Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Langoliers
Dir: Tom Holland
I loved Stephen King's Four Past Midnight, his 1990 collection of four short horror stories. My favourite story of the four by far was The Langoliers. There was a part in the book where a young character was forced to kill someone with a toaster that had me shaking, I remember I was reading it on a Spanish beach and my mum commented that maybe I'd had too much sun and should go inside for a bit. I think it was my first Stephen King experience and I was soon hooked on his work. It wasn't until the late 90s until I discovered that the short had been made into a two-part mini-series on ABC. We didn't have ABC in the UK, so I waited until it was released on VHS around 1998. By that point I was well aware that - The Shawshank Redemption aside - that Stephen King adaptations were not highly regarded, something I never really got, as I can honestly say I've enjoyed them all. However, it is quite hard to defend Tom Holland's 1995 adaptation, as it's a bit of a shambles. The budget is clearly minuscule and the script is rubbish. All of the best elements of the story are missing and some of the casting choices were possibly the worst they could have made. Christopher Collet is horrible as Albert "Ace" Kaussner, a young violinist on his way to Boston on the red eye from LA. He and a group of other passengers fall asleep during the flight and wake up to discover that most of the people on board have turned to dust. We later find out that the plane has gone through a time rip, something humans can only survive when asleep. They find themselves out of sync with the rest of the world, being chased by time itself which will eventually consume them in the guise of giant flying balls with teeth. The toothy balls - called The Langoliers - aren't the best villains of film or literature but the suspense and apprehension they conjure is pretty special, at least in the book anyway. Dean Stockwell brings a bit of old school calibre to the film and David Morse was good (it was the first film of his I'd seen and I kept an eye out for him thereafter). However, it was Bronson Pinchot, at his over the top best, who really stole the show. The film made a great little sci-fi mystery into a cheap and laughable b-movie and it was a shame. The ending is horrible but there is still lots to like about it. Personally, I like cheap and laughable b-movies and this was so far removed from the book that I really didn't feel that upset about it. All these years later, I'm actually grown relatively fond the film, it's utter garbage, but it's my kind of utter garbage. If only Tom Holland had had the same budget and support he had when making Child's Play and Fright Night, it would now be something of a classic?

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Pink Flamingos
Dir: John Waters
John Waters' infamous exercise in bad taste is a tricky film to review. I think it is only right to celebrate its achievements, revel in how it changed cinema and applaud its rebellious attitude but personally I found it hard to enjoy. However, I think that was the desired effect. Pink Flamingos was an exercise in poor taste, featuring a mix of nudity, profanity, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sodomy, masturbation, gluttony, vomiting, rape, incest, murder, cannibalism, scatology and sensationalism, all used in pursuit of frivolity and a skewed lesson in epistemology. Breaking boundaries is good and in 1972 boundaries needed to be broken down. John Waters did everything you weren't supposed to do, from showing homosexual fellatio and animal cruelty, to not attaining a filming licence or asking permission for any of the music used, all for around $10,000. I admire most of his guerrilla tactics, he got out there and just did it, but he did have some heavy influences, with some ideas being straight up copies of other people's work. That said, no one else ever made a film like this, and in the underground 'Midnight Movie' scene, the film really took off. The film soon gained a cult following of fans who would repeatedly go to the Elgin Theatre in New York to watch it, a group that owner Ben Barenholtz would characterize as initially composed primarily of "downtown gay people, more of the hipper set", but, after a while he noted that this group eventually broadened, with the film becoming popular with "working-class kids from New Jersey who would become a little rowdy," too. Many of these cult cinema fans learned all of the lines in the film, and would recite them at the screenings, a phenomenon which would later become associated with another popular midnight movie of the era, The Rocky Horror Picture Show - a film that owes a lot of gratitude to Pink Flamingos. Waters style was clearly influenced by New York underground filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and Mike and George Kuchar. Stylistically, the film - and Divine herself, takes its cues from exaggerated ballroom drag-show pageantry and antics with Waters throwing in his know signature classic '50s rock-and-roll kitsch style. Waters' idiosyncratic style, which is also characterized by its homemade Technicolor look, was the result of high amounts of indoor paint and make-up, dubbed the "Baltimore aesthetic" by art students at Providence. His rough editing added "random Joel-Peter Witkin-esque scratches and Stan Brakhage-moth-wing-like dust marks" to the film, which were very effective, but, along with the sound delays between shots, are somewhat serendipitous. Waters swam up a sewer and came out the other end smelling of roses in many respects, although it would probably be more accurate to suggest he came out reeking of crap but everyone decided they suddenly liked the smell. That's a little unfair. Waters took a fair stand, he got lucky for sure but the risks were his, I will always admire him for that. Gus Van Sant, a director I haven't always seen eye to eye with, has described Pink Flamingos as "an absolute classic piece of American cinema, right up there with The Birth of a Nation, Dr. Strangelove, and Boom!". Dr. Strangelove and Boom! are actually British films but I do agree with him, much like Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the film is grotesque and only watchable once, but although totally different (one is a masterpiece, the other really isn't) they both are as important and as influential as each other, not just in film, but in breaking societal norms and making the viewer think, often with divided opinion. Both films are shocking, but for very different reasons and purpose. It's probably best remembered for Divine eating a fresh dog poo, which for me was barely in the top 5 shocking things that happen in the film. I always found the death of a chicken between two people having sex and a mother giving her son oral sex more disturbing but there you go. I think perhaps the legend has blurred the reality, as it's really not that great a film in the scheme of things, I'm all over transgressive black comedy but I didn't laugh, even out of shock, and I think I have a healthy and open sense of humour. However, I wasn't a kid seeing it for the first time in 1972. I would argue that it was art, just not art that I particularly like.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Burning
