Songs My Brother Taught Me: Film Review

Songs My Brother Taught Me

Director Chloe Zhao has become a big name thanks to her latest movie Nomadland, its impressive award-winning circuit at the film festivals, and her history-making Best Director Oscar nomination, which I’m confident she’s going to win. Thanks to Nomadland’s success, her feature directorial debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me, is finally getting a proper UK release.

The drama, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival all the way back in 2015, is set in Wounded Knee, a hamlet and creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, and follows Lakota boy Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and his little sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) as their lives are turned upside down by the death of their absentee father. His death prompts Johnny, who makes his money by selling alcohol, to decide to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), who is about to become a student at UCLA.

Like most of Zhao’s films, Songs My Brother Taught Me uses non-professional actors and this helps add a layer of realism to events and makes you feel like you’re witnessing a slice of their lives. To be clear, it’s not a documentary and the story is fictional but it feels so realistic. You become immersed in the small community and the family (their father had many other children) and feel like you’re bearing witness to intimate, private real-life moments. St. John is a terrific actor and you can’t help but feel sorry for her as the hurt about her brother leaving is painted plainly across her face, while Reddy does well portraying the conflict and anguish within Johnny.

It’s slow-moving and it took a while for me get into it but my patience was paid off by the performances and the satisfying third act. Joshua James Richards, who is currently nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography on Nomadland, served as DP on this movie and you can tell as there are so many gorgeous landscape shots in a similar vein to that film.

It was so nice to watch Songs My Brothers Taught Me and think of how far Zhao has come in the space of only six years – and rightly so.

Available on MUBI from Friday 9th April

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Palm Springs: Film Review

Palm Springs

I have been wanting to see Palm Springs for a really long time. Critics have been raving about it ever since Sundance Film Festival 2020 and now I’ve finally been able to see it for myself, and thankfully, it lived up to the hype and matched my expectations.

The film is set on November 9th in Palm Springs, California at the wedding of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the bride’s half-sister, forms a bond with Nyles (Andy Samberg) after he makes an impromptu speech to rescue her in her drunken state. As they’re about to hook up, Nyles is shot by an arrow fired by Roy (J.K. Simmons) and crawls into a cave wounded. He urges Sarah not to follow but curiosity gets the better of her and she is sucked into a vortex and wakes up on the morning of 9th November once again, something Nyles has been doing for a very long time.

The concept of Palm Springs is fantastic. It’s refreshingly original and provides rich opportunities for comedy. Sure, time loop films have been done plenty of times before, with movies like Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow springing to mind, but the beats in Max Barbakow‘s feature directorial debut feel totally unique; they haven’t been borrowed from what’s come before. Plus, the whole vibe of the film feels very different – it’s fun, irreverent, and extremely silly and a mix of science fiction and romantic comedy.

More often than not, films with an amazing premise usually fail in the execution or the idea can’t sustain a feature and it runs out of steam, but thankfully, this isn’t the case with Palm Springs. The film is wisely only 90 minutes long so it doesn’t outstay its welcome and it maintains the zippy momentum it kicks off with so you’re never wishing it would wrap up. The screenplay by Andy Siara is really clever and I like how the relationship between Nyles and Sarah evolves and how we slowly get to learn more about the time loop as Sarah does, since she’s our eyes into that world.

Samberg is known for his comedy skills so he easily commands those scenes but he impressed me with the more emotional work he has to do later when he realises Sarah wants to leave the loop he’s grown comfortable with as life has no meaning and he can be carefree. Even though he’s good, Milioti is the revelation here. She’s extremely funny but she also tackles this darker side of Sarah, who makes bad choices and despises herself for them. Their chemistry was excellent and watching them play off each other – particularly in the early scenes when they’re simply enjoying the time loop together – made me smile a lot. Simmons is as reliable as ever as Roy, who seems menacing until you get to know him better. I also want to point out that Peter Gallagher (Sandy from The O.C.) is in this nowhere near enough.

It amazes me that this is Barbakow’s debut – he has just nailed it with a film that is really tricky to get right. Palm Springs made me very happy and I want to watch it again. Definitely check it out!

On Amazon Prime Video from Friday 9th April

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Godzilla vs. Kong: Film Review

Godzilla vs. Kong

I really didn’t think Godzilla vs. Kong was a film for me – I usually cannot stand watching two big CGI monsters fight each other and that is literally the plot of this movie – but the fight scenes here are a cut above your average and the film as a whole was way more entertaining than I was expecting.

