LFF 2021: A Hero – Review

Release Date – 21st January 2022, Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 8 minutes, Director – Asghar Farhadi

When given two days of parole from his prison sentence Rahim (Amir Jadidi) attempts to paint an image of himself as an honest, almost saintly, man in the hope of never going back, despite cynicism from his creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh).

There’s so much about the general narrative of A Hero that could lead it to so easily fall into comedy that perhaps one of the most admirable things about it is that it’s mostly consistent in the dramatic tone in which it presents. Yes, there’s certainly room for chuckles every now and then, and it threatens to tip into farce as elements lead on to other occurrences, but largely the drama of writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s latest is somewhat set in stone. He follows the increasingly worried and desperate flight of Amir Jadidi’s Rahim as he tries to present the world with a narrative of his saintly actions, in the hope that his jail term for unpaid debts will be terminated, instead of remaining as the two days of parole which he has been given.

It all begins when his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) discovers a bag of gold coins, which when proved to not be worth very much are offered up as a found item. Rahim claims he found the bag when searching for the owner, attempting to paint himself in a good light with this heroic deed. While the world goes mad over his gradually increasing yarn, which soon requires family support – especially from his young son (Saleh Karimai); whose stammer is eventually used for sympathy points, and that from strangers, to keep things afloat, his creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) remains cynical. There’s a strong cast at the centre of this piece, particularly Jadidi in the leading role, consistently reminding the viewer of the drama at play. This is a film that could so easily feel tired, calling back to features we’ve seen before with similar strands and narratives, if played out as an out and out comedy.

Everything sets up for the chaos that all the lies create in the second half. The winding roads of deception that are being spun out as increasing interested is shown towards the story of this lost bag of ‘valuable’ gold coins. As the second half arrives the risk of stepping into something farcical comes back into play, with the film luckily swerving to just about avoid it. Instead while the piece doesn’t quite lose steam it does somewhat dip as you feel the winding nature of the piece pushing along the run-time. While not by much the feeling that one or two scenes could be slightly trimmed down is present, especially as more is added on to make the initial deceit that bit more complex, eventually involving even more people. Rahim’s aim soon becomes not being out of jail for good, but simply not being found out so that he ends up in jail for even longer once he returns.

It’s something you can see running through his mind during a number of the lengthier ensemble conversations, where most of the occasional humour lies in such effective interactions. An increased panic spreading through his eyes with each addition to the elaborate tale he’s telling, with each new detail he needs to craft and, more importantly, remember. All with suspicion and doubt being cast upon him, and an ever-looming creditor (Tanabandeh also on excellent form), insistent on payment before he considers anything to do with Rahim’s jail term.

Such elements and interactions, while occasionally somewhat lengthy, act as some of the highlights of the film as the characters get the opportunity to, while initially through a kind of mediator, bounce off each other and play a, sometimes unknowing, role in the developing course of Rahim’s tale. It eventually pushes the run-time a bit beyond where it would perhaps be better suited, but overall there’s a solid drama to be found within A Hero. One that while occasional straying towards farce in the winding nature of the second half manages to keep its head above water thanks to a selection of fine performances that recognise the drama in the script and bring that about to stop a tired comedic tone coming through.

While a bit overlong, because of the winding additions to the initial lie of Jadidi’s finely performed central character, A Hero never fully strays into comedy or farce. While there are some chuckles the performances largely remind you that what is playing out is a piece of drama.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Nightmare Alley – Review

Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 30 minutes, Director – Guillermo del Toro

Shady stranger Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself picking up skills and tricks as a mentalist after joining a carnival, however a world of lies opens up as his success increases.

“It ain’t hope if it’s a lie, Stan” drunken retired mentalist Pete (David Strathairn) snaps at suave and quite stranger Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) when he questions about clairvoyance being used as a way to give hope to people wanting to know about their loved ones in the afterlife. On realising that he had gone too far and couldn’t tell the difference between truth and lie the dishevelled Pete turned his back on that part of his life, having turned more towards alcohol and acting as a hidden assistant to his wife, Zeena (Toni Collette), who is in similar work at the same carnival. Stanton comes into their life when getting off the bus outside the carnival at which they work at, wandering in and working his way into a job helping out the various figures that make up the group of ‘oddities’ and attractions. After a short amount of time Stan (as he becomes known) finds himself picking up and learning skills and abilities from Pete, which he soon intends to use for his own hustler gain.

