Kin
Dir: Josh and Jonathan Baker
I talk about the way films are marketed, or rather mis-marketed, a lot. Outside the cinemas, UK distribution is awash with films you might never notice have been released. Some you might have heard of, except they got released with new titles. Others, like Kin, have DVD art that makes them look like something completely different.

At its heart, Kin is about brothers. 14 year old Eli (Myles Truitt) is adopted, and his older ex-con adoptive brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) has just come home from six years in jail. One day, while scrounging for scrap metal to sell, he finds what look like alien bodies in an abandoned building, and takes the gun from one of them. Later, Eli and Jimmy find themselves on the run, with both Jimmy’s criminal associates (led by James Franco) and two masked figures in pursuit.

The brotherly relationship here is nicely drawn, with Reynor, who won great notices for What Richard Did and, to my mind, was under-recognised for an excellent performance, also as the older brother to a young protagonist, in Sing Street, giving a nuanced performance as a desperate fuck up trying to protect his brother from the consequences of his actions. Myles Truitt, in his first film, carries the narrative with a confident performance that captures the fractured nature of his relationship with his brother, the trust they rebuild and the simple childlike thrill both of being on the road and of having this alien raygun in his bag the whole time. Among the supporting cast, Zoe Kravitz does a lot with a little as a stripper with a heart of gold the brothers meet along the way. Dennis Quaid is Harrison Fording as hard as he can as Jimmy and Eli’s Dad and James Franco, while he chomps his way through the scenery as ever, stays just the right side of hammy.

What directors Josh and Jonathan Baker seem to be doing here is both paying homage to and in some ways making an inverted sequel to the Terminator franchise (the debt is made very clear in some of the film’s graphical choices, and when we see Eli playing a T2 arcade game). This is certainly, by some distance, a more distinctive and interesting version of those ideas than either of the last two Terminator films had. The Bakers, along with writer Daniel Casey, combine the film’s action with the storyline between the brothers and Kravitz to fine effect, and when it culminates in a spectacular revisioning of the Police station attack from the original Terminator, the fact these relationships have been built so well accentuates the threat from Franco. The action is well shot, and the effects, from the brilliantly articulated gun to the CGI, would shame many $200 million plus films, on a price tag of just $30 million.

As long as you don’t go in expecting an all blasting sci-fi action fest, there’s much to enjoy in Kin; nucanced characterisation, well written dialogue, and action underpinned by real emotional stakes.
★★★1/2

All About Nina
Dir: Eva Vives
Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a mid-level stand up comedian, grinding out gigs and otherwise living from drink to drink and one casual sexual encounter to the next. She moves to LA, both to get away from a married man she seems unable to stop seeing, despite the fact he hits her, and for the possibility of an audition for Comedy Prime. She meets a new man (Common), but her issues continually threaten to get in the way of their burgeoning relationship.

Who doesn’t love Mary Elizabeth Winstead? I’ve been a fan since Final Destination 3 and Sky High, and it’s been great seeing her diversify into more serious roles such as Smashed, the underseen Faults and now this film. It’s easy to see why an actress would see the part of Nina as a gift; it offers the opportunity to go deep, to plumb traumatic depths and to set them against comedy, the character ping ponging back and forth between extremes. It’s a performance that never asks to be liked, as a character you suspect is always, deep down, seeking that validation. I’d struggle to fault what Winstead is doing here, she hits every high and low of the character, she makes you understand her self-destructive behaviour and she has great chemistry – romantically and in terms of their performances – with Common. I just wish all this were true in a better film.

The problem here is that Eva Vives’ screenplay never comes together. The serious tone of what Nina is going through and the reasons behind it sit at odds with the desperately unfunny silly comedy characters like the new-agey woman Nina is lodging with. That balance might have worked better but for one problem, common to so many films about stand up comedians: Nina just isn’t very funny. Her material is uninspired and her punchlines never hit for me. I can see what the film is going for contrasting this with her having to audition for the TV show with cliched material about celebrities ordering coffee, because the producer (Beau Bridges) wants her to do impressions. If that’s to work both the audition and the set where she drops any pretence of comedy to ait the trauma behind her issues need to contrast more with the quality of her regular material.

