The Witches: Film Review

The Witches

Nicolas Roeg terrified a generation of children with his 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic The Witches, starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and now Robert Zemeckis has attempted to put a fresh spin on it with this new remake.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it goes a little something like this – a young orphaned boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandma (Octavia Spencer) check into a hotel in Alabama in the 1960s for a little break. Around the same time, witches arrive at the hotel for a convention during which the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) announces her plans to rid the world of children – she has developed a formula which can turn them into mice.

Roeg’s 1990 version of The Witches was grotesque, horrifying, and super scary for children who watched it back in the day. However, I was not one of those children. I watched for the first time last week in preparation for this release and I’m confident it would have given me nightmares as a child, as the Grand High Witch’s prosthetic-heavy transformation was still pretty gross, even to me, as an adult watching today. But anyway, my point is that I can be more unbiased as I have no emotional connection or feelings of nostalgia towards it and believe it’s quite a flawed film.

Zemeckis has clearly tried to make his remake less horrifyingly scary, which means that it loses the edginess which made the original so popular. And that would have been fine if it was able to conjure up the magic elsewhere but it just falls quite flat and it feels like something is missing. Although some scary moments have been dropped and the prosthetics have replaced by CGI, The Witches will still terrify children, particularly with Hathaway’s wide-grinned, sharp-toothed transformation and steely, creepy glare. Be warned parents: the Grand High Witch may still give your kids nightmares, but it’s not scary enough to affect adults.

Hathaway deserves a lot of praise for her performance. It’s a tough job following in Huston’s footsteps but she steps up to the challenge. She really throws her all into the role and is incredibly creepy, although it’s a shame the scariest parts of her transformation are realised through CGI. It just meant her big moment – the convention’s opening speech – is nowhere near as disturbing or affecting as Huston’s. Spencer also does well as the lovable grandma befriending CGI mice, while Stanley Tucci is wasted as the hotel manager. Chris Rock‘s narration didn’t completely work for me, but he brought great enthusiasm to the voice role and I liked how it made sense at the end.

The Witches remake may not capture the magic of the original, but it is sure to scare kids regardless. It’s rated PG but consider yourselves warned!

The Witches is available to rent from Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Sky Store, and Google Play from Monday 26th October.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Summer of 85: Film Review

Summer of 85

Francois Ozon‘s latest feature, Summer of 85, tells the story of a short-lived gay romance and is a sun-soaked hit of nostalgia.

The film begins with Alex (Felix Lefebvre) in police custody for reasons which are unclear. The story then jumps back to the beginning of that summer, with him narrating the tale for the audience. His story begins in earnest when the dinghy he is sailing almost capsizes. Thankfully, he is rescued by fellow sailor David (Benjamin Voisin) and they subsequently embark on a whirlwind romance, which is complicated by the arrival of British au pair Kate (Philippine Velge).

At first, I expected Summer of 85 to be your run-of-the-mill gay romance story – and I enjoyed watching Alex and David’s blossoming relationship – but there is an unexpected twist which makes the film take on a much darker, serious tone. I enjoyed it less from that point on because it felt melodramatic, over-the-top, and quite soapy, which is a real shame because I had been really into it up until that moment.

Lefebvre is gorgeous and captivates as the naive Alex, high on his first love, while Voisin brings the charm as the more fun, carefree and dominant half of the pair. Velge did well sounding like a British person trying to speak French, and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi was the star of the show as David’s mother Mme Gorman.

I loved many things about Summer of 85, such as the casting, the music, and the ’80s period outfits, but I felt let down by the latter half of the story.

In selected cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 23rd October

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Film Review

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Sacha Baron Cohen claimed years ago that he had retired his Kazakh reporter character Borat, but if there was ever a good time to bring him back, it’s in this crazy 2020 we’re having.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, or to go by its full title: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – is set 14 years after the events of the 2006 original comedy mockumentary. Borat’s first film has brought shame on Kazakhstan and to make amends, he is tasked with going back to America and delivering Johnny the Monkey, a local superstar, to political leaders to help rebuild their diplomatic relationship. However, Borat’s daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) takes the monkey’s place without Borat’s knowledge so he decides to gift her to the leaders instead. But because Borat has become so well-known in America, he must wear a variety of disguises to achieve his goal.

How you get on with this film will really depend on your knowledge of American politics and pop culture, but more importantly, your sense of humour. I really don’t get on well with cringe-inducing, awkward humour, and that is basically what Borat is all about, hence why I wasn’t a huge fan of the first film. The comedy is so offensive and politically incorrect at times that I found it deeply uncomfortable to watch.

