Amber and Me 2020 ****


In an alternate universe 2020, perhaps a lot more attention would have been given to  World Down Syndrome day (March 21st), and to the release of Ian Davies’ documentary Amber and Me; events worldwide may mute the media attention garnered, but that’s not to say that the film’s impact will be negated in the long-term. Like children, films grow and thrive, often against adversity; Amber and Me will hopefully be around long after the current crisis has been averted.

A note accompanying the film highlights that at least 15 per cent of children have special needs or a disability; Amber is growing up with Down’s, but she also has an advantage that many children do not, a loving twin sister called Olivia, who takes part in her games, chums her along the road to school, and generally looks out for her sister. Being different from her peers is sometimes a heavy burden for Amber to bear, but Olivia does her best to make sure that Amber’s experience does not cause her to withdraw from a world she finds difficult to understand.

Amber and Me is not the kind of documentary that relies on talking heads or statistic-spouting experts; instead it offers the kind of tender, gently fragmented experience of growing up, filmed over a four year period. Admirers of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, or Nicholas Philibert’s Etre et Avoir, may find something they recognise in the lack of contrivance shown here, with Amber allowed to express herself to camera, overcharging customers in her shop, not always able to articulate her feelings directly. Over time, Amber and Olivia begin to realise their potential; at 59 minutes, there’s room for the film to be expanded on, but it’s an effective primer in what it might feel like to grow up with Down’s, or to care for someone who does.

Amber and Me makes a strong case for the need for inclusiveness in how children are taught; as we watch Amber and Olivia play out the special moments of their childhood, the film should spark memories of our own development, and remind us, as the current virus outbreak does, that the mark of a caring society is how we treat those who need our attention the most.

UK release from March 2020


Bloodshot 2020 ***


Vin Diesel is, if nothing else, something of a home-run when it comes to being a self-publicist. Whether he’s hitting the stump for such misbegotten fare as The Last Witch Hunter, his own stuttering Riddick franchise, or CGI slop like Babylon AD, Diesel always goes to bat for his project, predicting success, sequels and franchises, and never seeming embarrassed when the film turns out to be a dud.

Bloodshot is supposedly the first in a franchise based on, checks notes, the Valiant comic cinematic universe? It’s had various personnel changes over a decade of development hell, but arrives on the big screen looking distinctly like a re-heated dinner. Diesel plays Marine Ray Garrison, murdered before the opening titles begin. He becomes some kind of genetically modified super-soldier via some kind of nanotechnology, and is known as Bloodshot, although he doesn’t seem to have much of a super-hero costume beyond an illuminated panel on his T-shirt.

Garrison is keen for revenge on whoever is responsible for his own death and that of his wife, so he cracks on with getting in the faces of various baddies, including a manic Toby Kebbell as Martin Axe, housewives’ choice Sam Heughan as Jimmy Dalton, and Guy Pearce as Dr Emil Harting. Pearce is a terrific actor, but really needs to think about quality control; whether a straight man to Adam Sandler (Bedtime Stories), the Duke of Edinburgh (The King’s Speech) or a man breaking out of a space-prison (Lockout), there’s literally no role that Pearce won’t play, and play well, but even he must regret a jaunt to South Africa to play a role like this.

‘You’ve already ripped off every movie cliché there is…a dancing lunatic playing Psycho Killer in a slaughterhouse,’ is a particularly self-effacing line here, but self-awareness only counts for so much when you’re simply describing the clichés in your own film. A better sample line would be Diesel’s ‘They filled my head with nightmares and sent me on a suicide mission,’ which generally captures the dour, indoor nature of most of David S.F. Wilson’s film. The elevated finale, with Diesel testing his indestructability in and around a moving lift on a skyscraper, is pretty good, and there’s a couple of brief but welcome bursts of action to leaven the glowering.

But a franchise? A film really needs to be something of a game-changer to support more than a sequel or two, and there’s not enough going on in Bloodshot to merit a few more trips to the well. Diesel has a track record with failing to expand his XXX and Riddick franchises without much success; despite a good supporting cast and some passable effects, Bloodshot is just another addition to his growing pile of busted pilots.

