Category Archives: Reviews

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Ooga-shaka, I’m hooked on a Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise and it keeps getting better. Owen Hughes reviews James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

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The Belko Experiment

“We signed up to let these guys do whatever the fuck they want to us.” Andrew Brooker reviews what is sure to be one of the year’s most underrated thrillers.

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Swiss Army Man (DVD)

Remember back in August last year when Ubisoft announced the Nosulus Rift? It’s a VR device to be worn over the nose while playing South Park: The Fractured But Whole, which induces a noxious smell whenever your character farts. Everybody thought it was fake, at first – but it’s actually real.

How disappointed writer/director team Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert must be that this technology did not come out in time for them to make use of it with their farting-corpse comedy, Swiss Army Man.

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Antibirth

“I can’t be pregnant. You gotta give up smoking.”

I’ve only recently become aware of “pregnancy horror” as a thing. Sure, I’ve seen movies like Devil’s Due and Grace, to varying results of “pretty crap” and I’m still desperate to see the awfully distributed Prevenge; but it wasn’t until I started doing a little reading up on Antibirth and fell down a pretty disturbing Google rabbit hole – that may, or may not have added several films to my growing list of ones to watch – that I saw just how prevalent this bizarre sub-genre is.

So it was with very little idea of what I was letting myself in for that I sat down for Antibirth.

Permanently stoned loser Lou (Natasha Lyonne, of American Pie and Orange is the New Black fame) is ever so slightly inconvenienced when she finds herself pregnant. The product of one of many blackouts, Lou has no idea of the source of her new found parasite.

As Lou and her bestie Sadie (Chloë Sevigny – Boys Don’t Cry) work to piece together how this happened and whether or not it’s connected to the string of mysterious disappearances recently plaguing the area (of course it is!). The permanent bong smoker starts to get hallucinations and dreams that go to horrifying extremes. Adding to that, the gross, disturbing things this most immaculate of conceptions is doing to Lou’s body is really putting a bit of a damper on her fun.

Antibirth is one of those cheap and nasty horror flicks that I’ve really gotten a soft spot for over the years. But more than that, it’s the kinda film you can watch with people that maybe aren’t massive fans of the genre and still have a great time.

Natasha Lyonne is brilliant as the perpetual stoner. She sells every single scene she’s in and as much as you get the feeling that Lou is just a slightly more fucked up version of either her OITNB character, or the final evolution of American Pie‘s Jessica, she’s so funny and so convincing, that it really doesn’t matter. This film may be the best use of Lyonne’s comedic charms in years.

In any other film, in any other genre, Lyonne would be punching way above her weight next to indie darling Sevigny; but here, it’s the other way around. An excellent performance is almost guaranteed when you get someone of her stature in your movie. Whilst she’s good here, she seems to be trying very hard in a film that not only doesn’t require it, but purposely goes for a “cheap and cheerful” look and feel that maybe she’s just not comfortable going for.

Green Room‘s Mark Webber is a load of fun too. In a pretty small role as the main bad guy, he gets a woefully thin amount of screen time. What he lacks in time, he makes up for in presence. Webber’s big bad Gabriel is hammed up so well, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Writer/director Danny Perez has done a great job with his big film debut. Aside from a few moments where the hallucinations, the flashbacks and the current time stuff all seem to meld into one, leaving it feeling a bit disjointed, Antibirth is an hour and a half of insanity that left a massive grin on my face. It takes its time to get where it’s going, but that doesn’t make it boring at all.

At the same time, it’s not an hour of scene-setting “slow-burn” either. It’s consistently fun, with an occasional splattering of gross-out body-horror to keep you focussed and your stomach churning while you wait for the bat-shit crazy final 20 minutes to arrive.

And I do mean bat-shit crazy. You will spend the film guessing how it ends, predicting what’s coming and certain that you know how the finale will play out. But no matter what you guess, you won’t see that ending coming. You just can’t. It’s absolutely mental.

Antibirth screams of the kind of movie that has been made, just so the director can say he did it. I had been looking forward to seeing it for quite a while, but it didn’t stop me from being a little hesitant as to what I was letting myself in for. Now, having laughed out loud several times in the short run time and felt sick almost as many times at the gross, GROSS body make-up, I am certain this is the kind of genre-piece that will find its feet with a cult following and a lot of positive word of mouth. This has put director Danny Perez firmly on my radar.

