Archive for 2007

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead * * * * 1/2

Posted in Crime, Drama, thriller with tags on October 12, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Sidney Lumet.
Screenplay: Kelly Masterson.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Bryan F. O’Byrne, Amy Ryan, Michael Shannon, Aleksa Palladino, Leonardo Cimino.

Sidney Lumet is a director that’s no stranger to crafting intense pieces of work. In fact, he’s a master at it. Just look at a few from his highly impressive filmography like “12 Angry Men“, “Fail-Safe“, “Network” or “Serpico“. He’s also no stranger to a heist movie, having made one of the sub-genre’s best in “Dog Day Afternoon“. In “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” – his last film before his death – Lumet returns to that sub-genre and, once again, delivers with aplomb.

Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are two brothers whose financial woes are having a direct effect on their lives. In order to solve their problems, Andy hatches a plan to rob a jewellery store. He calls it a “mom and pop” operation and it’s quite literally that: the store is owned by the brothers’ parents. If all goes down as it’s supposed to, then nobody will get hurt. Like so many crimes of this nature though, things can and do go wrong, dragging everyone down with a devastating turn of events.

Lumet builds his film slowly and assuredly, revealing the characters’ motivations bit by bit before peeling away the layers of their downfall. To do this, he cleverly plays with timeframes; changing back, forward and during the robbery itself. The focus is on the two brothers, as well as their emotionally stilted father (Albert Finney). Of course, this type of narrative device is nothing new. We have seen it used many times before but Lumet’s skill is in keeping it fresh and gripping. In support of his deft handling of the material, the actors deliver outstanding performances across the board; Tomei nails the ditzy wife routine; Hawke is marvellously high strung and weasel-like; Finney lends his usual reliability and there’s a small but welcome role for a threatening Michael Shannon. Unsurprisingly though, it’s Hoffman’s movie. He has a real presence here shifting from secretive to calculated then deadly with absolute ease. It may be unfair to single out one particular actor but this is another example of Hoffman’s incredible ability to completely inhabit a character. His downfall in particular, is of powerful and tragic Shakespearean proportions and he completely captures the intensity of a deeply immoral man.

Sidney Lumet was in his 80’s when he directed this, yet it shows a vibrancy that could easily be associated with a much younger director. With a canon of top-quality films behind him, this is as good and as riveting as anything he has done. Sadly it was his last but what a film to go out on.

Mark Walker

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The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford * * * * 1/2

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Western with tags on August 30, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Andrew Dominik.
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Parks, Ted Levine, Alison Elliott, James Carville, Tom Aldredge, Pat Healy, Nick Cave.
Narrator: Hugh Ross.

In 2000, director Andrew Dominik exploded onto the scene with low-budget but powerful biographical film “Chopper” about Australian criminal Mark Brandon Read. It not only heralded the arrival of actor Eric Bana but also a new an uncompromising director. For his second feature he tackled another biographical feature about one of the wild west’s most notorious gunslingers and this time, Dominik took his uncompromising nature even further.

Retelling of the last months in the life of the legendary outlaw Jesse James and how his reputation was faltering. His gang had disbanded – either dead or in prison and Jesse was beginning to suffer increasing paranoia. After carrying out a train robbery he heads for Kentucky, only to reappear in Missouri for a bank robbery. Two brothers; Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) are part of his new gang but Robert has a dangerous and obsessive idolisation of Jesse and one that would finally be the outlaws undoing.

