Netflix channel Scandi murder mysteries with new supernatural detective series ‘Dark’

Posted in Trailers, TV
By Sam Bathe on 13 Nov 2017

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With all the overtones of a Scandi detective thriller, Dark is a tense new 10-parter from Netflix. Set in the small German town of Winden, Dark follows the investigation into the disappearance of two local children, only the series takes a supernatural twist when the question shifts to not whom kidnapped the children, but when. Shot on location in the beautiful yet thoroughly eerie German woodland, Netflix’s run of hit shows looks like its set to continue. Created by Baran bo Odar and co-written by Jantje Friese, all 10 episodes of Dark premiere Friday 1st December.

Film Review: Revolution: New Art for a New World

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 23 Oct 2017

Margy Kinmonth’s documentary Revolution: New Art for a New World aims to elucidate the connection between political events in Russia in the early 20th century and the art that its citizens produced in response, much of which is little known in the wider world.
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The documentary focuses primarily on the October Revolution in 1917, during which the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government of the country, which itself had been installed not long before as the result of another political upheaval. Kinmonth’s film, which she also wrote and narrates, attempts to paint the connections between a tumultuous time period and the art that it spawned.

For art enthusiasts, the greatest draw of the film will be the revealing of many significant works that have, to date, been little seen outside of Russia. Even for an art novice like me, the film did a good job of explaining the significance of these pieces and, crucially, how they relate to the events that, at least in part, inspired their creation. There are also some interesting interviews with contemporaries of the artists discussed, in some cases with their actual descendants, and seeing the physical similarities between them and the old photos is a treat in itself.

The film is ultimately a little televisual and perhaps did not require a cinematic release, but even so there is an interesting discourse in here not just how this art related to its period, but how any art can do so, and the importance of that relationship. The music is a little distracting at times, and some of the dramatic voiceovers – recreating speeches from historical figures such as Lenin (Matthew Macfadyen), for  example – don’t really add much, but for those with an interest in the period, or indeed in the relationship between art and politics more generally, it’s an interesting watch.

3/5

Film Review: The Death of StalinFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 18 Oct 2017

As anyone who has seen The Thick of It, its feature length spin off In the Loop, or the US series Veep, will know, writer Armando Iannucci has a certain unique flair for political satire. Show the rest of this post…

The thought of him tackling La Mort de Staline, a graphic novel by Fabien Nury dealing with the aftermath of the death of Joseph Stalin, was a promising one.

When Stalin died in 1953, he left behind a power vacuum at the head of the Soviet Union. Iannucci’s film depicts the ensuing struggle for power among the political elite, from Stalin’s son to his heads of state, choosing to approach what in real life was a tremendously fraught and dangerous era with his usual lightness of touch.

It’s not perhaps an obvious period to play for laughs, but the result, for the most part, lives up to the billing. Iannucci extracts humour from potential darkness, and at times plays wonderfully on the idea of political paranoia and infighting.

The film boasts a large and talented ensemble cast playing a roster of real life characters, most of whom Iannucci depicts as either bumbling, bickering fools or, in the case of Simon Russell Beale’s secret police chief Beria, in particular, tyrants desperate for power. Their interactions are the heart of the film, indeed the very point of the film, and there is much enjoyment to be had therein. If there’s a criticism to be levelled at the casting, it’s simply that there are too many talented performers here to feel that we’re getting the most out of them. As a result, some of the supporting characters feel a little undersold, and unable to leave the impression they might have done.

Alongside Beria, the chief conspirators are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Nikita Kruschchev (Steve Buscemi), names which will be familiar to anyone with a vague knowledge of Russian history. Malenkov, upon whom the responsibility of stepping into Stalin’s shoes initially falls, is played by Tambor as a man desperately wanting to appear stately and responsible, but in fact displaying neither of these traits, and perennially trapped under the imposing Beria’s finger.

