Sound of Metal

Now showing on Amazon Prime.

Based on an unfinished film called Metalhead is Darius Marder’s directorial debut, written alongside his brother Abraham, Sound of Metal. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are a young couple, whose relationship rescued him from destructive addiction, tour in thier Airstream mobile home performing as “jobbing” metal band Blackgammon. However when one morning Ruben awakes to find he has lost his hearing they find their plans for the band in ruins and Ruben desperately searching for a way to cope and get his hearing back. This leads him to moving into a deaf community run by Joe (Paul Raci) where he learns about deafness, himself and life.

This is an incredible piece of film making as Marder and his sound designer Nicolas Becker create a world that immerses you in Ruben’s trauma. The sound is a hugely important part of the story, moving seamlessly between the noise of the everyday world, beautifully done in an early scene in the RV where you hear every detail as Ruben makes breakfast, and, by cleverly using distortion, into his new one as his hearing diminishes.

The sound and performances of Cooke and particularly Riz Ahmed create an almost claustrophobic environment, especially during the opening act, as you feel Ruben’s desperation as deafness envelopes his world. In an inspired directorial touch when Ruben joins the deaf community where signing is crucial, those signed conversations are left uncaptioned for the audience, allowing us to experience his isolation and helplessness in trying to understand the world around him.

The film does move slowly and isn’t so much a story but an exploration of Ruben’s experience. Perhaps inevitably the intensity of its first half falls away a little in the second. However, the final act of the film is as powerful as its beginning as both Ruben and Lou discover some painful truths about their experience and whether thier choices are the right ones for them.

Sound of Metal is an excellent piece of film making and while it doesn’t follow a standard story arc it doesn’t have to. This is more about the experience of addiction, desperation and loss, than story.

For Ahmed’s performance and the incredible use of sound, the world it builds and the experience it creates, Sound of Metal is well worth a watch.

Pieces of a Woman

Showing on Netflix.

Written by Kata Weber and directed by Kornel Mundruczo, Pieces of a Woman is a study of grief and trauma. Vanessa Kirby, with an Oscar nominated performance, is Martha who we find alongside her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf), preparing for the home birth of their daughter. As the labour begins she is disconcerted to find her usual midwife is unavailable but is replaced by a well qualified and experienced substitute. However as the labour progresses, all is not well and when heartbreaking tragedy strikes, Martha, Sean and those close to them find themselves in a desperate spiral of grief, trauma, blame and retribution.

Pieces of a Women is a hard watch, it is an almost relentlessly dark portrayal of grief, trauma and, in reality, the impact of failing to address it. Martha and Sean’s lives spiral into very dark places as their relationship disintegrates and their behaviour becomes ever more self destructive. Those around them react differently as they seek revenge and some kind of justice against the midwife who they feel should pay for their loss.

This is much more a study of loss than a coherent narrative, the film plays out over a year but focuses mainly on the 6 months between the loss of the baby and the trial of the midwife.

The film is well shot and cleverly uses the bleak, coldness of the winter months to mirror that of the story.

You can see why Kirby has earned award recognition, with a strong and emotional performance, but they are plenty of good performances alongside, Shia LaBeouf again giving an interesting and understated performance and Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s strong, seemingly cold and callous mother.

Pieces of a Women is a tough film to enjoy, but does have plenty to admire in the performances and cinematography. However, it fails to build on a powerful opening 30 minutes and as the characters decend into their varying levels of darkness, it is difficult for the narrative to hold together.

As a study of grief and its destructive nature it is certainly successful, whether it is as successful as a film overall is harder to judge.

If you’re prepared for 2 hours of pretty bleak storytelling then there are certainly things to admire here. But it is bleak and admirable rather than for those who fancy a light hearted bit of entertainment.

Thunder Force

New on Netflix.

Written and directed by Mr Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, we have super hero spoof Thunder Force.

Emily (Octavia Spencer) and Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) are “estranged” school friends, growing up in a world where “miscreants” are a constant menace. Miscreants developed super powers after been genetically altered by an 80’s meteor impact and while all of humanity was affected only the miscreants unlocked these powers using them for nefarious means. Emily lost her parents in a miscreant attack vowing to continue their work to develop ways to unlock those powers in other humans to develop super heroes to fight back. Emily’s drive pushes her and slacker Lydia apart. However, their school reunion brings them back together. When Lydia stumbles over Emily’s life work she accidently finds herself part of an experiment giving her super strength and together with Emily who develops her own power, invisibility, the two friends become Thunder Force ready to fight miscreant crime.