The film, which serves as a sequel to Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Kong: Skull Island, stars Alexander Skarsgard as Nathan, a former Monarch geologist who is tasked with moving Kong from the safety of his giant dome on Skull Island, where he is looked after by Ilene (Rebecca Hall) and her deaf adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), into the Hollow Earth, the true home of the titans, to retrieve an energy source to supposedly stop Godzilla’s unprovoked rampages. As we already know from the franchise, there can’t be two alpha titans so Godzilla soon comes for his enemy Kong.

From reading this summary, you can probably tell that the plot is threadbare, contrived, and doesn’t make a ton of sense, but considering this is a film about a face-off between two massive monsters, you shouldn’t go in expecting a solid screenplay, well-rounded characters, or any sort of depth. This is a Blockbuster with a capital B; it’s all about the action and the spectacle so don’t expect anything else. It is silly, but it knows it is, and it’s a lot of mindless fun.

I usually tune out during action sequences after a while because I find them boring but these ones really captured my attention. None of Godzilla and Kong’s fights outstayed their welcome and they looked so cool to watch, from the fight choreography, the way they were shot, the slo-mo punches and jumps, and the setting. I particularly loved the Hong Kong battleground, with them being lit up by the colourful skyscrapers and just destroying the city entirely. The stakes aren’t super high because you know Warner Bros. would never kill such a profitable property off but it’s still great fun to watch.

Given the title, you might expect this film to be evenly split between the two titans but this is very much Kong’s movie, with appearances from Godzilla. I’m usually a big fan of Godzilla but I really was on team Kong this team around. He has just been so well designed that he has such an expressive face and I couldn’t help but feel sad when he did. I also loved his bond with Jia and their ability to communicate.

I’m surprised so many big names signed up to this considering how dull and paper thin the characters are. Hall and Hottle have a bit more substance thanks to their relationship with Kong, but Skarsgard, Demian Bichir as the CEO of Apex Cybernetics and Eiza Gonzalez as his daughter get so little to do and the human scenes are so flat in comparison to the rest. Normally I switch off in action scenes, but I switched off during those here. Brian Tyree Henry and Julian Dennison – who team up with Millie Bobby Brown to investigate what Apex is up to – were the only ones who tried to inject personality and humour into their characters and were mildly successful.

Godzilla vs. Kong, directed by Adam Wingard, is much better than I ever expected it would be. If you just embrace the silly spectacle, you will have a great time. See it on a big screen if you can because it looks amazing.

Available for premium rental at home now

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Chaos Walking: Film Review

Chaos Walking

The response to Chaos Walking has been overwhelming negative and the Rotten Tomatoes score isn’t great, so I went in with super low expectations and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Sure, it definitely doesn’t live up to its potential, but it’s not as terrible as I’d been led to believe.

This dystopian adventure, based on The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, is set in 2257 on New World, an alien planet which has been colonised by humans. The main action takes place in Prentisstown, which is only inhabited by men – the women got killed by the natives – and they all have ‘the Noise’, meaning their thoughts are broadcast for all to hear, so they can have no secrets, although some can control or hide their Noise better than others. One day, Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) comes across Viola (Daisy Ridley) – the first female he’s ever seen in real life – after her spaceship crashes down on New World. He helps her escape Prentisstown, run by the cunning mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), and find a way to contact another ship.

I loved the concept – it is such a terrific idea ripe with potential – and enjoyed discovering this new world and watching them venturing into new terrain and getting to know each other and become friends. There are plenty of great ideas in here – particularly about how the indigenous people are perceived – but they are poorly executed, and the characters are generic and aren’t well developed so it was hard to care about them (I genuinely cared more about the dog Manchee). The action sequences were a bit confusing to watch sometimes, they felt rushed and not properly thought through. I also thought the screenplay by Ness and Christopher Ford also needed work. I felt like Todd’s Noise at the beginning was used for a lot of exposition which didn’t feel realistic – would somebody really think those things? – and some of the emotional beats didn’t always work.

I really like Holland, I think he’s a talented actor who has this cute nerdy charm and that works perfectly well here. He has a captivating onscreen presence as the naive and sheltered Todd who is finally having his eyes opened to the lies he’s been told. Ridley didn’t offer up much more than we saw in Star Wars but they play off each other nicely and I liked the team they form, with Manchee (who is adorable) completing the trio. I didn’t like the clothes she wore either, those trousers looked super uncomfortable!

