Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Levelling
Dir: Hope Dickson Leach
2017
*****
On paper, Hope Dickson Leach’s 2017 farm-based drama about a suicide and an estranged father and daughter, doesn’t quite sound like a riveting way of spending 90 minutes. However, when not being treated to some of the most beautifully ‘normal’ compositions of the English countryside, the performances in The Levelling are some of the best of the year by quite a margin. I didn’t really imagine that flooding, insurance and pesky badgers could be compelling subjects but the chemistry between David Troughton’s heavy drinking Aubrey and Clover, his long absent daughter, played by Ellie Kendrick, is subtle when it needs to be and electric when it counts. We learn fairly early on that Clover’s brother Harry committed suicide, prompting Clover to return to the family farm after many years of absence. Father and daughter clearly resent each other over historical acts and subsequent arguments but as the story unfolds the characters develop and a misery emerges. Influenced by the likes of Kelly Reichardt and the Dardenne Brothers, The Levelling is quite the feature debut. Much of the film cut through me, while never once becoming anything more than ordinary. Harry’s suicide is referred to as just a ‘stupid mistake’ and when Clover is asked by a concerned friend if there is anything he can do, she quips “Unless you can make it my father instead of my brother, then no”. There is a bleakness to it but it is well worth the perseverance as there is, for once in a British drama, a sense of purpose and resolve. It is grey and muddy but after the plot has been fully mucked out and the animals fed, you can see a much larger and brighter picture. Life is tough, farm life is really tough and watching a trainee vet and vegetarian cull a new-born purely because it is born a male and there for non-profitable, it highlights the attitude attributed and the ‘stuff’ needed to survive such a lifestyle. The film is like a painting brought to life and it has a menacing presence about it, an eerie feeling of impending doom that turns out to be something quite different than what I first anticipated. There is a richness of quality about the production, it is ultra-real but also otherworldly at times. The performances are brilliant; David Troughton says everything in his silence and the swift changes of emotion that Ellie Kendrick conveys are just phenomenal. It’s a visually stunning film and it has a strong script, but it would be only half the film it is without the two lead performances. Independent British films often fall by the wayside, hopefully The Levelling has received enough hype now for that not to happen, because it is easily one of the best British films of the last decade.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Downsizing
Dir: Alexander Payne
2017
*****
The fact that Alexander Payne’s best film to date has gone pretty much gone uncelebrated by the greater audience makes me sad. I know satire has pretty much been killed off in recent years but I had hoped that more subtle social satires would continue, and maybe even thrive, on this odd little planet we find ourselves upon. Written with long-term collaborator Jim Taylor and in the pip-line for many years, Downsizing is probably the most accomplished social satire to add aspects of sci-fi and theoretical circumstance into life as we know it. The film is brilliant on many different levels. Firstly, it conjures an idea (miniaturization) and explores the possibilities it could bring, alongside the many probables. Our protagonist (played by Matt Damon) is an every-man, an average, journeying himself through many twist and turns on a voyage of betterment. After being sold the idea that ‘shrinking’ yourself is beneficial to the environment, a reduction in size means that not only do you cost less, but your outgoings are reduced, meaning that a struggling worker of normal proportions can live like a king once reduced in size. All you need to do is sell everything you own and relocate to Leisureland – a vast state-sized world of white picket fences and tennis courts, the middle-American dream, all housed in a football sized arena. You can still travel, eat out and see your ‘big’ friends though, as many companies are encouraged to begin catering to the smaller customer. A ridiculous concept that isn’t really that ridiculous. Payne and Taylor’s script never once becomes farcical, everything that goes wrong is utterly believable, the human element being imperfect as it is. Our protagonist Paul soon finds himself in dire straits when his wife (Kristen Wiig), who was meant to go through the process with him, pulls out at the last minute, making their plans of living in luxury a distant memory. Living in a small apartment and working in telemarketing, Paul soon finds his life hasn’t changed for the better and he is now essentially trapped, both in size and in ‘paradise’. This scenario was already deliciously dry, the film being both sad and hilarious at this point, and then Payne and Taylor up the ante. Through a range of bizarre and brilliant circumstances, Paul finds himself in the company of the elite, wealthy black-marketers, refugees and the species’ very saviors. It’s somewhere between Tales of the Unexpected and Black Mirror but somehow totally believable, indeed, you soon release that in taking themselves out of society, the smaller people are seeing the world in its most honest state and people as they really are. Its brilliance is in being incredibly clever, while also being completely exclusive. Aspects of the scenario bring up issues regarding real life that one may have never thought of, making it quite a profound story. Maybe the inclusion of cast members such as Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis and Matt Damon led to many thinking this would be a different kind of comedy than it is – pretty small minded if you ask me but I get it. Shame, as it also features Christoph Waltz in the best role he’s had in ages, the brilliant Udo Keir who I adore in this and last, but not least, Hong Chau in what I believe is the best performance by an actress of the year - hands down. Chau is utterly convincing and totally captivating. Credit to him, Matt Damon is also good, although I can think of several people who could have played Paul. The cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern are a treat and it was wonderful to see the great Rolf Lassgard in his first English-language movie. The concept is brought to life quite brilliantly with impressive but realistic effects – the giant viewing platforms add a subtle menace in classic dystopian style, while the little people are lifted from their beds with kitchen spatulas following their shrinking procedure. I think many people didn’t like it because they weren’t sure when to laugh, as the film never tells them, such is the state modern cinema is in. Big budget ideas from the minds of clever ‘indie’ directors puzzle people and they they get caught up in the least important aspects of the story and totally miss the point it actually tries to make. This isn’t Honey I Shrunk the Kids. It’s actually a lot more like the brilliant (and also overlooked) Defending Your Life. Still, life goes on, the majority of people will still continue to think that Alexander Payne’s best film is still Election (it really isn’t) and Matt Damon will no doubt make another Bourne movie. I hope Downsizing gathers a second wind and becomes the next Synecdoche, New York but I won’t hold my breath. Many a masterpiece falls by the wayside though, so at least it is in good company.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Thief
