Friday, 29 July 2016

Triple 9
Dir: John Hillcoat
2016
*****
I am a huge fan of John Hillcoat. The Proposition was a great alternative Western that turned the genre on its head in 2005 and 2009's The Road proved you could film the unfilmable and get people in cinemas to watch one of the most devastating films of all time. 2012's Lawless was another genre game-changer, written by Nick Cave (as was The Proposition), Hillcoat clearly understood his friend's vision and ran with it. So the idea of a crime thriller, Hillcoat's first to be filmed in a contemporary city setting, got me rather excited to see how he would play it. Unsurprisingly, the answer is brilliantly. Much like 2013's Out of the Furnace and 2012's Killing Me SoftlyTriple 9 was overlooked upon its release and is a phenomenal crime thriller. The film features eight main characters, with neither being the main focus of the story. The story starts with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus and Clifton Collins Jr pulling off a stylish bank robbery. It is clear from this initial scene that the film is going to be exciting, convincing and unpredictable, and it really is. Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson play nephew and uncle cops rather well together and Kate Winslet is a revelation as Irina Vlaslov, the wife of a Russian Mob boss and the aunt to Chiwetel Ejiofor's character's son. The story twists and turns and never quite goes the way you think it might even though the audience are never left in the dark about what is happening. I like to think I'm pretty good at guessing what is going to happen next and what the overall outcome will be but who I guessed would 'get it first' towards the beginning of the film actually made it to the end and pretty much all my guesses were wrong by the time the end credits rolled. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire film. It seems pretty obvious but you only need a few ingredients to make a good crime thriller/heist movie; a good ensemble cast, an intelligent plan, a clever twist ending. Triple 9 has all these things and more. It has probably one of the best ensemble casts in years, each actor giving the perfect performance, it is intelligent without being complicated and has continual twists throughout without being confusing or convoluted. The script is sublime, uncomplicated but almost poetic at the same time. It is never anything other than convincing throughout. The film's momentum is exhausting and its brutal attitude is a slap in the face in a good way. The film has a dizzying paranoia about it that all good crime thrillers should have, it's not so much a who done it and will they get away with it but more of a who is going to get it and who is going to be left in the end. It is exciting from beginning to end and everything you could want from a film of its type and indeed a trip to the pictures. 
Willow
Dir: Ron Howard
1988
****
Back in the late 80's, the big question at school and the one that caused the most lunch-break arguments was which is best, The Princess Bride or Ron Howard's Willow? It's a difficult question with no real definitive answer and simply asking it would always end in tears. It is everything you could want from a fantasy adventure film with a contemporary twist but without modern (1980s) interference. A kid wasn't transported back in time to the medieval era and nor did he have to try and find his way home, Willow is a fantasy film in its purest form and all the better for it. If you wanted romance and comedy you'd go to The Princess Bride but if you wanted action, danger and fast-paced thrills then you watched Willow. George Lucas thought of making a fantasy adventure long before he made Star Wars, but it wasn't until the last days of filming Return of the Jedi did he seriously think about it. He mentioned the title role of Willow to Warwick Davis while he was on Ewok duties but it wasn't confirmed until five years later. Lucas said at the time that he "thought it would be great to use a little person in a lead role. A lot of my movies are about a little guy against the system, and this was just a more literal interpretation of that idea". No offense was made and Warwick accepted the main part and it is fair to say it was an important moment for little people in the industry. Lucas had approached actor turned director Ron Howard fairly early on after meeting him at Industrial Light & Magic where he was finalizing 1985's Cocoon. Howard wanted to make a fantasy film and the two directors hit it off. Lucas has said he waited until 1988 to make the movie because that was when the technology he needed to produce the film's special effects was first available which I'm not sure was accurate, the truth was, the big studios saw fantasy films as a financially unsuccessful genre. Films such as Krull, Legend, Dragonslyer and Labyrinth had under-performed at the box office, by 1988 they believed the genre had had its day. Maybe 1987's The Princess Bride help swing the decision and maybe the winning team of Lucas and Howard convinced them but it was Alan Ladd of MGM who advanced his old friend and colleague the money, even though MGM were in financial crisis. Ladd took cinema and TV sales and Lucas took the VHS market and both ended up making profit, although the film wasn't quite the hit they had hoped it would be. However, Willow has since become an 80s classic and something of a cult hit. The special effects were at times amazing and sometimes a bit too simplistic, very much an 80s thing and something that I love now as a nostalgic look back but not something that proved positive in 1988. It isn't the best of Lucas or of the genre but there is plenty to enjoy and as critic Mike Clark said at the time "Willow is probably too much for young children and possibly too much for the cynics but any 6-13 year old who sees it may be bitten by the movie bug for life". I love it personally. I love the chemistry between Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis, Pat Roach in a skull mask as General Kael (named after film critic Pauline Kael), Val Kilmer and the rest of the cast being turned into pigs, Jean Marsh's Queen Bavmorda and her battle between Patricia Hayes' Fin Razie, Sispert the two-headed dragon (named after film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert), the faces baby Elora pulls, Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton as Rool and Franjean, a couple of French-sounding thumb-sized warriors and the brilliant scene where the audience is introduced to the fairy Queen, the list is endless. Almost the perfect family adventure, pretty damn close anyway. 
