Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Beauty and the Beast
Dir: Bill Condon
2017
**
Disney enjoyed something of a renaissance in the early 90s and I would be lying if I told you I didn’t enjoy some of it. Aladdin was the film I liked most, I was in my mid-teens and very anti-Disney but I couldn’t help but fall for its charms. I enjoyed Beauty & the Beast a lot less but out of the many Disney videos my younger sister had (and watched 24/7), it was one of a few (Aladdin, Little Mermaid being the others) that I didn’t mind watching with her. You can’t argue with the songs and it is easy to see why kids – and adults – enjoy it and why it has since become something of a classic. Disney have made quite a few animated films since and few are as good. However, the 1991 film is an abomination as far as adaptations go, it is another example of Disney rewriting classic literature and stamping their brand on it. It’s not just kids who are fooled, there are many adults today who think Uncle Walt wrote such stories as Pinocchio, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid etc. How a company can rewrite the real life story of a sex slave into a romantic kids cartoon (Pocahontas) is beyond me, to then sell her as one of their ‘Disney Princesses’ and make money from associated tat is nothing short of amoral. I’m as anti-Disney as I was in my teens but I will admit when they make a great film but like anything, when you make a copy of an earlier copy that is itself a copy, you lose quality. Don’t misunderstand me, Disney spared no expense on making the live-action version of their 1991 animated hit, but this is about as shallow and superficial as cinema gets. I’m sure the super fans loved it and I’m sure those not so obsessed with it did too, indeed it is one of the most profitable films of all time, certainly the most profitable musical of all time. It’s important to remember though that ‘most profitable’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘best’ but I will admit, the songs are catchy and I don’t hate them. As far as I can tell, the story is 90% 1991’s Beauty & the Beast, 5% the musical adaptation and aspects of 1997’s Beauty & the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas making up the other 5%. Why you would incorporate bits of a straight to VHS Disney money making load of old rubbish sequel is anyone’s guess, but I suppose it shows you just how big the fan base is. It is fair to say that certain aspects of the 1991 have been changed for the better. The song "Be Our Guest" in the animated original specifically mentions the time period of ten years regarding the rose that acts as a reminder/time setter for the Beast to act upon his curse. The final petal of the enchanted rose was to fall when the prince turned 21, if he hadn’t found love by this point the curse would stick forever. This would make him 11 at the time of the curse and wouldn’t make any sense, so removing this – and other oddities make for an improvement, but then these are somewhat ruined by constantly misplaced references. Many Disney films are nodded at, which would have been fine if they hadn’t overdone it, surely this obsession with finding ‘hidden Mickeys’ distracts from the story, no wonder kids have no attention span these days. Other musicals receive tribute, Cabaret and Singing in the rain being the most obvious, and so is the less obvious Moulin Rouge, purely for the sake that Ewan McGregor is in it. Likewise, there are countless nods to the Harry Potter films, purely because of Emma Watson. As proud as I’m sure she is of the series, I’m sure she’d like not to be typecast for the rest of her life. Why wouldn’t she want to be Belle, her childhood favourite, she made a heap of money from it but I do wonder if the fact she turned down La la Land for this will be a future regret. Ryan Gosling was wise to not make the same mistake and took the La la Land job over the role as the Beast. However, in interviews with Watson and director Bill Condon, it seems Watson had quite an influence in the film’s production. She insisted on the inclusion of her friend and screenwriter Stephen Chbosky for the film’s scriptwriting, had a big say in the costumes and totally changed her character, making herself the inventor instead of her father, giving Kevin Kline very little to do. She clearly wanted Belle to be independent and a role model for younger girls – which is very admirable – but this was probably the wrong place to do it. I admire her a lot but La Belle et la Bete