Few film’s ever get away with having a title as long as this one and even fewer get away with the manner in which this film is made. That’s testament to the skill of Andrew Dominik and the backing of Brad Pitt who refused to yield to Hollywood studios when they wanted to tinker with Dominik’s vision. Right from the opening, brutal, train robbery, this film’s style is apparent. It’s sense of realism is what commands your attention; it goes on to depict stark expansive landscapes, explosive bullet wounds and guns that don’t shoot straight but the actual gunslinging is kept to a minimum, while it focuses on the characters themselves. The pace of the film is deliberate, adding to the ethereal feel throughout and one that reminded me of the approach that director Terrence Malick would use. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is also a thing of absolute beauty. The entirety of every single frame of this picture is stunningly captured with meticulous attention to detail and Dominik’s direction is near flawless. He lingers long on shots and subtle facial expressions and captures the uneasiness in the characters and their situations. By using this methodical style, he manages to get under the skin of his two leading characters and allows both Pitt and especially Affleck the room to deliver sensational performances. Pitt is entirely commanding and charismatic, adding just enough of a glimmer of danger without losing the audience’s sympathy and Affleck is on top, creepy and unsettling, form. The chemistry between the two hints at all sorts of possibilities – including homoerotic tension. These two share an uneasy relationship and between them, there are contemporary issues at play; the nature of celebrity and hero worship and the difference between ‘the man and the myth‘. Even over 100 years ago they had this but although Dominik delivers this insight, he never fully explores it, leaving it all just a bit too ambiguous. I’m not looking for a film to spell everything out for me. On the contrary but for a film that languishes on detail and mood, it could have taken a little time to further explore these themes and the characters’ motivations. There’s a sense of bewilderment as to why James would even tolerate having Ford around when he, seemingly, knew that something wasn’t quite right about him. He was aware that sooner or later he would meet his impending fate but it’s unclear why he’d open himself up to it. Another area that lacks any attention, is the females in these men’s lives. They are fleetingly visited but are ultimately insignificant and the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschannel are reduced to mere cameos. I can only assume that these issues could maybe make more sense in Dominik’s original 4 hour cut – that played at the Venice film festival before a widespread release reduced the film to it’s 2hour 40mins duration. That being said, this is still an aesthetically successful endeavour that, although not fully deserving of the masterpiece status that many consider it to be, it’s not far off it.

A contemplative and demanding film that requires the utmost patience. It’s highly ambitious, artistic and regularly poetic. Quite simply, it’s beautifully done and I found lots to admire but it meanders and like the title itself, it’s just a tad too long winded.

Mark Walker

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Shotgun Stories * * * *

Posted in Drama with tags on August 20, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Jeff Nichols.
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols.
Starring: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, G. Alan Wilkins, Travis Smith, Michael Abbot Jr, Glenda Pannell, Natalie Canerday, Lynnsee Provence, David Rhodes.

In 2011, relatively unknown writer/director Jeff Nichols took a lot of people by surprise when he delivered one of the best films of the year in “Take Shelter“. However, four years prior to that he had already made his debut with Shotgun Stories which is a film that shares a similar downbeat tone. Despite being seen by very few, this impressive debut shows a strong ability from this new director.

In the back roads of South East Arkansas, three close brothers, Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) hear the news of their estranged fathers death. They attend the funeral if only to relate their vehement hatred of the man as he abandoned them in their youth and started a new family. As result of this, their fathers other sons (and half brothers to them) get involved in a feud that reaches dangerous and deadly proportions.

I always find it quite interesting watching the debut of a director you admire, especially when you’ve been introduced to them at a later date and find yourself looking back at their earlier material just to see where they honed their skills. In this case, it’s easy to where Jeff Nichols is coming from. Like “Take Shelter“, this film starts off at a deliberate pace. It’s in no hurry to tell it’s story and favours a slow approach to build up it’s characters and the mundane lifestyles they lead. It may be a little slow for some but the story here is all very deliberate and naturally handled. Nichols certainly has an eye for small town America and with help from cinematographer Adam Stone, he effectively captures the vast emptiness of the town which also reflects in the emptiness of the characters’ lives. Everything about this film is subtle and understated but all the more brooding and effective for it. Performance wise, there are some faults with the lesser known actors but as always, Shannon delivers a solid show and with scars on his back that resemble shotgun shells, it only serves to fuel the films enigmatic nature and understated detail. When the feud between the half brothers takes hold, the muted first half of the film turns to one of tension as it reaches tragic Shakespearean heights that’s handled very impressively and never succumbs to formula. By this, there lies the question on whether the denouement is as satisfactory as it could be but Nichols’ handling is undeniably good and it makes for an impressive debut from him. It’s not quite as good as “Take Shelter” but this is a director that has started strongly, backed it up with one of the best film’s of 2011 and I believe will continue to go from strength to strength – time will tell with his forthcoming film “Mud” released later in 2012.

In “Take Shelter“, Nichols dealt with events that had almost biblical proportions and when looking at this you can see that he shares a similar theme. This is a highly accomplished debut from one the most exciting new directors to reach our screens.