About Time
Dir: Richard Curtis
2013
****
I'm not much of a fan of Richard Curtis' film work but I have always loved the TV shows he's written over the years. I liked Four Weddings and a Funeral when it came out, saw through its incredibly pompous facade and saw it for the rather sweetened love story that it was. I liked the idea behind The Boat that Rocked but I didn't think it reached its full potential, Bean should have remained a TV show, I disliked Bridget Jones and I loathe Love Actually. I didn't sit down to About Time with high expectations. Early on in the film the brilliant Domhnall Gleeson came across as a bit of a Hugh Grant, very much like his character in Four Weddings and a Funeral in fact. Indeed, many of the characters seemed rather familiar in their behaviour, it is safe to say the cast were very much on Richard Curtis mode, which I really didn't like. Being a bit of a nerd, and a hopeless romantic, I loved the fact that this was a sci-fi romance. However, very early on in the film we are given the basic rules of Time-travel, only to watch each and every one of these rules broken in each chapter. The very specific type of time-travel featured in the film is very clever, it means the plot can never get too complicated or indeed, too silly. However, the truth is that the film became more and more convoluted as the film progressed, almost feeling like it was made up on the spot without and real conclusion in mind, or at least with a beginning and an end with a good hour of filler. It is incredibly frustrating to be shown a great idea, only to witness the author destroy it in front of your very eyes. Domhnall Gleeson's character uses his powers to change the past in order to give himself a better future. Nothing wrong with that, apart from the fact that he stalks and eventually tricks himself into bed with the young Rachel McAdams. This didn't sit well with me in the slightest. All the other negative elements of the film I could overlook but this is the film's gaping wound. I actually really enjoyed everything else about the film, it is spectacularly over-sentimental but when done well it is something that is hard to resist. The later scenes with Gleeson's character's father, played by the brilliant Bill Nighy are genuinely tender and actually quite profound. It was an example of brilliant writing and excellent performance that made these later scenes rather magic. The plot holes were irritating and the ethics questionable but the conclusion and the message at the end more than made up for it. 

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Son of Saul
Dir: László Nemes
2015
****
László Nemes' astonishing 2015 drama deals with the Sonderkommandos working in the Nazi extermination camps, in this case Auschwitz. The film follows Saul, a shadow of a man who has developed an autopilot-like state of mind who helps lead Jews into the gas chambers and cleans them out once everyone is dead. Seen as the ultimate traitors, Son of Saul puts a much more realistic truth behind the Sonderkommandos and what they were forced to do. One day a boy is discovered to have survived the gas and is brought out for medical opinion. While a Nazi officer strangles the boy dead, Saul suddenly realizes that the boy is his own son. He then focuses his attention at giving the boy a proper Jewish burial, at all costs. It is as harrowing as it sounds, immensely powerful viewing but often uncomfortable to witness. The film is shot in shallow focus and has actor Géza Röhrig's head and shoulders constantly in centre picture. This constant portrait gives the film a focused edge and Röhrig's brilliant performance is enhanced. However, as ground-breaking as it is, it becomes rather frustrating to watch after a short time. This isn't like any other film that deals with the concentration camps or the holocaust. There is no melodrama, cheap tricks and not is it dishonest. There is a great modesty to the film which is where its greatest achievement lies. I just wish it had been filmed in a different format. It could be argued that it would then be a totally different film but I longed for there to be at least one long short before the end credits rolled and I think the film could have benefited from it. The experience this way of filming gave isn't without credit but when it distracts from the story at hand then I'm not sure it really achieved what it intended to. That said, Son of Saul is all about the performances. The script is simple and precise but it is the actor’s eyes that make the film what it is. The last scene is bold, unexpected and somewhat open to interpretation but the best I've seen for a while. It is suitably haunting, tastefully handled and a stark reminder of the horror experienced by these people. Maybe the way it is filmed should be applauded for the way it effects the viewer, as director Lars Von Trier once said, "a film should be like a stone in your shoe", I'm really not sure, but it isn't a film I will forget. 