Dir: Tony Maylam
The Burning might seem like a Friday the 13th slasher rip-off but actually that isn’t the case and there is a lot more to it than that. I would argue that, apart from Friday the 13th’s excellent last scene, that The Burning is slightly more entertaining. The similarities between both films are suspicious but there is proof that the script was submitted for copyright before Friday the 13th was released. The truth is that by 1980 the slasher film business was starting to lag after a surge of entries since the release of the genre’s daddy – 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many ideas were similar to those that came before but this was mainly down to the scripts being based on the same stories. The Burning, Friday the 13th and 1982’s Madman were all based on the Cropsy story that the film makers all heard around summer campfires in the 60s and 70s. It was a well-known story in certain parts of America and it lent itself brilliantly to the slasher genre, so it was pure coincidence these films all had similar plots and characters. The Burning was the one film that stuck to the original the closest and when the makers of Madman got wind of it they re-wrote most of the script accordingly, knowing they had been beaten to it. Many thought The Burning was just a cheap copy of Friday the 13th and when it was released at the same time as Friday the 13th Part 2, the horror audience stuck with a name they knew. The Burning was re-released with a different poster a year later which boosted sales and in certain areas the name was changed, which was a classic trick in the horror film industry. It’s an above average slasher film, made loads better by the inclusion of horror legend Tom Savini and rock legend Rick Wakeman. Savini actually worked on the make-up effects for Friday the 13th but decided not to return for its sequel as he couldn’t work out how Jason would now by the murderer – indeed it didn’t make sense and he preferred the script to The Burning anyway. All good horror films have a good soundtrack and director Tony Maylam was friends with Yes’s Rick Wakeman who agreed to score the film for a fee. The keyboard wizard accepted a small fee instead of royalties as he thought the film would bomb, however the film was the biggest selling horror in Japan and he would now be much richer than he is, had he taken the percentage. If The Burning had been released before Friday the 13th then we’d have a dozen Cropsy sequels, rather than loads of Jason films, which I don’t know is a good thing or not, but it still had the right impact and thankfully made money for the right people, as the important Miramax Films was born. The Burning was written by Tony Maylam, Brad Grey, Peter Lawrence and the Weinstein brothers, while Maylam and Lawrence didn’t go on to much else (apart from Thundercats, which I have proper respect for), Grey went on to become chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures and the Weinsteins have gone on to become the kings of Hollywood. I think The Burning works better than most 80s teen slashers because the kids felt real. The cast all wore their own clothes and brought their own character to the roles. There was the geeky one and the sort of bully but all in all they were normal teenagers, rather than crafted stereotypes. The cast included Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens and Jason Alexander in their feature debuts, indeed, it seems that The Burning was good for everyone’s career. The horror sub-genre was flooded, it still is but there has been and always will be an audience that loves them. The late 70s and early 80s is something of a golden era, while some of the early slashers are quite nasty, there is something innocent about film’s like the Burning, as they are really just ghost stories, rather than disturbing social pieces such a Maniac. However, Tom Savini is the king of gore and many of the violent scenes are convincing and it’s not surprising that The Burning made the ‘Video Nasty’ list, which is now quite a badge of honour for a classic horror film. I remember back in the late 80s when I became somewhat obsessed with horror films, that the VHS copy was like gold. When the film was accidentally released uncut on video in the United Kingdom by Thorn-EMI, the tape was liable for seizure and prosecution under the Obscene Publications act and pretty much every school playground had at least one kid who said they had one, generally ‘given’ to them by an uncle. They now go for heaps of money on-line, if you can find one. Overall the film is much like many of the other slashers of the day, it’s not amazing but I liked the cast, the music is great and it has Tom Savini. Cropsey himself is a fairly average villain but there is something decidedly under-doggish about him that I quite like, with the humble garden shears being almost noble when it comes to serial killer weapon of choice. Without wanting to sound like a weirdo, The Burning has a ‘fun’ element that other slashers don’t, or at least didn’t have properly until Friday the 13th Part 3. Who doesn’t love a video nasty?

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Dir: Elliott Lester
Javier Gullon’s Aftermath is a fictionalised account of the factual events surrounding Vitaly Kaloyev, the man he murdered and the real-life collision of Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 and DHL Flight 611 over the German town of Uberlingen on 1st July 2002. Vitaly Kaloyev lost his wife and two children in the disaster. Kaloyev participated in the search for bodies at the crash site and located a broken pearl necklace owned by his daughter which was featured in the German media. He also found her body, which was intact as the trees had broken her fall. His wife's body landed in a nearby corn field and his son's body hit asphalt in front of a bus shelter. Kaloyev spent nearly all of his time next to his family’s grave for the next two years, often falling asleep and spending the night outside. The airline never apologised and offered only unsympathetic compensation - 60,000 Swiss francs for the death of his wife and 50,000 francs for the death of each of his two children. In return, Skyguide asked Kaloyev to decline any claims to the company. The document infuriated him. He asked the head of the airline about the possibility of meeting Peter Nielsen the air traffic controller who had been responsible for the disaster, but received no response from them. He then hired a private investigator to find Nielsen's address outside Zürich, before travelling to the former air traffic controller's home in Kloten. Once at Nielsen’s house, Kaloyev waited for him to come