was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1740 to prepare young girls in 18th century France for arranged marriage, I don’t think you can get around that ideology. Watson wisely dismissed ideas of Stockholm Syndrome as an excuse and set about empowering Belle by updating aspects of her character and the story but I personally think she’s only amplified the power disparity between her and the beast. Without wanting to sound unkind, I think she’s convinced herself she has succeeded in something she hasn’t. She says she based part of her performance on Katherine Hepburn, but I can’t see it. I admire her good intensions but she needs to fight harder, her casting as Belle was considered fortuitous by the producers and the studio unanimously decided that she was the only choice because the character is considered the fairy tale, classical-period equivalent of her signature role of Hermione Granger. She needs to take a page out of Daniel Radcliffe’s book and star in a serial killer movie (as the serial killer) quick! I liked that Belle's town is named Villeneuve, after "Beauty and the Beast" author and I love that it fittingly translates as Newtown but it’s just not enough. It’s great that Disney are producing films that show a more diverse cast with interracial relationships and homosexual characters but it is far too forced here and I don’t think it really helps the cause. The problem is that they talked it up too much and made it a thing, where they should have just added it and carried on, as civil rights and fair representation never needs an excuse to exist, it just should without discussion. I’d like to live in a world where cinema reclaims classic literature from Disney. Remaking your own animated adaptation, that is even more ‘animated’ than that animated film, and calling it something new is ridiculous, and I hope the trend is short lived. Bizarrely it was Condon who insisted on the film being a musical and Disney were pretty hands off to begin with. However, after time they got more involved, Jean Dujardin (a real Frenchman) was dropped for Ewan McGregor and his Jamaican accent, the wolves were given scars, and every cliché and stereotype came out of the woodwork. To think Watson was previously set to star in Guillermo del Toro’s dark Beauty and the Beast that was set up at Warner Bros. What could have been. It is fair to say that one of the reasons I disliked so much is because I consider Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation to be one of the most beautiful films ever made. It is cinematic perfection, the 2017 version just shows how far the art has wandered.

Justice LeagueGods and Monsters
Dir: Sam Liu
2015
***
I’m a big fan of DC’s Elseworld one shots, there is no way they could ever be adapted into live action films (although I can think of a few that really should be), so animated versions are very welcome. That said, Justice League: Gods and Monsters was an alternative reality one step too far for me. I’m a nerd, a DC nerd at that, but I couldn’t help but think that there are plenty of characters and situations available within the comics, without having to come up with some of the nonsense in this particular episode. There were aspects I loved, for instance, I thought the idea that Zod would mix his ‘seed’ with Lara’s (Superman’s mum) ‘egg’ just before his famous journey to earth was fascinating. In this version of reality Kryptonians don’t seem to conceive the traditional way but through blood and high-tech computers, so Lara isn’t raped as such (Alan Moore didn’t write it) but superman is half Zod and half her, making him something of a superhero with mixed ethics. Batman isn’t Bruce Wayne either, instead he is Dr. Kirk Langstrom (otherwise known as Man-Bat), a scientist who inadvertently transformed himself into a Vampire when trying to cure himself of cancer – he literally eats bad guys for breakfast. Wonder Woman completes the alternative trinity but in this version she is Bekka, a new god and the widow of Darkseed’s son Orion, who was killed, along with his whole family, by Bekka’s side during the wedding reception. The Apokolips family had it coming to be fair, but seeing them all attend a traditional wedding was the sort of thing I love and also hate about DC comics. On earth, the three are sort of anti-heroes, with Lex Luther seemingly the planet’s voice of reason. Luther now lives in space as his legs don’t work and he’s bored of the planet. Many other DC character appear, most are only slightly different than they are usually, while others