ANTIBIRTH (cert.15) is released on Digital today (27th March) and DVD 10th April 2017, courtesy of Solo Media and Matchbox Films.

Life

“You’re playing with it like it’s your buddy.”

I almost feel sorry for Life. As I sit down to write this review, I have just perched my arse on the sofa and started my binge on the holiest of space-based horror franchises. I’m sat, feet up, tapping away at this review as the one and only Alien plays out on my television.

And I say “the one and only” on purpose. Because Life, this most derivative of sci-fi scarers, takes so much from Ridley Scott’s seminal movie that its tagline could quite possibly be “In space, everyone can see you steal”.

After retrieving a capsule filled with samples from Mars, a six man team of scientists aboard the International Space Station become the first to prove the existence of life on the Red Planet. Things aren’t as simple as they first seem when, what starts off as a single-cell organism, quickly evolves into a tiny monster intent on not being so tiny anymore.

To succeed in that goal, it’s going to need to eat everyone!

Horror ensues as the jellyfish looking beastie starts to pick off scientists one-by-one, making itself bigger and badder than the people that brought it to life. Now the crew are in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with higher stakes than any of them imagined when they started this trip.

This film is Alien. Ok, it goes to the 1979 Classic by way of a lot of other films. Event Horizon, Pandorum, The Thing, Virus, Species; it even steals more than a little from space-based survival horror game Dead Space. Life is so unapologetically derivative of all of these movies that if it didn’t come to you after months of advertising that plastered Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson all over big screens everywhere, it would have definitely premiered on the SyFy channel, probably after the next Sharknado instalment.

As well as the trio mentioned above, we also have Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada. The five roles are pretty interchangeable; not a single one is fleshed out enough to make you want to care about them. Pilot, doctor, toilet repair astronaut, it matters not; the crew could be any of a million people – one of them just happens to be super-handsome and one was in a Mission: Impossible film. The only exception, in my opinion, is Ariyon Bakare.

As the chief scientist, he has the most interesting of the interactions with the alien – whose name is Calvin, I shit you not – and gets to be the one that shares the scene with it when its true intentions are revealed. This is easily the best and most tense scene in the entire film. Sadly, if you were at a screening of Get Out in the last week or so, you’ve seen that moment in its entirety already, because someone thought it best to have a mini preview instead of a trailer in cinemas this week.

Director Daniel Espinosa (the man behind the fun, silly Safe House and the boring, lacklustre Child 44) has delivered a sci-fi that fulfils none of its promises. It looks like it’s trying (and failing) so very hard to be the new Alien – although hilarious rumours that it’ll be the origin story for Sony’s recently confirmed Venom movie have kept me giggling since I walked out of the screen his afternoon.

I can’t blame Espinosa for trying. That’s his job. But if you’re going to borrow from every sci-fi horror you can name, then the very least you can do is pick one or two and keep your film consistent. As it is, between him and Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (which accounts for Mr Reynolds’ recycling a joke from last year’s masterpiece) they’ve half-inched the blueprints from a dozen movies, ran them all through a shredder and tried desperately to make something worthwhile from the bin bag of rubbish left over.

It’s not all bad though – ok, it is mostly bad – but it does have a redeeming feature or two. Life has some impressive set-pieces to show off and a fair amount of imagination has gone into the monster and how it behaves. Its final form looks a little like a floating, bodiless version of the aliens from Independence Day and behaves like it took acting lessons from The Abyss‘ extra-terrestrials; but Calvin is fun to watch and a delight to look at.

Sadly, these minor flashes of fun don’t distract enough from a film that will forever be overshadowed by the much better genre pieces it is trying to imitate. As I watch the final scenes of Alien on the TV, I can see why someone would want to make this again. Maybe next time they won’t schedule its release a month and a half before an ACTUAL Alien movie is due out where, like this time, your mediocre copycat is eclipsed even by the Covenant trailer that was shown before it.

Power Rangers

Most people my age or younger will remember at least one iteration of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers live-action television series, which first aired in the UK in 1994. Most people my age or younger will remember their iteration of the five colourful superheroes with a degree of fondness.

Some people my age will have revisited the show since then on a nostalgia trip and been thoroughly devastated at how bloody awful it actually is.

Big robot dinosaurs combining into one ginormous suit of armour and proceeding to smash giant space monsters to smithereens; what’s not to love if you’re seven years old? And, I guess, what is there still to love if you’re now 30 years old?