Mikkelsen was perfectly cast as the sly mayor, complete with an excellent fur coat, and I liked Cynthia Erivo as his opposite – the kind and considerate mayor of Farbranch – although she wasn’t in it as much as I would’ve liked. I can’t really comment on David Oyelowo‘s performance as the radical preacher Aaron because I didn’t understand the character at all, although he was convincing as a crazed madman. And I’m surprised Nick Jonas took the part of Prentiss’ son because it was so small and inconsequential.

Chaos Walking had so much potential. The ideas, the characters, and the setting are all ingredients for a solid action-packed adventure so it’s such a shame Doug Liman squandered it and didn’t deliver the goods. There’s still plenty to enjoy in here though so don’t write it off completely.

Available for premium rental at home on all digital platforms from Friday 2nd April

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Minari: Film Review

Minari

I have been hearing nothing but praise for Minari for a really long time – basically since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year – so I had been dying to watch it for months and I had built my expectations ridiculously high, so when I finally got around to see it, I could appreciate how beautiful and amazing it was, but I was expecting more.

This semi-autobiographical movie, based on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung‘s upbringing, follows the Yi family as they relocate from California to Arkansas in search of their own American Dream in the 1980s. Patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) is fed up with sexing chickens for his income and spends all their money on buying a plot of land, which he tries to turn into a farm for Korean produce with the help of local man Paul (Will Patton). His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) isn’t impressed with their new trailer home, living in the middle of nowhere, and their money problems, so their marriage becomes strained. They come to the agreement that her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) can come over from South Korea and live with them and their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim), who suffers from a heart condition.

Minari is a wonderful, tender, heartwarming film with a terrific screenplay, strong performances all round, and gorgeous cinematography. I loved the character dynamics within the family and how the introduction of Soon-ja – a very unconventional grandma figure – changes them. The family are broke so Jacob works non-stop to make the farm a success, but he becomes obsessed with it and stops making his family a priority. At one point I wondered where it was going to go and how it was going to wrap up, but I didn’t need to worry as the conclusion is very satisfying.

Minari has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, as well as acting nods for Yeun and Yuh-jung, which I’m so glad about. I’ve been watching The Walking Dead for years so I have been a big champion of Yeun’s movie career since he was killed off the show and I’m thrilled to see him getting recognised for his complex, nuanced emotional work here, while Yuh-jung is a joy to watch as the quirky, foul-mouthed grandma.

There isn’t a weak link among the cast. Ye-ri does well as the wife and mother at her wit’s end, ready to ditch the farm and return to California, Cho’s Anne who is wise beyond her years and looks after David, while Kim is the adorable scene-stealer with fantastic facial expressions. I loved his interactions with Soon-ja so much. Outside of the Korean-American cast, there’s Patton, who is unnerving as the eccentric and devoutly religious farmhand.

I think the hype surrounding Minari was detrimental to my viewing experience as I went in expecting too much and it failed to live up to my super high expectations. I was ever so slightly disappointed because I was waiting for something mindblowingly amazing. If it wasn’t for the hype, I don’t think I would have felt let down at all. Minari deserves all the praise and awards recognition it is getting as it’s such a delightful, life-affirming film.

Available to watch at home, on demand or via virtual cinemas from Friday 2nd April. For more information on platforms and virtual cinemas, please click here. In cinemas once they reopen.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Mauritanian: Film Review

The Mauritanian

The Mauritanian scored five BAFTA nominations – including Best Film and Outstanding British Film – but came away with none for the Oscars, which would suggest that it has gone down better with some voting bodies than others. Having now seen the film myself, I can understand the performance nominations but the film itself is lacking.

The film tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), who was detained in Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba without charge from 2002 until his release in 2016. He was suspected to be the head recruiter for 9/11 in Germany, a member of Al-Qaeda, and a friend of Osama Bin Laden. After a German newspaper reports that Salahi is imprisoned in “Gitmo” in February 2005, American lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) decide to take up his case and pursue habeas corpus proceedings so a court can determine if his detention is lawful. However, they face many obstacles, including criticism for representing a presumed terrorist and the military heavily redacting almost every piece of useful information they need.

The facts of what happened to Salahi make me angry, upset, and sick to my stomach, yet Kevin Macdonald‘s film didn’t make me feel those things. I should have come away feeling more emotional, more outraged, and frustrated but it didn’t evoke those feelings in me. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t completely unaffected by scenes depicting Salahi being tortured in disgusting inhumane ways – they were incredibly distressing and uncomfortable to watch – but the focus is largely on Hollander and her fight to get paperwork clearance to pursue his case rather than us getting to know Salahi. I found the ending slightly disappointing too – I thought we were going to watch the trial play out (the reason behind that soon makes sense, but the expectation was still there) and thought there would be more to it.