Dir: Michael Mann
1981
*****
I whole-heartedly believe that the 1970s was and is the best decade when it comes to film. The 1980s comes close, but Michael Mann’s feature film debut Thief is a 70s film in the 80s but features the best of both decades. It is probably Mann’s best film to date, with Manhunter and The Keep close behind (I like Heat a lot but always thought LA Takedown was actually better). Thief is James Cann’s favorite film of his own (just behind The Godfather) and I would argue that it represents the last of a certain sort of thriller and the beginning of a new era. It is similar to the great crime thrillers of the 1970s but it also has something refreshingly updated about it, manly thanks to the characters, performances and its somewhat neo-noir existential stylings. Mann made Caan research everything he could about being a thief and hired several ex-safe crackers as advicers, many of whom ended up with parts in the film. The safe that Cann’s character Frank drills into in the beginning sequence was a real safe that the film production team bought for $100,000 and Cann actually learned how to drill into it and does so in one take. Cann got into character thanks to his research and after that the film almost wrote itself. The story is based on Frank Hohimer’s 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, but Caan based his character on John Santucci, who had been recently paroled for burglary and was hired as technical adviser, as well as playing corrupt cop Detective Urizzi. Caan avoided as direct impersonation, as he felt it would be too comedic given his exuberant personality, and the role became something of a challenge with Caan later admitting "I like to be emotionally available, but this guy is available to nothing."  Personally think it’s one of his greatest performances. The café scene between Caan and Tuesday Weld is now considered a classic and is one of my personal favorites of all time. It’s a magical moment that keeps you second guessing and totally convinces the viewer they are watching something real. Weld’s tears were real and Caan has since admitted it is the best piece of acting he’s ever done and is proud of the most. I love how technical the film is and how precise everything is without losing any charm or magic. I also love how upside-down it is, what with having a real life criminal play a detective and two police officers play criminals (Nick Nickeas was an ex-Chicago cop and Dennis Farina was still serving at the time of filming). It looks amazing throughout, thanks to Mann’s vision and his ability to convince the producers to pay for things most producers would refuse to pay for (a real safe, a real drill, a sixty-thousand gallon water truck to keep the streets constantly wet and a real house to explode – although it wasn’t meant to fully explode, far too much dynamite was used in error). The soundtrack also has a huge part to play in the overall sleek feel of the film. The brilliant Tangerine Dream supplied a dreamy synth score that worked perfectly with the mood, tone and overall feel of the production. It is sublime and horribly underrated. Mann had made great TV for a number of years before his move in to feature films and his first few are outstanding. I’m not sure what happened really, but much as I’m sure people will tell me it is Heat, I personally think Thief is Mann’s true masterpiece.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

American Made
Dir: Doug Liman
2017
****
I really enjoyed 2017’s American Made, although it did frustrate somewhat. It’s based on the true story of American pilot Barry Seal who smuggled drugs into the country in the late 70s and early 80s. It star Tom Cruise in the lead role and features Domhnall Gleeson as a CIA agent and Sarah Wright as Seal’s wife Lucy. Seal is caught smuggling Cuban cigars while piloting for TWA and is secretly hired by the CIA to fly arms to South American rebels in order to help overthrow Communist governments. Seal is given his own plane, his own airport and a beautiful house with many acres of land. While in South America Seal is approached by the Cartel and soon finds himself running drugs for them for vast amounts of money. It is a film about the government being despicable and a man making money from arms and drugs and yet it is treated as something of a success story. Cruise’s Seal is incredibly likable, a bit naive, but not a big bad nasty criminal, more like a cheeky entrepreneur. Fine. We all love Henry Hill and wanted him to succeed in Goodfellas and George Jung (Blow) clearly just wanted to make the world a happier place – the money was just a bonus. It’s the American dream, capitalism in action, sure they are technically criminals but at least they’re getting off their backsides and doing something with their lives. It’s a classic tale of lovable rouge does well for himself. However, Seal wasn’t really like how he is depicted in this film in real life. Absolutely no surprise there. Director Doug Liman was upfront about it from the very beginning though and described the film as “a fun lie based on a true story” which I would say was a rather accurate description. The real Seal was a far less naive man and was openly unapologetic about his escapades. He always denied working for the CIA and he was very fat and un-Tom Cruise-like. The film is snappy and is directed with an excitable energy, giving it a consistent buzz of adrenaline but without losing momentum or becoming monotonous. Every single shot is thought-out and important, making it, in my opinion, one of the striking pieces of direction in 2017. The performances are good, the direction is good, the structure works wonderfully and there is little to criticize on. It is a well accomplished work of fictional fact/factual fiction. My only gripe, is that the American government was arming South American rebel groups – as the film states, and I worry that people won’t be as shocked about it as they should be. Its no revelation as this has been known for some time but a younger generation will probably be unaware and I worry that all they will see from the film is the success drug money can bring without really understanding what Seal’s actions lead to. He was a key player in making the world such a terrible place now. I need to remind myself of Liman’s words, it is “a fun lie based on a true story” but I just can’t help but think people should know the real story before they start having ‘fun’ with it. I think it might be making us less intelligent as a race. A thrilling piece of cinema that I have to say came as something of a pleasant surprise, very entertaining and cleverly directed. I just hope people read up on the true story and realise that it is a story of failure, rather than a story of success.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Watership Down
