FILM: Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

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Period drama Downton Abbey is distributed by Focus Features, and is a sequel to the British television series of the same title. Set in 1927, King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are going to be coming to stay at Downton Abbey. When the royal servants come to the house ahead of the royalty, they tell the shocked Downton staff to stay out of the way while they do all of the work. Mortified, the staff decide to fight for their right to serve in their own workplace. Meanwhile, Countess Crawley (Maggie Smith) is horrified to learn that Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) – cousin of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) – intends to leave her estate to her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). But is all as it appears?

PROS

  • As with the television series, the production design and costume design departments undertake their work with tremendous attention to detail, giving the period setting a real sense of authenticity.
  • A very handsomely framed film by cinematographer Ben Smithard, who values both the grand scale and small detail in equal measure, as shown when you juxtapose his close-up shots of silverware with magnificent landscape shots which frame Downton Abbey within the sprawling countryside.
  • A solid cast, the real stand-outs from the returnees being Jim Carter, Hugh Bonneville and the national treasure that is Maggie Smith, while Imelda Staunton and Tuppence Middleton make good additions.

CONS

  • A somewhat bare bones premise, with screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler relying a little too heavily on nostalgia for the television series to engage audiences, rather than deliver a compelling narrative.
  • This film would work better as a new six-part series quite frankly, as there are many subplots, including assassination attempts, family secrets, a love triangle, Lady Talbot (Michelle Dockery) questioning her future, and Barrow’s (Robert James-Collier) love life. This would not be so bad were it not for the fact that none of these subplots really go anywhere or add much to the final product.
  • While the cast are good, to have such a large ensemble does inevitably mean that a number of the returning cast members are left feeling somewhat short-changed.

VERDICT: 5/10

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FILM: Hustlers (2019, Lorene Scafaria)

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Crime drama Hustlers is distributed by STXfilms, following its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Based on a true story, the 2008 financial crisis massively impacts the American strip club industry. Desperate to be making good money again, former strippers Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), Destiny (Constance Wu), Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) start drugging wealthy Wall Street workers and hustling them out of thousands. Before long they are rolling in cash, but how long can their hustles keep going before they face serious repercussions?

PROS

  • Deft direction by Lorene Scafaria, whose vision for the film is clear throughout, reflecting her mature and confident approach to her work.
  • A strong cast who have a terrific sense of camaraderie with each other (which is the most engaging aspect of the film). The stand-out, however, is Jennifer Lopez who gives a dynamic, authoritative, career-best performance.
  • Cinematographer Todd Banhazl uses close-ups well to bring the viewer into the heart of the camaraderie and capture the intricacies of the hustles, while Kayla Emter’s sharply edits these scenes to give the film a fast, dynamic pace.

CONS

  • The non-linear narrative – as Destiny shares her story in flashback with journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) – does make the film feel quite disjointed at times.
  • The female empowerment aspect of the film is problematic as a key aspect of it is done by painting all men with the same negative brush. Furthermore, the film is morally dubious as it says that the Wall Street tycoons deserved to be drugged and hustled out of thousands, which is a highly problematic claim to say the least.
  • At times the exploration of the characters’ personal lives is very surface-depth, particularly for Annabelle and Mercedes.

VERDICT: 6/10

FILM: Sprinter (2019, Storm Saulter)

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Sprinter is a coming-of-age sports-drama, which is distributed by FilmRise, following a tour of the film festival circuit. Jamaican high schooler Akeem Sharp (Dale Elliott) loves running, but does not come to accept that he is a natural sprinter until he steps in for the 200 metres. He begins to gain attention for his phenomenal sprinting, and even gets the chance to apply for a scholarship at an American university. But will his criminal brother Germaine (Kadeem Wilson), whom he is spending increasing amounts of time with, cause him to go off the rails?

PROS

  • A well shot and edited film, with cinematographer Pedro Gómez Millán really bringing the viewer into the moment during the sprinting events with tracking shots and close-ups.
  • A good cast who understand their characters’ arcs well and carry the film, with lead actor Dale Elliott particularly proving impressive in his debut performance.
  • While it is quite a simplistic film, it is an example of how something perfectly adequate can be made on a shoestring budget, and there is a sense of heart behind the film from all those involved.

CONS

  • The narrative is quite disjointed at times, with subplot focusing on Akeem’s love life feeling very insubstantial and ultimately distracting from the sports and family plots, while his home issues often feel quite surface-level in their depth.
  • Tonally this film is notably flawed, as moments which should have been dark, serious, maybe even suspenseful, feel far too upbeat.
  • A number of supporting cast members get little to work with, while several characters (notably Germaine) have a very easy, far too convenient conclusion to their narrative/character arcs.

VERDICT: 5/10

FILM: It: Chapter Two (2019, Andy Muschietti)

Supernatural horror film It: Chapter Two is adapted from part of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, and is distributed by Warner Bros. It has been 27 years since the Losers’ Club seemingly defeated Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), but now he is back and killing kids all over again. Remembering their childhood blood oath and being the only one who still lives in Derry, Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) contacts the rest of the Losers’, reminding them that they made an oath to return to Derry if Pennywise ever returned. This time they have to defeat It once and for all, but to do so they will have to overcome fear and trauma which they have repressed for many years.