That was one of the questions that fell to writer John Gatins (Real Steel, Kong: Skull Island) and director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) to answer. Another was how do you make a single unifying movie, based on a series that keeps reinventing itself for multiple generations of kids, that would appeal to all of these audiences?

Their answer rather unsurprisingly largely consisted of not bothering to pander to any particular one of these pre-existing crowds and instead create their own story. Thankfully.

Jason the jock (Dacre Montgomery), rebellious Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler) the genius who is “on the spectrum”, Zack (Ludi Lin) the crazy one, and the loner Trini (Becky G.) – the only cast member who was actually a teenager during production, at 19 years old – must put their differences to one side and bond as a cohesive unit if they are to unlock their true potential as guardians of the Earth’s lifeforce (or something) against the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

For a large portion of Lionsgate / Temple Hill Entertainment’s big budget adaptation, the Power Rangers exist solely as their teenage misfit counterparts, who band together through circumstance after stumbling upon glowing coins that grant them superhuman strength. It’s a good 70 minutes in before we see the Red, Pink, Black, Yellow and Blue suits of armour, let alone any action, fights, zoids or monsters.

Rather than a tale of teenagers with attitude, this is more akin to a story about teenagers with boring, mundane, typical teen angst. Not quite social outcasts, just regular Breakfast Club high school kids with normal lives – except for the whole acquisition of super powers and an ancient evil force intent on their destruction, of course.

The problem here is that the creators wanted to have their cake and eat it. They wanted a Power Rangers film with minimal Power Rangers-ing. The course direction is similar to Israelite’s debut feature, Project Almanac, as a group of kids discover a power greater than themselves and deal with the consequences. In isolation, we should be grateful for a film of this calibre deciding to spend some time building backstory for these otherwise ordinary kids; yet it feels like an age before we even get a glimpse of a shiny metallic suit, or spinning high-jump over the heads of some henchmen, putty patroller, fodder types. I’m not requesting Transformers levels of constant inane explosions, but something would’ve been better than nothing.

It’s also disappointing considering the amount of time spent bulking up their backstories, that they remain extraordinarily bland. Billy is the strongest personality in the ensemble, but has only two interesting features: He’s defined by his relationship to the Chris Pine Kirk rip-off, Jason Lee Scott (not to be confused with actor Jason Scott Lee, according to Wikipedia) and his Hollywood-autism. That is to say, he’s good with numbers and doesn’t get humour when it’s convenient for the script to crack a few jokes. He’s rarely the butt of a joke, but most of the humour is derived from his lack of social awareness.

It’s not exactly new for Power Rangers to bang the diversity drum, albeit in a slightly less abrasive fashion than yesteryear. In 2017, the African American character wears a blue uniform, as opposed to automatically being the Black Power Ranger. The Chinese character dons the Black mantle as opposed to uncomfortably being labelled a Yellow Power Ranger, which is reserved for the hispanic Trini whose sexuality is somewhat ambiguous. Causing some level of upset elsewhere is the fact that Kimberly is still the Pink Power Ranger and, more controversially, now has boobs.

Yes, both of the female character’s costumes have boob… pockets? I’m not sure what the correct term is, but they have space for boobs in their costumes’ chest plates. The notion of the sexualisation of teen girls was something that caused a brief outcry from some quarters when the first images were revealed, but it’s turned out to be little more than a damp squib. These aren’t non-binary Power Rangers, nor are they sex-things to be lusted over. The characters have genders; their costumes denote their gender. There’s not much more to it and (to use a slightly inappropriate term given how this paragraph has gone so far) it’s not worth getting your knickers in a twist over.

As well as the five young heroes, their home town of Angel Grove would have benefited from a touch more personality. The small slice of Americana would have leant the final catastrophic battle more weight if you were even slightly bummed out to see a place you cared about being destroyed. Alas, it was indistinguishable from whichever other town in whichever other modern CGI-laden action movie you can think of.

The bad guys will be bad guys; and whilst it was enjoyable to see Elizabeth Banks ham it up to High Heaven as Rita Repulsa, she was very comfortably nestled in Villain 101 territory. The decision to make Goldar a voiceless CGI globule was also depressing. A quipping sidekick to Rita’s sinister villainy would not have gone amiss.