are pretty much the same. Steve Trevor still has a thing with Wonder Woman but their relationship here is a little more feisty; Mr Freeze, Doctor Light, Atom, Bumblebee, Steel, Cyborg, and Mr Terrific among many, appear but only as their normal selves and not in their ‘super’ personas, while the likes of Amanda Waller and Louis Lane are the same except Waller is president and Lane has no romantic link with Superman. While the new Batman and new Wonder Woman have fairly interesting origin stories, there isn’t much to the new Superman’s, which lets the story down somewhat. The conclusion is ridiculous and for most of the film it’s purely a matter of working out who is who in the alternative reality. The new characters aren’t all that interesting to be honest, their relationship with the people of earth and their position there could have been explored in a much better way and it’s still a mystery as to how they all got together in the first place, although I can’t say I really cared while watching. The best thing about the animated film was the violence. I quite liked the ridiculous conclusion too but it would have been half as rich if it weren’t for the unexpected flashes of brutal violence. This is most certainly not for kids and all the better for it. The animation is pretty simple, DC do rush their animations out fairly quickly and I wish they’d take their time a little more but he voice work is great and the script is okay, apart from a few unfortunate references to modern culture and a few unnecessary rude bits. Far from DCs best animation but an indication that they are finally open to exploring new things, adapting one shots and Elseworlds and making films for the true fans and not just kids who don’t read the comics.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Trespass Against Us
Dir: Adam Smith
2016
**
When I was first made aware that Michael Fassbender, Sean Harris and Brendan Gleeson were going to star in a Gypsie crime thriller directed by the guy who made all of The Chemical Brother’s best music videos, I was pretty much sold. So when I did finally get round to watching it, I felt utterly let down by all the false promise. Director Adam Smith clearly didn’t want to insult the traveller community and made a point to show the characters as a very unique family, with gypsy roots but in no part representative of their culture. He does this badly. He presents an unrealistic situation and unbelievable characters and probably insults when trying hard to do the opposite. The accents are wrong, the clothes are wrong, the way of life is wrong and what they get away with is ridiculous, absolutely none of the story can be taken seriously. Serious scenes are met with moments of comedy, but it’s never clear whether said comedy is actually intentional or not. An intense and emotional scene involving the disappearance of two children is followed by light-hearted and humorous religious dialogue and an inbred/mentally unstable man (your guess is as good as mine) painted blue. I can only imagine that Smith is going for quirky, but the reality is that the film is a mess. Smith seems hell bent on making a cult indie but he just can’t help himself and throws in all of the clichés of modern British cinema. Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of a police officer with a personal vendetta against the family is dreadful. It’s now a stereotype character and is always played by the same sort of actors (I’m guessing Rafe Spall was busy that month). I will give Brendan Gleeson the benefit of the doubt and suggest he did the best with what he was given, his character gets all the best lines and each one is delivered perfectly, it’s just a shame they made him do comedy after such serious themes are explored. Michael Fassbender never looks as if his heart is in it, it’s far from his best performance but I can see how he thought it could be. The idea isn’t that bad, it really is the direction that lets the whole production down. Sean Harris, the most petrifying actor in the UK, it utterly wasted, as are the supporting cast of talented and familiar faces. I think this is the real issue I had with the film, it should have been an intense thriller, Brendan Gleeson’s character should have been terrifying and the overly sentimental conclusion should have been binned. It needed to pick a style and stuck to it, instead of trying its hand at nearly every genre you can think of, except for a few that actually they could have considered. Nothing was of substance. For example, there is a scene whereby a few of the community go on a joy-ride mission, to send a message to the police. They paint the car bright yellow, apart from a slight gap on the windscreen. The scene adds nothing to the film and makes very little sense to the overall story, but in Smith’s mind I’m sure he could see it on a classic film poster one day, his version of the Italian Job’s three Mini Coopers, destined to be an iconic moment in modern British history. It’s meaningless, unconvincing in every aspect, never engaging and somewhat lethargic. Luckily for all involved, it’s also rather forgettable.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Europa Report