Dir: Martin Rosen
1978
*****
Martin Rosen's 1978 British animated adventure-drama thriller, based on the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams, is one of the toughest cartoons ever made, in that it is full of graphic brutality and abject beauty. It makes me cry each and every time I watch it, without fail. It features the voices of  some of Britain's greats, including John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne and Roy Kinnear, and was the last film work of Zero Mostel (best known for his role in Mel Brook's The Producers), as the voice of Kehaar the gull. It's probably most famous for its score by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson and Art Garfunkel's hit single "Bright Eyes", which was written by songwriter Mike Batt. Just thinking of the song makes me want to well up. The film was originally to be directed by John Hubley, who died in 1977. His work can still be found in the film, most notably in the "fable" scene. He was replaced by the film's producer Martin Rosen, which was to be his directorial debut. While much of the film is fantastical and based on mythology, there is something strikingly Orwellian about the story. According to Adams' Lapine language, culture and mythology, the world was created by the god Frith, who represents the Sun. All animals lived harmoniously, but the rabbits eventually multiplied, and their appetite led to a food shortage. At the prayers of the desperate animals, Frith warned the rabbit prince El-ahrairah to control his people, but was scoffed at. In retaliation, Frith gave special gifts to every animal, but some animals he made predators to prey upon the rabbits. Satisfied that El-ahrairah (Now also known as "Prince with a Thousand Enemies") had learned his lesson, Frith also gave the rabbits speed and cunning; while many would seek to kill them, the rabbits could survive by their wits and quickness. However, it's clearly not about rabbits at all. The rabbits themselves are kept rabbit-like, apart from their voices, but this is clearly a human fable about religion, politics and the fight for survival versus the fight for power. After the 'genesis story', which was rendered in a narrated simple cartoon fashion, the animation style changes to a detailed, naturalistic and at times, rather bloody one. There are concessions to render the animals anthropomorphic only to suggest that they have human voices and minds, some facial expressions for emotion and paw gestures, but generally not physically. They don't wear trousers, smoke pipes, drive cars or look like their voice actors. The animation backgrounds are beautiful watercolours but never too detail so no to distract from what is happening in the foreground. Although that said, the backgrounds and locations, especially Efrafa and the nearby railway, are based on the diagrams and maps in Richard Adams's original novel. Most of the locations in the movie either exist or were based on real spots in Hampshire and surrounding areas. Although the film is fairly faithful to the novel, several changes were made to the storyline, mainly to decrease overly detailed complexity and improve the pace and flow of the plot. In addition, the order in which some events occur is re-arranged. Unlike many animated features, the film faithfully emulated the dark and violent sophistication of the book which lead to a few problems regarding its classification. It was released as being suitable for children but has famously been reported to the British Board of Film Classification every year since 1978 by angry parents with upset children. It's a stunning animation, almost like Animal Farm but with bunnies instead of farm animals. It's a British classic and a huge part of my generation's childhood and a cartoon that was never afraid to treat children as intelligent human beings and not complete idiots. I love everything about it.

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Hitman's Bodyguard
Dir: Patrick Hughes
2017
***
The Hitman’s Bodyguard is fun. That is about as much as I can say about it really, but I think that’s fine. It is based on a script that appeared on the much hyped ‘Black List’ back in 2011 but it clearly went through a few changes since. The film is an action-comedy with a few serious bits thrown in but originally it was intended as a serious thriller. Laughable really, as the story itself is about as clichéd as it gets and is far from being the sort of thing that would find itself on the Black List. Writer Tom O’Connor thinks that Interpol are a sort of EU version of the CIA, a supranational law enforcement agency with agents in fast cars (black) and guns. They’re not. They don’t even have power of arrest. It comes as no surprise that the script was re-written into a comedy, however, it is amazing to learn that this last minute rewrite happened just two weeks before filming started. This is a film that was clearly in trouble and everyone involved took a huge gamble with it. I think it paid off in the long run, but it clearly isn’t the film O’Connor intended it to be. The action sequences are forgettable, the plot is ridiculous, the CGI is bad and it follows a familiar and rather boring formula. A ‘buddy’ film featuring two feuding partners has become a bottom of the barrel genre, but, Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson make it work. The chemistry between the two is literally the only thing that makes the film work and make worth watching. Gary Oldman’s choices of roles has been questionable for a few years now and pretty much any actor could have played his part. I liked Salma Hayek’s performance but I’m not sure the role totally suited her. I suspect that everything good about the script was written in that last minute rewrite, which is amazing as it is intriguing. Seat of your pants film making can be a wonderful thing and this is clearly the proof. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is no masterpiece but it is incredibly likable and entertaining. The original script was submitted in 2011 and it took five years before filming began but everything good about it took just two weeks before filming. It makes you wonder whether these film studios actually know what they’re doing? Clearly they knew they had a potential turkey on their hands and that’s why the drastic last minute rewrites happened but to leave it so late is incredible to me, considering the work and money that is poured into films these days. Maybe more films should be written this way, because if this is what two weeks of panic writing looks like, just think of what could be achieved in one, or even just three days! It’s impossible too take this film seriously (although watching our character’s route from Manchester to Dover is excruciatingly incorrect) but its entertaining and enjoyable - entertained I was, enjoy I did.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Dir: Martin McDonagh
