Monday, 29 February 2016

Donkeys
Dir: Morag McKinnon
2010
****
Morag McKinnon is a diverse and versatile director. Donkeys would have broken most directors after all the problems that arose during filming but McKinnon carried on and then made the astonishing I Am Breathing just a couple of years later. Donkeys was originally meant to be part two of a trilogy (known as The Advance Party Trilogy), following Andrea Arnold's brilliant 2006 film Red Road. Sigma Films and Lar von Trier's Zentropa Films had intended the three films to have the same characters and to adhere to similar rules that the DOGME 95 movement group developed. From fairly early on McKinnon thought the project was somewhat flawed and that Donkeys would work better as a standalone film. She fought her case and won, hiring her preferred writing partner and changing some of the cast. Andrew Armour was meant to reprise his character from Red Road and was to be the film's main character but McKinnon cast James Cosmo instead. Armour was hurt, stating that his contract had been broken and he was broken. He died of cancer a few months later. McKinnon was understandably devastated by this news but I believe she made all the right decisions. I like DOGME 95 very much and Red Road is a brilliant film but the overall idea of a trilogy seemed unnecessarily gimmicky. Mass illness, terrible weather and difficult shoots made the filming tough but McKinnon's perseverance more than paid off. Quite unfairly (and rather irritatingly) Donkeys was written off before anyone had seen a frame but McKinnon and co had the last laugh, deservedly so. Advertised as a dark comedy, Donkeys is about as dark a comedy can get. 'Dark comedy' is somewhat of an understatement. It's also rather brilliant. James Cosmo is brilliant as a dying man, desperately seeking redemption before his death. Kate Dickie and Martin Compston reprise their characters from Red Road, although their histories are changed. It's probably best to consider them different people or this story taking part in a totally different dimension. Both are on top form. However, for me, Brian Pettifer steals the show on more than one occasion during the film. The conclusion is both beautiful and disturbing, a very difficult balance to achieve but one McKinnon and co succeed at with flying colours. A great little hidden gem.
Howards End
Dir: James Ivory
1992
****
It was quite a while after 1992 that I first caught up with Merchant Ivory's Howards End, a film now considered a classic. I've often heard friends and family of an older generation praise it, some even considering it as one of their favourites. I haven't read the book, so I was unaware of what it was about but after seeing it became quite clear that all of those people who have recommended it to me over the years didn't realise what it was about either. Its meandering beginning and often confusing turn of events lead to quite the poignant and most subtly devastating conclusion to a film I may have ever seen. The film pans out to a beautifully lit landscape and the upbeat classical music plays and I'm sure many thought how lovely a finish it was, when indeed they were missing the point quite spectacularly. It is beautifully filmed, perfectly performed and visually pleasing. It stars some of England's finest including Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins, has a wonderfully ostentatious script and shows some of the country’s most beautiful of beauty spots. Hardly anyone ever makes comment that it is essentially a look at the dark and distasteful habit of austerity we have in the UK. Written in 1910, the story, rather sadly, still rings true today. The upper and middle-classes float about their business without a care in the world, some may try to help their fellow man but no matter if they don't succeed, life goes on as wonderfully as it did before. Two world wars have made a difference but not as much as you'd expect. It's a fantastic historical document of an important sociological issue that has and will remain for some time. It's clear that Merchant and Ivory understand this, it just seems to have gone over the heads of many who think this is just another slice of good old England, which I'm sure would have E. M. Forster spinning in his grave. It's a brilliant adaptation but the irony is sadly lost. I do wonder whether the casting is to blame, even though each actor has a proven range and an eclectic body of work, the public expect certain things from each, so when Anthony Hopkins' asks if he did wrong at the end of the film we assume he hadn't, when it is quite clear he had, all is forgiven and forgotten, the audience is bamboozled by another fine performance and high-end drama and as much as I adore it, Remains of the Day that came out just one year later with the same actors almost dilutes the story even more so. I think if it weren't for the brilliant Samuel West the bigger story may well have been completely overlooked. A Ken Loach (for example) version would have got the point across but without the visual eloquence the story really needed, the Merchant Ivory version tips over the other side somewhat. Brilliant but I'm afraid not quite as well balanced as it should have been, although I think the more modern, somewhat lazier audiences are somewhat to blame too.

