Film Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

***No final plot spoilers***

It has been some time since I watched a western, but this one was on TV with no advertisement breaks, and the cast list appealed to me. This is an adaptation of a novel. I haven’t read the book, so will not be commenting if it is true to the original story.

1851, and the Gold Rush is in full swing on the west coast of America. A powerful and mysterious man, known only as The Commodore, sends two hired killers on a mission to find and kill a man named Warm. They are the mis-matched brothers named Eli and Charlie Sisters.

Meanwhile, The Commodore has engaged the services of a well-spoken and efficient private detective. His name is John Morris, and he is on the trail of Warm, so he can find him and hold him captive until the brothers arrive to do the dirty work. Warm has a secret chemical formula for identifying gold under water at night. The Commodore wants Eli and Charlie to torture the chemist, write down the formula, and then kill him.

So the quest begins.

We soon discover that Charlie is a quick-tempered drunkard, who is ready to cause trouble and shoot off his gun at every opportunity. By contrast, older brother Eli is a relatively gentle person, pining for his beloved schoolteacher, who he had to leave behind in their home town. Morris finds Warm and pretends to become his friend, waiting for the opportunity to detain him pending the brothers’ arrival.

But they are delayed by all kinds of obstacles. One of their horses is attacked by a bear, and while sleeping one night, Eli is bitten by a huge spider, almost dying from the poisonous bite. When they finally arrive at the rendezvous in Jacksonville, they learn that Morris and Warm have teamed up, and fled to the gold fields. In the next town, they are betrayed by a conniving female saloon-keeper, and have to shoot their way out to freedom.

When they finally catch up with the chemist and the detctive in the California gold fields, things do not turn out as the viewer might suspect.

So, back to that casting, which made me watch the film in the first place.

John C Reilly is the older brother, Eli. Always a reliable actor, and completely convincing as the ruthless killer with a warm heart inside. His brother Charlie is played by Joaquin Phoenix. I can often take or leave that actor, and in this film I didn’t think it mattered who played the brother. Being aggressive and acting drunk has been done by many before, and some have done it better.

British actor Riz Ahmed plays the chemist, Warm. Again, he does a good enough job, but I could have thought of a dozen others who would have done it just as well. Rutger Hauer, near the end of his life, has a mere cameo role as The Commodore. His longest scene is in a coffin, so his talent was rather wasted.

It turned out to be Jake Gyllenhall who stole the film for me, a close second to John C Reilly. His erudite detective was a compelling character portrayal, and I would have liked to have seen even more of him in that film.

Full marks for historical accuracy too. From the saloon interiors, the costume department, and even the weapons used by everyone totin’ a gun.

Cinematography was first rate, as the film is undoubtedly ‘photographed’. It is a film of two halves in many ways, and the second half is far superior to the first. So, stick with it, and you will be rewarded by the latter section. By the way, the soundtrack is really good!

Far from being a landmark film, but better than many I have seen in the same genre.

(The first 25 seconds of this trailer is intentionally dark)

Film Review: Venom (2018)

**No Spoilers**

I don’t usually watch any films associated with the Marvel franchise, but this one was on TV. Tom Hardy is in it, and so is Riz Ahmed, both excellent British actors. So I recorded it, and then forgot about it.

Then last night, Julie went out with a friend, so I flicked through the recordings on the PVR and decided to give it a go.

This will be a short review.

A wicked businessman is funding space explorations. He discovers aliens, and brings them back to carry out experiments using their tissue.
(Which looks a lot like fast-moving congealed spaghetti, in various colours)

Some of his test subjects die, but others get super powers.

Tom Hardy plays a hard-hitting investigative reporter who gets fired for an aggressive interview of Riz Ahmed’s wicked businessman, losing his girlfriend in the process.

At some point in the film, Tom becomes infected. He survives, and is now host to an alien that speaks to him in English, and is able to take over his body when it likes.

Cue a great deal of CGI and special effects, a lot of chasing around, and few bad people getting their heads bitten off by the alien.