Onwards 2020 ****


Pixar seem to have survived the Disney take-over without too much bother; still, it’s something of a surprise to see a Pixar movie emerging just as the winter chill fades; we’re used to seeing the animation studio’s films at the height summer or Christmas holidays. But Onward feels like a minor entry in the Pixar canon, perhaps a cousin to The Good Dinosaur; it bears all the care and skill of a Pixar blockbuster, but there’s something deliberately muted about the atmosphere that makes it slippery to pin down.

Dan Scanlon’s comedy-drama starts on a melancholy note; Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) have lost their father, and their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents them with a gift on Ian’s 16th birthday; a staff and jewel which will allow them to spend a precious 24 hours with their late father. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t quite work, and Ian and Barley’s dad returns only in the form of a pair of legs. With said legs in tow, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to find another jewel they hope will enable them to complete the transformation, but time is against them…

Onward wears some Joseph Campbell influences on its sleeve, with lots of discussion about the nature of quests and finding yourself. It’s also set in a complex world where the fantastic and the real exist side by side, a la Bright, although Onward doesn’t view this with the kind of zany bounce that Zootopia/Zootropolis did. The theme is that magic has gone away, and there’s a quite laborious set-up explaining that magic is now something that technology has erased from everyday human existence. That’s something of a bummer, and the plot of Onward doesn’t resolve the issues, instead falling back on familiar ‘journey is the destination’ tropes to create a happy resolution.

Onward gets a little lost as it navigates the different forms of grief that the two brothers experience, and probably requires a little warning to ticket-buyers that this film deals overtly with death in a way that Coco managed to nimbly side-step. But there’s also plenty of pleasures, particularly Octavia Spencer as a manticore, and there’s trademark Pixar wit in the elaborately realised world of Ian and Barley inhabit. Onwards is a very neat little animation that skews towards teens rather than kids, and pushes the Pixar envelope in an unexpectedly serious direction. It’s a success, but also a diversion from a familiar formula that suggests that the animation studio isn’t entirely bogged down in sequels and toy licences.

The True History of the Kelly Gang 2020 ***


Peter Carey’s writings have been turned into big-screen entertainment with intermittent success; his screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World is something of a secret  triumph, even if the wonderfully quirky film itself didn’t reach the mainstream. Laura Jones had more success with her take on Oscar and Lucinda, and Gillian Armstrongs’s spare, austere visuals provides a sensitive gloss to the soul-searching individuals at the narrative’s core. One’s heart sinks, however at the notion of director Justin Kurzel having a go at Carey’s prose; the man behind the lamentable Assassins Creed adaptation and the even duller version of Macbeth would seem like the wrong man for a tricky job, and so it proves.

The Ned Kelly story has been told before, notably with Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, and this time around 1917 star George Mackay takes the lead, by dint of his Australian father. A caption, ‘None of what follows is true,’ recalls Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, but even the fictional elements here are strictly revisionist stuff, with character motivations generally ascribed to sex, impotence and randomness. A lengthy sequence establishing Kelly’s relationship with his father gives way to a striking introduction of Mackay, physically contorted in front of a Union Jack flag. Charlie Hunnam turns as a copper, while a bearded Russell Crowe seems to enjoy himself as a writer with a taste for obscene verse. But things often feel different when translated from page to screen, and Kurzel’s film suffers from adhering without much thought to the clichés of the Western genre, with a tough hero, struggling with inner demons and confused sexuality, leading a band of misfits to one last, misguided stand.

Mackay is probably about as good as he could be in the circumstances, and after a draggy mid-section, the final climax is reasonably compelling as white-hooded figures surround Kelly and his gang in their metallic strong-hold. But Carey’s interest in myth and reality does not survive the translation here; Kelly is just one more wronged maverick seeking oblivion outside of societal norms, and whatever made the book’s blend of reality and myth so potent just writes around in the dirt and filth here.


