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  • Film
  • Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Annie Baker has an extremely good claim to the title of America’s greatest living playwright. Not that she’d accept it. While her almost uncategorisable oeuvre – an improbable mix of droll Chekhovian naturalism and trippy Lovecraftian metaphysics – has spawned an extraordinary run of acclaimed plays, her refusal to allow her work to be commercialised – no celebrities, no big theatres, no revivals – has left her as a cult figure by design. What’s striking about her debut film Janet Planet, which she writes and directs, is that on paper the plot sounds relatively conventional, perhaps the recipe for a moderately commercial mumblecore-style comedy. But that is really not what we get. Lacy (Zoë Ziegler) is a young girl about to start middle school in rural Massachusetts. As the film begins, she calls her mum Janet (Mare of Easttown’s Julianne Nicholson) and declares she’ll kill herself if she has to stay any longer at her summer camp.  When Janet arrives, Lacy is perplexed that her camp mates are upset she’s going and says she wants to stay. Janet says she’s already got a refund. So begins a long, strange summer in Janet’s isolated house, as almost nothing happens, and quite a lot happens: various men drift in and out of Janet’s life, and she flirts with a bizarre local cult whose grotesque theatrical entertainment adds a distant note of folk horror. It could all come across as terribly zany, or sentimental. But Baker’s writing and direction has a near-hallucinatory sparseness to
  • Film
  • Documentaries
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
What if you could talk to the dead? In ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, there’s a spell for that. In horror movie Baghead, a basement-dwelling witch offers two minutes with the deceased. Countless mediums, clairvoyants and Ouija boards provide such a service to the gullible. But what if AI could make chatting with the dead as simple as downloading an app? Brace yourselves – because it already can. Jason Rohrer’s Project December is among several Silicon Valley startups that allow people to interact with their dead loved ones, via an AI Q&A platform that uses minimal data about the deceased person to create a digital simulacrum. A grieving woman called Christi talks to her boyfriend, Cameroun, who died young. ‘The damn AI texts like him,’ she says. ‘The vernacular, the shortened words. How would they know that?’ Rohrer suggests it’s no more harmful than rewatching old videos of the dead, or calling their voicemail to hear their voice – but things go south when Cameroun’s AI avatar tells Christi that, on the other side, he meets ‘mostly addicts’. ‘In heaven???’ she asks incredulously, ‘No. I’m in hell.’ It’s a ghoulish business, and there are horrifying implications for the living: can such a mechanism be part of the healing process of grieving? If grief is a vital part of moving on from loss, how can people properly move on if they never have to let go?  Project December is just one example of ‘death capitalism’. The ‘digital afterlife’ phenomenon is already big business, and will grow e
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  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
A nod to Easy Rider towards the end of Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders feels like an apt reflection on the end of an era. As Dennis Hopper’s film marked a move from classic Hollywood to New Hollywood, the clean-cut outlaws at the centre of The Bikeriders represent a similar shift. Romantic, idealistic ruffnecks getting the boot in favour of a harsher, uglier version of Americana. The Bikeriders is based on a book of photographs by Danny Lyon (played in the movie by Challengers’ Mike Faist). It explores the stories beyond those snaps, focusing on the wild panoply of characters drawn by this fringe lifestyle. Cleverly, the visual grammar reflects its source text, with portraiture-like cutaways to members of the Vandals, a real-life Chicago motorcycle club. They’re misfits unified by a love of bike riding and their own pariah status.  Caught between those two generations is young biker Benny (Elvis’s Austin Butler). Jodie Comer is the film’s main voice as the sparky Kathy, Benny’s wife. She quickly falls in love with him and slowly learns to deal with his stubborn stoicism. It’s a journalistic but romantic snapshot of a moment in time lost forever But Benny isn’t quite one of the old guard. He’s as hot-headed as the new guys who arrive to turn the scene on its head. Their machismo is wryly reflected through the eyes of Kathy, who is simultaneously compelled by the gang’s surrogate family dynamic and repulsed by its unruliness. Benny only thinks about riding, an internalised state
  • Film
  • Action and adventure