Lingering around behind them is an amusingly pitched performance from Michael Palin as Vyascheslav Molotov, who over the years has been so indoctrinated into Stalin’s regime that he has trouble remembering who he is meant to be fawning over, and what his opinions actually are. There’s also an amusing introduction featuring Paddy Considine that gets things off to a strong start, and a scene-stealing turn from a belligerent Jason Isaacs. Andrea Riseborough, meanwhile, brings an all-too-brief feminine presence to what is otherwise very much a boys club.

Although there’s some great stuff in here poking fun at the inner workings of the government,the film coasts a little towards its final act, which, though still funny, is a bit rushed and dramatically uneven. It feels as if the film is enjoying itself much more when its ensemble is bickering and fighting than when it has to tell the story, which isn’t a criticism as such, but leaves the narrative element of the film feeling a little lukewarm.

Generally, though, The Death of Stalin is an entertaining and often funny film, the  tone of which will be familiar, if not wholly so, to fans of Iannucci’s excellent previous work. It’s not as consistently funny as some of his best output, but well worth a look.

4/5

Film Review: The Glass Castle

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Liam Nicholls on 22 Sep 2017

Based on the bestselling memoir of Jeanette Walls’ childhood, The Glass Castle explores the fraught and fractured relationship between a father and daughter, played superbly by Woody Harrelson and Brie Larson. Show the rest of this post…

The story follows Jeanette (Brie Larson), one of four flame-haired siblings living a nomadic, poverty-stricken life, dragged from shack to hovel by their free-spirited and eccentric parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). Cutting back and forth in time between her younger years and her life as a a successful gossip columnist in New York, her emotions unravel in the midst of a manicured existence with Wall Street fiancé David (Max Greenfield).

The first we see of her wild-eyed parents is scavenging in bins on the Lower East Side as Jeanette drives past in a taxi, setting the tone for the disconnected relationship she has with them, born from years of reckless abandon. Her mother is an artist, more interested in her work than the welfare of her children, brought into sharp focus early on when a young Jeanette badly burns herself cooking hotdogs on the stove. Rescued from the hospital by her family before she has properly healed, she bears the physical and emotional scars for the rest of her life as she becomes protector to her brother and sisters in the absence of conscientious parents.

The beating heart of the film is the relationship between Rex and his “Mountain Goat” Jeanette, who is played as a child with brilliant poise by Ella Anderson. Rex is the film’s force of nature; a poetic soul battling with an undercurrent of darkness and repression. A Jekyll and Hyde character, he’s charismatic, warm and wise when sober but volatile and vicious when drunk, suffocating his children while living in fear of them leaving him. His grand design of building a solar-powered glass house, which gives the film its title, connects him and Jeanette to a shared hope of a better future.

Whether it’s throwing her repeatedly into a swimming pool to teach her how to swim, or begging her for alcohol when chained to a bed while going cold turkey, Rex certainly lives up to his mantra of “You learn from living”. As Jeanette grapples with rising anger and despair as her life plays out, the film is a depiction of her journey in coming to terms with the suffering she endured and accepting the pain that has ultimately shaped who she is.

Both Harrelson, Larson and Anderson carry the story magnificently with powerful performances, but they’re held back by the jarring movements in time which hinder the development of the narrative, rather than building  it. A film full of poignant symbolism and several emotionally-charged moments, its story is one that deserves to be seen on screen, despite losing some of its power in translation.

3/5

Film Review: Wind River

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 15 Sep 2017

Wind River is the final part of what director Taylor Sheridan has called his “frontier trilogy”, which began with Sicario and continued with Hell or High Water. Although Sheridan wrote all three films, it’s the first he has directed, and his first directorial credit since a little-seen horror called Vile in 2011. Show the rest of this post…

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen star as Cory Lambert and Jane Banner, who become unlikely partners in a crime investigation. She works for the FBI and has been summoned to freezing Wyoming to run an investigation into a body that Cory discovered in the snow. Cory is a hunter/tracker and proves useful in assisting Jane who, while competent as an investigator, is not used to the extreme wintry conditions in the area.

