Reviews

That Good Night (2018)

Written for RAF News May 2018

In That Good Night, aged screenwriter Ralph Maitland (John Hurt) is living out his days in a picturesque Portuguese villa, trying to pen a project before ‘the ultimate deadline’.

Image result for that good night

Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Ralph remains as combative as ever whilst he works out what to do and who to tell. He invites his son Michael (Max Brown) to come and see him but is soured when he brings along his partner Cassie (Erin Richards). It becomes apparent that the people closest to Ralph have been pushed away – he is mocking and derisive, delivering insults with a smile.

The supporting cast of the film, including Maitland’s much younger wife (Sofia Helin), remain awkwardly stilted and two-dimensional for the most part, but it is clear that the story is not for them. It is only when Charles Dance arrives playing a mysterious white-suited visitor, talking over plans of assisted suicide, that the performance of Hurt is matched and the material is elevated.

But for a film focussed on questions of mortality, of accepting death and leaving loved ones behind, it seems afraid of real emotion. The queasy and insistent score signals reflective sadness, changing only to introduce clunky moments of comedy that might have just passed if the score weren’t so prominent. It appears that certain scenes would have been better served by silence, but perhaps that would have invited unwanted pathos.

John Hurt stands out with his twisted and embittered old man – the depth hinted at in this performance and the knowledge of the actors recent passing adds a poignancy that might have otherwise been absent from the film.

Reading Dylan Thomas’ poem (from which the title is taken) over the final black screen is a perfect close and a fitting send off for the beloved actor.

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Wolf Warrior 2 (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News February 2018

Returning from battle with his comrades ashes, Special Ops ‘Wolf Warrior’ Leng Feng discovers a real estate firm destroying his hometown. In the blink of an eye dozens of company goons wielding 2x4s have been floored and police have them surrounded. When Feng kicks the gun-toting ring leader 10ft into the air and through the windscreen of a police car, he is imprisoned in military jail for two years.

Once released, Feng finds himself in an unnamed African country where he establishes himself as man-of-the-people, offering aid to locals ravaged by a highly infectious disease and protecting them from a bloodthirsty militia. It seems they have teamed with some deadly Western mercenaries straight out of Street Fighter.

The driving force of the film is Wu Jing: the writer and director who also stars as borderline superhero Leng Feng. An embodiment of patriotism, Feng actually turns himself into a Chinese flag at one point, this despite being dishonourably discharged because: “Once a Wolf Warrior, always a Wolf Warrior.”

Now the second highest grossing film in China, this is a large scale production with sweeping shots of navy fleets and tanks being used for a demolition derby. There is a lot of sketchy if not passable CGI, but alongside practical effects and wire stunts that give some weight to action. These set pieces are built around a flurry of fast paced fight choreography devised by the same team behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Though intricate it never gets hung up on realism. The opening scene features an underwater fight scene that misunderstands gravity and overestimates lung capacity by some way, and yet this is what makes it enjoyable.

The attempts at humour and drama fall flat but form a necessary breather between gunfights and hand-to-hand combat, which is where all the fun is to be had.

Addendum:

Besides this, the message is one of frighteningly unambiguous nationalism. It reduces an entire continent to a land filled with savage militants and the helplessly impoverished – all ready to be protected by the Chinese military, crystallised in the form of one morally superior and high-roading motherfucker, so convinced of his invincibility that he rarely takes cover from gunfire and is able to catch an RPG with the wire frame of a mattress. This is a joke. A hugely expensive and highly profitable joke, that is only funny when it’s trying to be serious.

Last Flag Flying (2018)

Written for Raf News January 2018

Set in late 2003, this loose sequel to The Last Detail follows three embittered veterans as they reunite and reminisce against the back drop of the Iraq war. More a road movie than a war film, Last Flag Flying looks at the long term effects of military service and how it can shape a persons life.

When recently widowed Doc (Steve Carell) receives news that his son has been killed whilst serving in Iraq, he sets out to reunite with two Vietnam buddies to attend the funeral. Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) has changed a lot – now a Reverend who has apparently found peace – whereas Sal (Bryan Cranston) has not, an alcoholic who provides insistent comic relief with an obnoxious charm. Doc is the humble, quiet man at the centre with the angel and devil on his shoulders: one with spiritual guidance and the other with unprompted honesty. What binds these men, and will become a large part of their journey, is compassion.

Their history is pulled out gradually from conversations on the road, which allows us to learn about their past and the people they once were. Part of this remains unsaid, which adds a fitting naturalism for these ex-military men.

Often they will repeat chants and phrases, though now with some detachment but still with a sense of nostalgia. They have become disillusioned to war but have a bond between them that runs deep despite their differences. Coming across military officials and young marines, they will critique and challenge now that they have the chance: a last ditch effort for some much needed catharsis.

Last Flag Flying is a little sickly and over the top, coming across contrived when pushing too hard or too often for laughter or tears. The principal cast are all playing parts that we have seen them in before, and it may be nothing new or surprising but their familiarity and chemistry make the film both funny and moving at times.

Broken Vows (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News December 2017

Tara (Jamie Alexander) is on her bachelorette party when she catches the keen stare of a barman who insists they have a connection. Deciding to go back to his at the end of the night, she wakes to realise that this was a mistake: maybe the thought of her loving fiance back home, or more likely because the deranged one night stand has hand-washed her clothes and tattooed her name on his arm during the night.

