REVIEW: The Monster

Year: 2018
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine

Written by Corey Hughes

Bryan Bertino’s third directorial outing finds the director in the familiar territory of the horror genre, following his previous two projects – The Strangers and Mockingbird – to bring us The Monster; an endearing, albeit flawed, family drama set within the framework of a claustrophobic creature-feature.

Bertino’s debut feature The Strangers was everything I wanted in a home-invasion horror flick; an unsettling, atmospheric thriller that expertly tapped into fears of claustrophobic vulnerability in a completely unique and spine-chilling way. The initial promise of the up-and-coming horror director slowly diminished with his second project, Mockingbird, an underwhelming take on the found-footage genre that was left largely unseen by general audiences.

The Monster, which is finally reaching UK audiences with its release on DVD and digital this month after premiering in the U.S. back in 2016 (talk about delayed overseas distribution, jeez), is a step in the right direction for Bertino; a project that is anchored by the provocative duality between its two stars.

Bertino’s latest piece tells the unsettling story of a single mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan; The Big Sick), and her adolescent daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), whose road trip turns into a living nightmare when their car breaks down on a deserted road. Unbeknownst to them, a terrifying force lurks within the forest that consumes them.

The palpable tension that binds the mother and daughter relationship together is epitomised by the film’s opening scene – Lizzy clearing liquor bottles and ashtrays from the dimly lit living room, her mother lying motionless in bed, awoken from her slumber with a hint of irritation in her tone. Zoe Kazan, known mostly for her comedic roles in Ruby Sparks and last year’s The Big Sick, provides a more dramatic performance as Kathy; a struggling alcoholic and persistent smoker whose role as a mother is, shall we say, questionable. Whilst Kazan is impressive in the leading role, it’s young Ella Ballentine who steals the show by bringing to the fore a terrific, matured performance of an innocent adolescent struggling to live an ordinary childhood at the benefit of her mother’s chaotic lifestyle. The origins of the fractious relationship they share is gradually fed to us through a collection of seamless flashbacks that refer back to catastrophic, and often violent, outbursts between the pair. These flashbacks are packed with explosive emotion that only strengthen our distaste towards Kazan’s character, a sense of provocation that metaphorically alludes to Kathy as the titular monster. As the stakes get higher, their relationship gradually strengthens; a fight for survival disguised as a bonding session that is as endearing as it is expected.

As much as Kathy is a monster in a metaphorical sense, the literal presence of the hulking, demonic creature is just as engaging. Bertino takes half of the runtime to eventually unleash the monster, and when it arrives, the film finally mutates into a horror – albeit not a very convincing one. The bloodshed caused by the creature is entertaining to endure as it tears apart side characters who are only present to be chomped at; but it’s not at all scary. It’s surprising to see Bertino’s film, when considering how frightfully fantastic The Strangers was, lack any sense of atmosphere or dread, epitomised by its melodramatic denouement that fails to land the emotionally-packed punches it aims to throw.

The Monster works best as a compelling insight into the dysfunctional relationship shared between a struggling mother and her neglected daughter, but falls short as a convincing creature-feature. This is undeniably a step in the right direction for Bertino on the back of his previous outing, but there’s still a lot more to come from the up-and-coming horror director.

COREY’S RATING:

3

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REVIEW: Johnny English Strikes Again

Year: 2018
Directed by: David Kerr
Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Olga Kurylenko, Charles Dance, Jake Lacy, Ben Miller, Adam James

Written by Chris Gelderd

This 2018 British comedy, the third installment in the Johnny English franchise, is directed by David Kerr and stars Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Olga Kurylenko, Adam James, Jake Lacy, and Emma Thompson.

When MI7, and soon the whole of the United Kingdom, come under attack from a mysterious cyber-terrorist, all modern forms of surveillance and espionage is made redundant. MI7 chief Pegasus (James) and the Prime Minister (Thompson) bring an “old school agent” out of retirement.

Johnny English (Atkinson) and fellow agent Bough (Miller) are tasked to hunt down the source of the terrorist threat and find out who is behind the crippling attacks on the country. Their investigation takes them to the South of France, London, and Scotland.

English and Bough come up against the mysterious Russian Ophelia Bulletova (Kurylenko) and the brilliant techno-billionaire Jason Volta (Lacy). English must use “old school” espionage to unmask the terrorist behind the attacks and save not just Queen and Country, but the entire world…

15 years since Rowan Atkinson’s former credit card advert creation Johnny English hit the big screen going up against John Malkovich, and 7 years since his return to go up against Dominic West, now he is back to take down Jake Lacy. A real international bout of villains that continue to mirror the world of 007.