Color Out of Space 2020 ****


Of course, in 2020, we drop the “The’ from the title, and the spelling is Americanised, and that’s not all that’s new; Lovecraft’s short story is really just a jumping off point in terms of narrative elements. A meteorite, a blasted heath (still named Arkham), mutated animals; Stanley remixes the ingredients and adds a strong family drama, with the aptly-named Gardners facing all kinds of weird distortions in nature. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) want to protect their kids, but she slices off a couple of fingers while cutting vegetables, and when she gets back from hospital, things have changed for the worse. There a strange purple hue on everything, the family dog is missing, and there’s all sorts of arcane creatures flying from the hole where the meteorite landed.

Stanley puts the wit back into the horror genre with his deft handling of the ideas here; Nathan’s deep horror at his tv interviews being tarnished by the on-screen description ‘UFO witness’ catches the right vibe of vain indignation; there’s tension about what will happen next, but despite their protests, the Gardners recognise are going to hell in a hand-basket, and there’s not much more they can do than struggle. Effects are carefully eked out, the visuals are unique and imaginative, and the whole package just works; horror films change over the decades, but Color Out of Space feels like the first real horror film of the 2020’s.

In the UK, COLOR OUT OF SPACE comes to Blu-ray, DVD & Digital on 6th April 2020 and is available to pre-order here – The Blu-ray edition features exclusive UK artwork by Dude Designs. A limited Special Edition Blu-ray will also be available exclusively from HMV, as part of their First Editions range, featuring a fold-out poster and booklet and slipcase. Available to pre-order here –


Dark Waters 2019 ***


This film remains in a UK slot selected to take advantage of an Oscar campaign, a campaign which never actually materialised; that’s a big shock in that director Todd Haynes has been an awards darling via I’m Not There or Carol. Critics seem to have turned up their noses at Dark Waters because it doesn’t feature the director’s usual extravagances; the lush 1950’s period detail of Carol, the off-beat asides about Oscar Wilde and aliens in Velvet Goldmine. But Haynes has a pre-occupation with alienation and the environment that runs back to 1995’s Safe, and just because he’s fused these concerns with a tried and tested Erin Brockovich-type detective story doesn’t mean we should relegate Dark Waters to the status of a minor work.

The Spotlight producers are at work here, as is the same star, Mark Ruffalo, who plays Robert Bilott, a lawyer who gets wind that there’s something in the water in his West Virginia hometown. He travels back, and runs foul of various authority figures who don’t want word getting out that the something in the water is created by the manufacture of Teflon, and careless dumping procedures have affected a whole generation. Bill Pullman does a great job as the chemical-plant baddie, while Anne Hathaway doesn’t have much to do as Billott’s long-suffering wife.

As with Spotlight, much of the film is spent watching Ruffalo looking through large piles of paper, yet break-throughs are fewer and further between. But the star is good as always, and the point of the film, that criminal activities go on in plain sight until we make a point of investigating, is worth considering. It’s frustrating that when Haynes wants to depict literary or cultural figures, the world pays rapt attention, but when he has something to say about genuine issues ie the environment, pundits seem to think he’s treading water. He’s a big-name director, and even if this film is a little dry, it’s a modern, meaningful film about a genuinely concerning issue.

Underwater 2020 ***


‘You sweet, flat-chested elfin creature,’ is how Kristen Stewart gets described in Underwater, a slick, predictable but enjoyable horror/action hybrid that takes a lead from the highlights of the Alien franchise. Filmed in 2017, but sneaking out in 2020 as the last film under the 20th Century Fox banner now absorbed into Disney, it’s clear that Underwater’s belated release is a contractual obligation rather than a passion project; still, it’s a big film with a great star, and it’s far better than most of the misfits that appear in the January/February dump-slot.

It’s possible to imagine an alternate universe where Underwater is the big blockbuster of the year; about 1995 would seem like prime-time for William Eubank’s film, which hits the ground running as Norah Price (Stewart) struggles to protect the crew of the Kepler Minig station from a series of explosions, deep in the Mariana trench. Price manages to rescue her Captain (Vincent Cassel) and together they look for a way out, but there’s something in the water that doesn’t want them to leave. Before you can say Leviathan, Deep Rising, Deep Star Six or any number of genre titles, Price finds herself embarking on a hazardous walk across the sea-bed, with all kinds of Lovecraftian creatures in wait for her.

