The Death of Stalin

Year: 2017
Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Paul Whitehouse, Jason Isaacs

Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

Armando Iannucci is arguably the world’s most famous Italian Scot. After finding success with British political send-up ‘The Thick of It’ and American political send-up ‘Veep’, Iannucci found himself a niche as a singular voice in political satire, combining the typically awful people found in politics with jet black, profanity laden humour. His latest effort, his second directorial venture into film after 2009’s ‘In The Loop,’ chronicles the remarkable true story of, you guessed it, the death of Stalin. What follows is much of what you’d expect from an Iannucci creation, but it doesn’t have that sharpness for which he was so renowned.

‘The Death of Stalin’ follows Stalin’s various aides (First Secretary, Secretary of Defence, Chief of the Secret Police etc.) as they scramble around attempting to contain the rather large issue of Stalin suddenly dying, as well as figuring out who succeeds Stalin, what happens next for Russia on a global scale, and organising Stalin’s state funeral.

It’s important to know heading into this film that I don’t think it’s wholly necessary that you should be well-versed in Russian politics to understand it. Most key details are explained thoroughly enough, but it does expect you to follow along. Any Iannucci project is full of people who talk very quickly, so it’s our responsibility to keep up. Iannucci does, however, have a knack for throwing 20 lines of complicated political talk and injecting it with a blunt insult or a swear word to draw our attention back in in case anyone was wavering. It’s fascinating to see it at work in this setting, particularly because every single Russian character in the film has a British accent.

That realisation is jarring. It takes you a few minutes to adjust. You have people like Paddy Considine and Paul Whitehouse talking to people named Vyacheslav and Malenkov and Khruschev in a London accent. It’s peculiar initially, but it makes sense for what we’re watching. The complexities of what is happening can be hard to follow, particularly if everyone was speaking in a strong Russian accent. Allowing the actors to use their own accents makes them stand out to us, the general audience, and helps us separate each character from each other. As you can see from the cast list above, the ensemble here is huge. Every character has agency in the film too, every character has a part to play in the grand story of the film and of Russia as a whole. That works hugely in the film’s favour, and benefits many of the comedic moments of the film.

Of which, there are, indeed, many. The opening scene is classic Iannucci, where a famous orchestra has finished their performance. Paddy Considine working the sound gets a phone call from Stalin himself asking for a recording of the performance. Considine, of course, realises they didn’t record it. He then must scramble around getting the orchestra back together, filling the quickly empty audience with random people form the street, and then having to find a replacement conductor after the initial conductor knocks himself out on a fire bucket. Meanwhile, the Soviet Secret Police are out executing and arresting various targets for crimes against the country. It’s a wonderful, ridiculous, shocking opening sequence that is played mostly for laughs, while establishing the darkness and cruelty at hand.

This opening sequence is ‘The Death of Stalin’ in a nutshell. Funny scenes, great one-liners, physical comedy truncated by realisations of how insane the Soviet Union was in 1953. It had a dictatorial air about it similar to that of Hitler in Nazi Germany, any mistake that could be considered as anti-Russia saw you killed. Iannucci balances this masterfully and he is the perfect writer to tackle such a heavy subject matter. There is a fascinating period drama here that lasts three hours and doesn’t flinch on any of the more tragic or nasty details. As such, Iannucci makes it consumable to us with his unique style. The act of Stalin’s aides literally carrying his body from his office to his bedroom is not funny, but the way it is staged is. That’s what makes so much of ‘The Death of Stalin’ work.

On top of the clever script and the humour, the performances here are genuinely fantastic. The whole ensemble is fully on board with the idea and are dedicated to getting it right. Jason Isaacs is a stand-out as the no nonsense, sarcastic Minister of Defence in a strong Birmingham accent. Jeffrey Tambor channels George Bluth as Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, a bumbling buffoon who has many of the film’s best lines.

However, Steve Buscemi’s Khruschev and Simon Russell Beale’s Beria are the two stars of the film. The two characters are butting heads through the whole film. While Khrushchev generally has an air of exasperation about him as he becomes dumbfounded at some of the choices the others make, Beria has far more sinister intentions. Beale’s performance, in particular, is terrific. He can make a joke about someone’s stutter in one sentence, before casually sentencing another death two lines later without batting an eye. Beale completely dominates the film and takes the brunt of the heavy lifting on a plot front, and he nails it. Beale’s performance may well end up as one of my favourite male performances of the year.