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Back in 1990, actor-director Kevin Costner defied expectations and turned a three-hour passion-project western into an Oscar-winning hit. During production, some waggish commentators had dubbed it ‘Kevin’s Gate’, riffing on 1980 western flop Heaven’s Gate. It was, of course, Dances With Wolves, a seven-Oscar-winning smash. Thirty-four years – and another excellent western in 2003’s Open Range – later, Costner the director is back with something even more ambitious. Clocking in at roughly the same runtime as Wolves, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 thuds down as merely the first instalment in a planned four-part mega-epic, with which Costner apparently intends to fill with every conceivable western trope, as well as a cast with 170  speaking parts. Has he, at last, bitten off more than anyone can possibly chew? The film opens in the San Pedro Valley in 1859, with the attempted foundation of a new town, Horizon, in the middle of the vast American wilderness. This goes awry when the local Apache lead a raid on the nascent community and massacre its inhabitants. Meanwhile, about an hour into the film Costner appears as a gunslinging ‘saddle tramp’. Via an encounter with a plucky sex worker (Abbey Lee) in a Wyoming mining camp, he becomes embroiled in a bitter family feud, making him a hunted man. Also meanwhile, a wagon train packed with hopeful settlers heads along the Santa Fe Trail, and must deal with some internal tension, as well as a growing sense of external threat fr
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  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Longhorn cattle roaming an untamed landscape. Tiny bugs beavering away in a muddy microcosmos. Actual beavers doing the same in primordial waterways. You’d rub your eyes if you didn’t already know that this was West Sussex, a mild-mannered corner of England a few dozen miles from Gatwick Airport and the M25. It could be the Serangeti or, well, Narnia. Welcome to the Knepp Estate, a 3,500-acre farm-turned-rural idyll created by writer and conservationist Isabella Tree and her bug-obsessed aristocrat husband, Charles Burrell. The pair, despairing of the intensive farming methods that had left their land denuded and them £1.5 million in debt, experimented with just leaving it all the heck alone. Tree wrote a bestselling book about their risky experiment in 2018, a kind of Peat Pray Love of ecological rebirth.Charted by director David Allen over 20 years, in a documentary that envelopes you like a Ready Brek glow, there’s no end of misty, sweeping landscapes (cinematographers Tim Cragg and Simon De Glanville give the English countryside widescreen grandeur) and plenty of stirring, but never cutesy, wildlife. Reconstructions, time-lapse photography and subtle CGI take us back to the madcap early days when the pair just seemed a bit barmy and Tamworth pigs would ham-raid marquees at Knepp fundraisers in search of canapés. It envelopes you like a Ready Brek glow Knepp could easily be twinned with California’s Apricot Lane Farms, the subject of 2018 doc The Biggest Little Farm, a sim
  • Film
  • Comedy
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Part comedy, part environmental lament, all vibes – Sasquatch Sunset is a very weird, largely gross, yet somehow very charming chronicle of a year in the life of a group of sasquatch, or bigfoots (bigfeet?). Directed by David and Nathan Zellner (2014’s Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) it follows a family of these apparently mythical beings as they face threat from the natural world and the encroachment of humans on their habitat.  The group of four sasquatch are an alpha male (Nathan Zellner), a pregnant female (Riley Keough), a second male (Jesse Eisenberg), and a child (Christophe Zajac-Denek). Although, you would be unlikely to ever guess that Keough and Eisenberg are in the cast as they’re beneath prosthetics and the sasquatch speak only in grunts and hoots. Their days pass with in-fighting – often because one male or another wants to have sex with the female – searches for food, encounters with other animals, and occasional straying into areas where humans have decimated the forest.  There’s not a great deal more to it than that. Its humour is of the puerile kind, with plenty of farting, vomiting and pathetically wagging sasquatch erections. In one scene, when the sasquatch encounter a road, a sight that terrifies them, they show their distress by taking it in turns to pee and crap all over it. But if there are times when the joke feels rather repetitive, or the screentime stretched a little thin, even at 88 minutes, there is also some well-earned poignancy to it.  It’s very
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  • Film
  • Animation
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Sparky, kaleidoscopic and boldly honest about the tougher side of growing up, Inside Out 2 is Pixar’s most profound and moving movie since, well, Inside Out. Kudos, of course, to Turning Red, with which it’d make a perfect puberty prep double bill, but this cerebral coming-of-age adventure feels like the studio rediscovering its old mojo and putting it to dazzling use.  It kicks off with a quick catch-up to reintroduce the five anthropomorphised emotions who control the now 13-year-old San Francisco high-schooler Riley. There’s the upbeat Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), morose Sadness (Phyllis Smith), nervy Fear (Tony Hale replacing Bill Hader), snarky Disgust (Liza Lapira taking over from Mindy Kaling) and the volcanic Anger (Lewis Black). They’re the basic set of emotions who now harmoniously collaborate over a sci-fi console to help her navigate late childhood.  Only, as the flashing ‘Puberty Alarm’ on the HQ console indicates, she’s not a kid anymore. A clutch of new emotions arrive, led by the high-energy Anxiety (voiced with ten-cups-of-coffee exuberance by Maya Hawke) and egged on by Envy (The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri), while Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos) provides sardonic commentary from the sofa and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) hides inside his hoodie. As Riley heads off to ice-skating camp with her besties and a posse of daunting older kids she’s keen to impress, all that delicate balance gets thrown out the window – literally – just when she needs it most.   The inside-