The film is only an hour and 35 minutes but it felt so much longer. I wouldn’t say it outstayed its welcome though because it actually gets more interesting as it goes along, as Borat gets closer and closer to important political figures and gets involved in riskier stunts. The last half is where the headline-grabbing stuff really comes in, so if you get through the trying first half (which I really struggled with), you will be rewarded with some jaw-dropping scenes and pointed political commentary.

Borat 2 was deliberately designed to be released ahead of the US election on 3 November and it’s clear to see why. Some of the thoughts Republicans or far-right activists have is simply shocking and the film doesn’t make Mike Pence or Rudy Giuliani look good. The film also addresses topics such as women’s rights, anti-Semitism, and the coronavirus.

As ever, Baron Cohen should be applauded for his dedication to the role and improvising with subjects that appear without their knowledge. It would be interesting to know who was in on it and who wasn’t. He plays Borat in many different disguises and gets himself into really uncomfortable, risky situations. Bakalova as his daughter deserves praise too for throwing herself into this style of filmmaking as she leads some of the more awkward moments. Not breaking character in these situations must be tough.

Borat doesn’t have a particularly strong plot but I don’t think anybody expected it to – that’s not really the point. It basically just finds a way to cobble particular scenes together. I didn’t find it particularly funny, but I did laugh sometimes in an “oh, this is so uncomfortable” or “I can’t believe he just said that” kind of way.

Borat 2 was not an enjoyable viewing experience for me. Some scenes were so cringeworthy and awkward that I couldn’t cope with them and they felt quite painful to watch. However, I can appreciate what Baron Cohen has done to effectively lift the lid on American culture and politics.

Available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 23rd October

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Possessor: LFF Film Review

Possessor

I had heard so much about Brandon Cronenberg‘s second feature Possessor that I figured it was worthwhile paying for a public LFF ticket to see it – and while I can appreciate many things about it, it wasn’t my cup of tea.

The film stars Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, who is a possessor, a contract killer whose consciousness is implanted into another person’s body in order to carry out the assassination. Her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gives her her next job – she is to inhabit the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who is dating Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of John (Sean Bean), the head of a huge corporation, for which Colin works. However, Colin cannot be as easily controlled as some of her previous subjects.

Possessor is an incredibly unique film that will stick with you for hours afterwards. Cronenberg has come up with an effing cool idea and it was exciting watching it play out in all its intense, gruesome glory. This film is not for the faint-hearted – it is extremely graphic and violent, there’s plenty of nudity, and some body horror that truly grossed me out. There are also some weird and experimental visual flourishes to help illustrate some of the innner control struggles.

I also loved the initial set-up of the story and the introduction to Tasya and her dual lives – in the real world with her estranged husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and their son and this possessor world; the final scene of the movie; and the superb performances from Riseborough and Abbott, with Abbott particularly excelling in the latter half of his story.

However, there is a portion of the film that totally lost me. I didn’t truly understand what was going on and it felt quite chaotic and muddled as it made its approach to the climax. While I loved the closing scene and thought it was a great way to bookmark the story, I was left wanting more answers and some explanation of what the heck just happened. I would have also loved some more backstory about Tasya and the organisation she works for.

I liked Possessor and I certainly appreciate the imagination, the performances, and the cool concept, but I’m just not a big fan of body horror and the ambiguity of not knowing what’s real and what’s not. The story stopped being clear to me as it neared the end and that negated its impact somewhat.

Seen at part of the London Film Festival. In cinemas 27th November

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Ammonite: LFF Film Review

Ammonite

Ammonite received rave reviews following its premiere in Toronto 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 to get by. 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 very different 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, it’s rather quiet as neither of them are particularly talkative, and also 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 these 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.

Seen as part of the London Film Festival. No general release date as yet.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Over the Moon: Netflix Film Review

Over the Moon

There has been a distinct lack of animations so far this year, but they now seem to be coming out at the same time, with Wolfwalkers, Soul, and Over the Moon being released within weeks of each other. Will Over the Moon stand out from the crowd? Read on to find out. 

Over the Moon, featuring an all-Asian voice cast, tells the story of Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), a young girl who is still grieving for her mum, who died four years before the main events of the film. She refuses to believe her dad (John Cho) has moved on with Mrs Zhong (Sandra Oh) and that she now has a stepbrother, Chin (Robert G Chui). Fei Fei has always been obsessed with the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) and decides to build a rocket ship to the moon to meet her, with Chin secretly coming along for the ride. 