Sadly though, the film has its drawbacks. It suffers from an issue that so much of modern comedy does. Iannucci doesn’t do anything particularly interesting on the directorial front. He merely points the camera at his characters and has them deliver their lines. ‘The Thick of It’ had a more chaotic feel to them, hand held camera for much of it almost like a documentary, and the chaos from the camera added to the insanity of the story. I truly believe ‘The Death of Stalin’ would have benefited from such an approach, just to add something extra to the film. To put it bluntly, it’s not very interesting to look at.

My second issue lies with the actual humour. When the film is funny, it’s very funny. I do want to watch it again so I can note some of the best lines down. But, there are sections of the film where there aren’t many jokes to speak of, and it gets bogged down in the complicated plot. Of course, it’s a complicated story, so this can be expected, but Iannucci always managed to inject some life into this conversations in ‘Veep’ and ‘The Thick of It’, more off-handed insults, more ridiculous analogies to explain it to someone, more off-the-cuff. It may seem like I am comparing this to his old work a lot, but I feel it’s necessary; it worked so well there, why not make it work here?

My general feelings towards ‘The Death of Stalin’ are far more positive than negative. Writing this, I have felt myself become more positive about it than I initially thought I was. I just think it was lacking that extra special something Iannucci usually has. It was almost there, just not quite. Still, I never thought I’d find myself laughing so hard at a funeral scene in any film, and yet, here we are.

Rhys’ Rating: 7.1/10
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Thor: Ragnarok

Year: 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo

Written by Sarah Buddery

The staggering achievement of Marvel Studios in creating a cohesive, overlapping, and constantly evolving cinematic universe is something which – pardon the expression – should really be marvelled at. Undoubtedly helped by the wealth of interesting and beloved characters it has in its impressive back catalogue, the signs of growth are more evident than ever in the latest offering, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.

Helmed by under-the-radar (but soon to be household name) New Zealand director, Taika Waiti, ‘Ragnarok’ is like none of the other 16 movies that preceded it. Fans of the off-kilter and quirky sense of humour in previous directorial films ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ will know what to expect, and everyone else? Well you’re able to get a full-on Waititi slap in the face and you are going to love it.

The first ‘Thor’ film had a great natural humour to it with its fish-out-of-water narrative, but the disappointing ‘Thor: The Dark World’ took itself far too seriously, suffering from weak villains and a clumsy style. ‘Ragnarok’ is Thor on acid, embracing the weirdness of the character in the best possible way. The Thor of the comics is absolutely nuts, and finally we have a Thor film which feels 100% suited to the character.

The comedy is the strongest it has ever been, and dare it be said that it even challenges ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ in that department. There’s zingers left right and centre, genius cameos and characters, physical comedy and oh so much more. Chris Hemsworth has never been better as the God of Thunder; his comic timing is absolutely impeccable and it is great to see him having so much fun where the character has previously been a little stuffy.

On the whole, the cast is absolutely fab with returning members being better than ever, and the new additions feeling like they have always been there. There is a reason why Loki is everyone’s favourite Marvel villain, and whilst not the main villain of this piece, he has plenty of screentime and Tom Hiddleston is, as always, a delight to watch. As Goddess of Death, Hela, Cate Blanchett is absolutely wonderful, but perhaps doesn’t get as much exposure as she deserves in this film; just one of its minor drawbacks.

Always the highlight of every single film he is in (that is a fact!), Jeff Goldblum chews every single bit of technicolour scenery as The Grand Master, and was clearly having huge amounts of fun. Having impressed in ‘Creed’, Tessa Thompson is wonderful as Valkyrie, and she kicks so much ass. Mercifully there is no romantic subplot (it would’ve felt massively shoehorned in), and it is so great to have another badass female hero, and a female main villain as well, for the first time in the MCU.  

The 80s vibe runs through the gloriously unique soundtrack, with synth seamlessly mixing with a more traditional superhero score. Also used in the trailer, it is so good to hear Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ used, and to amazing effect as well; let’s face it, this song was made to be used in a ‘Thor’ movie! Visually, ‘Ragnarok’ is one of the most arresting Marvel movies so far, with some particularly striking slow-motion wide shots, mostly in the flashback scenes and fight sequences. This technique is used sparingly enough so as not to become annoying, and it shows just how diverse a director Waititi is.

‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is madder than a box of frogs and all the better for it. It does suffer from feeling a little disconnected from previous MCU films, but when a film is this much fun, it almost doesn’t matter. With Waititi’s stamp all over it (and the character he voices, Korg, unquestionably stealing the show!), ‘Ragnarok’ feels refreshingly different and is a much needed injection of fun, particularly for those who are feeling the so-called “superhero fatigue” from oversaturation of comic book movies. A strong contender for one of the best MCU films, and arguably the most fun, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is absolutely unmissable!

Sarah’s Rating: 9.0/10

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Year: 2017
Directed by: Angela Robinson
Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton

Written by Fiona Underhill

To be honest, the title of this film almost put me off this film altogether and having seen it, I still think  the title is pretty awful. However, I’m glad I paid more attention to the film as the release date drew near and I started hearing very positive things about it on Twitter. I am not sure to what extent this was planned and designed, but I’m extremely thankful that this story has come out in the same year as Patty Jenkins’ ‘Wonder Woman‘. I had no idea about this back-story to the creation of the character and the reception to the first comics and it is a fascinating story indeed.

The story is framed by the titular Professor Marston (Luke Evans) having to account for himself before Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a Mary Whitehouse-type figure with a moral crusade against inappropriate material in children’s literature, including comics. He then tells the story of his work as a Harvard psychologist, or more specifically, a Professor at Radcliffe college, a women-only ‘wing’ of Harvard. He is married to Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), also a psychologist, working on her PhD and fighting to have it recognised by Harvard (instead of just Radcliffe, which is looked down upon). This is perhaps my issue with the title; William Moulton Marston is not the only ‘professor’ Marston and it is phrased as if the two ‘wonder women’ belong to him. The Marstons have an interesting side-line in inventing the lie detector test, using the subject’s heart rate as its prime indicator. Professor Marston becomes interested in one of his students, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote, who made an impression in ‘Neon Demon’) and she starts working for the Marstons as an assistant. Gradually it becomes apparent that there is a strong attraction between the three and they start an affair.

As always, Rebecca Hall is fantastic as the sweary, honest and extremely frank Elizabeth. Luke Evans is at his most attractive in the period suits and hats and Heathcote is also impressive after a strong couple of years for her (‘Pride, Prejudice & Zombies’, ‘The Man in the High Castle’, ‘Fifty Shades Darker’). Although it starts off as witnessing a man’s dreams come true (his wife encouraging an affair and a threesome, no less), it becomes apparent that this is not, for once, told from the male gaze. The writer-director Angela Robinson gives equal weight to the two women and their relationship with each other, as well as with William. You genuinely get the impression that all three are in love with one another. Of course, the relationship would be considered unconventional today, let alone in the 1950s and the ‘thruple’ obviously come up against many obstacles. Firstly, both Marstons’ careers are put on the line (forcing Elizabeth to become a secretary), then (after they have moved in together and started having children) there are problems with the neighbours and the children’s school friends.

Professor Marston stumbles across a shop selling lingerie and pornography which has a room in the back for bondage demonstrations. Marston takes a ‘scholarly’ interest in all of this (purely for research purposes, of course) and invites the two ladies to participate. It is portrayed in the film that this has a direct correlation to the inspiration for the character of Wonder Woman. Her Lasso of Truth (harking back to the lie detector test) and various depictions of people tied up in the comics are said to have been sparked by Marston’s interest in bondage. This is what triggers Josette Frank’s outrage and leads to copies of the comic being burned. You definitely get the the impression that William Marston was an enlightened feminist and that he channels this into the comics, but you don’t really see the process that takes him from psychologist to comic-book writer.

To the extent to which this story is entirely factual, I’m not sure. However, this film must be praised for its mostly positive depiction of a polygamous relationship and for exploring aspects of Wonder Woman that I certainly wasn’t aware of. The costumes, hair and make up are, of course, to die for and the acting is exemplary. It makes a great companion piece to the Jenkins film and it is fantastic to see a woman of colour being given an opportunity to make a film with themes such as this. It is worth your support for many reasons, so go see it!

