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Review: Stardust

November 7, 2020

10th of January 2016. The day that the music industry stood still as we had to say goodbye to one of the greatest and most influential musicians, David Bowie. Whether you stepped into Bowie’s eclectic world right at the beginning with The Man Who Sold the World or more towards the middle because of Let’s Dance you know that the musical chameleon would have a massive impact on the fans and music industry. Even after his death, Bowie’s influence is still visible and not only in the music industry. During the past few years, we had director Henry Hey bringing Bowie’s iconic characters and songs to life in the theatrical version of Lazarus, and now we have the biopic Stardust by director Gabriel Range. While that first one excels in every way possible, the latter doesn’t.

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust
(Source: IMDb)

What’s a musician without music?

When seeing a movie about David Bowie, you would expect songs such as Life on Mars?, Rebel Rebel and Under Pressure. Well, you will get none of that as Bowie’s estate didn’t want his music to be used in this film. However, that didn’t stop Range from creating a wonderful story. Together with co-writer Christopher Bell, he tells the story of the young David Bowie (Johnny Flynn) who’s trying to get his international breakthrough. After being rejected by many radio stations, record labels and concert promoters for being too rebellious and too different, Bowie’s career seems to come to a permanent standstill. However, he gets one more chance as his manager sends him on a solo promo tour in America. Both Bowie and his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone) think that this will be the beginning of an internationally successful career.

However, their dream is being shattered when the trip doesn’t turn out exactly how they want. Once arrived in America, Bowie learns that there’s no tour and that he can’t perform any of his songs. No tour, no fans, no songs but there are still the promises of his publicist Ron (Marc Maron). While playing covers from other iconic artists in very unusual venues, Bowie also visits the many radio stations. Sadly, they don’t welcome this remarkable, withdrawn, insecure, sarcastic and peculiar artist with open arms which has a massive impact on Bowie’s mental state.

It becomes even worse when he starts to ease the rejections with booze and drugs. The more he experiments with his genderbending outfits, the substances and his ground-breaking music, the less he’s being accepted by the music industry. Will this tour ends in a glorious musical career or will Bowie’s life spiral completely out of control?

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust
(Source: IMDb)

Hitting high notes and low keys

Well, we all know what impact the American trip had on Bowie. It resulted in selling 100 million records worldwide, getting a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and becoming the “Greatest Rock Star Ever” according to Rolling Stone. Sadly, we can’t praise this movie as much as we can praise the iconic artist himself because Stardust has (too) many flaws.

While the writers were able to create a story that doesn’t include any of Bowie songs, the absence of the music is the reason why the movie can’t captivate the audience to the fullest. We see Flynn playing some covers that Bowie performed such as The Yardbirds’ I Wish You Would and My Death from Jacques Brel but you don’t get that big final that could have been reached by including Starman or The Man Who Sold the World.

A very solid cast

If you want to make a biopic about a rock star, then as a director you need to have a lead who can pull it off. Not only musically but also charismatically. In an interview at the Raindance Film Festival, Range mentioned that while Flynn (Beast) might not look as Bowie, he certainly has the right charisma. Well, we agree with that. Flynn isn’t the spitting image of Bowie, but when you put him in the perfect clothes and the right light, then you will get a silhouette that could be the one from the man himself. During many moments, Flynn’s performance feels a little bit too forced, but when Bowie hits the stage, we see Flynn giving a much more open, charismatic and entertaining performance.

Maron (Joker) brings with his genuine and emotional performance much warmth, vividness and personality to this movie. Malone (Nocturnal Animals) is a little bit underused, but she’s still capable of capturing that fierceness and boldness from Angie beautifully.

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie and Marc Maron as Ron in Stardust
(Source: IMDb)

Don’t expect it to be another Rocketman

If you’re going to check out Stardust, don’t expect it to be another Rocketman or Bohemian Rhapsody. No, this movie works much better if you see the story as one about a musician and his publicist trying to get his career off the ground instead of one about the great musician we all know. If you’re a Bowie fan, then you might be disappointed after seeing this movie, but if you want to enjoy an emotional, easygoing and clever film, then Stardust is one you should see.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Stardust (Official Trailer)

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Reviews

Review: Relic

October 26, 2020
Relic

A visit to your grandmother should be fun and heart-warming. Whether it’s just to have a short chat, to enjoy a nice meal or to celebrate Christmas, it always has to be an enjoyable time. That’s what Kay and Sam had in mind when they visited Edna, Kay’s mum and Sam’s grandmother. However, that’s not what they got at all. No, if you watch the stunning Relic from writer/director Natalie Erika James, then you will know that they wished they could have remembered their visit differently.

The curse of growing old

Their trip starts like any other. Ready to cuddle up, share stories and to eat delicious food. However, when Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote) learn that Edna (Robyn Nevin) is missing, the family visit takes a darker turn. Kay and Sam try to find their lost family member but what they see is certainly not what they were expecting. Bloody clothes, strange black mould on the walls and strange (human) noises are what they encounter. After having to deal with multiple search parties and many sleepless nights, Kay and Sam are perplexed when Edna turns up on the doorstep (or better said: in the kitchen). You would think that it would be a happy family reunion, but it’s everything but that.

It seems that Edna can’t remember where she had been, and while at first, that could have happened due to the shock, it’s clear that she has dementia. The disease is significantly evolving, and Edna’s mood swings become incredibly dark. She starts to harm herself and her family for no reason, she talks to people who aren’t there, and the dementia seems to be eviler than expected. Will Kay and Sam be able to save Edna from whatever she’s going through or will Edna’s disappearance have a much darker and lasting impact than initially thought?

Emily Mortimer as Kay and Bella Heathcote as Sam in Relic
Emily Mortimer as Kay and Bella Heathcote as Sam in Relic
(Source: IMDb)

A typical horror movie combined with some unique elements.

We can hear you say it. ‘Another horror movie’ and ‘what makes this movie different than any other horror movies before?’. Well, let us tell you. Relic isn’t just an ordinary horror film, and here’s why.