Mark Walker

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No Country For Old Men * * * * *

Posted in Crime, thriller, Western with tags on May 17, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen.
Screenplay: Ethan & Joel Coen.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Stephen Root, Rodger Boyce, Ana Reeder, Beth Grant, Gene Jones.

Ever since their dark debut “Blood Simple” in 1984, Joel & Ethan Coen have commanded an audience’s attention. They followed that up with the wacky and kinetic comedy “Raising Arizona” in 1987, proving early on, that they were comfortable in any genre. That hasn’t changed over the years but what it does do, is leave you with feelings of anticipation whenever they deliver another film. You just never know what light or dark delights they are going to deliver. This film is the darkest delight they have delivered so far.

While hunting in the Texas desert, a young mid-west cowboy (Josh Brolin) comes across a botched drug deal and decides to snatch a satchel of cash. Unknowingly, there are bigger things at work here and his foolish decision attracts the attention of a relentless hitman (Javier Bardem) who has been sent to recover the money. As bodies begin to pile in their wake, a local Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) has the duty of hunting them down.

To foreshorten the opening lines of this film and give an insight from the disillusioned protagonist Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, we are told “… the crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”” Sheriff Bell is at a loss to explain human behaviour and the evil actions of people that he has pursued throughout his career in law enforcement. He is the weary heart and soul of this movie and a character that Tommy Lee Jones can do in his sleep. He serves as one part of three characters whose lives explosively intersect. The others include; Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) a foolish young man who doesn’t quite grasp the enormity of his actions, which in turn, attract the attention of very disturbed and dangerous killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – who makes decisions on the flip of a coin and wields a hydrolic cattle gun as a weapon. Cleverly, the Coens have them sharing very little (if any) screen time and Jones’ Sherrif always two steps behind the aftermath of destructive events.
As always, the Coens are at the top of their game and have a good grasp on this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. They capture his recurrent themes; isolation, the passing of time and changing epoch’s. In “The Road” McCarthy explored a post-apocalyptic change. In this, it’s the end of the western way of life and despite life-experienced characters, a lack of understanding in the reasons for it’s happening. Throughout their films they have delivered consistent moments of suspense. Here though, the Coens outdo themselves with regular scenes of unbearable tension (done without the use of music). The actors are all up to the task and despite Lee Jones and the Oscar winning Bardem receiving most of the plaudits, Brolin also delivers an absolutely solid, low-key performance. No Coen brothers review would be complete without mentioning the sublime talents of their regular cinematographer Roger Deakins. Yet again, his stark and beautiful camerawork compliments the barren landscapes that these characters roam. As always, his and the Coens’ vision complete one another. One of the brothers’ finest films and thoroughly deserving of its best picture and director(s) Oscar awards.

If you’re aware of the Coen brothers’ canon (and most filmgoers are) then combine “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and this is what you get… only better. A very gripping and powerful neo-western.

Mark Walker

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Catfish * * * 1/2

Posted in Documentary with tags on April 17, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Directors: Rel Schulman, Henry Joost.
Featuring: Nev Schulman, Angela Wesselman, Melody C. Roscher, Rel Schulman.

The social networking zeitgeist is certainly upon us. It has shaped a generation in their reliance on smartphones and the internet and contributed to a new global means of communication. It has brought us closer but sometimes a bit too close. It has opened up new dangers and has shaped us into voyeurs. This documentary is proof enough in showing this. It also shows how easily people can be manipulated.

Filmmakers Rel Schulman and Henry Joost find themselves in the midst of a film project, tracing an online romance between Rel’s brother Nev and a female artist on Facebook. Everything doesn’t add up though as the women’s real identity becomes in question and her stories don’t seem to make sense. Is she really who she says she is?…

After a slow beginning, we are soon informed of where this documented drama is heading and the path it takes becomes dark and intriguing. Prime candidate for mockery, Nev Schulman, is a good sport. He very rarely shy’s away from what is ultimately a major piss take of his trust in people. But what it also does, is remind ourselves (or those who use social networking sites) that everything is not as it seems when interacting with faceless names. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t give too much away, but it shows the frailties in Internet use, as well as, the frailties in ourselves. The revelation of the strange events is quite awakening but is everything we told even true in itself? Some people took this documentary quite literally. I, however, had to wonder whether it was a double cross. I believed it to a point but there were so many chance happenings that were caught conveniently on camera that it couldn’t all have been purely documented.