Despite having seen what the seemingly controlled life has done to Pete – Strathairn delivering a truly unsung standout performance, which may go down, for me, as one of the best of the year! – Stan is adamant that he has everything in order and knows exactly how things will pan out. Even more so with the help of fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara), not always aware of Stan’s true intentions. As the two turn their own backs on the carnival and set out into the world to perform in-front of high society Guillermo del Toro’s latest flicks a switch and the narrative begins to take shape. It feels like the first half of this two and a half hour piece is largely made up of build-up and development for the plot that makes up the second half of the film. We get to see and generally know the figures that welcome, train and, at times, threaten Stan before he moves on to a more profitable life.

There’s certainly the feeling of a different tone and more fluidity as this change occurs, particularly as we finally get to see Cate Blanchett’s psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter. However, Nightmare Alley, despite it’s length; which could be trimmed down, likely by taking out or shortening some of the instances in the largely carnival-based segment of the film, never feels like two different films stuck together. It simply has two different halves as it explores one world and demonstrates the consequences in another. The style and flare still remains the same – technically, particularly in terms of the production and costume design, there’s a lot of attention to detail to enhance the noir-like nature of the world which is being laid out for the viewer.

Yet, with everything that you do see there still seems to be lacking in terms of the mystery that surrounds Stanton’s past. We see very brief occasional glimpses of the event that led him to get on a bus to as-far-away-as-possible but these feel rare and you sometimes forget the fact that there’s a key event that led to his arrival in the first place. The element of mystery somewhat vanishes as his dark past is put aside in exchange for everything that is happening in the present, and while when it does return the mystery, and slightly sinister nature, is felt, it’s certainly rare and feels moved on from quickly.

There’s sometimes a busy sense to Nightmare Alley, particularly in the first half where the ensemble nature is emphasised more amongst the carnival folk. However, great performances and an intriguing sense of build up and development help keep you engaged for when the narrative finally comes into play. The film as a whole might feel overlong, and there may be some elements that could do with trimming while others may work better with slight expansion, but overall there’s still an interesting tale being spun by del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan. Just one that sometimes takes a while to tell and takes some, although still engaging and holding some of the best elements; and performances, of the film, build-up beforehand.

Nightmare Alley is certainly a film of two halves. One focused on build-up, the other narrative. They both work, although eventually pushing the feeling of the run-time, and have plenty of visual detail and great performances to be caught up in. It just occasionally feels that amongst everything we do see there’s a certain dark mystery left out.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

LFF 2021: Red Rocket – Review

Release Date – 11th March 2022, Cert – TBC, Run-time – 2 hours 8 minutes, Director – Sean Baker

Washed-up porn star Mikey (Simon Rex) returns to his small town Texas roots, trying to start his career back up while getting caught up with his ex-wife (Bree Elrod) and teenage doughnut shop worker Strawberry (Suzanna Son).

With Red Rocket, Sean Baker once again takes a look at the dramas of those away from the mainstream, or rather those next door to it. We see washed-up porn star Mikey (Simon Rex) return after years in LA to the Texas town which he used to call home, to a brick-wall response. He hasn’t thought that turning his back on everyone in his life would cause them to hold grudges against him. Including his ex-wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), who he ends up living with again while he tries to set his career back up. He’s waiting for his second big break, but doesn’t know where to find it. Until he meets seventeen year old doughnut shop worker Strawberry (Suzanna Son). His initial attention, and frequenting of Donut Hole – almost as much as the builders across the road – begins to switch to his own thoughts of jumping back into the porn industry, with her help. She could be the person to save him and pick him back up in multiple ways.