Delivery Man
Dir: Ken Scott
2013
**
I love Hollywood remakes of 'foreign films'. Said no one ever. Delivery Man is somewhat different though, because while it is a remake of 2011's French-Canadian comedy Starbuck, it is directed by the same guy, Ken Scott. It's a good story, I don't begrudge him wanting to have more success, it's a sad fact that a huge percentage of cinema-goers won't go to see a film if it is subtitled. I'd like to say it is their tough luck, they're missing out on some terrific films but actually, the less people who watch these films, then the less they get funded. That is not a good thing. Hopefully Ken Scott made more money in order to make some more of the films he wants to make for the people, like me, who want to see them. Delivery Man has safe written all over it, so safe in fact, that it wasn't that safe at all. Vince Vaughn pulls in audiences, I don't know why, but that is a fact. I don't think he was suited to this role but then I don't think he's been good in any role since his performance in 1996's Swingers. He should have been perfect then no? No. The story is too good for him. When people go to see a Vince Vaughn film they want his shouty comedy, they don't want to think too much, Delivery Man is far too touchy-feely for him. His friend and some-time collaborator Owen Wilson would have been far better suited in my opinion. The film itself is a carbon-copy of the original, although I thought the representation of the female characters came across a little more unfortunately in the remake. Everything that could have been corrected from the first was missed. The first film was pretty much perfect but they could have added more elements and made the story fit the American audience a little better than they did. Maybe Scott got the American audience wrong, maybe his hand was forced, I don't know but the fact remains, English language remakes remain inferior.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Pixels
Dir: Chris Columbus
2015
**
Pixels did quite well at the box office but the overall consensus suggests that it is one of the big stinkers of 2015. I agree that it isn't very good, however, there are a few qualities about it that I do admire. It's based on a neat little short film that French director Patrick Jean made in 2010 whereby outdated technology, in the form of old computer games, rebels at being labelled obsolete. There isn't much of a story to it, just really clever ideas, special effects and a darkly comic conclusion. It's a bit like a music video without the music. How the perfectly simple idea went from that to 2015's feature length version I have no idea. Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling's version sees Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Josh Gad as friends who once competed in a Gaming competition in 1982. At this competition/convention, a videotape of the recorded game-play was sent into space in a time-capsule. Fast forward thirty-three years, we find out that Adam Sandler installs home-theatre systems, Josh Gad is a conspiracy theorist and Kevin James is President of the United States. When aliens attack the planet in the form of old computer games, we learn that said aliens found the time-capsule and mistook the recorded game-play as a declaration of war. The three of them take it upon themselves to take on the aliens, seeing as they are the only ones who seem to possess the skill of game pattern recognition. It's as contrived as it sounds. Joining the team are Michelle Monaghan as a Lieutenant Colonel Head of technology. Adam Sandler meets her early on in the film in a scene that is as long as it is cringe-worthy, in said scene Sandler installs an entertainment system for her son. Why such a high-ranking Lieutenant Colonel and head of technology for the entire country would need someone to install relatively simple technology or indeed grant access to a handy man to her home, isn't worth thinking about. She also has a pointless and unexplained cyborg working for her. It's all fairly stupid stuff. The script is awful, really awful and the story is pretty dumb too. It is interesting that Seth Gorden was attached to the project at one point because Peter Dinklage's character is basically Billy Mitchell, star of his documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. It's never funny, the special effects aren't that great (the original short is better) and the setup is badly put together, even though I like the overall idea. The scene in London was particularly tiresome as they got everything about it wrong, even the stereotypes (shame on you Sean Bean). I didn't like it. So why on earth have I given it a two star rating instead of a single star? Simply because it contains what is probably my favourite scene of any 2015 film. When the aliens take the form of a giant Pac-Man in New York, the three computer geeks are joined by a fourth team member to act as the ghost who chase him (the ghosts being Mini-coopers with 'alien technology' attached to them). That fourth member is none other than Toru Iwatani, famous games developer and creator of Pac-Mac. Makes sense. His cameo is priceless, just when they reach Pac-Man and are close enough to kill him, Mr Iwatani pleads with his 'son' to behave himself, as he was created 'for good' and to 'make the world happy'. Pac-Man bites his arm off. It's brilliant. Everything else is horrible. HORR-I-BLE. Worst film, best scene, strange but it happens.