On the subject of quipping, when Zordon’s (Bryan Cranston) android assistant, Alpha (Bill Hader), could be heard, he barely raised a smile, let alone a chuckle or laugh. But at least we’re spared the agony of an irritating, bumbling, goofy clown that irritates more than entertains. He’s just… there.

An action movie of this calibre doesn’t necessarily have to be wholly original in concept to be entertaining, but it definitely needs character and personality. This would be hard enough to achieve in any ordinary 12A, 120 minute, bog-standard origin story; never mind one that is supposed to have five main characters.

Ultimately, that’s all that Power Rangers could be. A broad mishmash of Fantastic Four (minus the body-horror) levels of character development and self-awareness, with MCU at its most vanilla. It’s an inoffensive popcorn movie struggling to be relevant.

Although you’ll forgive me if I don’t accuse it of ruining my childhood – a rewatch of the original 5-part Green with Evil arc already did that by itself. I mean, who thought it would be a good idea to give Zack his own flying car?

Character Unlock: Switcheroo Two – Ninty’s Revenge

It’s finally here. The big day has come and gone, and Nintendo’s latest home console has arrived. Hosts John Miller and Andrew Brooker have done everything in their power to avoid it.

Enter, stage left: Jack Woodcock.

The latest guest on the most shambolic of video game podcasts is Brooker’s long-time Killzone buddy, Jack. A life long Nintendo fan and buyer of all things new and Ninty, Jack is the perfect guy to drag away from the Mario maker’s latest hybrid console. He chats about the good and bad of the machine to try to convince a pair of old cynics why they should be buying the latest and greatest console that Nintendo have to offer. Whether or not he’s successful, you’ll just have to give it a listen.

Before that though, in the absence of anything big and juicy in the news department, the trio dig into what they’ve been playing with mentions of Ubisoft’s ridiculous open world parachute game Steep, further gushing over Sony’s Horizon: Zero Dawn and a lot of chat about the latest Zelda entry. Brooker even managed to keep the Mass Effect talk to a minimum.

Talking of Mass Effect, join us in a couple of weeks where John and a couple more hardcore fans come together to pick apart the Bioware franchise before giving us a rundown of the latest instalment.

Until then, find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and be part of the conversation.

LISTEN TO THIS AND ALL EPISODES VIA THE FAILED CRITICS ACAST PAGE

DIRECT DOWNLOAD LINK

Logan

“I’ve done terrible, unspeakable things.”

It’s taken far too long to get here. Seventeen years since the first X-Men movie and finally someone has realised that a film about an indestructible human being who, via several super secret military experiments, has enormous razor sharp claws that appear on command should probably be a little bit violent. A little bit bloody. Maybe, just maybe, there should be a fatality or two in it.

The fear, of course, is that things might go completely over the top. With 20th Century Fox chasing that Deadpool money, it’s always possible the studio get their grubby little fingers into the Wolverine flavoured pie and ruin it for all of us, forgetting that The Merc with the Mouth was almost certainly a one-off. But there I was, popcorn in hand at the premier screening of director James Mangold’s latest foray into the X-Men universe, hoping for great things.

It’s 2029, mutants are all but extinct and Logan (Hugh Jackman) is an old man who has completely dropped any illusions of being a hero. Living day-to-day as an Uber driver to make enough cash to keep himself in booze, and his ward – the ageing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – safe, away from prying eyes that may be looking for him. Logan’s world is turned upside down when he meets Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl with extraordinary abilities.

Suddenly finding himself with an army of mercenaries on his tail, the man the world once knew as Wolverine unwittingly has a new mission: to get Laura and Xavier to safety.

As much a western as it is an action film, Logan‘s story is one of redemption. It’s not your everyday, run-of-the-mill comic book movie; and certainly not what you’d expect from a film in the X-Men universe. These usually fluffy and slight films are all well and good – ok, they’re not really, not any more – but that’s not what you’re getting here. Instead, a darker tone (without being all The Dark Knight about it) is how we get to spend the little over two-hour runtime.

First, the elephant in the room. The question so many had. After Deadpool last year, the rumours of a violent, expletive-filled Wolverine movie were floating around almost instantly. There was a worry that 20th Century Fox were just going to throw us a crappy film loaded with content that gives it a 15 rating, with no thought to actually giving us a decent film.

