Tag Archives: Reviews

The Last Tree – Sundance Film Festival London Review

Writer-director Shola Amoo’s debut feature, A Moving Image, about the gentrification of Brixton, a neighbourhood of South West London predominantly occupied by Afro-Caribbean residents from the 1940s to the early 2010s, was a didactic and at times tedious work that straddled drama and documentary. It does not prepare you for his exceptional second feature, The Last Tree, in which Amoo redefines what we think of as a British film.

It tells the story of Femi (played as an eleven year old by Tai Golding and as a late teenager by Sam Adewunmi) who is reclaimed by his Nigerian birth mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and taken from rural Lincolnshire to inner city London. In his new home, where love isn’t demonstrated and his mother leaves him alone, Femi is expected to sweep the floor, keep his room tidy, feed himself and not watch television. In his new classroom, he is mocked for his name. Cut to several years later and he is sure of himself but drawn into unspecified criminal behaviour, which coincides with his disinterest with his exams. He is given a mobile phone by a criminal with the promise of an upgrade.

You might expect the story to be told in a social-realist way or else with an agenda. Not so. The stylised opening, set against golden wheat fields has Femi indulge in horseplay with white kids in an unproblematic manner. Each boy yells in sequence at the others whilst in a circle, the camera panning around them. In a second sequence, Femi breaks away from the group and yells alone. This prefigures the rupture to come.

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His middle-aged foster mother (Denise Black) doesn’t want to give him up. Femi does not want to leave. He is compelled to do so. The car journey to London in which the landscape changes from rural to urban, always out of focus, takes longer than you might ordinarily expect. Amoo does not obey the conventions of economical storytelling. He wants to give sequences a weight, as well as their own momentum. It is as if he wants you to forget about expectation, to break cinema’s shorthand of cause and effect and with it our understanding of Femi’s psyche, so that there is no clear cut way he will react. His destiny isn’t written by the things that happen to him.

The adjustment in the storytelling has the effect of challenging stereotypes. There are two sequences that exemplify this superbly.

First is a scene in which Femi is beaten up in the street and he lies off the curb in the road for the longest time, getting up slowly. In another movie, this would be the catalyst for a revenge attack, but the way Femi gets to his feet is considered. It is hard; Femi’s sense of hurt is conveyed. Yet the sequence stresses his endurance; he has taken the worst someone has thrown at him.

In a later sequence, in Lagos, Femi is in a front room and waits. In front of him is an ornamental elephant tusk. Behind him is a tall, ornate staircase. A maid asks him if he wants a drink. He refuses. She asks the question several different ways, but neither receives the acknowledgement nor gratification of receiving a request, as if he had rendered her purposeless. Femi then sits alone, waiting for the longest time before his mother reappears. Then he has cause to go into another room. Amoo makes the delay the point; what happens next is an anti-climax – one he has prepared us for.

With the un-naturalistic lighting and out-of-focus backgrounds (cinematography: Stil Williams) Amoo creates an atmosphere that is slightly dreamy. We are not entirely sure when the film is set – the mobile phone suggests the last decade. Femi is at odds with both his mother and his teacher (Nicholas Pinnock) but becomes protective of a girl in class who is mocked for her blue braids and called either ‘Blix’ (slang for a gun) or ‘blick’ (slang for smoking pot) – I’m not sure of the meaning; I may need that 2008 video by Dizzee Rascal to help me. Amoo isn’t interested is establishing a relationship between them, rather to show Femi’s changing state of mind.

The film does not pit two cultures – Nigerian and British – against one another. Femi questions his foster mother’s motives and receives an explanation that he sort of accepts. He isn’t defined by ‘street music’ either. Femi finds that he likes the synthesized sound of New Order, perhaps because he is culturally synthesized himself.

The Last Tree is a vividly alive film that pulls you away from a ‘reading’. It is not a film that anchors itself to a value system. Femi is no more defined by his Nigerian heritage than by his English upbringing. The film makes a really compelling case for making us rethink identity and for appreciating people in the here and now, not as individuals severed from an authentic, defining culture but as adaptable people who can, as Amoo does in a compelling manner, create something new. It also makes The Last Tree one of the most important British films of the year.

The Last Tree screens at PictureHouse Central, Piccadilly, Central London, on 1 and 2 June and is on general release in September 2019.

Second Act – Review

It is some time since Jennifer Lopez headlined a crowd pleasing Hollywood comedy. But you glance at the poster for Second Act and there’s nothing on it that suggests 2019. Indeed, it looks like a film released ten years ago. You might find yourself asking, ‘have I seen this already?’

