Sunday 29 August 2021

THE TOLL review

Following a chance encounter with one of his old adversaries, an unassuming toll booth operator (Michael Smiley) stationed in the middle of nowhere must contend with his dark past catching up with him and the price he will have to pay for it. But with the whole town committing a litany of wrongdoings, it's up to local police office Catrin (Annes Elwy) to keen everyone in check before more trouble arrives in town.

On the Pembrokeshire border where he thought no one from his previous life would ever find him, Smiley's (unnamed) toll booth operator lives a quiet existence, taking a small fee from the few people who pass down his road. However, his status quo is rocked when he's recognised by Elton (Gary Beadle), an old colleague/rival who gave up looking for him twenty years ago. Reporting his whereabouts to big boss Magnus (Julian Glover), Smiley's character has no option but to react accordingly and prepare for retribution to arrive on his doorstep. Meanwhile, local copper Catrin who spends most of her days speed checking cyclists, suddenly finds criminal activity in the town flaring up, with angry Welsh farmers, gun toting triplets, Paul Kaye's lovesick ambulance driver and Iwan Rheon's wannabe hoodlum all landing on her radar. But what, if anything, has this to do with the seemingly law-abiding local toll booth operator?

With a narrative that purposely jumps around the timeline of events, it's not too far into the runtime of The Toll that having just survived a hold up by three balaclava'd youths, Michael Smiley's character says to Elwy's befuddled bobby, "the chronology is confusing, I'll give you that". Thankfully, director Ryan Andrew Hooper's debut feature film and Matt Redd's script is aware enough of genre expectations that it knows when to subvert them and when to lean into them. Sure, for the story to make sense you've got to suspend your disbelief early on to take some of the film's more larger than life characters seriously (Evelyn Mok and Darren Evans's Elvis loving smugglers are high on that list), but the cast are a lively, sprightly bunch that bring a lot of energy to the otherwise remote and sparse countryside where most of the film is set.

In many ways an unapologetic throwback to the twisty-turny, expect the unexpected small time gangster sub-genre that sprang up in the wake of the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; to its credit, The Toll is one of the better ones, offering a cast of colourful characters that make this a breezy 83 minutes to enjoy, with the ever reliable presence of Michael Smiley adding enough of an element of danger to keep us on our toes throughout. Likewise Annes Elwy in what could have been a thankless role, as Catrin, the only person in town with a clear moral compass and drive to do the right thing, brings a lot of warmth to an otherwise chilly affair.

Using its overly complicated plot to mask some of its shortcomings, The Toll is still the best British gangster film in recent memory, with a satisfyingly explosive climax and fine work from Smiley and Elwy.



The Toll is in cinemas and on premium digital 27 August from Signature Entertainment 

Wednesday 4 August 2021


English businessman Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) moves his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and two children to the U.K. to pursue a new job opportunity working for his old mentor. Moving them into a palatial estate, the family tries to adjust to their new life whilst Rory goes after a deal that will make him rich. But, as things start to go wrong on the grounds of their new home, Allison begins to question if Rory has been telling the truth or if the venture was always destined to fail.

It's been 10 long years since director Sean Durkin's debut feature, Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, and although he's been involved in producing a number of films in the interim, it's good to see him back behind the camera for another dose of atmospheric indie drama filled with a creeping dread. Whereas his debut showed the world what new up-and-comer Elizabeth Olsen could do, here he's teamed up with established stars Jude Law (also an exec producer on the film), and the ever reliable Carrie Coon as a husband and wife trying to have the perfect life, or at least make it look like they have.

Set in the 1980s, when Rory tells Allison that he's received a call from his old boss offering him the opportunity to lead a new venture in London, she reluctantly agrees to the upheaval of moving across the Atlantic, where she can also have space to run her equestrian business. Setting up home in a grand house (rented, with the option to buy) that's ten times too big for a family of four, Rory promises they can fill the empty space with new belongings and memories, just as soon as his big deal comes through. Enthusiastic and charming, Allison and her children have no choice but to go along with Rory's plan, although Allison sees through his bravado enough to know there's more going on than first appears.

Jude Law is fantastic in the role of the arrogant, pompous, braggart Rory, playing to his strengths and audience expectations as a man who wishes he was born into the life of his Talented Mr Ripley character, Dickie Greenleaf, and is willing to lie to everyone in order to make his friends and co-workers think that's the case. In reality Rory leads a life not as charmed as that, but is so status obsessed that you could easily imagine him enjoying a nice business lunch with American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. Both a product and victim of the 80s, as Rory tells tall tales about his achievements and property portfolio (much to Allison's amusement) he's largely unlikeable, with a stand-alone (and standout) scene where he takes a trip to a place from his past the only real glimpse into his motivations that generates some audience sympathy for him.