2017
*****
The McDonagh brothers don’t make many films but when they do they make them count. In Bruges was a wonderfully refreshing silly black-comedy but it was made in 2008 and its fans have been waiting for a follow up ever since. I liked 2012’s Seven Psychopaths but it never quite lived up to In Bruges’ originality and madcap originality. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri however is Martin McDonagh real masterpiece. Drawing from his theatrical experience as well as his movie-making skills, McDonagh has created a strange neo-western/neo-noir mystery/thriller/comedy-revenge film that is fairly difficult to label. I doesn’t need labeling though, and that’s what I love about it. There is certainly something ‘Coen Brothers’ about it, not only because it stars Coen regular (and Joel’s Wife) Frances McDormand, but because it has that certain witty irreverence to classical formula that the Brothers’ Coen developed. It’s no tribute or copy though, this is straight from the wonderful mind of McDonagh. He came up with the idea after driving through a small town somewhere ‘down in the Georgia, Florida, Alabama corner’. McDonagh saw these billboards that were making a point of an unsolved crime and has since stated that  "the rage that put a bunch of billboards like that up was palpable and stayed with me”. The idea is based on real billboards but the story itself is a work of fiction with most of the characters written for specific actors. Frances McDormand is phenominal in the lead role, a part she almost didn’t accept as she was concered she was the wrong age for it. Thankfully her husband Joel told her to stop over-thinking it and she accepted. Much like McDonagh and his brother, McDormand doesn’t make a lot of films but when she does she makes it count. I would say this was her best performance since Fargo. Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Sam Rockwell have all worked with McDonagh before – they’re all pros, but they have all seemed to have gelled with the director in a way many actors don’t after just one film together. McDonagh reportedly wrote many of the characters with these actors in mind. It is clearly a two-way development and a method that clearly works. Harrelson, Cornish, Zeljko and Rockwell are all brilliant, as our fellow cast members Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges and Caleb Landry Jones (who is the only person so far – apart from Brendan Gleeson – who has been directed by both of the McDonagh brothers). The performances are all very different, indeed, the film feels like it is full of contradictions. Sam Rockwell learned that Frances McDormand had decided that she’d base her performance on John Wayne, specifically his character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, so he decided to base his on Wayne’s co-star Lee Marvin, as he wanted their characters to be the exact opposite to each other. It shouldn’t work, but somehow McDormand’s haunted mother of a murdered girl works alongside Rockwell’s inept local policeman. Woody Harrelson described the films as a mix of Super Troopers and Seven Psychopaths, which is extremely accurate – although McDonagh’s love of Nicolas Roeg is evident once more. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is both extremely dark and extremely funny. It is essentially a dark comedy of errors that dips into pretty much every genre you can think of without ever being predictable in any way. It would be excruciating if it wasn’t so damn funny. It’s as sharp as a knife and shocking in places but without being shocking for the sake of it. Everything has a purpose, it accentuates the important aspects of the film without speaking down to the audience – far from it. It almost parodies classic film formula, without ever feeling that different (if that makes any sense?). The ending may frustrate some but for me it highlights what is important about storytelling and how it should be read as well as approached. I really hope he doesn’t take as long to release his next film, as modern cinema needs film makers like McDonagh – badly!    

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Dir: David Soren
2017
****
Based on the Children’s novel series written by Dav Pikey, Captain Underpants finally made it to the big screen after many years of development. Pikey was approached by Dreamworks Animaton back in 1997, just after the release of the first book but he was apprehensive about selling the film rights. Years later, Dreamworks invited Pikey to their head quarters for a tour and to his surprise was greated by every single member of staff wearing their underpants outside of their trousers. He was won over and Dreamworks got the gig. However, it took them seven years in total from gaining the rights to actually getting the film in cinemas. Weirdly, it was initially going to be a live-action film starring Pikey’s first choice of actor Chris Farley, but when Farley tragically died young the idea was scrapped and an animated version was wisely sought. I loved it. It will no doubt be remembered for being the last DreamWorks’ animation to be distributed by 20th Century-Fox before Universal take over but I think that people have been quite harsh towards DreamWorks. I think the amount of money these films are projected to make are ridiculous, I still can’t quite understand why a film that trebles it’s total cost and brings in $3 Million + is seen as a failure but I guess I’m not in that business. I think Dreamworks Animation have been on top form and the best they’ve ever been in the last few years, while many of their competitors have been a bit wobbly. I hated the Shrek and Madagascar films, I feel at long last Dreamworks is producing high-quality viewing, but most don’t see it that way because of the money they’re not making. The animated movie business is ridiculous. I digress. Captain Underpants is a wonderful adaptation that is both faithful to the original novels and rather inventive. The editing is is the best I’ve seen in this genre of movie and the way the story incorporates more traditional animation techniques, flash animation, cutout animation and an awesome sock-puppet scene, as well is its core 3D animation, is utterly brilliant. It’s the first film Dreamworks have outsourced and the cheapest they’ve produced - and by far the most creative. It is far from the disaster the money men will have you believe. It’s a wonderful celebration of creativity, the wonder of childhood and the importance of friendship, as well as a good lesson in the importance of being silly. The voice acting is perfect, with each actor suitably cast. If that wasn’t enough, it has nods to films such as Metropolis and Joe versus the Volcano, as well as a few Three Stooges references for the grown ups and a theme tune written and performed by none other than ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. It’s the sort of film I wanted when I was a young child but one I’m very comfortable watching as an older child. I’ve been shouting “Lala laaaa” for several days since watching it and my wife is going nuts. What a great film.