It’s clear that English returns to action as the world sniffs once more around espionage and spy films. 2003 saw the uncertain future of James Bond. 2011 was mid James Bond / Daniel Craig fever. 2018 sees ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘ reignite the spy genre with new levels set on action, stunts, humour and star quality.

But they’re all so…big and bold and brutal! Rowan Atkinson brings forward his fictional MI7 agent in another round of family-friendly goofs and gags, slapstick antics, face gurning, mumbling and dead-pan comedy of which Atkinson is a master of. It’s just a shame he’s not given MORE to flex his comedy muscles because we’ve seen this all before. Not that it’s a bad thing – if you are still on board with the series for this third outing, you know what to expect and it’s not ‘Casino Royale’.

When bullets and bombs are replaced with baguettes and blow-pipe breadsticks, this is nothing but silly fun in an all too serious world we live in. Cyber terrorism is the narrative here, and perfect reasoning for a spy who uses no cellular phone, no computer chipped car or other means of technology to get in and do the job. The story is actually very well thought out but nothing too taxing. It’s very basic, not very tense, but just the right sort of global-trekking jaunt you need for 85mins of silliness. However, there are a few great set pieces such as stylish Aston Martin driving across the South of France, a well-executed Scottish finale and virtual reality chaos across London.

Atkinson and Miller return as the original duo from 2003 and work just as well together as they did then. Support comes from former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko who is a perfect “is she/isn’t she” femme fatale. Lacy is our charming and glaringly obvious villain from the get-go, and Emma Thompson does her best “not Theresa May” version of a Theresa May-inspired Prime Minister. A good cast and plot that all work much better than ‘Johnny English Reborn’.

The silly laughs come thick and fast from Atkinson, whether he’s failing as a French waiter, failing to infiltrate a luxury yacht, failing to seduce a Russian spy or failing to…well, just failing at most things! Yet it’s that lovable, bumbling but self-assured delivery of physical and verbal comedy that won’t bust a gut with laughter, but certainly have you chuckling away.

The family-friendly themes running throughout are a forgotten gem in this day and age. If something comes across like this, then it’s seen as weak and stupid, but why shouldn’t audiences of all ages be allowed to watch things without swearing, violence, sex or gratuitous action. Tone things down, have some brainless fun for a while and just giggle away as you remember real life shouldn’t always be so serious, intense and loud.

Johnny English is the antidote to in-your-face Hollywood cinema excess, doing it in the most British way possible.

CHRIS’ RATING:

3

LFF 2018: After The Screaming Stops

Year: 2018
Directed by: Joe Pearlman, David Soutar
Genre: Documentary

Written by Dave Curtis

From what I remember when I was a young boy, “Bros” were the biggest band in the UK. They were always on ‘Going Live‘ with Phillip Schofield and Sarah Green on a Saturday morning. Sadly I only recall one of their songs; ‘When Will I Be Famous?’ (I’ve been told they did have other hits). It turns out the band spilt up and haven’t performed together for over a quarter of a century. Originally the band consisted of 3 members: Matt Goss, Luke Goss (twin brothers) and Craig Logan, who quit the band in 1987. So in 2016, the two brothers announced they would be playing a date at the O2 in 2017. One problem – the brothers aren’t really on talking terms and don’t exactly see eye to eye.

After the Screaming Stops‘ picks up with Matt and Luke in the run-up to the big reunion gig. Matt Goss is now having a very successful career as a Frank Sinatra type singer in Las Vegas and Luke Goss is now a Hollywood actor. You may have seen him in Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Blade 2‘ and ‘Hellboy 2‘. Each brother is now living their own life. The documentary follows the brothers as they try and rehearse for the reunion show. It’s fair to say that it doesn’t go as smoothly as planned.

Having little to no knowledge of Bros doesn’t dampen the enjoyment for this rather surprising documentary. It is definitely a film of two halves which play very differently.  The first half an hour or so is more like a real-life mixture of ‘Spinal Tap’, ‘Alan Partridge‘ and David Brent from ‘The Office’. Matt Goss comes out with some truly memorable quotes which I think are unintentionally funny. Sometimes the laughing seems cruel but it is unavoidable. It seems he is trying to play up to the camera, after all, he is the frontman. The second half gets a lot more serious. Finally the two brothers are in the same room and years of pent-up anger and jealousy spills out in front of the camera. There are huge arguments which come close to punch-ups, but there are also sweet, tender and heartbreaking moments.