First of all, it’s because of the perplexing fact that Relic is just the debut feature of Erika James. Together with her co-writer Christian White (Creswick), she created a refreshing, unique and suspenseful movie with some very subtle elements to it. At first, the story itself seems straightforward. A missing family member turning back up and not knowing what she has done because of her dementia. The relationship between the three women is being tested. Not only because of the disease but also because of events from the past and plans for the future. However, there’s much more to this story than what meets the eye. We don’t want to say too much, but we dare to say that you probably didn’t see that climax coming.

The ‘dark versus light’ aspect of this movie is beautifully brought to the screen by the usage of mainly lamps, candles and the moonlight. Many of those lights will help you out discovering which darkness is lurking behind those closed doors. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff (American Bistro) brings the unique story great to live thanks to the stunningly created perfect balance between the darkness and danger and the light and hope. Sarroff’s work is one of the reasons why this movie is a delightful one.

Robyn Nevin as Edna in Relic
Robyn Nevin as Edna in Relic
(Credit: Film Installation)

Three stunning leading ladies

Other reasons why you should watch this movie are outstanding acting performances. The most dazzling one is, without a doubt, the one from Nevin (Gods of Egypt). She rocks in this movie as the sinister grandmother you don’t want to hug. Edna feels like the dark version of the Mona Lisa. Wherever you and the camera go, her ice-cold and creepy look will follow you all around the room. Nevin knows how to make the audience feel very unease. She, and cast, doesn’t have a lot of lines and so the emotions and the story need to come to life with body language, and Nevin certainly succeeds in that.

In Relic, we see Mortimer (Mary) as her on-screen daughter who pleasingly portrays Kay. She brings the feelings of guilt, distress, hate and love emotionally and fabulously.  Thanks to her touching performance, the personal connection between the audience and the leading characters is being established instantly. Heathcote (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) joins those two terrific women in a beautiful and captivating way. At first, her performance is just a nice one that doesn’t stand out in any way. However, the closer the unexpected climax is coming, the bigger, bolder and more memorable her performance becomes.

An excellent and tense watch

What makes from Relic such a great watch is the fact that it’s not a blood or gore horror story but instead a story that can happen to any of us (well, if you leave the cinematic aspects aside). There’s a chance that we might have to deal with dementia one day, and that’s why the movie is so appealing. If you combine that real-life element with the stunning dark performances, the well-balanced light versus dark relationship and wonderfully made cinematography, you know that this is an excellent debut movie.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Relic (Official trailer)

Also Read: Saint Maud (Review)

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Reviews

Retro Review: The Shining

October 22, 2020

The BBC have spoiled us all by making The Shining available on iPlayer (until 16th November) and to celebrate here is a retro review of this classic of horror cinema. WARNING – THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS AHEAD

What’s Going On?

Danny and the Grady twins
Danny and the Grady twins (Credit: Warner Bros)

Aspiring writer Jack Torrence is given the job of winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a grand and isolated property, in which he, his wife and young son will be completely cut off. It is also revealed that the son, Danny, has The Shining – a supernatural gift that can warn Danny of danger, glimpse the future and see what has happened in the past – allowing Danny to see the various horrific things that have previously happened in The Overlook Hotel. Not long into their stay things begin to get strange and forces seem intent on driving Jack to repeat the horrific things in the hotel’s past.

Behind The Scenes

Nicholson and Kubrick on set
Nicholson and Kubrick on set (independent.co.uk)

The film was based on Stephen King’s 1977 horror bestseller of the same name, this only being King’s third book his legendary status had not yet been cemented. Not true of the director Stanley Kubrick at the time seen as one of the best directors in the world and whose reputation has only increased since. Kubrick is famous, or infamous, for overthinking his films – by which I mean years of research, hundreds of takes, layer upon layer of meaning and attention to detail like no other director. The Shining is a classic example of this and it has been endlessly examined and re-examined by critics and fans.

In Front Of The Camera

Jack Nicholson in The Shining (Credit: Warner Bros)

The Shining has a small cast and is essentially about three characters: married couple Jack and Wendy, and their young son, Danny. Jack is played by Jack Nicholson, Wendy by Shelley Duvall and Danny by Danny Lloyd, who has done little acting before or since. All three give amazing performances. Nicholson gives perhaps a career-best and bear in mind this is a career in which he has won two Oscars (neither for The Shining), his descent into madness and violence is utterly believable and compelling. Duvall arguably has the hardest job – she is an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation with no supernatural powers or evil forces preying on her to explain her actions. Once things start ramping up she is terrified essentially for the rest of the film – but she never stops trying to defend her son, managing to convey her horror at the events going around her and how her need to protect Danny overrides everything. Lloyd is practically perfect as Danny and his portrayal of the “supernatural child” is almost the textbook example for every film that came after.

Does It Work?

Wendy finally seeing what Jack’s been writing (Credit: Warner Bros)

To put it bluntly – yes, magnificently so. To me, The Shining is the best horror film ever made and one of the best films ever made, it is a genuine masterpiece. The escalating tension over the course of the film as Jack is slowly overcome by madness is incredible. The wildness in Nicholson builds to an absolute fever pitch. The glimpses of Jack trying to battle the darkness overwhelming him are difficult to watch as he can see what he is being driven towards and Kubrick’s horror is as much about the unhealthy dynamic in that family as anything supernatural. Even without the intervention of ghosts, you suspect it would not have been a happy stay (indeed some fans are of the opinion there are no ghosts and it is just the isolation that pushes Jack to madness). Duvall becomes ever more frantic as things unravel around her and the scene where she discovers just what Jack has been writing all this time is phenomenal.

The hotel is hugely important in this film, this vast and grand hotel that is eerily empty. We see Danny riding around the hotel on his tricycle, the camera almost in point of view, giving a very unusual visual perspective. The design of the hotel is glorious – the hotel carpets are genuinely famous and I recently bought a face mask that features the iconic design. Somewhere so big and so empty is inherently spooky, simple things that are in themselves perfectly innocuous because deeply sinister when there is no one who could have them.