PROS

  • The narrative grapples with some very mature themes, including childhood trauma, repression, closeted homosexuality, and overcoming fear and oppression, and deals with them respectfully and maturely, feeling like a natural follow-on from the previous film.
  • A very well framed film, which makes excellent use of shadows and confined interior spaces, while the practical effects and makeup have an (at times) unnervingly convincing quality, making for some visually spectacular scenes.
  • An excellent cast, with powerful performances from James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain as Bill and Beverly, while Bill Skarsgård gives a wonderfully unsettling and very compelling turn once again as Pennywise. The standout though is Bill Hader, who gives a career-best performance as Richie, nailing the comedic moments, but also playing Richie’s deeper, more vulnerable sides with real sensitivity.

CONS

  • A tonally inconsistent film, which opens with a very shocking and disturbing sequence which marks Pennywise’s return, while the rest of the film (including some death scenes) feels comparatively upbeat. Furthermore, several tense scenes end on anticlimactic jump scares and some supposedly scary things look a bit goofy.
  • The 170 minutes running time ultimately results in the film feeling quite padded out, with some scenes being quite dragged out and impacting the tone in doing so, while some concepts like the zombie Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague) amount to little.
  • The CGI is very blatant and stands out like a sore thumb next to the practical effects, as do the deageing effects and voice editing software used on the child actors for the flashback sequences.

VERDICT: 6/10

FILM: The Mustang (2019, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre)

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Following its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, drama film The Mustang is distributed by Focus Features. Long-term prisoner Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is unwilling to consider parole as his short temper and violent tendencies mean he considers prison the place he should be. He is entered into a rehabilitation program run by rancher Myles (Bruce Dern) to train wild mustang horses for auction. Roman begins to train a mustang whom he names Marquis, and he begins to bond with the animal, and in doing so starts to become a more gentle and sensitive man.

PROS

  • A beautiful screenplay which explores the beauty of the relationship between man and stallion, and also the horrors of prison life and its psychological toll, through authentic, down-to-Earth screenwriting which feels wholly grounded in reality.
  • Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s vision for the film comes through very well in her nuanced, concise direction, which is never in the slightest bit complex and resultantly aids the screenplay in making the film feel wholly grounded in reality.
  • While there are strong performances across the board from the supporting cast, the stars of this film are Matthias Schoenaerts and the horse who plays Marquis. The chemistry between the two are wonderful, but that never distracts from just how sensitive and nuanced Schoenaerts’s turn is, as he conveys the sense of a man plagued by regret and self-loathing.
  • Excellent work by cinematographer Ruben Impens, who brings the viewer into the moment with expert use of handheld cameras, while his magnificent long shots which open the film capture the beauty and grace of wild mustangs galloping through the countryside.

CONS

  • Several supporting characters’ roles do not go into the level of depth or exploration which one would hope for, and as a result some of them feel comparatively bare bones next to supporting characters such as Myles.

VERDICT: 9/10

FILM: The Informer (2019, Andrea Di Stefano)

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Crime drama The Informer is adapted from the Swedish novel Three Seconds, and is distributed in UK cinemas by Warner Bros. Reformed criminal Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is a infiltrating the Polish mob’s drug trade in New York for crooked FBI handlers. However, this work results in him having to return to Bale Hill Prison, where it becomes a race against time to keep his mole status secret after a drug deal goes wrong.

CONS

  • The screenplay is frankly appalling. It is a convoluted mess with enough ideas to potentially make a miniseries quite frankly, with very clunky dialogue, very poor characterisation and a lot of highly illogical moments, with one of the least illogical being an NYPD cop (Common) turning up to an FBI crime scene and not having to show his badge.
  • Andrea Di Stefano comes across as unconfident and uncertain in her direction, as it feels as though she is trying to direct an Oscar worthy crime drama, yet she is unable to craft tension and seems as uncertain as to what direction to take the narrative in as her co-screenwriters.
  • The performances across the board frankly feel forced, which I feel may partly come down to the fact that they knew the whole film was a mess, but mainly because for them it really was a pay cheque film. That is pretty disappointing when your cast includes Rosamund Pike and Clive Owen.
  • Some…erm…interesting choices by the hairstylists, as it is impossible to take gangsters with man buns seriously, no matter how big built they are. As for the make-up department, the injury detail is bordering on non-existent, while the use of fake blood is at best inconsistent.

PROS

  • Cinematographer Daniel Katz does frame the film well, so at least it is not one of those poor quality crime dramas that cannot be followed due to dodgy cinematography.

VERDICT: 1/10

FILM: Mrs Lowry & Son (2019, Adrian Noble)

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Biopic Mrs Lowry & Son (boy does the incorrect punctuation of that title bug me) is distributed in UK cinemas by Vertigo Films, following its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Prior to finding fame as L.S. Lowry, Laurie Lowry (Timothy Spall) is a middle-aged rent collector, who paints for a hobby and lives with his infirm, overbearing mother (Vanessa Redgrave). When a great opportunity for his painting to become more than a hobby comes along, he is incredibly disheartened when his mother tries to take control and belittles his love for art.

PROS

  • Cinematographer Josep M. Civit frames the film beautifully, many shots feeling like precise pieces of art work, and several frames recreating Lowry’s works.
  • A lovely orchestral score by composer Craig Armstrong, which is pitch perfect for a small scale, intimate narrative set in the 1930s.
  • Two very good central performances from Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave, both of whom are nuanced and suitably understated.

CONS

  • It is ironic that Lowry’s art was praised for not feeling artificial, yet that is exactly what many of the exterior sets feel like, particularly in some landscape shots.
  • The central relationship, as well as the characterisation of the central characters, are quite surface-level, and we never really come to understand them that well.
  • The film feels quite rushed at 90 minutes, and a number of events and moments which could feel significant simply come and go without feeling so.

VERDICT: 5/10