Rahim is astonishing in this role and thoroughly deserves his BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. He impressively portrays a person who is desperate, hopeless, losing the plot, and on their lowest ebb. He elevates the material and makes the torture scenes all the more devastating. Foster is well cast as the polished, professional and feisty Nancy, who has no issue standing up for a person’s right to legal representation, even if that person might be a terrorist. Woodley’s Teri is very different – she is morally conflicted about the case and is feeling the pressure. Benedict Cumberbatch provides solid support as military prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, who stands by his morals and Christian beliefs when confronted with the distressing information he uncovers, with the reluctant help of his buddy Neil (Zachary Levi).

Given the subject matter, The Mauritanian is nowhere near as gripping as it should be. The story is shocking and interesting, no doubt about that, but the film itself didn’t reel me in; I had to make a conscious effort to concentrate on it. It reminded me a lot of 2019’s The Report – which deals with the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11 – and that film handled the subject better.

On Amazon Prime Video from 1st April

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Six Minutes to Midnight: Film Review

Six Minutes To Midnight

I love a period drama that shines a light on something I never knew about before and Six Minutes to Midnight certainly fits the bill.

The movie, directed by Andy Goddard and co-written by its star Eddie Izzard, is set 17 days before the start of World War II in 1939 and is inspired by the real Augusta Victoria College for girls in Bexhill-on-Sea on the south coast of England. The Nazi finishing school, the first and last school of its kind, had 20 German girls and was run by the English headmistress, Frau Rocholl (Judi Dench), and two teachers. When the English teacher disappears under mysterious circumstances, government agent Thomas Miller (Izzard) gets hired as his replacement so he can investigate what is going on at the school.

The fact that the finishing school actually existed blows my mind and I couldn’t wait to learn more about it. The opening scenes of the English teacher hunting frantically for something important, dashing away from the school and being taken out on Bexhill pier immediately hooked me in and I was gripped, excited to get to the bottom of what happened. The crime drama created around the real-life place was very interesting and engaging and I enjoyed the way the mystery unravelled. It gets more thrilling and dramatic as it goes on and Miller gets closer to the truth, but it’s not perfect, and I wasn’t completely sold on the ending.

Izzard isn’t somebody you’d expect to be cast as a government agent but I quite liked that – it was refreshing and it made sense as his appearance makes him a good fit for an undercover agent posing as a teacher. Dench is reliable as always, Jim Broadbent was delightful as the cheery bus driver Charlie, and James D’Arcy made a big impact as police officer Captain Drey. However, my favourites were Carla Juri as the other teacher, Frau Keller, and Tijan Marei as Gretel, an outsider amongst the girls.

Six Minutes to Midnight has some flaws here and there but I enjoyed the twists and turns of the story so much that I didn’t really mind them.

On Sky Cinema from Friday 26th March

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Ammonite: Film Review

Ammonite

Ammonite received rave reviews during its film festival circuit last year so I had seriously high expectations for it – but I must admit I was underwhelmed by the whole thing.

Francis Lee‘s second feature stars Kate Winslet as Mary Anning, the real-life self-taught palaeontologist and fossil collector who lived in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. The story is set in the 1840s when her days of famous discoveries are over and she sells the fossils she collects in a shop. Geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a big fan, visits the area with his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) and pays Mary to let him join her on her coastal explorations. When he is called away, he asks Mary to look after Charlotte, who is grieving from a personal tragedy, and romance blossoms between the two women.

It goes without saying that the performances in Ammonite are amazing. Winslet and Ronan have multiple Oscar nominations (and a win for Winslet) to prove their talent so I assumed they would turn in impressive performances and they certainly didn’t disappoint. And it should also be noted that Fiona Shaw stands out Mary’s ex Elizabeth Philpot.

However, I didn’t buy their attraction or love for one another. Sure, the explicit sex scenes are passionate, but there is little passion elsewhere. I didn’t believe in their story and I wasn’t invested in it. I had no emotional connection to it and so it never moved me, which is clearly what the film is hoping to achieve. And that’s not the actresses’ fault – the story and the writing is weak and doesn’t earn this romance or make it convincing. Also, the film is very slow, felt longer than it was, is quite quiet as neither of them is particularly talkative and very dim as it’s trying to look candlelit.