Questions remain as too how authentic the film actually is but as a social commentary it’s message still stands. Despite some inconstancies it remains cleverly constructed.

Mark Walker

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Lars And The Real Girl * * * *

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 2, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Craig Gillespie.
Screenplay: Nancy Oliver.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Kelli Garner, Paul Schneider, Nancy Beatty, Doug Lennox.

When you see the poster for this film, with a moustachioed Ryan Gosling sitting on his sofa, grinning from ear to ear and accompanied by a sex doll, you be forgiven for entering into this and expecting some form of farcical sex-comedy. The poster however, is somewhat misleading. This is more of a drama (with a hint of quirkiness) and it’s a sensitive and heartfelt one at that.

Pathologically shy guy Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) introduces his new ‘girlfriend’ Bianca, a lifelike plastic doll, to his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) and brother Gus (Paul Schneider). Somewhat concerned, they decide to call in sympathetic psychologist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) who advises that everyone play along with treating Bianca as a real person to try and get to the bottom of Lars’ obvious mental condition.

Lars is a tragic character that Gosling imbues with a real fragile innocence. It’s another marvellous and enigmatic performance from him. He keeps the audience at just the right distance. Never letting you in, but still maintaining a likeability. Lars is a character that could so easily be laughed at and ridiculed but it’s testament to writer Nancy Oliver, director Craig Gillespie, the supporting cast of Mortimer, Schnieder and Clarkson, and particularly Gosling’s lead in bringing the character – and his social trauma – so vividly to life. Instead of being a farcical film of cheap jokes, it becomes a touching exploration of mental health that’s quite unlike anything you’ll have seen before.

It’s deliberately paced and some may even find it lethargic but I found it to be a highly original and deeply sensitive drama anchored by a marvellous central performance.

Mark Walker

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Nine * *

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on February 2, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Rob Marshall.
Screenplay: Anthony Minghella, Michael Tolkin.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, Ricky Tognazzi.

Sometimes you need to weigh up your options. Either you go by the director (who happens to have made one of the worst and most overrated films ever with “Chicago”) or you go by the actor (who has delivered consistantly memorable performances in his career with “My Left Foot”, “Gangs of New York” and “There Will Be Blood”). In this case I went with the actor but that still didn’t save a poor director, poorly plying his trade.

1960s Italy. Once-celebrated film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggles with his unwritten script for his comeback film. Looking for inspiration, he turns to his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his wife (Marion Cotillard), his muse (Nicole Kidman), his confidante (Judi Dench) and his childhood memories to solve his crisis, with unsuccessful yet well-sung results.

I really wanted to like this film as I’m a big fan of Daniel Day-Lewis and the impressive cast of females has rarely, if ever, been bettered. However, I’m not big on musicals or director Rob Marshall for that matter. Thankfully, this is not quite as bad as Marshall’s overrated stinker “Chicago”, but it isn’t much better either. Day-Lewis was my main reason for attempting this and considering he’s quite fastidious in his choices, I thought I’d follow his lead on this one. I was wrong and so was he in choosing this meandering borefest. The look of the film is gorgeous, as expected, with fabulous production design and cinematography and the ladies (oh the ladies) look amazing and deliver their song and dance numbers competently. Having Judi Dench in a corset was just a tad too much for my liking though. It was around this point in the movie that I realised this thinly veiled attempt at recreating a muscial of Frederico Fellini’s “8 1/2″ was a great waste of talent.

A lush and extravagant musical that has style in abundance. Substance is what it lacks though, leaving a great cast struggling to save it from tedium. Suited to fans of the genre only.

Mark Walker

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Sunshine * * * *

Posted in Science Fiction, thriller with tags on February 1, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Danny Boyle.
Screenplay: Alex Garland.
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong.

Ingredients for a top of the range sci-fi =

1 dollop of “Solaris”.
Half oz of “Event Horizon”.
1lb of “Mission to Mars”.
A generous helping of “Alien”.
And a sprinkle of “The Shining”.

Give them to visionary director Danny Boyle to shake them up and… Voila.