While Winstead is very good, the real surprise of the film is Common; confident and charismatic as Rafe. The scenes in which she plays off against him are the only time Nina is at all funny, and yet the film never even attempts a joke about this character’s name which is – I kid you not – Rafe Heinz. This is an incredibly bizarre choice on so many levels. First, it’s such a weird homage to jam in to the movie for literally no purpose, and second, I don’t for one instant believe that Nina’s first reaction wouldn’t be to laugh at his name and then IMMEDIATELY make a gag. Instead it’s this weird thing that just floats there in the movie.

All About Nina is a film I want to like more, and with a better screenplay it could have delivered Winstead her equivalent of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Georgia, but while there are good things here, the film as a whole is a mess.
★★

Galveston
Dir: Mélanie Laurent
Roy (Ben Foster) is pretty sure he’s dying, but his boss doesn’t know that when he sets Roy up to be killed over a woman. After turning the tables on his attackers, Roy rescues Rocky (Elle Fanning), a young hooker they were holding captive. The two find themselves on the run together, soon accompanied by Rocky’s three year old sister.

Mélanie Laurent’s fifth feature as director is also her English language debut, and it feels like a big leap forward for her behind the camera. Laurent’s command of framing is often striking, and a long take towards the end of the film, with a bloodied Foster looking for a door, is notable for its fluidity and the tension it generates. That’s the showiest moment, but look too at the quick and brutal way the scene in which Roy brutally dispatches the men attacking him is shot and cut, which has a nervous energy that is often absent from recent crime thrillers There’s more than that to what makes the direction here great though; the command of tone is excellent, both in how Laurent paces the film and in how she directs her outstanding cast.

I’ve been a Ben Foster fan since sorely underrated 2001 teen comedy Get Over It, but his transformation, perhaps before his time (he’s not yet 40, and has been playing these roles for a while), into a grizzled veteran has seen him deliver some of the best, and often least noticed, work of any American actor in his generation. This is no exception. From the opening moments there is a fatalism about Roy as a character, but it’s riveting to watch his world-weariness lift thanks to Rocky and her sister Tiffany. This isn’t a simple or a short process, rather one we see Foster go through every step of the way, from grudgingly helping Rocky and taking her along to a true fatherly affection for both of her and Tiffany. Foster is an incredibly physical actor, which allows him to be as imposing as the script wants us to believe (the source novel’s Roy is apparently much taller and heavy set) but he’s also very subtle, just look at how much he portrays in a single glance when Rocky first says they need to stop in her home town.

Like Foster, Elle Fanning is an actor I’ve long admired for her talent and her dedication to challenging and interesting material. Her last wide release, Mary Shelley, found her miscast, but she’s not merely back on form here, this is some of her best work. Laurent has Fanning tap into every register, every colour, she’s ever previously shown on screen. There’s the old before her time way she deals with Roy and often with other men, but that’s often an apparent facade and in the same moment she can appear heartbreakingly young and naive. Again there are beautiful subtleties in her work. Scenes in which Rocky plays with Tiffany, distracting the child so she won’t understand that there may be danger pursuing them, are so intimate, and so close to her sunshiney public persona they could be stolen behind the scenes moments. On the other hand there are some highly demanding scenes, including one moment when Rocky finally breaks down in front of Roy, which has a raw quality we’ve never seen from Fanning before. There are so many more scenes, or even individual shots, I could talk about in great detail here. That this performance hasn’t been more talked about is a crying shame.

Initially, I thought the film’s coda would simply extend its brief, but dense, running time for too long, but it proves to be one of the film’s deftest emotional touches, and that’s perhaps Galveston’s greatest strength: as muscular and thrilling as it is, it’s the way it makes you identify with the characters at its centre, and the way it makes you feel for them, that will stick with me.
★★★★1/2

Mozart and the Whale
Dir: Petter Næss
It’s fair to say that cinema doesn’t often deal well with neuro divergence. It’s previously been a shortcut to establishing characters as twitchy, dangerous, villains or, at the other extreme, painted as a whimsical series of quirks in films that like that it makes people different, but which either don’t understand or don’t address the struggles. Mozart and the Whale, while it’s not always successful, does at least seem to attempt to honestly depict what it’s about: the romantic relationship between two people with Aspergers (Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell) and the ways that their conditions get in the way of that relationship.

