Asia: Film Review

Asia

Shira Haas absolutely blew me away with her performance in Netflix’s Unorthodox so I had to see what she was capable of in something else – and she doesn’t disappoint in Israeli film Asia.

The film follows Asia (Alena Yiv), a 35-year-old single mother who immigrated to Jerusalem from Russia and works as a nurse. She is a free-spirited woman who likes to party at the local bar and has casual sex. She isn’t particularly close with her daughter Vika (Haas) and they scarcely interact with each other, with Vika spending most of her time smoking with her friends down the local skate park. But Asia has to step up and finally find that connection with her daughter when her health rapidly deteriorates.

Haas won the Best Actress prize at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year for her performance as Vika and it’s easy to see why. She makes it look so effortless. It is never specified which terminal illness Vika suffers from but based on what I saw, I assumed it was motor neurone disease. Haas does an astounding job both emotionally as a teenager who knows they’re dying and physically as she convincingly portrays someone who is losing control of their motor functions. Yiv is equally impressive playing someone who is struggling to cope with so much responsibility and has the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Ruthy Pribar won the Nora Ephron Prize at the same film festival and deservedly so – this is an assured debut. Most films which tell this sort of story are super sentimental tearjerkers which do the most to make you cry, whereas this is completely unsentimental and tells it like it is and that makes it more affecting and moving, with a surprising final scene that’ll stick in the mind for a while afterwards.

Asia is a short movie at only 88 minutes but it feels longer as it has a slow, relaxed pace plus the main characters aren’t super close so they don’t speak very much. I struggled to get into it because of its sparse, minimal nature. I got more invested once Vika’s illness started to physically manifest itself and Asia’s hospital colleague Gabi (Tamir Mula) is hired to help out at home while Asia has to work.

Asia, which is in Hebrew, certainly won’t be for everyone but I can assure you that you’ve never seen a terminal illness movie like it. It takes a well-worn story and makes it fresh and interesting, gives us two well-formed characters to invest in, and features two powerful performances.

Available on Curzon Home Cinema and in selected U.K. cinemas on Friday 20th November. Most theatrical screenings have been delayed until December

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Life Ahead: Netflix Film Review

The Life Ahead

She may have been off our screens for 10 years, but Sophia Loren has definitely still got it and she proves why she’s still a screen legend in Netflix’s moving tearjerker The Life Ahead.

In this Italian-language film, directed by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, the legendary Italian actress plays Madame Rosa, an ageing Holocaust survivor and retired prostitute who is now a foster mom of sorts to children of other sex workers. She agrees to look after Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a 12-year-old Muslim orphan originally from Senegal, even though he recently stole from her on the street.

I wasn’t personally familiar with the story even though it has been told many times. It is fairly obvious where it is going when Madame Rosa starts getting ill, but it doesn’t make it any less moving or interesting to watch. It is still heartwarming watching her and Momo’s relationship evolve and them become a little family.

She may be 86 and have been away from our screens for about 10 years, but Loren certainly hasn’t gone rusty. She gives a commanding performance as Madame Rosa, who suffers no fools and has a sassy attitude, and convincingly portrays someone in the early stages of dementia (I assumed). She isn’t the only one who deserves attention though. Gueye does a fantastic job of transforming his character from a rebellious troublemaker and drug dealer to a caregiver, while I also liked Abril Zamora as Loren’s transgender neighbour Lola and Babak Karami as carpet salesman Mr Hamil, who takes Momo under his wing.

Usually, a tearjerker like this hits me right in the feelings but this one only moved me slightly and I was at no risk of tears and I’m not quite sure why that is. The Life Ahead may be a fairly conventional drama but it is worth a watch because of Loren and Gueye’s performances and their uplifting evolving relationship.

Streaming on Netflix from Friday 13th November

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – Netflix Film Review

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Netflix isn’t exactly known for producing many high-quality Christmas films – they usually fall into the “so bad it’s good” category – but hopefully the tide is set to turn because Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a wonderful festive film for all the family.

The story begins with young Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell), the most renowned and prosperous inventor of all, preparing to launch a matador toy that comes alive – Don Juan Diego (voiced by Ricky Martin). However, his young apprentice Gustafson (Miles Barrow), overcome by jealousy and greed, steals the toy and Jangle’s book of inventions. We then cut to many years later, when Gustafson (now Keegan-Michael Key) has become the most famed inventor and Jeronicus (now Forest Whitaker) has become a grumpy and lonely man who works as a pawnbroker out of his decaying shop. But his fortunes are about to change – his estranged granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills), who shares his gift for inventing, arrives for an unannounced visit.