Underwater is a cut above most creature features, and suggests a project that could easily have been released under the Cloverfield banner. The timing of the film’s release give Stewart an uneviable 123 combo of flops, with Charlie’s Angels and Seberg barely making an impression, and yet the mark of a real star is that they’re good in everything, and Stewart is terrific in all three films. An action woman who doesn’t need any help from men, she’s got this, and manages to be the Ripley that Underwater needs. The gear shifts might be generic, but the dialogue has the right salty feel; “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,’ is a good way to describe the miles of bad road that Price has to navigate.

It’s a shame that Underwater is being so comprehensively buried, and that this is seemingly the last gasp of the Fox imprint; the consolation that that Eubank’s film is a good example of the kind of lean, futuristic action movie that Fox did so well, but it’s unlikely that Disney will want to do at all. With the number of action movies, teen movies, comedies and other genres decreasing at the multiplex, it’s a shame that this kind of tough action movie is an endangered species. Stewart will go on to bigger and better things, but Underwater gives a spirited last hurrah for a lock-and-load ‘soldiers vs monsters’ thrill-ride.

Birds of Prey : And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn 2020 ****

‘I thought the guy was supposed to give the girl diamonds,’ chirps Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in Cathy Yan’s significant entry in the superhero stakes. Birds of Prey, to remove the elaborate subtitle, is a fairly rollicking spin-off from the truly awful Suicide Squad movie, and part of the interest is seeing scenes, characters and cinematic styles which didn’t work at all in David Ayer’s film revived and made to seem rather cool here. Yes, it’s a grimy, gritty Gotham city, yes, there’s a constantly low thrum of guitars and drums, and yes, there’s splattery violence; an early scene features a man in a wheelchair unable to avoid a truck. And yet the black comedy works here, largely due to a terrific lead performance by Robbie, who also produces.

Harley Quinn is done with The Joker, and has blown up the chemical refinery where the couple initially met before the opening credits roll. Quinn is keen to emancipate herself, and being the best version of herself involves avoiding the many, many malcontents who are seeking revenge on her. These include Rosie Perez as a cop with a taste of 80’s cop show dialogue (and a cool T-shirt slogan to boot), plus the excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress, a hooded assailant with a crossbow, not a bow and arrow. There’s an obvious McGuffin in the form of a diamond with a hidden secret, a device which Quinn breaks the fourth wall to describe, notably a ‘compication’ when it gets swallowed by a teenage pick-pocket. The diamond in question is sought after by super-villain Black Mask aka Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, hamming it up in style), and only Quinn stands in his way.

Birds of Prey does not have, or aim for, the serious, pretentious tone of Joker; instead, it’s a punchy, frenetic romp that would be ideal for kids if it wasn’t so deliberately scuzzy; a throw-away rape scene in which Black Mask cuts a woman’s dress off at knifepoint should probably have been excised, although some of the devices used to avoid gore, including what looks like a glitter-gun, are rather ingenious. Questions of good or bad taste are irrelevant here; talking to the camera in I,Tonya style, Robbie knocks it out of the park as Quinn, alternating geek-chic with acrobatic abilities, but never losing sight of the character’s scattershot vulnerability.

For a spin-off from a truly lousy film, there’s no real reason for Birds of Prey to work so well as it does, other than, for once,  sisters are clearly doing it for themselves. Women can and should be able to match men when it comes to super-heroes; Harley Quinn’s success bodes well for Black Widow, Wonder Woman and the production line of heroines heading our way in 2020. Fanboys may not approve, but Harley Quinn’s emancipation is fantabulous stuff.

