Mid90s (2019)

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This 1990’s set coming-of-age film is made by first time director Jonah Hill. You can definitely sense his comedic style influencing the way the characters speak but as a debut role behind the camera, does Hill give us something Superbad or is it an example of a Megamind to keep watch of?

13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives at home with his bully big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and mum Dabney (Katherine Waterston). After witnessing some older teenagers having fun skateboarding, Stevie decides to try his hand at the activity and in turn he makes friends with the crew, even if it does mean he starts skating down some dodgy roads.

The transition from indoor gamer Stevie to hanging out outside and christened ‘Sunburn’ is a swift yet glorious watch. He does the thing most youths did when they felt a phase was too babyish for them; he removes posters and adds up more grown up memorabilia and tries adult things in the hope of fitting in. What Jonah Hill does as writer/director is ensure the rite of passage is lovingly documented and the 90’s setting is pretty much the perfect, grungy backdrop to tell the story.

As if on its own wheels, this film shuttles by and with Nick Houy’s editing you really feel as if his life is injected with a dangerous spurt of energy. There is a party scene which opens with funky fresh cuts that snap along to the beat of the music and it isn’t just this which shows some sharp snips, the film has a few other, somewhat brutally effective edits enhanced by blasts of sound, which clatter in a shocking way.

‘Mid90s’ isn’t all fast paced masculinity though, there are a couple of touching moments portrayed in the bond between Sunburn and group leader and hopeful skater pro Ray. The way that Ray cares for and likes to see their new member get up and try again is great and they have a well written connection, especially in a silent and sunlit exchange where Ray fixes Stevie up with a new board.

It is a mostly solid bolt out of the gates from Hill, aside from one iffy scene at a house party that sees the li’l lead getting hit on by an older gal. Their age difference and following bases he ticks off are met with applause but it’s a tonally weird feeling scene, and if things were the other way around, with an older lad sexually advancing on a younger female then it’d be torn apart, but here it’s treated as a celebration and something a kid should go through to be deemed ‘cool’. Some may view it as harmless and a mildly amusing scene but it didn’t sit right with me.

Suljic is a fantastic actor with his youth shining through in the desired places and this childlike wonder adds flavour to his more grown up language and actions. He has this puppy dog loyalty that he acts wonderfully as he plays in a new gang. These sunnier parts are contrasted by some darker elements of his personal life which he attacks with no reserve.

Even if skateboarding was never your scene, Jonah Hill writes and directs a film with a neat focus on angst, awkwardness, puberty, brotherly fights and trying to fit in, without ever really messing any of those qualities up. ‘Mid90s’ is a coming-of-age movie rife with skater-boi law breaking and growing pains, which thoroughly reflect male childhood.

7/10

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Wild Rose (2019)

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The lead in this musical drama has the words ‘three chords and the truth’ tattooed on her arm. Here are three words and nothing but the truth about ‘Wild Rose’; authentic meaningful satisfaction. And another word because I cannot contain myself – outstanding.

Freed from jail after 12 months, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) returns to her mam and 2 children but the home sweet home life has never really suited her. She’s a boozer, a force that can’t be tamed and country music swells in her bloodstream. Rose-Lynn only wants to make a name for herself in Nashville but juggling a cleaning job and having a family brings up what really matters.

‘Wild Rose’ contains this inescapable family aspect and director Tom Harper ensures that the carefree Glaswegian antics never overshadow the true feeling of the story. Perhaps his work on shows like ‘This is England 86’ have helped him craft that narrowing in on struggling family units and it pays off wonderfully in this feature.

Rose-Lynn’s home life is engrossing in its richness and it serves as an ideal series of notes in her narrative songbook. By the time we reach the final showstopping moment, with the camera lingering on those closest to the aspirational singer, you’d have to possess no empathy to not be moved to tears by the destructive, yet beautiful smacks of power, heart and delight shown on screen.

In this movie, Glasgow itself becomes a character. It embodies life, entrapment, hope, pain and growth which Rose-Lynn mirrors in fine measure, this helps really make you understand her roots, so by the time she touches down in the shiny world of Nashville you cannot help but know this glittery city, overrun with similar dreamers may not be the oasis she yearned for after all.