The body is discovered on an Indian reservation – the titular Wind River – which causes jurisdictional issues for the investigation, while the harsh nature of the landscape becomes a driving factor in the narrative. Wind River is home to many disenchanted people, for whom the difficulties presented by the environment have either broken their spirits, or made them cynical. The world-weary inhabitants of the area, combined with the excellent sense of place established by Sheridan and his cinematographer, Ben Richardson, lift some of the film’s more generic elements into thoroughly watchable territory.

It also helps that Renner gives one his strongest performances to date as Cory, who clearly has an attachment to the area, but is nevertheless challenged by the toughness of the environment, which has not been altogether kind to him. Opposite him, Olsen is reliably strong as Jane, who despite playing more of a supporting role than we might initially expect, adds both vulnerability and strength to proceedings, albeit in different ways to Renner.

The film has a gritty edge to it, as we might expect from this loose trilogy, and is adept at establishing a scenario in which the vastness of the landscape serves to heighten the events being depicted. There are visual compositions that at times reminded me of the establishing shots in Sicario, and some of the recurring motifs in the soundtrack called to mind the whispered poetics of Andrew Dominik’s excellent WesternThe Proposition.

As things unfold and we being to learn where the narrative is going, it’s perhaps a little disappointingly straightforward, and the final movement of the film feels a little less sure of itself than the rest, but the interest is held throughout, and the film doesn’t lose sight of the characters at its heart. There’s one late scene on top of a mountain that is a little too broadly played, but in general the film conveys a sense of realism and believability. There’s also an almighty Mexican standoff in the final act that is beautifully choreographed.

Wind River is a compelling watch, with a strong sense of place, convincing performances and a welcome, if subtle, undercurrent o f political awareness. It’s not perfect, and perhaps a little generic at times, but well worth a watch, particularly if you enjoyed Sicario and Hell or High Water.

4/5

Director George Clooney channels Coen Brothers farce in suburbia-gone-wrong comedy ‘Suburbicon’

Posted in Film, Trailers
By Sam Bathe on 21 Aug 2017

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Set in a seemingly idyllic suburban community, after a home invasion robbery ends in the death of beloved wife and mother, Rose, her twin sister (Julianne Moore) moves in to help widowed Gardner (Matt Damon) and the kids cope with their great loss. However, when a company agent pays the family a visit to sign off on their life insurance claim, it becomes quickly apparent all might not be as it seems, Gardner must quickly learn to navigate the town’s dark underbelly if he’s to make it out alive. Directed by George Clooney from an all-star script by Clooney himself alongside long-term collaborator Grant Heslov and the Coen Brothers, Suburbicon is a dark comedy that hopes to hit the heights of the likes of A Serious Man. Suburbicon hits theatres in the US on October 27th, and in the UK on November 24th.

Film Review: A Ghost StoryFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 7 Aug 2017

The title ‘A Ghost Story’ might put you in mind of any of the myriad haunted house films that have spooked cinema throughout its history, but David Lowery’s low-key drama is one of the few in which the protagonist himself is definitively a ghost. Show the rest of this post…

Casey Affleck plays that protagonist, who in an early scene is killed in an accident and from that moment on appears only as figure draped in a huge white sheet, with nothing more than a pair of pitch black eye sockets (and later some dirt and scuffing) for detail. After his death he stands vigil in his old house, watching his bereaved partner (Rooney Mara) struggle on with her life.

This is a melancholy meditation on death, clearly designed to inspire an emotional reaction, but without the cynicism that often hampers projects with that intention. Lowery’s film feels tender and honest, and while the score is relied upon to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of emotional delivery, it doesn’t feel manipulative. There are few characters in A Ghost Story, none of whom are named, and very little dialogue – indeed, for long stretches it plays like a silent film. Daniel Hall (who scored Lowery’s previous two films, Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) conjures up a dreamy, emotionally rich sonic environment that blends well with Lowery’s very mannered, restrained direction.

Lowery and his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shot the film in the 1:33 ratio with unusual rounded edges – an intimate form closer to a square than most modern films – which gives the visuals a close-in feeling. The film routinely features shots that move into or out of a resting position that looks straight at the environment, framing the scene almost as if it were flat, accentuating intentional symmetries and quirks in the set design. This aesthetic brings out the fundamental weirdness of the ghost’s presence, offset as it often is against very ordered surroundings, and also lends a sense of loss when that order is fractured. There’s a simple but wonderful inversion of this aesthetic when a character drives away from the house.