That’s simply something you needn’t worry about. Back on directorial (and writing) duties is James Mangold, the creative force behind 2014’s The Wolverine; a film that was more fun than most of the other films in its shared universe and very, very close to being a perfect Wolverine movie. With Mangold at the helm and seemingly let off the leash to flex his muscles, the veteran writer/director has delivered a thriller that has you enthralled for the whole time it’s on, riveted to the screen, unable to look away.

Hugh Jackman’s Logan is a character to be admired – and the performance is one to sit in awe of. As one of the last remaining mutants in this near future, Wolverine has been forced to become a care-giver and protector of the professor that used to be both to every mutant at his school. This position change takes its toll on the biologically upgraded soldier. He looks tired, both battle and world weary, and Jackman sells that fatigue beautifully.

The same goes for Patrick Stewart as the ninety year old Professor X. A character so used to being the one in charge and in front of everyone else when it came to danger, but has to rely on Logan’s dwindling strength to protect him. Almost entirely helpless in his old age, the ailing mutant can only look on impotently, where once he would have taken charge. Like Jackman’s role reversal, Stewart’s is a thing of beauty to watch. A heartbreaking turn from a person who has previously shown nothing but strength, it’s guaranteed to gently pluck at those heart strings.

Relative newcomer, Dafne Keen, is truly thrown in at the deep end. The eleven year old Laura, a mute girl, whose past mirrors that of Logan’s, is a role that she takes on wholeheartedly and brings everything to. Teaming up with Wolverine is just as much a necessity for her as it is unwanted. Forced into this pairing with the cantankerous mutant is as much a shock to her as it is to him. The young actress deserves a ton of respect; clearly fighting for screen presence against Stewart and Jackman, yet she still manages to shine whilst surrounded by all that star power. Her action scenes are sublime and I was in awe of her performance. She’s clearly worked exceptionally hard to get as good as she is. Long may she continue to impress us.

On the surface, the bad guys can seem a little rubbish. Richard E. Grant’s head-honcho businessman, creating mutants for weapons, is possibly the most one-dimensional, clichéd bad guy you can get. A proper weak spot in an otherwise excellent film is made up for by his dogs body, Pierce. The lead mercenary chasing Laura and Logan is a surgically cold killer. Played by Boyd Holbrook, the brutal, violent headhunter should be commended for being limitlessly entertaining in a role that should be pretty bland, maybe even a little boring. Not here though. The robotically enhanced killer is the kind of guy you could root for, if he wasn’t trying to kill Wolverine.

I feel like we’re being spoiled with Logan. Between Mangold’s near perfect direction and his excellent writing, it has culminated in a brilliantly filmed, amazingly paced actioner that has a surprising amount of emotion and heart. It is excellently acted by its stars (both old and new) in a story about a violent world gone completely mad.

And make no mistake: this is a violent, bloody film. But its beauty is in the fact that while it’s nasty and over the top, it never feel gratuitous or unnecessary. Every bloody swipe of Wolverine’s claws, and every bad guy impaled on the end of them, feels like it had to be done for the good of the character’s progression. Even those moments that make you wince feel necessary.

Dark, morose and grim were always going to be the order of the day for Logan. Loosely based on a comicbook story arc called “Old Man Logan”, there was only ever had one choice when it came to Hugh Jackman’s last outing as Weapon-X. Whether the adaptation is true to the comic book arc or not, I neither know nor care. What I can tell you is that we have finally gotten the Wolverine film that we all wanted. A near perfect movie from everyone involved. If this is indeed the last time we see Jackman and Stewart on the screen together in an X-Men movie, like so many interviews up to his point have said, then everyone has bowed out on a genuine high for the series.

I went into Logan with phenomenally high expectations – as I write this I’ve already seen the film twice and I’m looking to squeeze in a third showing – yet it still managed to blow me away. Honestly, if the people that do the organising can remember this far back when the time comes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this grabbing a few retrospective awards, later down the line.

Bethany

“Beauty is just so brief.”

Haunted house horror can often be a procedural affair. I’ve sat through far too many that follow the exact same blueprint as the last two-dozen and don’t do anything to mix things up. You’re left with nothing but a tick-sheet of predictable horror to endure.

I’ll be honest, as much as I am a fan of indie horror director James Cullen Bressack, and as much as I’ve loved most of his films, I went into Bethany with some concerns that I was in for another paint-by-numbers horror with nothing to make it stand out from the crowd. Not because I don’t think Bressack has it in him to do something different; but because as a true student of the genre, he would be forgiven (kinda) for following the subgenre’s guiding principles for his first haunted house flick.