On the face of it, you have. Back in 1988, Melanie Griffith was sandwiched between Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford in the comedy, Working Girl, about a receptionist, Tess McGill, who steals her boss’ life after the villainous Katharine Parker (Weaver) took Tess’ idea. At its heart is the struggle of a working class girl: can someone without a college education succeed in business? You could ask Diane Hendricks, the co-founder and chairman of ABC Supply, a wholesale supplier of roofing, siding and windows in America with net worth of $6.2 billion.

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In Second Act, Lopez plays Value Shop assistant manager Maya Vargas. She has turned an ailing store around by allowing customers to choose cuts of meat online and providing a space with free coffee where shoppers can talk. Maya knows customer taste. When a promotion comes along (no, not a two-for-one), she is disappointed to be overlooked in favour of a college-educated white guy whose buzz words attract flies. Maya quits in disgust. Then a husband of a friend creates a social media profile for her complete with a degree from Harvard Business School and some Peace Corps volunteering experience and suddenly she has a job interview at a cosmetics company where she is hired as a consultant. Her criticism of the current line of products draws ire from some of the staff, notably the boss’ daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). The women are placed in opposing teams to come up with the next exciting revenue earner.

The writers Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas give us the set pieces that we expect, notably when Maya’s lack of coxing experience is exposed. Then there is a plot twist that is something out of a telenovella, Lopez having one eye on the Latin audience.

Does it work? Well, in spite of the twist which does at least overcome the problem of some antagonistic female-led comedies – one woman having to supplant another to be successful – much of the film feels tired. There is the guy in the firm who tries to unpick Maya’s past and a dance sequence choreographed by Mandy Moore (La La Land) that is a stand in for a fist fight. Then there a bunch of doves that are released only to collide with traffic, a gag that would not be out of place in director Peter Segal’s 1994 directorial debut, The Naked Gun 33 1/3 – The Final Insult. Personally, I prefer the police light tracking shots during a space dog-fight.

Lopez is an empathetic presence but the comedy heavy lifting is provided by the supporting cast, including Charlyne Yi as an office worker with a fear of heights and a kinky side, Annaleigh Ashton as an unconfident researcher who trips a woman over to better talk cosmetics and, best of all, Leah Remini as the straight-talking best friend, Joan. Remini has an inspired moment when during a conversation in the kitchen with Maya and to show how relaxed and ‘blown-out’ she is undoes her trouser button. Okay, it is not on a par with Marisa Tomei illustrating her body clock in My Cousin Vinny but it takes you by surprise.

The film is backed by STX, which has predominantly Chinese finance behind it, so there is the obligatory scene where, for a business meeting, Maya pretends to speak the language, having words recited to her through an ear piece by a veterinarian.

It’s not just the plot that feels retro. At one point, Maya’s trying-too-hard-to-impress make over causes Joan to remark, ‘oh my God, you look like Mrs Doubtfire’. The film has one eye on the audience who first enjoyed Lopez in Anaconda.

As far as a trip to the multiplex goes, Second Act feels second choice. It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about social media makeovers. Yet, I didn’t hate it. I know that’s faint praise, but there is something enjoyable about Maya’s Value Shop colleagues pretending to be her friends from Harvard. You’ll smile at least once – honest. If I haven’t mentioned Milo Ventimiglia as Maya’s love interest, Trey, it is because he isn’t germane to your enjoyment, though he cheer-leads well.

Second Act is in cinemas from Friday 25 January 2019

The Meg – Review

by Chris Rogers

It’s Stath versus shark in this loose and lively adaptation of Steve Alten’s Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, which leans into its schlocky generic trappings for better and for worse. Five years after a botched underwater evacuation, rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is called out of his self-imposed exile when a deep-sea research facility is attacked by a previously prehistoric monster, the Megalodon. The creature is freed when a scientific expedition to explore an ocean crevice breaks through a layer of gas, holding the deadlier creatures of the deep back from entering the contemporary food chain.

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Statham’s shipmates are a veritable aquarium of genre favourites: Chinese superstar Li Bingbing is his spunky co-lead, Suyin, Cliff Curtis is an awestruck scientist, Rainn Wilson is the sardonic overseer, and Ruby Rose grimaces a lot and knows how to use a gun. But let’s face it; we’re all here for Statham. His performance – every line delivered with all the gravelly goodness the Transporter legend can muster – is beautifully summed up by Wilson: “He’s heroic, but he’s got a negative attitude.”