outside before stabbing him to death in front of his wife and three kids. He served two years of an eight year sentence before being released on appeal due to his mental condition not being sufficiently considered in the initial sentence. This is not a story to mess about with. So the first line of dialogue uttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger – who is playing Roman Melnyk, a character based on Kaloyev – includes him jokingly telling one of his colleagues that “You’re fired!” in reference to Schwarzenegger recently taking over from Trump as host of American Apprentice. Tasteful. The film does have some positives; Arnold Schwarzenegger is really good in what is a far more serious role than he’s given in the past. He holds his own and makes his character’s grief look real. The scene with him sitting next to the body bags containing the remains of his family is heart-breaking. The cinematography is at times, nothing short of beautiful. The crash itself is never shown, which I think shows a great level of respect, and it gives the scene in which Melnyk is told of the disaster far more impact. The script is also impressive in places, with a few profound questions asked and ethical dilemmas explored. However, after a strong start, the film falls to pieces. Great acting is contrasted with some of the most pathetic performances I have ever seen. Most of the scenes involving Scoot McNairy (who plays the guilty air traffic controller) and Maggie Grace are painful to watch, they are that awful. The airline’s lawyers are aggressive and slimy, stereotypes and clichés are thrown everywhere in rapid succession and it all becomes less and less believable. The real Kaloyev wasn’t in search of an apology and has criticized the film. He said he wanted justice, when he returned to his home in North Ossetian he was met with enthusiastic crowds who cheered him as a hero. Members of the local youth movement Nashi were standing with the accompanying acclamation: “You are the real man.” This goes against a lot of what he had said before but now with support he is without remorse, but the character in the film is not. This makes the killing in the film completely unbelievable. They changed the character and kept the action, but one wouldn’t happen without the other. An authentic dramatization of the story would have been far more interesting and would have explored the deeper ethical ramifications, Elliott Lester’s film trivialises it and insults the memories of all those involved. It’s a fascinating story, I’m not surprised Gullon chose to tell it. I also understand why certain details were changed but I think too much was messed about with, it felt muddled and it just didn’t work. It’s very strange to have a film look so good but to contain such bad acting and misjudged mood. It is, at times, quite remarkable, but it is also, at times, beyond dreadful. Watch it for Schwarzenegger’s performance only.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Dir: Bong Joon-ho
I’ll be honest, I would love to have seen Okja on the big screen rather than on my modest sized television set. I’m not going to get mixed up in the conversation on the various methods films are released by these days, I think the audience that saw the film at its Cannes Festival premiere said it all when they booed at the sight of Netflix’s logo but gave the film a four minute standing ovation. While I think how you watch a film is important, not just because of how it effects your enjoyment of it but also because it effects the future of cinema, I would argue that the quality of the film is first and foremost the most important part of any production. Joon-Ho Bong has been a favourite director of mine since I watched his mazing 2003 thriller Memories of Murder, his films have just got better and better ever since. Again, I was sad not to watch 2013’s Snowpiercer on the big screen but my goodness how he has developed as a storyteller over the years. As always in his films, there are several stories at play at one time and things are never quite as they may seem initially. The film is packed with nods to actual world events, organisations and social issues, but never directly challenges them. It’s never open to interpretation either, one must engage with the bigger story, as always audience participation will lead to a much more enjoyable experience in my personal opinion. It all starts in 2007’s New York, where Lucy Mirando has declared herself the new CEO of the Mirando Corporation. She succeeds her Grandfather, Father and twin sister, all whom are suggested to be deplorable characters. It seems this is a reinvention of a disliked company with a murky history. Mirando then announces that her company has developed the solution to world hunger and mass farming by breeding a super pig. The Pig is to be unveiled in a decades time, before then the super pig will be farmed by the world’s best twenty-six farmers from around the globe, employing their unique farming methods in a sort of trial to see who gets the best results and which climate suits the animal most. The word solution always instead of the word slaughter and the fact these animals are bred for food is always avoided. Cut ten years into the future and we find young Mija, playing happily with her pet super pig Okja in the mountainous countryside of South Korea. Mija lives with her grandfather, who is renowned as being South Korea’s best farmer and who got the chance to raise one of the baby super pigs ten years previous. After Mija’s parents died, Okja became her only friend and companion and the two have since become inseparable. When the super pig people visit them one day to talk figures, Mija is unphased as she knows that her grandfather bought Okja from the company years before – or so she thought. When the pompous and somewhat bizarre Zoologist and TV personality Johnny Wilcox turns up and declares Okja the winner of the super pig contest things take a turn for the worst for the bond between girl and pig. From there on in, the movie is a madcap adventure of espionage, animal rights activism and pure comedy, as well as some of the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. From early on in the movie, it is clear that Okja is an intelligent and caring animal and much more than a meal. While Okja is larger than most animals bred for consumption, it doesn’t look that alien in comparison. This is intentional. The fact is that many of the animals we eat are intelligent and caring, we eat them anyway. I’ve seen many food documentaries regarding ethics, vegetarianism, health benefits and hidden wrong-doing within the food production companies but never before has a film really made me consider vegetarianism. There is an argument to be have about the nature of the food chain etc but mass farming just isn’t natural and it certainly isn’t nice. It’s easy to see Okja as a fictional being, it does make the film that little more digestible (I’m so sorry) and more appealing but there is a