Rhino ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director/Writer: Oleh Sentsov. Cast: Serhii FilimonovEvhen ChernykovYevhen Grygoriev 

This is definitely the darkest and most hopeless film I’ve seen this year. And it’s probably not too surprising to see that it’s coming from director Oleh Sentsov, an Ukrainian activist who spent 4 years in prison after being charged of terrorism for speaking out against the Putin regime and Russian war in Crimea (He was actually sentenced to 20 years, but “saved” earlier by Amnesty International ).

His anger is clearly present in every frame of this film as he depicts Ukraine in the late 80s and early 90s, at the fall of the Soviet Union, as a place overrun violence and criminal activities. The film itself is full of graphic depiction, remorseless killings, and cold violence against all living beings, including women and children (though those are often unfortunate “casualties of war”). I had to watch a scene in a barn towards the end through my fingers, something I don’t usually do.

Sentov doesn’t seem too interested in making any political statement here, in fact to be completely honest, I’m still struggling to work out whether there is really any message to learn from this utterly depressing story

The plot itself feels very familiar, as it follows a young man, nicknamed “Rhino”, his rise (and fall) up the criminal ladder through a series of gangster bands. As somebody before me has rightly pointed out, this could be a Ukrainian version of the Italian Gomorrah.

It’s not an easy watch, not just for the violence itself, but also because it’s very hard to engage with Rhino, at least throughout the whole first hour. Despite his impressive physicality and threatening look, he’s not just a very unlikeable character as he moves from one unredeemable deed to the next and crucially he’s also rather unreadable for us the audience.

The film starts off with a sequence during which Sentsov shows off some some impressive film-making skills: in a seemingly uninterrupted take, perfectly choreographed, the camera moves around a house as we scroll through 20 years of the life of “Rhino” establishing his sad upbringing and the atmosphere of violence he grows up with.

It is a very showy beginning, which almost feels like a film within a film and sets the wrong expectations for the rest of the drama, which actually plays out pretty straight.

Despite of all of the above-mentioned shortcomings, this is still an undeniably powerful film, which I won’t be able to shake off too easily.

Out today on most of the major streaming platforms (GooglePlay, iTunes, Prime)


Severance ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Directed by Ben Stiller (6 eps) Aoife McArdle (3 eps). Cast: Adam ScottZach CherryBritt Lower , John Turturro, Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette.

I’m a couple of weeks late to the party, but I’m happy to report that this series is really as good as everybody says it is!

Who would have thought that one of the slickest, most thought-provoking, audacious, satirical and innovative series would actually come from the mind of Ben Stiller?! Yes, you heard me right: the same guy who gave us “Zoolander”, “Night in the Museum” and “Meet the Fockers”. However funny those films might be (for some), I never thought he had this sort of stuff in him.

The title refers to a procedure by which employees of a big corporation called Lumon, “sever” their brains (by implanting a chip in them) so that they forget anything of their outside lives once they start working in the office and vice versa. So basically none of them has any idea who they are in real life and once outside they have no knowledge of the work they do… Until it transpires that things are even shadier than they appear…

This is one of those creepy mindbending mysteries that starts quite slow but then builds up to an unnerving finale. All drenched in an atmosphere that resembles a cross between an Orwellian novel and Kafkaesque dream and a hint of Beckett for good measure.

Clearly it is all a metaphor for big corporations and we as workers feel trapped in our daily (possibly meaningless) jobs. But I’m probably making it sound a lot heavier and boring that in fact it is. Part of the joy of this is learning little by little some of the secrets hiding behind.

This is what “Lost” should to be without the pointless padding and with a lot more style.

Unpredictable, intriguing, ambitious and constantly surprising, this is really the most impressive TV series of the year and possibly beyond.

Yes, it could be a bit tighter (most series could) and there were moments where it felt bordering on indulgence (especially half way through the season), but having seen it all and especially the gripping finale, I can hardly complain: I had a ball with it. My only complaint is that the cliff-hanger at the end made me want to wish I were one yes older so that that I could watch the season 2 straight away!

The amazing cast includes Adam Scott, John Turturro, Christopher Walken and a terrifying Patricia Arquette, I mean, do I need to say more?

After what felt like being slapped on the face by loud sounds and chaotic visuals from that mumbo-jumbo that was the latest Dr Strange, it’s great to be reminded of what real cleaver sci-fi is able to do.

This may not be a light watch, but it’s a compelling and ultimately a rewarding one! Highly recommended.

Annie (1982)

Annie ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: John Huston Cast: Albert FinneyCarol BurnettAnn Reinking, Tim Curry, Aileen Quinn

I must have seen this film more times than I wish to admit, but what better excuse to re-watch it with my son than its 40th anniversary?

Back in 1982 “Annie” was pretty much slashed to pieces by the critics, panned as a “a sluggish, stage-bound mess of an adaptation” and pretty much ignored by the audiences. Musicals rarely set the box office on fire, as even Spielberg’s West Side Story proved last year.

Today, possibly riding on that sense of nostalgia for everything that’s 80s, the film seems to have gained a bit of a forgotten-cult status. And why not? After all this is the work of a master director, John Huston, so it can’t be that bad. He did his best to infuse excitement, colour and verve into what is, let’s face it, a pretty straight forward script, with not a lot of surprises.