This relationship between the pair, which becomes more prominent the more Mikey focuses on getting back to California, could so easily become uncomfortable, particularly with the various raunchy (to put it mildly…) discussions that take place between them. The thought does enter your mind that it might begin to reach a point that’s a step too far, however Baker manages to just about restrain things by not making the relationship the core of the fil. In fact Red Rocket isn’t even always about Mikey and the way he interacts with the world, more the way the world; and the people within it, interact with, and behave around, him. It forms a set of events with no largely overarching plot, although characters (particularly the comedically determined protagonist, excellently performed by Rex who also manages to bring about a fair deal of chuckles throughout the piece) do have their own personal hopes and goals, and it passes well in this way.

Through Baker’s now distinct cinematography we see the various locations in a hazy, almost dizzying for the characters, light. As they each get caught up in each other’s stories and trying to get used to a new life while trying to continue on as they once did before change can properly be brought about for good there’s plenty to see and be involved in. Amongst the, somewhat light feeling, dramas there’s a fair handful of humour dashed throughout the piece that keeps things going and certainly keeps you in place as Mikey’s ambitions begin to overinflate and overtake even himself, while never quite seeming unlikeable due to coming across as egotistical.

It’s as events change because of Mikey’s not properly thought through dreams that the various incidents to bring the film to a close arrive. Much of the third act feels somewhat tacked on to the rest of the film, generally heightening the already existent feeling that things could be cut down a bit. Much like the central figure the film almost begins to get ahead of itself and while not an entirely different piece does feel as if it’s gone through something of a shift to match the on-screen panic and desperation in what becomes a true last-ditch attempt to leave the perceived emptiness of small town life for good. Rex is still on great form as his character and his hopes are brought more towards the centre at this time, but the film as a whole begins to sway as it introduces and brings back elements to wrap itself up. It’s a slightly drawn out set of events that pushes the run-time beyond the already lengthy two hour mark and begins to somewhat disengage you from the piece as a whole. There’s still something good playing it, just of a rather different pitch and tone to that which was jogging along beforehand.

By bringing in some laughs, thanks to a great ensemble cast, particularly an excellent Simon Rex, Red Rocket manages to stray away from an overly heavy, or uncomfortable, feel. However, it’s run-time does feel stretched, particular in the shift of, what feels like, the tacked on third act.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rebecca Rogers Interview

Something a bit different for this site, I spoke to TikTok/ social media’s Rebecca Rogers to discuss how she came to the app, classroom inclusion, creating places of safety online, fidget toys and more.

You can find and follow Rebecca on her various social media platforms including: TikTok, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.

If you want to listen to any of Rebecca’s song requests you can hear them by following the links below:
I Did Something Bad – Taylor Swift
Love Story (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift
Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift

LFF 2021: Ali And Ava – Review

Release Date – 4th March 2022, Cert – TBC, Run-time – 1 hour 35 minutes, Director – Clio Barnard

Romantically lonely souls Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and Ava (Claire Rushbrook) spark a surprise relationship which appears to create familial rifts as they grow closer.

There’s a highly down-to-earth naturalistic nature to writer-director Clio Barnard’s Ali And Ava. It removes a ‘will they, won’t they’ feel from her romantic drama as you simply watch the relationship between the two initially romantically lonely souls grow. The pair have had their fair share of relationship troubles (to put it mildly). Ali (an excellent Adeel Akhtar) is a landlord with a passion for music, collecting money from his various tenants, who he appears to be on very friendly terms with – seemingly the case with everyone he meets, greeting them with a courteous smile. Meanwhile, Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a softly-spoken, mild-mannered classroom assistant and caring mother, still recovering from her abusive ex-husband, and a tense relationship with her son, Callum (Shaun Thomas). The pair meet after a chance encounter when Ali is picking one of his tenants kids up from school in the pouring rain, just as Ava is about to begin walking home herself.