Dir: Sebastián Cordero
2013
**
I have mixed feelings about ‘Found footage’ movies. The Blair Witch Project is massively overrated, the best example of how great it can be – and the biggest influence in the sub-genre as far as I can tell – is Remy Belvaux’s 1992 cult hit Man Bites Dog although you could argue the brilliant (and misunderstood) Cannibal Holocaust was the first. While Troll Hunter and Cloverfield utilised the method rather splendidly, the now overused technique seems stuck in Paranormal Activity hell, with only the VHS series remaining watchable and vaguely original. It seems baffling to me, considering we are a society that is now recorded 24 hours a day from every angle no matter where we are, that film makers still struggle to think of new ideas or how to incorporate home footage and CCTV into their films. I have thought of several situation where this method of filming could be utilised, and without wanting to shout ‘I thought of it first’ (because I didn’t), I had thought of space – or more specifically, a space ship – as the perfect place to make such a film. Europa Report does everything a good found footage film should do, with each CCTV shot looking authentic and unstaged. However, it incorporates these scenes into a sort of post-event documentary that just doesn’t work at all. A good found footage film – indeed, a good horror/thriller/mystery film in general – leaves the conclusion to the imagination of the audience. Again, the only time actual narration of film footage has worked is in the sub-genre’s granddaddy, the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust. It’s like watching someone narrating through sign language at the corner of the screen when you’re not actually deaf, but with condescension. Europa Report should have been 2001: A CCTV Odyssey, instead it was like watching a bunch of inept astronauts, clumsily killing themselves until accidently landing their ship on an octopus nest. The big alien reveal is astonishingly anticlimactic, I had wondered whether the film would link with Gareth Edward’s brilliant 2010 movie Monsters (his aliens looked similar and came from Europa) but alas it was merely a coincidence. I say coincidence, but the truth of the matter is that Europa Report looks like so many spaceship horror films, I’m not sure it’s the appropriate word. While the visuals are polished and the pace is reassuringly slow, the fact is that they can’t even get the clichés right. At no point did I think I was watching footage of a group of astronauts in space, for me it was six actors, in a room, pretending to be in space. There was no illusion and certainly no magic. I felt nothing when one of them died, not because I’m a cold hearted crocodile, but because the film never connected with me on an emotional level. I can’t say I cared much for the characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey (my favourite space movie) but it was full of mystery, intrigue and possibilities. Europa Report has zero intrigue, little mystery and squanders any of the many possibilities it could have explored. You can’t blame any of this on a lack of budget (I would like to suggest John Carpenter’s Dark Star as an example), this is all about the writing – or lack of it. It’s one thing not to try but it’s another to not even pretend they did. All the ‘silent in space’ scenes were used when they ran out of script and when there was dialogue and longed for the eerie silence that only space can deliver. The visuals weren’t all bad but all the best scenes were ruined by the fake narrative ‘talking head’ interviews from mission control back on earth. It was terrifying when we first discovered that in space no one can hear you scream. Less terrifying when we found out that actually, people can, and you have to listen to their commentary of it and their emotionless fake crying. It wastes a brilliant cast too.