      Thursday, 25 February 2016

      I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale
      Dir: Richard Shepard
      2009
      ****
      I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale is a short but sweet look at the work and method of the late great John Cazale. Cazale stared in many successful plays in his early career but only starred in five feature films before dying at a young age. Those five films are celebrated as being five of the very best films of all time, his performance in each being a major part in each's success. His raw and powerful performance is amazing in The Deer Hunter, his last film, even though he is clearly very ill. His performance in The Conversation is subtle and heartbreaking and his turn as Salvatore 'Sal' Naturale in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon is one of the most intense and nervously exciting in the history of cinema. However, it is his role as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II that people will best remember. The "I knew it was you" line is where most people will know him from and why the film is titled as such (even though the actual line was in fact 'I know it was you, Fredo'). None of these films would have been half as great as they are had it not been for Cazale's performance but now, all these years after his death, people still don't know his name. They should, and the likes of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Richard Dreyfuss, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Sam Rockwell and Gene Hackman are all on hand to explain exactly why. Al Pacino was a close friend of Cazale and once said that "All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner. Meryl Streep talks candidly about the romance she had with him (they were engaged and she stayed with him until he died), something that Pacino commented on, saying "I've hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming". Sidney Lumet had just been diagnosed with lymphoma and Gene Hackman came out of retirement, especially to speak well of their old and much missed friend and to profess their admiration for him as a person and as a performer. Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell and Philip Seymour Hoffman all site him as an influence with Steve Buscemi saying that every young actor wishes they had played Michael Corleone in The Godfather, then they grow and develop and realize that Fredo Corleone was actually the more interesting character of the movie. Everyone agreed though that he made them up their game. There have been countless great films that have not been made due to Cazale's premature death but without him, we might not have had such great films from those who he inspired. A lovely, albeit a little short documentary.

      Wednesday, 24 February 2016

      The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
      Dir: Harald Zwart
      2013
      *
      I knew The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was based on a 'Young adult' novel before sitting down to watch it but as a keen reviewer I went into it, as I do every film, with an open mind. I thought that after Twilight had conquered the Vampire/Werewolf/miserable teenager genre and The Hunger Games had taken the futuristic dystopian sudo-revolutionary genre mantle, that they had probably raised the bar to compete and had come up with something new, especially considering the books have been very popular. The truth is though that The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, or Cassandra Clare I should say, has picked apart every 'Young adult' (I hate that term), fantasy, Gothic romance story and film that has come before and has spewed out what it thinks is the best bits in a muddled and unexciting order. I've heard Cassandra Clare praised because she 'fought' against the studios who wanted a male lead rather than the original female lead character, fair enough, but I think this is only to distract from the fact that this is a terrible and rather recycled affair. Also, both Twilight and The Hunger Games have a lead female character, so I'm not sure why the fuss in the first place. It's a sad sign of the times in my opinion (*steps on soapbox), when I was young (start the violin music..) me and my friends would read books like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and The Lord of the Flies. Those of us that got into them then went on to read books by Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Anthony Burgess to name but a few. As far as I can tell, 'Young adult' novels incorporate many of these ideas, the lazier ones add a few Vampires and Werewolves here and there, stick an unconvincing romance in there and fill the story full of humourless teenagers. Almost every character has an alarmingly annoying level of smugness about them. Why are these kids so smug? You may point out that many of these smug teenagers are actually hundreds of years old but then I would point out even deeper problems with the romantic story-lines, so let’s not go there. Why aren't teenagers rebelling against this bland drivel? These books seems to be accepted by the grownups, surely a good reason to dismiss them and read something they wouldn't approve of no? I'm showing my age, these books/film are clearly not made for me but I do hope my kids grow up to read something more interesting than this. How many times can you tell the same story, especially given that the first time wasn't even that great? Story aside, the visual effects, editing and performances are fairly terrible but the script is easily the worst thing about it, the self-knowing humour being terribly unfunny and suggesting that everyone involved is fully aware of how bad it all is.