frighteningly large amount of truth behind the comical chaos on screen. Certain scenes towards the end of the movie are incredibly upsetting and are of powerful but beautiful contrast to the rest of the film, done in a way only Joon-Ho Bong seems able to achieve, and is fast becoming his signature. Much like Snowpiercer, the cast is wonderfully eclectic. Young Ahn Seo-hyun carries the film brilliantly as Mija, she handles the mix of languages perfectly (not knowning how to speak English) and is totally convincing when interacting with Okja who is largely CGI. Tilda Swinton is wonderful as the eccentric Lucy Mirando and also plays her twin, for the second time in her career. Paul Dano is surprisingly suited as the leader of ALF – the Animal Liberation Front and Jake Gyllenhaal clearly relishes the opportunity of playing the crazed zoologist and TV personality Johnny Wilcox. It was nice to see Byun Hee-bong work with the director again after appearing in Memories of Murder and 2006’s The Host and Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik and Giancarlo Esposito make for quite a lively supporting cast. Okja doesn’t work on paper at all and the tone of the film is all over the place but this is a Joon-Ho Bong and all you need to know is that usual rules don’t apply and it’s going to be awesome. I loved every second.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Toni Erdmann
Dir: Maren Ade
Maren Ade's wonderfully original Toni Erdmann might just be my favourite film of 2016, as it managed to master the balance between two parallel emotions while hitting the peak of both - which is no easy feat - and because it is exactly the sort of film I've been wanting someone to make since 1995. Without wanting to take anything away from Maren Ade - and I'm really not - I see Toni Erdmann as the logical progression of the Dogme 95 movement. Sure the manifesto was broken by its own author, who was subsequently kicked out of the group, but I always thought the films were somewhat hampered by their own rules. For the most part they were profoundly beautiful, but they often tried too hard and some - Julien Donkey-Boy for instance - broke the rules anyway. Toni Erdmann could easily fit into the Dogme 95 guidelines, except for certain camera and sound techniques, as it is without genre and is without superficiality, indeed, it challenges both concepts. The contrast and relationship between happiness and sadness is age old and is rarely ever mastered. It is easy for a film to contain both emotions, although it is easier to get it wrong, but I would argue it is near impossible to display both feelings at the same time. The image of the crying clown comes to mind but actually it's not one that has ever had much effect on me, clowns being fictional. Toni Erdmann is fictional too but then he's not. He's a father called Winfried Conradi who desperately wants a relationship with his somewhat estranged daughter Ines. He adopts a clown-like character to get closer to her, which works as well as it could. Maren Ade's film suggests that, in a very un-Hollywood way, that sometimes there is no answer, distance (metaphorically speaking), no matter how hard you fight it, is something family will always have between them, but, you can still have moments. Joyous, wondrous, horrific, beautiful moments. Toni Erdmann will be one of the more bizarre films most people have ever seen and yet it is the most realistic and human film I can think of, the likes of which Hollywood and the mainstream just can't muster. I'm all about the magic of cinema but Toni Erdmann shows us the Majesty of the garden without us having to believe there are fairies living at the bottom of it. It resonated with me more than any other film I can think of. Where Dogme 95 films such as The Idiots and Festen were a bold mix of emotions, they, like many of the other Dogme 95 films, all ended with a punch. Lars von Trier once commented that a film should be like a stone in your shoe but Toni Erdmann is much more of a reassurance, an acknowledgment that people can relate to. It's like a nod from a stranger who recognizes that you have something in common, without the need to talk about it, it's no big deal but it's somewhat comforting. However, your reaction to the film's conclusion will be personal, it's not open to interpretation but certainly dependent on your viewpoint. I would describe the film as a comedy drama, although director and writer Maren Ade has suggested that it is a sad film, the comedy isn't really written with intentional humour. Laughter is often a natural reaction to something that might shock a person, something lazily exploited in TV and film, here it is far more subtle than that, we laugh at the nonsensical sadness of it all. In this respect I found Toni Erdmann to be something of a refreshing antidote to the now-typical awkward humour developed by Ricky Gervais's The Office and Friends (to some extent). Seinfeld is probably responsible too but when he did it it was cartoonish, extreme and very funny. This hyper-real awkward comedy is a cancer in contemporary TV and cinema and it is time people started rejecting it. There is an awkwardness to it, again as seen in the early Dogme 95 films, but it is real enough and tender enough, for it to be perfectly watchable, believable and dare I say it, enjoyable. Maren Ade understands the importance of silence, I can't think of anyone other than the brilliant Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller who could have portrayed estranged father and daughter better than they did but even then, Ade would have both actors perform 30-40 takes of each seen on average. This wasn't an improvised piece, every single second is used and absolutely nothing is wasted. Over one hundred hours was shot and Ade edited the film for a whole year, taking only a few weeks off in-between to give birth. Toni Erdmann himself is partly based on her own father, and also on Andy Kaufman's character Tony Clifton. The characters are there to reflect on the nature happiness, the conclusion being that life can, and often has to, get in the way. Maybe it's best that happiness is fleeting, it makes it more special, although seeing happiness as some sort of treat also feels wrong. It's an interesting thought, one that most people avoid, as no one really wants to admit it when they're unhappy. Ade said herself that desperation is the origin of comedy, and that really comes across, and the more serious the film, the funnier it becomes. I adore this film and love everything about it. The direction and editing is immaculate, the idea and the execution of it is brilliant and the performances from Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller are impeccable. This will be one of those rare films I revisit every few years or so, breaking my rule of never watching the same film twice, but I think it is important to remind yourself of things that strike you in profound ways and it'll also be a treat to look forward to. Instant classic.