Hartnett and Mitchell, neither of whom are given the opportunity to stretch themselves often enough, are both very good here, but one of them is better served by Ron Bass’ screenplay. Hartnett’s Donald is a much more rounded characterisation at script level. His Aspergers clearly has a profound effect on him, but the ways he tries to fight through it – founding a group for other neuro divergent people, and through his relationship with Mitchell’s Isabelle – always remain coping mechanisms, even when he’s not experiencing the actions his Aspergers produces at their most acute, they still underlie just about every line of dialogue. Harnett plays this very well, never reducing Donald to a series of tics. Even at the very end of the film, with his situation profoundly different, the way he holds himself, speaks and directs his gaze is still informed by his differences. By contrast, while Mitchell is great in every individual moment, the severity of Isabelle’s Aspergers often seems more driven by plot convenience. I understand, given that I’m going through the process of diagnosis myself, that there are many things that can influence how severely Aspergers and other forms of autism affect people, but there isn’t enough consistency to the way Bass and director Peter Næss portray this with Isabelle’s character.

The film has its share of whimsy, but it does at least feel appropriate to the characters most of the time. The Halloween date that gives the film its title is a great example of how the film sometimes uses whimsy well; it’s a charming sequence that allows Donald and Isabelle not to stick out so much in the world, and we learn a lot about the characters and quickly come to root for their relationship. Mitchell and Hartnett work well together, the chemistry is there and there is also a tenderness between them, especially in the scene before Donald and Isabelle first sleep together, which is funny, caring and rather romantic.

While it tries to mark itself out from the crowd, in a lot of ways Mozart and the Whale is a fairly typical mid 00’s rom com, with a crowd of underdeveloped side characters often acting as comic relief (the fact they are all autistic and, unlike Donald and Isabelle, given little development beyond a single quirk each, is a little queasy) and several too many montages set to landfill indie bands that were just about in the budget’s reach. Still, even if its reach often exceeds its grasp, at least Mozart and the Whale is reaching for something different, and when it succeeds, especially through the central performances, it is well worth discovering.
★★★

The Witch in the Window
Dir: Andy Mitton
Ah the haunting movie, the cliches creak with just as much volume and regularity as the houses these stories take place in. Happily, there remains some room for invention in the genre and Andy Mitton’s brief but rich first feature as sole writer/director finds some interesting and meaningful new ways of spinning an old yarn.

12 year old Finn (Charlie Tacker) has been misbehaving, and so is shipped off to his father Simon (Alex Draper), who is repairing an old house that he says he is intending to flip. Not long after they arrive, Simon hears a local legend about the woman who used to live in the house and soon father and son begin to experience strange events.

The thing that marks The Witch in the Window out from the hundreds of other haunting films is the investment, both in terms of screen time and the crafting of the dialogue and performances, that Mitton puts into the father and son relationship. This is truly the heart of the film, and from the very beginning there’s a richness to the writing of the relationship that adds dimension to the characters, whether it’s in colourful use of language (“I was hoping I’d catch you on the 12 side of 12, not the 13 side of 12”, Simon says to his stroppy son early on), or the way that Simon is always lapsing into slang, perhaps trying to connect with his kid. A lot of this is also in Alex Draper and Charlie Tacker’s performances. They nail the estranged dad and son dynamic beautifully; sometimes irritated with each other, but always with a love and respect, even if Finn buries it pretty deep at times. Even when he’s annoyed, Draper gives the impression of a Dad who is just thrilled to have his kid with him for a while, which makes one particular scene notably wrenching, even though – perhaps even because – I guessed what was about to happen long before the reveal.

The scares, when they come, also work pretty well. I’m less fond of the old lady ghost saying boo to the camera moments, but for the most part the fear in the film is tied to the family dynamic, which makes The Witch in the Window both scary and sad. Even at 77 minutes, there is sometimes a sense of the film stretching itself a little long, and some may find the slow pace and lack of discernible scares until roughly the midpoint a little testing, but I found myself sucked in by the story and the cast. I’ve not seen Andy Mitton’s previous films, but this one (along with his lovely and sometimes chilling score for it) makes him someone worth watching for in the future.
★★★1/2

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