You can guess the rest.

If you like this kind of thing more than I do, and don’t mind actors of great talent wasting their time to earn the big bucks, here’s a trailer.

Film Review: My Cousin Rachel (2017)

***No spoilers***

This is the second film adaptation of Daphne Du Marier’s novel. The first was in 1952, starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, I have never seen the 1952 version, so the modern remake is spared my usual complaint about remakes on this occasion.

It is an historical romantic drama, set in England and Italy during the early 19th century. Trying to avoid spoilers, I can only give a vague outline of the plot. A young orphan is taken in and raised by his cousin, living a comfortable life in 1830s Cornwall. Philip adores Ambrose, the older relative, who is exceptionally kind to him.

Ambrose decides to travel to Italy, to improve his health in the sunny climate. Philip is left in the care of his godfather, Mr Kendall, and his daughter Louise. She grows very close to Philip, and expects that one day they will marry. News arrives from Italy. Ambrose has fallen madly in love with a widow named Rachel, and they are married. She also happens to be a distant cousin of the family.

Very soon, letters arrive from Philip. His illness is becoming worse, and he suspects Rachel and her lawyer friend, Mr Rainaldi, of colluding to poison him. Young Philip is worried, so makes the long journey to Florence to confront Rachel. On arrival, he is devastated to discover that Ambrose is dead and buried. Rachel has left the country, and the lawyer Rainaldi tells him she has left everything to him, in accordance with Ambrose’s original will.

Not long after he returns to England, Rachel arrives at the family home in Cornwall. Philip is immediately smitten by the beauty of the older woman, and begins to lavish gifts and attention on her, much to the chagrin of Mr Kendall, and his daughter Louise. He tells Rachel he wants her to have the inheritance, as Ambrose’s widow, but she declines. Eventually, he forces it on her legally, along with the extensive collection of jewels once owned by his mother.

But he soon starts to become ill, with similar symptoms to those suffered by cousin Ambrose. Then he finds letters in a trunk of books left by Ambrose, and becomes convinced that Rachel is guilty. She stalls his concerns by becoming his lover, but the tension builds when she refuses to marry him.

That’s it for the story. I will say it has a satisfying twist that I suspected, but still enjoyed. Period detail is wonderful, and the casting feels just perfect too. Rachel Weisz as Rachel is simply lovely to look at, as well as playing her role to perfection. Sam Clafin is very convincing as the naive, love-struck young man, and the under-used Iain Glen strikes just the right note as the concerned godfather.

An exceptionally good film that I enjoyed much more than I expected to.

(For the information of UK readers, this should be available free on All4, the Channel 4 streaming service.)

Here’s a trailer.

Film Review: Black KkKlansman (2018)

**No Spoilers**

I used to be a big fan of the work of American film-maker, Spike Lee. Over the past few years, I seem to have missed a lot of his releases, and I got a bit miffed with him for remaking the wonderful Korean film ‘Old Boy’ for no good reason.

When ‘Black KkKlansman’ came along in 2018, I was intrigued to discover it was a true story, and there was a lot of praise from both critics and audiences for this historical take on one policeman’s story. Last week, it was on TV here, so I decided to watch it.

If you don’t know about the real events, they concern the first-ever black policeman to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department, in 1972. Ron Stallworth was a college educated man who sported a large afro hairdo, and had a desire to become a police officer. Most of his colleagues are overtly racist, so the police chief sticks Ron in the boring job of the Records Office, where he is subject to racist abuse and intimidation by many of the white officers.

When he applies to become an undercover detective, that coincides with a visit to the city by black power activist, Stokely Carmichael. The chief sees an opportunity to use Ron to infiltrate Carmichael’s supporters, and he does a good job getting to know them and being accepted by them.