It’s an initial click that starts the snowballing effect into a friendship and beyond. The pair natter and discuss and set off on very friendly terms with each other. It’s a close friendship that has clearly been missing from their lives for a fair while and it’s certainly interesting to see it develop in some of the quieter conversational scenes between the pair. However, on discovery the bond between the pair is met with frustration and anger from Callum, going for the attack on Ali, who himself is trying to hide his connection to Ava from his soon-to-be-separated wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) and family as a whole, and vice versa. It’s such moments that lie within slightly longer scenes with perhaps a bit less connection to than those holding the bonding of the central friendship, and eventual romance.

In general the themes are well handled and they fit the short 95 minute run-time well, and with little complaints, however the feeling is present that one or two do feel slightly extended. Things don’t completely stray into ‘this could be a short film’ territory, and this is perhaps largely down to the run-time and the two central performances that are at the heart of the film – capturing the fine, naturalistic bond that acts as the core of the piece in the first place. While the friendship feels more developed than the more romantic side which is introduced later on; perhaps because of the engaging scenes of bantering and bonding over music and general conversations and observations on life, in the simple setting of Ava’s cluttered living room, there’s still enough to keep you engaged in the film as a whole and get you to the end.

It just all gives the ending a slightly rushed feeling as with everything developed, particularly between Ava and her son, adding potential dramas and tensions to the titular pairing. After a handful of longer and slower scenes making up quiet observations throughout the film the final stages almost feel as if something is missing, you’re almost waiting for further development from the quick-feeling ending. Perhaps there’s a want for certainty for the viewer towards the characters after everything we’ve seen them endure and go through. There’s not exactly a growth so to say, but a re-gaining of something they both knew was missing from their lives, having acknowledged and lived within that gap every day. It’s a point made and felt in a handful of scenes, particularly as the relationship begins to grow and we see things develop with interest. There’s a mild warmth between the well-performed Ali and Ava and it certainly helps to heighten the coldness of some of the drama. Some of these elements simply feel slightly drawn out, and engage you further in the perceived light of the initial friendship.

The titular Ali and Ava are brought to life by two excellent central performances who understand and fill the gap in the others life. While some dramatic elements feel slightly drawn out there’s enough within the central relationship, particularly the initial bonding, to keep you in place for the short run-time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

LFF 2021: The Souvenir Part II – Review

Release Date – 4th February 2022, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 47 minutes, Director – Joanna Hogg

Student filmmaker Julie’s (Honor Swinton Byrne) graduation film becomes a lookback in multiple ways as she attempts to capture her past relationship, after her partner passed away from an overdose.

2019’s The Souvenir perhaps gained something of an eventually mixed reception. It focused on the relationship between student filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her older partner, Anthony (Tom Burke). A number of their conversations revolved around art and film, particularly when his friends became involved. In this intended second part to writer-director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical story we see Julie using her experiences as the basis for her graduation film, however her real world experiences begin to overlap with her creative vision, causing frustrations for her cast and crew.

While she wants to make a perfect film, a good final product to prove herself, she’s striving to make an accurate depiction of events that demonstrates what she’s been through – almost as an act of therapy. We see her struggle trying to piece things together, especially with a very tight budget, with her stresses flowing in her everyday life – her slight doubts and worries felt in each scene. Occasional meetings with Richard Ayoade’s more present Patrick don’t always help. His strive for perfection in his big-production musical, and indeed his own life, aren’t always sources of consolation for Julie – all finely displayed within a strong central performance from Swinton Byrne.

While perhaps mostly for those who have seen the first film, The Souvenir Part II concerns itself deeply with the creative process. The forms of expression in which Julie concerns herself with when it comes to making her film as perfect as possible. She’s both got full control and yet appears to be losing it as realism is aimed for. There’s a shift as we reach an almost unexpected turn into dream-like sequences which eventually act as some of the most engaging points in the film. Capturing something new within the piece overall and the central character. It captures your attention with an almost unpredictable nature as to where this will take the film and the character as a whole, particularly at a pivotal point in the creative process of the work that Julie and her crew are producing. All floating within the swirl of the conflicting words “just make what makes you happy, what you like, what you’re interested in, and it’ll work”.