My biggest issue with the story will be no surprise as it has already caused controversy already – why take a remarkable historical figure and make her the subject of a fictional lesbian romance? I didn’t know anything about Anning before Ammonite so I’m glad it brought her to my attention but I actually would have preferred to learn more about her, her discoveries and contributions to science and palaeontology in a standard biopic than watch this imagined romance plot. It doesn’t go into much detail about her work and totally glosses over the work of Murchison and Philpot. Lee should have created a fictional character inspired by Anning. This route makes no sense to me.

I had high expectations from Lee because of his work on the powerful and moving God’s Own Country but sadly, Ammonite just didn’t do anything for me, despite its terrific lead performances.

Available for premium rental at home on digital platforms from Friday 26th March

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Made in Italy: Film Review

Made in Italy

Liam Neeson and his son Micheal Richardson have teamed up to play an onscreen father-son duo grieving a profound loss in this pleasant yet unoriginal comedy-drama.

Richardson plays Jack, who is about to lose the London art gallery he runs unless he can find some cash to pay off the owners, his estranged wife’s parents. The easiest solution, so he thinks, is to do up his family’s villa in Tuscany, Italy, and sell it, so he recruits his father, the acclaimed artist Robert Foster (Neeson), and they head to Italy to restore the former family home – but the villa, which has stood empty for 20 years, has fallen into disrepair and they soon realise it’s going to take much longer and require much more manpower to bring the dilapidated home back to its former glory than they expected. During the restoration project, they confront and grieve the loss of Jack’s mum/Robert’s wife, who died when Jack was only seven.

The film, written and directed by actor James D’Arcy in his feature directorial debut, is a perfectly pleasant movie that would work well for an afternoon on the sofa with your mum. It tells a very familiar, overly sentimental, and predictable story – you can call the ending from miles away – but it’s still a lovely, easy, inoffensive watch, with a handful of laugh-out-moments and enough beautiful shots of Italy to give me envy. I also love a good old house makeover show so I enjoyed seeing the villa come back to life.

Richardson plays Jack as this likeable, down-on-his-luck guy who just needs to catch a break amid his separation from his wife, something which he feels unable to discuss with his father as they have a strained relationship and haven’t spoken for two months. They have always avoided talking about Jack’s mother’s death, something which Robert thought would save Jack from his pain but it has just led to resentment. The trip forces the duo to examine where they’re at in their lives and reconsider their priorities.

The film has a personal resonance for the lead stars as they have grieved the exact same loss in real-life with Natasha Richardson (who died in different circumstances). You can’t help but think of that towards the end when the actors address their grief head-on. They both did well with the material they were given. I also enjoyed Lindsay Duncan as their no-nonsense British estate agent Kate Lewis, who monitors the progress of the restoration, and Valeria Bilello as Natasha, a charming local Italian chef.

Made in Italy is very flawed but there’s no denying it’s quite a comforting watch.

On Amazon Prime Video from Friday 26th March

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Retaliation: Film Review

Retaliation

The release of Retaliation – also known as Romans – has been a long time coming. Orlando Bloom filmed this hard-hitting drama in late 2015 and it had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2017, and it has somehow taken four years to get a UK release.

Bloom stars as Malky, who was sexually abused by his priest when he was only 12 years old and is haunted by his past, with him being a deeply troubled and tormented man who struggles to control his rage and anger or have a committed, monogamous relationship with Emma (Janet Montgomery) and is physically violent towards himself and others. The horrors of his past come to the forefront more than ever as Malky and his demolition team are tasked with knocking down the church he attended as a child.

You need to make sure you’re in the right mindset to watch Retaliation because it really is a depressing, gruelling, and harrowing watch. There is certain imagery – particularly of Malky punishing himself physically – that made me wince in horror and revulsion. The deeply unpleasant images are seared into my brain and I’d rather not see them again.

This is easily Bloom’s career-best performance and it is so different from what we usually see from him, which I guess was part of the allure of the role, to prove he can do this kind of sombre, bleak drama. He throws his all into the challenging part and does well at physically embodying a cold, hard man with pent-up rage and long-nurtured resentment and a massive chip on his shoulder, but I thought his range was limited on the emotional side. He lacked the amount of nuance the role required.

The final scenes of Retaliation (I prefer the title Romans btw) should have delivered a devastating gut-punch and could have done so in much more capable hands. They are still shocking and gripping but because Bloom doesn’t have the range to do the role justice and it was so hard to connect with such a horrible person, it didn’t have the emotional impact it could have done.

Retaliation is a difficult, distressing film to watch. Consider yourself warned!

Available on digital platforms from Friday 26th March

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.