Although the inclusion of Chinese mythology gives Over the Moon a new angle, many aspects of it felt borrowed, or at least inspired, by other animations. For example, the main character has a dead parent, both lead children have funny animal companions – a frog and a rabbit (which is a great source of humour), there’s an unwanted sidekick (in Chin), a disco-pop musical number which reminded me of Zootroplis, and Fei Fei’s new moon friend Gobi (Ken Jeong) was very Olaf-like. It’s like Glen Keane and his team were trying to tick the boxes of what makes Disney/Pixar movies so successful. I understand why they’d want to stick with the tried and tested formula, but it just results in a film that feels rather derivative. 

Also, you can guess the message – or the lesson Fei Fei learns from her journey – just from reading the summary above, so it’s obvious and predictable, but it’s still a worthy message and its heart is in the right place. And on another critical note, I didn’t love how the moon inhabitants (not including Chang’e and another rabbit) were realised visually. They seemed to be colourful blobs without a proper outline. All the Earth-based scenes and people are animated like you’d expect and look great so the moon-based imagery looks cheaper and more garish by comparison. 

But, despite all these criticisms, I still really enjoyed it. Fei Fei is lovely, I think kids will really like her, there are some moments that made me properly laugh out loud (I even rewound one to watch it again), and some of the musical numbers are a lot of fun, particularly Chang’e’s introductory number, an electro-pop banger that wouldn’t seem out of place at Eurovision. Chang’e is given gorgeous costumes and she has a beautiful singing voice, which is no surprise considering Soo is from Hamilton. Although not all the songs made an impact, I loved that there was a mix of styles, so there’s the usual musical theatre ones, the generic pop numbers, and even a rap one. 

Over the Moon has quite a few flaws but at the end of the day, the only question that truly matters is – will children enjoy it? And the answer is a big fat yes. If your kids like Disney, they will like Over the Moon, because you probably can’t tell the difference. It is a much-needed slice of entertaining escapism.

In selected cinemas now and on Netflix from Friday 23rd October 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rebecca: Netflix Film Review

Rebecca

Daphne du Maurier‘s famed 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca has been adapted for the screen many times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, and now Ben Wheatley tries to put his own spin on the well-known story in this latest adaptation for Netflix.

The film begins in Monte Carlo, with the unnamed narrator (played by Lily James) serving as a companion/assistant to the rich Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Van Hopper fancies the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and sees herself as the next lady of Manderley, his sprawling estate on the English coast, but he falls for her companion instead. After a brief courtship, the duo gets married and head home. The new Mrs. de Winter realises that Manderley is haunted by the memory of his first wife Rebecca, who died a year before, and the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) likes to make sure she never escapes Rebecca’s shadow.

I was really surprised when Wheatley signed up for this. He has directed a novel adaptation before (with High-Rise) but that was still quite oddball, quirky and indie, so I wouldn’t have expected a new version of Rebecca – a Gothic romance thriller which is incredibly well-known – would have appealed to him as there is little room to put his own stamp on it. And there isn’t much sign of him here at all – Rebecca (adapted here by Jane Goldman) is classic, inoffensive, mainstream, and very loyal to the novel. It’s miles away from Free Fire, that’s for sure. And I LOVED Free Fire.

Wheatley has reunited with his Free Fire co-star Hammer for Rebecca and I was very impressed with his convincing British accent. He has such a distinct voice I just assumed it wouldn’t be good or consistent or it would have felt put-on, but no, it was a decent, natural-sounding British accent. He fits the bill as Maxim, as does James as the lead. She does well going from naive and timid in the beginning to strong and assertive nearer the end, but this isn’t one of her more impressive performances. The star of the show is, of course, Scott Thomas as the cold and calculating Mrs. Danvers, who had been devoted to Rebecca since she was a child and cannot stand this new replacement. She was perfectly cast in the role. There is also great support from Sam Riley as Rebecca’s cousin Jack Favell, Keeley Hawes as Maxim’s sister, and Tom Goodman-Hill as his estate manager Frank.

I’m assuming this is designed to entertain a new generation that is less familiar with du Maurier’s work, as I’m damn sure that knowing the ending will remove any sense of intrigue or excitement watching this. I must admit that I have neither read the novel nor watched an adaptation, so I cannot say if it brings anything fresh to the table compared with its predecessors, but I can give a newcomer’s perspective. Some revelations seemed obvious to me, while others – particularly about Rebecca’s past – took me by surprise. I was interested watching the twists and turns play out but I wouldn’t go as far to say I was gripped or hooked. I started to get into it more towards the end and then it was all over!

Rebecca is a beautiful film to look at, with stunning European locations, English coastline landscapes and costumes, but it didn’t make me feel very much.

In selected cinemas from Friday 16th October and on Netflix from 21st October

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Wildfire: LFF Film Review

Wildfire

As my time with LFF has been extremely limited this year, I’ve tried to get in all the ones that have already been hyped up or established as ones to see, so I wanted to mix things up by checking out Cathy Brady‘s Wildfire, which I knew literally nothing about.