The setup and the idea is promising, a fine cast is assembled including two likeable leads in Spencer and McCarthy, but unfortunately Thunder Force fails almost completely to build on that promise in this hugely mediocre comedy.

It’s not a complete loss, Spencer brings a nice comedic touch to her role and Jason Bateman is a particular highlight as the Miscreant “crab man” with his, hopefully purposely, crude effect claw arms! McCarthy is also fine trotting out the outsider, underdog character that she does well, it just reminds you of better films she’s done that character in.

Beyond that I was struggling for entertainment, the script was painfully unfunny and while there were a couple a humorous moments they were very few and far between.

Thunder Force isn’t unpleasant or offensive and in McCarthy and Spencer there are characters you could build on and there is fun to be had with the super hero genre. But, Thunder Force just isn’t anywhere near funny enough which feels like a missed opportunity.

Run

New on Netflix.

Written and directed by the team behind the excellent Searching,  Annesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, bring us thier new film, Run. Sarah Paulsen and Keira Allen play mother and daughter Diane and Chloe Sherman. Diane a single parent and Chloe her intelligent, talented and capable daughter, who also happens to be wheelchair bound and suffers from asthma and diabetes. They live a quiet and seemingly isolated but contented life. Chloe is home schooled and not allowed a smartphone or Internet access. But this is about to change as she awaits responses to her college applications. However, when Chloe finds some pills marked in her mothers name inside her medication it makes her suspicious and raises questions in her own mind about her life and the relationship between them.

Run’s story follows a relatively well trodden cinematic path, built around the condition Munchausen by Proxy and for two thirds of its 87 minutes it’s a smart, tense, intelligent psychological thriller. Allen’s Chloe, regardless of her medical challenges, is anything but helpless and Allen who herself is a wheelchair user, brilliantly helps develop the tension as everything she believed to be true is stripped away from her.

The increasingly excellent Sarah Paulsen provides a brilliant counter, in what is fundamentally a two-hander, bringing much of the sinister undercurrent to the character that served her well In the recent TV series Ratched.

Where Run falls short is its final act as it fails to retain its suspense and intelligence, increasingly becoming predictable and stretching credibility as it goes. There is also a question about whether its short running time also means it misses the chance to add a little more depth to its characters.

That final third is a little frustrating, because for me it let down what had been a really well done story. It also took away from two stand out performances, Allen and Paulsen both believable and engaging.

That said, while Run is not of the same quality as Searching, it is still a tense and enjoyable ride.

Concrete Cowboy

Available on Netflix.

Based on the true life story of the Fletcher Street stables in north Philadelphia, we find this heartfelt, if familiar story of troubled kid trying to find his way in life on difficult city streets surrounded by poverty, drugs, alcohol and gang culture. Colt (Caleb McLaughlin) is expelled from his Detroit high school and his mother decides to take him to his father (Idris Elba) for the summer in the hope he can straighten him out. Harp is a north Philly cowboy, running one of the last inner city stables. The stables are trying to hold off the relentless march of gentrification that continues to displace poor communities. It is within this environment Colt is challenged with finding himself and his purpose while avoiding the potential traps that life on the streets of inner cities are laced with.

Concrete Cowboy is a slow moving mix of stories, there is a familiar one as Colt struggles with finding his path in life as his Dad imparts classic tough love wisdom on him. This runs the risk of pushing him into a life on the streets with his childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome) who is involved with drugs, gangs and their inherent risks. Alongside this is a gentle story of developing relationships and hope.

The film raises questions about displacement of poor communities and the threatening undercurrent of a gang culture that awaits the young disenfranchised men in them. In McLaughlin there is a solid and engaging central performance as he struggles to balance loyalty to his friend with the growing positive influence of working with the horses and people at the stables. He is well supported by Elba, Jerome and some impressive performances from an amateur cast made up of members of the real stables and cowboy community.

It’s not a film that is going to stand out as it treads its familiar path, but it certainly it is engaging, warm and watchable. It also does a good job of capturing the almost tragic inevitability of the situation, for both the stables and young men in poor inner cities.