Fiona’s Rating: 8.0/10

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You Were Never Really Here

Year: TBC, but likely 2018
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette

Written by Sarah Buddery

After a Best Actor nomination for ‘Walk the Line’ (2005), followed by being shamefully overlooked for his gorgeously tender performance in 2013’s ‘Her’, Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t exactly be put into the category of ‘underrated’, however nor is he considered as a bankable box office draw; which is a real shame. One of the most consistently watchable actors, Phoenix has a history for playing dark and troubled characters – his one in ‘You Were Never Really Here’ being no different – so some may consider him to be “one note”. However when he plays them this well, it isn’t exactly a bad thing!

The story is as vague in its actualisation as it is in the IMDb description, but essentially it follows ‘Joe’ played by Phoenix, an enforcer of undisclosed authority, who is sent to rescue an underage girl who has been kidnapped and used in the sex trade. Haunted by the visions of his childhood abuse, Joe is deeply troubled, teetering constantly on the brink of psychosis. Essentially a hitman thriller, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ manages to pack an awful lot of hits into its short runtime, as well as an uncomfortably in-depth exploration of the man perpetrating them.   

Owing a great deal to the 1976 masterpiece ‘Taxi Driver’, Joaquin Phoenix manages to channel the ghost of Travis Bickle, and to electrifying effect. Near enough the entire runtime is spent with his character, and whilst at times the story feels cold and distant, there is a great deal of pity for this character, despite his brutal nature. Similarly in the aforementioned ‘Taxi Driver’, we spent so much time with DeNiro’s iconic character, and that idea of being so closely aligned with a psychopath, makes for a totally thrilling experience. Whereas ‘Taxi Driver’ had the perfect amount of slow-burning tension, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ doesn’t wait long for the bursts of violence, and the brutality is orchestrated to perfection.

Early on there is a scene which is near silent and switches to the perspective of CCTV cameras within a house. We see Joe moving from room to room, dispatching various heavies, and for all its brutality, it is equally mesmerising to watch. The sound design of this film is absolutely stunning, perfectly utilising silence when needed and punctuating this with sudden and deafening bursts of noise and chaos. The music, from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is jarring, jangling, eerie, utterly nerve-shredding and completely amazing, suiting the tone of the film perfectly, and contributing to that constant sense of unease.

Whilst it is easy to connect, although not empathise, with the central character, the story does feel somewhat distant at times. Perhaps this is intentional and somehow represents that emotional disconnect the character feels from the atrocities he is committing, but it does make it a difficult watch in places.

That being said, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is truly “edge of your seat” stuff, and whilst the comparisons with ‘Taxi Driver’ kind of write themselves, it is still amazing on its own merit. Joaquin Phoenix gives an electric, and possibly career-best performance as the troubled hitman, and only time will tell if this will be the year he receives a much-deserved nomination, or the year he is once again shamefully overlooked. Awards aside however, this is one of the most genuinely thrilling films in a long time, and one which packs a mean punch into a relatively short space. An explosive, and unmissable film.

Sarah’s Rating: 8.8 out of 10

Loving Vincent

Year: 2017
Directed By: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Robert Gulaczyk, Aidan Turner, Holly Earl

Written by Tom Sheffield

If you asked someone to name a famous painter off the top of their head, there’s  very high probability the name they’ll say is that of Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter who is one of the most famous and influential artists. Sadly, Van Gogh took his own life at the age of 37 after years of suffering with mental illness, poverty, and being shunned by the people in his local community.

‘Loving Vincent’ takes place a year after Vincent’s death, and follows Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of one of Vincent’s friend, Roulin the Postman (Chris O’Dowd). Vincent’s landlord hands Roulin a letter Vincent had written before his death, which is addressed to his brother, Theo, and Roulin asks that his son delivers it for him. Armand hesitantly accepts and heads to Paris to find Theo van Gogh, but after discovering that he died shortly after his brother committed suicide, Armand travels to Auvers-sur-Oise to learn more about the days leading up to Vincent’s suicide and talk to people who knew and were around him at the time.

This film is nothing short of astonishing. Each and every single frame is an individual painting that was created using the same technique as Van Gogh himself, by a team of 115 artists. – in total there were around 65,000 paintings created for the film – and it’s the world’s first fully painted feature film. During ‘Loving Vincent’ I was in absolute awe watching each and every frame appear on screen. My eyes darted around the screen watching even the smallest little details change with every frame.

