Film review- The Exception

Film review – The Exception

Starring Danica Curcic, Amanda Collin, Sidse Babett Knudsen,

Directed by Jesper W Nielsen

Cert TBA

By @Roger Crow

Office politics can be horrendous, as any wage slave knows. That sense of paranoia and the need to fit in, or the inability to do so, can make a nine-to-five existence either a joy or a living nightmare. And workplace bullying can obviously push honest workers to resign or worse. 

Nowhere is that better illustrated than in this Danish psychological thriller.

Toxic office shenanigans

Based on the best seller by Christian Jungersen, it stars Amanda Collin (of Ridley Scott’s bleak sci-fi saga Raised By Wolves); the ever reliable Sidse Babett Knudsen (The Duke of Burgundy), Lene Maria Christensen and Danica Curcic.

Given the fact the book sold more than 200,000 copies, there was obviously a hunger for the material. It centres on Iben, Malene, Anne-Lise and Camilla, women working together in a daily routine marked by power struggles, whispers and alliances. 

While Iben works alone in her office, she is desperate to feel part of the team next door, and when they start playing a funny video on the PC, naturally she hopes to be part of the fun. But when she tries to show them a similar amusing clip, the mood changes.

It’s one of those beautifully executed moments which sums up that sense of alienation far better than the book could have done. Or maybe not as i’ve not read the tome. 

When Iben and Malene each receive death threats, they start to suspect a Serbian war criminal, who they have been writing articles about. However, when a case of bullying in the office escalates, they slowly begin to wonder if the evil comes from themselves.

As much as I wanted to like this well crafted, beautifully acted drama which is bound to crop up on BBC Four at some point in the future, it was all a little too bleak for my tastes. I was reminded of the John le Carre-inspired movie A Most Wanted Man, which I went to see at the cinema a few years ago, in desperate need of escapism. Despite a terrific cast, great script and worthy subject matter, I emerged from the cinema far more depressed than when I went in. 

Okay, not all movies should be little rays of sunshine on cloudy days, but this is one of those offerings where you’re probably better off avoiding if down in the dumps.


Film review- Away

Certificate U

Directed by Gints Zilbalodis

By @RogerCrow

The first five minutes of this animated offering are among the most hauntingly beautiful of the year. A kid suspended in a tree from his parachute, and a shadowy giant who emerges from the mists of a random desert to inspect, and eat him. Our hero runs off with the apparent antagonist in slow pursuit. Not a word is spoken.

The music is simple and never gets in the way. It feels like part of a compelling video game like Limbo, so if you are a gamer, the desire to guide the young hero to safety is ever apparent. Usually by this point I’m so used to the best bit being in the first minutes that anything which comes after will be a let down.

Thankfully that promising start continues like an absorbing puzzle. Imagine a Hayao Miyazaki version of TV series Lost and you get the idea. And like one of Miyazaki’s best films, you will also be ‘spirited away’ as the lone explorer investigates his extraordinary environment.

A mix of what looks like CG landscapes and cel animation works rather well together, which is not always the case, as early forays into hand-drawn and computer-generated animation proved.

What unfolds turns into one of the most rewarding animated films of recent years. Like Pixar’s Soul, this works on a number of levels: it’s a surreal mystery which touches on loneliness; empathy; facing your fears and that age-old staple of an innocent protagonist on a journey of discovery. His friendship with a little yellow bird is hugely affecting, and the use of chapters to break up the story works rather well.

Latvian writer/director Gints Zilbalodis has so far made a series of short films, so it’s great to see him make the leap into features. He also wrote the excellent score and edited this labour of love.

For this reviewer, an amateur animator tinkering with his own short films, it’s hugely inspiring, and makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life. On the strength of ‘Away’, I’m guessing Gints already got many a major film studio, including Pixar, dropping him countless requests to work on their next project. They’d be fools not to.