Patrick, the easily infatuated barman, finds Tara’s phone in his house after she leaves. He uncovers the truth about her engagement and the wedding that is due to take place days from now. This does not appear to deter him though, as he uses information from her phone to find out where she lives and who she knows in order to find leverage to get them back together – nothing like a bit of classic romance.

Wes Bently so often plays dark and deranged characters that it suits him, but here his intensity comes out of nowhere. Patrick becomes obsessed with Tara in a matter of minutes, and even during this time he’s not treated particularly well. We learn a little about his past thanks to an unlikely PI but this raises many more questions. It’s hard to understand the motivation of anyone in the film. With strained dialogue and unnatural delivery, they never feel like real people.

Broken Vows harks back to 90s erotic thrillers but switches the gender of the adulterer and the stalker. It’s a classic ‘bunny boiler’ except it’s been put on a low heat so you’ll have to watch it gently simmer for the best part of an hour before anything thrillery happens. There are opportunities along the way, but they are lost to the momentum of an absurd story that could have been a lot more fun.

The Hungry (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

The Hungry is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s violent tragedy Titus Andronicus, moved to contemporary New Dheli where an extravagant wedding becomes the setting for a series of vengeful murders.

The union between the Ahuja and Huji families is shown to have some significance as far as corporate ties are concerned and this may be the reason for some bad blood along the way. The film opens to the bride’s son writing a suicide note at gunpoint, it is not clear just yet what is going on and who is to be trusted. Flashing forward two years after this supposed suicide, the wedding is back on and no expense is spared in putting on a show.

Tathagat Ahuja (Naseeruddin Shah) is the elder godfather figure of his family, lavishly showing off his wealth as he plays host and head chef at the wedding of his moronic son Sunny (Arjun Gupta). The bereaved bride is Tulsi (Tisca Chopra) who is often seen wearing a smile of dark intentions.

Although the acting is pretty ropey, the film is composed well, clearly putting aesthetics before anything else. It takes a long time to get going but once it gets past the overly complicated establishing of grudges and grievances, the final horrific scenes fall into place.

It feels as though the story has been reverse engineered, starting at the final banquet hinted at in the title, and working backwards. Other ceremonial touches are set up and skewed by the distrust seeded between Tulsi and her new family.

For example, she and the groom take part in the ‘Haldi’ ceremony in which they are both covered in a bright yellow paste as traditional music is played. This sound is distant and distorted however, which really separates you from the festivities: seeing the vibrant colours but through this lens of paranoia.

There is a nice clash between the gruesome violence and the luxurious setting but ultimately The Hungry takes far too long to get to an expected ending.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is about writer and actor Peter Turner’s love affair with Hollywood legend Gloria Grahame in the late 70s: the star of black and white classics now living in Liverpool and struggling to make it in colour apparently.

Adapted from his memoir, Turner is played by the ever-dashing and loveable Jamie Bell who stumbles upon new neighbour Grahame in the middle of some wacky vocal exercises, but she will make work of him yet. Anette Benning is able to bring the twinkling Hollywood shine to Grahame. She is commanding and funny but the mere mention of the age gap will bring out her sensitivity. Benning is able to portray Grahame as both bold and fragile, hinting that there is something going on behind the film star veneer.

As revealed in the opening of the film, Grahame returns to Liverpool after collapsing in her dressing room, wanting to recover in the company of her old flame. The film jumps about in time from their sweet beginning to tragic ending, back through the throws of passion and heated break-ups. The style is fluid in the way that it blurs past and present but for all its efforts it can be quite jarring. This technique does pay off later though when an argument is seen from a different perspective, effectively managing to change the emotion of the scene.

The getting-to-know-you parts of the relationship, the pub dates and meetings with disapproving parents, feel familiar and forgettable save for the style. Julie Walter’s reliably steals her scenes as Mrs Turner with very little dialogue, but Film Stars really gets interesting when it gets a little darker and dramatic.

Bell and Benning have great chemistry, even when their characters are at odds with each other, and are able to give this story a tenderness that it deserves.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Steven Murphy is a successful heart surgeon, admired by his peers and loved by his family, but all that is about come apart when demons from the past come back to haunt him. Not literally, well who knows.

Murphy has been meeting a young boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) to give occasional gifts and fatherly advice but his wife and kids are unaware of this relationship. Murphy feels indebted to Martin for some reason, things getting substantially more serious when it seems a hex has been placed on his family that will end in a lot of people dying if nothing is done about it.

It sounds absurd but stranger things have happened in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films – like turning people into animals in The Lobster. The style is unmistakable, the flat matter-of-fact dialogue and delivery that can find humour in the darkest ideas. It has a wonky realism that makes you think the hex could be real and so the stakes are as high as they can be. Murphy has to confront superstition and contemplate an unthinkable sacrifice*.

Colin Farrell, having starred in strange success The Lobster, looks at home with this mechanical direction, and Nicole Kidman dovetails in with a bit more soul as wife Anna but is enough Stepford Wife to keep things off kilter, especially in the bedroom. The young actors are excellent, making the blunt and sometimes bizarre dialogue sound natural.

Once again Lanthimos has created a beautifully strange piece of work that is uniquely his own. It is a horror revenge film that has a tone that flits between tragic and slapstick. It uses real drama but in such a false way that it’s hard to connect to anyone, but this feels beside the point. What is clear is that it knows how to challenge expectations, create suspense and get a laugh – even if it is a nervous one.

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