And So It Goes
Dir: Rob Reiner
2014
*
Rob Reiner has made some great films, including; This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally..., Misery and A Few Good Men. These are iconic films, 80s and 90s classics. I love him as a director, a writer and as a performer but I'm afraid he peaked long ago and everything he's made since has fallen flat. And So It Goes is about as flat as you can get. It has no real focus, no direction and no real point to it. Michael Douglas plays a miserable widower who finds it hard connecting to people, Diane Keaton plays a tearful widow who let emotion get the better of her. The pair are neighbours but only really connect when Douglas finds out that he has a granddaughter and that his estranged son is dumping her with him while he goes to prison for six months. Of course they get together in the end but between the start and the finish the film is a series of messy ideas, half-hearted performances and badly written cliches. It's the sort of film my parents love but can't explain why. Michael Douglas' character is supposedly still in mourning for his long dead wife but he gets over it in a flash. Diane Keaton is a prude but sleeps with Douglas almost immediately. The sub-plot (even though it is sold as main plot) of Douglas looking after his granddaughter is pretty much forgotten about. Douglas' character starts the film as a racist animal abuser and ends as a true hero because he promised better sex to Keaton, looked after his own flesh and blood and sold a house for 8 Million+. Somewhere in-between all that there is a 'hilarious' scene where Douglas has to deliver a baby in his front room and a dog poops in his garden. The film couldn't have been more lazy, cliched and lost in familiarity. I'm surprised the dog didn't end up speaking to be honest, and in some respects I'm disappointed that it didn't. I guess familiarity is comforting to some folk but I really don't know why people lap this sort of thing up? It's easy to watch I suppose but there is absolutely nothing of quality here. I know my parents like it but I wonder why they're not in the slightest bit critical about the things they watch - as they're certainly critical of everything else. And So It Goes has no redeeming features about it and I wonder whether the title is a sly reference to this and Rob Reiner knows it and is laughing all the way to the bank. I'm not upset by this film as such, only that films like this get funded and brilliant scripts get overlooked.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Dracula Untold
Dir: Gary Shore
2014
***
2014’s Dracula Untold is actually pretty good considering all the problems it had. It’s not really a Dracula film in the classic sense and pretty much everyone was replaced who was meant to work on it but in all fairness, Gary Shore’s film debut is pretty impressive. That said, I didn’t love it. I like my Dracula films to have capes, spooky castles and heaving bosoms but I do like a period epic with battles in it and the combination of the two was a neat idea. I like the idea of Vlad the Impaler becoming a Dracula type character but it didn’t really feel like Dracula. I thought Luke Evens made a good Vlad but a less good vampire. Dominic Cooper played the film’s villain, Sultan Mehmed II and in many respects I think he would have played a much more authentic vampire but I think the real problem was with the story’s take on good and evil. Any film that suggests sympathy for a vampire has to be told right. Any film that tries to suggest sympathy towards Dracula himself needs to have a word with itself. Would you watch a film about Jaws coming to terms with his stubbornness or Nightmare on Elm Street 8: Freddy’s regret and journey of redemption? Of course you would, so would I, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. What I’m trying to say is that Dracula is the king of vampires, he’s a bad dude, you cannot trust him, he is without soul and without heart. He is a bad guy. I don’t want Dracula portrayed as a victim, although I suppose he was technically. To put a finer point on it, I don’t think I want a version of old pointy-teeth that isn’t Bram Stocker’s. However, it is very easy to watch. Luke Evens, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon and Paul Kaye are very good, Charles Dance’s performance as ‘Master vampire’ – the vampire that spreads vampirism to Dracula – is outstanding. He’s played vampire before, but this is one of the best representations of a vampire by anyone, anywhere in the history of cinema. Dracula Untold, which was meant to be Dracula: Year Zero, was in production before Universal Studios decided to build a cinematic universe based on their classic monster catalogue. Their ‘Dark Universe’ was an idea that came just before the film was completed, so when the producers caught wind of it, it was just in time to independently add a present-day epilogue that Universal could use if they wanted to. I personally think it could have worked and it would have also meant that we could have seen more of Charles Dance’s master Vampire character – who was by far the film’s secret weapon. I imagine Universal want a proper Dracula for their monster series and quite right too, the film also didn’t do as well as they’d hoped financially, but it is a damn shame we won’t see Charles Dance and his pointy teeth again. His character was said to be the one that tied all the new monster films together, which would make me sit down and watch each one alone, but it isn’t to be. Its best as a standalone film anyway, an interesting ‘what if?’ that serves as a genuinely interesting addition to the character and the genre.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

John Q
Dir: Nick Cassavetes
2002
**
Nick Cassavetes' John Q is a film I've been wanting to see for a long time. I don't know why it has taken me so long to watch it, but it was fifteen years before I did. I can't say it was worth the wait. I knew of the rough outline of the story, indeed, that is why I've wanted to see it for so long, but to see that they threw away such a great concept has come as something of a shock. Late to the party as ever but the subject of national healthcare is still predominant in American politics all these years later, so to have a film target it in this way is still striking. Denzel Washington plays John Q, the father of a young boy who unexpectedly collapses during a little-league game and is diagnosed with a degenerative condition that would require a heart-transplant for him to survive. Poor but working, John Q is told that his employers had  recently changed his benefits package without him knowing, so his health insurance doesn't cover such a procedure. With the strict private hospitals unwilling to budge and the welfare hospitals unable to cover the costs, John Q is left with very few options. Unable and unwilling to accept his child's