George BestAll by Himself
Dir: Daniel Gordon
2016
***
I have to admit I’m not the biggest football (soccer) fan in the world and when I think of George Best I generally think of alcoholism, Liver transplants, the British tabloids and his celebrity-hungry ex-wife and son before I think of his talent, success and what he did for Manchester United and British football in general. Pele (regarded as the best player in the world) once called Best ‘The best player in the world’ and after the tragic event of the Munich air crash which lead to the death of half the Manchester United team, Best breathed new life into the beautiful game, some say saving it, but certainly popularising it and making it hip for the first time but whether or not you think that’s a good thing or not is up to you. Best was the original David Beckham in terms of celebrity footballer, far more talented, as Beckham would admit himself, but certainly the first footballer to be treated like a rock star – Beatle-style. Best’s skill and determination lead his team to win league titles and the European cup, something the club wanted and British football needed after the air disaster of 1953 that was part of the then new European league and before players would play for teams outside of their own countries. He did so much when he was still only a teenager, it’s now understandable how it became a little too much for him to cope with and you can see it happening time and time again to sportsman, musicians and anyone who reaches success and fame early on in life. In many respects, Best was the first of his kind and the odds were always against him. Director and producer duo Daniel Gordon and John Battsek team up once more and deliver an insightful biography but I think hard-core George Best fans will probably only enjoy the first half which features some of his greatest goals and unseen interviews and I’m not sure anyone can truly ‘enjoy’ the second half, which delves into his loneliness, alcoholism and fall from grace. Surprisingly his first love and two ex-wives have only nice things to say about him, each clearly feeling some regret and sadness that they couldn’t save him – not that anyone could. His first love Ani Rinchen is now a Buddhist Nun, which she attributes in part to being thrown into the public spotlight at a very young age – it seems you can go either one of two ways. The second half of the film is a look into the perils of fame and success, and it is deeply unpleasant. George Best was a lovely boy who turned into something of a monster when under the influence of booze. There is no excusing the fact that he destroyed his donated liver with booze after he had destroyed his own but it does show you the harsh reality of addiction. Best certainly didn’t hate life, but what he couldn’t live without killed him. It’s an old and sadly common story but there is an element of resentment in watching someone who has enjoyed so much success throw their lives away. Many people suffer from alcoholism and have never been successful, indeed, their addiction can generally come from a lack of it and the complete opposite spectrum, and it feels a little more understandable, at least, it is easier to feel more sympathy. I understand addiction more than I do football but I have no time for either in my life, this story should be about football but you can’t talk about the player without addressing his well-known problems, so I was left wondering who it was really for. I’m not saying we should never talk about George Best – far from it, but in terms of entertainment I found it altogether a little too tragic to enjoy and then felt bad for thinking so what, it’s not as if he saved a burning hospital full of children. From a technical point though the documentary is structured perfectly, it’s down to you whether the content is worth the effort or not.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Hideous!
Dir: Charles Band
1997
***
Charles Band is the unsung master of low-budget, b-movie nonsense and I love his work. After the spectacular Dollmanvs. Domonic Toys but before his venture into the Puppetmaster sequels, Gingerbread Man shenanigans and all that Evil Bong nonsense, he made a funny little horror called Hideous! The story begins with a veteran sewage worker teaching a couple of young bucks the art of sewage maintenance and how to effectively remove unknowns from clogging up the giant sewage reservoirs of their unnamed little town. He tells them tales of all sorts of weird things he’s found during his long career in sewage maintenance and the many strange and unexplainable things he’s found over the years and, as if by pure chance, they come across such a specimen as they speak. It’s strange, gooey and the sort of thing that would put you off your lunch, our veteran takes charge and takes it away to be disposed of. However, it’s clear that he known what it could be and he’s clearly part of an underground group that collects the strange and the disgusting. He calls his contact and sets up a deal, expert in her field, Belinda Yost. Yost then gets in contact with Napoleon Lazar (Mel Johnson Jr.), a collector who is happy to pay top dollar for such a specimen. However, infamous collector of the macabre extraordinaire, Dr. Lorca (played by Michael Citriniti), also wants the specimen and orders his assistant Sheila to steal the specimen away from Lazar while he’s in transit. Lazar insists Yost help him recover his