Still, I’m not a prideful guy. I can admit when I’m wrong. And I can admit when I absolutely should have had faith in the filmmaker that I’ve always had faith in before, and not doubted his skill.

Moving back into her childhood home after her mother has died, Claire (Stephanie Estes) and her husband Aaron (Zack Ward) are hoping to leave a chaotic and traumatic past behind them. What should be a separation from the world that’s done them more harm than good quickly becomes an abject lesson in how to forcefully revisit a childhood that scarred you for life.

Now, Claire is living in the house she once shared as a child with her beauty obsessed mother (Shannon Doherty) and her younger years are, quite literally, coming back to haunt her.

Claire grew up with her best and only friend Bethany; a figment of her imagination, a ghost in the walls that kept her company when her abusive mother went off the rails. Now she’s back home, Bethany appears to be looking for company again. Aaron and his tormented wife are going to need to work out what she wants and how to appease her before the now bitter and vengeful spirit gets the better of them.

Ok, so it’s not totally original and it does sound like a lot of indie horror you’ve already seen. But that’s not to say that it is the same as all the dried up old shit that populates the bottom row of the Netflix horror section. On the contrary, to call this simply a horror movie would be to do it a real disservice. Bethany dances a line between traditional horror and psychological thriller; and it’s a line that that so many have failed to conquer before. It’s a tough genre to crack because you need to be able to build an atmosphere that convinces your audience that this is something that could affect them. It has to not just be believable, but it has to be something that plays on the deepest fears of anyone witness to it. Ghosts in the walls should do the trick, huh?

Bressack has done himself a world of good by getting a good writing partner. Teaming up again with Zack Ward for the screenplay has brought a tightly scripted story with very little in the way of throw-away dialogue or fat that can be cut away.

Last year, the pair wrote Ward’s feature directorial debut together, Restoration; a decent flick that proved the duo could script a film together and it not be complete rubbish. With Bethany this writing team have definitely found their flow and they have worked hard to make sure that every time you think you know what’s coming, you’re usually wrong.

And that’s where Bethany really shines.

You would be forgiven for thinking you were walking into a predictable, run-of-the-mill horror, because that’s just what we’ve come to expect from so much of the genre nowadays. From the smallest indie to the biggest Blumhouse production, we’re just conditioned to expect aggressive blandness when it comes to modern horror. Thank god for people like Bressack and Ward trying to inject something a little different into these films.

It’s not necessarily success you need when you try something different; you simply need to have attempted to shake things up. As quickly as every trope is rolled out (let’s say, oh, I don’t know, steamy mirrors on bathroom cabinets that you can open) and you’re positive something is gonna jump out behind you, Bressack calls your bluff and does something completely left-field and creeps the shit out of you instead. It’s a genuine breath of fresh air to not be able to guess what’s coming.

As you get towards the end of this tight 90 minutes, as the last card is flipped over and the reveal you’ve been biting your nails to get to arrives, it is an honest-to-goodness “holy shit” moment that’s as strong a horror reveal as it is an emotional gut punch. It’s at that point that you realise just how much of a personally resonating story this must have been for the man behind the camera.

It just feels like a lot of love and effort went into the creation of Bethany; it feels like James Cullen Bressack is trying to carve out a little piece of horror to make his own and it feels like this director (that I’ve been championing for so long) may have made the film that gets him known in far wider circles.

I can only hope.

Fences

“It’s hard for me to admit I’ve been standing in the same spot for eighteen years.”

As I wrap up the last of this year’s Best Picture nominations, I sit wondering if last year’s negativity towards the Academy with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has led to the disproportionate number of films this year based around race and racial tensions, or if the committee genuinely thinks these films are worth the nominations.

I mean, Hidden Figures is excellent, but it’s got such a flat, emotionless ending that it almost ruins the film. Loving is a great story, well acted, but is so formulaic that I’m forced to ask if it wasn’t for the fact that it was about what it’s about, would it have been nominated? But here we are, with Denzel Washington directing Denzel Washington in a film that perfectly encapsulates Denzel Washington.

A bin man in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s, Troy Maxson (Washington) is a man trying to raise his family, all the while being bitter about the cards life dealt him. His failures in his past are not only holding him back, but they’re forcing him to hold back his long suffering wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo).