Jingle Jangle has a super flimsy plot so you should look elsewhere if you’re wanting depth, nuance, and a more complex story. However, you can forgive the film for all this because it’s so entertaining to watch. Children will love the musical numbers and the choreography, Mills as the fearless Journey, and most of all, the Buddy 3000, an adorable robot that can talk and fly (and looks a lot like WALL-E).

Writer/director David E. Talbert has created an ambitious Christmas movie and a visual spectacle that features stunning production design, Victorian-era snow-covered sets, period costumes, gorgeous stop-motion animation, and CGI inventions. I loved watching the cast and the dancers perform synchronized routines on the street in their costumes – those sequences were a joy to watch. My personal favourite numbers were the opening sequence, This Day, Mills’ big solo piece, Square Root of Possible, and the Gustafson’s fun number, Magic Man G. Not all of the songs are memorable but they are fun to watch in the moment.

Despite being surrounded by an A-list cast, newcomer Mills easily steals the show as Journey, who is super smart and upbeat and helps Jeronicus see the magic and joy in inventing once again. She is likeable, proud of her intelligence, has ambitions to be an inventor too, and has a very impressive singing voice. My second favourite is Key as the cartoonish evil imbecile Gustafson; he is great fun and his solo number is a highlight. Whitaker’s transformation from grumpy to happy didn’t take too much work – more consideration could have been given to that transition – but he was perfectly cast as Jeronicus. Anika Noni Rose, with her stunning voice, also offers up terrific support as Jeronicus’ estranged daughter Jessica, as well as Hugh Bonneville as banker Delacroix and Phylicia Rashad as a narrator of sorts.

Jingle Jangle isn’t perfect but that doesn’t matter – Talbert has managed to deliver a Christmassy movie that is full of joy, wonder, and that festive feeling. A must-watch for families this holiday season!

Streaming on Netflix from Friday 13th November

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Craft: Legacy – Film Review

The Craft: Legacy

The 1996 film The Craft scared the bejesus out of me and while the sequel, The Craft: Legacy, didn’t have the same effect, it is still an entertaining movie.

MILD SPOILERS

For fans of the original, the beginning of the plot may sound a little familiar. Three high school girls – Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Lourdes (Zoey Luna), and Tabby (Lovie Simone) – are practising witchcraft and realise their spell is never going to work without a fourth member. Enter Lily (Cailee Spaeny), who moves to town with her therapist mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan) to live with Helen’s boyfriend Adam (David Duchovny) and his three sons. It becomes clear Lily has a gift for magic and is recruited by the girls to be their fourth. The girls hone their powers before picking Lily’s bully Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine) to be the subject of a spell. As you might suspect, things don’t end well.

The Craft: Legacy has been described as a soft reboot as well as a sequel so I was expecting it to follow the original more closely, but after the initial set-up of Spaeny basically doing the Robin Tunney role, it becomes quite different, with director Zoe Lister-Jones honouring and respecting what came before but also pushing the story into new territory, trying new things, and giving it potential to continue into a franchise as it links up to the original in a way that fans of the 1996 film will really, really love.

Lister-Jones, who also wrote the screenplay, has cleverly crafted a sisterhood of distinct, diverse and individual characters. She also puts her modern, feminist stamp on it – for example, it features a transgender character (but this is mentioned in passing, it’s not a big deal) and bisexuality is a key plot point.

The movie is fun and entertaining but horror fans may be a little disappointed as it’s nowhere near as dark and scary as the first one. I would say this is more of a supernatural coming-of-age film than a horror and I don’t know which bit earned it its 15 certificate.

In the original, the antagonist came from within the coven and I liked that much better than it being an outsider in this instance. I could have accepted the villain if it had been set up better, if the motives didn’t feel so lame and flimsy, and it felt more convincing. This reveal fell flat and I felt let down by it.

My favourite aspect of the new movie is Spaeny, who was terrific as the newcomer and the audience’s eyes into this new world. She has the most expressive eyes and is super cute so you couldn’t help but care for her. But the rest of her gang of outsiders are great too – I particularly enjoyed Adlon as the wacky and outspoken Frankie.

The Craft: Legacy may not deliver on the horror front but it’s still an enjoyable high school movie nonetheless. I think it’ll be entertaining to newcomers but fans of the original will appreciate it much more, particularly the ending. I can’t wait to see where it goes!

In cinemas now

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mogul Mowgli: Film Review

I’m a huge fan of Riz Ahmed so I couldn’t resist checking out his latest movie Mogul Mowgli, and while his performance blew me away, I wasn’t particularly taken with the movie.