In the not-too-distant future, the sun is about to die. A crew is sent to re-ignite it with a nuclear bomb; when they fail, a new team sets out to finish the job. But they find that flying to the least hospitable place in the solar system and staying sane and alive is no simple matter.

Boyle is Britain’s very own Ang Lee in his ability to continually switch between genres. This is his attempt at Science Fiction and it’s a damn good one at that. His use of atmosphere is the most striking thing about this, with eerie and highly effective sound effects and an excellent music score by Underworld adding to the overall sense of foreboding and creepiness. Using a multi-cultural cast also works in it’s favour in the way that you don’t know who will perish at any given moment, very much like Ridley Scott’s “Alien”. As mentioned above – and by most other viewers – it has a lot in common with several films of this genre and the denoument unfortunately turns more toward the “Event Horizon” side of horror. It doesn’t entirely work and feels a little tacked on, as if Boyle and writer Alex Garland ran out of ideas. However, this is still an impressively handled and often powerful outing for Boyle.

A very underrated addition to the science fiction genre and one of Danny Boyle’s finest films. His collaborations with writer Alex Garland has produced consistantly good results.

Mark Walker

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Film Noir * * *

Posted in Animation, Film-Noir with tags on January 29, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Directors: D. Jud Jones, Risto Topaloski.
Screenplay: D. Jud Jones.
Voices: Mark Keller, Bettina Devin, Roger Jackson, Jeff Atik.

Being an avid fan of the film noir genre, I couldn’t resist one that used the genre’s description as it’s title and also carried an 18 certificate, making this an enticing prospect for any hardboiled fan, not to mention that it’s an animated take on it.

Waking up in the Hollywood hills without a clue as to his identity, our protaganist finds himself with a dead police officer lying next to him and the murder weapon fitting his holster perfectly. He determines that it must be himself that’s the murderer. But he has no idea of who he is or why he’s killed. He sets out to unravel the mystery of his identity while crooks and dames try to thwart his investigation at every turn.

For me, one of the major attractions to this film was the animation but unfortunately, that was also the biggest disappointment. It’s nothing special by today’s standards, and bordered on amature at times. The splashes of colour throughout were a nice touch though, in a mainly monochromatic style. What really raises this above the standard is it’s perfect attention to the atmosphere of a noir, with excellent use of downbeat voiceover and sleazy saxaphone and trumpet jazz soundtrack. It doesn’t quite manage to hold your attention throughout though, partly down to the substandard artwork and the fact that it goes way over a reasonable running time – meandering towards it’s conclusion. Comparisons with Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City” will no doubt be made, as this is the best example of what to expect from this unexpected genre addition. The opening is so strong that the rest of the film suffers because of it.

If you’re a fan of the film noir genre you’ll find plenty to enjoy, but it somehow left me feeling that this was a missed opportunity for something unique and special.

Mark Walker

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King Of California * * * 1/2

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on January 28, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Mike Cahill.
Screenplay: Mike Cahill.
Starring: Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Kathleen Whilhoite, Willis Burks II, Laura Kachergus, Paul Lieber.

Nepotism is rife throughout Hollywood and as much as I despise it, I think I may have to finally admit that after all these years, Michael Douglas does have some talent of his own and isn’t just a by-product of his father Kirk.

Charlie (Michael Douglas) is a free-spirited eccentric who’s just been released from a mental institution and is obsessed with locating an ancient Spanish treasure that he believes is buried right under peoples noses in California. To aide him in his crazy quest – and against her better judgement – he enlists his sixteen-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood).

Douglas is a treat to watch here. I always took him to be one of the self-important Hollywood types, but here he doesn’t take himself too seriously at all and reminded me that he, has in fact, produced some wonderful comedic performances throughout his career; “War of the Roses”; “Wonderboys”; and “One Night at McCools”, to name a few. His character of Charlie can be included amongst these oddities. He’s highly intelligent but also quite dysfunctional on a basic level and Douglas perfectly captures this creative, intelligent madness. This is also helped by Evan Rachel Wood’s sensitive performance as Miranda and her almost escapist, dreamlike perspective which adds to the surreal and farout nature of her father and her feelings of a stolen childhood, due his quirky demeanor. They are both delightful performances in an unexpectedly delightful film.

It’s not groundbreaking material by any means but it is an original little caper with a real sense for the offbeat.

Mark Walker

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