The Personal History of David Copperfield 2019 (NA No Award)


Class rather than race is a key issue in the work of Dickens; upward mobility in society, or the lack of it, infuses the narratives of the celebrated author’s work from Great Expectations to Little Dorrit. So the decision-making behind this version of David Copperfield is the big story here; Armando Iannucci’s film has something new to offer, and the term in play is ‘colour-blind casting’ a la Hamilton. It’s a common-term in theatre, but less so in films, where casting Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha led to a public apology, or Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese women in Ghost in the Shell caused heaps of negative press. Any actor should be able to play any role, was Johansson’s argument, largely shouted down. So if nothing else, Iannucci should be applauded for making issues of race centre stage here; the problem is, his well-meaning film lacks any real character of its own.

Dev Patel is a fairly pallid Copperfield, pin-balling around a freshly-industrialised England; the sight of Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) pressing her upturned nose up against glass in the opening scenes sets the tone for leering grotesquery. The boy Copperfield becomes a man, and gets an education of sorts from lovable reprobate Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi), some family warmth from Mr Peggoty (Paul Whitehouse) and gets wronged by Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw). As always with Dickens on film, incident and narrative pile up due to the difficulty of selecting the key points of the narrative; Copperfield’s friendship with the eccentric Mr Pip (Hugh Laurie) is arguably the most endearing element “Form a Q’ says Dick as he invites the young man to aid him in some typography; there’s plenty of clever word-play here, although the casually-defined caricatures lack the depth that an expansive tv series can bring.

A prestige British production, The Personal History of David Copperfield has struggled to make an impact; the one and only significant award nomination is in a newly created ‘casting’ category in the British Academy awards. Currently reeling from yet another white-washing controversy, BAFTA’s recognition feels problematic, given the regular, public failure of voting members to recognise anyone outside to a white glitterati, and the institution’s continued enthusiasm to weed out as many voting members as possible outside of London. In the context of this story, the refusal of the film-makers to recognise race feels like a wrong-turn; social mobility was, and is, an issue for anyone outside of the power-elite, but there’s nowhere in this film to address that.

In the end, The Personal History of David Copperfield idealistically wants to eradicate ideas of race, and suggest that we are all indistinguishable from each other. For those who have suffered in terms of their race, creed or colour over the last few hundred years, it seeks to cancel out their pain and invites the victims to let go of their grievances. But most of these grievances have yet to be heard, and British cinema’s denying, for example, The Windrush generation their voice in favour of an umpteenth retelling of Dickens’ classic story is the problem, not the solution.

Queen & Slim 2019 ****


Landing something between Thelma & Louise and Badlands, Queen and Slim is an American road odyssey featuring two characters who have no desire to run away; both Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are thinking of other things when they go on a tentative Tinder date in an Ohio restaurant. The date itself is inconclusive, and yet Queen and Slim’s paths are now firmly and forever interlocked by fate, or at least the attentions of an overzealous lawman.

Recent features like The Hate U Give have attempted to bring BlackLivesMatter issues to the fore with a heavy hand; Queen & Slim, written by Lena Waithe, and directed by Melina Matsoukas, makes a clear statement about how flashpoints of violence emerge from distrust, then steps nimbly aside to focus on the human cost as Queen and Slim try to register their new predicament. He has a family, but she is a lawyer, and it says something about the growing chasm between races that her immediate plan is to go on the run. Justice, in court, in the media, of any kind is the preserve of a monied elite and if you’re black, it’s hard to trust that the authorities will deal with you fairly, so Queen surmises. Changing cars, haircuts and clothes, Queen and Slim set off in the hope of finding new lives and identities far from their Ohio home.

Their journey has echoes of the Underground Railroad, and Queen and Slim’s story gains power from the ease with which the two characters drop into a criminal world. The resolution is less powerful than the set-up, but Queen & Slim is bolstered by some great character work by Turner-Smith and Kaluuya in particular, building on his electrifying turns in Get Out and Widows.

As a voting Academy member, I’ve yet to meet another voting member who has seen Queen and Slim, despite plenty of public and critical raves. Before suggesting overt racism, it’s worth pointing out that watching 140 films in a solitary month is a impossible task in terms of viewing every film. But Queen & Slim’s failure to gain mainstream recognition confirms the film’s underdog status; like Just Mercy and Waves, it’s a nominee from a year in which carelessly built and outdated voting platforms accidentally squeezed out all but the front-runners.