So the script is rife with ripeness (“Man versus Meg isn’t a fight: it’s a slaughter!”), but has enough self-awareness to get the audience laughing in sync with its particular brand of jovial Jaws apery. Once the titular behemoth begins to run amuck and tensions start running high between Jonas and his companions, it’s hard to know who’s getting the better meal deal: the cast chewing the scenery, or the shark chewing the cast.

The film’s adherence to genre conventions (our hero’s rivalry with a disgruntled former colleague, his slowly emerging soft spot for Suyin, ulterior motives among the crew etc.) occasionally threatens to drag it below the surface. The shoddily-built human drama and the withholding of monster mayhem until the last possible moment calls to mind many straight-to-DVD titles, and a certain divergence from the source book in the climactic moments is a bitter disappointment

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. But what separates this from more amateurish forebears is a budget that allows it to deliver the goods when required. For those of us who’ve dredged through shark B-movies of every kind from the painfully incompetent (Megashark vs. Giant Octopus) to the sickeningly smug (the interminable Sharknado series), it’s a real joy to see this sort of high-concept actioner delivered not only with smarts, but surprisingly sleek CGI to boot. Industrial Light and Magic won’t exactly be quaking in their boots anytime soon, but the various vehicles and beasties are designed and rendered efficiently enough, and the moment The Meg finally jumps the shark – quite literally – is a perfectly choreographed crowd-pleaser.

The Meg is on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

The Escape – Film Review

Over the course of two decades of film and television work, writer-director Dominic Savage has perfected a form of improvised cinema. It begins with an idea in which the actors work with the director in exploring the options. Savage’s collaboration with Gemma Arterton, who has three careers in Hollywood (Clash of the Titans, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters), Britain (Quantum of Solace, Made in Dagenham, Their Finest) and France (Gemma Bovery, Orpheline, The History of Love), has yielded a three-quarter gem, The Escape. Arterton excels as a young mother, Tara, whose life at home with her breadwinner husband, Mark (Dominic Cooper) stifles her.

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Savage really makes you feel how Tara is trapped in the routine of her life: sex on demand, feeding the two children, doing the school and nursery runs and being there for her man. She is under-nourished: culturally, socially and emotionally. On a trip to London, she picks up an art book and becomes obsessed with a tapestry and yearns to take an art class. Mark can’t take it in because their life is it. He has a good job, they have a nice house – sorted. Tara’s ache drives her to the escape of the title.

The Escape feels like two movies and Arterton gives two performances. The first is utterly sympathetic, the second a bit of a cliché. During ‘the escape’, Tara becomes a different person and has a form of adventure, though I can tell you that having recently wandered the streets all night in the city where the last quarter of the film is set, you don’t get befriended by a rich person who takes you home because they see your sadness – not unless it’s transactional. You usually get asked for a cigarette.

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The final quarter of The Escape is forgivable because the rest of the film is so good. The scene at a barbecue, or getting the children to eat, or seeing toys everywhere – parents can relate. At one point Tara screams at her young child for touching her art book and although her anger is disproportionate, we see and understand its roots.

Like any good director, Savage does not try to solve the social problem that he depicts. He – and Arterton – are honest about it. Tara doesn’t have friendships that sustain her, people to whom she can turn, though Savage might have included a scene or two to explain this. Savage understands that people whose lives turn into obligations need a release valve to appreciate who they are and to find a form of fulfillment, but it should not be at a cost.

The Escape is out 3rd August! 

Unpopped Kernels: Beach Rats (2017)

British actor Harris Dickinson is a star in the making. He has nabbed the lead role in director Danny Boyle’s new ten-part television series, Trust, in which he plays John Paul Getty III in the other screen version (after Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World) of the infamous 1973 kidnapping. You’ll see him in September opposite Amandla Stenberg in director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s film version of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel, The Darkest Minds, about young kids with superpowers placed in internment camps – fortunately beating the similarly themed, The New Mutants, to the screen. Before then and emphatically not suitable for viewers under the age of seventeen, you can catch him in the small screen release, Beach Rats, for which the London Critics Circle named him ‘Young British/Irish Performer of the Year’. OK, I would have given the award to Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) but we’ll let that pass.

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The follow-up by Brooklyn-born writer-director Eliza Hittman to her 2013 feature debut, It Felt Like Love, this tells the story of a deeply troubled young man. Frankie (Dickinson) has moved down to the basement of his home to visit a gay chat room website in private. He’s attracted to men, but in his words, ‘doesn’t know what he likes’. He is addicted to his father’s medication, which he grinds into powder and snorts. His father meanwhile is in a catatonic state, dying from cancer. Frankie hangs out with three other men on Brooklyn Beach near the fairground, picking people’s pockets and sharing weed. Frankie does not discuss his sexuality with them; in fact, there is very little conversation between them, full stop. They are a criminal gang on the watch, looking for victims and talking small. Frankie catches the eye of a young woman, Simone (Madeline Weinstein in her film debut) who beelines for him at the dodgems. She provides the perfect cover in front of the guys but, of course, he’s not attracted to her. Naturally, their relationship does not go smoothly. In the mean time, he meets up with men for casual sex, knowing at some point he’ll have to be open about his sexuality, once he is confident about it himself.