The Shining is a perfect film for the Halloween season and is in fact my go-to Halloween film. If nothing else watching this film will clue you in on forty years of references to creepy twins, Red Rum and taking an axe to a door.

Obviously and easily 5 out of 5 stars but that does not really do it justice – a truly unmissable film.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Also Read: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Review: Mangrove [London Film Festival]

October 21, 2020
Mangrove - Steve McQueen

This year many industries had to make some (drastic) changes, and the film industry (and the whole entertainment industry) was one of them. Releases postponed, filming temporary suspended and film festival needing to adapt. Many film festivals went online, and some were cancelled entirely. The BFI Film Festival took it to another level as they decided to host a hybrid edition with both physical and online screenings. Despite all the changes, there’s still one thing you can count on, and that’s an impressive line-up. The opening night film Mangrove by director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) is the perfect example of that. After his Widows in 2018, McQueen is returning to the festival with an even more impressive and extremely relevant movie.

Taking place in the ’70 but never as relevant as now

Today, on the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations and about injustice and racism are at the forefront of conversation, making Mangrove a very timely film. After having to close his previous bar, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) is now opening his Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. The restaurant isn’t only black-owned, but it’s also the place where the entire black community comes together to have a great time and enjoy Caribbean cuisine. The film does a great job of conveying the intimidation tactics and the Metropolitan Police used against the afro-Caribbean residents in Nottinghill, West London. As part of that, we see Frank’s friends and family are being harassed, and the numerous raids on his restaurant – and the burden that comes with this.

The more the police brutality increases, the more the black community stands up for their rights, and the more Mangrove becomes the place for activist meetings. Amongst the attendees are Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright), Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Frank himself. After many small riots, the black community organises a protest, on 9 August 1970, during which 150 people march to the local police station. Sadly, that results in a massive clash between the police and the Mangrove Nine, and that was the start of the 11-weeks lasting trial between Pc Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) and the Metropolitan police and the “Mangrove Nine”. A trial that was a watershed moment in “race relations” within the UK.

Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-Lecointe in Mangrove.
(Source: BBC)

Oscar-worthy film for many reasons

While Mangrove is being screened at film festivals around the world, it’s actually part of the BBC’s Small Axe series. We hope that the movies in that series will be eligible for the many award ceremonies because if so, Mangrove should be nominated in many Oscar categories.

The main categories would, without a doubt, be the acting ones. Wright (Black Panther) excels as Jones-LaCointe, the headstrong, feisty and supportive representative of the Black Panthers. Wright brings the dialogues with so much power and dignity that they will go straight to your heart. That protest speech is one we will never forget. Another standout in this movie is Parkes (Trick or Treat). Thanks to his performance, we feel the pain, the determination and the courageousness of Frank. The further the story goes, the more impactful the emotions become. His last scene in court will bring tears to your eyes.

The stunning cast of Mangrove
(Source: BBC)

They’re surrounded by an immensely strong cast of which every member brings raw emotions to the screen in his or her unique way. Spruell (Outlaw King) his performance as Pully is also on point. We feel the corruptive, violent and mischievousness characteristics of Pully coming through the screen. We also want to applaud the smaller but still memorable performances by from Llewella Gideon (Second Coming) and Jack Lowden (Dunkirk). Gideon’s portrayal as Aunt Betty, the witty, funny and blunt cook from the Mangrove, and Lowden performance as the barrister of the Mangrove Nine, bring a bit light to this extremely rough story.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the movie would also be selected in categories involving costume design, production design and original screenplay. Saying that McQueen and his crew bring such an authentic vibe to this movie would be an understatement. The real and genuine element is represented by the combination of the 35mm film shot by Shabier Kirchner (Only You), the brilliant period costumes designed by Lisa Duncan (Peripheral) and the fantastic production design provided by Helen Scott (Dark River). From the very first scene of the Rio, in which men are enjoying gambling, smoking and drinking, to the very last one, in which black and white people come together in the Mangrove, it all feels exceptionally authentic.

Impactful triumph

While Mangrove will be only available at the small screen for the moment, we hope that it finds its way to the cinemas. Not only because of its extremely relevance but also for the immense authenticity and strong performances.

Mangrove will premiere on BBC One and iPlayer on the 15th of November.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Mangrove (Official Trailer)

Also Read: Review: Kajillionaire [London Film Festival]

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Retro Review: Frankenstein (1931)

October 19, 2020
frankenstein 1931 [Soruce: Letterboxd]

This Halloween season we are looking at James Whale’s Frankenstein. A movie so recognisable that many may think of this film adaptation before Mary Shelley’s original novel. But after almost 90 years does it still hold up?

Synopsis

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has lately been walled up in his laboratory. So, his fiancé Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), her friend Victor (John Boles), and Henry’s former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) decide to investigate. Upon confronting him they find that Frankenstein aims to give life to a monster. Made by stitching together dead body parts and inserting an abnormal brain stolen from Dr. Waldman’s classroom. Ultimately Frankenstein succeeds. But can “The Monster” (Boris Karloff) be controlled?

What did I like?

Frankenstein works well for many reasons. First being its tight and well-paced script. In a short time-space, the script intrigues us with the mystery of Frankenstein. And then emotionally invests us through exploring Frankenstein’s motivations and how his various relationships affect him, and consequently the Monster. And because the film is full of interesting, now iconic, scenarios like the grave robbery, the monster’s introduction, the windmill finale, and more, it’s never boring.

Secondly, the cast is almost uniformly excellent. Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, and Dwight Frye particularly stand out, investing heart, humour, and discomfort where needed.