Along the way, there are a few parts which sniff of almost whacking in obstacles every other scene, just to keep raising the stakes and adding weight to Rose-Lynn’s personal tug of war but the sheer majesty of her vocals instantly makes you forgive these minor broken strings, on an otherwise finely tuned film.

Jessie Buckley pours her absolute all into this role and therefore her character crackles with life and pure soul. She is wonderful at capturing a feisty energy and emoting Rose-Lynn’s struggles with heart-wrenching power. It’s not just running amok in Scotland and beyond that make her fun to watch, up on stage or on a webcam, Buckley is a firecracker with a voice which gives you goosebumps and can also soothe you with a twang of joy. Julie Walters is a marvellous treasure; her connection to Rose-Lynn and her children are magnificent and you utterly invest into every scene she appears in.

Music can be such a megaton of power and through the truth and storytelling qualities of the country scene, ‘Wild Rose’ is one of those musical gems with something to say and it’s leading lady is a rising star to be reckoned with.

8/10

 

Pet Sematary (2019)

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Stephen King’s ‘It’ was a box office smash and with Chapter 2 around the corner, his back catalogue is being mined for further cinematic attraction. This time we enter the land of the living dead, for a second go-around with ‘Pet Sematary’; an original came out in 1989. Thirty years between the two and this one has you calling out for it to be lowered in an unmarked grave.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved from Boston to a small town in Maine in the hope of slowing down a bit and having more time with their son and daughter. However, their new property means they own a huge amount of land, some of which is used as a local cemetery for pets and a place behind this could spell reanimated trouble for the family.

Jeff Buhler’s screenplay leaves you with so many why questions; not because the film is cleverly subjective, posing you thoughts about what can be taken away from it personally, but because the script is far from tightly written and chucks up numerous fur-balls of dumb oversights. A large portion of Buhler’s adaptation makes no sense and/or provide whopping plot holes to dive into.

I have no doubt that the authors work goes into way more depth and broaches the gritty context of our mortality with better attack, but in terms of the movie it winds up skirting around deep issues and tosses in jump scares and many, many predictable story beats. A hissing cat with matted fur and creepy kids are always going to be horrifying images but that does not mean you can constantly rely on that to pray you’re a solid horror film; you must contain a burrowing sense of something extra below the surface, which the film has to begin with, but swiftly loses.

A birthday scene outside their new abode is well executed and certainly grips you with shocking tension, even if it’s overladen with slow-motion. There are also some neat early discussions about death and the afterlife which shine like rare beacons in a film that is otherwise a faulty bulb in need of a burial.

It’s irritating because what it has to say and tries to say about grief are meaty talking points but this is never rounded out to become a compelling, and engaging movie about that subject matter. The fear of dying is replaced by misty woods, masked children and a tribal land that could easily fit into the bleak, dull world of ‘The Nun’. Instead of being a serious topic with scary aspects it becomes an increasingly laughable, mildly serviceable horror flick.

Some people may find the whole thing nightmarish and lap it up like a feline to milk but the majority of it for me and especially the final five to ten minutes were presented in an unintentionally hilarious manner. ‘Pet Sematary‘ is more like kitty litter than frightening catnip to lose yourself to.

5/10

The Sisters Brothers (2019)

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On horseback, from Oregon to San Francisco comes this dark-comedy Western which may not exactly spring out the saloon doors but has enough cinematic artistry to prevent it blowing like some yawn-some tumbleweed in the breeze.

Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are the Sisters Brothers; a pair of assassins who are hired by a wealthy gent to track down and violently extract information from a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who may have a formula to aid finding gold.

It has to be said first of all, that the cast on display in this film are a magnificent bunch. The four main characters are extremely talented and put on a satisfying show, to really lure you into this well-worn world of Western dramatics. It’s a shame then that the film has multiple points where it attempts conflict and humour but doesn’t quite succeed on either.

Co-writers Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who worked together on ‘A Prophet’, manage to drop in some nice flourishes though. Be it Eli’s bedtime routine with a red shawl to the weakening state of his horse, it’s the character based details that triumph more than the whole. It’s a finely tuned exploration of connection and strife but the entire film does not quite echo that sentiment.