The result is knife-edge viewing. You watch Frankie as if he is in a state of constant danger. Yes, he’s young and works out – we see him photograph his own torso with an i-phone, one interestingly he doesn’t sell when he needs money. But he is vulnerable, emotionally and physically, certainly capable of causing emotional harm to others – notably Simone – and physical harm to himself.

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Beach Rats is not a gay ‘coming out’ film. Rather, it is about how inward you can turn yourself when you are with others. Frankie isn’t a talker, but a doer. He lives through physical action, whether playing hand tennis, inhaling in a vape bar or having sex. The story is entirely told from his point of view. We see how his young sister reacts to their father’s illness by exploring her own sexuality, asking for a belly button ring and wearing a bikini top to the beach and how, in his unspoken way, Frankie doesn’t want her to share his own sexual turmoil. We watch his mother (Kate Hodge) trying to get through to him, to get him to share, and his stubborn resistance to reveal himself through words.

Hittman’s film has been promoted for gay audiences, with images of the four men with their shirts off on the poster. It is a film that speaks to anybody who has had an identity crisis in the face of losing a parent. Utterly gripping and poignant, it is also uncompromising. It is not the kind of film to watch on your home computer – you feel almost like Frankie browsing through men who display themselves for future gratification, but it is certainly an emotionally honest drama that captures the turmoil of late adolescence.

Beach Rats is available on Netflix! 

A Ciambra – Review

From its opening moments – well, after an opening prologue about a man who takes a fancy to a horse – Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra (The Ciambra) immerses you in the crowded hand-to-mouth, can’t-wait-to-grow-up existence of fourteen year old Pio (Pio Amato). In awe of his older brother, Pio lives with his siblings and cousins in a squat in the Gioia Tauro neighbourhood of Calabria, Italy. He doesn’t go to school or watch TV and can’t read text messages. Instead, he like the young children around him smokes – nicotine is easier to come by than chocolate. The family steals electricity and Pio’s brother and his friends steal cars and then return them to their owners for a fee. When Pio’s brother gets arrested, partly caused by Pio’s determination to tag along, Pio tries to step up. However, his behaviour has dire consequences.

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The man with the horse is Pio’s grandfather, a gypsy who sired a dynasty and watches quietly as Pio potters around in a garage, carrying car doors. There are no stories; Carpignano has an anti-romantic sensibility. When one meal is served, the family brags they are eating like Italians. Not only is romance absent, but also lamentation. Pio’s mother isn’t wishing for a better life; she is too much of a realist for that.

Pio is redeemed to some extent by his loyalty to his friend, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an immigrant from Burkina Faso, who helps fence the luxury items that Pio steals from unsuspecting passengers; trains are for stealing suitcases, not for travelling. At one point, Ayiva helps Pio make seventy euro, but then wants twenty to give him a lift back to the neighbourhood. He rides up and down the street, tempting Pio. ‘Come on, your train is about to leave.’ Pio doesn’t have a choice but he’s also glad not to be left behind.

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If you spend long enough with even an unsympathetic character, you feel something for him. Pio’s saving grace is his naivety. He comes up with the terrible idea of robbing some Italian gangsters. Even though the family sticks together regardless of misfortunes, by the end we regard this as a form of tragedy. Ayiva’s friends, who live in a refugee camp and chant Pio’s name when he brings them a television, are warmer than Pio’s own people.

With considerable understatement, Carpignano shows how Italy has no more solved the African migrant problem than it has successfully addressed the Romany one; there is a quiet equivalence. Although focusing on crime, there is little violence, though a scene in which Pio’s brother decides to give young Pio a treat has earned a caution in the censor classification. (Rated ‘15’ for, etc – the classification board is more of a spoiler than any movie review.)

Boasting the patronage of Martin Scorsese (as executive producer), The Ciambra is a film in the tradition of Salaam Bombay and, to a lesser extent, Pixote. Yet for all its neo realism, Pio keeps seeing the man with a horse, a metaphor for his acquisitive impulses. The final scene of this compelling film offers a scene of heartbreak, when a character makes a choice and is lost forever.

A Ciambra is out June 15