It is clear that the brothers love each other but with years of built-up emotions it was never going to be smooth sailing. What’s great about ‘ATSS’ is that the camera never shies away from anything. It’s all caught on camera. It could have been heavily cut. Props should be given to the filmmakers Joe Pearlman and David Soutar for that but it should also be given to Matt and Luke Goss. It is a brave thing letting the world see you like this and they come off the better for it. In the end you can’t help but root for them.

If you are a Brosette then you will come out smiling but luckily for everyone else, there is a lot to get out of this. It’s not so about the music itself but the relationship of the two brothers and luckily that is enough.

DAVE’S RATING:

3

LFF 2018: Lizzie

Year: 2018
Directed by: Craig William Macneill
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Chloë Sevigny, Fiona Shaw

Written by Sarah Buddery 

A story that will no doubt be familiar to fans of true crime, the infamous Lizzie Borden who murdered her father and step-mother is now the subject of this film, starring Chloe Sevigny as the titular character, and Kristen Stewart as her maid/lover/accomplice Bridget Sullivan.

Treading precariously between bodice ripper and period horror, the tonal balance of ‘Lizzie’ is one which is not always well executed. What does work is the exceptional sound design. By punctuating the film with violent and jarring outbursts, the sound design and score cut into the stifling silence in a way that is unnerving and builds the slow burn of dread effectively.

A far cry away from her Twilight days, Kristen Stewart continues to astound, and this is another solid performance from her. This film is in fact anchored by its performances, most notably from Stewart and Sevigny. Stewart provides an emotional core to the film, the person that the audience is most easily able to attach itself to, whereas Sevigny plays cold, calculating and callous to absolute perfection.

Where the film works is in their performances, the dynamic between their characters and the ways they interact with each other. Sadly where it doesn’t work is everything else, and the overall result is a bit of a mess.

The overly starched nature of the film is perhaps necessary in conveying Lizzie’s broiling inner anguish towards her father, but it unfortunately results in the film feeling distant and cold, and in a film where you know the outcome, it is hard to stick with it.

Bearing in mind that this film starts with how it ends – that being the bloody murder of Lizzie’s parents – the film somehow feels it is necessary to revisit the same bit over and over again. The multiple viewpoints approach is something that can work, but in the case of ‘Lizzie’, it just tips over to the point where it feels it is gratuitously revelling in the bloodshed; something which feels tonally out of step with the quietly surfacing horror of the rest of the film.

At times, it feels like the film has something to say about both proverbially and literally smashing the patriarchy, but it fails to settle on a message or an angle and instead throws a whole load of ideas into the mix in the hope that something – anything – will stick.

Despite its strong performances, ‘Lizzie’ falls short of the mark, failing to find its feet and settle on a tone and voice which feels consistent. It’s certainly not without merit, but overall, a bit of a disappointment.

SARAH’S RATING:

3

LFF 2018: The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons From a Mythical Man

Year: 2018
Directed by: Tommy Avallone

Written by Dave Curtis

You’ve heard the stories about Bill Murray, right? The one where he gatecrashes a party or the time he bartended in a random pub. The internet is awash with random Bill Murray moments that are so bizarre that they can’t possibly all be true.  This documentary follows Tommy Avallone in his quest to find out if the stories behind the myths are true and if so, what makes one of the most famous and funniest men alive do them.

I’m sure there isn’t a man, woman or child living today that hasn’t seen at least one Bill Murray film (the younger ones may have seen Garfield!). He has been famous and in the public eye for over 40 years. He has been making us laugh since he hit the big time on ‘Saturday Night Live’, then ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Groundhog Day’ and on to his more serious side in ‘Lost In Translation‘. Over the years pictures, videos and stories have surfaced on the internet of Bill Murray’s antics. They range from normal everyday stuff (signing autographs, pictures etc) to some out of the ordinary behaviour, then to the downright unbelievable. Tommy Avallone is clearly a massive fan of Murray, he gushes over the man to almost a saint-like level. All his interviews with the witnesses to Murray’s stories talk highly of the actor and it seems being in his company is something truly very special. Each story is fun and entertaining.

Watching this documentary was an easy experience, never does it fail to put a smile on your face, much like the man himself. What really would have been interesting is a look into Murray’s past and what makes him do the things he does. Avallone puts his points across as he delves into Murray’s acting background and his comedy routes, but what about his personal life? Bill Murray is notorious for being a bit difficult and falling out with his co-stars. Murray and Harold Ramis didn’t speak for years. He has had a few wives and has a number of children. Maybe that has some effect on his erratic behaviour. Or maybe he is just a  bit lonely and wants some company. This is all a bit one-sided and doesn’t do enough to paint a complete picture to the reasons why he does what he does.