Bobby
Dir: Emilio Estevez
2006
***
You've got to hand it to actor turned director Emilio Estevez for actually completing Bobby, a look at the people and events surrounding the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968. Estevez encountered many issues in making the film, the toughest challenge being writers block. After speaking to a woman who was actually there on the day of the assassination and who worked at the Hotel, Estevez had his first character (who was played by Lindsay Lohan in the film) and the rest soon fell into place. The cast is an impressive mix of actors most of who have worked with Estevez at one time or another. It includes Harry Belafonte, Mary Winstead, Laurence Fishburne, Heather Graham, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Joshua Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Shia LeBeouf, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, Freddy Rodriguez, Estevez's Dad Martin Sheen, Christian Slater, Sharon Stone, Elijah Wood and Estevez himself, as well as many more actors who have since gone on too much success. The characters are mainly fictional, each representing an element of society in the late 60s and the political unrest of the era. Estevez has each character explore topics such as drugs, racism, war and marriage. We see characters marry out of convenience to prevent other from being drafted into the Vietnam war, Mexican busboys comparing the way they are treated compared to others, a washed up entertainer, a retired doorman, a young black man making his way up the political ladder, a drug seller and two young men experimenting with acid for the first time and many other sub-plots that go some way to show life in 68', what the attitude, hopes and fears of the people were, in the run up to the presidential election. There is something very Robert Altman about the film but it's not quite up to the same standards. When it's good it’s great but it is bad, it's really frustratingly so. There is just far too much going on, it's an amazing cast but it's just a little too crowded, with many of the stories and characters getting in the way of the overall plot and fluidity of the film. The scenes in the kitchen and raw and quite powerful, the drug taking scenes are pretty bad generally and Ashton Kutcher's hippy drug dealer nearly ruins the whole movie in my opinion. It's so close but boy does it need editing, shame really as the use of old footage mixed with new is very effective. 
Six Days, Seven Nights
Dir: Ivan Reitman
1998
**
Of all of Ivan Reitman's various films, 1998's Six Days, Seven Nights feels the least Ivan Reitman-like. It's quite exciting, has a lot going for it and I didn't hate it, it is just that it suffers from being overstuffed with unnecessariness. There is a wife-swapping element that doesn't really work, poor old David Schwimmer would have had a huge array of offers during this time, I guess he went with the location over script though, as he isn't given much to go with. Jacqueline Obradors also chose poorly and seems to be lumbered with somewhat of a stereotype. I liked Harrison Ford's performance and character very much, he carries the film on his shoulders quite admirably but I'm afraid to say, it is Anne Heche who ruins the movie for me. She is a great actress but is totally miscast in this role. She is never convincing as a high-powered journalist and is horrible at physical comedy. To be fair on her, she was also given one of the worse scripts that has ever been written. Both her and Ford try very hard to convince the audience there is chemistry between them when the script seems to suggest the opposite. Heche's character is written as spoiled, fickle, brattish and unreasonable throughout, it is never clear what Ford's character sees in her or what she sees in him, apart from his apparent manliness. It's a little too simple for my liking and a little ridiculous too. Everything the couple achieve while shipwrecked is outrageously unrealistic, it is hard to take any of it seriously, even when not taking it particularly seriously. Some may say it is just a bit of fun, a likable romp but I would disagree. I found it to be generally quite irritating and somewhat of a missed opportunity. There aren't an abundance of shipwreck films in the scheme of things, the good ideas they did have were skipped over and overshadowed by nonsense. It could have been an intelligent romantic comedy-thriller but instead it was an unconvincing love-triangle comedy, with poor attempts at slap-stick with a misuse of a TV personality. Six Days, Seven Nights? It felt longer!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Victor Frankenstein
Dir: Paul McGuigan
2015