Concrete Cowboy is patient and emotionally engaging, filled with good, watchable performances. The story, while predictable, is interesting enough and certainly drew me in and kept me invested in it from start to finish.

Scoob!

Available on streaming services and Sky Cinema in the U.K.

Not for the first time Mystery Inc. are on the big screen to solve another mystery. There’s been plenty of feature length Scooby Doo’s including a couple of live action outings. This time we are back in animated territory as the gang are looking to take Mystery Inc. to the next stage of more challenging “grown-up” mysteries with their new financial backer Simon Cowell. However, when there is a suggestion that Scooby and Shaggy aren’t bringing much to the group, they slope off feeling unwanted. But when they run into an army of small and angry transformers and a superhero team they find themselves in a race to save the world from arch villain Dick Dastardly.

This outing is a little “wacky” including the odd decisions to give Scooby a speaking part far beyond his usual “Raggy” and the use of an animation technique that looks rather cheap and a long way from the quality the modern animation audience is used too.

That said, there are things to enjoy, the voice cast have fun, Gina Rodriguez as Velma and Amanda Seyfreid’s Daphne in particular and Jason Issac’s is in his villainous element as Dick Dastardly. There are also some nice Hanna-Barbera crossovers with cameos from Captain Caveman and Muttley as well as a nicely updated opening credits recreating the classic 60’s titles.

However, it does lack the traditional feel of a Scooby adventure, less mystery more animated superhero battle, but while the animation is underwhelming, it’s colourful and fast moving and they’ll be enough fun to keep a younger audience entertained and plenty of nods and winks to keep an older one watching.

Scoob! Could’ve been an awful lot worse and actually I found it fun, but it does feel a bit straight to TV and is not in the same league as what you’d expect from today’s major animation studios. But for those who remember the original it’s a decent nostalgic trip and I think for the kids fun enough.

The Mauritanian

Now showing on Amazon Prime Video.

Directed by Kevin McDonald and based on Mohamedeu Ould Slahi’s book about his 14 year imprisonment in the US governments Guantanamo Bay base. Slahi (Tahir Rahim) was arrested in his home country of Mauritania and shipped to Guantanamo in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and this film tells the story of  Slahi’s time held without charge and the legal case to challenge his imprisonment led by Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster).

The Mauritanian, as you can imagine, offers a shocking and often harrowing account of Slahi’s time in prison, alongside the long, often hampered, battle to question the legality of his imprisonment and give Slahi his opportunity in court.

The film itself, while intriguing, is interestingly restrained avoiding the easy option of showing scene after scene of shocking treatment. Instead McDonald is more balanced, choosing to be patient, reflecting more on the long term incarceration and glimpses of humanity, which has the effect of, when we do see his torture, it been more shocking.

Alongside this we have the more procedural legal drama which plays out much as expected, the difficulties of discovery, the attempts to obfuscate the evidence and the eventual realisation, on both sides, of the lawlessness and abuse carried out at Guantanamo.

Tahir Rahim portrays Slahi with a quiet dignity and you can see why his performance has garnered awards attention. Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stuart Couch, as opposing legal council, bring what you’d expect, evolving their characters as they discover more of the abuses.

I did enjoy The Mauritanian and McDonald’s restrained approach. But wonder whether that leaves it feeling too much standard legal drama, not quite capturing the shocking nature of Slahi’s story and the broader questions about Guantanamo.

Made in Italy

New to Amazon Prime Video.

Written and directed by James D’Arcy, Made in Italy is a predictable, but warm and humourous romantic comedy. Michael Richardson is Jack, a London gallery owner who suddenly finds he’s going to be out of work when the owners and family of his estranged wife decide they want to sell. His only hope is to buy it himself and to do that he needs to raise money by agreeing with his father and artist Robert (Richardson’s real life father Liam Neeson), to sell a family home in Tuscany. However, the home has been left abandoned for 20 years, since the death of Jack’s mother, Robert’s wife. They travel to Tuscany to freshen the place up, but it needs much more than an a lick of paint.

The story of this film sadly reflects the real life story of Richardson and Neeson who had had their own family tragedy and that reality does sit in the background, especially as you watch the more emotional scenes where they try to come to terms with the guilt and regret of their loss.