But the film also features two truly legendary performances. First being Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein. Clive really sells us on Frankenstein’s drive and ambition through his stern; occasionally frantic manner, without making him unlikable. But when The Monster enters the picture, Clive makes us empathise with his emotional vulnerability. As he takes responsibility for The Monster. And Boris Karloff’s portrayal of The Monster is unforgettable. Not only is he immediately frightening and imposing thanks to his tall frame and Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup design. But Karloff’s performance engenders a lot of sympathy. He feels like a vulnerable animal. Causing pain because he’s unfairly victimised or doesn’t know better. This makes us want to see him nurtured not persecuted. Because otherwise, the consequences could be deadly.

Frankenstein-Source-Movie-Monster-Wiki-Fandom
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster [Source: Movie Monster Wiki – Fandom]

And there’s some brilliant technical work on display. The set and production design are fantastic. The classic romantic feeling of the period costumes and picturesque Victorian decorated sets and backlots greatly contrast with sets like Frankenstein’s gothic laboratory and the expressionistic graveyard. Which when combined with the inventive direction that has cameras gliding through rooms, interesting camera angles, and a lack of music creates a uniquely horrific and disquieting atmosphere.

What did I not like?

There are some flaws that prevent Frankenstein from being perfect. For one Henry’s emotional recovery and wedding seemingly happen only a few days after he decides to kill the monster. As it’s hard to believe that Dr. Waldman’s disappearance and discovery would take more than a few days to happen. And this short time frame does somewhat lessen the emotional impact of Frankenstein’s decision to destroy the creation he cared about.

The character of Victor also doesn’t contribute much to the story. His use as emotional support could easily have been filled by a more prominent character and the film would remain the same. Which isn’t helped by John Boles’ wooden performance. A shame as everyone else does such great work.

And the film has a fair amount of editing choices that can pull one out of the movie. As this is an older film before modern film language was perfected this is expected. But the breaking of the 180-degree rule in some sections as well as some imperfect matches between cuts and a sped-up crucial moment are unintentionally jarring.

Verdict

The script’s limited timeframe undersells some moments. Victor doesn’t add much to the story. And the bizarre editing choices can be nit-picked. But they pale in comparison to Frankenstein’s strengths. With stellar performances from most of the cast including iconic turns from Clive and Karloff, brilliant atmosphere thanks to inventive direction; beautiful set and production design and a well-structured script packed with iconic moments that keep you riveted till the end, love for Frankenstein will remain alive for years to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Also Read: Horrors On Horror Sets

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Review: Cicada [London Film Festival]

October 14, 2020

What happened to the web series? For one brief and shining moment, around the early 2010s, it was flourishing. It gave us creators like Issa Rae, Desiree Akhavan, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer. It seemed ripe for the picking of talented individuals who had stuck their middle finger up at the perceived norms and taken their fate into their own hands instead of that of older white dudes who handed out the cash. In 2016, Matthew Fifer debuted his web series, Jay and Pluto, after a successful Kickstarter campaign and now he returns with Cicada, a meditation on the impact of trauma.

The film, co-directed by Kieran McClure, follows Ben (Fifer), a bisexual man going through the motions in New York City, painting apartments for West Side “DILFS”, and seeing the doctor for nausea that can’t be explained as he repeatedly vomits in the morning seemingly to expel something. After a broken engagement he is, as his sister refers to it, “back on the dick”, meeting (mostly) men online, in work, at clubs, on the subway platform, in the bathrooms of bars. Ben hasn’t been out for long, due to trauma he refuses to deal with from his past, and admits that he has never been able to be truly intimate with someone without being drunk or high. This is until he meets Sam (Sheldon D. Brown) while browsing at a bookstore. It isn’t clear what makes Sam different, why Ben decides to ask him for a drink rather than a fuck, but the two begin to bond and slowly fall into the regular patterns of a relationship.

One night Sam asks Ben about his first time with a man. At first, Ben is cagey, describing the experience of Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicidesleft alone on the football pitch when he awoke in the morning, rather than his own experience but Sam persists. Ben, reluctantly admits he was “young” and leaves it at that, but Sam understands the implications. The film focuses itself mostly around this issue; how do those with trauma try to move on? Both men are carrying it, as Sam is reluctant to hold hands or kiss in public due to being the victim of a homophobic drive-by and we see flashes back to Ben’s childhood aware that something happened there that he can’t let go of. 

Cicada / BFI

Cicada, an autobiographical story from Fifer’s own life, seeks to understand how this trauma manifests in both men. Ben is seemingly doing great with Sam, he wants to be committed and, for some reason, no longer needs substances to do that, yet he’s haunted by an ongoing molestation trial that is all over the news. Sam, however, lashes out when he feels like he’s not in control. First, when Ben shows up to his place of work with flowers and, second, when Ben introduces him to his friends, Sam picks a fight as things are becoming “real”. This is most likely related to his father, to whom he is not out, and the internalised homophobia he is harbouring since his attack.

Trauma and its effects have been depicted more commonly in film over the past few years, and Cicada joins a recent few that don’t aim for sensationalism but rather work to explore that experience realistically. For example, Jennifer Fox’s experimental and ground-breaking film The Tale told the story of the sexual abuse she faced as a young girl, and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale followed a traumatised woman who was seeking revenge. All of these are creating a new wave in cinema, led by women and minorities, that refuses to be silent about the things that make us, as a society, uncomfortable. However, engaging in discussions of sexual abuse with the realm of queerdom navigates some tricky optics, ones that have to contend with decades of pseudoscience that have tried to link the two. In its personal focus, it feels like Cicada never reaches to make a grand statement about queer people, but it also doesn’t feel like it has fully considered where this conversation might go. 

Cicada / LFF

This is all fascinating territory and, as a film, it is a bold choice to try and engage with it, yet it doesn’t quite all come together. Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting in various ways; it just doesn’t rise to the severity of its subject matter. It’s ending feels a little neat for a story about how trauma manifests and its script, at times, can feel a little by-the-book, especially during the early scenes of Ben and Sam’s relationship.  It all feels somewhat trapped within that millennials-in-New-York-style indie movie that has risen in popularity since the premiere of Lena Dunham’s GIRLS in 2013 (though it’s definitely one of the better ones).