All of this gives the impression that Lowery has really considered how to tell his story visually and sonically, leaving dialogue mostly in the background. In fact the most verbose scene in the film, set during a house party, is clearly the film’s weakest – an unnecessary addition that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

The design of the ghost is wonderful. He comes across as tremendously expressive even though he has almost no moving features (indeed, in some scenes, he doesn’t move at all), capable of looking both angry and threatening, although he primarily conveys a sense of profound longing. Again, the staging of the shots and the score play a big part in making the character work. There’s even a strange undercurrent of dark humour in his low-budget, Halloween-costume appearance.

Not every element of the film works – the second half isn’t as well paced, and features a central plot point that isn’t wholly satisfactory – but in general, A Ghost Story works on the level it is aiming for: emotional depth. I was moved by the picture and felt it had things to say about loss and death. Two scenes involving Rooney Mara’s character will certainly stick with me: in one, she listens to headphones in two time periods, and the simple movement of an arm had me unable to hold back the tears; and a protracted scene in which the consumption of a pie becomes a tough and emotionally draining ordeal.

4/5

The film won’t be for everyone, but it’s a unique take on the ubiquitous cinematic theme of death and what happens after it, and deserves to be seen.

Film Review: Baby DriverFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 27 Jun 2017

For all his obvious talent and the high esteem in which he’s held by British audiences, Edgar Wright – director of the ‘Cornetto trilogy’, which began with Shaun of the Dead – has yet to make a bona fide international box office hit. Show the rest of this post…

He probably would’ve done if he’d stayed on as director and writer of Ant-Man, a project he left for creative reasons, but with the release of Baby Driver, the clamour around what the Edgar Wright Ant-Man film would’ve looked like fades rather into the background.

Baby Driver is Wright’s second attempt to crack the international mainstream market after Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a divisive film which I liked but some found difficult to get on with. Certainly the film was not a financial success, as with so many passion projects. Baby Driver, the story of a young man called ‘Baby’ (Ansel Elgort) who works as a getaway driver for a crook named Doc (Kevin Spacey), deserves to be Wright’s first smash – it’s an exuberant, infectiously entertaining film and, despite how ‘big’ a production it is, retains a sense of individuality.

Baby is a hero to cheer for, and Ansel Elgort makes him a likeable, witty presence

On the face of it Baby Driver looks like a heist movie, a genre hardly starved of entries, but Wright’s inventive script, with its music-obsessed antihero who constantly wears headphones to focus his mind, and his witty direction, which fleshes out Baby’s love of music so that it becomes part of the mechanics of the film itself, make this picture stand on its own. From the opening stages, in which the film embraces Baby’s musical obsession to the point that it visually and sonically interacts with it, to the later movements in which that relationship begins to break down, Baby is a hero to cheer for, and Elgort makes him a likeable, witty presence – adopting some of the moody cool of Ryan Gosling’s character inDrive, but with a more carefree attitude. The supporting cast of hired goons provides a colourful backdrop laced with both comedy and threat – from Jamie Foxx as the unpredictable Bats, to John Hamm and Eiza González as dangerous lovers.

The other significant cast member is Lily James, who is really great as Debora, the waitress with whom Baby forms a burgeoning relationship. Their interactions are a joy to watch, and there’s a short, standout segment in the second act depicting their courtship, which runs entirely on their chemistry and the witty script. If the final movement – which, though fun, is a little rushed and all-too-easily resolved – leaves this relationship a little underserved, it can be forgiven, because Wright ramps up the tension and thrills.

I haven’t even mentioned the numerous car chases, which are well shot and exciting, because for me the real action in Baby Driver took place in the dialogue; or indeed the excellent soundtrack, around which most of the action is choreographed. A common criticism of blockbusters these days is a perceived lack of wit or invention – the sense that big bu dgets and special effects are often used to paper over fundamental cracks. Baby Driver is an antidote to that feeling, and deserves to be one of the summer’s biggest hits.

