Them That Follow (2019)

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This directorial debut from Dan Madison Savage & Britt Poulton goes in deep on character, but never achieves the desired heights of thrilling captivation it so needs to reflect the spirituality, snaking throughout the story.

Living within a remote wooded community are followers of a religious group led by Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins), who believe the ways of snakes are communications from the Lord. Lemuel’s daughter Mara (Alice Englert) harbours a secret which goes against everything the faith stands for.

The opening which sees Mara and her friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) walking a long, winding road before hitching a ride to a local store raises creepy suspense in the what if realm of possibilities. The potential for a dark kidnapping or burst of horror lurk on the fringes of, not just this moment but the entire film; yet sadly that punch of something gripping never actually comes to fruition.

‘Them That Follow’ instead becomes an almost dreary drama trying to be a thriller with talk of church and illicit romance. The backwater location looks the part but the majority of the plot is forgettable and dull. There’s this great feeling whilst watching the story that it’ll come to a halfway point and achieve a worthy payoff and hit a late, but welcome stride but that dream is shattered and all you receive is a waste of time.

True, your skin will crawl at times, especially if you suffer with ophidiophobia; the fear of snakes. It’s also true to say that the nature of this slippery, serpent-fuelled belief makes you on edge. The senses will rattle because their unbroken bond to a dangerous religion sees them go and make bold choices, even if that spells doom but aside from some desperate acts of testing faith in the final portion, this is a slow-moving creature with no flickering tongue of intrigue or poison bite of thrill.

The character acting is on point and the likes of Goggins, Olivia Colman and lead actor Englert bring you into the world but the less than interesting handling of the story takes you right back out.

4.5/10

 

Earthquake Bird (2019)

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Having its world premiere at the London Film Festival back in October and now available to stream on Netflix; is this sensual thriller with flashes of noir and an absorbing performance from lead actor Alicia Vikander.

Lucy Fly (Vikander) lives and works in Tokyo in the late 80’s as a translator, where she strikes up a connection with a photographer called Teiji (Naoki Koboyashi). Fly takes Lily Bridges (Riley Keough); an American newcomer to Japan under her wing but as we discover through police interviews, she is missing and Lucy is a prime suspect.

The character of Lucy Fly is an engrossing one, she is someone who believes death haunts her every move and this nature of bad omens is always close by, prickling the hairs on the back of your neck. It helps that Atticus and Leopold Ross have generated a swirling and sometimes sexual score to ensure a sense of something extra and shady bristles close to the surface.

Wash Westmoreland evidently knows his thriller genre well, he has studied and been inspired by the noir category, because he grants his film plenty of opportunity to be both stunningly saucy and snappily tense. The sharp cuts of pace with drumming parades or figures disappearing in underground stations are painted together with a stroke of artistry; all building a highly charged world with the photographic beauty of Japan as its backdrop.

Adapted from a Susanna Jones novel, the screenplay by Westmoreland weaves in a good amount of developing confusion. The backs and forth between the past and her present state under police interrogation have you questioning what she’s seen and/or done. The green eyed monster of jealousy and the fire of paranoia get amped up more throughout the plot, so even if some moments are predictable you cannot help but be on the edge of your seat.

It is a shame that Teiji isn’t rounded out too well and the development of his character goes into places that don’t feel deserved. Something about the role isn’t convincing but aside from this it cannot be denied that his connection to photography gives us black and white snapshots serving the story better than expositional words would. Also, the snapping of his camera becomes part and parcel of the suspenseful sounds in the film.

Learning to play cello and mastering Japanese, is there anything Vikander can’t do? This is a rhetorical question because she can do it all. She plays Lucy Fly; a woman running from her past, with the most expressive eyes, as if they’re buried with guilt. You can almost reach out and touch the painful effects of her psyche. She, Keough and Koboyashi as a trio are a collective force of erotically charged danger and their scenes give the film real bite.

‘Earthquake Bird’ lands a woman in the hot seat and swerves the usual femme fatale angle which is satisfyingly achieved. It might not be an out and out gripping thriller but there’s something absolutely alluring about seeing the main three cause some friction.