Film review- Soul (2020)

Featuring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton
Certificate PG
Directed by Pete Docter
By @RogerCrow

Remember when we all sat in the cinema, slack of jaw as Toy Story proved a full length computer-generated film was possible? Okay, maybe you were too young, in which case a shame, as it was as important as the debut of Disney’s Snow White in the 1930s.
Twenty five years later and just the idea of sitting in a cinema is the real dream, so when Pixar released their latest movie on Disney+, there was a genuine sense of event.
Given the fact CG cartoons are now the norm rather than the exception, that quality Pixar has nearly always managed to deliver, the sucker punch, is that rarest of gifts which no computer on Earth can replicate without an army of animators crafting every frame for maximum effect.

Director Pete Docter has long been one of the company’s brightest stars. The initial 10 minutes of Up is so heart-breakingly powerful, just the first few chords of that theme leave me speechless.
Going into Soul, I knew it was going to be emotional, but it’s also one of the funniest films of 2020. And let’s face it, any laugh out loud comedy is all the more welcome at such a dark time.

Just what the Docter ordered.

Soul is not a kids’ film, though the stunning candy coloured animation will leave them hooked. It’s a family movie which tackles questions most of us ask and deal with on a daily basis: self doubt, depression, being trapped in the wrong job, letting go of our dream vocation, grief, and so much more.

It centres on Joe, a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t gone the way he expected. He’s passionate about jazz, to an obsessive degree.
But then fate intervenes, and Joe travels to another realm to help someone find their passion.

It might sound a little humdrum, elements of La La Land and Docter’s Inside Out if you like, but that mix of a perfect vocal cast, terrific animation, splendid Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, and that all-important sucker punch make this one of the best films of the year.
It’s hugely intelligent, daring, occasionally surreal, and for this Pixar fan, ramps up to one of those overwhelming third acts which makes me relieved I couldn’t see it at the cinema. And I don’t say that about many films which deserve to be seen on huge screens with an audience.
Judging by some of the feedback on socials, it’s also a bit of a Marmite movie, so, like any film, there’s no guarantee you’ll be affected in the same way.

Have hankies on standby just in case. You might need them.

Script 9
Direction 9
Cast 9
Score 9

Film review – My Dad’s Christmas Date

Starring Jeremy Piven, Olivia Mai-Barrett, Joely Richardson
Directed by Mick Davis

This time of year I subject myself to all manner of Christmas films, not all of them great. Yes, I could watch Elf, Love Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life yet again, but I’m fascinated by the production line Xmas movie, usually churned out in Canada with a bunch of no-name stars.

Hallmark have cornered the market with tales of rich thirtysomethings in immaculate knitwear falling in love, usually while working on a random project in a wealthy town.
However, a Yorkshire film company are hoping to give them a run for their money with at least a couple of Christmas movies shot in Yorkshire for Amazon.
The first is My Dad’s Christmas Date, which is essentially a love letter to York, with assorted drone shots of the city. However, those around Bubwith and Beverley Minster may also recognise a few familiar locations.

It centres on Jeremy Piven’s American single father who’s obviously missing his late wife. She has a habit of appearing in ghostly form, but lingering a little too long just to hammer the point home. Anyway, lawyer dad has a smart and sassy daughter, brilliantly played by rising star Olivia Mai-Barrett, who is the best aspect of the movie.
Her Jules goes to a posh school, has an idyllic home, a BFF and wants to set her dad up with an ideal woman. So naturally she sets him up on assorted dating sites, and then drags him off to random meet-ups. He’s oblivious initially, but soon gets wise, along with more gorgeous drone shots of York.

Inbetween these moments of father-daughter bonding, or lack of it, are some truly am dram performances, and a cringeworthy ’York’ accent from one veteran actress who shall remain nameless.
There’s a lot going for the movie. Some of the production values are good, and Piven and Mai Barrett are pretty solid, but it goes nowhere slowly, and surprises are few and far between.