There’s perhaps more to hook onto and engage with in this sequel, particularly for those who may have been more lukewarm, or even generally negative, towards the first film. It feels different, matching the new stage in the life of the protagonist, and while initially similar to the original and holding some slightly scattered ideas things manage to draw you in as it delves into the conflict of creativity and personal experiences and accuracy that’s being experiences at the heart of the film. Acknowledging what the past may have actually been like, what was went through, instead of potentially sugar-coating it like before – especially when told “I’m coming up against your idea of him, rather than the reality of him” when trying to cooperate within the actors bringing to life her remembrances in the cramped and tightly-built set.

It’s interesting to see where the film reaches and where Julie, as a character, goes over the course of the narrative. There are plenty of engaging notes, not just within the scenes involving the film production and creativity. Even scenes involving Tilda Swinton and Julie’s mother, Rosalind, have a sense of thought, and slight calm to them – this is Tilda Swinton in the role of a caring mother, after all! (Forming a number of brief and emotionally ranging highlights within her scenes).

Once all is pieced together and Julie’s relationships throughout the film are established, as she’s opened up to the world outside of her past relationship, there are a handful of points to help bring you in to The Souvenir Part II. Mostly revolving around the progression of the well-performed central figure, and the film she’s trying to make – whether it be semi-autobiographical narrative, or documentary style-recreation. Such feelings are present within this sequel and they blend well together to tell a form of dual lookback; acting with personal and creative confliction that help to bring you in further. Swinton Byrne’s character has been allowed to open up into the world, but is almost closing herself off to her vision of the past. This is a film of a handful of strands and subtleties that build up overtime, developing into something quietly engaging and interesting, all down to the detail and thought of the central figure’s personal arc.

The Souvenir Part II is largely concerned with the personal and creative conflict and unity of its well-performed central figure. Details expand overtime, helping to bring you in, and lead to further engaging surprises that work well for both Hogg’s and Swinton Byrne’s central character’s visions.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

LFF 2021: Belfast – Review

Release Date – 21st January 2022, Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 38 minutes, Director – Kenneth Branagh

Nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) finds the future of his family in their Belfast home thrown into uncertainty when the Troubles break into his neighbourhood.

As the effects of the Troubles create dividing tensions within the working class neighbourhood of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) the street where kids once freely played and parents casually chattered has become littered with rubbish, rubble and conversations in which tension hangs in every word like a loosely wrapped threat. The setting appears to become darker, greyer in terms of the black and white nature in which writer-director Kenneth Branagh captures this late 60s throwback of sorts. Yet, amongst the fear that the Troubles cause and the rifts that emerge within the neighbourhood the film largely follows young Buddy as he tries to go about his daily life. There’s a warmth of innocence – brought about by a stunning performance from Hill in the leading role – that washes over each scene as he tries to play and the Troubles, to him at times, almost feel like a background element to the course that he takes.

The effects are certainly shown on his already struggling parents (played by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe), who while struggling for money are having circulating conversations about moving to the seeming safety of England – where Dornan frequently travels to for work. The family unit feels natural and brings you in to their mixture, as if placed at the same table (or living room) during many scenes. None more so than when Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds are on screen as Buddy’s Granny and Pop. Both performances bring about a fine sense of warmth and humour and almost act as the true escape from everything going on in the outside world, while still being the greatest givers of advice and thought to Buddy as his biggest worries are still how he can get to talk to a girl he likes at school. Through each strand and figure the heart of Branagh’s film is increased and when blended with an excellent soundtrack there’s a true piece of work about a child simply growing up and living his life, while never dampening the extent of the various dramas at play.

Everything comes across with a fine sense of care and ease. Branagh looks back with a thoughtful nature that feels far from self-indulgent. There may be a personal story here, yet he opens the world out for everyone, by showing events through Buddy’s eyes; particularly the loud chaos and confusion of an impactful riot scene which he gets caught up in. Branagh puts himself into the craft and look of Belfast. The way in which it’s shot and edited, both finely constructed and helping to tell the story and engage the viewer further, emphasise the details and the way in which he wants you to see the film. Making sure you notice the struggles which Dornan and Balfe (and indeed the rest of the tightly-packed estate – intensifying the rising tensions later on) are facing and fighting through, while still focusing on the personal story of a young boy finding his place in the world, and potentially having to move away from it; after having spent his whole life there and largely loving it. You just have to see simple scenes such as walks home from school or family outings to go and see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for proof of this.