Glows of orange and yellows in the beautiful cinematography of a country landscape not only add wonder but it provides dusty intrigue to a tale about family. The film is strongest in the contemplative moments and self-reflection from the brothers. Eli and Charlie are a great representation of sibling life; they bicker, fight, laugh and ultimately they support each other. The gorgeous deserts, hills, streams and towns appear almost like painted backdrops for the pair to play in front of.

Even if the film doesn’t hold court from beginning to end, the final short scene is perhaps the most delightful and saves the long wait to get there. We witness a lovely, homely set-up which perfectly demonstrates the relationship of the Sisters Brothers. A use of a near un-edited tracking shot, flowing through this last sequence adds to the calm denouement.

Phoenix is energetic and feels like the Joker of the duo, he is blissfully happy to follow orders, drink and kill whereas Reilly does well in the more thoughtful role, Eli is a man of aspiration and love. Together, the actors provide splendid yin and yang.

Gold shimmers, guns crackle and horses gallop in a story which strides down a much beaten Western trail but thanks to a brotherly bond, the film however long in its journey, is an interesting one.

6.5/10

Dumbo (2019)

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Another Disney remake is in town, though this time it tries something different to show off because it’s inspired from the short 64 minute run-time of 1941’s ‘Dumbo’. This grants filmmaker Tim Burton the chance to go above and beyond, but does he?

The Medici Brothers Circus; led by Max (Danny DeVito) pulls in punters across America and with the arrival of a new baby elephant he hopes to show off a new hot attraction. However, this cute calf has freakishly large ears which two young children learn can help him fly. The arrival of Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an owner of a hugely popular amusement park sees Max, Dumbo and his circus troupe hit bigger but more troubling heights.

Considering this film has the zany, possibly former brilliance of Burton behind the camera, you’d expect the element of circus life, freaks and outcasts to be right up his twisted street but this quickly becomes a movie that fails to soar, and is far from the engagingly dark and playful retelling it should be.

Calling it boring would be a smidge too harsh but it definitely drags its lumbering ears throughout and feels like a movie that never, ever needed to be remade; the extra story feels totally wasted and unexciting. It’s a Disney big-top event which will have you almost wanting a refund on your ticket, unless you’re a teeny tot amused by the antics of li’l Dumbo.

To be fair, there are some good aspects. A final shot is awesome and is jaw droppingly beautiful in the way it stirs up ‘Planet Earth’ vibes with a lick of paint from the House of Mouse. The baby elephant himself is captivating as heck it has to be said, the CG animators have created life in the eyes of Dumbo, his dopey blue sparklers and his adorable smile do wonders in loving this floppy-eared creature.

Now, more than the overstretched plot and plodding nature of it all comes my biggest disappointment with the movie. The Pink Elephants on Parade portion may as well be non-existent because what this family feature does is present a dull, short bubble show devoid of any trippy quality which Tim Burton was 100% the man to provide. The classic cartoon from the very start of the 40’s still manages to be one of the most amazingly animated excursions into weird hallucinogenic wonder, but if you’re eagerly awaiting a clever, twisted take on that sequence then leave your expectations at the door.

DeVito is as DeVito as ever and the boisterous mannerisms are greatly played. Colin Farrell seems to limp and whine through in a role that sees him struggling to be dad and performer, till the obvious latter stage breakthrough. Keaton puts on what I can only assume is a drawl of an accent to seem showy but it’s distinctly odd and he’s far from an excellent villain, in fact some earlier Rufus character possessed more sneer than the Dreamland owner.

1941’s ‘Dumbo’ had you believing an elephant can fly and now in 2019 he jets off again but this re-imagining is grounded thanks to having next to zero oomph and spirit and the unshakeable fact that it never needed to be made.

5/10

Us (2019)

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‘Get Out’ saw Jordan Peele step onto the movie scene in the most exciting way. ‘Us’ might not be as strong a movie as his 2017 debut but it still confirms him as a necessary cinematic voice and exceptional visionary.

Holidaying to a beach house are the Wilson family and whilst dad Gabriel (Winston Duke) hopes to revel in the fun of summer, his wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is concerned about the location due to a dark moment from her childhood. One night, Adelaide, Gabriel and their two children are terrorised by a sinister family who look just like them.