What a Carve Up! (AKA No Place Like Homicide)
Dir: Pat Jackson
Pat Jackson’s murder mystery spoof is a brilliant send up of the genre with a classically British sense of humour. Made in 1961, I find the era to be something of a golden one, with the Carry On films on the rise, and films like School ForScoundrels, Two-Way Stretch, Make Mine Mink and the Pink Panther series taking over the throne from the Ealing Comedies that had come to an end in 1958. Loosely based on The Ghoul by Frank King, it’s perhaps a little closer to the book than the 1933 Boris Karloff adaptation but with plenty of British humour. The fact that the film is led by the brilliant Sid James and Kenneth Connor probably tells you everything you need to know and what to expect from the film. What a Carve Up! is a very British title but I’ve always preferred the title used for the American release: No Place Like Homicide. Connor plays Ernest, a proof-reader, who has become rather jumpy of late due to the amount of murder mystery horrors he’s had to read. Being of a nervous disposition anyway, a proud but scared-stiff Ernest won’t admit his fright to his straight-talking flat-mate Syd (played by Sid James) who pulls his leg at every given opportunity. The film is brilliant for the beginning, thanks to the chemistry between the two comics who were good friends in real life. When Everett Sloane (the brilliant Donald Pleasence), a solicitor representing Ernest’s estranged uncle, appears at the door requesting their presence at said uncle’s will reading, Ernest is both terrified and excited. Syd, never one to miss an opportunity, agrees to accompany him on the journey to Blackshore Towers, a feared house in the middle of the Yorkshire moors (a clichéd location for horror and thriller at the time). All of the haunted house clichés are sent up and made fun of but much of the humour is in the script rather than physical. Ernest’s estranged family are a mixed bunch of character, including; Guy Broughton (Dennis Price), an ex-officer, heavy drinker and son of the deceased; Guy's grasping sister Janet (Valerie Taylor); their senile aunt Emily (or is she?) played by Esma Cannon; their father Dr Edward Broughton (George Woodbridge); Ernest's cousin Malcolm Broughton, a piano player who claims everyone is "quite mad"; the late uncle’s nurse Linda Dixon (played by Shirley Eaton – three years before she would be painted head to foot in gold paint in Goldfinger) and Fisk, the house Butler, who is played by Michael Gough who would go on to play a much more famous Butler in the 90’s Batman films. The characters drop like flies one by one after the will reading declares that nobody gets anything and soon Ernest and Cyd are trying to work out who the killer is and how they can get the hell out of there. It is easy to see why the film was compared heavily to the early Carry On film, it stared four of their usual players and the humour was quite close but the similarities are limited. Besides, the humour of the Carry On films was largely down to the regulars, What a Carve Up! is a Sid James/Kenneth Connor film first and foremost. At one stage in the film the revealed murderer threatens to feed the surviving players to a pack of starving mongrels. 'Oh, blimey', smirks Syd, 'we're going to the dogs'. This sort of humour will either appeal to you or not, personally it is the stuff I was brought up on and I love and cherish it. The only thing that really dates it for me was the uncredited Adam Faith cameo. I know who Adam Faith was but I’m sure many kids today will have no idea. Other than that, it’s a great two-man show, with a fantastic supporting cast and plenty of wise-cracks. I love it.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée
I found 2014’s Wild rather excruciating. Along with Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret and Paul Haggis’s Crash, Wild has to be one of the most contrived films I’ve ever seen. I hate them all but I seem to be in the minority. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, it tells the story of a women (Cheryl Strayed) who decides to take on 1100 miles of the infamous 2650-mile trek as a form of self-healing and voyage of self-discovery. Strayed lost her mother, with whom she was very close, at a young age. She became depressed and self-destructive, turning to heroin and anonymous sex to help numb the pain. I’ll always have sympathy for those that have lost a loved one, especially at a young age and I can’t understand why people turn to drugs even though I haven’t. These people should be helped without judgment. A challenge (and indeed a great escape) can be the best form of escape. It can cleanse the mind and give a person time to think. I’m not a big fan of pop words such as ‘finding oneself’, ‘detoxing’ or ‘life-journey’ but I believe in what they are all referring to. One person’s 1100 mile trek could be another person’s painting, or poem, or fortnight off work visiting old friends, I get it and I have no problem with it. I haven’t read Strayed’s book though because, to be brutally honest, I don’t care. It’s her ‘journey’ after all and I don’t know her. I might be denying myself a masterwork of non-fiction but to be honest I have a huge list of books I want to read and Wild isn’t on it. I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and loved it, and sometimes you know when something can’t be beat. It’s okay though, “I can watch the film instead”, I thought. Strayed clearly had influence over the adaption, she and her daughter are in it after all, so the film makes me want to read her book even less. Did she want a fantastical version of her life rather than an honest one I wonder? I suppose I would, so it wasn’t too close to home, or creepy even, and I could still enjoy the money. I’m guessing this was the plan anyway. I’ve never seen such an unconvincing film in all my life. Reese Witherspoon was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress for this performance! Like the Academy needed more reasons to take them less seriously. Aside from the fact that Witherspoon looks around nine years younger than Laura Dern who plays her mother (because she is only nine years younger than her) the only emotions she seems to have mastered are screaming and looking vaguely upset. She’s Hollywood’s star pupil from the Joey Tribbiani School of ‘smell the fart’ acting. And it worked! Life imitating satire. I can believe that someone could turn to drugs and a self-destructive lifestyle after the loss of a loved one, I’ve seen it, it happens all the time but Jean-Marc Vallee has made it feel like a contrived notion, a ridiculous and unbelievable turn of events. I thought the direction was dreadful, full of clichés and Witherspoon’s performance was horribly bad. The feigned journey continued, with genius acts of method, for instance; Jean-Marc Vallee wouldn’t let Witherspoon read the instructions for her tent or her stove so that all the frustrations we see on screen ARE REAL. He wouldn’t let her look at a mirror either, so she could simply concentrate on the performance. She could have just acted, wore make-up and do all the things most successful actresses do but no, this was Reese’s 1100 mile trek, not Cheryl whatshername’s. Witherspoon has since said that Wild was the most difficult and intense film of her career, considering the sex sequences and the mood of the story. It didn’t stop her from plugging her own film (Gone Girl – she was producer) in certain scenes and, without wanting to sound nasty, it did feel like she was only going nude in a desperate attempt to be popular once more. She didn’t need to go naked and it added nothing to the film or indeed her integrity. I’m no prude but I admit I’m a little cynical about these things. I dare say she wanted a challenge but really, is nudity the best you could do? It’s not like it’s her first time anyway. If you can’t act like you’re frustrated, pushed to the limits or in turmoil without actually putting yourself through frustrations, pushing yourself to the limit and tormenting yourself, then I would argue that you’re not much of an actor. I feel I learned very little about Strayed, why she really fell apart and why she gave everything up to go on her walk. I don’t really know how she felt going through her journey, probably because we saw very little of it in the scheme of things but still, the relief of finishing the journey and making plans there and then really told me nothing of her mental state in reality. Did she really see a red fox wherever she went, did she really perceive every male see encountered as a possible rapist and did Vallee think that if he stuck enough beautiful landscapes into the film we wouldn’t be able to see that there is a huge void were there should be depth?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2
