Film Review of the Week


The First Omen (15)

Review: Love was a losing game for Amy Winehouse. The heartache that dogged the north London-born singer’s tragically brief life was a constant source of tabloid fascination and fuelled the creative fire of her songwriting, most notably on the award-winning second LP Back To Black which lays bare the tumultuous relationship with her future husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Winehouse’s unapologetically candid, confessional storytelling style paired with soulful vocals were irresistible. Back To Black remains the second best-selling album of the 21st century in the UK behind Adele’s 21.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who first collaborated on Nowhere Boy, conduct their own love affair with Winehouse in a respectful and moving biopic that keeps us – infuriatingly – at arm’s length from the demons that ultimately granted the singer membership of the 27 club alongside Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. At one point in Back To Black, Amy is asked why she lashes out and continually presses the self-destruct button. “I don’t know,” she responds.

Nor does Taylor-Johnson’s picture, which plays out scenes of alcohol abuse, violent jealousy, drug addiction and defiance with artful intoxication that feels at odds with the fiery, outspoken voice of a generation, who plainly tells her manager at the beginning of their professional relationship that she ain’t no Spice Girl. Marisa Abela’s full-blooded portrayal of Winehouse is sensational. She captures the hot-headedness and painful vulnerability of a Jewish girl, who yearned to be a mother and was frequently her own worst enemy.

“I’m not a feminist. I like boys too much,” she smiles during a mutual flirtation with Jack O’Connell’s swaggering Fielder-Civil, who introduces her to 1960s group The Shangri-Las by lip-syncing to Leader Of The Pack in a pub. Abela performs her own vocals throughout, masterfully navigating the singer’s back catalogue. She’s note perfect and always on tune, reflecting a clinical, surface-level perfection that leaves us wanting more than Taylor-Johnson’s film is willing to give.

Greenhalgh’s script covers Winehouse’s fortunes from 2002, when she signs with Island Records to the delight of manager Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan), father Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and beloved grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), who she anoints her “icon”. Hordes of paparazzi stalk her topsy-turvy courtship of Fielder-Civil and she eventually agrees to attend rehab before a triumphant night at the 2008 Grammy Awards.

Back To Black demonises the photographers who hounded Winehouse and barely acknowledges any of her partners besides Fielder-Civil. Key moments such as the couple’s impulsive Miami wedding and a chaotic main stage performance at Glastonbury in 2008 are present and correct. Compared to the heartbreaking cry from the heart of Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary, Taylor-Johnson’s film is an assured and muted cover version.

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Monkey Man (18)

Review: Actor Dev Patel’s passion project behind the camera stages a wince-inducing death match between John Wick and Slumdog Millionaire in the fictional Indian city of Yatana. As a directorial debut, Monkey Man is an ambitious undertaking and individual sequences impress with whirling, hyperkinetic camerawork. Working closely with cinematographer Sharone Meir and action choreographer Brahim Chab, Patel orchestrates testosterone-pumped thrills and barbarity on an outlandish scale: a night-time chase between police cars and a turbo-charged rickshaw, frenetic fisticuffs in a private elevator playing Boney M’s Rivers Of Babylon, an orgy of hand-to-hand combat around a prop-laden ballroom.

Scriptwriters Paul Angunawela and John Collee loosely weave Hindu mythology and socio-political concerns into a conventional revenge thriller. They repeatedly interrupt dramatic flow with nightmarish flashbacks to the heavy-handed police raid that lights a slow-burning fuse on tensions between the lead character and authority figures who should uphold the law, not wilfully bend and break it. Patel meets the intense physical demands of his role head-on including an obligatory training sequence that exposes his sweat-drenched naked torso to caterwauls of delight from co-stars. Our delight is more muted as the film goes ape in a second-hour suicide mission without firmly anchoring emotional connection to the lead character. Sparks of romance with a female escort (Sobhita Dhulipala) are superfluous.