fate, he takes things into his own hands and takes a heart surgeon and patients in an A&E department as hostage until his son is put on the heart donor register. It's a great idea that explores a very important question. When he soon realises that the only heart his son can acquire is his own, the idea gets even more interesting but is then dampened by the decision that the film had to be an action-thriller over anything else. It would have been more intelligent had John Q planned his hijacking and had done so within the transplant unit of the hospital. Nick Cassavetes film manages to insult both doctors, nurses, police officers and the emergency services in general, when really they should have looked into the health care industry owners and politicians. Any clever ethical questions asked are answered with meaningless gung-ho, thoughtless impulse and god-bothering silliness. Cassavetes didn't write the story but the film's heavy-handedness has his fingerprints all over it. The film was already full of emotion, he didn't need people to run in slow motion in order to tell them something they couldn't have just said over the phone. It makes a mockery of the serious issues raised. The film went from pointing out the ethical injustice of a child being denied available life-saving treatment to throwing out all logic by implying that everything is God's decision anyway and that fate is fate and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Ridiculous. Private healthcare is a sham, a racket that costs lives, put simply - the rich survive while the poor are discarded. There are countless stories of people getting into crippling debt, losing everything and losing loved ones because the cost of healthcare is too high. A film that highlights this should be welcome and challenging. As one short Bill Maher soundbite clip suggests, people need to wake up and recognize this and stop fighting against universal healthcare, the film would have been worth it had they explored this further. They actually endorsed a terrible approach to the situation, John Q never really looked like a person pushed to his absolute limits and maybe, just maybe he should have killed himself to give his heart to his son, at least then there would have been some meaning to the film, some really tangible emotion and something the audience could legitimately got tearful about. I found it to be poorly conceived, a brilliant idea utterly wasted while insulting good people and the intelligence of its audience. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Green Man
Dir: Robert Day, Basil Dearden
1956
*****
1956’s classic British comedy The Green Man is the final version of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s long gestated play. The film was originally a stage play titled ‘The Body Was Well-Nourished’. The pair wrote it in 1937 but it didn’t reach the London stage until 1940 where it lasted just three weeks, not due to poor ticket sales but because it was during the height of the Blitz and it was just too dangerous to keep it going. The writing partners however were unhappy with the play and decided to rewrite it, revising and updating the characters before retitling it ‘Meet a Body’. The revised play then took to the stage in 1954 and was produced by none other than Laurence Olivier. However, Launder and Gilliat still weren’t happy with the story and went about improving it further before coming to the conclusion that it would work better as a film than a play. The original play had the story’s assassin as a supporting character, this was changed so that the great Alastair Sim could take on the roll and make him the integral part of the plot. Sim actually wanted to direct the film, he and debut director Robert Day had many disagreements on set and in those days Sim had quite a bit of influence, so he brought in Basil Dearden whom he’d worked with before, to direct a few extra scenes and indeed, Launder and Gilliat themselves got behind the camera at one time or another during production. It’s any wonder the film got completed at all, the fact that it is near perfect is testament to just how well written and beautifully performed it was. Alastair Sim is perfect in his devious but charming performance as an assassin for hire, brought out of retirement to bump off cabinet minister Sir Gregory Upshott (played by Raymond Huntley). Freelance assassin Hawkins is an explosives expert and the introduction to the film is a glorious recap of his criminal career complete with one of the most comically perfect narrations of all time. You couldn’t really ask for more than that but that is just the start. After Hawkins’ initial plan goes wrong, his next door neighbour Ann (played by Jill Adams) and a vacuum cleaner salesman called Blake (played by George Cole) become suspicious and, against the will of Ann’s BBC announcer fiancé (Colin Gordon), set about finding Hawkins and putting a stop to what he’s about to do. The site of the murder is to be the Green Man pub just outside of London, where Sir Gregory is spending an illicit weekend with one of his young typists (played by George Cole’s then wife Eileen Moore). Sir Gregory is then confused for Charles Boughtflower (played by Terry-Thomas) by Ann and Blake and the timing of the murder is confused by the landlord’s obsession of turning the clock forward by ten minutes. The physical comedy is brilliant and the script is sublime. Headliners Sim, Cole and Thomas are brilliant but the supporting acts are just as good, with Eileen Moore’s nervous typist, Raymond Huntley’s controlling Sir Gregory Upshott, Dora Bryan’s playful landlady, Colin Gordon’s arrogant Reginald Willoughby-Cruft, Richard Wattis’ bemused doctor and the three ladies who play music in the pub’s lounge making it a hilarious affair with absolutely no faults. It’s better than most of the Ealing Comedies in my opinion, is beautifully written with performances to die for. I loved seeing lots of old London locations too. The perfect classic British comedy.
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck
Dir: Werner Herzog
1976
***
It's hard to call many of Werner Herzog's films 'documentaries' but it is hard to find another word for them. Herzog is a genre unto himself, 1976's How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck is more of a musing than a factual exploration and once again Herzog invites us to look at something hard and long enough to see that there is far more to it than first thought. In this short film he examines the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship held each year in New Holland, Pennsylvania. We observe several auctioneers until their unique style of language almost takes on different meaning. The auctioneers speak in a rapid manner that sounds as if they are rolling their words. As Herzog puts it "It is an extreme language, frightening but quite beautiful at the same time."