That said, this is very predictable, nuts and bolts bit of storytelling, it follows a very well trodden path, estrangement, new love, relationship growth and change. However, it’s a nicely told story, with warmth, some charm and a nice light humorous touch. While it does deliver laughs, it struggles in its more emotional moments that feel a little “clunky”, although there is a well done father and son scene later in the film.

Liam Neeson is surprisingly watchable in this comic role, with a nice comedic touch and dry delivery, that suggests when he finally retires his action film persona, there’s a career in fluffy romcoms. Lindsay Duncan has a nice cameo as estate agent Kate and Valeria Bilello as Natalia also provides good support.

Made in Italy is a very disposable bit of entertainment, enjoyable enough while its on, beautifully shot with lots of gorgeous Tuscan scenery to enjoy and a nice warm humour. It is unlikely to stick with you much once the credits roll, but pleasant enough.

Six Minutes to Midnight.

Showing on Sky Cinema in the UK.

Written by Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones, Andy Goddard directs this “based on true events” story of a finishing school in Bexhill-on-Sea on England’s Sussex coast which hosted the daughters of prominent Nazi’s and Nazi sympathizers, teaching them language, deportment and etiquette. The school was opened in 1932 and closed just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

While the school existed, built around it is a fictitious tale of spying, secret evacuations and double crossings. Eddie Izzard plays Thomas Miller a “jobbing” school teacher who joins Miss Rocholl’s (Judi Dench) small staff after the sudden disappearance of his predecessor. He quickly discovers that all may is not as it seems with the students and their German teacher, Ilse Keller (Caral Juri). But then all is not what it seems with Miller, as he finds himself in a race against time as the clock ticks down toward the beginning of the war.

This film is certainly not without flaws, its dialogue is clunky at times, Izzard in not wholly believable in the lead role and the fictitious story around the school is often silly. I think your enjoyment of this film will be in direct correlation to how much your prepared to go with it.

I personally decided the longer the film went on the more I was happy to roll with it. It’s shot in the style of classic 1950’s British spy dramas, in fact I’m surprised it wasn’t shot in black and white. Izzards comic background comes out in a pacey and humorous script, even if it does “clunk” heavily at times. Performances are a bit unbalanced, while Izzard is not always convincing and the girls are almost caricatures of Germanic, young Nazi’s but balanced by Judi Dench. She brings her usual gravitas as the head of the school, capturing the move between stoic defence of the school to concerned mother hen for “her girls”. Juri, Tijan Merai as Gretel, the outsider of the group, and Jim Broadbent as mysterious bus driver Charlie all offer good support.

Six Minutes to Midnight is presented in the UK as a Sky original, which is often a warning, but to its credit it is certainly one of the more enjoyable films from this stable. If you’re prepared to forgive some of its failings and if you like the look and feel of those classic 1950’s spy dramas I think you’ll find enough in its short running time to enjoy.

Finding the Way Back

Available on VOD and Sky Cinema in the UK.

Finding the Way Back is a classic comeback story. Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a former high school basketball star, now working in construction, living in a small apartment, separated from his wife and with a clear drink problem his life has taken many a downward turn. He is then offered an opportunity by his old school to coach their failing basketball team, who’ve not seen success since Jack’s playing days. He reluctantly accepts, which gives him a new purpose, the chance to inspire the group of young men in his charge.

If the plot sounds familiar, then that’s because it is. Brad Inglesby’s story and Director Gavin O’Connor deliver an absolutely paint by numbers comeback story, you can telegraph every turn as it ticks off all of the classic tropes, down and out, attempt at redemption, things going well etc. But that’s not a negative, the reason that these stories keep getting retold, is because done well they make a good watch.

This certainly sits at the better end of the scale, Affleck is in his element in this role, playing the down and out, alcoholic Cunningham, these are the kinds of role he does so well, the flashes of inspiration and passion, balanced by the under current of the trials that have taken him to this point in his life. Janina Gavankar offers good support as Cunningham’s estranged wife, with a nicely understated series of scenes between them that explore more of the events that have impacted them both. The young cast who make up the basketball team do a good job of delivering all the relevant character’s required by an underdog team, but all are believable and likeable.

While this is not the most original film you’ll see, it is a nicely done one, filled with solid performances and a story that is full of heart, even if some of its contrivances are a little convenient. Let’s face it a well done telling of a classic comeback story is always worth a watch and this is one of those.

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