It’s not as bad as Dolly Parton’s Netflix atrocity Christmas on the Square, or Mariah Carey’s product placement heavy visual car crash I sat through recently, but it’s still pretty poor.
I hope next December’s Howden-shot Father Christmas is Back from the same team is more on the money.


Film review – Silent Night (2020)

Starring Bradley Taylor, Cary Crankson, Joel Fry
Directed by Will Thorne
By @RogerCrow

I love a great British crime thriller. Sadly there are so few of them around, genre fans like me usually end up disappointed as the latest much hyped offering arrives with a blaze of glory and then vanishes without a trace.

In 1998, Guy Ritchie gave us Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a super confident, witty debut which boasted a fine soundtrack, clever editing, a snappy script and a great cast. A year later came a couple of US films whose rug-pulling narrative twist was so smart, they demanded re-watching. In the years since the likes of Sexy Beast and Ben Wheatley’s stunning Kill List proved that the British crime thriller was alive and well. And since then? Well, great genre offerings have been few and far between.

There feels like a lot of DNA of all of the above in Silent Night, another super confident Brit thriller laced with dark humour, a rug-pulling twist and some naturalistic touches which keep you hooked until the closing titles.

Bradley Taylor plays Mark, an ex con who attempts to reconnect with his daughter and hopes to give her a Christmas to remember.
Struggling to find work, he meets Alan (Cary Crankson), his former cell-mate, who encourages him to return to a life of crime. A decision made easier when Caddy (Frank Harper), a ruthless crime boss, blackmails him into doing one last job.

The whole thing ticks over like a Swiss watch, and the cast’s lack of baggage gives it a sense of gravitas. Best of all is the witty banter between a couple of key characters, and a potato song to rival Matt Lucas’s. It’s those lighter moments that really make this work, because scenes of the hero being beaten up grow tired fast.
Joel Fry, who was rather good in Yesterday, and One Way To Denmark, is also great here.

Writer/director Will Thorne is definitely a name for the future. His feature debut is a great invitation for any producer looking for fresh talent to helm their next big thriller.
A shame about the title, purely as it’s been used so much over the years, but it’ll be interesting to see whether Silent Night (2020) attracts the cult following it deserves in the coming weeks and months.
A real Christmas cracker.

Film review- Versus (2000)

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka
Certificate 18
By @RogerCrow

If you like your martial arts epics with a sci-fi touch, then Versus is just the sort of full blooded yarn worth investing in.
With its bone-crunching, bloodletting, crash zooms and weird angles in the first few minutes, director Ryuhei Kitamura sets his stall out early.
It’s one of those films that really wants to mix up its genres. Part gangster epic, part fantasy, part samurai yarn, with a score which sounds like it was composed for a video game.
Things really get going with a mysterious face-off in a wooded clearing between two escaped convicts and sharply dressed yakuza holding a woman captive.

It ends in hails of bullets and showers of blood. All of which is pretty generic, even in 2000. The welcome twist is the fact it takes place in the mythic Forest of Resurrection, the site of the 444th portal of the 666 hidden gates that link this earthly domain to the netherworld. Did you not get the memo? It’s a thing apparently.
As one of the surviving prisoners escapes with the girl into the forest, miffed gangsters soon become the least of their worries as an earlier battle between a lone warrior against hordes of zombie samurai is carried over from a millennium ago into the present day.
The plot is pure manga; I can see it working equally as well as an anime, and full marks to a besuited green-shirted villain. He’s gloriously loopy. One foot on a tree is one way of dispatching the bad guys I guess. And his smart threads deflect dirt better than Alec Guinness’s Man in the White Suit.

The demure heroine (Chieko Misaka) is delightful, though has all the depth of a game avatar, and the hero (nicely played by stuntman Tak Sakaguchi) is suitably dashing and aloof.
I’m surprised it’s not been remade with Jason Statham, or some equally nimble western action hero.
Zombies, gangsters, martial arts and the odd bit of slapstick. It won’t win any awards for subtlety, but what’s not to love?
If you like the films of Raimi, Tarantino, Romero and Woo, then give your brain five minutes to adjust to the glorious lunacy, settle back and enjoy the ride.