He goes on to explain that it is "the last poetry possible, he poetry of capitalism." It is hard to tell if this is meant as an optimistic light, that there is beauty in everything or if this is it, the last bastion of creativity, and even then it isn't particularly pleasant. Herzog observes like an alien might, indeed, this sort of thing is alien to most people, but he analyses it quite differently than most and his interest in small town America continues. I love it, it's a subject I have very little interest in and I dislike the sound of the auctioneers language and yet I'm transfixed by the possibilities that Herzog suggests. Only Herzog makes these types of films and I love them - however, this didn't do it for me as much as his other early short films. As a Herzog fan though I like it as this where we see the first collaboration between the director and Cinematographer Edward Lachman which is a great point of reference. Herzog can interject his magic to just about any subject, this is the proof and as repetitive as it is, there is a certain music to it. He touches on the lives of the Amish people who live near the auctions and comperes their lives to that of the auctioneers which is fine but I can't help but think that a full on Herzog documentary on the Amish people might have been a little more entertaining, albeit a little too obvious.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Dune
Dir: David Lynch
1984
****
Dune is an infamous epic science fiction film written and directed by the great David Lynch, based on the 1965 Frank Herbert novel of the same name. I say infamous because film fans around the world remain divided. David Lynch refuses to discuss it and has disowned it. Many agree with the director but others, like myself, find it to be an important part of our childhood, being a child growing up in the 1980s. It helped make me the cinephile I am today, it was totally different to all the other films in the genre and although I sort of knew it wasn't very good, it was somehow one of the reasons why I liked it. It stars Kyle MacLachlan as young nobleman Paul Atreides, and includes an ensemble of well-known American and European actors in supporting roles including Brad Dourif, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Virginia Madsen, Paul Smith, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Sean Young and Sting among many. It was filmed at the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City and included a soundtrack by the rock band Toto, as well as Brian Eno. Set in the far distant future, the film chronicles the conflict between rival noble families as they battle for control of the extremely harsh desert planet Arrakis, also known as "Dune". The planet is the only source of the drug melange, also called "the spice", which allows prescience, and is vital to space travel, making it the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe. The novel was a huge sci-fi success and has become something of a classic. Attempts to adapt Dune as a film began as early as 1971. A lengthy process of development followed throughout the 1970s, during which Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott unsuccessfully tried to bring their visions to the screen. Film producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the film rights to Dune, but died before a film could be developed. Jodorowsky's attempted film is now something of cinema legend. He proceeded to approach, among others, the progressive rock groups Pink Floyd and Magma for some of the music, Dan O'Bannon for the visual effects, and artists H. R. Giger, Jean Giraud, and Chris Foss for set and character design. For the cast, Jodorowsky envisioned Salvador Dalí as the Emperor, Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, Udo Kier as Piter De Vries, David Carradine as Leto Atreides, his son, Brontis Jodorowsky, 12 years old at the time, who had co-starred in his father's film El Topo (1970), as the protagonist Paul Atreides, and Gloria Swanson, among others. The project was ultimately abandoned when Jodorowsky was unable to get funding for the film. Perhaps one of cinema's biggest tragedies and possibly the greatest film never made. Although their version of the film never reached production, the work that Jodorowsky and his team put into Dune did have a significant impact on subsequent science-fiction films. In particular, the classic Alien (1979), written by O'Bannon, shared much of the same creative team for the visual design as had been assembled for Jodorowsky's film. In 1981, executive producer Dino De Laurentiis hired Lynch as director just before the film rights were about to expire. De Laurentiis hired Lynch based on his work on The Elephant Man and persuaded him to join the project rather than direct Return of the Jedi, a film he had been offered and was considering. Lynch knew nothing of the book and wasn't really interested in sci-fi, so one wonders why he took on the challenge. Upon completion, the rough cut of Dune without post-production effects ran over four hours long, but Lynch's intended cut of the film (as reflected in the seventh and final draft of the script) was almost three hours long. However, Universal and the film's financiers expected a standard, two-hour cut of the film. To reduce the run time, producers Dino de Laurentiis and his daughter Raffaella, and director Lynch excised numerous scenes, filmed new scenes that simplified or concentrated plot elements, and added voice-over narrations, plus a new introduction by Virginia Madsen. Contrary to popular rumors, Lynch made no other version besides the theatrical cut. However, a TV version was aired in 1988 in two parts totaling 186 minutes including a "What happened last night" recap and second credit roll. Lynch disavowed this version and had his name removed from the credits, being credited as Alan Smithee, a pseudonym used by directors who wished not to be associated with a film for which they would normally be credited. The film was negatively reviewed by critics and was a box-office failure, grossing $30.9 million from a $40 million budget. Upon release, Lynch distanced himself from the project, stating that pressure from both producers and financiers restrained his artistic control and denied him final cut privilege. At least three versions have been released worldwide. In some cuts, Lynch's name is replaced in the credits with the name Alan Smithee, a pseudonym used by directors who wished not to be associated with a film for which they would normally be credited. The extended and television versions additionally credit writer Lynch as Judas Booth. Roger Ebert gave Dune one star out of four, and wrote, "This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time." Dune has since become a cult hit. Dune created the sandworm. Who didn't want to ride a Shai-Hulud when they were kid? Who doesn't want to ride a Shai-Hulud (with Kyle MacLachlan) as an adult? It has a cast to die for, all whom are at their most camp and most sci-fi-tastic. The scene with the mutated Guild Navigator and how he enters the palace is better than most sci-fi films put together. Sure the editing is terrible, not surprising considering several hours are cut from the original but it's an over-blown fantasy that you can't help but get lost in. I love it. I love it for its faults but there is so much of the film that also gets it right, and sometimes gets it best. It's one of those films, you either love it or you hate it and it is about as 'cult' as you can get.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Uncle Howard
Dir: Aaron Brookner
2016