      Tuesday, 23 February 2016

      Son of Kong
      Dir: Ernest B. Schoedsack
      1933
      ***
      Film making in the 1930's wasn't just big business, it was quick business. King Kong was big. Really big. When people began pouring into the cinemas to see it the studios and producers knew they needed to produce a sequel fast to capitalize on the huge wave of popularity that took everyone by surprise. Son of Kong was released just nine months after the original. It is fair to say it was rushed somewhat. Ruth Rose returned to write the screenplay but with a very different attitude than the first, stating that "If you can't make it bigger, make it funnier". Robert Armstrong returned to play Carl Denham once more and said in his later years that he preferred Song of Kong over the original because his character had more development but there is no getting away from the fact that it was a bizarre shadow of its former self. The first was the first great blockbuster and the first big horror film, Song of Kong is a melodramatic comedy. I quite liked it. I like it for everything that is wrong with it. I love the fact that they made such a ridiculous and nonsensical decision and ran with it. It lead the way for all those terrible sequels that we all love and hate. It is another first in the rule of thumb that dictates that every big blockbuster has an inferior sequel. It's another slice of movie history. It is very funny too. There are moments that made me laugh during the first film that were unintentionally funny. Song of Kong is full of those same moments that are pushed to the point where you can't help but laugh but because they are so awful, rather than funny. The moment Kong junior breaks the third wall and looks at the audience and shrugs is a particular favourite scene of mine. It is ridiculous and unnecessary and funny and brilliant for it.
      King Kong
      Dir: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
      1933
      *****
      Steven Spielberg's Jaws is infamous for being the cinema's first Blockbuster but it really isn't. Conceived by Edgar Wallace, King Kong could be considered the first most successful blockbuster and first most successful horror of its kind. Edgar Wallace was influenced by the 'Jungle films' of the 1910s, film makers such as the Lumiere Brothers would venture into the jungle with cameras and actors and make faux-documentaries, Beasts in the Jungle being the first in 1913, soon to be followed by the likes of Tarzan and The Lost World. After the initial amazement of seeing places that most westerners had not and would never visit, the idea was somewhat exploited and the thrill and horror of the 'ape-man' took over. Directors and producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's influences were clear, although both denied having ever seeing 1930's notorious faux-documentaries Ingagi. Ingagi tells the tale of jungle women mating with apes to create half ape, half human babies that would grow into savage beasts. Many took it seriously and the film grossed quite a bit of money. It’s quite a shocking film, with plenty of scenes that wouldn't make the cut these days. It's an interesting idea, and is indeed notable as being the first pre-code exploitation film but with very little to be really proud of. Its success was mainly down to sensationalism, the film eventually being accepted by the studios thanks to Ingagi proving that "Gorillas plus sexy women in peril equals enormous profits". Jean-Luc Godard once said "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." but this clearly isn't the case because when he was only three years old one of the most successful films of all time was being made and all they had was a girl and massive gorilla. It's a classic story that pretty much every adventure story has tried to emulate ever since. Aliens, Predator, Jaws...none of them would exist without old Kong. For me, and many others, the best thing about the classic is the fantastic special effects. Willis H. O'Brien developed stop-motion animation to new and exciting levels with Kong, his work on The Lost World was greatly celebrated but Kong did so much more for special effects development. He also worked on the inferior sequel and would get up to more monkey business in 1949's Mighty Joe Young, a film he would make with his protégé Ray Harryhausen. Indeed, when you watch King Kong grab a person, stick them in his mouth and chew, I can't help but think that was where Harryhausen got his sense of humour from (I once met him at a dinner and when asked what his greatest achievement was he answered 'I destroyed many great places with big horrible creatures'. I was a huge production and it still looks impressive today. Watching Kong grabbing a sleeping woman from her bed and then discarding her from off the side of a building is as horrific now as it was in 1933. The now iconic final scene of Kong fighting off fighter planes from the top of the then newly built Empire State Building is still heart-pumpingly exciting and still very much edge of your seat cinema. The remakes have been a mix of good, bad and ugly but there shall always only be one Kong. It's long been regarded as a classic and probably always will be, and quite rightfully so.
      ZeitgeistMoving Forward
      Dir: Peter Joseph
      2011
      *****
      Peter Joseph's Zeitgeist:The Movie questioned the truth about religion, 9/11 and the world banks and suggested how all three are connected. His follow up, Zeitgeist: Addendum, looked at the monetary system and showed how corrupt it has always been. 2011's ZeitgeistMoving Forward asks the big question; 'what the hell should we do about it?’ The answer is simple and fantastical. The monetary system is again in question with all new experts suggesting that economics dictates trends, nature and even behaviour. I found it to be totally believable, again, all sources and facts are verifiable. The film's big guest speaker is the great Jacque Fresco. Call him a fantasist but I'd much rather live in his fantasy then the current reality. Fresco does push his version of the future, known as the Venus Project, a rather clichéd look at the future as far as the visuals are concerned but a beautiful and intelligent future as far as development and living is concerned. There isn't enough graffiti in his vision of the future as far as I'm concerned but that's me being facetious. The Venus Project, as culty as it sounds, looks pretty sensible to me. A world of equality, progression, peace, good health and no work (you volunteer) sounds great. Easy to mock but it is pointed out by several experts and clever people that if we welcome a new kind of thinking it is achievable. We now know that the cost of World War II could have paid for the eradication of the world's poverty, so when you look at it in that way, it makes sense. The idea of no currency is a hard one to get our heads around but as the film suggests, it's time for a new way of thinking, as our current system sure isn't working out for most people. It's not about politics either. Fresco condemns socialism and Communism just as much as capitalism and fascism. He is essentially calling for a new ism, or a world-wide dismissal of all isms. Actually, he and everyone involved in the film are asking for very little and what we should be doing anyway. Look out for one another, reject anything that doesn't better ourselves and progress. I'm as sceptical as one can be but to be better isn't too much of a stretch for me. The last segment of the film suggests a mass protest, a world-wide stand against the powers that be. Indeed, a revelation is probably needed but I don't think it will look like the power-point, acid-housesque graphic produced. It's fine though, message received and I like what I hear. I think there is a lot to be said for the Zeitgeist films, none of them are 100% but then no documentary is. 'Unbalanced' is a ridiculous argument when one tries to get a point across in this way, the unfortunate dream-like sequences aside, it's all based on fact, intelligent thinking and progressive thought. It's my bag baby.
      Zeitgeist: Addendum
      Dir: Peter Joseph
      2008
      *****
      Peter Joseph's 2007 Zeitgeist: The Movie went straight to the jugular and questioned the truth about religion, 9/11 and the world banks and suggested how all three are connected. No matter which side of the debate you lean towards, you have to give Joseph credit for always listing his sources and providing and accessible comprehensive companion guide. Indeed, when you break each component down, everything discussed is factual rather than analytical. It is impossible to say he is wrong when you can't prove God exists, 9/11 raises many unanswered questions and the banking scandals aren't disputed, even by the banks themselves. Zeitgeist: Addendum is exactly what it says it is, an extension of the first film, a more in-depth exploration of the issues already raised but concentrating on our monetary system, the suggested source of all these problems. Money makes the world go round, money is the route of all evil, the debate is as old as currency itself. Joseph breaks down the monetary system in a basic and easy to follow manner interviewing various different world economists. Again, all is factual rather than analytical although the first film had it's fair share of criticism, but then of course it did, said criticism came from the media that we all know is controlled (not conspiracy theory people, this is fact). It's far from a perfect documentary, I believe in most of what it suggests but it is a little manipulative and a small percentage of what it shows is dubious. I will say however that the alternative view is far more manipulative and dubious, to argue that Zeitgeist/Joseph is purely an exercise in propaganda is hilariously hypocritical. Zeitgeist/Joseph bases his argument on history, social and economical patterns and common sense. I don't find anything about the documentary wild of unbelievable. It could however, do without the unhelpful and rather awful staged sequences that involve eyeballs and businessmen reaching epiphanies in the middle of Times Square. Not perfect but interesting, positive, intelligent and enlightening. My kind of thing.