Film review – Lost At Christmas

Starring Natalie Clark, Kenny Boyle, Sylvester McCoy
Directed by Ryan Hendrick
Certificate 12

Two strangers stranded in the Scottish Highlands on Christmas Eve team up to try and get home in time for December 25. That’s the idea behind this charming, but strangely inert rom com.
It’s based on acclaimed short 2015 film Perfect Strangers, and it’s weird watching the trailer for that after seeing the feature. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, the overlong revamp loses a little something when stretched. (It needed at least 10 minutes trimming to make the movie snappier).

Kenny Boyle is perfectly fine as the grumpy, spurned Rob (reprising his role from the beta version), while Natalie Clark is charming as the eternal optimist Jen. She’s sweet, a bit ditzy and thinks it’s fine to steal her ex’s supercar. Obviously it’s not but hey, she’s a bit ditzy. Grand theft auto is fine in rom coms, as long as it furthers the story. Those are the rules.

While it’s good to see Claire Grogan and Dr Who veterans Sylvester McCoy and Frazer Hines among the supporting cast, the real stars of the show are the wintry landscapes and those wonderful highlands.
It’s no better or worse than one of those ubiquitous Hallmark movies that dominate the box at this time of year, and while many of the gags fall flat, writer/director Ryan Hendrick does his best with the familiar premise.

Like The Comedian’s Guide to Survival from a few years ago, so many of the right elements are here, but for whatever reason that chemistry which turns formulaic movies into all-time classics fails to gel.
However, if you’re curled up on the sofa with a box of chocs while the weather outside is frightful, this could be just the ticket for easing those winter blues. Expect little and it should sprinkle a bit of festive magic at least.

Film review – Ropes

Starring Paula Del Rio, Miguel Angel Jenner, Jordi Aguilar
Directed by Jose Luis Montesinos
By @RogerCrow

Years ago one of the greatest pitches in the history of Hollywood was delivered for a film hardly anyone remembers. The movie was Man’s Best Friend, and the pitch was: “It’s Jaws… with paws”.
Now comes a clever Spanish thriller with a similarly brilliant tagline: Beware of the Dog.

The premise: haunted by the death of her sister, Elena, a young quadriplegic, has retired to a country house along with her father. There she has the help of a Belgian Shepherd service dog.
However, when tragedy strikes, the animal who is supposed to be her best friend, has contracted a strange disease… and has turned into her worst enemy.

This often compelling thriller is a film of two halves. It starts off well as the characters and premise are introduced. When the young heroine is left alone, what begins is not so much a ’cat’ and mouse game but a mix of Gravity, Cujo and the end of Aliens.
There’s also an element of What Lies Beneath as the heroine tries to stay alive despite limited movement. It’s a great idea and there are times it borders on greatness. But by the half way mark I’ll admit I’m a little bored.

In the hands of a genius like writer Brian Clemens, this would have worked far better, but there are just a few too many moments of a seemingly invincible antagonist causing chaos, and chances are animal lovers will hate it.

As good as Paula Del Rio is, and she carries 99 per cent of the film, there were a few too many scenes of her tackling her demons.
Thankfully the running time is spot on, and while Jose Luis Montesinos knows how to craft a tense thriller, there was something missing. It might have been the fact it felt so much like Cujo, or that there wasn’t enough material to sustain a feature.

However, in a world of formulaic thrillers this was an interesting variation on familiar themes, and I can see Hollywood adapting it for their own ends in the near future. Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown would be a perfect lead, though hopefully they’ll change the key predator. I much prefer my movie pets on the cuddly side rather than killer canines thanks very much.