***
I feel very sorry for Max Landis (son of John and Deborah). While his reworking of Mary Shelly's masterpiece can be looked at as an opportunity to simply cash in on the success that Guy Richie had with his adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, there is still much to enjoy and admire about it. The story of Frankenstein and his monster has been explored time and time again in cinema, each new adaptation changing a bit here and a bit there from the original story. One of the big changes early on in the film versions was that Victor Frankenstein was given an assistant. In the classic 1931 version we remember this character as Igor, even though his name in the film was Fritz, but a few subsequent films have featured him as an integral character to the story. I would argue that the better Frankenstein films have their Igors but believe it or not, not many of them include him at all. The reason Igor has entered the public's psyche is because he is featured in what I regard as the two best adaptations, the 1931 version and, my personal favourite, Young Frankenstein. Since then, Igor has appeared in many non-Frankenstein films but in very similar roles. He has worked with Count Dracula, Ducks (Count Duckula), Tomatoes (Return of the Killer Tomatoes) and transvestites (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) but changed his name to Riff Raff. His influence is out there. So to buck the trend of 'going back to the original source material', Max Landis has made a serious version of what has always been somewhat of a joke character. His idea is great. Igor is introduced as a Circus Freak who is saved by Victor Frankenstein while on the hunt for spare animal parts. It's a dark, mysterious and very original introduction to the character. from the onset, the film looks stunning, a gothic noir but with bright colours and vivid imagery. Myths and misconceptions are corrected to give the story believability, which helps the film feel like it's a historical piece rather than a work of fiction. The direction and cinematography is stunning throughout, although certain elements are a bit tired looking, overused and didn't fit the overall theme. Early on, the film is a little too action-like, which again doesn't suit the story or characters very well. Victor Frankenstein did very poorly at the box office and was generally panned by the critics. Personally I think it was written off as another new film based on an old idea. I think the critics were a bit harsh to be honest. However, it does have one huge flaw that makes my three star score seem a little generous. I've said it before and I find myself saying it again, Daniel Radcliffe can't act. It is this one bit of casting that ruins the film. James McAvoy is great, he plays the title character perfectly and carries the film on his shoulders. In fact, he seems to put in extra effort due to Radcliffe's unconvincing and cardboard performance. Andrew Scott is also very good as Inspector Roderick Turpin but I wonder if his previous role as Moriarty in the BBC series Sherlock made audiences think this was another lazy copy of another successful adaptation's style. Personally I think they got pretty much everything right, apart from the most important character in the film, which is ultimately a big issue. I really liked the monster too but Radcliffe pretty much destroys all enjoyment. I'm giving credit where it is due, I honestly think this could have been a future classic had it not been for one poor element and unfortunately, that one poor element was enough to ruin much of the film.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond
Dir: Justin Lin
2016
**
I'm a Trekkie but not a fan of this rebooted version of the franchise, I thought Star Trek was lazy and missed the point of the original idea and that Star Trek Into Darkness was an absolute travesty that only backed up my opinion that J.J. Abrams doesn't understand Gene Roddenberry's beautiful vision or indeed know what it is the fans really want. I don't buy that this version is for 'a new generation' either, that's just lazy PR speak for 'we're changing it because we don't know how to replicate the greatness of the original, so we'll turn it into a soulless action film'. This is the third film so I knew what to expect, they're still making these film because they know there are lots of people like me who will go and see their Star Trek film regardless, in the desperate hope that they will make something that resembles that of what we all fell in love with in the original. At the very least I thought it couldn't be as bad as the last one and it isn't. I thought the special effects were the best of the three so far, they are nothing short of phenomenal. In Star Trek Beyond the crew visit a starbase called Yorktown which is a giant sized bubble with its own internal atmosphere and cityscape and it looks fantastic. The grand finale which sees the USS Franklin fly in and around the starbase is visually stunning and rather exciting too. I thought Chris Pine was rather good this time round, finally nailing the Kirk character and William Shatner's mannerisms. Zoe Saldana's Uhura and Anton Yelchin's Chekov were given more screen-time this time round which I thought was well deserved and Sofia Boutella's Jaylah was a positive inclusion for a non-regular character. She kicked ass in fact. Unfortunately, that is pretty much all I enjoyed about the film. Chris Pine was a good Kirk but somehow Zachary Quinto's Spock wasn't as strong as it was in the first two films. Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy wasn't given any good scenes or lines, John Cho's Sulu had about five minutes of screen time and I still don't think Simon Pegg is right as Scotty. I still have no idea why Deep Roy's Keenser exists in the first place, let alone how the character made it to film number three. Idris Elba does his job well but his villainous character is pretty weak as bad-guys go and has one of the worst character development/back stories in a Star Trek film, ever. This was the first of the new films to really branch out on its own without referencing anything that had (or hadn't in this versions case) happened before. This was the Enterprise crew on their famous five year mission, this should have been Star Trek going back to the original but it really wasn't. It was reminiscent of a feature-length Star Trek episode but still nothing like and of its incarnations. When we saw the Enterprise burn up and crash in Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock it was a big deal, a heart-breaking scene. These days, the Enterprise crashes and burns every single film, surely Kirk and crew would have been sacked by now? Star Trek Beyond follows a lazy formula, it is Star Trekesque but still nothing really like it. It's a big dumb action film at the end of the day, simply described as 'fun' by most critics and younger viewers it seems. Star Trek was always much more than that. Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier is often mocked but at least it dealt with an interesting theory, the possibility of God, ethics, revolution, self-awareness and true friendship. The new Star Trek is nothing like it, it has no depth, and no soul and is just cheap imitation with lots of explosions. So desperate were Paramount to create something 'inclusive' as they put it, the original script was rejected for being 'too Star Treky' and they insisted the film be brought down to earth. Cue motorcycle stunts, Beastie Boys music and mind-numbing action. Don't get me wrong, I like all three of those things but Star Trek is not where I would generally go for that sort of thing. Star Trek has always been an intelligent analysis of humankind through the lives of fictional life-forms in a futuristic development, now it is just wobbly cameras, perfect hair and TNT. The story is completely forgettable, unoriginal and tiresomely simple. Artificial, charmless but nice to look at in places.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Concussion
Dir: Peter Landesman
2015
***
2015's Concussion tells the true story of Dr Bennet Omalu's discovery of a particular chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) in American Football players. Dr Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) was the on-call pathologist working at the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania coroner's office at the time when Football legend Mike Webster (played by David Morse) was brought in after being discovered dead in his pick-up-truck back in 2002. Dr. Omalu was so perplexed by Webster's condition that he dedicated a lot of time and his own money into researching it further, naive of how the all powerful NFL would react. Peter Landesman's film documents this fascinating scientific breakthrough by exploring the process of authentication when publishing a scientific paper, while also highlighting the corruption of large corporate organisations. It is essentially a battle of science vs. Football and no matter who wins, there are always going to be some unhappy people, and more than likely, they will be powerful and rich. As well as scientific research and good old fashioned corruption, what the story really highlights is the public's acceptance that ignorance is bliss. Tell people whatever you want, just don't take their sport away from them. The level of denial is staggering and this is told brilliantly through the eyes of Dr. Omalu, a Nigerian who worked hard and crossed the Atlantic in search of the American dream and a better life. What I didn't like however was the melodramatic way the story is told. Dr. Omalu met his future wife around the same time as the film is set but their romance takes up way too much of the film and it really isn't relevant to the case in point. The film forces the notion that Dr. Omalu is a kind and thoughtful man to the point that you wonder if it is true, because why else are they pushing it so much? It seems to pander to the sort of people who would never be interested in the first place. I'm not suggesting for one moment that a film shouldn't challenge anyone but backing up the scientific message with the bombardment of 'but he believes in god too' became tiresome and rather annoying. It is an interesting and intelligent story but it isn't so challenging an idea that it needed to be spoon-fed. There is an awful lot of looking in mirrors and out of windows for my liking. Will Smith's performance is good and particularly strong in places but his accent could have done with a lot more work. Albert Brooks steals the show as Dr. Omalu's mentor, Dr. Cyril Wecht who was directly bribed by the FBI as a way of targeting Omalu's work. Alec Baldwin, David Morse and Gugu Mbatha-Raw give great support, although Mbatha-Raw is given a fairly bad script to work with. It's a fascinating story, it has just been manhandled, sugar-coated and simplified a little too much for it to be the truly great film it should have been.
Top Secret!