      Thursday, 18 February 2016

      84 Charing Cross Road
      Dir: David Jones
      1987
      *****
      Written by Hugh Whitemore, based on the stage-play by James Roose-Evans which in turn was based on the memoirs of Helene Hanff, 1987's 84 Charing Cross Road incorporates the best of both worlds, high-lighting the wonderful dialogue of the play and the real life characters of the book, beautifully. Even though the book and the stage play were both big hits on both sides of the pond, it all seems like a bit of a flimsy premise but there is nothing flimsy about it at all. Far from it. Watching it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic, not that I ever visited 84 Charing Cross Road or indeed were alive to see London or New York in the 50s or 60s. I fell in love with the 'Big Apple' and the 'Big Smog' through film and literature and as an adult I've become quite protective and critical of both, so to see the two cousins, and what I love about them the most, depicted in a such a sweat, tender and touching way couldn't have made me feel warmer or indeed fuzzier. I'm old enough to remember the dusty but genteel London of yesteryear and I fell in love with New York City long ago thanks to old and not so old movies but the characters I know, I think most people do. Funnily enough, the two main characters, Helene Hanff (played by the brilliant Anne Bancroft) and Frank Doel (the equally brilliant Anthony Hopkins) could have been my grandparents. Their house was big and full of books, my grandmother full of life and colour and my grandfather a quiet and dignified gentleman. Both had a great sense of humour and a life of stories to tell. I miss them, the London I grew up in and the New York I never saw immensely. 84 Charing Cross Road is a little window into that era that I love and would desperately love to revisit. It could be said that the overall message of the film is to strike when the iron is hot, never regret anything and live the moment, although if Helene Hanff had done so we would never have this heart-warming but heart-breaking story. There is something flawed but poetic about it, the best kind of melancholy. Sometimes the premise of what could have been is better, the anticipation being better than the reality. Helene Hanff and Frank Doel (New York and London) are completely different but both were daydreamers who could get lost in the poems of Thomas Wyatts and the Eassys of William Hazlitt, both had a love for words, maybe it was right that they only communicated through their letters but it is impossible not to imagine what it would have been like if they had met in real life. Both have now passed on, the cities are different but the story continues in many respects. I love the simplicity and the creativity the story invokes, the viewer essentially carries on the story in their own minds and the possibilities are endless. It's why the book and stage play were so well received and the film captures it perfectly too. As I write this review I am about a fifteen minute walk from 84 Charing Cross Road and even though I must have walked past it I've made a point never to ever acknowledge it. I believe it is a fast food outlet but I couldn't say for sure, I've never looked, I don't have to, because in my mind it is still a lovely little book shop that I'm sure I'll visit one day.
      My Brother the Devil
      Dir: Sally El Hosaini
      2012
      **
      Sally El Hosaini is clearly a talented writer and director. Her debut feature, 2012's My Brother the Devil was praised by critics and audiences alike upon its release. Lead actor James Floyd and new comer Fady Elsayed were both convincing as sons of Egyptian immigrants living in the suburban estates of Hackney (East London). Hackney has a reputation of being a troubled area, crime does happen and life isn't easy for everyone living in the many estates but the borough's clichéd depiction of being a crime mecca is getting a little silly now. I'm surprised that Sally El Hosaini, a long-time resident of the area has chosen to continue this rather misleading representation, again, there is a problem but it really isn't as bad as it is depicted here and there really is more to it. You're more likely to be run over by a hipster unicyclist than shot outside your home these days. This film is just that little bit too heavy-handed. Life is hard for immigrants and the second and third generations, this is undeniable and a great subject to focus on. Unfortunately, El Hosaini dilutes the overall story of acceptance by adding gang wars, drugs and secret homosexuality into the mix. A story of a young boy trying to understand an older brother who he has both idolized and lived in the shadow of really was enough, to add a clichéd story of revenge and an unconvincing homosexual relationship into the script really didn't work for me, it was overkill and made the film feel like a cliché compilation. The story lost its focus and never really recovered in my opinion. The conclusion is unclear and nothing is really achieved, this could be a reflection of reality but I don't think this was the intention and if it was it could have been handled a little more creatively. The supporting actors were also a little too clichéd, radar kids playing at being wannabe gangsters with a script written with intentionally poor language by someone from the Home Counties. Poor old Said Taghmaoui, the film's big actor, he looks like he had so little guidance regarding his poorly written character that he spends most of the film looking totally confused, which I suspect was the case. This is a clichéd cardboard cut-out account of the lives of the people it is trying to depict and a rather tiresome one at that in my opinion, although I seem to be the only one!?