7/10

The Good Liar (2019)

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Who’d have thunk it? Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen have never appeared in a film together and what a way to bring them together for the first time. This thriller/drama sizzles with an affair of unequivocal curiosity with only a couple of missteps.

Meeting one another after connecting on a dating site, are Roy Courtnay (McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Mirren) who hope to find a truthful companionship. The honesty however is far from crystal clear as Roy likes a good swindle on the side and it becomes apparent that he’s hoping to guzzle a lot of money from Betty’s estate.

Like the clickety clack of typewriting through the opening credits, ‘The Good Liar’ develops an inky imprint of deception and great intrigue. Bill Condon directs the stage and screen twosome with impeccable skill, by milking out the best captivating trickery possible; he knows how to keep a level of shadiness at mountainous highs. The film appears like the best of the con genre and thanks to his direction and sublime acting you’re gripped from the outset.

There’s a defined ambience of suspicion throughout the picture, as if this unmistakable untrustworthy flavour is ready to be devoured by watching it unfold. You will feel your eyes narrowing with thought as the third act and its duplicitous motives take flight. The truths and secrets are fascinating and though some twists are predictable there are turns which you won’t expect.

I could honestly listen to McKellen and Mirren conversing for days on end. There is a warmth in their early rapport and even if you know not all is plain sailing, there’s a deep-rooted artistry to their connection. They are a pair of immensely talented actors and the scenes of which they share couldn’t feel any safer and compelling to watch.

The former is a figure of shadowy lies and with a single flicker within his facial expressions or a slight slump in his shoulders you see both sides of his conniving coin. There’s a mesmerising nature ingrained within his take on the role. The latter could be viewed as a passenger for a while but thanks to the effortless skill of her talent she plays this homely widowed woman with no fooling you that something more may be hidden away under her beige appearance.

The duo are perfection personified and with anyone else the script; with a couple of hustling moments or flashbacks which are lain on too thick, could have been less than enticing. ‘The Good Liar’ is a product which you cannot help buying into and with some dark steps along the way you are in for a rollicking ride of second-guessing.

It’s a glossy show where everyone plays their part and thanks to the headline thespian power of McKellen and Mirren, you’ll be a sucker for it all.

7.5/10

Gemini Man (2019)

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This action idea was birthed back in 1997 and now over twenty years on it’s evident why it took so long to get made and you’ll wonder why it ever did, because even with Ang Lee directing, this is something that doesn’t reach the heights of a premise which isn’t even that unique.

Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is a for-hire assassin who wishes to retire but when he receives intel that a recent kill has more secrets than expected, he has to flee his home and with the aide of agent Dani (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), they hope to find out the truth. Unluckily for Brogan, a Gemini project has sent a highly skilled killer (also Smith) after them.

Obviously when conceived back in the late 90’s, this story would have been ripe for the times and something interestingly different but now it hasn’t even got that going for it. The only reason for its existence is because the technology is available to de-age a star and have them play in the film twice. This uncanny valley thing is a model becoming more frequent within movies as utilised nicely in ‘Captain Marvel’, but when in close-up the CGI rendering of young Will Smith is smoothed to gross levels. There’s something in the way his mouth moves that looks like a 2010 video game cut-scene and is extremely off-putting.

In terms of the action itself, then you’re in for a bad trip to the cinema because there aren’t any set pieces which stand up to the test of memory. There’s a motorbike chase but Tom Cruise has zero to worry about because everything is frenetic and when Smith doesn’t die after taking an accelerated tyre to the face you know how much suspension of disbelief to contain. Later on, in the catacombs of Budapest everything becomes a scrambling mess as the two Wills tussle into skulls. All you can do is squint as Winstead is left as a light source on a choppily edited fight where you cannot make heads or tails who’s beating up who.

The movie only looks nicely framed in places because of them jetting to Budapest. It’s clearly an excuse to muster production in a stunning albeit cheap city but all the characters do there is talk. If I didn’t love the Hungarian capital so much, I’d give this film an even lower rating. There really is not anything about the story that stands out, everything is predictable and with one of the ‘Game of Thrones’ writers behind this screenplay you can understand the absence of sense or strength behind this film.