Dir: Chad Stahelski
John Wick: Chapter 2 does the best thing John Wick: Chapter 2 could have done and starts just four days after the events of John Wick: Chapter 1. This means that not a second is wasted, we already know the premise, we can just get back to the story – and most importantly – back to the action. However, it is a tad too action-heavy for my liking and I began to suffer fight fatigue fairly early on. The first half of the film is like watching a first-person shooter video game. Actually, it looks exactly like the first-person shooter video game Payday 2, a game that came out just after the first film that featured John Wick as a playable character. The film is full of Payday 2 references and indeed, if you are a player of said game, there will be times when you may zone out and forget whether you’re watching or playing. There are only a certain amount of times that you can watch Keanu Reeves punch-punch-kick-shoot-in-head before it gets somewhat repetitive. That certain amount of time being around 20 minutes in my case. The anticipation I felt in the first half of the film was dampened very quickly, I was neither entertained nor captured as I was with the first film. However, the second half got its act together quite quickly and all those wonderful flashes of originality and flare from the first film returned with added extras. John Wick really isn’t about the story, it’s about the details and the little extras – we don’t care about the revenge side of the story, or indeed the fighting most of the time, it’s the way he fights and how he gets away with it that makes it interesting. There is a silent scene between Reeves and Common that involves silenced handguns in public that is as quick and it is quirky, but it is over before you even know it has started and I absolutely loved that about it. There is quite a lot more imagery in the second chapter, everything seems to have a deeper meaning, like this film has been written with a follow up film in mind, much more so than the first. The impact of the first will of course never be bettered, you can only reveal the same thing once, but the secret hitman society does grow somewhat here but is never overused. It’s all good, with Wick’s first ‘job’ ending in a scene that is far more powerful than expected for an action packed thriller. It is a stunning scene in fact, totally unexpected and rather profound for the genre. Then I found there was something of a glitch in the matrix. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the second half, it was very exciting, hugely entertaining and it made me excited for the next chapter, but it felt like a program that Morpheus might have run for Neo as a training exercise. Director Chad Stahelski was Reeve’s stunt double on the Matrix series and some much of the dialogue between Reeves and Laurence Fishburne was straight out of the Wachowskis’ script. It gets worse - *spoiler alert - One of the last scenes of the movie, in which John Wick meets Ian McShane’s Winston at the Bethesda Fountain in New York's Central Park after Winston tells John that he is excommunicated and has lost all privileges. John asks why he is not dead already and Winston then signals one of his subordinates, who says "now" into a phone, causing every citizen in the park to freeze and look to John. This is exactly the same as the scene in The Matrix where Morpheus talks to Neo about every citizen being a possible enemy; Neo notices an agent behind him and Morpheus tells the operator to freeze the program, causing every person in the scene to freeze in place. It even takes place next to a huge fountain. Which makes me think that the John Wick trilogy of films actually takes place between Matrix 2-3 and is a training program. Either that or the Wachowskis need to get on the phone to their lawyers – if they haven’t already. It is a blatant copy, but I don’t really care personally, as I had nothing to do with either film, as a viewer I actually loved it, without condoning plagiarism of course. At its worst it is a very easy action film to watch and at best it’s a great action film with unique flare. The third chapter needs to pull out a few more tricks to keep the series interesting but all in all I liked it. It also stars Django himself Franco Nero and a Peter Stormare cameo, two things I love when they happen.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Dir: M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan's 2017 thriller Split came with many surprises, all of which were pleasant ones. The first thing that struck me was just how great a director he is, it's something I'm afraid I had forgotten, but some of the scenes in Split are incredible. He ventures into the realms of classic thriller and ups the game somewhat. Many of the visuals can be associated/attributed to classics from directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Stanley Kubrick and even a bit of Jacques Tourneur. We see long corridors, the viewpoint from a keyhole and attacks from a bird's-eye view but Shyamalan brings all these - dare I say Cliches - to life. There is one particular pull-back chase scene that is worth watching the film for on its own. It is fair to say this is the first visually exciting film from M. Night Shyamalan since 2004's The Village. There aren't so many literal nods to classic thrillers than there are notable acknowledgments, but these are super subtle. Although Betty Buckley has collaborated with Shyamalan before in 2008's The Happening, her brilliant performance is made just that extra special when you let yourself be reminded that she played Ms Collins in Brian de Palma's 1976 horror classic Carrie. Ms Collins and Dr. Karen Fletcher are similar in many ways, showing kindness to the troubled lead character that changes the course of their development in some way. Buckley brings a bit of old school to the film that enriches it no end. It's clear that Shyamalan has thought long and hard about the film's tone and I think he's balanced the mix of classics - ranging from 50s classic to 70s classic - and modern thriller perfectly. There is some weight to the idea that representing a character, who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, as a dangerous person is somewhat offensive to mental illness suffers and it does fuel the stigma they often have attached to them. However, it's all part of a much bigger story, it's great fiction with an element of scientific truth attached to it, although this is taken to extremes. At first the film seems to be a simple kidnap/escape, serial killer meets young girls in captivity yarn but is so much more than that. Kevin, the DID sufferer, is never really in the shadows as most comparable movie characters are. His condition is explored and explained and he is on screen for most of the film. The psychology behind the condition is explored rather intelligently all things considered, sure the overall message is an extreme one but it would be a boring thriller if it weren't and the idea that those that have suffered are the more evolved has a lot of truth to it. It's a brilliant piece of writing. However, Shyamalan has always been more than clever writing and fancy visuals, it's true his last few films previous to Split haven't been of the highest quality but this hasn't, in my opinion, been down to said writing or visuals, instead, it's because of the lack of what made him a big name in cinema in the first place - the twist. By the time The Village - his fourth major feature following