What we see over the just over 90 minute course of the film is something of a time capsule. An early shift from the colour of modern day Belfast to the initially light black and white of the late 1960s puts this feeling into place. There’s a story being told and unfolded that the characters live through, and its easy to get caught up in and form a connection with them thanks to the naturality that almost every moment comes with. This isn’t as much a coming-of-age film for the young protagonist, but one where we see him acting out his life against the darkness of where he lives. This is as much a family drama, with its fair share of heart and laughs, as much as it is something about the Troubles. All finely balanced and depicted by Branagh who opens up his story book and guides his camera through the pages, bringing the viewer along for the ride as they observe a childhood acted out against the backdrop of the Troubles. There are fine performances to bring the piece to life – especially a pitch perfect Jude Hill in the central role – and capture the natural feel of each scene. It’s hard not to fall for, and in to, Belfast. A thoughtfully and caringly told story of family and childhood.

By placing an excellent Jude Hill at the centre of his piece Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a tightly-edited piece on childhood and growing up, set against the finely tuned and balanced tensions of the Troubles the gradual changes in the world never hinder the innocence and familial warmth that’s on display from the supporting cast.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Scream – Review

Cert – 18, Run-time – 1 hour 54 minutes, Directors – Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

When her younger sister (Jenna Ortega) is attacked by a new Ghostface killer (Roger L. Jackson), Sam (Mellissa Barrera) finds herself seeking the help of ‘legacy’ survivors Dewey Riley (David Arquette), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) to find the new killer.

It takes a while for us to finally hear Roger L. Jackson’s voice once again say “Hello Sidney”, but when that almost iconic horror line is spoken it’s hard not to feel a slight rush of excitement as we know that Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott is truly back in Ghostface’s world and traps. However, in the case of this latest entry into the Scream franchise Prescott is far from the central figure. She’s a noted ‘legacy’ character, alongside her fellow survivors from the previous four films – Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers and David Arquette’s Dewey Riley. Instead the new Ghostface killer is largely being hunted down by newcomer Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera). After Sam’s younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked by the new masked slasher her entire friendship group is put at risk, uncertain of how to survive apart from using previous patterns and the now long-running (and apparently tired) Stab franchise. It’s here that Sam decides to bring in the ‘legacy’ characters to help her find out who the new killer is.

Scream has been known for its convention poking, both in and out of its own franchise. It started out as a kind of slasher-parody after all. However, here writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick take things to another level. There’s a truly meta and self-aware nature to this ‘requel’ – something which it acknowledges and runs with; like an extended version of Jamie Kennedy’s horror-sequel explanation in Scream 2 – this knowingly being titled Scream instead of Scream 5, for example, is just the tip of the iceberg. It makes for a funnier feel to some of the previous films in the series and means that in many ways the parody truly comes to the fore. In fact, it’s as it properly begins to kick off – and the legacy figures come more into play – that the narrative truly takes off and brings you with it, after a somewhat slow and gradual build-up.

Yet, amongst all the parody the horror is truly still in place. This is perhaps the most intense Scream film yet in terms of the horror and attacks that the new Ghostface killer acts out. The levels of blood and gore brought in co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s previous feature Ready Or Not are also present here, while never bordering on the feeling of being sadistic or simply too much. It adds to the overall style and nature of the film, adding a sense of darkness and allowing the attack sequences to become the highlights of the film, not to mentioning warranting its 18 rating. Pushing the threat that this new killer poses. One who, as we know, will likely be unmasked at the end. And the film further leans into this within the narrative, making a point of the mystery; bringing the viewer in to play along like a truly dark, twisted, horror-tinged murder mystery. It greatly moves on from the strong (perhaps intentional) 90s feel of the majority of the first act (opening scene/ recreation aside) and brings you into a familiar world with one or two different central faces, many of whom we know will be bumped off at some point.