Backgrounds and foregrounds look oddly shoddy with this film, Ang Lee’s desire for the High Frame Rate makes the standard showing of the movie a glaringly distracting one. It’s as if nothing sits quite right within the world of the movie and not even some good tension in the opening of the movie or Smith’s dual performance can save the film from being a marketing tactic coasting on the fact that it has a Smith dual performance.

‘Gemini Man’ is a two-handed disappointment of being disappointing and underwhelming. There’s a general air of average quality surrounding the entire idea.

5/10

Joker (2019)

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DC and Warner Bros. send in the clown for this Joker origin story; one set apart from the established DCEU and one that has been a hot topic during it’s festival run where it landed the major Golden Lion trophy in Venice. This film is definitely one that’ll get people talking but is it for the right reasons?

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown with dreams of being a comedian but instead has to undertake menial jobs around Gotham City and look after his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy). After being beaten on a metro train, Arthur rises from his depressing state and begins a new birth of violent terror that sweeps through the city and sees him become the Joker.

Moving away from comedies like ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Old School’, is Todd Phillips who clearly models this super-villain tale on the Martin Scorcese pictures of the 1970’s. The cinema of old with the gangster vibes and the civilian violence echoing ‘Taxi Driver’, mixed with our new and frankly scary environment of American mass shooters creates a bold and disturbing story.

What works insanely well about this movie is the feeling that you can’t overlap it into any other comic book film that we’ve come to grow familiar with in the last 10+ years. ‘Joker’ is a fresh angle on the genre, what with it’s early 80’s setting, the lack of any pigeonholing to tie it in with the DCEU and an out-and-out sense that this triumphs as a startling stand alone flick.

The film is extremely heavy on close ups which shoves you into the worrying world of Arthur. It’s almost as if we’re holding his hand alongside the descent into psychopathic carnage, set about by how society views people like him. The treatment of mental illness is a tricky one as it sort of gives explanation to the real-life white men who pick up a gun and kill innocents and in an alarming way this film does almost feel celebratory of a man unhinged.

Mob mentality and civil unrest take hold and before long, the New York style of Gotham City are rife with aggressive protesters. This is all thanks to an unknowing Arthur, whose fate and figure are painted out in front of him thanks to a brutal sequence of events. The film gives us sanity to the insanity as the script sympathises with why Fleck goes the way he does, which both feels unnerving and takes away from the mystery and reckless chaotic nature of the Joker doing what he does just for the sake of it.

Saying this, the man with the bleeding smile is a force of unattainable talent. Joaquin Phoenix drops the pounds and puts on a happy face to build up a seriously chilling man on the edge. Arthur Fleck takes part in a post-murder meditative routine and further on he calms down the craziness around him with dance inflections that are perfectly jarring. The incessant cackling and staring eyes, glistening with distracted disorder set within the green hair and red suit are an image you won’t forget. Phoenix makes sure his Joker is not like the others and relinquishes true uncomfortable terror.

‘Joker’ is a slow-burner of captivating unease; with a fascinating central performance, a gritty 70’s inspired atmosphere and a score which pricks up the hairs on your skin as if anything can happen around the corner when Arthur is present. It’s a film that some will adore, some will dislike but it’ll provoke all to a sensory reaction.

7.5/10

The Informer (2019)

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This British crime thriller possesses more than an ounce of the chills bleeding through the ‘Sicario’ movies and it’s no surprise, considering a producer for the Emily Blunt led masterpiece is a part of the team behind this 2019 feature, but in the skyscraping landscape of New York does ‘The Informer’ work on its own merit or is it a bad knock-off?

Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) a former soldier then inmate now finds himself aiding the FBI under the watch of Wilcox (Rosamund Pike), as she hopes to take down a Polish drug lord called the General. However, once a cop is killed, Koslow is in the firing line and sent to prison where he hopes to complete one more task, finally be done and live with his family.