Following this, Ron is reassigned to Intelligence, and cheekily decides to apply to join the Ku Klux Klan, the racist group very active at the time. He does all this over the telephone, but when the local KKK organiser insists on meeting him, he has to get a white colleague to impersonate him. The added difficulty is that his colleague is Jewish, and must hide that fact from the other KKK members he meets.

With no spoilers, that’s the plot.

This is a long film, over two hours forty minutes on the TV version I watched. It covers a deception that leads right up to the then head of the KKK, David Duke, and has much to say about racism in America at the time, in the 21st century, and in an historical context. It uses clips from the film ‘Birth of A Nation’, as well as photos from lynchings and murders of black men in the past, and at times has a documentary feel.

During the scenes when the undercover cops face the danger of being discovered by other KKK members there is genuine tension, and the 1970s setting is very well rendered, with clothes, vehicles, and sets all feeling authentic. Casting is good too, with John David Washington as Ron, Adam Driver as his Jewish undercover colleague, and Michael Buschemi (looking uncannily like his brother Steve) as the third member of the team. Harry Belafonte makes a dignified appearance as Jerome Turner, and Topher Grace is a good choice for David Duke.

I wanted to really like this film. It is an important subject, and we all know that the KKK is still very active today, emboldened by the Trump years.

But, there’s a big BUT.

Parts of the film are played as a comedy. I got the feeling at times that Washington was channelling a young Richard Pryor. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there is anything remotely amusing about the KKK. And for that reason alone, I was left feeling very disappointed.

But you might like it, so here’s a trailer.

Film Review: Destroyer (2018)

Another 2018 film that had escaped my notice, until it arrived on the BBC recently. Nicole Kidman starring? That has to be worth watching.

**No spoilers**

Kidman plays a haggard LAPD police detective in a film that runs along two time lines. In 2018, she is worn out, drunk most of the time, and unpopular with her colleagues. She is almost unrecognisable as Nicole Kidman too, with clever use of prosthetic make-up, and a very gruff voice. The 2002 part of the story brings us a more familiar Nicole, as her and her partner are undercover police officers, infiltrating a dangerous gang of bank robbers.

The two time periods swap from scene to scene, so make sure you are wide awake when watching.

Essentially, this is a revenge thriller. In 2002, the detective and her partner are going along undercover on a robbery. Something goes badly wrong, leaving her shaken and disillusioned. Then in 2018, she receives a message that brings it all back, and goes on a one-woman revenge spree to find the leader of the gang from back in the day.

Unfortunately, it comes with a lot of well-used plot devices.

*She has spilt from her husband.
*She doesn’t get on with her teenage stepdaughter, who runs around with older men and refuses to behave.
*She keeps her detective partner in the dark about what she is doing, and ignores requests from her superior officers to report in.
*There is a hint at something dark in her past that is slowly revealed.
*She operates a ‘Dirty Harry’ style of justice for anyone she finds connected to the gang.

For a lot of the film I was thinking, ‘Seen it all before’.

Of course, the fact it is a female detective and not a male one is something different, but otherwise it is situation normal for a modern cop-thriller.

BUT.

Very close to the end, something great happens. The film turns full circle, and we realise that what we have been watching wasn’t exactly what we thought it was.

Just for that, it was worth watching. It really was.

Despite the fairly large cast, it is definitely a one-woman film. Kidman is in every scene, and dominates those scenes. She is physical, no-nonsense yet vulnerable, and perfectly credible throughout. Probably why she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.

Film Review: The Old Man And The Gun (2018)

I had never heard of this film, but reading through the TV guide, I spotted the cast. Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, and Keith Carradine. They were all pretty old by 2018 when this film was released, and they had been brought together to film this true story of one of America’s most prolific bank robbers and prison escapers, Forrest Tucker.

Free to watch, so why not?

Most of the film is set during the 1980s, with minimal flashbacks to establish some of the back story. Forrest is a gentleman bank robber. He passes notes across the counter, telling the clerk there is a bank robbery in progress, and he has a gun. Sometimes, he shows the gun, just to convince them he is serious. They are usually bemused. Here is a smartly dressed old man, smiling and affable, yet he is robbing their bank. They fill his case with money, and he strolls out tipping his hat and smiling as he goes.