Cicada is a strong debut for Fifer and his team. It made me wonder what they could achieve with a bigger budget and more time. Fifer has managed to navigate that tricky terrain from the internet to the big screen and has been able to manifest something emotional, artful, and thought-provoking. As is typical for debuts, it’s imperfect but shows promise. It asks a lot of questions but doesn’t quite find every answer. It’s bold, yet limited, but what comes next is something to keep an eye on.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Cicada has yet to be given a UK release date.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On the Value of Youth

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Review: Siberia [London Film Festival]

October 13, 2020

You would think that after having to spend too much time in a lighthouse, Willem Dafoe would choose something more uplifting for his next project. Well, think again. This time he went for an even darker role and pretty sure that co-writer/director Abel Ferrara (Tommaso, Pasolini) was thrilled with that. Ferrara and his life-long muse Dafoe work together again, and Siberia is undoubtedly a movie you will remember but sadly not only for the right reasons.

A mind-bending story

Where do we begin? Not quite sure but let’s give it a shot anyway. The movie starts in Siberia (what a surprise, right?) and Clint (Willem Dafoe) is the owner of a decayed and remote bar. Not many people, but at least he gets a few customers. They’re the only people that make sense in this movie cause apart from that, everything seems to be surreal. What follows is a cacophony of events. A pregnant woman making Clint’s life even stranger, men being beaten up and Clint hearing and seeing his dead dad. Do you want to know where this disturbing journey is taking us? Then that’s for you to discover by watching this movie.

Willem Dafoe as Clint in Siberia
Willem Dafoe as Clint in Siberia
(Credit: The Match Factory)

Peculiar to say the least

During an interview with Sundance, ahead of the shooting of Siberia, Ferrara mentioned that he wanted to “see if we can film dreams—our fears, our regrets, our nostalgia.”. Well, we have to applaud the director for achieving that because having to deal with fear, regrets and our dreams is precisely what Siberia is about. We all know that our dreams can be very disorientated especially if you wake up in the middle of one. When it comes to that element, Siberia feels exactly like a dream because of all the different worlds and events and no explanation whatsoever.

If you have a perplexing story like this, you have to make sure that it’s still a captivating one; otherwise, the audience might drop out before the movie even becomes interesting. Luckily for Ferrara, he can count on cinematographer Stefano Falivene, who already brought stunning films to life such as Aspromonte: Land of the Forgotten and All You Ever Wished For. Falivene succeeds in putting every dream on the screen in a beautiful way. Whether it’s the quiet and white Siberia or the heated and sandy desert, it all looks gorgeous, vibrant and intriguing. It’s just a shame that this movie includes too many dreams and because of that, we can’t enjoy every dream and the whole cinematography to the fullest.

Willem Dafoe as Clint in Siberia
Willem Dafoe as Clint in Siberia
(Credit: The Match Factory)

Enormous credit to Dafoe

If you have a twisted story like this, then you know that you need an actor who put on an even crazier performance. It’s understandable why Ferrara went for Dafoe. Not only because both men got together many times but also because, as we all know from The Lighthouse, Dafoe is a master in portraying unusual and broken figures. This time is no different. Whether it’s as the lost man longing to see his deceased father, the lifeless guy who’s looking for his soul, the passionate lover or the very amusing dancer, Dafoe gets the chance again to show his wide range of capabilities.

Why so serious?

Apart from the magnificent cinematography and the excellent performance by Dafoe, there’s one more element that might make you enjoy Siberia a bit more and that’s the seriousness of this movie. We should actually say ‘the lack of seriousness’ as it’s clear the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are many cliches, moments that don’t make sense at all and scenes that are too unoriginal.

Where’s your head at?

We have absolutely no clue in which state of mind Ferrara and co-writer Christ Zois (Jersey Guy) were when they wrote the script of this movie and not sure if we want to go there. It’s certainly not a mindset we’ve experienced. While the cinematography is a breath-taking one and the acting performance from Dafoe is impressive, the storyline is just a bit too much all over the place to make from Siberia a delightful and enjoyable movie.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Siberia (Official Trailer)

Also Read: Lighthouse (Review)

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Reviews

Review: One Night in Miami [London Film Festival]

October 11, 2020
One Night In Miami

In a 2014 interview, the activist and writer Angela Y. Davis decried the emphasis on individualism in American history. “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals,” she said, as a way to make sure that people today are able to recognise their “potential agency as part of a community of struggle.” In Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, we spend time with four black men who might fall into the category of “heroic individuals” yet we seem them collaborate, argue, and support each other: Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X.

Leslie Odom Jr. stars in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI Photo: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

In 1964, Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston to become the boxing World Heavyweight Champion despite odds, 7-1, saying he would lose. The win launched Clay into the public eye in a new way and, shortly after, he announced his conversion to Islam and his new name. One Night in Miami takes place over a few hours after that history-making fight and sees Clay (played with flair by Eli Goree, Riverdale) celebrate in a hotel room with his friends revolutionary Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, High Fidelity), NFL hero turned movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man), and, the King of Soul, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton). As the night draws on, tensions rise, and the discussion moves to how positions of power, stages in the public eye, can be used to speak out against the rampant racism and violence of the mid-sixties.

In this sense, it is a clash between Malcolm and Cooke that takes the central focus. Malcolm, already being followed by the FBI, believes in freedom by utilising activism; speaking out, challenging the powers that be, and refusing to play by their rules. While Cooke, who has been pursuing success on the pop charts and playing segregated venues like the Copacabana, believes in winning them over with his music – not music that is politically minded, but music that is soft and gentle which might lead a white audience to realise black people really are just like them. 

Kingsley Ben-Adir stars in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI Photo: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

This is an issue that has plagued nearly every movement for rights in the past decade; how do we do it? Is it done politely, with the oppressor setting the guidelines for how the discourse can play out? Or is it in the hands of the oppressed to fight against whatever way they see fit be it through boycott, protest, or rioting? Even now, in response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, white people and conservatives are still trying to dictate how the oppressed can politely ask for their rights. Peaceful protest is allowed but kneeling during the national anthem is too far. Organised marching is okay but not during COVID and not if it descends into violence – even if that violence is, more often than not, instigated by the police.