Dir: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker
1984
**
I've heard nothing but good things about 1984's Top Secret! over the years but it wasn't until 2016 that I actually sat down to watch it. Jim Abrahams, the Brothers Zucker, (AKA Team AZA) made Airplane!, Hot Shots!, Police Squad and the Naked Gun movies, I honestly thought I was in for a treat but to my dismay, I really didn't think much of it. There was much to enjoy, team AZA's visual skits were as funny as always in idea but I don't think the usually great comedy timing worked at all. Maybe it is a nostalgia thing, I didn't see it when it was relevant but that said, the Elvis Presley movies and old Cold War dramas weren't particularly current in 1984. Combining the two genres to spoof was an interesting idea but I'm not sure it always worked. Most of the bigger sketches are more puzzling than funny, the underwater saloon fight being one of the, It is an amazing scene that must have taken hours of planning and even longer time to film. It's not very funny though, just really surreal. The problem is that it is impossible not to compare it to AZA's other films, Val Kilmer is great at the Elvis stuff but the film lacks its Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges or Robert Stack. I'm probably sounding a bit picky and when remembering some of the jokes and scenes I find myself chuckling at the idea and I think that's my point, on paper it sounds really funny, the writing is brilliant, it just never quite lives up to it in the performances, direction or editing. It is a masterpiece compared to the current comedies the trio are working on, and after the billionth Scary Movie you do wonder whether they got lucky and why so many directors say they are only going to make a limited amount of movies in their careers. Pioneers of comedy for sure, I just don't think Top Secret! is as good as everyone says it is. 
Carry On Up the Jungle
Dir: Gerald Thomas
1970
***
Carry On Up the Jungle is the nineteenth Carry On film to be made and although there is much to enjoy, it is one of the more half-hearted entries. When I say half-hearted I don't mean in terms of set, I mean in term of story. The story is one huge misconception, with Africa being confused with India, Africans being cannibals and the mix of Tarzan spoof and 'Cave Girl' parody confusing the story. It just seems like it was written in a hurry, which it more than likely was. It is a huge departure from the sixteenth Carry On, Carry On Up the Khyber, that got it so right and only two years previous. It also recycles many of the great lines from previous Carry On films which is very noticeable and rather lazy of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas. It also features Bernard Bresslaw 'blacked up' which is a rather unfortunate sign of the times. The biggest issue I have with the film and the biggest flaw most Carry On fans will have, is that Kenneth Williams is absent. That said, Terry Scott as a loin-clothed Tarzan is a work of genius. Frankie Howard returns of his second and final Carry On outing and is a welcome inclusion as is the great Kenneth Connor after a nine film sabbatical. One wonders whether the film would have worked better had it been split into two different movies; a Tarzan spoof and a 'Cave women' film. Alas, Carry On Up the Jungle represents the franchise just as the wheels were starting to loosen, with the franchise losing its way from here on with only one really good film to come out of the twelve that would follow.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Interview with a Murderer
Dir: David Howard
2016
****
On the 19th September 1976, 13 year old Carl Bridgewater was shot dead while delivering newspapers to a farm near the town of Stourbridge, Staffordshire. His murder sparked a huge man hunt and shocked the nation to its core. After intensive police investigations, convicted armed robbers Patrick Molloy, James Robinson and cousins Michael and Vincent Hickey were arrested with Michael Hickey directly accused of the murder. They became known as the Bridgewater Four. However, the four admitted their crimes but always denied the murder, in 1997 they won an appeal when it became clear that Molloy had been bullied by police into signing a confession and the surviving men were freed. Once again, attention turned to the man the police had originally suspected. Bert Spencer was initially the main suspect after he fit the description of a man seen fleeing the murder scene minutes after the murder. Spencer was known at the farm, had a gun licence and would shoot around the farm's grounds and lived five doors down from victim Carl Bridgewater. If this weren't enough, shortly after the Bridgewater Four were imprisoned, Spencer shot dead his friend Hubert Wilkes in a very similar way to how Carl was killed. He served a life sentence for his crime and was released in 1995. While writing his in-depth book on the subject (Scapegoat for Murder: The truth about the killing of Carl Bridgewater), crime-writer Simon W. Golding approached criminologist Professor David Wilson to interview Spencer to see if he could find an answer that would match his theories. Spencer agreed. Professor David Wilson remained impartial and led his own investigations into the crime and interviewed Spencer, his alibi and his ex-wife to draw his own conclusions. What follows is an eerily disturbing and intriguing journey into a damaged mind. Bert Spencer is a murderer but whether he killed Carl Bridgewater remains a frustrating unanswered question but after time, David Wilson discovers an alternative theory that might just have some weight to it. The documentary goes from run-of-the-mill to edge-of-your-seat very quickly with unpredictable twists coming fast and furious. Nothing is staged and everything is as it happens which makes for almost painfully compelling viewing. A one of a kind crime documentary that deserves a follow up in time.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Joy