The Sixth Sense - was released, his signature twists were expected. While they were largely enjoyed, there were always critics who suggested Shyamalan was a one trick pony, and The Village seemed to be the last straw for many people. Personally, I think The Village's twist was and is still his best to date, once he ditched the twist his films suffered. Split has two twists, which I think is something of a bold statement from the director. He's back doing what he does best, it's a fiercely confident film and is all the better for it. Now it should be said that one of the main reasons the film is successful is because James McAvoy is superb. I'm glad he replaced Joaquin Phoenix, I like JP but I can't see him doing this part justice, not in the way that McAvoy did. In many ways the film didn't need two twists, the first is fine, the film stands on its own, but Shyamalan wanted back in the big time and did something a bit special. This is when I should announce that the rest of the review may contain spoilers. The clues were there, as they often are in Shyamalan's films, although you only realize this at the end - which I love about him, but at the end of the film it is revealed that Split is in fact a sort-of sequel to 2000's Unbreakable. Shyamalan wanted to make Split fifteen year previously but decided to wait, and it was well worth it. We had actually seen Kevin as a child in Unbreakable, Bruce Willis's David Dunn found out about his abuse back then, so to see him return before the end credits was something of an unexpected thrill, the likes I haven't experienced in quite a while. You could suggest that Shyamalan wanted back in on the popularity of the superhero genre, his Kevin twist being close to what has been seen recently in Spiderman:Homecoming, but it is worth remembering that Unbreakable was made eight years before the first Iron Man film and the idea behind Split was already thought of before Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 came out, before it was rebooted as The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2, and before Homecoming. Unbreakable also predated Chronicle by twelve years, so it is safe to say Unbreakable lead the way forward for superhero and alternative superhero films. Another film in the series has already been announced, combining the characters from both films. Is a sequel of a previous popular film a lazy move by Shyamalan though? No, I don't think so, I think it's a risky move, a bold move and a brilliant move, but certainly not lazy. Throw in the characters from The Village too I say, have them all fight the aliens from Signs, with the help of a grown up Cole Sear of course - just keep Will Smith, his son and Mark Wahlberg away from it and I'll watch it with enthusiasm and anticipation. Superhero films are overdone, twists can become boring and cliched characters can be tiresome, but not when Shyamalan's on top form. He's just made things interesting again.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Nocturnal Animals
Dir: Tom Ford
I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that Tom Ford packs away his pencil and sewing machine and concentrates solely on film making from now on. 2016’s Nocturnal Animals is a stunning adaptation of Austin Wright’s bestselling 1993 novel Tony and Susan, a celebration of art, melancholy and revenge, set within the boundaries of a fictional psychological thriller. This is neo-neo-noir film making, the bar has been raised and every thriller made hereafter had better up their game or not even bother. Ford has refined the original story for the film, getting rid of inconsequential sub-plots and unimportant characters. Personally, I think it is a vast improvement. Inspired by the concept of communicating through a work of written fiction, and so communicating something that had not been able to be communicated clearly in real life, Ford takes the film into the realms of symbolism, much of which is assessable to all and some that will keep you guessing long after the film is over.  Ford is an artist and designer, it’s pretty hard to miss in his film but more than that, he implants the film with art and artistic references to dictate the mood and tone of the scene. I’m a bit of an art fan, so for me half the fun was spotting the works – Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog was an easy one, placed in a rather sad scene where it was as a sarcastic comment on regret and the long passing of anything that could be associated with joy. Aaron Curry’s piece was also easy to spot, although I’m still not sure of its purpose. The same goes for Alexander Calder’s mobile, although that just fits its setting well and who doesn’t want a Calder mobile in their movie? I spotted a glorious bottom, curtesy of John Currin (the film is full of ladies bottoms that sort of tie the past, present and fictional elements of the story together) and Mark Bradford’s piece, specially made for the film, is unlike a lot of signature styled piece but works perfectly for the film, spelling out exactly what it is all about, quite literally (revenge). The opening title sequence is a sort of art installation itself, which sees a group of rather obese and rather naked middle-aged ladies dressed as majorettes (hat and stick only) who wiggle provocatively at the screen. It’s like an anti-James Bond intro, that will put off a huge chunk of viewers from the beginning. Once the opening scene is over, we see the footage as a backdrop to an art exhibition, that is a cross between the work of Ron Mueck and Lucian Freud, the works ‘Dead Dad’ and ‘ Benefits Supervisor resting’ immediately springing to mind. The character responsible for the work in the film feels it is of no value and comments that it is shallow but Ford is making a comment or indeed, isn’t insulting the art – far from it, he is suggesting that art is subjective, it depends on the viewer and to a lesser extent, art is in the eye of the beholder – as is everything. As the fictional story within the main story imitates life, as does art and vice versa. The actual past, actual present and the fictional are all connected in some way, Ford depicts this with visual flare but mostly with colour (and ladies bottoms as previously pointed out). His use of emerald green is fascinating, classically it is believed, by the Chinese, Christians and Muslims, to be the colour most representative of new life, regeneration and hope. However there are a number of conflicting associations related to this colour, some of which are considerably less positive. Whilst it may often be seen as a colour of hope, in some circumstances green is also seen as a symbol of hopelessness and despair. Furthermore, under certain circumstances in traditional Greek theatre a dark green sea has menacing connotations, and similarly in Japanese theatre evil or sinister figures were often clothed in blue, one of the primary additive hues that are combined to make green. In the stylish neo-noir pulp fiction of the 40s and 50s it generally meant ‘desirable but dangerous’, the new red as it were. Again, it’s about perspective. The conclusion is beautifully ambiguous but I would argue that all of the typical theories I’ve heard so far could be true. I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the lack of closure, it suited the story perfectly. There are so many levels to the story, so many emotions at play, you’d be forgiven for not picking up on all of them in one sitting, indeed, this is a film to think about long after you’ve watched and I challenge anyone not to, whether they want to or not. I wasn’t sold on the cast immediately but I didn’t take long to change my mind, Amy Adams’ performance might just be her best yet and Jake Gyllenhaal was continually convincing. It was a shame to see so little of Michael Sheen and Armie Hammer but they are good in their supporting roles and Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes for quite the bad guy. Laura Linney has a very brief scene but the interaction between her and Amy Adams was particularly powerful, you could almost believe they were mother and daughter arguing with each other. However, it is Michael Shannon who steals the show as Detective Bobby Andes. Ford’s ability to produce a complicated concept with immaculate fluidity is outstanding. To do it with such decadence, without distracting the audience, is remarkable. The finished product is exciting but excruciating, brutal yet beautiful. It incorporates varying opinion, ideology to some degree, and the idea that one man’s success is another man’s failure. Revenge and regret are dissected and reassembled, an idea is deconstructed and complicated in equal measure, although the story is easy to follow. It’s far more assessable than I’ve probably made out, it’s extremely clever and rich in flavour, romance can be bleak and selfishness can be close to selflessness. Something for everyone then and joint ‘most beautiful’ film of 2016 along with The Neon Demon.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Dir: Oliver Stone