The film makes note of all of this, makes us aware that it knows what it’s doing and that we just know that. Pointing out its conventions and commentaries and simply picking itself apart as it moves along. It does this with a fair sense of ease as it eventually moves along quickly, once having established itself, and allows for the new characters to simply try and track down (or in some cases be tracked down by) the new killer. There are plenty of thrills along the way and some finely tuned moments; particularly those involving returning characters, David Arquette in particular delivers a fine performance that truly sets the tone for the return of Cox and Campbell – both of whom enjoy their moments in the spotlight, while never being crowbarred in for too long, it’s clear that this is not their film but they play pivotal roles in the outcome.

Everything is laid out for the viewer yet there’s still plenty of mystery and suspense along the way, all working well with the overall parody nature. This latest Scream film takes plenty of the elements that has made this franchise a firm favourite for many people and emphasises them to ramp up the overall intensity and nature of the humour too. All moulding together to create a fine continuation that certainly feels like a Scream film, is almost unmistakeably a Scream film, and brings you in to feel at home within the run-time while still bringing in the senses of tension, horror and unease. There’s a fine film here that knows what’s it’s doing and is all the better for the fact that it lets the audience know just this while avoiding a feeling of smugness within its personal and wider dissection, not to mention each brutal slash and stab.

Ghostface is back and brings with them a self-aware set of characters and events who make for plenty of meta parody and effectively intense attacks and killings. Once things truly get going there’s a fine mix throughout the film of such tones, alongside the balance between new characters and welcome, well-used legacy figures.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hotel Transylvania: Transformania – Review

Cert – U, Run-time – 1 hour 28 minutes, Director – Derek Drymon, Jennife Kluska

Dracula (Brian Hull) and Johnny (Andy Samberg) travel to South America to find a crystal to power a machine which has reversed their human and monster forms, while those back at Hotel Transylvania are dealing with their own human troubles.

Towards the end of my review for Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation I stated that it’s perhaps time to put the nail in the coffin for this franchise. Not that it’s been in any way bad, however the feeling of repetition certainly began to settle in, particularly in terms of echoes of conventions from outside of the franchise. Yet, here we now are with a fourth entry that has been sent by the studio direct to streaming (through Amazon Prime). The case very much feels the same as we once again see Dracula (now played by Brian Hull doing a rather spot-on performance, instead of Adam Sandler) attempting to bond with daughter Mavis’ (Selena Gomez) human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg). It’s after he backtracks on his decision to hand his beloved century and a quarter old hotel to the couple when he fears that Johnny will transform it into an unrecognisable health spa of colour, instead of the gothic castle which it currently is.

After being told that the reason is simply because he’s not a monster Johnny receives help from Jim Gaffigan’s monsterfication ray wielding Van Helsing. However, while Johnny is happy in his dragon-like body things go wrong when Dracula and co are given human form – something which they must revert by finding a crystal to replace the now broken one which lies in the ray. Much of this happens within the first 15-20 minutes of the rather short 88 minute run-time – particularly within one lengthy opening scene. It’s clear that the film wants to set itself up quickly and get into the plot, but the general feel begins to come across as something like an extended TV episode rather than that of a fully-rounded feature film. While this somewhat fades away once the father son-in-law pairing travel to South America to find the crystal it lingers when jumping back to the titular hotel as the supporting set of characters (Frankenstein (Brad Abrell), wolfman Wayne (Steve Buscemi), invisible man Griffin (David Spade) – often the literal butt of the joke when it’s revealed that he’s been naked all these years – and mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key)) find themselves dealing with their own human transformations.

We see occasional tangents to the supporting figures, who it seems like the screenwriters aren’t quite sure what to do with for most of the feature, yet still feel obliged to include them. They wander around the hotel trying to hide from their respective partners in emphasised cartoonish manners (largely displayed in the animation style) in the hope their transformations aren’t discovered. It’s a set of sequences that, much like the core narrative, doesn’t overly hold a lot of laughs; but does manage to be something fairly watchable and harmless for the time that it’s on. Perhaps this is the film in the franchise most targeted towards kids rather than the family as a whole, with its standard narrative and occasionally emphasised Saturday-morning cartoon style.