purchase and along with her ditzy secretary Elvina, the trio travel to Lorca’s castle to take back what is rightfully theirs. Unbeknownst to both groups, FBI detective Leonard Kantor is following them, after being tipped off that not all is legal with the transaction. It is probably surprise to no one that the specimens (the preserved corpses of severely deformed somethings) aren’t as dead as they seem and start killing off the group one by one. The film is pretty much a haunted house movie in the vein of House on Haunted Hill but with crude puppets. The beasties are probably among the least scary ever committed to film and are seldom seen but I quite like them. The script is pretty witty too, more than you’d expect from a typical Full Moon picture and a low-budget horror parody anyway. The best thing about Hideous! (the only good thing about Hideous!) is Lorca’s assistant Sheila (played by Jacqueline Lovell). Sheila is loyal to Dr. Lorca but their’s is a mutual agreement. She steals the specimen from Lazar during a holdup, where she stops him in the middle of a snowy forest road topless, and wearing a gorilla mask. She spends most of the film being the intelligent, level-headed and wise member of the group and the one with all the best lines. She also spends the entire film topless. Now I’m no pervert and I find most scenes of nudity in horror films to be somewhat disturbing but I found Lovell’s Sheila to be utterly charming and something of a rare character in these kind of films. It is what it is, the film is quite clear on that and I found it quite refreshing. The ending is something of an anti-climax but on the whole it was fine, not quite the low-budget 90s horror masterpiece I’d hoped for but fine all the same. Criminally, it is Dr. Lorca who finds himself in a shared sequel (Domonic Toys 2) and not Sheila. Michael Citriniti is good but Lovell’s Sheila should have definitely featured in further Full Moon productions, if not had her own series.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Bad Channels
Dir: Ted Nicolaou
1992
***
Bad Channels is an early 90s lost masterpiece. Okay, masterpiece is a bit of an exaggeration but if you love low budget, sci-fi b-movies, particularly those made by Full Moon Pictures, then you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Bad Channels is certainly a b-movie for the MTV generation, featuring lots of music and filmed as if it were a 90s music video, complete with slanted angles, luminous colours and plenty of smoke. Indeed, the film features real life MTV DJ Martha Quinn as an ace reporter. The film’s hero is also a music DJ, very much of the Howard Stern variety (before Howard Stern became a nationwide name). “Dangerous” Dan O’ Dare is coming to the end of an on air marathon whereby he is playing Ompa music on a loop (and has been for several days) until a caller can guess the secret code that opens a safe holding the keys to the chains he has attached himself to, in order to free himself and stop the terrible music. His stunt makes nationwide news, the fact that the news reporter guesses the code correctly gains him even more notoriety and he finds himself noticed by a couple of aliens flying above earth. Realising that Dan’s radio station is unique in its power suitability, popularity and geographical position, the two aliens (Cosmo and Lump) invade the radio station and take Dan hostage. Listeners understandably think it’s yet another prank by the trickster disc jockey and listen in in droves, not realising it is all happening for real. It’s already pretty weird but it gets weirder still. Cosmo and Lump use the radio station to pump out music video style visions to young female listeners. Certain types of young female listeners (very attractive ones) find themselves in the middle of their own music videos and find the urge to ‘rock out’ impossible to succumb to. Once fully ‘rocked out’, they somehow find themselves transported to the radio station and shrunken into little test tubes the aliens brought with them. The music is supplied by The Blue Oyster Cult, and I challenge anyone not to find themselves ‘rocking out’ (but not shrinking into a bottle) to it. It’s ridiculous, absurd and above all silly, but there is something extremely likable about it. It has ‘cult favourite’ written all over it, although I’m not sure it has quite reached those dizzying heights as such. It wasn’t great when it came out in 1992 but I would argue that it is now something of a nostalgic gem. All the stuff I really loved in the early 90s I still mostly love, however, there are quite a few exceptions. A lot of it has dated badly and wasn’t much good at all looking back at it. So watching Bad Channel again now, parodying a lot of that bad stuff is actually quite fascinating. The reality is that at best it’s a poor man’s Joe Dante (think 1985’s Explorers rather than Gremlins), although there are a few of us who will defend it to the bitter end. One of the best things about bad Channels however is the post-credit scene featuring none other than Full Moon Character Brick Bardo aka Dollman. He rather selfishly steals the films funniest line for himself and wanders towards the radio station in search of tiny sexy ladies, who need the comfort only a 13 inch man can give them. He and Nurse Ginger find themselves fighting killer toys in 1993’s Dollman vs. Demonic Toys and if anything, you have to thank Bad Channels for that (and Nurse Ginger).