Feeling like he’s been trodden on and kept down his whole life, Troy insists on pushing his life views onto his family even as they try desperately to move forwards and make their lives better. As life carries on around him, the old man has to come to terms with the fact that he has stood still for god knows how long as everyone and everything around him has moved on.

Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, and with a screenplay written by Wilson himself; Fences is set almost exclusively in Maxson’s back yard, which acts as a natural point for people to hang out and chat – much like your kitchen every time you’re forced to have people over. This central location gives us an interesting view on Maxson family life as time goes by; like a time-lapse photo of Denzel Washington being an asshole. And it works surprisingly well.

Washington’s bitter patriarch is a joy to watch, as any Washington character is. The man has made a career shaped in excellence with both his acting and directing and that’s continued with Fences. We are invited to watch this legendary actor seamlessly move between loving husband, jovial workmate and concerned dad. We get to watch him try his hardest to be good at all three roles, but not necessarily do a great job at any of them.

It’s an interesting look at a working husband’s life in this particular slice of time, no matter your views now, it’s no doubt mirroring the lives of so many from that time. If I had to pick a fault, it would simply be that while Denzel Washington is excellent, he has become the king of the angry monologue and that is pretty much his only move here. It really is a great move, but it’s nothing new. I was hoping for something a little more than the man’s greatest hits.

However, the stand out performance is Viola Davis as Rose, Troy’s wife of almost two decades. She brings such a spectacular performance that you can’t help but be in awe of her. Admittedly, I don’t know an awful lot of her work (aside from last year’s Suicide Squad) so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – outside of the fact she was already Oscar nominated by the time I got to the film – so I was more than pleasantly surprised when almost all of the emotional pull comes from her role. In this year of very racially charged Oscar-bait films, I was very impressed that her performance came more from her portrayal of an almost downtrodden woman, fighting for respect in her own house, than anything else. I can’t speak highly enough of her performance.

With an excellent rear guard consisting of usually excellent, but almost always ignored support actors, like Mykelti Williamson and Stephen Henderson, Washington’s film has a near perfect cast to tell this story for him. Setting the film in a twenty square-foot garden doesn’t give the actor/director much opportunity to show off his cinematic chops, but somehow the man with only a few films under his belt has managed to make this both interesting and compelling. Which, considering the limits he has, is a small miracle.

Fences isn’t the best of the Oscar Season films, but it’s an excellent entry in 2017’s contender bracket. A film with a point – several points in fact – and a fascinating story certainly isn’t one to be ignored. I look forward to seeing more from Denzel’s directorial playbook in the future.

Certain Women

certain-women

Intentionally quiet and slight arguably to a fault, Certain Women nonetheless is not without its charms.

I want to love Certain Women.  I really and truly do.  Even within the more independent filmmaking world, Certain Women represents a sort of breath of fresh air by its mere existence.  In a sphere of film mostly dedicated to Sad White Men dealing with their Sad White Men problems in a low-key fashion, here is a film all about depicting the mundane lives of three women.  And when I say “mundane,” I really do mean “mundane;” these are lives that are profoundly uneventful even when they are, by comparative metric, eventful.  Writer-Director Kelly Reichardt, who has made her name with measured and uneventful interpretations of stories that are usually fodder for more traditionally thrilling fare, here adapts a few short stories by Maile Meloy and consequently works with set-ups that are devoid of basically any kind of dramatic conflict whatsoever.  One story never acknowledges an earlier potential conflict generator in its own story, another simmers on words unsaid but never truly boils over, and the third intentionally deflates itself at the first opportunity in the driest possible way.

In effect, what you end up watching is less of a series of short narratives with clear beginnings, climaxes, conflicts, etc. and more a collection of snapshots of ordinary if lonely women living their lives.  These kinds of lives just don’t get told in Film that often, not in this kind of frank and empathetic way, and especially not for women.  Women in the rural-American Mid-West, no less!  Dealing with loneliness and isolation in a world that often attempts to forget they even exist.  So, I do want to love Certain Women.

I just can’t quite get there, though.  That same intentional quietness and deliberate pacing that provides the film’s selling point is also its major weakness for me.  All three stories touch on the same themes, have the same pacing, and are so intentionally slight that my mind couldn’t help but wander from time to time.  There may be a tangible empathy here, particularly in the stunning final segment, but there’s also just a bit too much of a sedate distance to proceedings, where the film is purposefully avoiding anything eventful and instead filling up that time with very long takes where not very much happens at all.  When the film is clicking on all cylinders, where its stories ache with a noticeable pain and quiet suffering, it’s not an issue.  But when it’s anything less than that, either by not sketching that story’s protagonist deeply enough or holding an interminably long conversation that’s going nowhere in no particular hurry, then it starts to poke holes in the enterprise.