We see Forrest carrying out some meticulous planning. For bigger jobs, he takes along his sidekicks to help with diversions, driving, or just carrying the loot. He appears to have no wife, and no romantic connection that stops him traversing the country to carry out robberies in many different states.

Then one day, he meets an elderly widow, Jewel. (Spacek) He likes her from the start, and she obviously likes him. Her car has broken down, and he gives her a lift home, discovering that she lives on a heavily-mortgaged horse ranch. She could sell, but loves her horses enough to want to stay.

What follows is a gentle film, as gentle as the bank robber, Forrest. There are no shoot-outs, and the only car chases are short, and in flashback. Forrest cannot stop himself robbing banks. Despite falling for Jewel, he continues his crime spree, and comes to the notice of Dallas detective, John Hunt. (Casey Affleck) He slowly begins to put the pieces together, and is soon on the trail of the elusive Forrest and his cronies. Then the FBI gets involved, and the search is on.

Okay, with no spoilers, that’s about it. Redford gives an easy, almost sleepy performance as Forrest. He is very ‘Redford’ throughout, and his role is not too taxing. Danny Glover and Tom Waits do solid jobs as his occasional partners, and Sissy Spacek is perfectly cast as the elderly love interest. For me, Casey Affleck stood out, as the determined cop who is actually thinking of quitting the force, but his enthusiasm is rekindled by his hunt for the gang of old guys. I think he is constantly underrated, and should get more starring roles. And the always reliable Elizabeth Moss makes the very best of a small role as the daughter Forrest never knew he had.

Don’t expect any excitement, and you won’t be disappointed. Just enjoy some old actors close to the end of their careers, and a couple of young ones who have much more to offer yet.

Film Review: Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

I am not a sports fan. That marks me out as weird, in England. The European football championships are on TV. Most days, they are on both sides, no matter how obscure the match, or which teams are playing. So when I settle down in the evening, I have to search the channels that do not show sport for something to watch.

That is how I found this film, which I had never heard of before, for some reason. (British readers should be able to find this for free, on ‘All-4’.)

**Update** Fraggle has just reminded me that I read a review of this film on her blog. I had completely forgotten that, which is worrying! Apologies to her. https://fragglesotherplace.com/2020/03/02/march-2nd-movie-monday/

***No spoilers***

The action begins in 1969, at a hotel that once played host to high-rollers and famous people. The El Royale straddles the border between California and Nevada, with the state line quite literally running through the centre of the building. Its glory has long-faded, and the location off the beaten track no longer attracts holiday-makers and gamblers to the area around Reno and Lake Tahoe.

Ten years earlier, something happened at the hotel. An event that will bring a small group of strangers together on a rainy night.

Scene-setting begins with the separate arrivals of a Priest, and a black woman. Inside the hotel, they find a vacuum cleaner salesman waiting in the huge lobby. He is noisy and brash, and explains to them that there is no clerk around, despite having rung the bell on the counter numerous times.

When the young clerk finally shows up, we soon discover that he is the only person working there. He also cleans the rooms, serves at the bar, and does anything else that needs doing. He actively tries to discourage them from taking rooms, but they all insist on booking in.

Then an edgy young woman shows up, also looking for a room. She is rude and aggressive, for no good reason.

Once each person receives their key, we begin to find out why they are there, and get each backstory through flashbacks. Not only does each one of them have their own secrets and demons, the hotel itself is keeping a darker secret from all of them. And not one of the characters is who they appear to be on the surface, including the clerk. The tension builds as they interact, and it becomes clear that something bad is going to happen.

And it does.

Sorry, but without spoilers that’s it. I can tell you that this is very much ‘film noir’ for the 21st century, despite the often lurid use of colour. The script is spot on, the sets of the hotel are simply amazing, and the pop-music of the era soundtrack is a complete delight. Everyone in the small cast plays their role to perfection, and even after the ‘reveal’, there are still enough surprises in store to keep your attention in quite a long film.