Ahmed plays British-Pakistani rapper Zed, who has been living in New York for some time and is on the brink of a major break in his career. He goes home to see his parents in London for the first time in two years ahead of an upcoming tour. Out of nowhere, he collapses and awakes in the hospital to discover he has an autoimmune disease.

Mogul Mowgli is a fantastic showcase for Ahmed’s talents. Not only does he give a deeply personal, emotionally raw performance, but he also throws himself into the part physically, with him convincingly looking like he’s wasting away and losing control over his body. If that wasn’t enough, the film also shines a spotlight on his incredible rapping skills and his ability to create well-observed, pointed, and politically-charged lyrics. I was aware of his rapping talent as I’d watched a few of his music videos as Riz MC but seeing them in the context of a film made such a difference. The film really excels with the rap scenes and I wish there had been more.

Unfortunately, the film as a whole didn’t quite come together for me. It was very watchable and I enjoyed the main narrative, but the dream-like, surreal, hallucinatory moments just didn’t work for me. I know that they had a purpose and were designed to show Zed exploring his identity and reconnecting with his roots, but there were too many and they distracted from the main event. I also felt like the story could have been fleshed out a little more and I wanted it to dig deeper into the characters.

The film, which Ahmed wrote with director Bassam Tariq, is ambitious and very personal and I could appreciate the themes it was trying to explore but it was a bit too indie and quirky for my liking.

Available to watch on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on Friday 6th November

Rating: 3 out of 5.

His House: Netflix Film Review

His House

Prepare to be scared by Netflix’s His House, a haunted house story like you’ve never seen before.

The horror stars Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku as Bol and Rial, a young refugee couple who make a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan and seek asylum in England. After spending time in a detention centre, they are allocated a house in a non-descript town and given a demanding set of rules to live by. Bol and Rial are thrilled to be able to start a new life and have a new home – until they realise it’s not quite the idyllic dream they were hoping for as it is haunted by ghosts from their past.

I love that writer/director Remi Weekes has used a haunted house horror story as a way to tell a story about these young immigrants, how they are treated in their new town, and the super restrictive rules they must follow when given accommodation. I had no idea about these details or how the process worked so I found the film very enlightening for that reason.

It is also scary too. I’m pretty easily spooked when it comes to haunted house films – a door opening by itself will do it for me – so this was very effective. I basically grew tense every time night rolled around in the film because I knew the ghosts were going to come out again! Some of them are pretty terrifying visually.

The revelation towards the end was very powerful and changes the game regarding your understanding of the movie and the characters, so I was a big fan of that, but there were some scenes as it neared the finale that were a bit more surreal and I didn’t fully understand them so it lost me a bit.

The lead actors are terrific, particularly Dirisu, as he has the most emotionally and physically demanding role. He really gets put through the wringer! Mosaku, who I’ve recently been watching in Lovecraft Country, seems more calm and collected, but really comes into her own towards the end. Matt Smith also pops up and puts on his best common accent as their caseworker.

Despite the little niggle about the ending, His House is a chilling original haunted house horror that provides powerful insight into the world of asylum seekers.

Available on Netflix from Friday 30th October

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Burnt Orange Heresy: Film Review

The Burnt Orange Heresy

I was sad I missed seeing The Burnt Orange Heresy at the Venice Film Festival last year but now it’s finally coming to UK cinemas – and it was worth the wait. 

The crime thriller stars Claes Bang as James Figueras, a shady Milan-based art critic who takes his new American love interest Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) to the estate of wealthy British art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger). Cassidy essentially blackmails Figueras into stealing a painting from the reclusive and enigmatic artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who is currently living in a cabin on his estate. 

The Burnt Orange Heresy is quite the slow burner and only really becomes a thriller in the final 20-30 minutes when the film takes an interesting and unexpected turn and becomes super exciting. Up until then, it pods along nicely as an intriguing art world drama, with many well-written conversations, but rest assured, your patience will be rewarded by a heart-pounding and gripping finale. 

That’s not to say the majority of the film is boring at all. I was captivated right away by Bang’s charm and charisma and his speech about “the power of the critic” and I was intrigued to find out more about him and watch how his newfound relationship with Berenice would pan out. Somewhere in the middle, I wondered if it was going to go anywhere or get going anytime soon – but thankfully it does and I was left very satisfied by the thrilling showdown. 

I just wish I got to know the characters more though. Debney is supposed to be the only enigmatic one, yet all of them are basically a mystery and seem to have darkness that is simmering just under the surface and never explored. I wanted the film to delve more into Figueras’ pill-popping, his possible involvement in a forgery, and likely financial problems. Berenice keeps her cards quite close to her chest and I wanted to know more about her previous life in America too. 