Film review- The Hunt (2020)

Starring Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Amy Madigan

Directed by Craig Zobel

Certificate 15

By @RogerCrow

I knew nothing of the controversial history* of The Hunt, another jet black comedy horror from the Blumhouse stable.(*The film was shelved for a bit because of a real mass shooting, and then Covid meant its big screen performance was cut short).

Unlike The Invisible Man, one of the best thrillers of the year, this is lighter in tone, but also features a powerhouse turn from its female lead. I also knew nothing of Betty Gilpin, despite watching an episode of Glow, the wrestling series that helped make her name.

The opening gives us a little foreshadowing via a series of text messages, before we cut to a private jet and an atrocity that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

We eventually cut to a field where a series of potential protagonists race to a container. So far, so Hunger Games. Or if you’re a fan of vintage thrillers, The Most Dangerous Game, which provided the template for countless similar thrillers). But what’s inside the box? Well, that would be telling. Safe to say for the first few minutes, the people we think are going to carry the movie… don’t.

Then a dazed Crystal (Gilpin) wanders into a convenience store, and things really kick off. I’ll not reveal too much, except to say that Betty Gilpin gives the sort of star-making turn that demands repeat viewing, a lot like Jodie Comer’s Villanelle in Killing Eve.

I had to watch one scene in a bunker repeatedly for her truly wonderful facial expressions. It’s one of those PTSD-style turns that rises far above the familiar Katniss-esque trappings. There is a glorious political subtext to the movie which is essentially the privileged vs the working class.

While cineastes and academics might analyse it for years to come, on a Saturday night during one of the worst weeks of the last 10 years, for this movie lover it’s the perfect slice of escapism.

It’s good to see Amy Madigan from cult 1980s rock and roll fantasy Streets of Fire, and a few other familiar faces amid the supporting cast. While the third act may be pure Kill Bill, that’s not bad thing. It’s far from perfect, but the 90-minute running time is spot on.

For those who had to wade through hours of occasionally thrilling, but mostly depressing misery in The Hunger Games saga, this is a great antidote.

At the risk of a possible spoiler, I’ve no idea whether Crystal will return for a sequel, but I’m guessing Ms Gilpin has already been fast tracked for another Hollywood thriller as a kick-ass heroine, hopefully with as much wit and intelligence as this full-blooded slice of escapism.


Film review- Endless (2020)

Endless (2020)
Starring Alexandra Shipp, Nicholas Hamilton, DeRon Horton
Directed by Scott Speer
Certificate 12A

By @RogerCrow

The only certain things in life are death and taxes. Well, I’ll add another one to that list: films about death.
Not the maudlin type, but those films where the deceased hero gets a chance to right wrongs, and do something good after their demise. You ’Always’ get these scripts knocking around Hollywood, and as ’Ghost’ is beloved by millions, thirty years after that blockbuster left millions blubbing into their popcorn, there’s little wonder producers are keen to revisit those themes. I ’truly, madly, deeply’ believe that.

Bike chained melody

This one centres on besotted high school graduates Riley (Alexandra Shipp) and Chris (Nicholas Hamilton). She’s a cool artist, he’s a fresh faced biker who looks like he’s just stepped off the set of a modelling shoot. Which is fine. Gritty authenticity takes a back seat in this good looking tear-splattered fantasy romance.

Oh. My love. My darling. I’ve hungered for a Ghost remake. Not really.

They are separated by a (brilliantly executed) tragic car accident. Riley blames herself for her boyfriend’s death, while Chris is stranded in limbo.
Miraculously, the two find a way to connect. And no, it doesn’t involve a potter’s wheel or Unchained Melody.

It’s well put together, the cast are fine, the songs are okay, and the a-ha/Take On Me-style comic book close peps things up a bit. It’s no classic, but if you’re a teenager who loves getting lost in romantic dramas with a supernatural theme, then this should tick a lot of boxes.

If you’ve never seen Ghost, you might like it. And contrary to what the title suggests, it’s just the right length.