When Armand is in conversation with some of the many characters we meet, the film often goes into flashbacks and witness the events that are being discussed. These paintings are a lot different to the ones used during the modern day scenes, they’re also in black and white and they absolutely blew me away with the level of detail that each painting had. The transitions that take place when the paintings go from modern day to flashback were absolutely stunning, often with colours sweeping across the canvases. It’s easy to forget you’re watching individual paintings, especially when the framing changes and the paintings slowly zoom in on a character, changes focus, or widens the background, as you see in normal shot films.

 

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Going into the film, I wasn’t really aware of who would be the faces and voices of some of the characters, but I was very surprised to spot Chris O’Dowd. Aidan Turner and Jerome Flynn come to life in the paintings. It was frankly quite surreal seeing these stars  depicted as Van Gogh paintings, but that just added to whole wonderful experience. What was truly unique about this film too is that we are introduced to some of the characters and places in the film. New faces and places often had an  opening/introductory shot that is exactly the same as some of the famous paintings that hang in museums today and have been seen by millions of people, making them instantly recognisable.

There was a whole range of emotions conveyed in this film by all the characters, and each and every painting portrayed them perfectly, whether it was little gestures, eye movements, creases in the forehead, and subtle mannerisms. Again, seeing how even the smallest of details were painted to convey a person’s emotions made it even easier to forget that these are paintings you’re watching and not actors in front of a camera with some sort of CGI or filter over them. Even in the background, there were lights subtly flickering, birds flying in the distance, water flowing down the river, and reflections in windows characters passed.

At just 90 minutes long, there’s a lot of story being told in a short amount of run time – although the short runtime can be forgiven, given the fact this film has been years in the making, with lots of hard work going into each and every painting. Some scenes feel like they just needed a few more lines of dialogue to feel a bit more genuine and less rushed, but all-in-all I can’t really fault this film. You’ll want to stay seated for the credits too as the characters and actors are shown side by side, along with the paintings they are based on. A lovely ending to this unique film.

It’s clear to see why ‘Loving Vincent’ has been getting a lot of love on the festival scene, but it’s a mighty shame that it has such a limited release here in the UK. It’s truly a cinematic experience like no other. If you can, I highly recommend you try to catch it in the cinema before it quietly leaves for good. One of the most beautiful films this year, hands down. You can learn more about the love, hard word, and dedication that went into this film right here. 

Tom’s Rating: 9.0/10

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Battle of the Sexes

Year: 2017
Directed By: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming

Written by Fiona Underhill

Co-directed by the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ helmers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ has come out of the festival circuit and probably has hopes of Oscar potential. This film tells the true story of Billie-Jean King (played by Emma Stone here), the Number 1 women’s tennis player of the early 1970s and a washed-up, has-been male tennis player, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) pitted together in a ridiculous rivalry that questioned whether a female athlete could rival a male one. It is set during the burgeoning ‘women’s lib’ movement, but of course still resonates today, not least in the world of tennis itself where the likes of Andy Murray has to constantly remind the media of Serena Williams’ achievements. I confess I was unaware of this event until the film came about, but it had a huge impact at the time. It was one of the biggest televised sporting events ever, with 90 million viewers and made a significant difference to the feelings of women who still struggled to get credit cards in their own names.

As told in this film, the match came about because King dared to challenge the huge imbalance between prize-money for male and female tennis players. When she was met with derision from the Association of Tennis Professionals, headed by Jack Kramer (slightly shocking to see Bill Pullman in an elder statesman role), she decided to ‘go it alone’, finding a group of fellow women tennis players to form the Women’s Tennis Association. Bobby Riggs, a successful player in the 30s and 40s,  had fallen on hard times due to a gambling problem and marital problems (his wife Priscilla is played by Elisabeth Shue). So he comes up with the wheeze to challenge a female player to a match, first he persuades Margaret Court (who had recently had a baby), then he finally manages to ‘bag’ Bille-Jean King.

The performances in ‘Battle of the Sexes’ are astonishing across the board. I truly believe Steve Carell is one of the best actors we have working today and he should have received more attention for ‘The Big Short’ last year. The supporting cast is also exemplary; of course Andrea Risborough is the stand-out, as she is in anything. Risborough plays Marilyn, a hairdresser who goes on tour with the women and who starts an affair with Billie-Jean. Sarah Silverman is also fantastic as King’s agent and Austin Stowell sports the finest head of hair I’ve seen since Robert Redford’s heyday (whilst portraying King’s husband, Larry).