****
Howard Brookner, director of the brilliant Burroughs: The Movie, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars and Bloodhounds of Broadway (which is much better than people remember) died of the AIDS virus in 1989 at the age of thirty-four, just as his career was really taking off. Nearly thirty years later, Howard’s nephew Aaron sets about accessing his uncle’s vast video and audio archives to find out more about his childhood idol. Aaron’s uncle Howard was clearly a huge influence on his life and his career. Aaron worked on Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, after Jarmusch had worked as a sound technician on his uncle’s critically acclaimed – and long thought lost film Burroughs: The Movie. The pair of them visit the infamous ‘Bunker’, the creative pad where Burroughs lived and most of the Burroughs film was shot, and where writers, poets and artists would regularly descend, to work, drink and take drugs back in the day. Access to the archive had long alluded Aaron due to its current occupant being less than welcoming, even though he doesn’t own it or its contents. When Aaron does finally get access he is blown away by just quite how much of his uncle’s work is there and untouched. This is basically the life and career of Howard Brookner through Aaron’s journey in getting a fresh copy of Burroughs: The Movie released. Or at least that’s how it started. As Aaron goes through the vast reels of film, another story emerges and only around 50% of the film is dedicated to the Burroughs years. Aaron, who is of a similar age to his uncle when he died, clearly gets closer to him through the process. The first part of the film is heavily narrated but towards the end of the film Aaron lets the archive footage speak for itself. Certain footage clearly means something to him personally but doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the film, indeed, the latter part of the film becomes indulgent but I think that in this case it works. It’s a wonderful tribute to a talented man who was sure to go on to much success if it weren’t for his premature death. The film becomes a sad reminder of just how many young men died during the AIDs epidemic towards the end and the interviews with those who lost many friends and loved ones is heartbreaking. It is fascinating how a lot of the attitudes have and haven’t changed and the interesting aspects of the film deal with the shattered truth of nostalgia, when Aaron realises that his Grandparent whom he adores, were not as supportive of his uncles sexuality as he had always thought. The film will appeal to William S Burroughs fans and those interested in the creative movement in New York in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s a wonderful nostalgia piece and also a great look at someone many have overlooked. Extremely touching and the best ‘re-visiting’ style documentary I’ve seen in quite a while with some great archive footage and behind the scenes clips of artists and filmmakers of the era.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Revolution
Dir: Hugh Hudson
1985
**
Hugh Hudson’s sprawling epic about the American War of Independence was poorly received at the box office and for good reason. However, while it isn’t great, there are positives about the overall production. It follows a Fur trapper called Tom Dobb (played by Al Pacino) and his son Ned (played by Sid Owen who most Brits will know from EastEnders) who arrive in the port of New York on the wrong day. On 4th July, when the revolution is launched, Tom and Ned’s boat is commandeered by the army and they are given an IOU in its place. With their livelihood and home now gone, Ned enlists into the army behind his father’s back for five coins and the promise of fifteen acres of land. Not wanting to lose the last member of his family, Tom follows his son and enlists in order to protect him. The rest of the film follows the father and son’s survival as they wander from one historical battle to another. Along the way they are pursued and punished by Donald Sutherland’s Sgt. Maj. Peasy and tormented by Richard O’Brien’s over the top Lord Hampton. Nastassja Kinski plays Daisy McConnahay, a disgraced and idealistic aristocrat who goes against the grain and supports an independent America. While Pacino’s character is convincing in that he doesn’t really want any part in the war, Kinski’s is not. Even less convincing is their slow-burning romance. The pair only meet around four times in four years and it is only ever fleetingly. One of those times McConnahay nearly reports Tom and Ned for desertion. McConnahay’s rebellion is never explored and while the content is balanced between both sides, it only furthers the confusion. I like that Pacino’s Tom never really takes sides but only settles doing something he’s good at, it shows a side of the quiet majority and the people who generally don’t get involved from free will. Although Pacino’s accent is a little shaky, his performance is pretty strong with a couple of standout scenes. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for anyone else. Sid Owen and Dexter Fletcher are both okay as Ned – although there really wasn’t any need for Fletcher to portray a slightly older Ned, he didn’t look or sound anything like him and it was something of a distraction. There was nothing to Donald Sutherland’s performance, his accent was also off but made worse by the fact that he is actually British. Nastassja Kinski wasn’t right for the part either, looking more like her dad in a wig than herself. Some of the scenes are brilliant, filmed in that dream-like haze that so many epics were filmed in back in those days, but the editing is appalling. This is the real reason why people didn’t like it, it had no fluidity. The acting, length of the film and the locations have all been accused but for me it all comes down to how the whole thing was muddled together. Indeed, many years later Hudson released a final cut to high regard. Timing was the issue apparently and that would make sense but unlike Heaven’s Gate – a film that it is so often compared to – there really isn’t that much in the original for people to care about to make a final cut that appealing. Al Pacino didn’t act again for four years because of the disappointment of the final film. Think of all the great scripts he would have been given between 1985 and 1989! If that isn’t reason alone to hate the film, I don’t know what is. Okay, so hate is harsh word, but I’m not going to be watching it or its final cut anytime soon.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Dir: André Øvredal
2016
**
I absolutely adored André Øvredal's 2010 film Trollhunter and couldn't wait for his directional follow up. There has never been a really good film with an autopsy being the central subject and since that great autopsy scene in Silence of the Lambs I've often wondered why. The Autopsy of Jane Doe was sold to me as an engaging thriller that had the autopsy as a focal point. I thought it would have been a mystery/thriller based on scientific finding, something that had never really been done before, except in episodes of CSI. I forgave the odd bit of moody lighting, creepy noises and all the other things people expect from a film set in an underground mortuary. What I couldn't forgive however, was the onslaught of horror cliches and the lazy 'just because' attitude of the film that actually started off so well. I love a bit of forensic investigation and the more gore the better, and while Øvredal doesn't hold back as far as the special effects go, everything else has been done before. There is a scene seen through a camera, giving the audience a bit of 'found footage' but this is never taken further, when for once they could have explored it to its fullest potential. There is a bit when the cat jumps out of no where, a reflection of someone who isn't really there and the classic eye at the keyhole scene but nothing remarkable whatsoever. While I did like elements of the conclusion, it was still rather lazy and unrewarding. The story itself had so much potential but it was woefully squandered. Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox played father and son coroners rather well and there was nothing wrong with their performances, it is the cliche-ridden script that lets them and the audience down. It's been a while since I've seen a truly original horror, or at least one that scares through its own merits. I thought André Øvredal would be the sort of director who would change all that, and as good as the film often looks, this is a huge missed opportunity and something that, not only have we seen before, but something we horror fans are getting tired of.