My first reaction to the announcement that Oliver Stone was going to make a biographical movie about infamous whistle-blower Edward Snowden was ‘why’? CitizenFour - Laura Poitras’s ground-breaking interview with Snowden as he revealed himself (but not his location) to the world was only released in 2014, why a dramatization of the events just two years later? Why a dramatization of events at all? However, a short time into the film it clicked. We all know who Edward Snowden is, we know something about his career and we certainly know what he did, but actually, the general public really doesn’t know anything about him at all, least of all the sacrifice he made and what lead him to turn on everything he had ever worked towards. He has been painted by the UC government as a bad guy, an anti-American, unpatriotic and a traitor, but actually, he’s something of a modern day hero. The script is based partly on Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena which is in turn based on interviews with Snowden but is fictional, but it’s mainly based on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. It’s very much the sort of film you expect from Oliver Stone these days, political as always but without too much dramatization, it’s never over cooked, somewhere between documentary and reconstruction, albeit featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It’s a classy political thriller, if he’d written it as a fictional piece back in the 90s it would be just as exciting, but knowing it is the truth gives it gravitas, the fact you know Stone can be trusted with the facts even more so. I feel Stone has highlighted the history and long-term effect of Snowden’s actions for those who read about it and treated it as that particular day’s news. CitizenFour came out in 2014 and it is right that the story be revisited and the public reminded about what is going on and how it will affect them and the course of history. Okay, so it should be said that Stone did try and force Laura Poitras to delay the release of CitizenFour as he felt a big feature would have more impact – she took offense and didn’t speak to him again – but one wonders whether he was right. In any case, the situation will transcend presidents, senators and governments, the less it is discussed the worse things are. I’m the sort of person that feels such subjects should be covered in balanced documentaries but as investigative documentaries are becoming more and more emotionally manipulative (and dangerous) maybe it’s better that history is played out in Hollywood by well-known actors of the day – so long as it sticks to the facts of course. Stone is one of very few directors who can be trusted, he was accused of being apathetic after his 2008 biopic W - about George W. Bush – even though he called him the second worst president of all time after Richard Nixon. When you can’t please everyone on such subjects, it means you’re balanced. The turn of events in Snowden are very easy to follow, Stone doesn’t use unnecessary trickery in terms of narrative or editing, the story is told in order of events and is fluid. Stone met with Snowden several times before working on the script, both men had their doubts about it – Snowden didn’t know how he felt about a film made of his life and relationships and Stone was working on another controversial subject at the time, about the last few years in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and did not immediately wish to tackle a project as incendiary again. However, Stone soon got engrossed with the story, met with parties involved and was pushed by a need to address certain wrongs. He made a valid point when he said "It's a very strange thing to do [a story about] an American man, and not be able to finance this movie in America. And that's very disturbing, if you think about its implications on any subject that is not overtly pro-American. They say we have freedom of expression; but thought is financed, and thought is controlled, and the media is controlled. This country is very tight on that, and there's no criticism allowed at a certain level. You can make movies about civil rights leaders who are dead, but it's not easy to make one about a current man." Stone ended up having to fund the film himself after all American companies who agreed to finance it pulled out for fear of seeming unpatriotic. Due to fear of interference by the National Security Agency, Stone decided to shoot the film mostly outside of the United States. Most of the filming was done in Germany, with German and French support, because of fears of the film leaking, Stone employed self-described ethical hacker Ralph Echemendia as a technical supervisor, and made sure all cast and crew used a secure chat-and-file-sharing program and he wrote the script on an older computer that didn’t have internet connection. It is a frightening and ridiculous situation, although I bet Stone was in his element. Joseph Gordon-Levitt met with Snowden and was cast almost immediately, Snowdon’s parents commented to him during a private screening that his portrayal of their son was perfect, something that he later cited as the most meaningful encouragement he has ever received for a performance. The actor pledged to donate his entire salary from the film to "help facilitate the conversation" about the relationship between technology and democracy. He is perfect for the role and seems to be the go to actor when you need a documentary made into a feature film (he even acknowledged this and also compered Snowden to Philippe Petit whom he portrayed the year before in The Walk (based in Man on Wire). Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson play Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill respectively in the Hong Kong hotel scenes, Leo and Wilkinson are convincing but I thought Quinto overcooked his performance slightly. The rest of the supporting cast are good and while Rhys Ifans actually plays a character who is an amalgamation of real people (undisclosed for good reason) his is the films stand out performance. His name O’Brian is a nod to a main character called O’Brian of the thought police from George Orwell’s 1984. Nicolas Cage played another character who was an amalgamation of real people but inspired mostly on NSA whistleblower William Binney. Cage is said to have taken the part as a favour to Stone but surely it was the other way around? Pay the man for goodness sake, although he isn’t great and he has become something of a distraction in everything he’s in these days. Overall the performances are good, particularly from Gordon-Levitt. It’s probably one of Oliver Stone’s most important works, although it will never be deemed as iconic as Wall Street or Platoon. The critics loved it but it was the lowest opening for a film Stone had made to date. When it comes to patriotism people are deaf and blind, many have made their mind’s up without even wanting to listen to the facts, their rights be damned. It’s a must see film that should be followed by CitizenFour if you haven’t already seen it, I just fear not enough people are listening or concentrating on what is happening around them. Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it, Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.