Dir: David O. Russell
2015
****
While Jennifer Lawrence received deserved praise for her role as Joy Mangano in this semi-biographical drama, David O. Russell's direction received a mixed response. Personally, I think it is one of his greatest achievements yet. If you don't like the quirks of Joy, then I'm not sure you like the real David O. Russell and I'm not sure we've seen the real Mr. O. Russell since 2004's I ♥ Huckabees. Joy Mangano's story could have been told in many various ways but essentially, her success and the way she achieved it is the typical formula to every feel-good film about success, fortune and overcoming adversity. David O. Russell sticks to this formula but makes it something new, something totally different from the norm even though it is something we have seen many times before. He doesn't embellish as such but he does highlight certain issues to the point where the film can't be considered 100% factual. However, the important bits are there, certain fictional characters are created to highlight certain social constraints and challenges Joy faced in real life but this emphasises what the film is really about. It's not really about someone who can do something, it is always clear that Joy is capable, it is about the idea, or the belief I should say, that certain people can't and will never be able to do certain things, which is of course ridiculous. Indeed, the film often feels a little bit ridiculous but then such is life, which is exactly what David O. Russell is so good at exploring. Jennifer Lawrence is perfect in the title role, I'm now convinced she could play any part brilliantly and make it look effortless. Pairing Robert De Niro and Isabella Rossellini as lovers was a genius move and I don't think Rossellini has given a better performance in years. It's great to see Edgar Ramirez in mainstream cinema for a change and the wonderful Diane Ladd really glues the story together as was intended and as she always does. Virginia Madsen's performance was something of a change in direction but a very welcome one, hopefully she'll get some meatier roles off the back of it, I believe she's been underappreciated for far too long. Bradley Cooper is good, I like him a lot and he was given some of the film's best lines but his character has a little too much screen time considering it is a fictional character and it felt like it was a role written especially for him by a friend, which is exactly what it was. I think one of my personal favourite performances was from Melissa Rivers who played her own late mother Joan Rivers who was a regular on QVC at the same time as Joy Mangano. The pace of the film was criticised more than anything but I couldn't disagree with that sentiment more, I thought the overall structure of Joy was refreshingly original, without gimmick but ordered into intelligent chapters. Joy may well be 2015's most overlooked film with huge 'future classic' potential.
Spies Like Us
Dir: John Landis
1985
***
1985 comedy Spies Like Us was written by Dan Aykroyd and Dave Thomas and was intended to be a sort of tribute to the old Road to... comedies that stared Bob Hope and Bing Crosby between 1940 and 1962. It was one of a string of films including Ghostbusters and Dragnet that Aykroyd had intended as a vehicle for he and comedy partner John Belushi before he died of a drugs overdose in 1982. Universal dropped the project after Belushi's death but after a few rewrites Warner Bros. picked it up and gave Aykroyd quite a bit of freedom. It's not great but it has its moments. John Landis was a wise choice of director as he clearly understands and appreciates this kind of humour, although this sort of shtick had been done better before. Chevy Chase is a great physical comedian and although much of his performance is overcooked, I never tire of watching his 80s comedies. Aykroyd and Chase work pretty well together but never really convince as a lasting comedy duo and indeed, they paired up again. The jokes are very hit and miss, when they're good they're great but when they're bad they stink. It's a very average comedy in an era where many a classic was made. What makes Spies Like Us interesting to be is the countless tributes it contains. Warner Bros. was happy to let Aykroyd praise his cinema heroes and the film contains some fascinating cameos. Bob Hope is the most obvious guest star, given that it is a Road to... tribute but the film also contains Aykroyd's favorite film makers, including special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, Greek Auteur Costa-Gavras, director and animator Terry Gilliam and master effects designer Derek Meddings as a group of field doctors and writer/director geniuses Joel Coen, Sam Raimi and Marten Breast as security guards. Writer, director, producer and actor Michael Apted is joined by b-movie legend Larry Cohen and music legend B.B. King as undercover special agents. It's like Aykroyd's movie version of Simon Patterson's The Great Bear. Plenty to enjoy and if you're a cinephile like me it'll keep you on your toes and what I will say is that while I found it average, average 80's comedies are generally miles ahead of of what are considered the best comedies of the subsequent decades.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Janis: Little Girl Blue
Dir: Amy J. Berg
2015