The flashbacks are very well done, and not remotely confusing. Period feel is completely authentic throughout, as are costume and vehicles. That cast includes Jeff Bridges as The Priest, Dakota Johnson as the edgy woman, John Hamm as the vacuum cleaner salesman, and Chris Hemsworth as a nasty man who shows up later. And it’s a great cast!

This feels like the Quentin Tarantino film that Quentin didn’t get around to making. Quirky, occasionally violent, and all to a soundtrack of appropriate music, it has his hallmarks. It’s certainly as good as most of his offerings, and better than some. On release, it flopped, and lost money on its budget. Despite critical acclaim, the public stayed away. Maybe because the director was Drew Goddard, and not Tarantino.

Me? I loved it! It looks good, and it is as good as it looks.

Here’s a trailer.

Mythaxis Review: Sci-Fi And The Environment

Mythaxis Review Magazine has a feature on Stanley Chen. His new book (and forthcoming film) ‘Waste Tide’ explores the possibility of environmental disasters in the future.
Here is a link to read more.

https://mythaxis.com/2021/06/08/meet-stanley-chen-at-the-wilson-center-forum/

The magazine also has a new regular feature, a News category. Here is what Daniel told me.

“I started a News category. If anyone has any publishing news, even a book release, let me know!”

Here is a contact link for that.
https://mythaxis.com/contact/

Film Review: The Eight Hundred (2020)

I have just had my film review published in the online magazine, Mythaxis.

‘The Eight Hundred’ is a Chinese war film, set during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.

Here is a link, if you are interested in reading it.

(I watched the film in the original Chinese and Japanese languages, with subtitles. The trailer on the link is dubbed)

https://mythaxis.com/2021/06/02/the-eight-hundred-movie-review/

‘Blood Simple’: The Best of The Coens and McDormand?

In 1984, I used to subscribe to film and cinema magazines. (No internet then, don’t forget) There was a lot of ‘buzz’ about a new film soon to be released in the UK. It was called ‘Blood Simple’, and being described as ‘Film Noir for the 1980s’.

Back then, I had never heard of the Coen brothers, or the female lead, actress Frances McDormand. But I had heard of John Getz, the menacing Dan Hedaya, and M. Emmet Walsh. I read in my magazines that this was a family affair. As well as the two brothers writing, producing, and directing, one of them (Joel) was married to McDormand.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival too, so it seemed like something I should be watching. One of the good things about living in London then is that there were a lot of cinemas. You could find one showing virtually anything you wanted to watch, seven days a week. And though I lived in Wimbledon at the time, I owned a motorcycle, which meant I could avoid the heavy traffic, and then park for free on a motorcyle bay.

Off I went, to a late afternoon showing before going into work for a night shift later.

I will give you some idea what it’s about of course, but I will start by saying that I loved it. Dark, edgy, violent, and also very humourous at times. Great performances from Getz and Hedaya, who rarely got lead roles, and the ever-reliable M. Emmet Walsh. And that new girl, a Frances McDormand before she started to take herself seriously as a ‘film star’ with a lot of opinions. She was good too. Really good.

Sets, location filming, lighting, good direction from the Coens, and a snappy script. All spot-on.

It is a familiar story. An unhappily-married woman is having an affair. Her husband suspects, and has hired a private detective to spy on them. After that, it stays in still more familiar territory. A dead body, (or is it?) confusion about who killed him, and subsequent disposal of said body. The detective becomes personally involved, (Walsh on top form) and then everything starts to go terribly wrong. That’s about it, with no spoliers.

What makes it so good is the darkness. The dark violence, that dark humour that is interjected, and the scenes filmed at night. It really was ‘Film Noir for the 1980s’ after all.

And for my money it remains the best film the Coens have made, along with the best performance from a younger, fresher McDormand.