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man‘ is a film for Bill Murray fans. It is an easy 70-minute watch which is a light-hearted look into a very funny man. If you wanted to really get to know Bill Murray then this isn’t the film for you. On the plus side, it has a very positive message and will leave you asking yourself  – ‘What would Bill Murray do?’

DAVE’S RATING:

3

 

 

JUMPSCARECUT: Mandy (2018)

Year: 2018
Directed by: Panos Cosmatos
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough

Written by Abbie Eales

Set deep in the backwoods of  the northwest of USA in 1983, Panos Cosmatos phantasmagorical horror sees Nicolas Cage’s stoic lumberjack, Red Miller, seeking vengeance against a variety of ghoulish figures following the murder of the love of his life, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).

The couple live in a house which could be from a fairytale, hidden in the woods, all glass walls, wood and peculiar angles. Mandy herself is the fairytale princess but one with a difference. Fragile and seemingly damaged, she appears almost otherworldly, thanks to both some excellent make-up and styling together with a beautifully subtle performance by Riseborough. She loves to read horror fiction and paints women and fantastical beasts, while clad in her Black Sabbath t-shirt and with her long dark hair, she could be the archetypal horror fan.

Although there is very little dialogue in the film, Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn manage to pack a punch where it does punctuate the visuals, from the heart-breaking speech by Mandy about a childhood encounter with starlings to some of Cage’s later sassy one-liners. They manage to paint an idyllic picture of Mandy and Red’s life together, a picture which is soon shattered when a sinister cult calling themselves The Children of the New Dawn roll into town.

Red Miller feels like the character Nicolas Cage was born to play, allowing him to showcase his tender, restrained side but also unleash some unrelenting CAGENESS. He is both lover and warrior, starting out cosied up in pyjamas and ending with… well… it’s quite the journey. In one scene Cage finds himself in a chainsaw battle against one of his tormentors, something which feels gleefully inevitable after the opening scenes of him swinging a chainsaw in the woods.

A swirling sea of reds, purples and dark blues, Mandy is part art-house music video and part homage to horror of the 1970s. The cinematography is also  part high-art and part cover-of-a-cheesy-horror-novel brought to life. The visuals are so trippy and hallucinatory you are left feeling truly off-kilter, mixing a whole slew of styles together but staying surprisingly coherent. There is even an odd interlude by Chris ‘Casper’ Kelly, creator of Adult Swim cult film Too Many Cooks which pops up when you least expect it.

The score by Oscar winning composer Jóhann Jóhannsson,  who sadly passed away in February of this year, is a thing of absolute beauty, moving from delicate, shimmering guitars to an all out aural assault with bass tones heavy enough to shake loose the bowels of hell. It’s a classic in waiting.

Mandy is the batshit, Cage-filled, hallucinatory metal horror trip you didn’t know you needed.

Abbie’s Verdict:

4

REVIEW: A Star is Born

Year: 2018
Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos

Written by Cameron Frew

Bradley Cooper’s first stride into the world of directing is a peculiar choice from the outset: a remake, of a remake, of a remake. The tried, tested and availed formula clearly strikes a chord with audiences, but that shouldn’t be a factor to belittle this stunning achievement. Cooper’s rendition of ‘A Star Is Born’ is a remarkably powerful piece of work, conjuring up an onscreen pair that’ll be remembered for years to come, some killer music and a thematically shattering tale of fame that takes the film to another level beyond a singsong – we’re certainly far from the shallow now, we’re right in at the deep end.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a tinnitus suffering country music superstar, is slowly losing control of his life. He’s ignoring medical advice, he’s addicted to prescription drugs, and most and worst of all, he’s an alcoholic. His much older brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) runs errands for him as they travel the country performing gigs, pushing him to look after himself but constantly failing. One fateful evening after a typically lively concert, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar – BYOB (bring your own boobs) is the rule. As he takes a pew and enjoys a scarily hearty measure of gin, Ally (Lady Gaga) appears on stage. He’s utterly besotted by her performance of ‘La Vie En Rose’, and charms his way to striking up a conversation with her, sparking a chain of events that’ll bring about love, stardom, and devastation in equal measure.