King’s timely debut spends a lot of time unpacking this idea, as Malcolm and Sam become more heated the others offer advice too. Brown, sympathetic to Malcolm’s ideas, offers that Cooke is seeking “economic freedom” which is essential within capitalist structures while Clay seems to advocate for unity between the four regardless of opinion. This is part of the immense power One Night in Miami holds; it can jostle with lofty political debate, engage with political theory, and ideological differences yet it remains a downright entertaining, gripping, and riveting drama. The latter is mostly down to the cast, all of whom are incredibly exciting and captivating on-screen while embodying their famous characters. Ben-Adir oozes righteousness with hints of the radical and smatterings of kindness, Hodge offers a stoicism, graceful and straightforward (plus the way his eyes react can tell you more than 100 pages of dialogue), Goree appears enamoured with a naïve confidence and boyish attitude while maintaining maturity in his decisions, and Odom Jr.’s light-hearted exterior gives way to waves of intense internal conflict.

Regina King at the 91st Academy Awards Photo: ABC

Of course, all of the above would not be possible with King’s deft and subtle direction that creates both a sense of claustrophobia in the small hotel room and also suggests a future far beyond it filled with possibility. King, who has won multiple Emmys for acting in shows like American Crime and Watchmen as well as an Oscar for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, is no stranger to directing despite this being her debut feature. For TV she has directed episodes of HBO’s hit comedy Insecure, NBC’s prized weepy This is Us, and Shondaland’s twisty political drama Scandal amongst others. In One Night in Miami, she isn’t afraid of the intimacy the film (adapted from a stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers) offers, nor is she afraid of the complexity the debate at its centre offers. She only slightly resists its theatrical trappings, by adding an elongated intro and occasional flashbacks, which is a bold step but one that ultimately pays off. Yet, that shouldn’t come as a surprise from an actor who has, in the past decade, defined herself as one of the industry’s best and brightest. 

In Zadie Smith’s recent essay collection, Intimations, she writes about the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers by conceptualising racism as a virus that has infected America, one that arrived long before COVID-19. “I used to think one day there would be a vaccine,” she wrote. “I don’t think that anymore.” This is not defeatism, but it is something that becomes easier and easier to understand as the decades go by, and things don’t seem to change. In one scene, Malcolm passionately cries that black people are being “murdered in the streets” and that it’s not enough to “sit on the fence” anymore (Malcolm himself would be murdered less than a year after Clay’s historic win). This does not seem unlike the sentiment we see today, one that still hopes for change but has decades of stagnation to look back on. In presenting this debate, on how to dissent and when, King offers an artistic, entertaining, and thoroughly impressive comment on our current climate. How do we move forward? We will not get there individually but rather with the help of others, standing collectively, and, like the song the film finishes with, knowing that a change is gonna come.

One Night In Miami – First Look Clip (Amazon Studios)

One Night in Miami is playing at the BFI Southbank 11th & 12th October as part of the London Film Festival 2020.

It will be released nationwide by Amazon Studios in early 2021.

Also Read: Why Watchmen Is One Of The Best TV Shows In Recent Times

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Reviews

Review: Kajillionaire [London Film Festival]

October 7, 2020

One of the most quoted lines in all of literature is from the beginning of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This has, for hundreds of years, surmised our feelings towards our families. We view others with envy, the seemingly perfect families, nuclear and close, while we resent our own uniquely unhappy one. For Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the oddball protagonist of Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, that unhappiness is incredibly unique. 

Old Dolio, named after a man who won the lottery in the hopes she might end up in his will, is from a family of scammers; small-time criminals who are happy to skate by, or so they say. Her father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), prefers this half-life, one in which the rent is always due, and turning fast tricks is both an adrenaline rush and a necessity. “Most people want to be kajillionaires,” he says, but it doesn’t interest him. While her mother, Theresa (Debra Winger) is equally baked into this life on the fringes but, maybe more so than her father, shows little affection for Old Dolio. 

Kajillionaire
Credit: Focus Features.

It’s because of this life that Old Dolio has become more of a worker than a daughter. She works the scams as she’s asked to; stealing from the post office, conning a wealthy married couple, and then attempting to do the same to their daughter. All to earn a little extra cash, never too much, $20 here, $50 there. This family isn’t interested in robbing banks, in splitting millions of dollars three ways, but rather playing against the system as a means to survive. 

That is until Melanie (Gina Rodriquez) shows up, a chatty and beautiful woman who exposes the family’s dysfunctionality, while they’re running a job. Melanie, intrigued by the strangeness of Robert and Theresa is pulled into the thrill and ease of these jobs and begins suggesting cons of her own. The first is to scam the old desperate customers she serves at work, to convince them to give her that antiques and to sell them on at a profit; the sad and lonely praying on the sad and desperate. Then, as the money does start rolling in that value system, about living on very little, is tested.

It’s from here that each new step exposes, to Old Dolio, that her perception of family is misguided. She watches her mother warm to Melanie, watches her become crucial in the family’s newest scams, and sees what her life could be like if her parents acted as if they loved her. In one scene, she even watches as her parents play happy families as part of a con, and she sees that they do know how to be kind, they just choose not to be. 

This yearning, for connection and to be seen, is Miranda July’s favourite territory. In her short stories, people, often lost young women, explore their tangible and fragile connections with others, and her novel sees a lonely woman find love in the strangest of places. Her previous films, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), showed a kooky side, one that saw talking cats narrate tales of existential crisis and awkward salespeople creating intimate connections with customers. She is an artist who likes to explore the uncomfortable, the strange, and the confusing and Kajillionaire is an excellent addition to July’s Theatre of the Lonely. 

