So last time I did one of these, I said I’d get back to doing them weekly. That was four weeks ago. However, that means the time has come for another monumental catch-up in which I review more than a dozen films in one go. Enjoy!
Fighting With My Family
Wrestling has not had a good time of it at the movies. It’s either portrayed as a weird sideshow (Nacho Libre), or a bleak charade that allows people to hide from their real lives through pain (The Wrestler). Those things are present in Fighting With My Family, which tells the true story of WWE performer Paige, but they’re balanced in such a way that they can be funnelled into an underdog story with real warmth and humour.
Florence Pugh shimmers as a young woman forced to find out who she is on the other side of the Atlantic when her in-ring acumen attracts the attention of WWE, dragging her from parochial Norwich to the bright lights of Florida. You believe every step she takes and decision she makes, however bizarre. Vince Vaughn is her no-nonsense trainer, while Dwayne Johnson pops up occasionally to play himself in inspirational fashion, giving the movie an injection of wrestling world authenticity and star quality.
It’s rare that Fighting With My Family moves away from the trappings of the standard underdog story, but writer-director Stephen Merchant finds exactly the right balance between acknowledging wrestling’s inherent silliness and taking it seriously as a career. With his lightness of touch behind the camera, Pugh is allowed to shine every bit as brightly as the woman she is portraying.
VERDICT: The wrestling world has finally got its perfect movie, through the lens of a non-fan in Stephen Merchant. It’s a tale told with good humour and a delicate tonal balance that makes it a riotously good time.
(Dir: Stephen Merchant, 108 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
James Kent‘s last film as director was the warm, cosy First World War romance Testament of Youth. A few years later, he has made another warm, cosy romance. Only the conflict has changed. The Aftermath is set in the immediate fallout of the Second World War, with Jason Clarke‘s British Army officer moving his wife (Keira Knightley) into the requisitioned home of Alexander Skarsgård‘s German knitwear enthusiast.
Knightley’s performance here is solid, but the rest of the film struggles to get beyond its rather beige trappings. It feels like a movie caught out of time, with some outdated tropes – hey there, surprise kiss – making unwanted appearances amidst the drama. A subplot about a Nazi-sympathising group of activists never quite dovetails as much as it should and everything seems to build to nothing.
This is a film that hopes a classical feel and prestige gloss are enough to get it over the line, with the likes of Brief Encounter an obvious touchstone. Unfortunately, this is largely a film that contents itself with pointing a camera at Knightley while she frowns at stuff.
VERDICT: A couple of decades ago, The Aftermath might have served as a strong romantic tale. However, it feels more than a little outdated today and also suffers from a story that only occasionally sparks into life, otherwise wandering around in a sad, undramatic inertia.
(Dir: James Kent, 109 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
Early buzz around Serenity set it up as a beautiful disaster destined to play at rep cinemas for years as a midnight movie favourite like The Room or Troll 2. Matthew McConaughey plays a fisherman ripped straight from the pages of Moby Dick, while Anne Hathaway turns up radiating ‘Sexy Baby’ energy as a femme fatale wanting to dispose of her violent husband.
The film is initially quite an interesting neo-noir from Locke director and Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. McConaughey’s absurdly heightened performance in a weird, detached island town is engaging, and Hathaway is clearly having a ball with her own over-cranked turn. The problems come with a mid-film plot twist that is completely loony, but also recontextualises the whole movie as something less interesting.
From that point on, Knight disappears down a plughole of his own making, as the momentum of his movie saps away entirely. Any entertainment value the story once possessed is lost to the wind, and all that’s left is an empty-headed road to nowhere.
VERDICT: Neither worthy of celebration or as deliriously bad as many have suggested, Serenity is an odd mess of a movie that somehow manages to become less interesting when it unleashes its bonkers plot twist.
(Dir: Steven Knight, 107 mins, Cert: 15)
The Hole in the Ground
Sometimes, the titles of horror movies are rich with metaphor and symbolism. Other times, they are admirably direct. The latter scenario is the case for Irish director Lee Cronin‘s The Hole in the Ground, which provides two very literal embodiments of its title during the course of the story.
Seána Kerslake is very solid in the lead role, as a woman who becomes certain that her young son is no longer her son and has been taken over by something malevolent. She ascertains that the enormous sinkhole in the forest close to their home might well have something to do with it. For the first 45 minutes or so of the film, Cronin delivers impressive scares and builds a real sense of tension. The second manifestation of the title is chilling and has really stayed with me.
However, all of that patience disappears for a finale that simply throws cliché after cliché at the audience, with very few of them sticking. It becomes a muddled and unsatisfying mess in this third act, but there’s enough good material on show to suggest that Cronin will go on to be a strong genre voice in the years to come.
VERDICT: There’s something quite disappointing about The Hole in the Ground, which suffers from a jumble of narrative threads that the film is never quite able to untangle. The first half, though, has a reasonable amount of horror flair.