      Tuesday, 16 February 2016

      X the Unknown
      Dir: Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey
      1956
      ****
      X the Unknown was a big film for Hammer film productions. Along with the two original Quatermass films (indeed, it was originally intended as a Quatermass film but writer Nigel Kneale refused permission for the character of Bernard Quatermass to be used) it established the studio's transition from b-movie to respected sci-fi horror. According to film historian Howard Maxford it "completes an important trilogy containing relevant allegorical threads revealing Cold War anxieties and a diminishing national identity resulting from Britain's decrease in status as a world power". X the Unknown is the name given to a blob of couscous thought that lives in the depths of the earth's core that surfaces every 50 years for a nibble on whatever the most powerful and tasty power source available is at the time, in this case it is Atomic Energy. Delicious. As horror villains go it is rather out there, although no more so than The Thing from Another World which is pretty much a killer vegetable. This is clearly a metaphor of a bigger message, a political point about power and control, remade from an American point of view just two years later and called The Blob, starring a young Steve McQueen. It's full of typically over the top 50's horror performances which is a bit of a contrast to the sophisticated script and rather graphic and gory visual effects. It's everything I love about old horror sci-fi with everything I like about modern horror sci-fi, the very best of what is the perfect transition. Joseph Losey was the initial director of the film (directing under the name Joseph Walton) and still to this day he is said to have been replaced by Leslie Norman due to becoming ill. The truth is that Losey came to the UK to direct film after being blacklisted in the USA after McCarthy's Red Scare saw many film makers kicked out of Hollywood for being, or suspected of being, members of the Communist party. No problem working in the UK, I'm guessing his alternative name would have been for US distribution reasons but as soon as the film's main star Dean Jagger became aware he had to be replaced as Jagger wouldn't work with a 'Communist sympathizer'. Neither Losey or Norman actually wanted to work on the film, cold war paranoia surely wasn't Losey's thing but both directors were said to have complained about the overall idea and neither thought it would do very well. However, it was very well received and Hammer did very well from the production. Norman proved very difficult to work with and was not hired again by the studios but its other sci-fi horrors excelled in the following years. It's a great little sci-fi, full of interesting ideas and with an interesting history behind the scenes. X the Unknown deserves far more credit than it has been given.