What Peele does so well is devise really interesting takes on genre movies. Horror can be a cheap, stale affair laden with jump-scares but with the racial and political angle skewed throughout ‘Get Out’ and now with this fear of what lies beneath our very own skin taken to extreme measures, Peele solidifies himself as an intelligent creator to keep an eye on and anticipate his next step.

It isn’t solely his idea that works but the content of his dreams; the mixture of suspense, blood-curdling unease and comedy throughout ‘Us’ is a perfect recipe, so it’s a fine shame that the entire film isn’t as impeccable a prescription. Around 30 minutes before the end, the movie starts losing its way mostly because it’s like Peele has mishandled his grasp of the pacing and his twinning horror takes over. It’s as the fearsome folk in red are explained more in somewhat patronising terms that Peele’s second feature grows less focused and tries shovelling a lot in; so much so that however enjoyable the end product is, ‘Us’ is a movie that 100% calls for repeat viewings because not all of it can be delightfully discerned in one sitting.

On the plus side, it is a horror film with chills ringing out from it’s very heart. The atmosphere on the most part is suitably creepy and the house invasion portion is a masterclass in building and then sustaining tension. The family (who don’t wield the golden scissors) possess a wonderful dynamic, their banter, kill list arguments, ups and downs and car journeys truly make you buy into their unit then you have each of their nightmarish reflections, who are not just guaranteed 2019 Halloween costumes but spine-tingling comments on the nature of doppelgangers and our inner evil.

Nyong’o is divine as the matriarch of the family, she is categorically untouchable as a performer through the film; with both sides of the Adelaide coin being flipped wonderfully. If horror were more recognised by the Academy, Lupita Nyong’o would be a shoe-in for a golden nomination because her performance draws you in like some hypnotic trance and you can’t look away from the screen as both versions of her absolutely dominate.

If it wasn’t for the last stages spewing over into something that expands too much and weakens the stone-hard grip on the Wilson quad, then ‘Us’ would no doubt have been a favourite film of mine for years to come, though as it stands, it’s still a delectable horror with chilling music, well-scripted thrills and comedy.

7.5/10

Ben is Back (2019)

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I’m sure that director Peter Hedges is a proud father of his son Lucas, who in the last few years has been a rising star of great skill, and now they team up for this drama, which sees Peter close a 6 year gap from being behind the camera for a feature length.

It’s almost Christmas and after returning from church, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) finds her son on the doorstep. Ben (Lucas Hedges) has suffered with drug addiction for many years and has returned from rehab but even though Holly sees it as a perfect miracle not all the family can believe his appearance will be a good thing.

Setting this film around the snowy traces of New York and the Burns’ suburban home do well in constructing a nice festive mood to ease you into the drama. This wintry vibe makes the later troubles hit like a hammer of darkness and accentuates the family ache of a son who has bought about pain. The film does well in highlighting the great mix of feelings that each member of the family has towards Ben.

Considering that ‘Beautiful Boy’ was based on real memoirs, this film does a ton better in narrowing in on the resentments, agony and sentimental wounds inflicted by an addict on the people closest to them. Unlike that Steve Carell mopey, sop-fest, ‘Ben is Back’ feels like a much more resolute film in knowing how to sustain this monstrous shadow of drug temptation as a looming presence over even the shiniest Christmastime.

Granted, there are some spots of melodrama and most of that comes from the forceful score to make you well up or feel on edge but on the whole it is a movie which sits back in the comfort that its two leads will storm their way through the narrative with unrivalled clout. The final moment of the story should move even the most stony of hearts and further proves the force of talent within Roberts as an actor.

At one point in the narrative, Ben calls his mother out on trying too hard to start up her car to which she responds that is her job as a parent. This trait is perfectly played by Roberts who excels in demonstrating this doting mum slowly losing sight of her son and desperately trying to hold on. Hedges is such an engrossing performer, you cannot help but get drawn into every little expression of anger, fear and twitchy compulsion but the most impacting demonstration of his range is during a festive carol song. It’s a powerful sucker of a scene thanks to the vocals and poignancy of Kathryn Newton singing ‘O Holy Night’ and the wave of emotion shown by Hedges.

‘Ben is Back’ may take a while to warm up to the inevitable dilemmas faced by Holly but once a Christmas Eve drive begins, then Peter Hedges preserves a solid grip on the dynamic of mother and son.

7/10