Frustratingly, although written by Simon Beaufoy, whose work I have enjoyed, the script didn’t really stack up for me. It’s also disappointing after ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (in which you felt like you knew and understood each member of that family) and ‘Ruby Sparks’ (a really great rom-com directed by Faris) that ‘Battle of the Sexes’ doesn’t quite work. For me, the main failing comes from the character of Riggs and his motivation. He is portrayed as a buffoon, doing anything gimmicky (playing tennis with sheep and in a variety of costumes) for publicity and money. This ‘challenge’ is just another extension of that, you certainly don’t get the impression that he was truly a vehement chauvinist – out to put women back in their place. He seems to be acting that role and playing it up for the cameras, but this disconnect isn’t made explicit or explored in enough depth. It’s also unclear whether King really believed or understood why he was doing it. Although reluctant, King allows herself to become part of this circus, during the peak of her career and I’m not sure I fully understood why. It didn’t allow her to be open about her sexuality, for example.

Alan Cumming’s character, Ted Tinling, who designs and makes the women’s tennis dresses also didn’t quite work for me. He is portrayed as stereotypically camp but is also shown trying to share a tender (actually cheesy and sentimental) moment with King in ‘solidarity’. Although all of the performances were excellent (I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Stone deserves the Oscar for this more than ‘La La Land’), ‘Battle of the Sexes’ did fall short, for me. I’m glad I got to see groups of middle-aged women clapping and whooping in the showing I saw and I was affected by an article about how important this real-life event was to a woman who was a young girl with an abusive father at the time. However, I feel that they deserved a better film than this – one that really got to grips with the motivations of the characters. And one that perhaps put the event more firmly in the context of the women’s lib movement of the time. Ultimately; great performances, shame about the script.

Full disclosure: I am adding 2 points to my rating for Andrea Risborough alone.

Fiona’s Rating: 7.0/10

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The Ritual

Year: 2017
Directed by: David Brückner
Cast: Rafe Spall, Sam Troughton, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Paul Reid

Written by Jo Craig

The Halloween film reel for 2017 has a diverse line-up for fright night enthusiasts as they countdown to the witching hour by entertaining a robust array of compelling features, including the anticipated return of ‘Jigsaw’ and British / International horror ‘The Ritual’. Underdog geezer Rafe Spall teams up with ‘VHS’ contributor David Brückner to supply our preliminary fix of adrenaline on an idyllic Friday the 13th release.

The Art House labelled chiller follows a group of four friends who come together for a hike through the Nordic wilderness as a farewell gesture to their fifth companion Robert (Paul Reid) who suffered a sudden and merciless death back on British territory. Travelling with raw emotions and unspoken issues, the lads experience unexplained occurrences during a detour through the forest that test their friendship, sanity and resilience.

If a story began with the bright spark of a wandering pack deciding to take a shortcut through the woods, the ending could be predicted faster than the ‘screamer’ of the group would be killed off. However Brückner’s fourth major production unexpectedly supplies a mountain of weight behind an incredibly misleading trailer depiction that suggested we were in for a Danny Dyer-esque black comedy. With the exception of free-flowing banter cascading over a solid introduction, the plot is quick to address an underlying psychological narrative amongst creepy forest events, acting as an anchor to an otherwise recycled horror with inflated ideas that surface in later plot points. The subtle wit keeps our interest active in the lead up to the shit hitting the fan, but skilfully absorbs the change in tone when our focus shifts to more serious matters, unlocking insight into our characters behavioural patterns. The scares that await behind the branches have a direct relationship with the cognitive subtext, as protagonist Luke provides key scenes that present a unique interpretation of a tormented conscience that differentiates from past foreboding forest flicks.

Rafe Spall from ‘Green Street’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ glory is comfortable portraying a lively but subdued Luke, changing his manner naturally with the directors pace. Spall’s support from Robert James-Collier’s Hutch, Arsher Ali’s Phil and Sam Troughton (who remains an unnamed character throughout) offer tenacious backing and timely comic relief but never overshadows Luke’s spotlight. Spall’s portrayal of a more serious role to date shows his skills as a diverse actor, preserving his place as a household British name like his father Timothy, despite flaunting a rather mellow career. As the gang deliver a grounding performance as a unit, sporadic flickers of personal growth aid their show of individuality but bare their primitive instincts that clash in a calculable way.