But by far the most interesting, and most likeable character, is Carrie Coon's Allison. Finding the move to the U.K. like going back in time, she rejects others instinct to reduce her to a trophy wife, quick to point out when her and her husband are introduced as Mr & Mrs Rory O'Hara that she does have a name of her own. There's a delightfully caustic scene where, tired of being denied her own agency, orders from the menu for her husband - "my princess", as she puts it - and chastises the waiter when he hesitates upon her order. Although the 80s might not have been that long ago really, the gender politics feel incredibly outdated and are a major theme of The Nest. Whether it's her status as an American woman, or simply a sign of the changing tide in feminism, she's unafraid to speak her mind, cut her husband's bullshit to shreds, or leave a formal meal in search of gin & tonics and a disco playing The Communards. Coon and Law are both outstanding, and with any justice will see some recognition comes awards time.

What is missing from The Nest is more investiture in the family life and the children Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell). Both have subplots involving teenage rebellion and their fear of the ginormous, old, imposing house they now have to live in, but it's only towards the finale that we really see how they co-exist as a four. Without wanting to step too far into cliche, the house and its grounds play a hugely important role in the film, but it's to the film's credit that when things take a turn into the surreal, it's not inconceivable that the house played an active role in whatever is challenging the harmony of this family.

Although not as triumphant a statement as Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, The Nest is still a stylishly shot, bold, foreboding piece of storytelling from Sean Durkin with two fantastic lead performances from Law and Coon. Often acerbically funny and with a withering stance on male bravado, this view of family life will offer some uncomfortable home truths to many.


The Nest screened as part of Sundance London and will be on general release from August 27th.

Tuesday 3 August 2021


Undoubtedly the first film to ever be based on a twitter thread, A24's latest urban nightmare follows the true-is story of waitress and part time stripper Zola (Taylour Paige), who, after a chance encounter with fellow dancer Stefani (Riley Keough), agrees to go to Florida with her in order to make some quick cash. When things take a dangerous turn, Zola must do what she can to make it through the weekend.

A wild story that was the talk of Twitter in October 2015 when Aziah "Zola" King started her 143 post thread about her weekend in Florida with the words "Y'all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch fell out?", I doubt she ever thought it would get optioned and turned into a feature film... but here we are. A cautionary tale that quickly found its way into urban legend, it arrives on the big screen pre-loaded as a stranger than fiction journey into the unknown. Sure, there's inaccuracies, embellishments and details changed (presumably for legal reasons), but Zola mostly lives up to its reputation as a story like no other.

Doing for Florida tourism what Robocop did for Detroit in the 80s, the world Zola blindly stumbles into is dark, dirty, and potentially deadly. This is a Florida built on the sexual manipulation of women, treating their bodies like a commodity to be sold at will by men who install fear as their primary weapon. In Zola's case, it's the man known as X (Colman Domingo), introduced as Stefani's "roommate" but who it quickly becomes apparent has a much more authoritative role in Stefani's life, selling her body and attempting to do the same with Zola. Carrying more street smarts than Stefani and not as willing to be manipulated, the film is largely about Zola's survival instincts and knowing when to step headfirst into danger in order to find her way out at the other end. Although not expressed narratively in the film, there's a clear subtext that she has seen dangerous situations in her past, best expressed in a fight or flight confrontation she has with Colman Domingo's X when she initially tries to leave. It's a tense and terrifying moment in a film that flips from comic to troubling on a dime.

Hugely important to the film is the racial dynamic between the four key cast members, Paige, Keough, Domingo and Succession's Nicholas Braun as Stefani's pitiful boyfriend Derrek. Stefani and Derrek both spout ebonics and often say things that make Zola visibly uncomfortable, as does X's accent which he switches at will to scare those around him. What becomes more apparent as the film leaves the strip clubs and heads to the hotel rooms, to the series of men who start to knock on the door there's a difference in worth (and price) between Zola and Stefani, but that Zola can use to aide her survival. Much has been made of the "blaccent" Riley Keogh adopts as the manipulative and manipulated Stefani (accusations of cultural appropriation not helped by her being Elvis Presley's granddaughter), but it's a superb, committed performance from an actor we're only just starting to see the best of. Likewise to Taylour Paige, who imbues Zola with a world-weary quality that makes her effortlessly likeable.