Like I mentioned above, Bang’s charm drew me into this movie immediately and he was a captivating lead. I thought he was well matched with Debicki who plays a character you can’t quite work out. Sutherland was excellent in his brief appearance as Debney, and Jagger was just well, Mick Jagger. He had great swagger and energy but I can’t actually believe him as another character, it’s impossible! 

The Burnt Orange Heresy takes a while to get going but trust me, your patience will pay off in the end. Gripping stuff. 

In cinemas from Friday 30th October 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Relic: Film Review

Relic

My oh my, this year’s Halloween-timed horror offerings are just next level – first, we had Saint Maud, and now I can add Relic, another first feature by a female director, to the list.

The film follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) as they travel to their remote family home as Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), who suffers from dementia, has gone missing. When Edna returns home like nothing has happened, the relief is short-lived as it soon appears something is wrong with her – she is convinced someone has been getting into the house and is trying to get her – while the house seems to be decaying, with noises coming from inside the walls and black mould spreading across their surfaces.

I’m not going to lie, I spent a good chunk of Relic watching it through my hands. I dread to think how I would have coped if LFF has been in the cinema! Natalie Erika James does a fantastic job of building the tension to the point where my heart was pounding in my chest and I was holding my breath.

It begins as a standard family drama – though it’s clear something isn’t right – as Kay and Sam believe Edna’s dementia is the explanation for these weird goings-on, and then James unsettles us with the creepiness, scares, and sense of foreboding before hitting us with the gruesome body horror and truly horrifying visuals and finishing off with an unexpected and weird twist. Certain images kept replaying in my mind as I tried to sleep last night.

I like how the story develops and how Kay and Sam (and us) find out new information as well as the fact that the two main ladies aren’t just scream queens – they are substantial characters who are also locked in a debate over whether Edna is fit to live at home by herself anymore. Mortimer, who adopts a convincing Australian accent for her role, and Heathcote give understated, natural performances at the start, as they don’t believe anything supernatural is happening, but they go into full panic mode when the s**t hits the fan.

Relic whips along and doesn’t outstay its welcome, being around 90 minutes long. It left me with so many questions and usually I find this frustrating but the mystery meant the film lingered with me long after the credits rolled. Genuinely terrifying stuff.

In cinemas from Friday 30th October

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Shirley: Film Review

Shirley

I had been looking forward to seeing Shirley for months, basically since its U.S. release back in June, because I was intrigued to see Elisabeth Moss play reclusive author Shirley Jackson, but I didn’t love the story this movie told.

This biographical drama, based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, begins with the arrival of newly married couple Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rosie (Odessa Young). Fred is beginning a new job at Bennington College, where Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor, and they have been offered a place to stay at their home while they find their feet. It sounds like a nice gesture at first but it soon becomes a nightmare for the couple as Shirley and Stanley take great pleasure in bringing them down and causing tension within their marriage.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Josephine Decker‘s previous movie Madeline’s Madeline because it was so experimental and weird but I had high hopes for Shirley as I assumed it would be more grounded in realism, given that it’s a biographical drama. And it is, to a degree, but it’s still a bit odd in places, especially in scenes of Shirley writing or thinking about a missing college girl named Paula, the subject of her latest novel.

I would have preferred a straight-up biopic about the famed author of The Haunting of Hill House. The novel and this film adaptation are a work of fiction but use many actual details from Shirley’s life, such as her heavy smoking, bouts of depression and agoraphobia, and acceptance of Stanley’s infidelity, so I found those aspects enlightening and interesting, but I thought too much attention was placed on Rosie and at one point, she felt like the centrepiece of the movie.

Moss always gives her performances 100% and I cannot fault her commitment to this mean-spirited part, while Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast as the self-important literary academic who loves the sound of his own voice. They both elevate the material and make it far more compelling than it should have been. Young was excellent as Rosie, who becomes increasingly unhappy in her marriage, and Lerman has the smallest role but doesn’t let the team down. I enjoyed watching their conversations around the dinner table – the dialogue in those scenes was very well written – but the film loses its way when it focuses too much on Shirley and Rosie’s burgeoning friendship/romance.

I don’t really know what I was expecting from Shirley but this wasn’t it. I still liked many aspects of it, like the performances and the dialogue, but the story didn’t satisfy me at all.

Seen as part of the London Film Festival. In cinemas from Friday 30th October

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Wolfwalkers: Film Review

Wolfwalkers

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 now and on Apple TV+ from 11th December

Rating: 4 out of 5.