4/5

Film Review: Dying Laughing

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 6 Jun 2017

The prospect of standing on a stage in front of strangers and trying to make them laugh is a terrifying one for most people, and is perhaps part of the reason why stand-up comedy is a good subject for documentary. Show the rest of this post…

It takes a special kind of person to want to do that, indeed to be able to do that, and Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood’s documentary Dying Laughing attempts to shed some light on who those people are, and why they put themselves through what for most of them seems to be a kind of beloved torture.

The film consists primarily of comedians – shot in monochrome in a basic setup – talking about their experiences on stage, and what makes them, and their art form, tick. Its treatment of the subject matter initially is fairly light, to the point of being somewhat unremarkable, but as the talking heads begin to discuss aspects such as hecklers and, most affectingly, the feeling of bombing onstage, it enters darker and more elucidatory territory, and becomes a vibrant, more interesting piece.

It helps that the majority of the talking heads are likeable people with interesting things to say. Bringing together a wide range of well- and lesser-known comics, including Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and Stewart Lee, the film’s diverse cast speak openly about themselves and their chosen profession. While many of the insights offered may not be revelatory, there are nevertheless moments of pathos and power in Dying Laughing, as well as some laughs – though perhaps fewer than you might expect, given the comic talent on show.

The film intercuts their observations with generic footage of crowds and street scenes, which doesn’t add a huge amount to proceedings and gives the film a somewhat televisual air, particularly at the beginning. The lack of footage of actual stand-up routines – whether was this was a decision borne of budget restrictions or artistic choice, I’m not sure – initially seemed like a chance missed, but as th e film moved towards its low key but rousing conclusion, I no longer felt the absence. The point of the film, after all, is that we are looking at an art form from behind the scenes.

3/5

Film Review: The Shepherd

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 1 Jun 2017

Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s The Shepherd (or El Pastor) is pitched somewhere between kitchen sink realism, the naturalist leanings of a Terrence Malick film, and slightly misjudged thriller. The result is a compelling, well acted drama that doesn’t quite live up to its own high standards. Show the rest of this post…

Miguel Martin plays Anselmo, a shepherd who leads a simple life outside a village. He’d previously been offered a property in the village but rejected it to go on living in his little house without heating or electricity, and only his dog, Pillo, for company. He drinks wine, he reads, he herds sheep. The film begins in deliberately gentle fashion, allowing us to ease into Anselmo’s genteel way of life, which is soon to be disturbed by a pair of developers who want to buy up the local farmland to build a modern housing development. Anselmo’s house, they tell him with straight faces, is where the squash courts will be. Unsurprisingly, Anselmo doesn’t want to sell – he likes his quiet life – and politely refuses. What he doesn’t count on is the disgruntlement his decision will cause in the local neighbourhood.

From that point onward, Anselmo’s sleepy lifestyle gets more and more regularly interrupted. We feel his frustration as the world outside his little farm brings itself to bear on his innocent existence. This manifests itself not only in the drama itself, but in the pacing, which picks up as Anselmo begins to feel more and more put upon.

Martin, who won the best actor award at Raindance, brings quiet grace to Anselmo – it’s not a showy role, nor one that demands a massive range, but crucially we warm to him as a protagonist. This feeling is helped by his pleasant but brief interactions with the village folk, in particular with Concha (a very warm, if sparsely used, Maribel Iglesias), who clearly has an interest in Anselmo that is only partially reciprocated.

In the final act, Burley moves the narrative into something approaching thriller territory, at which point the film begins to lose its sheen of believability. The tonal shift struck me as a slightly laboured attempt to inject excitement, and I found it dramatically unconvincing, while the abrupt ending felt like it was doing a disservice to a well-established character. It doesn’t help that there are one or two contrivances brought into the narrative, in particular one involving a well, which disrupt the pacing.

But despite those issues, I still enjoyed The Shepherd. It establishes a lov ely atmosphere in its first half, benefits from some good performances, and it looks and sounds great. It’s just a shame that the film departs with a sense of what might have been.

3/5

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