      Monday, 15 February 2016

      Poltergeist
      Dir: Gil Kenan
      2015
      **
      1982's Poltergeist is a spooky classic. It wasn't quite a horror, more of a family friendly ghost story, officially directed by Tobe 'Texas Chainsaw' Hooper but pretty much made by Steven Spielberg. It's as Spielburgy as a film can be. However, the beard was under contract and he wasn't allowed to direct another film while preparing for ET. The Extra Terrestrial, so he hired Hooper as a meat puppet. Who would dare remake a Steven Spielberg classic? More to the point, why would you? The original is a classic, its sequel is pretty good too and Poltergeist III really isn't as bad as everyone says. I can't think of anything about the original that could have been improved and indeed, nothing has been in this 2015 remake. The special effects are pretty impressive but still not as enjoyable as the ones in the original in my opinion. 1982's Poltergeist had some chilling scenes; The toy clown, the items stacked in the kitchen, the thing in the wardrobe, the empty swimming pool, the collapsible house, the little girl claiming 'They're here' in front of the white noise of the living room television....all now regarded as classic moments in horror. Each of these scenes is remade, and each one is worse than the next. Nothing new has been added to the story when something new was desperately needed. The acting is atrocious, I had no emotion for any of the characters, they could have lived or died, I couldn't have cared less. Sam Rockwell is the film's big name and he couldn't look less interested. His expression of terror looks like most people when they get up in the morning after a rough night. The rest of the cast could have been mannequins, I'm not sure I would have noticed the difference. If you are going to go all out and do something pointless then you might as well do it well, no? I guess the studio thought the name enough would be enough to gain interest but how wrong they were. It doesn't feel like a remake of the original, if feels like a bad remake of all the bad remakes of the original that have been made since 1982. I still have time for director Gil Kenan though and I hope he learns from this mistake of a film.

      Friday, 12 February 2016

      The Lobster
      Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
      2015
      *****
      I have enjoyed Yorgos Lanthimos' previous films, 2009's Dogtooth certainly put the director on the map and 2012's Alps proved that he had an individual talent and wasn't just a one trick pony. I commented at the time that I thought he would probably direct a masterpiece within his next few films and I was right, The Lobster is indeed a masterpiece. The Lobster is set in a dystopian future of an alternative reality whereby it is illegal not to be coupled. If you find yourself single for whatever reason you are sent to 'The Hotel' for 45 days to try and find a suitable partner. Extra days can be awarded by shooting dead and capturing single loners who live in the woods. If you haven't found a partner within the 45 days you are transformed into an animal of your choice and are released into the wild. Colin Farrell plays David, a man recently left by his wife. David enters the Hotel with his brother who has been turned into a Dog after failing to find a suitable partner. David has chosen to be a Lobster, should his time at the Hotel be unsuccessful because Lobsters live long lives and remain fertile into old age, plus he also likes the sea. David meets a whole host of different characters in the hotel such as Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen) and Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) who are all shown various reasons why people should be in a couple by the Hotel manager (played by the brilliantly straight-faced Olivia Colman). David tries but fails to couple up with one particular guest and decides to run into the woods an escape when things go wrong. In the woods he finds a society who believe in being single but this society has equally bizarre rules in regard to relationships. It is a brilliantly surreal, often brutal but extremely funny metaphor for all sorts of things. Primarily, I think it is a satirical look at how our society seems obsessed with dating in what is fast becoming an increasingly superficial system of contemporary courtship but then traditional courtships, from many a different culture, can be argued as being just as strange and peculiar, if not more so. The story is cleverly subjective, you can attach many aspects of societies behaviour, rules and beliefs to the film's symbolism, it really is all about challenging what you think is right, what you've been taught is right and then thinking for yourself - not always an easy thing to achieve as the film's final scene suggests. David's room in the Hotel is Room 101, a reference and a tribute by the director, suggesting that one should not fear Room 101, we are already in Room 101 and really, we can walk out whenever we want to. It is beautifully filmed with nearly every shot being as rich as a classic oil painting. The performances are second to none with a great mix of intense drama and straight-faced comedy from an eclectic cast of dependable favourites. I loved the script, I'm thinking that maybe translation prevented me from appreciating how funny Lanthimos' previous films really are. It's not often a film makes you think and makes you laugh as much, as well as disgust and make you wince. Its 1984 meets Monty Python in the body of a great romance, the best use of satire I've seen for a very long time and pretty much faultless in every aspect of film-making and storytelling. A new favourite and one of the very best of 2015.