(Dir: Lee Cronin, 90 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
Charlotte Rampling is a bona fide legend of cinema and a national treasure, not just in the UK but in the numerous European countries in which she has appeared on the big screen. It’s in the French language she is working in Hannah – a movie that rests itself squarely on her shoulders, without much of a script in support.
Andrea Pallaoro directs and co-writes as the film follows the title character grappling with the aftermath of her husband’s imprisonment for a clearly heinous crime that is hinted at just enough. It’s a sparse and minimalist film that’s far more interested in posing questions than supplying answers and, for that reason, is frustratingly opaque.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing here to chew on, but the relentless emptiness of the movie leaves it somewhat lacking in the depth it so desperately grasps and gropes towards. Threads go untied and unmentioned, while Rampling’s ability to emote without saying anything just about saves the movie from descending into a complete waste of time.
VERDICT: Charlotte Rampling is a gargantuan superstar, but she doesn’t quite have the power within her to fill the considerable holes left in this movie by writer-director Andrea Pallaoro. Its attempts to play minimalist are laudable, but don’t come off.
(Dir: Andrea Pallaoro, 93 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
Sauvage is a French drama set amid the world of male sex workers living on the streets. As you might expect, this leads to two hours of bleakness and sexual exploitation, with just the barest hints of characterisation in there to lighten the load a little. In an attempt to depict the rough and sadddening reality of this world, the film over-reaches into lurid misery porn.
Félix Maritaud, last seen in 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) and the flamboyant giallo homage Knife + Heart, is admittedly quite impressive as Léo. He’s a sex worker who appears a little more sensitive than the colleagues with whom he shares the streets, thinking nothing of kissing his clients and willing to do almost anything to please them. His body is breaking down as a result of drugs and poverty, but he is not in any way prepared to deal with his situation.
Maritaud portrays an intriguing character, but the film has so little to say about his predicament that there’s nothing for the audience to chew on. It’s simply an odyssey of sadness that outstays its welcome by a very long time indeed.
VERDICT: An odyssey of sex and sadness that doesn’t seem to have much beneath the surface, Sauvage squanders its highly impressive lead performance on a story with very little to say.
(Dir: Camille Vidal-Naquet, 97 mins, Cert: 18)
From the mind of the author behind vampire tale Let the Right One In, this is an example of warped cinematic genius. Eva Melander, unrecognisable under Oscar-nominated facial prosthetics, plays border guard Tina, with a facial deformity and the unusual ability to sniff out those who are guilty of crimes. When a man with a similar deformity arrives, she learns that there may be more to her ability than meets the eye.
What follows is a tale of dark romance that begs obvious comparisons to last year’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water. Where that film benefited from Guillermo del Toro‘s humanist position, though, Border is a harder and more cynical affair. Melander’s performance is intense and complicated, making clear the conflict between her compassionate humanity and the vengeful aggression expressed by Vore – her new beau, with whom she engages in 2019’s weirdest cinematic sex scene.
Ali Abbasi‘s film exists in the grey areas of morality and enjoys its time there, combining the carefree euphoria of new love with the looming spectre of evil. This is a film that wears its oddity on its sleeve along with its considerable heart, but also isn’t afraid to show a darker, more twisted side.
VERDICT: Fans of The Shape of Water will enjoy this twisted, cynical fantasy romance that benefits from Eva Melander’s terrific performance and some very impressive, Oscar-nominated make-up effects.
(Dir: Ali Abbasi, 110 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
Well, they’ve finally done it. Marvel has righted one of the wrongs of its cinematic universe by crafting a movie with a solo female lead. It helps that the lead in question is the Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, who plays the US Air Force pilot turned Kree warrior Carol Danvers. She’s the heart and soul of Captain Marvel, which is a compelling superhero journey, directed by Mississippi Grind duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
There’s a lot going on here, with Carol fighting alongside Kree warriors against the shape-shifting Skrulls, who are led by Ben Mendelsohn‘s occasionally Aussie-accented Talos. She ends up on Earth, where she bumps into a very convincingly de-aged Samuel L Jackson, reprising his role as SHIELD agent Nick Fury. It’s a tangled story, torn between laying groundwork for the upcoming Avengers: Endgame and introducing Carol to the world.
With that said, the movie is a lot of fun. Larson is excellent as Carol and clearly relishes the chance to play a role slightly less serious than her usual oeuvre, making the most of the great chemistry she shares with Jackson. The light show action sequences are enjoyable and much of the comedy lands, even though there are some subplots and characters that are somewhat neglected in an attempt to get everything done in time for the big franchise finale. Roll on Endgame.
VERDICT: It might not be Marvel’s best movie and it suffers from having to accomplish a number of tasks in the run-up to Endgame, but Captain Marvel unleashes a memorable new hero into the MCU. And it does it in quite some style.
(Dir: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 124 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
Asghar Farhadi, after making a handful of highly acclaimed festival favourites, has assembled a slightly starrier cast than usual for his new film Everybody Knows. Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz anchor a kidnap thriller that explores more than just the crime at its centre. It’s a critique of privilege that watches a family unit crumble and splinter under the weight of the secrets within it.