Cooper, starring and directing, opens the film with a pulsating, rollicking gig sequence, tracking the camera on his back as he picks up his guitar and begins to rock out to the deafening noise of his adoring crowd. Just before he goes to play, he takes a couple of pills to see him through – of course the audience can’t see that, they’re just there to see their favourite star. Straight away we get to hear Jackson’s voice, full of soulful chords accompanied by some awesomely loud music and cementing Cooper’s talents, assuring you, the viewer, that he isn’t messing around. The audience is deafening, the music is deafening, they all cancel each other out – Cooper is purposely deaf to the calling of his own problems, his fans are too busy swooning adoration to really hear what he has to say, a mantra Jackson lives by.

We then switch to Ally in an echo-ridden bathroom cubicle, screaming in frustration at her boyfriend before strolling away poetically, and as the red titles fade in over the scene, the classiness washes over you – just like how Chazelle opened La La Land in vintage style, Cooper does too.

His direction here is absolutely remarkable for a debut feature. He knows when to spend time with a moment and drain it for all its emotional worth, and also when to move on. He’s also a co-writer alongside Eric Roth and Will Fetters, so the fact he’s pulled this off in so many ways is nothing short of extraordinary. It isn’t long before the inevitable couple meet, and Cooper illuminates the spark with keenly envisioned symbolism, employing different colours for different feelings on each of their faces. What is fantastically well done, is their personalities and opinions are clearly established – Jackson loves his job, appeases his fans regularly who, funnily, always call him by his full name. Ally is immensely talented, but bogged down by a widespread lack of belief and hurtful comments about her appearance. The writing for the pair’s initial tango is so delicate, providing many laughs but also managing to be cutesy without crossing that dangerous line (there are a very small handful of moments that are a little corny). It isn’t exactly a spoiler to say what the film is really about; Jackson is so impressed by Ally’s singing and songwriting abilities, and wants to see her take a chance. Their relationship moves at a breakneck speed, but in the heat of the drunken air and the neon light, why shouldn’t they be allowed to fall for each other?

And that’s the thing – Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’ is very much a product of its time. With the omniscience of the internet and the capacity for everything to be filmed on a phone, a chance encounter in this day and age can equal fame, and the film smartly never plays down its reality in favour of distasteful theatrics. There are some damning musings on present-day stardom and the culture that surrounds it, as well as the treatment of mental health issues today. So as much as you’re drawn to the flick to hear Gaga singing her heart out, there’s a thick-skinned, dramatic heft that carries a heavy punch. For much of the running time, Cooper spends time up close with the characters, reading their facial expressions for the slightest ticks, the most minor of changes, almost letting you get to know them as the minutes fly by. You’ll cherish every second of profound character development as much as the singing.

Then again, the singing is mesmerising. The first performance of the soon-to-be-hit song, ‘Shallow’, is a perfect experience. When Ally grabs hold of the microphone with two hands and blasts out that time-stopping note, the goosebumps will wash over you like a tidal wave of kaleidoscopic emotion. Every sense in your body feels awake, feels alive, like you’re glowing with untamable joy. Overall, Gaga’s performance is fantastic, compelling whether she’s on stage or off, managing to bring an unforeseen realism despite her worldwide popstar origins, and proving her competency as a terrific actress further. But Cooper is magnificent. Very brave to put yourself out there alongside an artist as talented as Gaga, but he holds his own and will likely melt hearts with his country tones. But what’s most impressive is how he restrains Jackson’s inner struggle so heart-breakingly throughout, confiding and fighting with his brother (a turn from Elliot that oozes gravitas), while finding sanctuary in the arms of his wife in the face of his affliction – he’s not portrayed as an abusive, reckless rockstar, he’s just a man who’s led himself astray and can’t find his way back home.

The camera does have a tendency to keep moving all the time, whether it’s embodying the energetic spirit of a gig, or gently moving around the facial expressions of our lead couple. But it’s never so abrupt or grating it feels like a problem, rather, it just feels passionately fizzing with life. Some of the cinematography here is truly great, with Matthew Libatique’s evocative work shining in the grand stage scenes and hurting in moments of anguish – there are shots that’ll stay with you for a long time. The first half of the movie may hit some beats you’ll likely expect, but the second half will knock you for six, diving deep into the aftermath of lovesick decisions, all before reaching a devastating conclusion.

Despite the pain and the many, many tears, this is a film that demands an immediate revisit as soon as the credits roll. Cooper has landed a masterpiece on his first go. You could say, a star is born.

CAMERON’S RATING:

5

REVIEW: Madeline’s Madeline

Year: 2018
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July

Review by Fernando Andrade

Be sure to give Fernando’s YouTube channel a follow whilst you’re here for more genuine and insightful film reviews and video essays!