Propelled by music from Mica Levi, with the pinging sound of phone notifications creating the rhythm of the world (and informing us when the film is directly quoting from the original Twitter thread), at 86 minutes, director Janicza Bravo's film is whip fast and doesn't over stay its welcome, although for such a mythologised modern urban cautionary tale that's fraught with danger, better care should have been taken to wrap up the story more coherently. As it stands, it's a film that not only demands, but requires further reading to allow you to fully grasp how crazy a weekend Zola really had. Lead by two outstanding performances from its leads and with impressive support from Domingo and Braun, Zola is a film worth talking about.



Zola screened as part of this year's Sundance London Film Festival and will be on general release from Friday 6th August.

Monday 2 August 2021


Returning to its home at Picturehouse Central after the pandemic rendered last year's festival a virtual only affair, Sundance London took place last weekend with some of the highlights from January's Park City iteration. Chief among them was the opening night film, Edgar Wright's debut documentary about Ron and Russell Mael - aka musical dynamos Sparks - the aptly named The Sparks Brothers.

Around in various forms since the late '60s, The Sparks Brothers follows the career of the Maels, going from album to album and one outrageous musical statement to the next, using interviews from a seemingly never-ending parade of celebrities and musicians who tell us the impact their music had on them. Chief among the contributors are the Maels themselves, offering an introduction and commentary to their long and storied career for those audience members drawn in by the lure of Edgar Wright. Truth be told, I count myself among that crowd, as outside of This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us, I wasn't hugely familiar with the Sparks' ouvre. But Edgar Wright is a director who's built up a loyal following who will trust in his artistic and musical taste, so The Sparks Brothers comes with a certain level of intrigue into why he chose this band to be the focus of his first non-fiction film. 

It doesn't take long to see this is the perfect fit for director and subject, with a shared sense of madcap creativity between Wright and the Maels, and Edgar's distinctive laugh often audible off screen during Ron and Russell's pieces to camera showing that there's a close bond between them. It's fair to say that the Maels have the ability to be aloof and distant in a traditional interview setting, but there's a barrier that's been broken down that gives a real peppy energy to their interviews, with Wright matching and indulging in their flights of fancy (using props, gags and short snippets of animation) to keep the interview process alive.

Wright has pulled together a huge array of talking heads, and appropriately for an American band who always felt more English in their artistic sensibilities, they come from both sides of the pond. Sure, it's great to hear the opinions of Flea and Beck, but equally fitting to see Jonathan Ross and Dr Buckles himself, Adam Buxton, gush about their love for the band. Even ex-band members from decades past pop up to gush about the artistic triumph that is Sparks, just happy to have been involved in what has become the Mael Brothers' life's work. Topics such as their personal lives are largely ignored or side-stepped (when asked their sexual preference, Ron's answer is "horny"), except for The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin admitting to a brief fling with Russell, although she now regrets not directing her affections towards the more mysterious Ron. To this end, The Sparks Brothers manages to contain vast amounts of fanboy details whilst maintaining a lot of the mystery around the brothers' lives. It's to its credit that it doesn't feel like it's missing anything crucial.

More than anything, Ron and Russell are great company, and it's hard through the many music videos and TV performances on shows like Top of the Pops not to get a small thrill every time when the exceedingly odd but utterly brilliant Ron, complete with his infamous moustache, finds the camera pointed at him and stares directly down the lens with a strained smirk/smile on his face. A man hugely aware of how his image was perceived by their fans and the world at large (as described in the film, school kids thought Marc Bolan had joined a band with Hitler), Ron may be a musical genius, but also one of the most singularly unique pop stars to have ever existed.

Structurally, the film feels like it reaches a crescendo that it just about manages to sustain for its last ten minutes, although at 2 hours 20 it is definitely overlong with some diversions that could have been resigned to deleted scenes on what I expect will already be a jam packed home entertainment release. But, when a filmmaker is deep diving into a subject he loves and having such a great time doing it, it's easy to get swept up in the mayhem of the Maels and forgive Edgar for over-indulging. A loving tribute to a band you can easily take to your heart, if you weren't a fan of Sparks before, you will have been converted long before The Sparks Brothers reaches its end.



The Sparks Brothers was the opening night film for this year's Sundance London, and is now also on general release.