Cruz is Laura, who returns to her Spanish hometown for an opulent wedding. This brings her into the orbit of her old flame Paco, played by Bardem. During the festivities, Cruz’s daughter is seemingly kidnapped, with newspaper cuttings from a previous abduction left on her bed. Paco throws himself into investigating her disappearance, which fractures his relationship with his wife, and brings him into confrontation with Laura’s husband (Ricardo Darín) when he returns.
Farhadi’s story is a complicated one that is teased out over the course of a very patient running time. Ultimately, the joy is not in solving the mystery of the kidnapping, but in watching as the story elegantly tugs at the flayed edges of the family tapestry, allowing deep-seated secrets to be removed like bandages, revealing festering wounds underneath. Bardem, especially, is simply excellent amidst the deliberate melodrama.
VERDICT: Asghar Farhadi makes his most commercial and accessible film to date with Everybody Knows, which uses the conventional structure of a kidnap mystery to explore the fragility of familial bonds. It’s a well-performed and intriguing thriller that has more than a few surprises up its sleeve.
(Dir: Asghar Farhadi, 133 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
The Kindergarten Teacher
Maggie Gyllenhaal is brilliant, which is fortunate for The Kindergarten Teacher, because it’s a film that hangs its quality squarely on its leading lady’s shoulders. Adapted from a 2014 Israeli movie, it’s a story that deals with themes around how modern society deals with talent and genius, as well as the backlash against intellectualism that led to Michael Gove’s now infamous “had enough of experts” line.
Gyllenhaal plays the titular educator, Sarah, who lives vicariously through a small boy who recites a heartfelt poem seemingly at random in her classroom. Given her own poor performance at a poetry night school, she’s keen to take the kid under her wing. At first, it’s charming, but Sarah very quickly oversteps the mark and changes their relationship into something that’s more than a little troubling.
It’s the performance that holds this film together, even as its bizarre worldview threatens to bring the whole edifice crashing to the ground. This is a movie that has a perspective on technology that would not be out of place in one of the more on-the-nose Black Mirror episodes and it feels out of place given the subtleties and nuances of the acting, including from child star Parker Sevak.
VERDICT: A performance of stunning nuance by Maggie Gyllenhaal helps The Kindergarten Teacher over the line, despite a story that never quite seems sure of itself and a central thesis that feels more than a little simplistic. As boundary-pushing dramas go, though, it’s got enough to hold interest.
(Dir: Sara Colangelo, 97 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
Ray & Liz
As a child of the West Midlands, it’s not often I get to see the environs of my youth brought to life on the big screen. Ray & Liz, from writer-director Richard Billingham, transports the viewer back to the 1980s Black Country of his childhood, complete with ghastly interior design, grubby end of terrace homes and the familiar lilt of the Brummie accent.
The film is constructed as a handful of vignettes, with the titular characters representing Billingham’s real parents. Ella Smith is terrific as the matriarch Liz, while Justin Salinger disappears into the background somewhat as the more taciturn Ray. It’s a slow-moving and deliberately sparse film, relishing the perfect evocation of its time period, with the palpable stench of cigarette smoke and the feel of a world trapped in a pretty hopeless stasis. In 2019, that has real relevance.
However, the movie is ultimately a little too lacking in event to ultimately emerge as anything spectacular. This is essentially a filmed set of diary extracts and that’s how it feels, as if an opportunity has been missed to really get under the skin of a poverty-stricken family unit. Despite its undeniable style, it feels as if it doesn’t have all that much to say.
VERDICT: A towering central performance by Ella Smith and an uncanny impression of the working class Midlands of the Thatcher era are not enough to save Ray & Liz from what is ultimately a ponderous tale lacking in the punch its characters so clearly demand.
(Dir: Richard Billingham, 108 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
In the couple of years since I, Daniel Blake, we haven’t been short on films that unpick the turmoil of being poor in the UK today. Across the Irish Sea, director Paddy Breathnach has managed to get under the skin of a Dublin-set poverty problem. The titular mother of three, played with heartfelt power by Sarah Greene, spends her days ringing around hotels, in the hope that she and her kids can stay the night as part of a government scheme to fund hotel rooms and therefore keep families off the streets.
Rosie is a movie that serves to illustrate the thin line between just about managing and battling to avoid the streets. This is a family in which one half of the couple has a full-time job, and it’s only an unscrupulous landlord selling at short notice that puts them in their desperate predicament. Greene is excellent as a proud, defiant woman who resents anyone who claims that she has in any way failed as a mother, masking the fact she’s secretly a little worried she might have done.
It’s a satisfyingly lean movie that never outstays its welcome and maintains its emotional punch as a result. Greene’s performance holds everything together and Breathnach measures his moments of high drama to ensure that this never feels anything other than bracingly real.
VERDICT: Paddy Breathnach’s impressively low-key drama shines light on a very real and very powerful problem. It’s a story told with natural distress and genuine tension, helped by the fact Sarah Greene is able to make a constant string of phone calls absolutely thrilling.
(Dir: Paddy Breathnach, 82 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]