‘The Ritual’ closely follows the traditional three act blueprint which neatly packages the storytelling as a whole and helps to contain the sudden shift into Nordic imagination with an idiosyncratic denouement which left half the audience feeling cheated. A cumbersome conclusion teetering amidst brilliance and nonsense interjected some wonder into an initially predictable outcome but consequently gridlocked a once energetic script. After thoroughly extinguishing any molecule of humour, a counterbalance of physical legwork was demanded from the actors to compensate, causing irritating and reckless decision making from the London boys we were meant to be rooting for. Ultimately the eye-rolling fantasy connotation will remain a meaty wedge between viewers, leaving some in awe and others running for the convivial atmosphere of the pub.

Aside from getting lost down mythical lane, Brückner’s adaptation of the titular Adam Nevill novel poses a delicious pick ‘n mix of nightmarish qualities with an intriguing subjective undertone, working closely with surprise producer Andy Serkis who lends his insight on embodying human suffering and enlightenment while building an unprecedented creation for a rather inferior twist. British screenwriter Joe Barton shows his strength in repartee but struggles to generate anything ground-breaking when it comes to the hard stuff, damaging what could have been the films leaven. The “holy shit” wallops relied heavily on imagination from suggestion and hair-raising scenarios that silenced any jump scares and added greater emphasis on Ben Lovett’s simple but effective score.

At its finest hour, ‘The Ritual’ carries a powerful ambience reminiscent of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and its overbearing tension, but stumbles into amateur hour comparable to Nordic found footage escapade ‘Troll Hunter’, linking engaging character studies with tales of hyperbolic fantasy that failed to collaborate successfully in the closing thirty minutes. Exhibiting a well-equipped pursuit through a labyrinth of woodland torment, our first bite of this year’s Halloween platter by no means leaves you dissatisfied, but conclusively plays rather heavily on a taboo genre that calls for an acquired taste to enjoy. Even though the tagline suggests the boys should have gone to Ibiza, JumpCut recommends you head into the woods regardless.

Jo’s Rating: 7 out of 10

The Mountain Between Us

Year: 2017
Directed By: Hany Abu-Assad
Cast: Idris Elba, Kate Winselt, Beau Bridges

Written by Fiona Underhill

The trailer for this film looked cheesy and ridiculous and I had to wonder what two very fine English actors – Idris Elba and Academy Award Winner Kate Winslet – were thinking when signing the dotted line. However, the canny marketing campaign, which put out a tweet saying “Spoiler Alert – The Dog Lives!” definitely worked on hooking me in. The other selling point was the promise that whilst stranded on a mountain with no food or water, Kate and Idris somehow manage to get it on. This film now had my attention and I consider it my solemn duty to report back to you, dear readers on whether the Sexy Mountain film lived up to all this sexy potential.

Winslet plays Alex, an American photojournalist and Elba plays Ben, an actual brain surgeon with his actual English accent (steady on ladies). The ‘meet-cute’* is that they’re trying to get a normal sized plane, but it’s too stormy, so they get a tiny plane instead. One of these people is a brain surgeon. Lovely crinkly Beau Bridges pilots the little plane for them and insists on bringing his Dog With No Name for reasons. It only costs $800 to get the private plane, so that’s how I’m going to do all my travel from now on. The little plane is flying over the stormy mountains and Beau Bridges suffers a stroke, causing the plane to crash. But ‘oh-oh’ the pilot didn’t file a flight plan (for further reasons) and no one knows where they are! Or even that they were on a plane in the first place.

Alex’s leg is broken, which means Ben immediately has to go into caring doctor mode. There follows an extended period where they argue about whether they should stay put or go for help. The characters have seen ‘Casablanca’, but clearly haven’t seen ‘Alive’ or ‘Touching the Void’, which is a shame because they are based on reality not ridiculousness and therefore would be helpful in this situation. There IS animal peril in this film, in the form of a traumatic scene featuring a mountain lion, but the dog is OK! Genuinely, watching the dog frolic in the snow was the only thing that got me through this film. Oh and there’s a bit where snowflakes are stuck on Idris’ eyelashes and it’s so pure it almost redeems the entire operation. They eventually agree that they’re going to have to set off in search of help and it’s lucky they packed such warm coats and sensible boots. Alex talks about her fiancee, who she was supposed to be on her way to marry. Ben doesn’t talk about his wife but Alex finds out about her (or thinks she does) through her disembodied voice.