Wildfire follows Kelly (Nika McGuigan, in her final role before her death last year) as she returns home to a Northern Ireland border town and shows up at her sister Laura’s (Nora Jane Noone) home, having suddenly disappeared two years before. Although they’ve handled it very differently, it is clear that the siblings have suffered a lot of emotional trauma in the past, and Kelly’s reappearance derails Laura’s seemingly normal life.

The film slowly reveals the source of their sisters’ trauma by drip-feeding us information in brief dream-like flashbacks until we can piece the mystery together by ourselves. It was intriguing for a while, but these flashes of imagery (is it a memory or a dream?) disrupted the flow of the present-day story.

The two lead actresses have great chemistry with each other and I enjoyed watching how their relationship transformed throughout the movie – it starts off very frosty, with Laura naturally being furious about her missing sister just showing up out of the blue, but eventually, they reconcile, get that strong sense of sisterhood back, and go out and start causing trouble. McGuigan was an intriguing presence; I could never figure Kelly out or understand why she would do certain bizarre or ill-advised things, while Noone gave a powerhouse performance as her constant defender.

I felt a bit let down by the material. I liked the set-up and the relationship between the two sisters, but it was a pretty gloomy watch and I would have liked more details about Kelly’s disappearance and more closure at the end. It just didn’t quite come together for me.

Seen as part of the London Film Festival. Currently without a general release date

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Wolfwalkers: LFF Film Review

Given the current climate, there haven’t been many animations released this year so far, or any particularly good ones (I was fond of Onward, just FYI), so Wolfwalkers couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Not only does it give us a much-needed animation fix, it also tells a terrific story.

Wolfwalkers follows Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), a young English girl who relocates to Ireland with her father Bill (Sean Bean) as he’s been hired to be the Lord Protector’s hunter and to trap all the wolves in the nearby forest. Robyn, who fancies herself as a hunter too, does her own exploring in the woods and befriends Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who is part of a mysterious and feared tribe called Wolfwalkers, who can transform into wolves when they sleep.

It’s rare to see a classic 2D hand-drawn animation in today’s CGI-reliant world, so I was a big fan of the film’s look. It is refreshing, beautiful to look at, and the team at Cartoon Saloon must have an amazing imagination to conjure up certain imagery. I was so impressed by how they brought particular moments to life.

I liked the story enough at first, it seemed like a cool enough idea, but there is a moment in this when things level up and get really interesting and then I was gripped, wondering how it was all going to pan out. It goes from being very good to excellent. There’s drama, there’s laughs, and there’s plenty of action.

The two newcomers are perfectly cast as the lead characters, while I couldn’t imagine anyone else voicing Bean’s role, it was like it was made for him. I also thought Simon McBurney had the most spot-on voice for the Lord Protector.

If you feel comfortable going to a cinema, I can promise that you and your children (if you have them) will both get a lot of pleasure out of Wolfwalkers. It is very entertaining and has a strong story and visuals to boot.

In selected cinemas from Monday 28th October and Apple TV+ from 11th December

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Supernova: LFF Film Review

Prepare to have your heart broken by Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth in Harry Macqueen‘s moving drama Supernova.

The film follows British pianist Sam (Firth) and American author Tusker (Tucci), who have been partners for more than 20 years, as they go on a trip in an RV to visit family, friends, and places meaningful to them before Tusker’s dementia battle progresses and he is unable to remember them.

I absolutely love Tucci and Firth as individuals and in this pairing. I loved their characters’ relationship and I thought they worked so well together. I enjoyed watching their playful bickering in the beginning and was deeply invested in their very serious conversations nearer the end. Some scenes were very well written and satisfying to watch, but with others, I wanted more.

Tucci and Firth both gave very emotionally-charged, moving performances and I was very impressed by their tender work, although it’s worth pointing out that Supernova can be quite funny too, with Tusker often using humour to deflect from the seriousness of his degenerative illness. Tucci has the more demanding role as he has to visibly manifest the physical symptoms of dementia but he does this in a subtle and convincing way.

Given the material, I’m surprised I didn’t bawl my eyes out watching Supernova. I was moved and felt sad about it but it didn’t get me real good. I think it’s because the ending was a bit too subtle and delicate.

Supernova, which is basically an LGBTQ+ and British spin on The Leisure Seeker (if we’re being reductive), is a poignant love story featuring strong performances and some beautiful cinematography. I actually want to see it again!

Seen as part of the London Film Festival. In cinemas 20th November

Rating: 5 out of 5.