The narrative is adapted from a Swedish novel entitled ‘Three Seconds’; about a similar entrapping set of circumstances with an informer being used by officials. Screenwriter Matt Cook and director Andrea Di Stefano create a suitably bleak, fearful environment in this cinematic retelling. There are greys of the corporate FBI scene which meld into the concrete tones of Bale Hill prison. The two worlds are both harsh and unfair in their own right, together they drive forward with differing yet equally compelling motives in a story that bounces between sides.

Koslow isn’t just a mere drug runner, his background means he’s more than equipped to handle unexpected curves but with the dodgy self-interest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation marking him as someone to possibly kick to the curb, he becomes a man on the edge. This movie is a deeply interesting watch because of the collection of trails that peel off from the ongoing drama of Koslow. An NYPD detective, shady FBI folk, Polish gangsters, dangerous prisoners and Pete’s wife and child make for an engaging watch that is both smart and cruel.

What ‘The Informer’ does really well is sustain a murky push and pull of police/government tactics which run alongside the muscled motivation of Koslow pursuing a proof of innocence. This in-it-for-themselves approach of the FBI is just the beginning of a film dripping in tension and it’s no more felt in a thrilling prison sequence decked out with gangs, shivs, hand-offs, threats and backtracking deals.

Kinnaman plays the giant yet sharply capable Pete with ease but he does ensure the marksman side aggression of his character is balanced by a softer side, one of desperation as he claws to a hopeful freedom. If Kinnaman is the strength then Ana de Armas is the heart; she is the perfect emotional side of the plot, providing fear and sadness as she’s swept up in the events of her husband’s life and it’s her innocence that has you rooting for Koslow’s success.

‘The Informer’ might be a touch slow to start but there’s something resolutely gripping in its focus of numerous angles playing on a man subjected to outside influencers.

7.5/10

Anna (2019)

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‘Leon: The Professional’ director Luc Besson hasn’t come up with something good since the first 20 minutes of ‘Lucy’, will another film with a four lettered name in the title be the return to form he needs or should ‘Anna’ be sent to the gulag?

At a Moscow market, Anna (Sasha Luss) is picked up by a model scout and jets off to Paris. Though it soon becomes clear she’s working for the KGB and under tutorage from Olga (Helen Mirren) she racks up the kills, but this grabs the attention of CIA agent Leonard (Cillian Murphy) and Anna is stuck in the middle of two opposing sides.

A film with a strong female lead is thankfully becoming more the norm but there’s something about this film; which stars a strong and combat ready woman, that doesn’t feel like it would be empowering. Luc Besson instead hands his film a near constant male gaze with Anna serving kicks and spills but also serving as a figure to be gawped at. The skills of this Russian pro are evident but you can’t help but feel they’re overshadowed by the fact she’s dressed up and mostly down to flaunt flesh and look sexy whilst dispatching numerous henchmen.

If ‘Anna’ had been released 15 years ago, then 2004 audiences would likely be more receptive. It would be a better, more explosive spy flick but as it is, here in 2019, the movie sits like off-brand vodka. It’s a film with nothing original; there’s nothing in her take-downs or style that we haven’t seen before, even with the sleek Vogue gloss mirroring her modelling looks, this story is less than fresh.

An early restaurant brawl does neatly showcase Sasha Luss as a capable and kick-ass lead and it is the point in the film where you sort of feel the narrative and action is getting into its groove. That thought is short lived however, as it soon reverts back to fairly lame spy thriller tropes and generally it screams like Besson thinks his script is cleverer than it is; the annoying time jumps and twists are not anything to write home about. Only an INXS song injects a lively section of energy and their bop punctuates through a ridiculous but enjoyable montage.

Luss does grace the screen with a believable strength and she proves to be a model, not just with killer heels but killer moves too. The coldness to her expression is very Russian and there’s no denying she’s cool and hot but not even her convincing whip-smart assassin tricks, proven further in an embassy escape, can save this film from being cheesy and only mildly entertaining.

Dodgy Russian accents, overly sexualised visuals and a run of the mill screenplay make this a tepid watch, one that keeps Besson on trend of producing poor movies and at this point his EuropaCorp brand should be re-titled You’reOverCorp.

4.5/10