        Thursday, 11 February 2016

        Deadpool
        Dir: Tim Miller
        2016
        ****
        Deadpool isn't the first superhero/comic adaptation to claim itself as being 'A very different kind of superhero movie' and in many respects it is and it isn't. Deadpool's story is very much like any X-Men's origin, which is unsurprising as he is part of the very same universe. He is a regenerating mutant who is highly skilled in martial arts and swordplay, he is good at kicking butt and also rather likes it. What really singles Deadpool (aka Wade Wilson) out, apart from his fast-paced and rather naughty sense of humour, is how he interacts with his audience. He breaks down the forth wall and talks to the viewer. This is nothing new in the world of comics but he is easily the best at it within the medium. It is thanks to this and his constant self-referencing that has gained quite the fan following. You can get away with so much in the comics, much of it makes no sense at all but it really doesn't matter, it is about that weekly episode of escapism. The Avengers, X-Men, Superman, Batman etc. are often taken a little too seriously and are criticized heavily when continuity issues arise. Continuity is probably every comic-book writer’s least favourite word, so it's no wonder superheroes are often killed off, resurrected and reinvented. Deadpool seems to have this free licence to come in and out of other superheroes stories and do whatever he likes, and more impressively, say whatever he wants. Wade Wilson did indeed appear in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine with Ryan Reynolds playing the part. Reynolds seemed to be a completely unsuitable choice for the character, he wasn't wearing the costume, he neither looked nor sounded like Deadpool and apart from the name, there was nothing about him that had been faithfully adapted from the comic. It didn't go down too well with the fans. How many times will film makers make this stupid mistake? Well, it didn't take very long, Reynolds was soon back in spandex just two years later in an even worse comic adaptation, in 2011's ill-fated Green Lantern. The fans and certain film making fans still wanted their adaptation though and Deadpool went through development hell for over a decade. So what do you do? The studio option is usually to re-write the character, forget previous incarnations including the actor who played him and to start fresh with a totally different origin story and no bad language (for a respectable family-friendly rating), forgetting why people wanted the screen adaptation of the character in the first place. There is also the rights issue with Marvel, Disney owning film rights The Avengers and Sony owning rights to the X-Men. While using and referencing the X-Men wasn't a problem, there is an understanding that all things Marvel are happening in the same universe and everyone should be mindful of this to a point, again, it is so much easier to avoid these compilations in the comics and it never really seems to matter so much. The other option, seen as the risky approach, is to let a couple of fans make a faithful adaptation, that the fans have been asking for nearly twenty years, and let Deadpool be Deadpool (and let Reynolds be the real Deadpool). Quite amazingly, the studio took the risky approach. The cinema I watch the film in was full - something I haven't seen for quite some time. It wasn't just full of people either, it was full of laughter and grinning faces. Deadpool is very funny and it is very clever, it also addresses the Marvel universe quite brilliantly. A couple of the X-Men; Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Yay, a Grant Morrison character) keep tabs on Deadpool and try to recruit him, bridging the gap between the franchises rather nicely. Interestingly, the last scene takes place on the wreck of a fallen Helicarrier last seen in Captain America: The Winter Solder, that is as far as the Avengers are referenced, Hulk once ripped Deadpool's head off (it grew back) in the comics, so it would be lovely if they met somewhere in the future. However, that isn't quite Deadpool's style, and in a moment of clarity, the studio allowed Tim Miller, Paul Wernick and Phett Reese to let the character be himself. So when Colossus grabs Deadpool and tells him he's taking him back to the school for gifted mutants to get a talking to from Professor Xavier, he asks "Which one, Stewart or McAvoy"? Deadpool also requests that his superhero suit not be green or animated, referencing Reynolds previous not-so-super superhero outing. The film comes with the Stan Lee cameo, so this is all 100% approved. Amazing. It shouldn't work but it does...brilliantly. The forth wall is well and truly broken, in fact as Deadpool points out himself, it is broken several times in one go, essentially breaking sixteen walls at once. It seems stupid to suggest a studio is 'brave' by giving people what they want but there is some truth to the notion. Comic adaptations often don't work, generally because the source material is changed, hopefully now studios will realize that this is a mistake. Deadpool might just be the first 100% faithful comic book adaptation, which is fantastic, given that it is also one of the most anarchic (2000AD please take note). Ryan Reynolds has vindicated himself tenfold, Tim Miller has made an amazing debut feature and I applaud Paul Wernick and Phett Reese's hard work on getting the character to the big screen, it really has paid off. Deadpool is a victorious film, non-comic book fans and those who simply don't like superhero films may not realize but this is a huge deal. Christopher Nolan's Batman may have been the first of the genre to get it right in quite a while and The Avengers have been well written to great effect since but Deadpool really has done all the things everyone said couldn't and shouldn't be attempted, and on a much smaller budget too ("Couldn't the studio afford more X-Men"?). In a time where superhero films are being released nearly every other month, Deadpool really is the welcome relief to the usual franchise-conscious action film. It is a well-conceived and brilliantly crafted film, however, you either like these types of film or you don't but either way, you can't say they haven't broken the mould.