  • Film
  • Romance
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
At a dinner party in Québec, attractive 40-somethings drink, chatter and meet new people. It’s initially hard to tell who’s with who – and who’s meant to be with whom. Sophia (Magalie Lépine Blondeau) questions this herself: is she really happy in her routine relationship with Xavier – or should she bed the brash, bearded construction contractor who comes to renovate their new holiday home?  What starts as a lustful relationship with Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) turns into something more serious. But well-heeled philosophy professor Sophia becomes increasingly, excruciatingly aware of the cultural differences between them. Is passion alone enough, she wonders? With enjoyable characters and smart dialogue, French-Canadian director Monia Chokri makes her dilemma a very entertaining ride. The French title of this film translates as ‘Simple like Sylvain’, and his simplicities are certainly a target of humour, beautifully delivered by Cardinal. Take lines like: ‘Fruit is for women’, and in response to Sophia’s body insecurity: ‘You’re perfect… you make me hard.’  It may not be deeply romantic – but it certainly is funny But there’s much more to the film’s comedy, and implicitly Sylvain, as Sophia wrestles with her feelings. While many romantic comedies overuse the best friend trope to let us know what the heroine is thinking, Sophia nervously muses out loud on her actions – sometimes during sex. ‘It’s totally irrational…’ she says breathlessly while in a hasty tryst with Sylvain
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  • Film
  • Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
If prison cells are built to contain the most reprehensible parts of human nature, is it a stretch to believe that they could contain joy too? The evidence is scattered throughout co-writers Greg Kwedar and Clint Bentley’s (Jockey) compassionate, real-life-inspired window into incarceration. Joy isn’t just plausible here, it’s undeniable. As fans of old-school Hollywood gangster flicks will know, New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility is one of America’s most notorious maximum-security prisons. But behind its scarred walls, blaring sirens and courtyard scuffles is an unexpected soft side known as the real-life Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) programme, a space for inmates to connect with their emotions via theatrical and artistic expression. (Kwedar and Bentley both worked as volunteers on the programme, and the majority of the film’s cast are RTA alumni with equity in the production.) Alongside teaching artist Brent Buell (Sound of Metal’s Paul Raci), RTA founder John ‘Divine G’ Whitfield (Rustin’s Colman Domingo) has the programme’s members embracing the escapism of creativity, even with his own wrongful conviction hearing looming large. Joy isn’t just plausible here, it’s undeniable However, as Sing Sing neatly demonstrates, make-believe is trickier for some. Hot-headed newcomer Clarence ‘Divine Eye’ Maclin (playing himself) is reluctant to embrace the group’s unconventional methods, despite being cast as the lead in their upcoming play. He’s served 20 years beh
  • Film
  • Horror
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Heeeere’s (another) Johnny! Unlike his namesake in The Shining, the killer in this surprising spin on the backwoods slasher isn’t messing about with a slow mental freefall. He starts enraged and gets ragey-er, emerging, undead, from the soil of a whisper-quiet forest and having it echo with the screams of his victims as he pursues a stolen keepsake. Homaging classic horrors like Evil Dead, Friday the 13th and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while smartly subverting their rhythms and ingeniously switching viewpoint from victims to killer, writer-director Chris Nash has delivered a debut to pin you to your seat. The Canadian filmmaker invites you to ride shotgun with a decaying, hulking and faceless monster known only as ‘Johnny’ (Ry Barrett). Camera fixed over his shoulder, third-person-shooter style, he lumbers through the woods dispatching a gang of horny, bickering twentysomethings in increasingly gruesome style. With flies buzzing around his decaying flesh, and the disquieting sound design cranking up every trudge, axe-blow and snapped bone, this remorseless ramble builds to a crescendo of violence will have gorehounds whooping and everyone else reaching for the barfbag. The implied stench is so palpable, you’re glad William Castle isn’t still around to Smell-O-Vision this one.  Someone whose hallmarks are all over this singular shocker is foley artist Michelle Hwu, a games developer-turned-sound wizard who must have got through piles of melons in creating the hollow thwack
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