes. Could the finale have benefitted from a greater sense of tension? Certainly. But despite its shortcomings this is still a worthy crime thriller to soak up a couple of hours on a dreary Sunday afternoon.


City of Tiny Lights

Wild (2014)

In this closely adapted true story, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) recovers from a very painful personal tragedy by undertaking a 1,100-mile solo hike from Mojave, California to the Oregon/Washington border. Although an interesting premise, and certainly one of Witherspoon’s bravest roles, at a runtime of 2 hours the pacing is a little too slow and could really have benefitted from being a bit snappier and, as a result, more engrossing. As it was I found myself easily distracted due to several protracted moments of self-loathing and grief, which, after a while offer nothing new and simply regurgitate what we already know.



99 Homes (2013)

Andrew Garfield pulls off a solid pre-rise turn as an evicted man who falls in with the very person (Michael Shannon) who evicted him and wrestles with the pressing inevitability of becoming exactly that which he has come to resent. Two parts drama and one part thriller, what lingered the most was the authentic depiction of eviction in the US and the subsequent desolation, both physical and emotional.



Top of the Class

Colossal (2017)

Mixed reviews preceding its release had me going into Colossal with indifferent expectations and it just so happens the movie’s first act is entirely representative of this, establishing Anne Hathaway’s alcoholic party girl who returns to suburbia after her boyfriend slings her out of their New York apartment and buddies up with old ‘friend’ Jason Sudeikis, who now owns and runs his own bar and progressively helps her re-establish a foothold in life and their small, lifeless town. That, however, is where the similarities to A. N. Other rom com comes to an end. Colossal doesn’t go where you expect it to and is actually very clever in its subversion of standard genre tropes. The lines between hero and villain, heartthrob and hater are all left ambiguous until the last possible moment and is done in a very effective and assuring way, all to positive effect.

There. And I didn’t even need to mention the giant monster traipsing around Seoul…



On the Horizon: the Godfather Pt. II, Wonder Woman, the Assassin, Baywatch, Personal Shopper, Lego Batman Movie, Guardians, Stake Land II, Autohead, Loving, Wake in Fright.

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