The pummelling begins at an underground fight ring run by promoter Tiger (Sharlto Copley). Big money changes hands on the outcome of bone-crunching bouts and nameless orphan Kid (Patel) is the resident patsy. He regularly dresses in a gorilla mask to take beatings from the crowd’s reigning champion, King Kobra (Brahim Chab). The cheap, blood-spattered disguise conceals Kid’s deep-rooted grief about the murder of his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte) during a police raid orchestrated by sadistic chief Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher). Her senseless death was part of a heavy-handed land-clearing operation on behalf of charismatic cult leader Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), whose insidious influence will decide forthcoming political elections during Diwali.

Kid vows revenge and worms his way into a high-end brothel run by Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), which is regularly frequented by police and dignitaries. Getting close to Rana Singh comes at a terrible price and Kid is rescued from certain death by the hijra, an ostracised intersex and transgender community, whose temple provides the perfect training ground to rebuild Kid’s strength. “You should have died from your injuries. The gods must have a greater purpose for you,” encourages hijra leader Alpha (Vipin Sharma).

Monkey Man offers brief respites from the close-up savagery with broken bottles and blades. Recuperation with the hijra provides a satisfying calm before the storm then the script strains credibility by imagining these guardian angels as a finely calibrated troupe of brightly costumed assassins. Patel is in almost every scene and possesses seemingly inexhaustible energy. The film lacks his stamina and strongarms us through the exhausting final reckoning.

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Seize Them! (15)

Review: The lights go out completely in director Curtis Vowell’s Dark Ages comedy, which instigates a peasant uprising in an olde worlde England where impromptu banquets steady royal nerves and dissent is met with merry dismemberment. Visually and tonally, Seize Them! trudges through similar terrain to Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans, albeit with a distinctly adult sense of humour, on-screen bloodletting and a cartload of expletives. Emmy Award-winning Veep screenwriter Andy Riley’s script urgently requires a grindstone to sharpen the blunt edges of its rapier wit so the film can at least cut the dead air.

For prolonged periods, jokes face-plant into the mud, and when a punchline does land on its feet, the relief is short lived and invariably followed by another uncomfortable silence. Thankfully, the film stops short of unleashing a punning caterwaul of “the peasants are revolting!”. A dizzying array of British and Irish talent with glowing comic credentials including Aimee Lou Wood, Lolly Adefope, Nicola Coughlan and Jessica Hynes are squandered.

The perpetual bright spot is Nick Frost’s sweet and dim-witted dung shoveller, who wholeheartedly believes in the existence of dragons and a giant mollusc that ushers us into the afterlife when our time is up. Time runs out for Vowell’s picture before the half-hearted and preordained redemption of Wood’s insufferable, petulant head of state, who catches one whiff of revolution blowing in the wind and heads for the nearest hills.

Spirited woodcutter Humble Joan (Coughlan) leads this bloodthirsty insurrection against unpopular queen Dagan (Wood), who inherited the throne from her tyrant father Ur-Nammu (Murray McArthur). The toppled monarch is gleefully deluded about her predicament and goes on the run with her trusted servant Shulmay (Adefope) in search of a new army to restore her rightful place on the throne.

Neighbours King Ivarr (Paul Kaye) and King Guthrum (John Macmillan) from across the sea may provide a lifeline. Bobik (Frost) agrees to accompany Dagan and Shulmay on their exhausting 140-mile odyssey to the coast with treacherous royal adviser Leofwine (Hynes) and two guards in lukewarm pursuit. En route, the fugitives seek kindness and counsel from the queen’s subjects including Felix the ironmonger (James Acaster) and Witgar the baker (Nitin Ganatra).

Seize Them! is a disappointment by virtue of the proven comic artistry behind and in front of the camera. In every respect, Dagan’s journey of self-discovery is a slog and the few deserved chuckles including an abortive attempt to throw a dead body off a cliff only heighten the nagging regret about what might have been. If Vowell’s picture was a court jester, it would be tossed into a dungeon for failing to make merry.

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