That, I guess, is my way of saying that not all of the stories are created equal.  The first involves a lawyer, Laura (Laura Dern), dealing with a long-disgruntled client (Jared Harris).  The second has a married couple, Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James le Gros), trying to convince a somewhat-crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) to sell them some sandstone that they can use to build their house in the wilds.  The third, and best by a country mile, follows a lonely Ranch Hand (newcomer Lily Gladstone) as she finds herself drawn to a night school class and forges a connection with the teacher, amateur lawyer and out-of-towner Beth (Kristen Stewart).  The second is the millstone, somewhat fittingly, that drags down the rest of the enterprise, being so slow and so uneventful that I found myself checking my watch frequently and wondering if there was a point being made at all with it.  There is, it’s just that said point is made almost immediately and the segment fails to find any further spins on it for the rest of its run time.

It’s also the most dialogue-heavy of the three segments, or at least feels like it, and the most static.  Strangely, dialogue often turns out to be a crutch for Certain Women as a whole.  It’s not that any of it is bad, sometimes it even manages to provide some dryly humorous levity to proceedings, it’s more that the film’s most powerful moments come from a lack of.  From words unsaid, from connections unrealised, from an honesty that can’t quite be reached.  Gina goes off on runs that are more excuses to sneak a cigarette without Ryan knowing, whilst Ryan is revealed in the first story to be having an affair with Laura but her story never allows him the chance to finish his attempt at ending the thing, whilst the moment that the third story gets as close to an honest admission of feelings as its protagonists can, the resultant pause communicates more hurt than a thousand words ever could.

These are women who feel isolated from society around them, lacking in any real meaningful connections or any connections at all.  Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, which is low-key gorgeous for the record, goes to great lengths to frame each of these women as separate from the rest of the world around them, for that kind of isolation and enforced distance to become quietly wearying on the viewer like it is for the women themselves.  How society renders them all-but-invisible in subtle ways that are only picked up on by those on the receiving end – Laura’s client only accepts the exact same judgement that Laura’s been telling him for the past 8 months once it comes out of a man’s mouth, the old man that Gina is trying to buy the sandstone from often straight up ignores her and talks solely to Ryan instead, whilst the Ranch Hand deliberately secludes herself at the back of the class lesson after lesson and is ignored wholesale by the rest of the class members, despite one student’s claim that “we all know each other.”

Rather than dance around the point any further, I’ll just come right out and say it: the reason that you need to watch Certain Women, even if the whole doesn’t quite rise like it should and its second story is just kind of dull, is for that third story.  That’s where everything comes together – the writing, the measured pacing, the commitment to depicting the crushing mundanity of a lonely life, the empathy for all those involved, and the quiet pain of longing constantly flowing under the surface – to deliver a phenomenal half hour that builds to a closing oner which devastates ever more the longer that it runs.  It also stands head and shoulders above the rest of the stories due to the performances and unique chemistry of Stewart and Gladstone, both awkwardly dancing around the central question of their connection with a tangible caution clearly born out of a desire to not hurt or get hurt that only serves to make those unsaid words cut that much deeper.  Gladstone, especially, is a full-on revelation, particularly when that final shot comes around.

I kinda wish, in all honesty, that Certain Women were just that story, since then I’d be able to properly love it.  Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a bad film, not in any respect, even that second segment isn’t bad so much as I just found it wholly unengaging.  For me, though, just under 110 minutes of this much deliberate slowness and intentionally minor storytelling was ultimately a little too tiring for me to be able to properly love.  I’m honestly fine with that, however, and not just because I know that there are certain people who will absolutely adore Certain Women.  When the film clicks like it does many times during the final story, the resultant cinema is enrapturing.  And even when it’s not, there really is something to be said for its commitment to realising and empathising with the sort of uneventful (often) middle-aged female life that it squarely focusses on.  We can’t all have dramatic lives.  Sometimes, all we can ask for is to be acknowledged by anybody at all.

Certain Women is playing in UK cinemas from March 3rd.

Callum Petch sees what we’re gonna forget.  He can usually be found at his own website, callumpetch.com.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!