They eventually find a cabin, where they shack up for a bit. And… there’s a sex scene. And it’s one of the worst sex scenes I’ve ever seen in my life. This whole film is so badly edited, but it’s especially criminal here, where it manages to take any tension or romance out of a love scene featuring two very beautiful people by flashing back to little moments they’ve shared and just the memory of it is upsetting me. ‘Out of Sight’ this is not. I’m trying not to laden this review with too many spoilers, but the end of this film has a scene that is so cheesy, I had to watch it through my fingers. Again, editorial choices were made and they are not good. I cringed so hard watching it, my body almost inverted and just thinking about it now is making the bile rise within me.

I just don’t know what to tell you. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. Beautiful people, beautiful scenery. It’s hard to screw that up. But they really did.

Fiona’s Rating: 4.0/10

*this is a reference to another Winslet film, ‘The Holiday’. It has snow in it. Watch that instead.

 

Mountain

The Snowman

Year: 2017
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Chloë Sevigny, J.K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones

Written by Corey Hughes

After a 6-year directorial break since ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011, Tomas Alfredson returns to the director seat for the woeful adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s best-selling Scandi-noir murder mystery ‘The Snowman’, the fifth entry to the Oslo Sequence series of books starring Harry Hole.

Following a series of missing persons and murders in Oslo, acclaimed detective and loose-cannon Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) and newcomer Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), with their own personal intentions, hunt the aptly named Snowman down; a serial killer who leaves a snowman in his wake.

Fassbender, whilst trying his outmost to provide a plausible performance, fails to play the inner-tormented, broken man with the same gravitas that he brought to the table in similar roles in ‘Shame’ and ‘Hunger’; an unfortunate addition to a string of bad decisions from the immensely talented actor. The performances from the rest of the cast are moderate at best – Kilmer; an odd casting choice whose dialogue appears to have been dubbed in post production, Ferguson; who is unconvincing in filling the boots of the strong-willed Bratt, and J.K. Simmons; who provides a caricature-esque performance as the grotesque and completely unsympathetic Arve Støp.

Keeping within touching distance with Nesbø’s novel, Alfredson brings to the table experience from working on ‘Let The Right One In‘ by showing the goriness of the Snowman’s murders in their most truthful, explicit and uncensored form. The murders are set against the backdrop of Dione Beebe’s swooning cinematography, a successful depiction of bringing the cold, snow-engulfed Oslo to life, but in the grand scheme of things he is merely disguising what is ultimately a bleak, unforgettable experience.

There have been reports surfacing that during the editing process, Alfredson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker came to the realisation that chunks of the plot were missing, resulting in last-minute reshoots. Such disorganisation not only shows Alfredson’s lackadaisical approach in adapting the novel to the big screen, but also accounts for ‘The Snowman’s’ directionless nature; focusing on things that are insignificant whilst quickly glossing over things that are instrumental to the plot, an oddity that Schoonmaker is far from accustomed to from her partnership with Martin Scorsese (who was supposed to direct this mess before Alfredson stepped in).

Disregarding the inclusion of intricate, overlapping subplots evident in Nesbø’s novel, screenwriters Hossein Amini and Peter Staughan provide an unfaithful translation of the source material. Condensing a layered, 400-page novel to a mere 2-hour film is difficult but undoubtedly achievable, yet Amini and Staughan seem to struggle with adapting Nesbø’s multiple plots into a conceivable screenplay. The film cuts out a catalogue of important moments from the novel, which ultimately results in each character having the most minimal amount of depth and motivation possible. You aren’t given any reason to care about the characters, or the situations they find themselves in, an extreme flaw for any murder-mystery story.

‘The Snowman’, with so many acclaimed names attached to its production, with even Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, is a gargantuan disappointment. Use your price for admission towards Nesbø’s novel instead. You’ll thank me later.

Corey’s Rating: 4.0 out of 10

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