***
Amy J. Berg's document of the life and times of Janis Joplin reveals an interesting childhood and a suggestion of how that affected her later life but with no real revelation of who she really was and what made her tick. I'm not sure any fan of the singer would learn anything they didn't already know from this 2015 documentary but it does feature some brilliant talking head interviews from the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Bob Weir, D.A. Pennebaker, Dick Cavett and surviving members of Big Brother and the Holding Company. While it was interesting to hear about her childhood rebellion against the local KKK, to hear her letters read aloud by Cat Power and to see some amazing archive footage of her interviews and concerts, it is the story of her tragic lost love Dave Niehaus that really got me. After hearing about all the torment, anger, frustration and fear Janis went through, she really could have been saved by Niehaus, whom she met in Rio de Janeiro during Mardi gras. We learn towards the ending of the film that the last thing Janis did the night she died was write a letter to Niehaus, declaring her eternal love for him. Unfortunately this makes up only a few minutes of the film. Even though she was only 27 when she died, a 90 minute film was always going to struggle to cover everything with the detail it deserved, I just don't think the really interesting stuff made the final edit (although it should be said that the editing itself is brilliant). Maybe I'm being unfairly tough on Berg but I believe she has always asked for a certain approach from her critics. Deliver Us from Evil is a hell of a film but I thought her 2012 film West of Memphis, as good as it was, stepped on the toes of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky somewhat and you've always got to look at why a fellow documentary maker would do that to another. I think the biggest issue I had was that I thought that it would probably only appeal to fans of Joplin and her music. A really good documentary should appeal to everyone but that's just my opinion.
Quatermass 2
Dir: Val Guest
1957
**
After the success of 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment the Hammer studios were keen to produce a follow up. They had an idea that was rejected by Quatermass author Nigel Kneale but they decided to make the film anyone, using a different name for the main character. It is clearly a Quatermass film, it's just that the name is different and it was called X the Unknown. It is a much better film that what would become the official sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment, by a country mile in fact. The story progresses at a painfully slow rate, the special effects are shadow compered to the original and X the Unknown and the great Val Guest seems a shadow of his former self. The 'cinema verite' techniques used in the first film just look amateurish and uninteresting in the follow up. While it is said that Guest and Kneale had an amicable working relationship, for me it is clear that not everyone's heart was in it, and all the effort in visual realism is wasted given the film's terrible performances. A story that starts with such mystery and intrigue soon turns into a tale of who could care less and has little of the terror, suspense and sci-fi horror that everyone loved about the first film. I can't help but agree with Nigel Kneale about the choice of Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. He only seems to have one dimension to his performance and by the end of the film you almost wish that the alien plant/blob things had won. Farst forward to 1967 for what I believe is the best incarnation of the character in Quatermass and the Pit.
Don't Lose Your Head (AKA Carry On Don't Lose Your Head)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
1966
***
Don't Lose Your Head is the thirteenth film in the Carry On series but it was the first to drop the 'Carry On' from the title, although it was added years later. After twelve films, producer Peter Rogers was forced to look for a new distribution company and the Rank Organisation were interested but there was a legal question over the ownership of the 'Carry On' title. Rogers later commented that they dropped the 'Carry On' from the title because the film didn't need it, due to the film being more 'visual' than the previous films in the series. Both Rogers and Rank stated that they were both so confident that their film was so good they didn't need the 'Carry On' title any longer. In a contradictory move, the film opened up with the line 'Carry On laughing until you have hysterics but Don't Lose Your Head'. There were various title ideas, many of them long and few of them catchy. To avoid confusion, the American release simply called it Carry On Pimpernal and the British distributors followed suit soon after, realising that, after thirteen films, branding does actually play a big part in a franchise. There has been lots of talk of poor working conditions and issues between cast members but I've always thought Don't Lose Your Head is one of the under-sung entries to the series. A spoof of The Scarlet Pimpernal, the Carry On team puts Sid James in the main role, as the dandy to the rescue, The Black Fingernail. It's certainly one of the Carry On's better parodies, but it is Charles Hawtrey who steals the show this time. As his character, the Duke de Pommefrite, is laying on the guillotine awaiting the blade to fall he is suddenly handed a telegram, to which he replies "Oh just pop it in the basket, I'll read it later". It is as crude as you'd expect from the franchise but it does have some cracking one-liners in it.