Kajillionaire
Credit: Focus Features

Old Dolio is lonely. She has never been called affectionate nicknames, never been hugged, or caressed yet she is “addicted” to the neglect of her parents. She doesn’t know what an alternative life would look like until Melanie tries to show her. This queer connection at the centre of this small world is Old Dolio’s driving force to look for something different, to seek the love she deserves. 

In July’s deft and absurd hands, Kajillionaire is enrapturing, strange, and overwhelmingly joyful to watch. It feels distinctly of its own creation and each left-field acting choice, visual, or plot point only furthers to strengthen the overall whacky experience. It is, at times, heart-breaking then romantic, then silly, then serious, then funny, and manages to give each feeling, each beat, just as much credibility. As you watch pink suds droop down from cracks in the ceiling of the disused office where the family lives or the way they crouch behind low walls to avoid the landlord, if you examine the strange outfits Old Dolio dons, or watch her try to army crawl along the floor as a form of apology, you can’t help but feel that Melanie sums it up best; “Most happiness comes from dumb things.”

Kahjillionaire (Official Trailer)

Kajillionaire is available to rent on BFI Player as part of the London Film Festival from today. 

It is released in cinemas nationwide from Friday 9th October 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Sofia Coppola

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Reviews

Review: Saint Maud

October 6, 2020
Saint Maud

If you’ve been following writer-director Rose Glass, then you know that she’s not afraid of putting strong emotions out there. A young couple and their obsession (The Silken Strand), two people living in isolation together (Storm House) and two lonely neighbours growing closer (Moths). Yes, all her short films focus on human feelings. She’s doing the same now in Saint Maud, her first full-length film, but she adds a massive horror twist to the story. The result? A unique and tense movie in which Morfydd Clark excels.

Heaven and hell are mixed up

Being a nurse or caretaker is one of the hardest jobs there are so we have the utmost respect for any woman or man out there doing the job. They take care of us but who’s taking care of them? Well, Maud (Morfydd Clark) is being taken care of by her God. According to her, He’s navigating her to her ultimate goal and is with her along the entire (twisted) way. Now He guides her to her next patient called Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). While former dancer Amanda is ill, she still enjoys life by doing what she loves: smoking, drinking and enjoying the company of other people.

Maud and Amanda are the opposite. Light versus darkness. Monotonous life versus vibrancy. Firm believer vs atheist. Despite their different lifestyle, the women grow close to each other. It all seems to go fine. Amanda brings enjoyment into Maud’s life, while Maud teaches Amanda about God. It’s clear that Maud is excessively devoted to God as he takes over her life completely. However, it’s not only figuratively speaking. No, he’s also taking over her own body. Once that happens, the way to the light becomes extremely dark as we’re pretty sure that the Bible doesn’t include self-harm, bloodshed and jealousy.

Morfydd Clark as Maud in Saint Maud
(Source: IMDb)

Slow start but rushed ending

When making a movie, as a director, you always have to make sure that the audience can connect to your film in one way or another. In this film, Glass gives you the time to step into the shoes of Maud (although maybe that’s something you don’t want to do after all), get to know her lifestyle and her dedication to her patient and to God. Therefore Glass opted for a slow start and a low-key middle.

A real connection is established between the audience and Maud during the first hour, but sadly, that’s also the reason why the ending feels rushed. A lot is happening towards the end, and so it feels like as the movie is a bit unbalanced. It maybe would have been better if the start and the middle come to life a bit more or that the ending was stretched out. Nevertheless, the story of Saint Maud is a very unique one. One that’s brought to the screen stunningly by both the cast and crew, led by the magnificent Clark.

Clark leads the way

When watching Saint Maud, it’s clear that this movie must have been a very demanding one, both physically and emotionally for Clark (The Personal History of David Copperfield, Crawl). Whether it was Maud going through different emotional phases or devoting her body to God, we can still feel her pain thanks to Clark’s knockout performance. Clark also guides us to the story via a dark voice-over, and because of that, Maud’s feelings become even bigger.

Ehle (Vox Lux, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) her portrayal of the flamboyant but also the broken Amanda is big in its fragility and emotions. The chemistry between Ehle’s and Clark is the glue that holds the whole movie together. Even the more supporting roles coming from Lily Frazer (The Gentlemen, Tomorrow) as Amanda’s lovers, and Lily Knight (Their Finest, Brand New-U) as Joy, a young woman who knows Maud from the past and thanks to who we get to learn more about Maud’s dark past, are lovely to watch.

Jennifer Ehle as Amanda in Saint Maud
(Source: IMDb)

The crew brings even more darkness to Saint Maud.

Not only the stunning cast make from this movie an entirely captivating one to watch but also the crew certainly adds a lot of darkness to Saint Maud. First of all, there’s the terrifying and terrific score provided by Adam Janota Bzowski that certainly brings that haunting vibe to this movie. There’s also the tremendous cinematography from Ben Fordesman who always finds a way to put a sinister element into the scene. Saint Maud is for both men their full-length feature debut and what a debut it is!

Big and bold

We were lucky enough to have seen Saint Maud on both the small screen during the virtual press screening and in the cinema. Let us tell you: there’s only one way to watch this bold movie in the best way, and that’s by seeing it on the big screen. Not only for the genuinely well-balanced cinematography, the horrifying score but most importantly for the impressive performance by Morfydd Clark.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Saint Maud will be released in U.K. cinemas on the 9th of October.

Also Read: 5 Captivating Performances From Method Actors

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Reviews

Review: Fernando

September 29, 2020
Fernando Alonso

Winning 24 Hours of Le Mans twice. Winning two Championships. Making it 97 times onto the stage while 32 as a winner. Yep, saying that the Spanish driver Fernando Alonso has an impressive palmares would be a massive understatement. While his career has been a tumultuous one with a few comebacks, his influence is felt both on and off the tracks. He already rode for a few of the most significant F1 teams such as Ferrari and McLaren, and earlier this summer, he announced that he would sit behind the wheel for the Alpine F1 Team during the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

Amazon decided to release a five-part documentary about both his personal and professional life to honour this well-respected and well-loved driver. If you’re an F1 fan, then this documentary is one you should absolutely see as ‘Fernando’ takes you on a high-speed rollercoaster with lows, highs, and some crashes in between.