When it comes to the course of the central narrative we’ve certainly seen it before; both within this series and out of it. It’s a recognisable one, but there’s just about enough within the film and its slight simplicity that helps hold this up and allow things to not feel completely tired and dead in the water, generally making for an easier watch overall. There are one or two chuckles (perhaps just that) and the cartoonish style to the animation helps move things along and excuse some of the more uncertain moments. While there may not be anything completely original here what we do get is done well enough to make for a passable and watchable feature that’s not too taxing and certainly doesn’t feel like a struggle. All feelings helped along by the fact that the film feels overall unpretentious. Not trying to be anything masterful or beloved by generations to come. It feels as if it’s simply trying to amuse people for the time it’s on in that moment. It’s a fairly standard entry into a franchise which may be becoming known for its more standard output.

We’ve certainly seen the lines that Hotel Transylvania: Transformania travels along before, both in and out of the franchise, but it’s just about held up by its emphasised cartoon style, particularly during uncertain scenes involving side-characters, and lack of pretentiousness.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The 355 – Review

Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 3 minutes, Director – Simon Kinberg

CIA agent Mace (Jessica Chastain) assembles a team of agents from some of the world’s biggest intelligence agencies in order to track down a device which could start World War 3 by hacking any other device in the world.

The 355 sets itself in stone when it ticks the “we have a common enemy…” box. After a brief scrap the faces of Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger and Penélope Cruz team up to track down a device with deadly potential. That potential being that it can hack into any other device in the world, and in the wrong hands could start World War 3. The hands which want it most belong to Jason Flemyng – although this is sometimes forgotten as we see so little of him throughout the film. It’s often his henchmen sent out to retrieve what he wants, although often ending up having their faces kicked (or shot in) by the central team, made up of figures from some of the world’s biggest intelligence agencies.

While it may take a little while for the central team to actually assemble there’s still some form of mild entertainment to be found within the action sequences that co-writer (alongside Theresa Rebeck) and director Simon Kinberg captures. While what we get may not be anything revolutionary we don’t always need a film to do this. Sometimes all we need is some decent action that’s easy enough to follow. It might not have many thrills, but at least there’s a handful of spills to keep the flow of things going. And while building up to the formation of the central team such sequences keep you interested in the gradually unfolding narrative – which takes bigger steps in the second half of the piece – where there’s still time for some lengthier punch-ups, and some quite fun moments; including a well-used ‘perfume bomb’.

Where the film slightly loses you is within its quieter moments; looking into the more personal sides of its characters. While throughout we frequently hear Cruz mention that she’s a mother, just as often she can be found Facetiming her family, there are hints and details of the relationships the rest of the titular agent ensemble but perhaps not enough to form a proper connection with them. It’s perhaps this lack of connection to the characters that adds to the overall middling feel of the film. While what we get certainly isn’t bad it does more often than not feel like a relatively middle-of-the-road spy/ action flick that, while decent enough viewing for the time that it’s on, may be forgotten about shortly after watching it.

Yet, while watching it, the action is still enjoyable enough and is often well used to progress the narrative that’s being told, particularly building up to a worthwhile finale. And it’s often the action and extended sequences that keep you placed within the film, over the slower, more personal beats for the characters. It knows that its strengths lie within the fight skills and tact of its central team and largely uses that to both advance the narrative and heighten its better moments. As a whole what we get might not be anything brilliant, but it’s certainly not bad. It’s a decent enough middle-of-the-road action-thriller. Perhaps forgettable, but not without its likable moments that make for good viewing when watching.

A thriller with a few more spills than thrills there are still some engaging moments, focusing more on the fights and tact of its central characters than anything else throughout, within The 355’s longer sequences that keep you in the mostly middle-of-the-road arc of the film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.