Along the way, there are some rather brilliant musical numbers: “It’s a hard knock life and “I think I’m gonna like it here” for example, with their large number of singers and dancer perfectly choreographed within massive sets, really give that glitz, shine and spectacle that only Hollywood can give.

But yes, there are also some pretty weak ones too, where it feels like Huston not quite knowing what to, let the camera running, and the actors doing their bit.

I remember as a child being a bit bored during some of the numbers. Indeed the pacing seems to be a bit off for what’s really a family film.

Having said that, all the actors (Albert Finney and Tim Curry among them) are at the top of their games, particularly Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, who’s clearly having the time of her life here and manages to make her baddie so incredibly vicious that it’s impossible not to enjoy her presence and at the end (SPOILER ALERT, but I mean, the film 40 years old!!), when she’s forgiven, we’re all much happier for it.

A weak link for me, has always been little Aileen Quinn in the titular role of Annie. I’ve always found her, incredibly annoying: she always knows what to do, what to say, she’s good at everything… Hard to really feel sorry or root for somebody like this (except at the very end, in the only scene where she is actually in peril). But obviously she can sing and dance pretty well, and she does look the part, which is probably why she was cast.

Anyway, as a family fair, it’s a perfectly watchable one. Your kids will enjoy it and by the time it’s all over you’ll be sweapt away by its feel-good vibe and you’ll be shamely signing along “Tomorrow… Tomorrow, it’s only a daaaaay aaaaawaaaaay”.

Annie is available to rent/buy on all the major streaming platform (Amazon, Apple+, Google Play, Youtube)

Prayer for the Stolen

Prayer for the Stolen ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Tatiana Huezo Cast: Guillermo VillegasMayra BatallaAlejandra Camacho,

Rita lives with her young daughter Ana in a rural village in Mexico, which is often raided by members of the local cartels in search of young women to kidnap. In order to keep her daughter safe, Rita raises her to look more like a like a boy, cutting her hair short and trains her to hide in shallow grave-like digs in her own courtyard whenever comes looking for her.

Writer and director Tatiana Huezo has created a film which is almost plotless, looking more like a documentary than an actual drama. Her sensitive and naturalistic approach to film-making, with no music (expect at the end), great use of atmosphere sound and loose editing makes everything feel immediate and real, and even though the overall pacing of the film might be a bit slow for some, there is no denying that this is powerful stuff.

The acting of everyone on screen (particularly the children) is so natural that at times I did wonder whether there was any script all.

Huezo avoid the usual clichés of the typical cartel stories, in favour of subtly (maybe too subtly) showing the lives of the innocent people (mostly women) who are affected by all the trafficking and drug dealing happening in those remote regions.

Even though there is virtually no violence on screen, the atmosphere is always one of dread, tension and sadness. As a viewer you’re completely immersed in the everyday life of these people, in constant fear that something may happen at any moment.

It’s not an easy watch and definitly not for everyone, but even if the film seems to do very little, it will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

On Mubi from this week.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th (1980) ⭐️⭐️

Director: Sean S. Cunningham Cast: Betsy PalmerAdrienne KingJeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon

I couldn’t let this Friday the 13th go by without acknowledging the existence of this 1980 classic.

However, I’m somewhat baffled about how this could have actually become such an enduring pillar in horror history and one of the most enduring franchises of its genre.

For a start, there’s nothing particularly new here, not even for 1980, since Carpenter’s Halloween had already played pretty much all the same tricks a couple of years earlier, with much better results (though at the time interestingly even that one had been panned and unfavourably compared to Hitchcock and Brian De Palma and even Argento): even the point-of-view shot from the killer’s perspective, giving voyeuristic feel, was by then a cliche. Today many horror lovers want to read this as a cautionary tale or a warning about the teenage sex, but I think this is just reaching as far as I’m concerned.

The film is really just an excuse to bump off annoying cardboard characters one after the other, with some boring bits in between with mostly bad actors and a terrible terrible terrible script.

The music (if it can be called such) is probably one most iconic thing of “Friday the 13th” (and its sequels). It is indeed quite effective playing the “jaws” trick, as being the personification of the killer.

But crucially, Friday the 13th, despite it eerie mood (probably the only decent thing going for it), is just not frightening at all (definitely NOT for today’s standards, but also it can’t have been that much more, back in 1980), and for a horror film, that’s unforgivable.

The first couple of deaths in particular are so badly done that they are almost laughable (with an added bonus on freeze frame, which then burns to white: ludicrous for 1980s and pathetic now).

The budget is so low that it can hardly pull off most of the gore, which is what people come to see these movies for. The death of Kevin Bacon (poor guy what a lousy breakout role) is one of the most effective in the film and possibly the high point of the whole film.

As for the final scare, even that one was already a cliche in 1980 and it pales in comparison with De Palma’s Carrie.

So please, can anyone tell me why was this film so successful? Were the audiences really so hungry for slasher films? And if they were, why did these films have to be so bad?

Oh and by the way, if you’re expecting to see Jason with his white Hockey mask showing up at any point, you’ll be disappointed to find out that he only came into action from the sequel… but then again if you’re an horror fan you should know that already (if anything because “Scream” told you so).

So in the end 2 stars is the most generous rating I can give the film, mostly for its iconic place in history, the music cue, and Kevin Bacon’s first role… and for starting up a slasher series which will (mysteriously) endure for decades

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