Racing to victories

I’m not going to stop, probably the thought that was on Alonso’s mind multiple times, is also the title of the very first episode of Fernando. It deals with his final months at McLaren and shows us his first victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the one that happened in 2018. Later it will turn out that Alonso would also win the 2019 edition of that same race (which you will be able to see in the third episode). While during this episode, we see a lot of highs, such as his first victories (both as a young driver as well as the champion we all know) and how he became a hero in Spain, we see many lows during the second episode, “I don’t know what to say”, such as Alonso having to deal with not passing some pre-qualifications.

As mentioned before, you will see all the action of Le Mans 2019, during which Alonso raced towards his second title, in this third act. “Everything is possible,” doesn’t only show the possibility of winning prestigious races but also the possibility of cracking down almost under the heated pressure. This episode takes you to Dakar where Alonso prepared himself for the Dakar Rally. This series isn’t only about the professional life of Alonso but also the more personal one. Throughout the series, we don’t only meet his inner circle that consists of his manager Luis García Abad, his partner Linda Morelli, his sister Lorena Alonso, and his colleagues Marc Gené and Carlos Sainz, but we also see his off-track appointments.

That fourth episode, “Out of my environment,” heightens those personal gatherings as it focusses on the museum that Fernando Alonso has in Asturias in which his trophies and his cars are on display for everyone to watch. Right at the end of the episode, we see him stepping back into his car to participate in the Rally of Morocco. “Mission Accomplished” concludes this documentary and focuses on the apotheose, the Dakar Rally. You won’t only get breath-taking footage from the race, but you will also see what it’s like for an experienced driver to take part in a race for the very first time.

24 Hours of Le Mans 2019 Full Highlights

Loads of respect from both sides

Ahead of this release, Alonso shared some insight into the making of this documentary. He’s very protective about the people around him when it comes to his and their privacy and having cameras on him for almost 24/7 wasn’t easy for him. There was a lot of negotiation between him and the production team to make sure that everything was filmed in the right and most respectful way. Alonso made the decision about what he wanted to see in the documentary and what not. The respect is clearly visible in Fernando. The team really treated the rider with the utmost respect. We see his personal life brought in an emotional and intimate way, but it never feels like it is being exploited for entertainment.

Unique, thrilling, and exciting portrayal

What will the upcoming months bring for Alonso? Probably rigorous preparations for the upcoming season with a brand new sponsor. It was also announced that the filming of the second season is already underway and that it will be about Alonso’s return to the F1. Fernando is a unique, thrilling, and exciting portrayal of a World Champion that doesn’t only Alonso’s deepest personal feelings but also the biggest victories in F1.

Fernando (Official Trailer)

Fernando is out now on Amazon Prime

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Also Read: The Film Fan’s Guide To Time Travel

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Reviews

Review: Rocks

September 17, 2020
Rocks

That director Sarah Gavron has a love for female voices is proven by her Suffragette and Brick Lane. Now, she’s doing it again as she brings some new voices to our attention. Not only ‘new’ as in ‘voices we’ve never heard before’ but also ‘new’ as in ‘voices from first-time actors. Her Rocks is a beautiful and uplifting but also heartbreaking movie full of raw emotions.

When you have to go through a difficult time all on your own

Shola (Bukky Bakray), nickname Rocks, is a very vivid, creative, and full-of-life young woman who has a great time with her friends. Always cheerful, always getting into minor trouble, and always showing the world her make-up skills. On the outside, seems to be a typical teenager, but underneath her bubbly personality, there’s also sadness and pain. After her mother’s sudden departure, she needs to care for herself and her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). Paying bills and getting food on the table becomes extremely difficult for Rocks, even with the little money her mum left her.

She’s doing her best: attending school, not getting into trouble anymore, and being there for her brother. There’s just one thing. She’s afraid of showing her emotions to her friends, and therefore, she has to face this massive burden alone. When this is starting to pressure her friendships, it’s all becoming too much for Rocks. Right when she thought she had seen the worst, people turn up on her doorstep, and they’re not coming to socialize.

The ensemble of Rocks
(Source: IMDb)

A first-class ensemble brings a lot of authenticity to this movie

During the Dublin International Film Festival, “Rocks” won the Best Ensemble award, and it’s that stunning ensemble that keeps this movie going. The performances of the overall cast are poignant, beautiful, and right from the heart. Because of the acting, you feel that you’re watching a real-life documentary instead of a movie. Every time Bakray appears on the screen, she will either make you laugh or cry.

Her performance is compelling and brings out that fighting spirit of “Rocks”. The on-screen chemistry between her and Kissiedu, who also deserves credit for his adorable and emotional performance, is such a wonderful one to see. The girls are all together in most scenes, but Bakray has the most time together with Kosar Ali, who’s playing the hip-hop loving Sumaya. Ali is such a delight to see, both her performance as the upbeat Sumaya and the more emotional young woman. However, again, congratulations to the entire cast of this movie!

There’s also a very high element of authenticity connected to this movie. The slang that the friends use, the secrets handshakes, and the entertaining classes are beautifully interwoven in the story. It feels like we’re back in school again. When seeing places like Rio Cinema and London’s landscape view, we’re out there on the streets, side-by-side with the girls. Also, the fact that every girl is different in her unique way is so refreshing to watch. No matter what class they’re from or which god they believe in, they’re friends who take each other for who they’re.

The wonderful cast of Rocks
(Source: IMDb)

A must-see gorgeous and moving film

Rocks was already part of film festivals such as the BFI London Film Festival and FilmBath Festival and is now getting a nationwide UK release. Not only because it proves that the film industry is slowly getting back up again but also because it will give you the chance to see this truth-full, emotional, and beautiful movie.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Rocks is released in the U.K. on the 18th of September

Rocks (Trailer)

Also Read: Underrated Movies: Ma

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